Abbott’s new energy white paper to consider nuclear power | RenewEconomy

Abbott’s new energy white paper to consider nuclear power

Abbott government to consider the possibility of introducing nuclear power into Australia, in particular small modular reactors, as part of its new energy white paper. Meanwhile, there is a push to replace the current renewable energy support mechanism with an auction system.


The Abbott government is to consider the possibility of introducing nuclear power into Australia, in particular small modular reactors, as part of its new energy white paper.

An issues paper released by Industry Minister Ian MacFarlane on Tuesday notes that slow development in carbon capture and storage, and difficulties with hydro,  means that nuclear technologies continue “to present an option for future reliable energy that can be readily dispatched into the market.”

It also says: “A growing area of global interest is in the use of small modular reactors, which have the potential to reduce the cost uncertainties and construction timeframes associated with current generation reactor designs.

“These reactors could be factory built, highly standardised and even used in locations without advanced infrastructure. The smaller size of the reactors may allow for more flexible deployment, making nuclear electricity available to isolated areas or countries with small or distributed electricity grid systems that cannot support conventional large-scale nuclear power.”

A spokeswoman for MacFarlane said the EWP process will be comprehensive. “However, the Coalition has no plans to pursue nuclear energy.  Nuclear energy won’t become part of Australia’s energy mix without bipartisan and community support,” she said in an emailed statement.

Still, nuclear is a favoured option of many of the inner circle advising the Abbott government, who believe that renewable energy cannot deliver the capacity and reliability required of a modern economy. Both MacFarlane, and his predecessor, Martin Ferguson, are predisposed to the technology.

It suits their traditional view of centralised energy production and the hub and spoke model of the electricity grid, which relies on decade of sunk investment  in transmission and distribution networks. These investments are now being challenged by new technologies such as solar and storage that could usher in more widespread micro-grids and distributed generation.

The last EWP – completed in 2012 – paid scant attention to nuclear, noting that it did not enjoy a “social consensus” in Australia, nor did it have much of an economic case, although it left the door open for future governments to consider it..

Pro-nuclear advocates have used assessment by the Australian Energy Technology Assessment, which claimed that nuclear was one of the cheapest options for low emissions technology.

However, the AETA assessment failed to calculate the cost of capital for nuclear. When someone did factor in the cost of capital – the UK government when it decided it wanted to build a new plant – the cost of nuclear took a different turn. The UK government, with few renewable options, will pay French and Chinese government-owned companies more than $150/MWh, indexed for inflation, for a new nuclear reactor in the south-west of England.

However, wind contracts being written for less than $50/MWh in the US and Brazil, and solar contracts being written for less than $100/MWh, and falling rapidly, the view of many, particularly in Germany, is that nuclear is pricing itself out of most markets.

Meanwhile, there is also talk that the Australian government will look to see if an auctioning system can be used to replace the current system of the mandatory renewable energy target, which uses certificates as a currency for new investment.

Auctioning systems have proved popular in countries such as South Africa, which has ushered in many wind projects, as well as solar PV and solar thermal, and in Brazil, where bidding in the latest auction saw 2.3GW of wind energy allocated at less than $48/MWh. It has also been deployed successfully by the ACT government, although this scheme also relies on the value of certificates.

The Conservative government in the UK is being urged to replace its system of certificates with an auctioning system, and a similar push was made in Australia last year by the Grattan Institute.

It is understood that the attraction for the new government is not so much the belief that an auctioning system can achieve lower prices and costs to the consumer, but in the ability to allocate capacity limits to certain technologies – and to renewables in general.

MacFarlane is on the record as saying that he is not a fan of having lots of “intermittent” wind and solar on the grid – notwithstanding the rapid development of storage options. The conservative government is also under a lot of pressure from within its own party and state governments to curtail the development of renewables in general, and wind in particular, and independents such as Nick Xenophon and John Madigan are also against wind energy and in favour of “banding” – reserving capacity for technologies such as “baseload” geothermal and marine energy, and solar thermal.

It is not yet clear whether the upcoming review of the renewable energy target will incorporate an investigation into capacity auctions. The terms of reference for the RET review have been delayed, presumably because of the federal government’s inability to repeal the Climate Change Authority, which conducted the last review and which has a statutory requirement to conduct the next review.

The Abbott government, however, wants that review undertaken by another party. It hasn’t yet said which, or how.


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  1. John P 7 years ago

    As sure as you install a Liberal administration, you know you will get the benefit of all the very best insights of the 1950s.

  2. Penelope Milstein 7 years ago

    If the government had a Science Minister or any real intention of tackling global warming they would not be using that old chestnut to direct scrutiny from its Direct inAction, a policy despite being announced in 2010, is still a mystery.

    • Miles Harding 7 years ago

      No mystery at all. Tony’s 50,000 strong barmy army will save us.

      Every gum wrapper should be picked up and carefully placed in a land fill before long.

  3. Gus 7 years ago

    Seems to me the only purpose of this is to establish a need for a nuclear waste site somewhere in the central desert.
    To be cost effective, the waste site would have to take waste from other countries (think USA which has a problem with its waste), which would be delivered to Darwin by boat and then train to the waste repository.
    There is some justification to the view that Australia should accept nuclear waste created from the uranium we export, but I am not excited with the prospect of becoming a dumping ground for waste from other countries that want to preserve their environments.

  4. JohnRD 7 years ago

    The problem with trading systems such as the RET is that they add to investor uncertainity because the future value of credits is uncertain. Uncertainity adds to the price potential investors will want before they are willing to invest. In contrast, schemes that are based on some form of long term contract provide the certainity that investors need. Combining long term contracts with some form of competitive tendering/auction means that market forces will help minimize the cost of renewable power to consumers.

    At this stage of the power cleanup process it doesn’t matter much what technology is used and where it is located. (At this stage solar PV probably makes more sense than solar thermal.) What matters is what is going to deliver low cost renewable power to consumers. However, once we get closer to 100% renewables controlling the mix of technology and geograhpical location becomes more important if reliable power is required at min cost. (At this stage, including a significant % of concentrated solar tower power of the sort used in the BZE stationary energy plan becomes attractive because because this system includes the storage and back-up required to provide reliable power. (See:,d.dGI ))

    Competive tendering/auctions is a logical, well proven way of giving the required control.

    • RobS 7 years ago

      Absolutely, investors don’t like market systems due to the uncertainty they bring, that’s why non market based systems like shares and real estate are the only ones that have ever taken off.

  5. Keith 7 years ago

    Last time I looked, the small scale reactors that the nuclear lobbyists go on about were still in the development phase; in particular the Toshiba 4S (super-safe, small & simple) system that is talked about as if it is installed and operating. The plant was supposed to be installed in Galena Alaska and operating by 2012-2013, but I found a report from Toshiba that indicated a significant developmental problem that hadn’t been solved (see below). Then the cost seems to have gone up by at least a factor of 10, and it seems as if the “imminent” installation at Galena has been abandoned. In a quick web search I haven’t found anywhere else that is planning to be the first installation of a Toshiba 4S.

    Here is a document on the specs.
    The key issue is in Table 6 on p31 which talks about “deployment status & planned schedule”, which has everything completed except for the Steam Generator (double wall tubes) which was still being tested for structural integrity.

    While the 4S is mentioned on the Toshiba website there is no information about installations or orders.

    Similarly the thorium based reactors seem to be “full of promise” but not much on the ground. Germany built one and operated it for a year and a half before shutting it down due to cost & mechanical issues. China may be building a thorium reactor at a cost of $400 mill to be finished by 2015.

    Does anyone have more concrete information about whether these small scale reactors actually exist or are they still a thought bubble? I suspect the latter, but that would be perfect for Bjorn Lomborg. Is this where this might be coming from?

    Oh well, I suppose this won’t worry the Coalition as they are very strong on ignoring an evidence-based way of operating……

    • Miles Harding 7 years ago

      One of the problems is the *small* bit. The sizes are in the 10-50MW region, so huge numbers will be needed to enable Ian MacFarlane’s vision of a nuclear powered 1965 Australia !

      Ian, you are facing the wrong way – the future is behind you.

      Of course the other reason that nuclear may be an option is that it’s about the only low CO2 energy source left after the Mad One’s dogma has ripped through anything vaguely sustainable.

  6. Savonrepus 7 years ago

    Thank goodness. With Ziggy taken off the job to sort out the NBN mess I was a touch worried that there would be a stalling in our movement to low carbon electricity generation. It also seems to make perfect sense for us to take waste from higher population density regions. When ever I fly over our country I am always amazed at our vast tracks of emptiness. If we had a comparative economic advantage over the rest of the world in anything it would have to be in nuclear power production.

    • JonathanMaddox 7 years ago

      “vast tracks of emptiness” — there must be something we can dump down there!

      I award you the Tandberg Prize!

  7. RobS 7 years ago

    Let them start one, then watch its construction blow out by 5-10 additional years, its cost triple to quintuple and watch in glee as the economics of solar and wind even with storage bypasses it in terms of cost effectiveness a few years into the project. Let it stand for the next two decades as a living breathing testament to the profligate waste and stubbornness of this short sighted Government. 10 billion dollars as a long standing reminder of just how out of touch this government is will be money well spent.

    • Motorshack 7 years ago

      Very good idea. Seriously.

      I live a few miles from one of the last nukes built in the U.S. (until the so-called nuclear renaissance of a few years ago), and it went just as you describe. Huge cost overruns, bankrupt power company, still-unsolved waste disposal problem, and an absolutely massive political backlash against any more nukes of any kind whatsoever.

      The only good news, and it is significant, is that it did do a lot to reduce the carbon density of our local power supply. It is far from the best way to accomplish that goal, but we did get that much out of it. At present only about 12% of our power comes from coal.

      So, if you want to see the Abbott government shoot itself in the foot with a howitzer, all you have to do is to let them have their way on nuclear reactors. You will grossly overpay for some low-carbon energy, but Abbott and his cronies will be history.

      • Bob_Wallace 7 years ago

        The present government will be history before the bill arrives for consumers and taxpayers. Some future government will get saddled with this boondoggle.

        • Motorshack 7 years ago

          Yes, I am being a bit facetious, although our local reactor has not worked out too badly. I currently pay only 17 cents a KWH for relatively low-carbon electricity, of which just a few cents is the premium for the reactor, so as long as there is no melt-down in the next twenty years or so, it will be pretty manageable.

          Yet, for all that, it did pretty much wreck the careers of those who insisted on building it, while later managers got credit for turning an expensive sow’s ear into a tolerable, if not silk, purse. Very few really like the thing, and nearly everyone resents the stress the project cost for five or six years.

  8. KenFabos 7 years ago

    There will never be nuclear in Australia as long as the LNP opposed and obstructs serious, committed action on climate and emissions.

    Until then Nuclear is a clever but unwanted distraction that shifts the discussion away from low emission vs high emissions (fixing the problem) into renewables vs nuclear (wedging the warmists) to no-one’s benefit except the fossil fueled status quo. It’s not about getting nuclear to replace coal or reducing Australia’s emissions, it’s about preventing those from happening whilst setting things up so, as usual, greenies can be blamed. The discussion gets to be about The Greens and what they will and won’t support rather than about the Government and what it’s doing and not doing. Mainstream politics is in charge and responsible for the choices they make and so far they have mostly been bad choices.

    Of all the political decisions that have held back nuclear in Australia the Conservative Right’s choice to endorse and support climate science denial and obstruct climate action efforts of others should be top of the list. That choice killed nuclear deader than anything any greenies could have done, not by being opposed to it but by diverting support for a nuclear response from other conservatives and commerce and industry into the lower cost don’t do anything at all option.

    No-one wants nuclear in Australia, least of all the electricity sector. But they don’t want to face up to climate and emissions either. Abbott gives them the choice of not facing it and they will continue to choose that out of short term self interest.

    Nuclear requires strong, determined bipartisan conviction to tackle climate change and an Abbott led LNP cannot make such a commitment. If proposals for nuclear were part of an aggressive LNP approach to tackle climate change I would not mind so much – it would represent a monumental shift that would deserve applause – but from Abbott’s team there is no sincerity when it comes to nuclear; their choices to obstruct climate action killed nuclear dead. It’s purely spoiling politics – and, unfortunately it will probably work extremely well as that.

    We need to be aware that this is not as simple as wedge politics to divided those who agree on climate action but disagree on which energy technology (it definitely is that) but is an effective way for the climate obstructionists to ease the concerns of their conservative colleagues who do accept the reality and seriousness of climate change. And get them to shut up about climate and emissions. Because, ultimately the hold the climate obstructionists have on the LNP is shaky; science based reality will continue to intrude onto their self serving illusions. I’m not convinced even now that those that accept the science are the minority even within the Abbott government. The point isn’t to pave the way for nuclear – that would require genuine, strong commitment to fixing the climate problem. The point isn’t to get nuclear, it’s to divide the climate action crowd whilst muting and distracting those in the LNP who think climate really does matter and who demand some kind of ‘rational’ response.

  9. Martin Nicholson 7 years ago

    Giles, I need to correct your statement “the AETA assessment failed to calculate the cost of capital for nuclear”. Please read section 2.3 of the BREE AETA report which clearly explains how the capital costs were derived.

    • Giles 7 years ago

      Martin, I think you have hit the nail on the head, but not the way you might have expected. Yes, AETA calculates the capital cost – how much it will cost to build a plant. But it did not calculate the cost of that capital – how much it would cost to fund that investment. This is the point i made, the point that nuclear boosters like yourself constantly ignore, but ultimately is the killer for the technology. No equipment supplier, insurer, banker or investor is prepared to accept the capital risk, or even the production risk, and very few governments are. That’s why the LCOE costs of Hinkley – despite all the existing infrastructure, supply chain and knowledge base – is so expensive. Imagine how much more if would be in Australia. No utility in Australia has the balance sheet to support it, and it is not clear that any Australian government does either. Cost of capital, Martin, read up on it.

      • Martin Nicholson 7 years ago

        Giles perhaps you don’t understand how to calculate discounted cash flows. Section 2.4 shows how LCOEs are calculate applying a discount rate of 10% which is the weighted average cost of capital (WACC) applied for these technologies. I have actually worked in the venture capital markets.

        • Giles 7 years ago

          Excellent. So you should understand risk and the pricing of that risk. As AETA states: “Higher perceived risks will in turn demand higher rates of return on investment. Typically,
          the discount rate can be used to account for some of these differences in risk with a higher discount rate applied to the ‘riskier’ projects. For ease of comparison, however, a common
          discount rate of 10 per cent is applied for all technologies.”

          So it has taken 10% as an average, but it is obvious from all previous experience that those in nuclear demand a lot more to make up for the risk – even when the government accepts all or most of that risk.

          In the case of Hinkley, EDF and the Chinese appear to have accepted a rate of return of just over 10 per cent. But that’s because those entities are also government owned, and not only has the UK government given rival governments a 35 year price guarantee, and for all the output whether used or not, it has also provided protection against political risks in the form of potential “nuclear taxes, uranium and generation taxes” politically motivated shutdowns or the revision of the CfD scheme. Amazing.

          • Giles 7 years ago

            Oh, and with all it stay came in at 50% higher than AETA’s estimates.

          • Martin Nicholson 7 years ago

            So I assume you now accept that AETA DID include the cost of capital which was my original point. You are now arguing for a higher WACC given the risk aspects. That is a decision that the investors will make.

          • Giles 7 years ago

            Not at all. It’s a bit like AETA deciding that the average capital cost per plant – be it solar, wind, nuclear or coal, was $1m/MW. The idea of comparing cost is to factor in all elements in the current market. This is the fig leaf that nuclear cheerleaders hide under, though interestingly the people who actually build this stuff accept as reality. They know it is the financing and the risk that rules them out of the market.

          • KD 7 years ago

            Giles, when in a hole, stop digging. Martin is right: if you want to argue that nuclear power systematically requires a higher cost of capital than other technologies go head. But that is not what you wrote. Bizarrely, the only cost of capital figure you have quoted to support your argument is roughly the same as the AETA used. your analogy of using an identical capital cost for all technologies is ludicrous. technologies have different capital costs because they are made of different stuff. But they all finance using similar techniques. Since they are selling their output into the same market – the market for electricity, a default assumption of same risk = same cost of capital is not unreasonable. it may be wrong, but better evidence is needed than you have put up so far.

          • Giles 7 years ago

            Actually, it’s exactly what you wrote. If you can find a banker that says the cost of capital for nuclear is the same as for other technologies, I would gladly interview him. Remember, EdF agreed to that only after the UK government guaranteed them a fixed payment (twice the current price of energy) for 35 years, indexed for inflation, assumed all regulatory risk, assumed all production risk, assumed all market risk, assumed all political risk AND provided a loan guarantee equating to more than half the capital cost. And you pretend it’s the same for all technologies? Good grief.

          • Motorshack 7 years ago

            And if all technologies did get that level of financial and policy support for the next 35 years, imagine how much difference there would then be in the price of nuclear power versus solar.

            But the question is moot, since those funding solar today are getting to the point that they need no special support or guarantees at all. The proposition is already both profitable and very low risk.

            In short, we have gotten to the point at which pushing for nuclear power is clear clinical evidence of delusional thinking. Those folks don’t need political support for their projects. They just need a prescription for decent anti-psychotic medication.

          • KD 7 years ago

            I’m not pretending anything. I’m saying that I don’t think a generic cost of capital for a range of technologies seeking to participate in the same market is an inappropriate starting point for an LCOE comparison. I actually think such exercises are of fairly limited use because actual costs – capital, operating and financing can vary with the specifics of each project. that’s the benefit of letting the market decide what to build. I take your point that a good deal of policy support has been provided to get this nuclear plant away – which makes it a fairly dubious decision. But your logic that ipso facto the technology has a higher cost of capital could easily be applied to various renewable technologies, which typically benefit from similar types of policy support. this would make coal and gas – which have often been built without such support look rather better in an LCOE calculation, because they would have a lower cost of capital than other technologies.

          • Giles 7 years ago

            Most coal and gas – including in Australia – was built by government owned entities in regulated monopolies, and with the benefits of subsidies that dwarf those of renewables. (tho not nearly as big as the subsidies enjoyed by nuclear). The main point of BNEF’s analysis earlier this year is that coal and gas are priced out of most western markets precisely because the cost of capital has soared because of environmental concerns. Any banker will confirm this. It’s called a market – it’s real and it’s live and it prices risk – which is why not a single dollar of private money is going into either Hinkley or Southern Co’s reactor in Georgia.

          • KD 7 years ago

            oh crikey, not that old furphy again. the fact that a power station was built by a government does not make it subsidised. when there was a govenment owned monopoly on power genretaion in Australia, the cost comparisons were all internalised. For better or worse they largely built according to what seemed to them to be the most cost-effective portfolio of plant to meet demand at the time. This of course includes the large hydro schemes as well as thermal plant. I don’t have the figures to hand, but privately built thermal plant in the NEM includes mortlake, Tallawarra, Milmerran, darling downs, braemar 1 and 2, pelican point…more capacity than built under the LRET over roughly the same period anyway…now we have an oversupplied market, I don’t suppose anything much will be built for a while except under the LRET.
            Cost of capital for thermal plant may have risen, but due to environmnetal policy uncertainty. If we had a stable, long-term policy framework to which all major parties were committed, then there’s no reason why the cost foc apital for themal plant shoudl be higher than renewables. the cost might be higher depending on the level of the carbon price (or effective carbon price if a different mechanism) but as long as the carbon price risk could be hedged out – via liquid secondary markets, say, then the risk overall is no higher.
            But if you believe that renewables have a lower cost of capital than other types of plant – due to the absence of risks such as carbon, you presumably don’t support the CEFC. If the cost of finance is not the problem, you don’t need a government sponsored financing vehicle…

          • Giles 7 years ago

            That’s a big leap in logic. The CEFC is needed because in Australia most of these new renewables technologies – solar PV, solar thermal, storage etc – have not been deployed, so the banks have never financed them, so they apply higher risk, and cost to capital, with unfamiliar businesses. That’s why the CEFC is needed. It’s important to note that many of the loans the CEFC are making are neither concessional nor guarantees. Unlike nuclear, the CEFC can successfully bring in private money to co-invest. Unlike nuclear, these technologies will not need instruments like the CEFC to stand behind them in 40 years time.

          • KD 7 years ago

            it seems to me you are trying to have your cake and eat it…bankers who price risk into renewables need a helping hand, but bankers who price risk into nuclear (new in the sense of building it into a market rather than the government monopoly the earlier UK plants were built into) are recognising an intrinsically higher cost of capital…I think we shall have to agree to disagree.

          • Motorshack 7 years ago

            Or you could start taking your meds again.

          • KD 7 years ago

            Oh MAN! I just got SERVED!

          • JonathanMaddox 7 years ago

            Giles’ words were “failed to calculate the cost of capital for nuclear”. No calculations were made, merely an assumption that the cost of capital is the same as for all other technologies.

            The risk premium for a nuclear power station in a country that has never built one is probably just a little different from that for rooftop solar PV in a country where most free-standing houses are owner-occupied, most of those (including almost 99% of *new* houses) are subject to a mortgage, and there is already solar PV on 20% of such houses.

          • Bob_Wallace 7 years ago

            Reading that I got the feeling Giles was using “cost of capital” in place of “interest” or financing charges.

            Nuclear plants take a long time to build. A lot of money/capital has to be borrowed up front. Over the years a lot of interest accrues. Interest on interest – compounding.

            The “overnight”/capital cost of a nuclear plant can easily double due to interest charges before the plant starts producing revenue.

            Wind farms take two years or less to build. They’re even built in stages with part of the farm coming on line and kicking off a revenue stream in a few months.

            Solar farms are often built in only months.

            In both cases not much interest accrues which keeps overall costs lower.

  10. Christina Macpherson 7 years ago

    The “Small Modular Reactor” (SMR) push is nothing but a Big Con. These things exist only on paper. To be economically viable they would have to be mass produced and mass marketed. No private investment would touch them.

    Sure – this Big Fix idea appeals to Big Fixers like Bill Gates and Richard Branson. But those guys lack the appreciation of subtleties such as the need for plutonium or enriched uranium to kick off fission in SMRs. That means very high, very costly security, and still the eventual problem of highly toxic wastes.

    Apart from the impracticality of SMRs, they’re up against the entrenched power of the Big Nuclear Reactor Lobby.
    And – for Australia – the most hyped SMR is to run on Thorium – which would surely mean the final death throe of Australia’s uranium industry.

  11. yardsale_06 7 years ago

    A real white paper is an unrefereed research progress paper designed to inform other researchers of progress with the hope of further collaboration.

    The way government white papers work currently, is that one company gets to set the parameters for future policy directions. This gives them a head start in the tender process. The author of the white paper is normally a political party donor.

    While I appreciate the government looking externally for advice on direction – the country would be best served by probably having two authors of the paper, one from say a University background, and the other for a large infrastructure delivery company. That way we can ensure capability to deliver and that it is best fit for the country,

  12. SP 7 years ago

    Australia has been touted as the Suadi Arabia of Uranium. It seems that the cost of wind and solar has dropped so much that the mineral lobby in Oz may never get the chance to fully exploit the resource. Unless of course a friendly Govt helps create a dependent local industry.

    It seems strange to me that the rhetoric of the current mob is to not support the likes of Ford and Holden, which at least supported a lot of tax paying skilled workers, but they are prepared to reverse the rhetoric when it suits there sponsors and subsidize Nuclear.

    The conspiracist in me wonders whether the sponsors of the Liberal party may never get to recoup the costs they have already sunk in buying the rights to a mineral that now has good odds of never being dug up and sold… at least not at the rate hoped for nor at the price desired by the owners. Not without creating the required demand.

    I suspect the whole Abbott so called “direct action” plan should be seen with this in mind. As the undirected (invisible hand?) approach of the previous mob would probably not select nuclear for all the reasons outlined in comments below.

    I would not be surprised to hear Abbott spreading fear of lower standards of living if his nuclear nirvana is not adopted. Something like this is probably going to have to be attempted to overcome the deep seated dislike of nuclear in the electorate. And given that Abbott can not convincingly say he believes in climate change that, or something similar, is going to have to be the argument he makes. He may even tie it to creating the jobs for the workers his govenment has basically unemployed!

    It is easy to find news items that show that China (for example) installed ~20GW of solar in a ten month period. In lay terms, ~10 nuclear power plants worth. In the Australian context, can nuclear supporters remind us all again how long it would take to build just one 1 GW nuclear power plant here? Ten to fifteen years?

    And then there are all the private electricity generators which now have to “compete” with home owned electricity generators. IF only good all “cheap” (read subsidized) centralised nuclear power could return the status quo, for the benefit of the nation, of course.

  13. jahbalonabiff 6 years ago

    Because nuclear waste is so much better than carbon…

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