Coalition, pro-nuclear lobbyists, argue Australia needs nuclear energy; oppose renewablesJan 12, 2024
Proponents for a nuclear energy industry in Australia increased their media activity following the announcement of the AUKUS agreement. Their campaign has been taken up by the Coalition. The international campaign reached a crescendo during the COP28 climate meeting.
The pro-nuclear campaign is based on incorrect claims that opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fears, that nuclear energy is necessary for climate mitigation, that new nuclear energy technologies will be cheaper and safer than existing ones, and that there are allegedly no scenarios for the transition to 100 per cent renewable energy.
To the contrary, critiques of nuclear power have been published by physical and social scientists and engineers. They argue that, in the real world, nuclear energy is too expensive, too dangerous (both in terms of accidents and the proliferation of nuclear weapons), and too slow to plan and build. These issues determine the current status of nuclear power. Nuclear power’s share of world electricity production has been declining from its peak of 17.6% in 1996 to 9.2% in 2022.
Scenario studies for non-nuclear energy futures for the whole planet and many individual countries and regions are based on electrification of fossil-fuelled transportation and combustion heating, the conversion of all electricity generation to renewables, mostly solar and wind, and increased efficiency of energy use. Two world leading research groups – one based at Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT), Finland, and the other at Stanford University, USA – have published energy transition scenarios to 100% renewables for the whole planet and many individual countries.
In Australia, ClimateWorks has published two decarbonisation scenarios, spanning all economic sectors, in which electricity emissions decline to zero in 2034 and 2038 respectively. In the former scenario, net zero CO2 emissions from the whole economy are reached about 2039. More detailed scenarios of 100% renewable electricity in Australia have been published by UNSW, ANU, and AEMO.
Which nuclear reactor?
Because nuclear electricity from existing types of reactors is very expensive, proponents promote a new technology, the small modular reactor (SMR). ‘Small’ means generating capacity less than about one-third of existing large nuclear power reactors. ‘Modular’ means serial factory production of reactor components, which could reduce costs.
While small reactors exist in nuclear-powered submarines and research facilities, they have a long history of failure. Furthermore, according to physicist MV Ramana, they “cost too much for the little electricity they produced, the result of both their low output and their poor performance”. They are unsuitable for mass production. So, small modular reactors do not exist.
Recent attempts to develop them depend on enormous subsidies, e.g. US$452M offered by the US Department of Energy. So far, the only SMR design approved by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission was that of NuScale. In November 2023, after receiving huge grants for which it did not have to compete, NuScale terminated its SMR project.
The most recent (Generation III+) large reactors under construction in Europe and the USA have been economic disasters, taking much longer to construct than planned and costing over three times original estimates. This applies to the following European pressurised water reactors (EPR):
- Olkiluoto, Finland (OL3, recently completed after 18 years of construction)
- Flamanville, France (FL3), incomplete; and
- Hinkley Point C, UK, incomplete, where the estimated capital cost is now £32.7 billion.
In the USA, construction continues on its sole new nuclear power station comprising the two AP-1000 reactors at Vogtle, Georgia. Projected construction costs have escalated to at least US$30 billion and estimated start-up dates are again delayed.
Clearly, none of the above reactors would be a rational choice for Australia.
Scenario studies by the LUT and Stanford research groups cited above show that energy futures based on 100% renewable energy, including electrified transportation and heating, are cheaper than nuclear scenarios.
At the level of individual power stations, the multinational investment advisor Lazard finds that nuclear electricity is several times as expensive as wind and solar. In Australia, the annual CSIRO GenCost studies, performed with extensive stakeholder consultation, find that electricity generated by large-scale wind and solar farms, together with storage and connection to the local transmission grid, is much cheaper than from a hypothetical SMR.
Nuclear proponents argue that the method used by CSIRO, which is based on the levelised cost of electricity, does not include the cost of upgrading the main transmission system. However, CSIRO have used the standard method, for good reason. The system would still have to be upgraded if Australia’s zero-carbon electricity generation were based partly on nuclear. Electrifying transportation and combustion heating will substantially increase demand on the grid which will require major grid augmentation.
Proliferation and terrorism
Most nuclear proponents ignore the proliferation of nuclear weapons from civil nuclear energy. When challenged, their standard response is that governments build military reactors to make plutonium and ignore civilian power stations, which is not generally true.
The first generation of British nuclear power stations produced plutonium to supplement production in military reactors. India, Pakistan, North Korea and South Africa used civil nuclear power to assist their development of nuclear weapons. Argentina, Australia, Brazil, South Korea and Taiwan commenced secret programs to develop nuclear weapons under the cloak of nuclear energy, but discontinued their programs. For documentation, see Nuclear Weapons Archive, Institute for Science and International Security, and Nautilus Institute.
The dissemination of many SMRs around a country would introduce a high risk of theft of plutonium and targets for terrorist attacks. During wars, targeting of nuclear power stations could ignite major disasters.
While nuclear proponents limit their estimates of mortality from the accident at Chernobyl to 30–60 immediate local victims of very high radiation exposure, researchers at the International Agency for Research on Cancer calculate that the disaster will induce about 16,000 cancers, including leukemia, in Europe over several decades.
While the 2011 earthquake and tsunami caused meltdowns in three of the six reactors at Fukushima, the near-shore wind farm at Kamisu, 80 km to the south, survived the huge breaking wave and continued to generate until the grid failed. When the grid was restored, it recommenced operation.
Nuclear power stations take a long time to plan and build. At present Australians are divided on nuclear energy and very few would accept a reactor or waste repository in their locality. At best, an autocratic government could possibly get one nuclear power station operating by the time Australia had 100% renewable electricity.
To conclude, nuclear power has no future role in Australia and the claims for future cheap electricity from new, allegedly safe, nuclear technologies are baseless fantasies.