The Coalition didn’t do much on nuclear power during his tenure. Why are they talking about it now? | nuclear power
Last week, new Nationals leader David Littleproud said it was time for Australia to have a “mature” conversation on nuclear power while his predecessor, Barnaby Joyce, called for a nationwide moratorium to be lifted and argued that nuclear power would be “really important” if the country really wanted to achieve net zero emissions.
On Sunday, nuclear energy advocate Ted O’Brien was named spokesperson for the Coalition on Climate Change and Energy. In an interview with ABC Radio National, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said he was “not afraid to have a nuclear talk” because the country should not be afraid to “talk of any technology that will have the ability to reduce emissions”. and electricity prices.
He suggested that nuclear had been excluded because it was “old fashioned” to talk about it.
So why is the Coalition talking again about nuclear energy?
Because despite having made no serious attempt to start a nuclear energy industry during its nine years in power, the Coalition decided to advocate for one immediately after losing power.
Meanwhile, the Institute of Public Affairs, a right-wing group with a history of climate science denial that is funded by fossil fuel and mining interests, released what it described as a poll showing that people were open to the idea of nuclear energy. The News Corp newspapers presented his arguments without criticism.
Did anything happen while the Coalition was in government?
There was an investigation. In 2019, former Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor referred the matter to a parliamentary committee; O’Brien was the president.
In a report titled ‘Not Without Your Approval’, he and other coalition MPs recommended the government consider partially lifting a ban on ‘new and emerging nuclear technologies’, expressing the hope that what the so-called small modular reactors (SMR) may have a future. . There was no appetite to allow the large nuclear power plants which became synonymous with catastrophic accidents at Fukushima and Chernobyl.
O’Brien argued that the development of a potential nuclear industry would take time and should be conditional on a government assessment of the technology and the informed consent of local communities.
Although it received some support from other coalition MPs, Scott Morrison said the country’s stance on nuclear power would not change without bipartisan support. Labor has ruled out this possibility for economic and security reasons.
Has the case of nuclear changed since 2019?
Not significantly. Proponents have acknowledged that nuclear power is the most capital-intensive energy technology, takes the longest to recoup investment, and has not benefited from the economies of scale achieved in solar and wind turbine. Costs have increased as technology has advanced.
Despite global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the large-scale nuclear power industry go backwards. More units closed than opened in 2020. Construction started on only five reactors; four of them were in China, which invests in all types of energy. Excluding China, global nuclear output is at its lowest level in 27 years.
The few large power plants under construction in developed democracies have suffered years of delays and cost explosions. In the UK, the Hinkley Point C power station – the country’s first new nuclear power station in decades – is 10 years behind schedule and is expected to cost at least A$45 billion, almost 50% more than originally estimated.
What about SMRs?
At this point, they barely exist.
SMRs are offered at 60 and around 200 megawatts, a fraction of the size of the traditional nuclear power plant. Proponents say they would employ technology similar to that used in nuclear-powered submarines and icebreakers and would be easier to provide security than large power plants.
But one world nuclear industry report last year found that discussions and media coverage of SMRs were “not mirrored by major industry achievements on the ground”.
He said SMRs in China and Argentina had been plagued with delays. There had been no concrete steps towards construction anywhere other than Russia – which is pursuing a model that barely qualifies as an SMR, is years behind and lacks the regulatory process expected in developed countries.
In South Korea, an SMR model was homologated in 2012 but there was no order because it was too expensive. Plans in the United States stalled; a government-backed model from the company NuScale was approved by the safety regulator, but the design was later changed and several municipalities dropped plans to host them. The funders agree that no reactor are expected before 2029 as soon as possible.
The industry report concluded that there was growing evidence that “SMRs, like large reactors, will continue to be subject to delays and cost overruns and the high likelihood that they are not economical even in the most favorable circumstances”.
Is nuclear energy necessary in Australia?
It is a different story in some other countries, but many analyzes indicate that nuclear is not necessary here given the range of energy options available.
For example, Australia’s energy market operator’s Integrated System Plan – a blueprint for an optimal future grid – presents a vision that the country would run largely on solar and wind power, supported by better transmission links and backed by a “firm” capacity that can be called upon when needed: batteries, pumped hydro, some gas (at least initially) and demand management.
Cost is the key issue. Although estimates are difficult, CSIRO’s latest analysis of different energy costs suggested that SMRs would be much more expensive than solar and wind power and at least as expensive as fossil power with carbon capture and storage, which has not proven to be economically viable.
Why does the case for nuclear energy persist?
Some people, including coalition MPs, assume renewables can’t do the job, despite expert advice saying otherwise. These critics rarely address this advice head-on.
But there is also a long history of nuclear power being used as a delaying tactic to act on climate change in Australia, including by fossil fuel interests.
SMRs may play a role globally beyond 2030, but anyone advocating for them in Australia should ask themselves why they disagree with nuclear proponents who say otherwise – and why their efforts are no better directed towards supporting zero-emissions technologies that are affordable and available now.