Nuclear: a distraction created to put the brakes on renewables
Any guesses on the number of proposals from corporations, States or the Federal government for nuclear energy infrastructure in Australia? Zero.
So where does the recent flood of commentators, media articles, and inquiries into the industry stem from, with Adam Creighton's article in the Australian on 1 February as a recent example? The answer is that while Australia is unlikely to develop a nuclear energy industry, we certainly have a well developed “let’s debate nuclear energy” industry forming with the coming together of the pro-nuclear advocates with the recently converted climate denial sectors.
Pro-nuclear lobbyists and the nuclear industry largely exists for, and is subsidized by, military purposes and organisations. Lucas Heights is Australia’s only reactor, it operates for the medical industry and is relatively contained and not particularly expansionist. The Government’s recent announcement of the AUKUS nuclear powered submarine deal is a new invitation for nuclear technology to Australian shores and demonstrates the Government is willing to risk relationships with nations like France in favour of the US and UK.
Other than the defence deal, the primary reason that the nuclear agenda has been ignited again is a dangerous distraction game. Alongside the u-turn from traditionally conservative political parties and associated media commentators toward net zero, sparking a debate on nuclear creates a vacuum for time and media that distracts from the need for climate policies that we know are critical and within reach, but do not benefit large industry and conservative donors. This debate also allows conservative commentators to placate/transition their right-wing readership as they “trigger woke lefties” by reanimating the nuclear debate.
Like carbon capture and storage for coal or gas power stations, nuclear power is championed by groups that oppose getting on with building the viable emissions reductions technologies that we know work. Instead, they work to prop up aging industries and profits by presenting an unfounded view that the pathway to reducing emissions in the electricity sector is still contested and complicated.
This is demonstrably untrue. Tried and tested solar and wind technology can be deployed now that are not costly or divisive. The pathway for the next 5 years is clear, as the NSW Energy Roadmap demonstrates. While there is still some small uncertainty about the exact technology mix that will take us from a very high penetration of renewables, around 80% to 100%, we know it will be wind and solar with a range of technologies being trialled including batteries, solar thermal, pumped hydro, demand response or hydrogen storage.
The question of whether nuclear power would be part of this mix has been answered, and the answer is no.
This latest attempt by a range of commentators led by the News Ltd papers endorsing nuclear power should be seen for what it is, a ploy to keep the loyalty of their conservative base while pivoting on net zero. It’s impact will be to continue the operation of fossil fuel energy past when it should be replaced, by creating confusion and false contention on the best path to decarbonise our energy sector.
Queensland Conservation Council believes nuclear will never be part of Australia’s net zero emissions future for five reasons:
- People don’t want it
These risks are why more than half of Australians (51%) are opposed to nuclear power in the most recent Lowy Institute poll. This has recently been presented as a reason for investigating renewables by News Ltd, as it represents an 11% decrease in the proportion of Australians opposed to nuclear power since 2011. However, developing a nuclear energy industry in Australia would require strong bipartisan support, not marginal acceptance.
- The safety risks are too high
The nuclear industry has been at pains to reassure the community of its safety after each accident, most recently Fukushima. Although rare, the impacts of such disasters can linger for generations. As well as the health impacts, this makes insuring nuclear power incredibly complex. Around the world, nuclear power has only been developed because of legal arrangements and legislation that limits the liability of the nuclear power generator and leaves the remainder of the bill for the Government to pay. These arrangements would have to be set for Australia, adding to the complexity, time and cost of developing a nuclear industry.
- There is no way to manage the dangerous waste
Australia does not currently have any facilities to deal with nuclear waste created from the small Lucas Heights facility, so ships it overseas for reprocessing into a more stable form. This takes around 6 years and then the waste is shipped back to Australia. After losing a fight from Traditional Owners of Muckaty Station, the returned nuclear waste is still stored at Lucas Heights in Sydney as there is no designated national repository. It seems highly unlikely that there is anywhere in Australia that would accept a nuclear waste site capable of dealing with the exponential increases of waste from electricity generation.
- It takes too long to build nuclear power stations to achieve our carbon reduction emissions
To achieve a 1.5 degree limit on global warming, we need to make substantial emissions cuts in the next decade to achieve a 1.5 degree limit on warming. New nuclear power stations will take at least ten years to build. In the UK, with a well established nuclear industry, Hinkley C nuclear power station is expected to be complete in 2026, ten years after gaining approval and nearly 20 years after it was first flagged as a nuclear power site in 2007. Small Modular Reactors (SMR), touted as quicker and easier to install, have also been plagued by problems in delivery. In Argentina, construction of the CAREM-25 SMR was initially estimated to take three years when construction started in 2013, but it is still not complete.
Given the lack of nuclear industry in Australia, it would take at least 20 years to develop a policy framework for nuclear and complete construction. This puts us well into the 2040s; several decades past where we need to take climate action.
- It costs too much to pursue a nuclear industry and will lock in high electricity prices for decades
CSIRO estimates that small modular nuclear reactors could generate electricity at a cost between $140 - $320/MWh by 2030. The lower end of this scale would only be achieved if other countries made significant investments in bringing down the cost of these technologies. These costs are not forecast to come down between 2030 and 2050. By contrast, Queensland’s average price in 2020-21 was $65/MWh.
Queensland Conservation Council is strongly opposed to nuclear energy development in Australia. It would be costly, risky, unpopular and delay real climate action