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Dutton wants a ‘mature debate’ about nuclear power. By the time we’ve had one, new plants will be too late to replace coal

Summary:
My latest in The Conversation via my Substack If you believe Newspoll and the Australian Financial Review, Australia wants to go nuclear – as long it’s small. Newspoll this week suggests a majority of us are in favour of building small modular nuclear reactors. A poll of Australian Financial Review readers last year told a similar story. These polls (and a more general question about nuclear power in a Resolve poll for Nine newspapers this week) come after a concerted effort by the Coalition to normalise talking about nuclear power – specifically, the small, modular kind that’s meant to be cheaper and safer. Unfortunately, while small reactors have been around for decades, they are generally costlier than larger reactors with a similar design. This reflects the economies

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My latest in The Conversation via my Substack

If you believe Newspoll and the Australian Financial Review, Australia wants to go nuclear – as long it’s small.

Newspoll this week suggests a majority of us are in favour of building small modular nuclear reactors. A poll of Australian Financial Review readers last year told a similar story.

These polls (and a more general question about nuclear power in a Resolve poll for Nine newspapers this week) come after a concerted effort by the Coalition to normalise talking about nuclear power – specifically, the small, modular kind that’s meant to be cheaper and safer. Unfortunately, while small reactors have been around for decades, they are generally costlier than larger reactors with a similar design. This reflects the economies of size associated with larger boilers.

The hope (and it’s still only a hope) is “modular” design will permit reactors to be built in factories in large numbers (and therefore at low cost), then shipped to the sites where they are installed.

Coalition enthusiasm for talking about small modular reactors has not been dented by the failure of the only serious proposal to build them: that of NuScale, a company that designs and markets these reactors in the United States. Faced with long delays and increases in the projected costs of the Voygr reactor, the intended buyers, a group of municipal power utilities, pulled the plug. The project had a decade of development behind it but had not even reached prototype stage.

Other proposals to build small modular reactors abound but none are likely to be constructed anywhere before the mid-2030s, if at all. Even if they work as planned (a big if), they will arrive too late to replace coal power in Australia. So Opposition Leader Peter Dutton needs to put up a detailed plan for how he would deliver nuclear power in time. cr



So why would Australians support nuclear?

It is worth looking at the claim that Australians support nuclear power. This was the question the Newspoll asked:

There is a proposal to build several small modular nuclear reactors around Australia to produce zero-emissions energy on the sites of existing coal-fired power stations once they are retired. Do you approve or disapprove of this proposal?

This question assumes two things. First, that small modular reactors exist. Second, that someone is proposing to build and operate them, presumably expecting they can do so at a cost low enough to compete with alternative energy sources.

Unfortunately, neither is true. Nuclear-generated power costs up to ten times as much as solar and wind energy. A more accurate phrasing of the question would be:

There is a proposal to keep coal-fired power stations operating until the development of small modular reactors which might, in the future, supply zero-emissions energy. Do you approve or disapprove of this proposal?

It seems unlikely such a proposal would gain majority support.



Building nuclear takes a long time

When we consider the timeline for existing reactor projects, the difficulties with nuclear power come into sharp focus.

As National Party Senate Leader Bridget McKenzie has pointed out, the most successful recent implementation of nuclear power has been in the United Arab Emirates. In 2008, the UAE president (and emir of Abi Dhabi), Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, announced a plan to build four nuclear reactors. Construction started in 2012. The last reactor is about to be connected to the grid, 16 years after the project was announced.

The UAE’s performance is better than that achieved recently in Western countries including the US, UK, France and Finland.

In 16 years’ time, by 2040, most of Australia’s remaining coal-fired power stations will have shut down. Suppose the Coalition gained office in 2025 on a program of advocating nuclear power and managed to pass the necessary legislation in 2026. If we could match the pace of the UAE, nuclear power stations would start coming online just in time to replace them.

If we spent three to five years discussing the issue, then matched the UAE schedule, the plants would arrive too late.

A model of UAE's Barakah nuclear power plant
The UAE took 16 years to deliver its nuclear power plan – and has since switched to solar projects. Ali Haider/EP/AAP

Read more: Dutton wants Australia to join the “nuclear renaissance” – but this dream has failed before


It would take longer in Australia

Would it be possible to match the UAE schedule? The UAE had no need to pass legislation: it doesn’t have a parliament like ours, let alone a Senate that can obstruct government legislation. The necessary institutions, including a regulatory commission and a publicly owned nuclear power firm, were established by decree.

There were no problems with site selection, not to mention environmental impact statements and court actions. The site at Barakah was conveniently located on an almost uninhabited stretch of desert coastline, but still close enough to the main population centres to permit a connection to transmission lines, access for workers, and so on. There’s nowhere in Australia’s eastern states (where the power is needed) that matches that description.

Finally, there are no problems with strikes or union demands: both are illegal in the UAE. Foreign workers with even less rights than Emirati citizens did almost all the construction work.

Despite all these advantages, the UAE has not gone any further with nuclear power. Instead of building more reactors after the first four, it’s investing massively in solar power and battery storage.

The decommissioned Liddell coal-fired power station
Old coal-fired power stations are shutting down and most will be gone long before nuclear power can come online. Dan Himbrechts/AAP


Time to start work is running out

The Coalition began calling for a “mature debate” on nuclear immediately after losing office.

But it’s now too late for discussion. If Australia is to replace any of our retiring coal-fired power stations with nuclear reactors, Dutton must commit to this goal before the 2025 election.

Talk about hypothetical future technologies is, at this point, nothing more than a distraction. If Dutton is serious about nuclear power in Australia, he needs to put forward a plan now. It must spell out a realistic timeline that includes the establishment of necessary regulation, the required funding model and the sites to be considered.

In summary, it’s time to put up or shut up.

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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