Dutton’s nuclear dream

May 30, 2024
Set Isometric Mortar and pestle, Radioactive and Magnet icon. Vector

In the unlikely event that Peter Dutton could manage the succession of problems with nuclear power stations – persistent massive cost overruns; State legislation banning nuclear; and NIMBY backlashes – he would still have a big problem – lack of staff to run the plants.

Currently there is an international shortage of engineers and other professionals and the nuclear power industry around the world, according to the Weekend Financial Times, is desperately trying to persuade thousands of retired staff to return to work.

To a certain extent the problem is created by something Dutton asserts – many more nuclear plants are planned around the world. Sadly, many of those which have been started are way over budget and long delayed. Half of the proposed new nuclear power stations in the UK, for instance, have now been cancelled.

A few countries are also promising – as Dutton has – small modular reactors. But so far none of been built and Dutton himself seems to have backed off a bit with that pledge.

France is about to open its first new nuclear power station in 25 years this northern summer. Sadly, it is 12 years behind schedule. Given that France already has 56 reactors you would assume they knew what they were doing but whether Australia – given its sorry record on big build projects from the latest Snowy project to Victorian roadworks – why would anyone think we would do better than the French?

Moreover, we can’t even get long desired projects – such as the very fast train between Melbourne and Sydney – off the ground. Barnaby Joyce’s Inland Rail boondoggle is late and over budget. The 1600-kilometre Melbourne to Brisbane rail was originally estimated to cost $16.4 billion but now the budget has blown out to $31.4 billion.

The Dutton plan will also require some adjustments to training and education in the nuclear field. A number of universities – such as UNSW and ANU offer nuclear engineering courses but whether this will be enough to supply a local market while graduates would be able to earn more overseas is another question.

The nuclear engineering graduates will need to be supplemented by graduates with qualifications in electrical or electronic engineering, mechanical engineering and physics and mathematics and engineering maintenance.

Many of them, however, might prefer to go into the more lucrative financial engineering fields with Macquarie and others.

Then there is competition from others who are not setting up a nuclear industry but need staff immediately.

The Nuclear Engineering International newsletter (29/3/23) said “Worryingly, intense competition from other sectors such as oil and gas could see critical nuclear skills lost to energy rivals.”

The newsletter quoted the Airswift Global Talent Index (GETI) which said that the nuclear workforce is heavily in demand across the industry with 83% of nuclear workers headhunted in the last year and close to a fifth receiving 11 or more approaches.

Good news, perhaps, for Dutton is that a 2022 GETI report found that 84% of respondents would be happy to switch to another company within the nuclear field.

The bad news for Dutton, though, is that few of them want to switch to another country.

Airswift Vice President, Ashley Samuelson, said the nuclear sector was consistently ranked the lowest when it comes to global mobility within the energy sector, despite the fact that three quarters of the respondents to their GERTI survey would consider relocating.

If they did consider relocating to Australia how close would they be – or perhaps even past retirement age – when and if a nuclear power station was to be built here.

According to Statista in a December 2023 report “The worldwide mean time from start of construction to grid connection was approximately 10 years for nuclear power reactors completed over the decade 2013-2022. In most of the countries, at least one year of delay was experienced with respect to the scheduled startup date.”

It is also interesting to look at the comparisons in time to build nuclear power stations Statista provides. The quickest are Pakistan with, in order after that, China, Belarus and United Arab Emirates. Needless to say, none of them consider protests from locals as sufficient reason to stop construction and locals know full well the consequences of trying to protest.

Among democracies South Korea, India (if you can call Modi’s India democratic) Finland, Argentina and the U.S. (in ascending order) took the longest to build a nuclear power station.

Peter Dutton is saying his nuclear power stations would be up and running in the 2030s.

If he started building one from the day after the 2025 election – unless he can beat the average of other countries – the very earliest it could be operational would probably be the 2040s. And if you think the 2030’s are a prospect there are a couple of bridges – one in Brooklyn and one in Sydney – which you can buy at a bargain price from a helpful passerby.

Meanwhile the waves would be just starting to spill over our beachside suburbs and storms would be getting bigger and more frequent.

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