Friday , August 23 2019
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Rethinking nuclear

Summary:
Apparently, in order to placate Barnaby Joyce and others, there will be a Parliamentary inquiry into nuclear power. I was thinking of putting a boring submission restating all the reasons why nuclear power will never happen in Australia, but that seemed pretty pointless. Given that the entire exercise is founded in fantasy, I’m thinking it would be better to suspend disbelief and ask what we need if nuclear power is to have a chance here. The answer is in two parts: Repeal the existing ban on nuclear powerImpose a carbon price high enough to make new nuclear power cheaper than existing coal (and, ideally gas) fired power stations My initial estimate, based on the Hinkley C contract in the UK (price of $A160/MWh) is that the required price is at least 0/tonne of CO2.

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Apparently, in order to placate Barnaby Joyce and others, there will be a Parliamentary inquiry into nuclear power. I was thinking of putting a boring submission restating all the reasons why nuclear power will never happen in Australia, but that seemed pretty pointless.

Given that the entire exercise is founded in fantasy, I’m thinking it would be better to suspend disbelief and ask what we need if nuclear power is to have a chance here. The answer is in two parts:

  • Repeal the existing ban on nuclear power
  • Impose a carbon price high enough to make new nuclear power cheaper than existing coal (and, ideally gas) fired power stations

My initial estimate, based on the Hinkley C contract in the UK (price of $A160/MWh) is that the required price is at least $100/tonne of CO2. Rough aritmetic follows: Black coal emits about 1 tonne/MWh, and costs around $40/MWh to generate, so it would be slightly cheaper in the short run. Similarly for brown coal, which has higher emissions, but is cheaper to run.. But at those prices, it would be uneconomic to do the repairs necessary to keep existing coal-fired plants in operation past, say, 2030.

If such a policy were adopted, perhaps to be phased in over a decade or so, the immediate impact would be a massive expansion of renewables and big incentives for energy efficiency. But, if the arguments of nuclear fans about the need for baseload energy turn out to be right, there would be some room for nuclear to enter the mix after about 2040.

Of course, nothing remotely like this will happen. It’s rather more likely that Barnaby and the committee will discover a working technology for cold fusion, based on harnessing unicorns.

John Quiggin
He is an Australian economist, a Professor and an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland, and a former member of the Board of the Climate Change Authority of the Australian Government.

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