State parliaments in NSW and Victoria have completed nuclear inquiries over the past two years but the governments of both states have no intention of repealing laws banning nuclear power.
The Morrison government established an inquiry into nuclear power in 2019 but made it clear that the federal ban would be retained regardless of the findings of the inquiry.
Nevertheless, supporters continue to campaign for the repeal of federal and state laws banning nuclear power. The Murdoch papers and Murdoch’s Sky News have ramped up their campaign to have those laws repealed.
Far-right Coalition MPs and former MPs are along for the ride.
And a tangled web of far-right conspiracists and fossil fuel interests: for example a recent article promoting nuclear power in Australia was written by a Policy Associate at the impressive-sounding Institute for Energy Research — the impressive-sounding, Koch-founded, fossil fuel-funded Institute for Energy Research.
There’s conflict within the Coalition, as demonstrated by the unwillingness of the federal and NSW Coalition governments to repeal legal bans, and submissions opposing nuclear power to the federal inquiry from the SA and Tasmanian conservative governments as well as the Queensland Liberal-National Party.
Coalition Senator Matt Canavan is at war with himself, previously noting that nuclear power would increase power bills but now supporting taxpayer funding for nuclear power through the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.
Yes, it’s entertaining watching the Coalition at war with itself over an energy source that has well and truly priced itself out of the energy debate and has instead found a home in the culture wars.
Former PM Malcolm Turnbull describes nuclear power as the “loopy current fad … which is the current weapon of mass distraction for the backbench”.
But there’s a serious side to the problem.
Firstly, the promotion of nuclear power muddies the energy debate and helps to delay the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. Economist Prof. John Quiggin notes that, in practice, support for nuclear power in Australia is support for coal.
Secondly, politicians who are silly enough to promote nuclear power over cheaper renewables would probably be silly enough to gift billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies to nuclear companies.
And not all of these MPs are fringe figures like Craig Kelly — some have real clout such as NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro, former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, and former PM Tony Abbott (who thinks the Coalition should promote nuclear power to “create a contest” with unions, GetUp, the Greens, the ALP and the “green left“.
There are plenty of recent examples demonstrating how badly nuclear power projects can go wrong.
All of the recent projects in the US and western Europe have cost about A$20 billion per reactor and all of them are at least A$10 billion over budget and many years behind schedule.
Multi-billion-dollar taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies for these failed projects have been ever-expanding. It would be naïve to expect a better outcome — in other words, a non-disastrous outcome — in Australia given our lack of experience and expertise.
Thirdly, culture wars based on lies and conspiracy theories can escalate beyond anyone’s wildest imagination, as we see with the MAGA movement in the US.
There has to be push-back against irrational ideologues lest they become dangerous irrational ideologues.
The rest of this article summarises the reasons to oppose nuclear power in Australia and to keep legal bans in place. This summary comes with the caveat that rational arguments won’t shift the culture warriors; a cult deprogrammer might shift them, but not rational arguments.
Nonetheless, the rest of the population needs to be inoculated against the misinformation of the ideologues.
- Too cheap to meter or too expensive to matter?
Laws banning nuclear power have saved Australia from the huge costs associated with failed reactor projects in Europe and North America, such as the Westinghouse project in South Carolina that was abandoned in 2017 after the expenditure of at least US$9 billion (A$11.3 billion) and led Westinghouse to file for bankruptcy.
That fiasco could easily have been repeated in any of Australia’s states or territories if not for the legal bans.
The 2020 Lazard report on levelized costs of energy shows that nuclear power is considerably more expensive than renewables:
Renewables coupled with storage are cheaper than nuclear. The CSIRO provides these estimates in a 2020 report (with the Lazard figure included for comparison):
Nuclear power clearly fails the two economic tests set by Scott Morrison: it could not be introduced or maintained without huge taxpayer subsidies (as is the case with every other reactor project in the world) and it would result in higher electricity prices.
Only a few prototypes are being built and no-one is seriously considering stumping up many billions to build the factory-based supply chains that could conceivably reduce costs.
- Nuclear waste streams
Laws banning nuclear power should be retained because no solution exists for the safe, long-term management of streams of nuclear wastes generated across the nuclear fuel cycle.
No country has a deep underground repository for high-level nuclear waste disposal.
The United States has a deep repository for long-lived intermediate-level waste — the only operating deep repository in the world — but it was closed from 2014-17 following a chemical explosion in an underground waste barrel.
Safety standards and regulatory oversight fell away sharply within the first decade of operation of the US repository — a sobering reminder of the extreme difficulty of managing dangerous nuclear wastes for tens of thousands of years.
- Accidents and attacks
The Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters results in the evacuation of over half a million people (160,000 from Fukushima and 350,000 from Chernobyl) and economic costs in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
There are other dangers in addition to reactor meltdowns, fires and explosions.
Doubling nuclear output by the middle of the century would require the construction of 800−900 reactors which would produce over one million tonnes of high-level nuclear waste containing enough plutonium to build over one million nuclear weapons.
Former US Vice President Al Gore summarised the WMD proliferation problem: “For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal … then we’d have to put them in so many places we’d run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale.”
Nuclear power plants (and their high-level nuclear waste stores) have been described as pre-deployed terrorist targets and pose a major security threat.
This in turn would likely see an increase in policing and security operations and costs and a commensurate impact on civil liberties and public access to information.
- Too slow
Expanding nuclear power is impractical as a short-term response to climate change.
An analysis by Prof. John Quiggin concludes that it would be “virtually impossible” to get a nuclear power reactor operating in Australia before 2040.
More time would elapse before nuclear power has generated as much as energy as was expended in the construction of the reactor: a University of Sydney report concluded that the energy payback time for nuclear reactors is 6.5-7 years.
Taking into account planning and approvals, construction, and the energy payback time, it would be a quarter of a century or more before nuclear power could even begin to reduce greenhouse emissions in Australia (and then only assuming that nuclear power displaced fossil fuels).
- Too thirsty
A single nuclear power reactor consumes 35-65 million litres of water per day for cooling. Nuclear power (2.5 litres / kilowatt-hour) is thirstier than coal (1.9) and gas (0.95) and much thirstier than solar PV (0.11) and wind (0.004).
- Climate change and nuclear hazards
Nuclear power plants are vulnerable to threats which are being exacerbated by climate change. These include dwindling and warming water sources, sea-level rise, storm damage, drought, and jelly-fish swarms.
Nuclear engineer David Lochbaum states: “I’ve heard many nuclear proponents say that nuclear power is part of the solution to global warming. It needs to be reversed: You need to solve global warming for nuclear plants to survive.”
In January 2019 the Climate Council, comprising Australia’s leading climate scientists and other policy experts, issued a policy statement concluding that nuclear power plants “are not appropriate for Australia — and probably never will be”.
By contrast, a REN21 Renewables Global Status Report states that renewable energy systems “have unique qualities that make them suitable both for reinforcing the resilience of the wider energy infrastructure and for ensuring the provision of energy services under changing climatic conditions.”
- First Nations
Laws banning nuclear power should be retained because the pursuit of a nuclear power industry would almost certainly worsen patterns of disempowerment and dispossession that Australia’s First Nations have experienced — and continue to experience — as a result of nuclear and uranium projects.
To make matters worse, the federal government is now trying to amend the Act to allow a national nuclear waste dump to be imposed in SA despite the unanimous opposition of Barngarla Traditional Owners and to deny Traditional Owners and others the right to a judicial review.
Thankfully the amendment bill is stalled in the Senate due to Labor and crossbench opposition.
- No social license
Laws banning nuclear power should be retained because there is no social license to introduce nuclear power to Australia. Opinion polls find that Australians are overwhelmingly opposed to a nuclear power reactor being built in their local vicinity (10-28% support, 55-73% opposition).
Opinion polls also find that support for renewables far exceeds support for nuclear power (for example a 2015 IPSOS poll found 72-87% support for solar and wind but just 26% support for nuclear power).
As the Clean Energy Council noted in its submission to the 2019 federal nuclear inquiry, it would require “a minor miracle” to win community support for nuclear power in Australia.
The pursuit of nuclear power would also require bipartisan political consensus at state and federal levels for several decades. Good luck with that. Currently, there is a bipartisan consensus at the federal level to retain the legal ban.
Conclusion: The future is renewable, not radioactive
Globally, the nuclear / renewables comparison could hardly be more striking: a record 201 gigawatts growth of renewable power generating capacity in 2019 compared to a loss of 4.5 gigawatts of nuclear capacity.
Legal bans should be retained because the introduction of nuclear power would delay and undermine the development of effective, economic energy and climate policies based on renewable energy sources and energy efficiency.
Renewable energy is affordable, low risk, clean and popular. Nuclear is not. The energy future is renewable, not radioactive.
* Climate Council, 2019, ‘Nuclear Power Stations are Not Appropriate for Australia – and Probably Never Will Be‘
* WISE Nuclear Monitor, June 2016, ‘Nuclear power: No solution to climate change‘
Dr. Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia.