Has the Coalition gone cold on nuclear power?

New Nationals leader David Littleproud says he will push for a debate on lifting legal bans which prohibit nuclear power plants in Australia, and that he plans to raise the issue with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

Littleproud complained about the “demonisation” of nuclear power “without even putting the lens over new nuclear technology like small-scale modular.”

“Our party room will come to a position on that and it’s one that obviously we’re very passionate about,” Littleproud said. “We should back ourselves as Australians to do it better and safer than anyone else. But we need to educate before we legislate.”

Former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce has also voiced support for nuclear power in recent days. Australia should embrace nuclear power to address climate change, Joyce said at a May 31 press conference, and Australia should be building small modular reactors.

Joyce also said at his press conference that he wouldn’t support a conversation within his party-room about the need to transition away from coal. So Joyce isn’t getting serious about climate change – he’s playing politics.

Wedging the Labor Party on nuclear power is an old playbook that has never worked. John Howard supported nuclear power in his final years in office, swept up by President George Bush’s plans for a Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.

The Labor Party wasn’t wedged, but the Coalition was. At least 22 Coalition candidates publicly distanced themselves from the government’s pro-nuclear policy during the 2007 election campaign and the policy was ditched immediately after the election was lost.

Economist Professor John Quiggin notes that, in practice, support for nuclear power in Australia is support for coal. It’s a safe bet that Joyce hopes that promoting nuclear power will slow the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, even if a reactor is never built.

Coalition culture warriors should take another look at the November 2021 article by veteran Murdoch columnist Paul Kelly.

Kelly pointed to the “popular pull of renewables” and their falling costs. He noted that “nuclear plant construction remains poor in advanced OECD nations, the main reason being not safety but its weak business case”. Kelly also questioned the rhetoric around small modular reactors given that “none has so far been built in developed nations”.

On the politics, Kelly wrote:

“The populist conservatives have form. Before the 2019 poll, they campaigned on the mad idea that Morrison follow Donald Trump and quit the Paris Agreement. Now they campaign on the equally mad but more dangerous idea that he seek to split the country by running on nuclear power… As for those conservatives who say Morrison’s job is to fight Labor, the answer is simple. His job is to beat Labor. That’s hard enough now; vesting the Coalition with an unnecessary ideological crusade that will crash and burn only means he would have no chance.”

The Coalition cools on nuclear

Joyce said he “would love to see the Labor party come onboard” with his nuclear push. But nuclear power doesn’t enjoy support within the Coalition and there is zero chance of Labor coming onboard.

It was John Howard’s Coalition government that banned nuclear power in Australia. That ban has been retained by every subsequent government including the Coalition governments led by Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison.

New Liberal leader Peter Dutton said on May 31 that nuclear power is currently “not on the table” for policy consideration and that he wants to reduce power prices, not increase them.

Nationals Senator Matt Canavan supports nuclear power even though he has himself noted that nuclear power would increase power bills.

State coalition parties

An interesting feature of the 2019 federal parliamentary nuclear inquiry was that a number of state Coalition governments and parties made submissions opposing nuclear power while none made submissions supporting it.

The South Australian Liberal government’s submission said that “nuclear power remains unviable now and into the foreseeable future”.

The Tasmanian Liberal government’s submission said that “Tasmania will not pursue nuclear energy … and considers that Australia’s energy needs are best met by pursuing renewable energy options, such as pumped  hydro, with additional firming capacity supported through greater grid interconnection.”

Even the Queensland Liberal-National Party’s submission said that “the LNP does not support lifting the bipartisan ban on nuclear energy generation”, citing “unacceptably high health and safety risks” and “significant negative consequences for the environment”. The submission said that “Australia’s rich renewable energy resources are more affordable and bring less risk than the elevated cost and risk associated with nuclear energy”.

Likewise, the NSW Coalition government isn’t interested in nuclear power. Treasurer Matt Kean said that nuclear power was like “chasing a unicorn” and “doesn’t stack up at the moment on practical grounds or on economic grounds”. Kean said that nuclear is several times more expensive than renewables backed up with energy storage — a claim supported by CSIRO research.

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull described nuclear power as the “loopy current fad … which is the current weapon of mass distraction for the backbench.”

Teal independents

Perhaps the nuclear advocates within the Coalition think they might be able to win support from teal community independents elected to parliament at the May 21 election?

Previous efforts to persuade independent MP Zali Steggall of the merits of nuclear power during the 2019 parliamentary inquiry came to nothing.

Steggall concluded in a dissenting report:

“Substantial evidence both for and against lifting the moratorium on nuclear energy was received, yet the report overwhelmingly refers to evidence in support. In so doing, the Report overstates benefits and understates risks of the technology. …

“The Report does not accurately reflect the evidence received on affordability and economics. It is unlikely that new nuclear will be able to compete with renewables without any kind of timeframe it could be operational in Australia, especially given the rate of price deflation of renewables. …

“There is no doubt Australia needs to decarbonise its energy supply. The long development times of nuclear, canvassed in the Report as between ten and twenty years, mean it is ill-suited to the decarbonisation of the energy sector that is required. There is a risk that by focusing on future technologies like SMRs we may be leaving decarbonisation too late.

“Lifting the moratorium and considering nuclear energy distracts from current and emerging technologies. It does not make sense when Australia has the potential to be an energy superpower with renewables and hydrogen.”

Small modular reactors vs renewables

Both Littleproud and Joyce have promoted small modular reactors (SMRs) in recent days.

However a study by WSP / Parsons Brinckerhoff, commissioned by the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, estimated costs of A$225 / megawatt-hour (MWh) for SMRs. The Minerals Council of Australia states that SMRs won’t find a market unless they can produce power at about one-third of that cost, A$60-80 / MWh.

In its 2021 GenCost report, CSIRO provides these 2030 cost estimates:

* Nuclear (SMR): A$128-322 / MWh

* 90 percent wind and solar PV with integration costs (transmission, storage and synchronous condensers): A$55-80 / MWh

The track record with SMRs around the world has been pitiful ‒ just a handful of projects, most or all exhibiting familiar patterns of massive cost overruns and multi-year delays:

* Russia’s floating nuclear plant was nine years behind schedule, more than six times over budget, and the electricity it produces is estimated to cost an exorbitant US$ 200 (A$279) / megawatt-hour according to the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency

* The only other operational SMR anywhere in the world, China’s high-temperature gas-cooled SMR, was 2‒3 times more expensive than initial estimates, it was eight years behind schedule, and plans for additional reactors at the same site have been dropped,

* The SMR under construction in Argentina is seven years behind schedule; the cost exceeds A$1 billion for a plant with the capacity of a handful of large wind turbines (32 megawatts); and the current cost estimate is 23 times higher than preliminary estimates.

* China recently began construction of an SMR based on conventional light-water reactor technology. According to China National Nuclear Corporation, construction costs per kilowatt will be twice the cost of large reactors, and the levelised cost of electricity will be 50% higher than large reactors.

* Russia recently began construction of an SMR based on fast reactor technology. Construction was expected to be complete in 2020, but didn’t even begin until 2021. The construction cost estimate has increased by a factor of 2.4.

That’s it. A pitiful result from decades of SMR hype. Everything that is promising about SMRs belongs in the never-never; everything in the real-world is expensive and over-budget, slow and behind schedule.

Moreover, there are disturbing, multifaceted connections between SMR projects and nuclear weapons proliferation, and between SMRs and fossil fuel mining.

Dr. Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and author of reports on nuclear power’s economic crisis and the failure of small modular reactors.

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