Divide and fool: The Coalition’s misinformation campaign

Oct 23, 2023
A fossil fired power station in the state of N.S.W. Australia.

In a recent Q and A, the opposition’s shadow minister for Climate Change and Energy Ted O’Brien’s improbable aim was to convince Australia that small nuclear reactors (SMRs) could replace our coal fired power plants and lead us to carbon neutrality. If you examine the economics of SMRs the proposition has to be classified as an absurdity with no chance of becoming a reality in the foreseeable future – if ever.

It seems that it is of no concern to O’Brien who then continued his Q and A masterclass in misleading semantics and obfuscation. The CSIRO’s estimated cost of $487 billion for 71 SMRs was, he asserted, with either extraordinary ignorance or dishonesty, based on faulty ‘hypothetical’ data. The coalition’s own study under way was being based on ‘real’ data. For those of us who have bothered to learn up on the fact that there are no SMRs operating as an economic entity anywhere in the world (there are two prototypes one in Russian and one in China), O’Brien’s does us a grave injustice. This insult is greatly enlarged by O’Brien’s incapacity to explain how the mythical ‘real’ data would go anywhere near bridging gap with the comparative capital costs for solar and wind per kw which, according to the CSIRO’s rigorous study, are between 18 -20 times lower.

This obfuscation of the cost differential is being accompanied by assertions that commercial SMRs are just around the corner. In doing so, both O’Brien and Dutton use the shoddy device of slipping into the present tense in referring to SMRs in ’over 50 countries’ and to references about how cheaply they are being modularised. What in reality they refer to is nothing of the sort. They are alluding to little more than the current burst of startup hype surrounding SMRs. It’s being generated by what the Washington Post describes as the rise of a ‘techno-bro’ libertarian culture whose adherents ‘valorize new technology, loath regulation and embrace the marketplace’. As applied to nuclear power, what is being sold to the market is the allure of solving the carbon crisis in one simple nuclear techno swoop.

No such luck. As a world authority on nuclear power, Allison Mcfarlane (former chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission) observed recently, this speculative bubble was using compliant media as an echo chamber“…with each outlet clambering over the next to crow about the great benefits of nuclear power in misleading language that suggests this technology is already entirely proven out”. An apt description of The Australian and the Financial Review’s uncritical lauding of the opposition’s SMR policy.

The Q and A debate equally brought to light another no-brainer about SMRs – that, even if they were economic – the notoriously long lead time for nuclear reactor development meant they would be of no use to Australia in its battle to meet its target emissions reduction of 35% by 2030 let alone the 90% reduction needed by 2035 to hold global temperatures below 1.5C.

Even if lead times were somehow shortened, deployment at scale would hardly be a bankable proposition to investors. The CSIRO’s analysis of projected power costs per kwh for 2030 assumes, generously in the case of SMRs, a halving of cost through modularisation. Even so, the cost differential between SMRs and wind and solar renewables at 5 to 6 times remain huge — with solar at $50-55 per kwh, wind $40-60 and SMRs $200 – $350. As Macfarlane goes on to point out: “In the nuclear celebratory mood of the moment, there is little patience or political will for sober voices to discuss the reality that new nuclear power is actually many decades away from having any measurable impact on climate change – if at all”.

If yet another reality check is needed it comes from the state of play of the only new prototype SMR globally with regulatory (US) approval. The NuScale reactor, on paper, has claimed a power generation cost of around US$55 per mwh and which, presumably, the coalition will be using to bolster its claims for SMR viability. If so, there are two insurmountable problems. The quoted cost per mwh include some extraordinarily large green subsidies (imbedded in the US Inflation Reduction Act). Once subtracted for an Australian rollout, they would increase the cost by around 30% per mwh. Secondly, new revised costings reported a months ago push the cost of the MuScale reactor up 50% to US$89 per MWH or around A$140 mwh. To boot, the NuScale reactor is yet to be built or tested nor therefore has its claims for lower costs of modularisation – which are built into their costs per kwh – been verified.

If there are to be any lingering doubts about SMR’s viability for Australia then the CSIRO’s cost comparisons of wind, solar and SMRs is a timely reminder that Australia has some of the world’s lowest cost renewables and that, as scale increases over time, new technology will continue to bring down its capital cost. Closing the gap with SMR’s is therefore even further from reality.

The overwhelming case against the adoption of SMRs begs the question why the Coalition has embraced a policy which has no economic justification and no chance of being implemented for decades to come if at all – let alone in the current election cycle time frame. Dutton and O’Brien claim they are not climate sceptics and therefore need to be held to account in accepting the scientific data on which their policies are based. So we should accept that they – or at least their many publicly paid-for advisers – have done due scientific diligence on the economics of SMRs.

The motivation for wilfully cherry picking data and wrongfully interpreting it therefore needs to be aired. Much of the enthusiasm for SMRs has come from the National Party which remains the repository of the opposition’s climate sceptics/neo-sceptics and those who simply don’t bother to read the science. In turn, it appears they have taken up the cause on behalf of the Mineral Council of Australia (MCA), whose members have supplanted farmers as the National Party’s key constituents. But just why the MCA has so fulsomely backed the uptake of nuclear power may not immediately be obvious, given its energy resource based membership is overwhelming from the gas and coal sectors.

The answer is revealing itself in the emerging criticism of the rollout of renewables both in terms of the slowness, the potential shortage of storage and the recent appearance of community opposition to large scale land/visual intrusions. By posing nuclear as an easily implemented and apparently less disruptive alternative, the Coalition is helping to grow this emerging discomfort with renewables by promising a false alternative. All this fits into the MCA/opposition’s underlying aim of keeping oil and coal in play as long as possible.

The insidious part of the SMR policy is its drawing on the Trumpian political playbook: facts don’t matter in an age of manipulative social media and compliant print media. What does matter is using policies to create an alternative reality with which to open up cracks in an otherwise consensual landscape. That playbook policy has proven extraordinarily successful for the opposition in its policy on the referendum. As for the SMR policy – it’s a smart device which acts as a proxy war to muddy and divide views on the government’s climate change policy and delivers to the Coalition a warm financial embrace from the mining industry. In terms of the Australian public it’s all about dividing and fooling.

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