Nuclear Power: the right’s giant red herring

Oct 5, 2022
Control room of a nuclear power generation plant

Politicians of the Right keep suggesting Australia should build nuclear power stations. Why? They are slow to build, very expensive and potentially risky, and we have far better alternatives. Their aim is to divide and to wedge. We should treat it as a giant red herring.

Why do politicians on the Right keep bringing up nuclear power?

Eric Abetz used to do it at every opportunity, before he lost his senate seat and (bizarrely) reappeared as head of the Monarchist movement.

Early this month Peter Dutton said in a speech to the Minerals Council that Australia needs “a frank debate” about nuclear power and that it presents “a wonderful opportunity to add value” to our uranium resources.

Many readers will have seen an interview by David Speers with a barely coherent Barnaby Joyce on Insiders. Twice, with no prompting, Joyce brought up the idea of small modular nuclear reactors. Speers commented wryly that these are not something people are talking about at the checkout in IGA.

The latest pro-nuclear voice is Matt Canavan, the Queensland senator who loves to dress up as a coal miner, replete with face covered in coal dust. Canavan announced in a tweet this week that he would join a group of senators proposing repeal of the current law banning nuclear power in Australia. He said “It is time to join the rest of the world and treat nuclear energy as a safe and effective option”.

This is just nonsense, babble. Nuclear power is a non-starter in Australia today. Nobody is champing at the bit to invest billions in nuclear, as they are in solar, wind, storage and hydrogen. So why is the Right carrying on about it?

We were bound to hear more of this when CPAC met in Sydney last weekend. CPAC is a conclave of deplorables, an American franchise.

Even if its economics were better, nuclear power would take far too long to build to contribute to our urgent need to reduce emissions. There is no way we could see nuclear power on-line here before the later 2030s, at the earliest. First, Parliaments (state and federal) would have to repeal the ban. Then governments would have to set up a strong regulatory regime, which is not a simple thing. Next, in the unlikely event that somebody were to step forward to propose a plant, there would be a long process of argument about sites and environmental approval. Who wants one of these in their neighbourhood? Last, construction and testing could easily take a decade or more, based on American and European examples.

Barnaby’s small modular reactors are an intriguing idea, but they don’t exist yet. The first, being built by US start-up Nuscale Power, is due to be complete in 2028 or 2029. It will take years after that to establish whether these smaller reactors have the lower costs and faster construction their proponents hope for.

CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator published their 2021-22 edition of their annual Gencost report in July. They concluded (once again) that an integrated mix of solar and wind power and storage offers the lowest-cost new-build means of supplying the Australian market with electricity. The report saw no prospect of small modular nuclear reactors operating here in this decade. It said their cost could possibly come down in the future, but this would depend on successful deployment overseas.

Stories abound of delays and cost overruns with nuclear power. Britain’s Hinkley Point C station was first estimated to cost £4 billion. It is now over a decade late and expected to come in at £22-3 billion. Do we seriously want to get into this, when a renewable network can be built far more quickly and in smaller pieces?

The safety record of nuclear power is generally good. But when accidents occur they can be very big indeed. Naturally, they can prompt widespread community opposition. The Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine led to strong opposition to nuclear power in Germany and a plan to exit nuclear power. Fukushima led the government of Japan to mothball many existing nuclear stations. The total cost of the Fukushima clean-up may be as high as US$1 trillion. We have no need to take this kind of risk in Australia.

So why do the politicians of the Right keep talking up nuclear power? No doubt, some want to attract attention to themselves or to ingratiate themselves with interest groups like the Minerals Council. In addition, I suspect, they aim to sow confusion and to drive wedges into the community.

Nuclear power is a great subject for an old bore to bang on about in a pub or at a barbecue. It is easily linked to other hardy perennials, like the Bradfield Plan to pump water from coastal Queensland rivers like the Burdekin over the Great Divide to irrigate the inland. This has been demonstrated time and again to be uneconomic, but its advocates go on about it like a dog with a bone.

Nuclear power for Australia is nothing more than a giant red herring and should be treated as such.

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