Peter Dutton sprinkles nuclear stardust into the climate policy vacuum

Mar 11, 2024
Atom nucleus with electrons spinning around it technology background

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton is nailing nuclear energy for Australia to his economic renaissance mast. His earlier thought was that the electricity generating transition should be confined to SMRs (small modular reactors) conveniently placed in the basements of factories around Australia. He then expanded his concept to include the construction of large industrial reactors of 600 MW capacity and more built on sites occupied by former coal-fired generators.

At least three realities make Dutton’s SMR proposal unrealistic. First is the fact that no SMRs are yet operating anywhere in the world except as experiments in Russia and possibly China.

Second was a recent decision by NuScale Power, the largest US enterprise attempting to build commercial SMRs, to abandon its flagship project in Idaho despite securing astronomical subsidies for its project from the US government. Too many problems at too great a cost. There have been no known SMR start-ups either in 2023 or 2024.

A third problem, ignored, overlooked or unknown by SMR enthusiasts, is the treaty commitment to subject such SMRs to regular inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. All countries signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are bound by the provisions of the IAEA to allow inspections of any stage of the nuclear fuel cycle they may operate, whether mining, enriching, refining, trading or storing uranium, or running reactors. The inspections may be ad hoc, routine or special, and meant as early warning measures to detect any surreptitious diversion of fissionable material for clandestine nuclear weapons programs.

With limited funds the IAEA is flat out trying to inspect nuclear-related facilities in 140 countries. Imagine the complications, the unsustainable extra pressure on the IAEA, if it had to inspect privately-run SMRs operating in the basement of factories around Australia.

Dutton has now expanded his concept to include large industrial reactors on the sites of coal-fired power generators being closed down, specifically at Yallourn in the Latrobe Valley of Eastern Victoria. Cheaper than building them elsewhere, he argues, because they can use existing State Electricity Commission poles and wires from de-commissioned plants to major city centres, mainly Melbourne.

Dutton’s nuclear energy plans are enthusiastically embraced by some journalists, predictably in the Murdoch press. An article by Peta Credlin in The Australian on Thursday 7 March 2024 is a case in point. In attempting to rebut Treasurer Jim Chalmers’ claim that nuclear power will cost more, take longer to realise and squander Australia’s natural advantage in solar and wind, Credlin lists a string of dodgy assertions.

First, however, she scores a point. What is the difference, she asks, between a nuclear reactor in a docked submarine (which Labor supports) and a reactor on land (of which it disapproves)? Actually, not much except for size, the reality that submarine power plants are welded into the submarine’s frame and would be more difficult to get at than the components of a civil reactor, and that opportunities to clandestinely divert its fuel to make nuclear explosives less possible.

Second, however, is her claim that the more we get renewables into our system, the more expensive power becomes. This is a nonsense. Analysis after analysis shows that power generated by solar and wind are far cheaper than power generated by nuclear power, and going down year by year. The enormous delays and projected cost blow-out in constructing new generation industrial-scale reactor complexes at Hinkley Point and Sizewell in Britain, Flammanville in France and Olkiluoto in Finland, will add substantially to the power bills from all these plants, putting the cost of their output way above power from renewables.

Third, Credlin says we have enormous uranium reserves, a natural advantage we are squandering by not using them to fuel our own reactors. But she fails to add that we only produce unenriched uranium oxide or yellowcake, and any ‘natural advantage’ is immediately subsumed in the enormous additional cost of having the stuff enriched and turned into fuel rods, which can only be done abroad.

Fourth, asks Credlin, is nuclear really a fantasy, when it provides 70 percent of France’s power, 20 percent of America’s, 15 percent of Britain’s and is already in use in 33 countries, with a further 15 nations considering it as a proven way to deliver 24/7 power that is almost 100 percent emission free?

Well, yes, her findings are out of date and it is still a fantasy. Since the latest nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima in 2011, the global civil reactor fleet has shrunk from 438 reactors in 2002 (the peak of nuclear power) to around 410 today. Given the International Atomic Energy Agency’s estimated closure of 10 old reactors a year, 10 new start-ups would be needed annually just to maintain the fleet. There were just six reactor construction starts in 2023, five of them in China. Global nuclear power is in fact going backwards.

Credlin cites the half-century ‘accident-free’ performance of the Lucas Heights experimental reactor on the southern outskirts of Sydney as an example of nuclear safety. This is a fanciful and distorted claim. The original hi-flux reactor (HIFAR) installed in 1956 was replaced more than ten years ago by OPAL, of Argentinian design, which had a series of worrying leaks and had to be closed down more than once. Because both HIFAR and OPAL were so small (20MW) the leaks, while not inconsequential, were easily contained within the plant. And the technology in running a small reactor that makes radio pharmaceuticals is light years short of running a power reactor.

Credlin claims that a vast whispering campaign against nuclear power is being driven by the subsidy-harvesting vested interests now behind the renewable push. Perhaps so. But if we are into conspiracy theories, what about the suspicion that Dutton is captive to a coal industry that sees a push for nuclear power as a tactic to enable the continuation, even expansion of the coal and gas industries while delaying the advent of renewables?


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