Last week, the National’s new leader, David Littleproud, said it was time for Australia to have a “mature” conversation about nuclear energy,. At the same time, his predecessor, Barnaby Joyce, called for a national moratorium to be lifted and argued atomic power would be “really important” if the country were serious about reaching net zero emissions.
On Sunday, the nuclear power advocate Ted O’Brien was appointed the Coalition’s climate change and energy spokesperson. In an interview with ABC Radio National, the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, said he was “not afraid to discuss nuclear” as the country should not be afraid to “talk about any technology that’s going to have the ability to reduce emissions and electricity prices”.
He suggested nuclear had been ruled out because it was “unfashionable” to discuss.
So why is the Coalition talking about nuclear energy again?
Because despite having not made a serious attempt to start a nuclear power industry in its nine years in government, the Coalition has decided to argue for one immediately after losing power.
Meanwhile, the Institute of Public Affairs, a rightwing group with a history of climate science denial supported by fossil fuel and mining interests, released what it described as polling showing people were open to the idea of nuclear energy. News Corp newspapers ran its arguments uncritically.
Did anything happen while the Coalition was in government?
There was an inquiry. In 2019, the former energy and emissions reduction minister Angus Taylor referred the issue to a parliamentary committee; O’Brien was the chair.
In a report titled “Not without your approval”, he and other Coalition MPs recommended the government consider partially lifting the ban for “new and emerging nuclear technologies”, expressing hope that what are known as small modular reactors (SMRs) could have a future. There was no appetite to allow the big nuclear plants that have become synonymous with catastrophic accidents at Fukushima and Chornobyl.
O’Brien argued development of a potential nuclear industry would take time and should be conditional on a government assessment of technology and the informed consent of local communities.
While this received some support from other Coalition MPs, Scott Morrison said the country’s position on nuclear power would not change without bipartisan support. Labor has ruled that out on economic and safety grounds.
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Has the case for nuclear changed since 2019?
Not significantly. Costs have increased as technology has advanced. Advocates have acknowledged nuclear power is the most capital-intensive energy technology, takes the longest time to recoup on investment, and has not benefited from the economies of scale experienced in solar and wind energy.
The large-scale nuclear energy industry is going backward despite the global push to cut greenhouse gas emissions. More units closed than opened in 2020. Construction began on only five reactors; four of those were in China, which is investing in all energy types. Global nuclear generation is at its lowest level in 27 years, excluding China.
The few major plants under construction in developed democracies have suffered delays and cost blowouts for years. In the UK, the Hinkley Point C station – the country’s first new nuclear plant in decades – is running ten years behind schedule and is expected to cost at least A$45bn, nearly 50% more than initially expected.
What about SMRs?
At this point, they barely exist.
SMRs are proposed to be 60 and about 200 megawatts, a fraction of the size of the traditional nuclear plant. Proponents say they would employ similar technology used in nuclear-powered submarines and icebreakers and would be easier to keep safe than bigger plants.
But the world nuclear industry status report, compiled last year by nuclear energy opponents with a foreword by the former Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan, suggested talk and media coverage about SMRs was “not reflected by any major industrial achievements on the ground”.
rt said there had been no concrete steps towards construction anywhere else except Russia – which is pursuing a model that barely qualifies as an SMR, is years behind schedule, and does not have the regulatory process expected in developed countries.
In Sout It said SMRs in China and Argentina had been beset by delays. Chinese media said its first 200MW SMR unit was connected to the grid in December for an undisclosed price.h Korea, an SMR model was approved in 2012, but there have been no orders because it costs too much. Plans in the US slowed; a government-backed model by the company NuScale was approved by the safety regulator, but the design was later changed, and several public utilities dropped plans to invest in the technology. NuScale is now pursuing deals in eastern Europe. Backers agree that no reactors are expected before 2029 at the earliest.
The report concluded there was growing evidence that “SMRs, like large reactors, will continue to be subject to delays and cost overruns and the high likelihood that they would not be economical even under the most favorable circumstances”.
Is nuclear power needed in Australia?
It is a different story in some other countries. Still, there are plenty of analyses that say nuclear energy isn’t necessary and is highly unlikely to be able to compete, given the range of other options in Australia.
The Australian Energy Market Operator’s integrated system plan – a blueprint for an optimal future grid – lays out a vision under which the country would run overwhelmingly on solar and wind, supported by better transmission links and backed by “firm” capacity that can be called on when needed: batteries, pumped hydro, some gas (at least initially) and demand management. Even under the most optimistic scenarios for nuclear, most of the transformation would be expected to happen before SMRs became available.
While estimates are difficult, CSIRO’s latest analysis of different energy costs suggested that SMRs would continue to be far more expensive than solar and wind energy and at least as expensive as fossil fuel power with carbon capture and storage, which has not proven economically viable.
Why does the case for nuclear energy persist?
There is an assumption by some people, including Coalition MPs, that renewable energy cannot do the job, despite the expert advice that says otherwise. These critiques rarely address that advice head-on.
But there is also a long history of nuclear energy being used as a delaying tactic for acting on climate change in Australia, including by fossil fuel interests.
It is possible SMRs could play a role globally beyond 2030. Still, anyone arguing for them in Australia should be asked why they disagree with the nuclear advocates who say otherwise – and why their efforts aren’t better directed into backing zero-emissions technologies that are affordable and available now.