Morrison says sub deal won’t lead to nuclear power push in Australia. Don’t believe him

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Prime minister Scott Morrison insisted on Thursday morning that the landmark nuclear submarine deal struck with US president Joe Biden and UK prime minister Boris Johnson won’t translate into a push for nuclear power plants in Australia.

“Let me be clear: Australia is not seeking to establish nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability. And we will continue to meet all of our nuclear non-proliferation obligations,” Morrison said.

On the issue of nuclear power plants, don’t believe him. Morrison could hardly have said anything else. It’s one thing to announce a switch to nuclear powered submarines without any broad social discussion, but quite another to commit the country to nuclear power.

But the pro-nuclear lobby – both within and without the federal Coalition government – won’t be able to help themselves, even if the reality is that the sub construction won’t likely even start for the best part of a decade, and be complete for at least another 10 years after that, such is the complexity of the technology.

The nuclear lobby will say it is bizarre that Australia could be the only country in the world planning to sustain a nuclear powered submarine fleet without a civil nuclear industry. Even the retired Admiral Chris Barry noted that the absence of a civil nuclear industry left a “big gap” for Australia to manage a submerged nuclear fleet.

And the argument is already being put that if Australia is happy to host nuclear power in a tin can under the sea, then why not in a land-based power plant.

There was this Tweet above, amongst others, and the Minerals Council of Australia wasted no time.

“This is an incredible opportunity for Australia’s economy – not only will we develop the skills and infrastructure to support this naval technology, but it connects us to the growing global nuclear power industry and its supply chains,” CEO Tania Constable said in a statement.

Constable will be very familiar with the advisors in Morrison’s office. His chief of staff John Kunkel is the former deputy CEO of the Minerals Council, and his trade advisor Brendan Pearson is a former CEO of the Minerals Council.

The nuclear lobby in the Coalition is significant, and increasingly loud, particularly from those who profess to have taken a sudden interest in reducing carbon emissions. Nuclear already features in the Coalition’s technology roadmap.

The Nationals’ entire Senate team earlier this year argued that the Clean Energy Finance Corp should be allowed to invest in nuclear. And carbon capture and storage, too, because they also back coal. Boosters for nuclear and boosters for coal usually share the same baseload bed clothes, or come in the same package, such as Minerals Council.

The pro nuclear cohort in the Liberals/LNP is large and growing. According to Nationals Senate leader Bridget McKenzie, it includes Andrew Laming, John Alexander, Gerard Rennick, Keith Pitt, Jason Falinski, Tim Wilson, Katie Allen, Andrew Bragg, Dave Sharma, Kevin Andrews, Tony Pasin, Eric Abetz, Warren Entsch, Russell Broadbent, James Stevens, Ian Goodenough, Rick Wilson, David Fawcett, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Sarah Henderson, Hollie Hughes, James McGrath, Jim Molan, Julian Simmonds, Bert van Manen, Ben Small, Dean Smith, David Van, Terry Young and James Paterson.

And that doesn’t include others separately announced such as Ted O’Brien, David Gillespie, Llew O’Brien and George Christensen, and the entire Nationals team led by Barnaby Joyce and Senators such as Matt Canavan. According to The Australian, some 48 Coalition MPs support nuclear.

You won’t hear any of them profess support for wind and solar. The Coalition’s collective dismissal of new technologies such as battery storage and electric vehicles is also frighteningly idiotic.

The call for nuclear is also loud and repeated in the Murdoch media, and will likely feature in that company’s Road to Glasgow moment, where it will declare deep concern about the need to address climate change, despite its repeated denial of the science and the urgency to act, and its destructive role in policy debates.

Of course, right now there is no compelling reason for Australia to embrace nuclear power for its electricity grid, and unless some miracle development unfolds in small nuclear reactors over the next decade or two, or Bill Gates delivers on his vision for nuclear fusion in the same time frame, there won’t be in the future either.

As Labor’s Josh Burns wrote so forcefully this week, nuclear power is too slow and too expensive, particularly in Australia which is rich in wind and solar resources, and which already has a detailed blueprint for a rapid transition to a renewables-dominated grid.

Importantly, much of this transition can be delivered in the next ten years, before manufacturing of a nuclear sub even starts in Adelaide, and about a decade before the first is complete.

Indeed, by 2040, when the first sub “may” be put in the water, Australia will have already completed its transition to a grid powered at least 90 per cent renewables. It is highly likely that it could do that a lot earlier, and that will be the focus of the next planning blueprint.

That is important to deliver on the urgency of action over what is being dubbed “the critical decade” for the planet. Any number of studies, including from AEMO, the CSIRO, and even a royal commission, have found nuclear is not needed for Australia’s clean energy transition.

The costs of nuclear are extravagant, and no western country has been able to build a single nuclear plant in the last few decades without outrageous cost over-runs and massive delays. Most of these countries are now more focused on extending the life of existing nuclear plants rather than trying to build new ones.

If you talk to any energy executive in Australia, they say nuclear makes no sense in Australia, and the overriding reasons are the ones cited by Burns – cost and timelines.

The current federal government, though, may be disposed to throwing tens of billions of dollars at this and barely blink. This is, after all, a government that has shovelled nearly $100 billion out the door for Jobkeeper, will commit tens of billions to the nuclear sub deal, and is committed to stumping up (with the help of consumers) more than $10 billion, and possibly more than $14 billion, on a single pumped hydro project, Snowy 2.0, and the necessary transmission links.

Mostly, what the Coalition is really attached to is the concept of “baseload”, be it coal or nuclear or gas. But as energy analyst Marija Petkovic notes this week, baseload is a business model, not a technical requirement. 

That’s a reality endorsed by the Australian Energy Market Operator, and finally recognised by most of the big utilities, who are moving away from baseload and towards wind, solar and fast and flexible dispatchable generation. None of them are interested in coal nor nuclear. All accept that the switch to renewables and storage is the fastest, smartest, cleanest, cheapest and most reliable clean energy transition option.

What the conservatives really hate most is wind and solar, (and batteries and EVs and climate campaigners). Right now, they are doing their damnedest to slow down the rollout of these technologies, led by the veteran anti-wind campaigner Angus Taylor, who has appointed fossil fuel lobbyists to any number of key institutions, and is interfering in the re-write of market rules.

The nuclear debate hasn’t peaked, it is only just starting, and is about to get very loud. The wind, solar and storage industry has a lot of work to do to counter the incoming torrents of misinformation.

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