Refuting myths about nuclear and renewable energy

Jul 3, 2024
Solar energy panels before a nuclear power plant and wind turbines at sunset. Image:iStock/ vencavolrab

Nuclear energy proponents are attempting to discredit renewable energy and promote nuclear energy and fossil gas in its place. This article refutes several myths they are disseminating that are receiving little or no challenge in the mainstream media.

Myth: Renewables cannot supply 100% electricity

Denmark, South Australia and Scotland already obtain 88, 74 and 62 per cent of their respective annual electricity generations from renewables, mostly wind. Scotland actually supplies 113 per cent of its electricity consumption from renewables; the difference between its generation and consumption is exported by transmission line.

All three jurisdictions have achieved this with relatively small amounts of hydroelectricity, zero in South Australia. Given the political will, all three could reach 100% net renewables generation by 2030, as indeed two northern states of Germany have already done. The ‘net’ means that they trade some electricity with neighbours but on average will be at 100% renewables.

Computer simulations by several research groups – using real hourly wind, solar and demand data spanning several years – show that the Australian electricity system could be run entirely on renewable energy, with the main contributions coming from solar and wind. System reliability for 100% renewables will be maintained by a combination of storage, building excess generating capacity for wind and solar (which is cheap), key transmission links, and demand management encouraged by transparent pricing.

Storage to fill infrequent troughs in generation from the variable renewable sources will comprise existing hydro, pumped hydro (mostly small-scale and off-river), and batteries. Geographic dispersion of renewables will also assist managing the variability of wind and solar. For the possibility of rare, extended periods of Dunkelflaute (literally ‘dark doldrums’), gas turbines with stores of biofuels or green hydrogen could be kept in reserve as insurance.

Myth: Gas can fill the gap until nuclear is constructed

As a fuel for electricity generation, fossil gas in eastern Australia is many times more expensive per kilowatt-hour than coal. It is only used for fuelling gas turbines for meeting the peaks in demand and helping to fill troughs. For this purpose, it contributes about 5% of Australia’s annual electricity generation. But, as storage expands, fossil gas will become redundant in the electricity system.

The fact that baseload gas-fired electricity continues temporarily in Western Australia and South Australia is the result of peculiar histories that will not be repeated. Unlike the eastern states, WA has a Domestic Gas Reservation Policy that insulates customers from the high export prices of gas. However, most new gas supplies would have to come from high-cost unconventional sources. South Australia’s ancient, struggling, baseload, gas-fired power station, Torrens Island, produces expensive electricity. It will be closed in 2026 and replaced with renewables and batteries.

Myth: Nuclear energy can co-exist with large contributions from renewables

This myth has two refutations:

  1. Nuclear is too inflexible in operation to be a good partner for variable wind and solar. Its very high capital cost necessitates running it constantly, not just during periods of low sun or wind. Its output can only be ramped up and down slowly, and it’s expensive to do that.
  2. On current growth trends of renewables, there will be no room for nuclear energy in South Australia, Victoria or NSW. The 2022 shares of renewables in total electricity generation in each of these states were 74%, 37% and 33% respectively. Rapid growth from these levels is likely. It’s already too late for nuclear in SA. Provided the growth of renewables is not deliberately suppressed in NSW and Victoria, these states too could reach 100% renewables before the first nuclear power station comes online.

As transportation and combustion heating will be electrified, demand for electricity could double by 2050. This might offer generating space for nuclear in the 2040s in Queensland (23% renewables in 2022) and Western Australia (20% renewables in 2022). However, the cost barrier would remain.

Myth: There is insufficient land for wind and solar

The claim by nuclear proponents that wind and solar have “vast land footprints” is misleading. Although a wind farm can span a large area, its turbines, access road and substation occupy a tiny fraction of that area, typically about 2%. Most wind farms are built on land that was previously cleared for agriculture and are compatible with all forms of agriculture. Off-shore wind occupies no land.

Solar farms are increasingly being built sufficiently high off the ground to allow sheep to graze beneath them, providing welcome shade. This practice, known as agrivoltaics, provides additional farm revenue, which is especially valuable during droughts. Rooftop solar occupies no land.

Myth: The longer lifetime of nuclear reactors hasn’t been taken into account

The levelised cost of energy method – used by CSIRO, AEMO, Lazard and others –  is the standard way of comparing electricity generation technologies that perform similar functions. It permits the comparison of coal, nuclear and firmed renewables. It takes account automatically of the different lifetimes of different technologies.

Myth: We need baseload power stations

The recent claim that nuclear energy is not very expensive “when we consider value” is just a variant of the old, discredited claim that we need baseload power stations, i.e. those that operate 24/7 at maximum power output for most of the time. The renewable system, including storage, delivers the same reliability, and hence the same value, as the traditional system based on a mix of baseload and peak-load power stations.

When a nuclear power reactor breaks down, it can be useless for weeks or months. For a conventional large reactor rated at 1000 to 1600 megawatts, the impact of breakdown on electricity supply can be disastrous. Big nuclear needs big back-up, which is expensive. Small modular reactors do not exist––not one is commercially available or likely to be in the foreseeable future.

Concluding remarks

We do not need expensive, dangerous nuclear power, or expensive, polluting fossil gas. A nuclear scenario would inevitably involve the irrational suppression of renewables. The ban on nuclear power should be maintained because nuclear never competes in a so-called ‘free market’. Renewables – solar, wind and existing hydro – together with energy efficiency, can supply all Australia’s electricity.

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