Coalition's nuclear plan a meltdown of reason

When I was studying Chemistry at University I was intrigued by the idea of nuclear energy. I thought unleashing the power of the atom with nuclear fission was genius, and the best part, it could clean up Australia's most polluting sector.

Since then I've learnt that, like my dreams of a Chemistry nobel prize, nuclear energy in Australia has no feasible path to reality.

I understand the appeal of nuclear, which right now is being peddled to the community by the Federal Coalition as a silver bullet for a clean energy future that's affordable and reliable. But my years of experience in Australia's energy sector has taught me that nuclear energy is not our solution for tackling electricity emissions and replacing the country's retiring coal-fired power stations.

The Federal Coalition's nuclear push is them playing politics and putting forward a pipedream idea that they're safe from having to action while being in opposition. It's a self-interested tactic to score them political points and delay Australia's energy transformation.

So why doesn't nuclear make sense for Australia?

Firstly, it would take too long to build a nuclear energy industry in Australia. Across the country our ageing coal-fired power stations are coming to the end of their technical lives. They're becoming more unreliable as they get older and this is putting our energy reliability at risk.

We can't whip a dead horse: we need to build new generation to replace coal otherwise the lights will go out. The Australian Energy Market Operator latest Integrated System Plan shows that all coal stations in Australia's main grid are likely to close by 2040, and many over the next 10 years.

Experts agree that building a nuclear power plant in Australia, where we have limited to no existing nuclear industry or regulation, will take at least 15 years and likely at least 25.

In Britain, a country with an established nuclear power industry, it's taking more than 20 years to build a nuclear power station. The Hinkley Point C power station was first announced in 2005, was given government support in 2016, and may be constructed by 2026. It will cost more than 20 billion pounds.

So the Coalition's plan will either mean the lights go out or we have to rely on unreliable coal-fired power stations that have passed their use-by-date.

To overcome this glaring hole in their argument, the Coalition's nuclear policies rely on both large-scale reactors as well as small modular reactors – a technology that is not proven or economic. It is easier to hide behind smoke and mirrors in a technology that doesn't actually exist than deal with the decisions we need to be making now to ensure we have affordable renewable energy backed by storage.

The other key thing about nuclear power is it's expensive. CSIRO's latest modelling shows that building nuclear energy is at least four and a half times more expensive than replacing coal with renewable energy backed by storage.

We need to have a debate with all the facts outlined clearly. Very few Aussies would back a nuclear pathway if they knew it would mean the lights may go out and their power bills will definitely go up. We're practical people and this is an impractical solution.

I've learnt a lot since University and it's time for the Federal Coalition to grow up too.

Stephanie Gray
Senior Campaigner at Queensland Conservation Council

Stephanie has worked in climate and energy for several years, and has a background in science communication with a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Writing and Journalism. Having worked at Solar Citizens for six years, Stephanie has an in-depth knowledge of Australia's electricity system, rooftop solar and distributed energy.

Banner: Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in England, announced in 2005 and estimated for completion in 2026