Has the Coalition become cold in the face of nuclear power?


New Nationals leader David Littleproud said he would push for a debate on lifting the legal bans that ban nuclear power stations in Australia, and is considering raising the issue with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

Littleproud complained about the “demonization” of nuclear energy “without even emphasizing new nuclear technologies like small-scale modules”.

“Our village hall will take a stand on this and that’s something we’re obviously passionate about,” Littleproud said. “We should be supporting each other as Australians to do it better and safer than anyone else. But we must educate before we legislate.

Former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce has also expressed support for nuclear power in recent days. Australia should embrace nuclear power to fight climate change, Joyce told a May 31 news conference, and Australia should build small modular reactors.

Joyce also said at his press conference that he would not support a conversation in his party room about the need to move away from coal. So Joyce isn’t taking climate change seriously — he’s playing politics.

Pinning Labor on nuclear power is an old playbook that never worked. John Howard supported nuclear energy during his final years in office, carried away by President George Bush’s plans for a global nuclear energy partnership.

Labor was not stuck, but the coalition was. At least 22 coalition candidates publicly distanced themselves from the government’s pro-nuclear policy during the 2007 election campaign and the policy was dropped immediately after the election defeat.

Economist Professor John Quiggin notes that, in practice, support for nuclear power in Australia is support for coal. It’s a safe bet that Joyce hopes promoting nuclear will slow the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, even if a reactor is never built.

Coalition Culture Warriors should revisit the November 2021 article by veteran Murdoch columnist Paul Kelly.

Kelly pointed to the “popular attraction of renewables” and their falling costs. He noted that “the construction of nuclear power plants remains poor in advanced OECD countries, the main reason being not safety but low profitability”. Kelly also questioned the rhetoric around small modular reactors given that “none have so far been built in developed countries.”

On the policy, Kelly wrote:

“Populist conservatives are in shape. Ahead of the 2019 poll, they campaigned on the crazy idea that Morrison would follow Donald Trump and quit the Paris Agreement. Now they are campaigning on the equally crazy but more dangerous idea that he seeks to divide the country using nuclear power… As for the Tories who say Morrison’s job is to fight Labour, the answer is simple . His job is to beat Labour. It’s quite difficult now; giving the Coalition a pointless ideological crusade that will crumble and burn only means he wouldn’t stand a chance.

The Coalition cools on nuclear

Joyce said he would “love to see Labor join us” with his nuclear push. But nuclear power has no support within the coalition and there is no chance that Labor will join.

It was John Howard’s coalition government that banned nuclear power in Australia. This ban was maintained by all subsequent governments, including the coalition governments led by Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison.

New Liberal leader Peter Dutton said on May 31 that nuclear power is currently “not on the table” for political consideration and that he wants to cut electricity prices, not raise them.

National Senator Matt Canavan supports nuclear power even though he himself has noted that nuclear power will increase electricity bills.

State coalition parties

An interesting feature of the 2019 Federal Nuclear Parliamentary Inquiry was that a number of state governments and coalition parties presented arguments against nuclear power while none presented arguments. in his favour.

The South Australian Liberal Government’s submission stated that “nuclear power remains unviable now and for the foreseeable future”.

The Tasmanian Liberal Government’s submission stated that “Tasmania will not pursue nuclear power…and considers that Australia’s energy needs are best met by pursuing renewable energy options, such as pumped hydro, with additional firming capacity supported by greater network interconnection”.

Even the Queensland Liberal-National Party submission said “the LNP does not support lifting the bipartisan ban on nuclear power generation”, citing “unacceptable health and safety risks” and significant negative consequences for the environment”. The submission stated that “Australia’s rich renewable energy resources are more affordable and pose less risk than the high costs and risks associated with nuclear power.”

Similarly, the NSW coalition government is not interested in nuclear power. Treasurer Matt Kean said nuclear power was like “chasing a unicorn” and “doesn’t stack up on practical or economic grounds at the moment”. Kean said nuclear is many times more expensive than renewables backed by energy storage – a claim supported by CSIRO research.

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull describe nuclear power as the “current crazy fad…which is the current weapon of mass distraction for the backbench”.

Teal Independents

Perhaps nuclear proponents within the Coalition think they could win the support of independents from the Teal community elected to parliament in the May 21 election?

Previous efforts to persuade Independent MP Zali Steggall of the merits of nuclear power during the 2019 parliamentary inquiry came to nothing.

Steggall concluded in a dissenting report:

“Substantial evidence both for and against lifting the moratorium on nuclear power has been received, but the report overwhelmingly refers to supporting evidence. In doing so, the report overstates the benefits and understates the risks of the technology. …

“The report does not accurately reflect the evidence received on affordability and economy. New nuclear is unlikely to be able to compete with renewables without any sort of delay in getting it up and running in Australia, especially given the rate of renewables price deflation. …

“There is no doubt that Australia needs to decarbonise its energy supply. The long development times for nuclear, envisaged in the Report between ten and twenty years, make it unsuited to the decarbonisation of the energy sector which is needed. there is a risk that by focusing on future technologies like SMRs, we are leaving decarbonization too late.

“Lifting the moratorium and considering nuclear energy distracts from current and emerging technologies. It doesn’t make sense when Australia has the potential to be an energy superpower with renewables and hydrogen.

Small Modular Reactors vs Renewables

Littleproud and Joyce have been promoting small modular reactors (SMRs) in recent days.

However, a study by WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff, commissioned by the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, estimated costs at A$225/megawatt hour (MWh) for SMRs. The Minerals Council of Australia says SMRs will not find a market unless they can generate electricity at around a third of that cost, or A$60-80/MWh.

In its GenCost 2021 report, CSIRO provides these 2030 cost estimates:

* Nuclear (SMR): 128-322 AUD / MWh

* 90% wind and solar PV with integration costs (transmission, storage and synchronous condensers): 55-80 $A/MWh

The track record of SMRs around the world is pitiful – just a handful of projects, most or all exhibiting familiar patterns of massive cost overruns and multi-year delays:

* Russia’s floating nuclear power plant was nine years behind schedule, more than six times over budget, and the electricity it produces is estimated to cost a whopping US$200 (AUD$279)/megawatt hour according to the Agency for Energy. nuclear energy of the OECD.

* The world’s only other operational SMR, China’s gas-cooled high-temperature SMR, was 2-3 times more expensive than initial estimates, was eight years behind schedule, and plans for additional reactors at the same site have been abandoned,

* The SMR under construction in Argentina is seven years behind schedule; the cost exceeds 1 billion Australian dollars for a plant with the capacity of a handful of large wind turbines (32 megawatts); and the current cost estimate is 23 times higher than the preliminary estimates.

* China has recently started construction of an SMR based on conventional light water reactor technology. According to the China National Nuclear Corporation, construction costs per kilowatt will be twice the cost of large reactors, and the levelized cost of electricity will be 50% higher than that of large reactors.

* Russia has recently started construction of an SMR based on fast reactor technology. Construction was supposed to be finished in 2020, but didn’t even start until 2021. The construction cost estimate was multiplied by 2.4.

That’s it. A pitiful result after decades of SMR hype. Everything promising about SMRs belongs to never-ever; everything in the real world is expensive and over budget, slow and late.

Moreover, there are disturbing and multifaceted links between SMR projects and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and between SMR and fossil fuel extraction.

Dr. Jim Green is the National Nuclear Activist with Friends of the Earth Australia and author of reports on the nuclear economic crisis and the failure of small modular reactors.

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