Peter Dutton’s nuclear power policy is a ‘suicide note’

Apr 8, 2024
Symbol of nuclear power.

Peter Dutton thinks the Coalition is on a winner by promoting nuclear power but unbiased opinion polls find that support for nuclear power in Australia falls short of a majority, that Australians much prefer renewables, and most do not want nuclear reactors built near where they live.

A February 26 page-one article in The Australian ran under the headline ‘Powerful majority supports nuclear option for energy security’.

“Labor is now at risk of ending up on the wrong side of history in its fanatical opposition to nuclear power,” political editor Simon Benson wrote, and Labor “ignores this community sentiment potentially at its peril”.

The Murdoch papers ran hard with the story, as did Sky News. The Murdoch-Sky media frenzy was based on the results of a Newspoll survey which found 55 percent support for replacing coal-fired power plants with (non-existent) small modular nuclear reactors.

But the 55 percent majority was slim, not ‘powerful’, and the Newspoll survey was a crude example of push-polling as discussed by polling experts Kevin Bonham and Murray Goot, and by economist Prof. John Quiggin.

To note just one example of the bias, if NuScale Power’s 77-megawatt reactors were chosen to replace coal plants, 277 nuclear reactors would be required, not ‘several’ as the Newspoll survey question stated. And if we use NuScale’s latest construction cost estimate, the cost would be A$656 billion.

‘Suicide note’

Tony Barry, a former deputy state director and strategist for the Victorian Liberal Party, describes the Coalition’s decision to make nuclear power the centrepiece of its energy and climate policy as “the longest suicide note in Australian political history”.

Barry is now a director at the research consultancy RedBridge. On the strength of a detailed RedBridge analysis of Australians’ attitudes to nuclear power, he says that just 35 percent of Australians support nuclear power and that only coal is less popular. If the Coalition is to have any chance of winning the next election it will not be with nuclear power, he states.

Peter Dutton’s positioning of the Coalition is all wrong, Barry says, and the party continues to play to “internal audiences” — in particular the right-wing echo-chamber typified by Murdoch’s ‘Sky after dark’.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese appears unconcerned by Murdoch push-polling purporting to show majority support for nuclear power. Speaking in parliament, he compared Peter Dutton to a nuclear reactor: “One is risky, expensive, divisive and toxic; the other is a nuclear reactor. The bad news for the Liberal Party is that you can put both on a corflute, and we certainly intend to do so.”

‘Stark raving mad’

The Murdoch-Coalition echo-chamber is drinking its own bathwater by taking pro-nuclear push-polling seriously.

The pro-nuclear bias of the Murdoch media is plain for all to see, and has been confirmed by a recent academic analysis. A note of dissent recently came from James Campbell, a political editor for Murdoch newspapers and websites across Australia. He says the Coalition’s nuclear policy is “stark raving mad” and he quotes an unnamed Coalition MP saying the policy is “madness on steroids”.

Campbell writes:

“You’d have thought that a mob that so easily unpicked the lead of the Yes case at the Voice referendum would understand that support for anything radical in Australia shrinks the moment it hits any sort of concerted opposition.

“And support for this is weak to start with – 35 per cent in favour versus 32 per cent opposed according to a recent RedBridge poll. …

“If we accept the next election is going to be all about the current cost-of-living crisis then nuclear power isn’t going to be much of a help to the Coalition, given it is at least 10 to 15 years away.

“Worse, not only will nuclear energy not be much help as a cost-of-living policy, its salience will make sure that no one gets to hear about whatever policies the Coalition does offer. …

“Then there’s the unity problem. Do you really think Liberal candidates in “tealy” places are going to face the front on this? …

“And that’s even before you get to the state Liberal leaders! How many of them do you reckon are going to be lining up to sing this policy’s praises? …

“Madness. It’s total madness.”

Unbiased nuclear polls

Here are the results from some opinion polls in Australia over the past five years, with a decent sample size and questions that weren’t designed to push respondents in one direction or another:

    • 2024 Resolve Political Monitor survey commissioned by the Nine newspapers: 36 percent support nuclear power, 23 percent opposed, 15 percent undecided, 27 percent “do not have a strong view, and would like to see the government investigate its use”.
    • 2023 Freshwater Strategy Poll: 35 percent support nuclear power, 35 percent opposed, 18 percent neutral, 12 percent unsure. Thirty-seven percent agree that ‘Australia does not need to generate any energy from nuclear power’, 36 percent disagree, 27 percent neutral. Forty-four percent agree that Australia should remove the legal ban on nuclear power development, 29 percent disagree, 25 percent neutral.
    • 2023 Essential poll: 50 percent support Australia developing nuclear power plants for the generation of electricity, 33 percent opposed, 18 percent unsure.
    • 2023 Savanta study commissioned by the pro-nuclear Radiant Energy Group: 40 percent strongly support or tend to support using nuclear energy to generate electricity in Australia, 36 percent strongly oppose or tend to oppose, 17 percent neutral, 7 percent don’t know. The study found that those who are most climate-concerned are least likely to support the use of nuclear power. (Perhaps they are better educated on the issues and the options.)
    • 2019 Essential poll: 44 percent support nuclear power, 40 percent opposed.
    • 2019 Roy Morgan Poll: 45 percent support nuclear power, 40 percent opposed.

The Coalition (and other supporters) can take comfort that support for nuclear power exceeds opposition in most of those polls. But support doesn’t reach a majority in any of them.

Dr. Rebecca Huntley, director of research at 89 Degrees East, told the Nine newspapers that participants in focus groups were bringing up nuclear power more often than before the last federal election, but support usually dissolved once the discussion turned to timelines, logistics and the issue of how to store nuclear waste.

RedBridge pollster Kos Samaras told the Nine newspapers that the question of social licence would be impossible to overcome because soft support for nuclear power would evaporate and bump up against hard opposition which he puts as high as 32 percent.

Murray Goot says that “majority support” was being conflated with “strong support” in the Murdoch newspapers, adding: “A metre wide doesn’t necessarily mean a metre thick.” Moreover, he notes that the February Newspoll survey only achieved majority support by manipulating both the question and the response options.

The Murdoch-Coalition echo-chamber was especially excited about younger poll respondents in the February Newspoll survey (65 percent support, 32 percent opposition). But the poll was biased and as Goot notes, other polls reach different conclusions: “But eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds as the age group most favourably disposed to nuclear power is not what Essential shows, not what Savanta shows, and not what RedBridge shows.”

Unbiased polls also find that Australians support renewables to a far greater extent than nuclear power; that a majority do not want nuclear reactors built near where they live; and that most Australians are concerned about nuclear accidents and nuclear waste.

Sticker shock

It can safely be assumed that support will weaken as more Australians become aware of the high cost of nuclear power and the likely impact on both taxes and power bills.

Some polls indicate that Australians need educating on this issue. For example a 2023 Essential poll found that 38 percent of respondents ranked renewables as the “most expensive” option, 34 percent ranked nuclear the most expensive option, and 28 percent ranked fossil fuels the most expensive option. But Essential also found that 60 percent of respondents agreed with the proposition that ‘Australia needs to rapidly develop renewables because it will provide a cheaper and stable energy source, and create jobs’, while only 17 percent disagreed.

Simon Benson wrote in The Australian that “any Coalition energy policy must be framed in a cost-of-living context that can demonstrate how nuclear power will deliver cheaper and more reliable power into the future.”

But nuclear power would increase both power bills and taxes and the only way that the Coalition can get around that problem is with creative accounting and continuing to attack CSIRO’s detailed costings. The latest CSIRO GenCost report gives these 2030 cost estimates: small modular reactors A$212-353 per megawatt-hour, 90% wind and solar with integration costs (energy storage and transmission) A$69-101 per megawatt-hour.

Nuclear power could also involve the curtailment of rooftop solar to allow reactors to run smoothly and profitably. Put that in the electoral pipe and smoke it.

Teal independents

Chris Kenny, The Australian’s associate editor, says “the nuclear argument could play well in the teal seats where there is an eagerness for climate change and a high degree of economic realism.”

However, teal MP Zali Steggall participated in a 2019 parliamentary inquiry into nuclear power and concluded that it “is unlikely that new nuclear will be able to compete with renewables … especially given the rate of price deflation of renewables.”

Likewise, Allegra Spender says that nuclear power “is too slow, too expensive and the UK Hinkley experience shows the costs are too uncertain for it to be relevant to our current energy plans.”

The latest Hinkley Point cost estimate is A$89 billion for the two reactors under construction or A$44.5 billion per reactor. The sticker shock is somewhat lessened by the large capacity of the reactors ‒ 1,600 megawatts each ‒ but it’s shocking nonetheless.

The latest Hinkley Point cost estimate is more than 10 times higher than initial estimates. On a site where reactors have operated since the 1960s, in a country with vastly more nuclear expertise and experience than Australia. The UK National Audit Office estimates that taxpayer subsidies for the Hinkley Point project could amount to £30 billion (A$58 billion).

In 2006, then UK industry secretary Alistair Darling said that the private sector would have to “initiate, fund, construct and operate” nuclear power plants. Since then, several proposed nuclear plants have been abandoned and the only project to reach construction is being propped up by an estimated A$58 billion from taxpayers.

Recent experience in Australia’s other AUKUS partner, the US, is no better. Construction of two reactors in South Carolina was abandoned in 2017 after the expenditure of at least A$13.6 billion. The only remaining construction project, the Vogtle project in Georgia, was recently completed at a cost of A$26 billion per reactor. As in the UK, this is more than 10 times higher than initial estimates.

You wouldn’t wish nuclear power on your worst enemy but the Dutton Coalition wishes it on Australian taxpayers and electricity rate-payers.

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