Peter Dutton says nuclear power plants “burn energy.” No they don’t

Source: AAP / Mick Tsikas

Opposition leader Peter Dutton has betrayed his complete ignorance about the nuclear technology he threatens to impose on the Australian population by a making a fundamental error: He thinks they burn fuel, or energy.

The comments were made in a heated Question Time in parliament house on the first day of the winter session which promises to be focused on energy and climate.

Opposition energy spokesman Ted O’Brien was ejected from the house by speaker Milton Dick, and Dutton ran close, earning the ire of the speaker on several occasions when he interjected as Labor ministers spoke.

At one point Dutton – trying to tie Labor up in knots over waste from a nuclear submarine, said this, according to Hansard:

Mr Dutton: It’s on relevance. And, perhaps, to be of assistance to the minister, the propulsion system burns energy—that’s how the system is working—and it’s stored in the—

The SPEAKER: Resume your seat.

Actually, they don’t burn fuel. That’s the point of them. If they did, they would likely create emissions, as defence minister Richard Marles explained.

Mr MARLES: Actually, it doesn’t burn any fuel, because burning is oxidisation, which is what happens in an internal combustion engine, which is exactly what happens when you use hydrocarbons. What this is is a nuclear reaction which gives rise to power. That is what happens inside the sealed nuclear reactor. The point is that the waste that will need to be disposed of …

And if he doesn’t accept Labor’s word on it, the Opposition leader could also read up on the website of the Nuclear Energy Institute:

“Nuclear plants are different because they do not burn anything to create steam. Instead, they split uranium atoms in a process called fission. As a result, unlike other energy sources, nuclear power plants do not release carbon or pollutants like nitrogen and sulfur oxides into the air.”

It reminds me of an encounter I had when I first started driving an EV. It was rubbished by a passer-by who suggested the car would be better off powered by nuclear. He seemed to think you could just shovel uranium into a boiler and off you go. Just top it up at the local refuelling station.

It could be that the aspiring prime minister thinks along the same lines. After all, we are constantly told we should mine Australia’s vast uranium reserves – heck, why not burn them like we do with coal.

It’s not the only major misunderstanding of nuclear by Dutton. He has suggested that what he defines as a small nuclear reactor, around 400 MW, would produce just a single can of coke as waste. It will need to be a very big can.

Emeritus Professor Ian Lowe, of Griffith University’s school of environment and science, told the SMH it was safe to say an SMR would generate many tonnes of waste per year, and it was likely that waste would be more radioactive than the waste from a large-scale reactor.

“For a 400-megawatt SMR, you’d expect that to produce about six tonnes of waste a year. It could be more or less, depending on the actual technology but certainly multiple tonnes a year,” he said. “They run on highly enriched uranium and produce a much nastier and a much more intractable set of radioactive waste elements that have to be treated.”

The Coalition’s entire nuclear push is based on lies and misconceptions, from their claim that wind, solar and storage can’t power a modern economy, that their plan needs no additional transmission, that its cheaper than renewables, and that it’s consistent with climate targets.

As virtually all experts have pointed out, with the exception of an heroic rear guard action on Sky News, the policy makes no sense economically, environmentally, or from an engineering point of view.

Perhaps Dutton needs to watch a few more episodes of The Simpsons. Or perhaps not.

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