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Nuclear power exits Australia's energy debate, enters culture wars

Nuclear has no place in the future

What do these politicians and ex-politicians have in common: Clive Palmer, Tony Abbott, Cory Bernardi, Barnaby Joyce, Mark Latham, Jim Molan, Craig Kelly, Eric Abetz, and David Leyonhjelm?

Yes, they're all men, and all so far to the right of the political spectrum that right-wing ideologues think they are right-wing ideologues.

And they all support nuclear power. To the far-right, pro-nuclear luminaries listed above we could add the right-wing of the right-wing National Party (pretty much all of them), the Minerals Council of Australia (who lobby furiously for clean nuclear and clean coal), the Business Council of Australia, media shock-jocks Alan Jones and Peta Credlin (and others), the Murdoch media (especially The Australian newspaper), the Citizens Electoral Council, and the Institute of Public Affairs and its front group the Australian Environment Foundation.

It's no surprise that the far-right supports nuclear power (if only because the 'green left' opposes it). But in Australia, support for nuclear power is increasingly marginalised to the far-right. Indeed support for nuclear power has become a sign of tribal loyalty: you support nuclear power (and coal) or you're a cultural Marxist, and you oppose renewables and climate change action or you're a cultural Marxist.

Support for nuclear power in Australia has ebbed in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, catastrophic costs overruns on reactor projects, and the falling costs of renewables. Dr Ziggy Switkowski used to be nuclear power's head cheerleader in Australia and he led the Howard government's review of nuclear power in 2006. But he said last year that "the window for gigawatt-scale nuclear has closed" and that nuclear power is no longer cheaper than renewables with costs rapidly shifting in favour of renewables.

Peter Farley, a fellow of the Australian Institution of Engineers, wrote in RenewEconomy earlier this year: "As for nuclear the 2,200 MW Plant Vogtle [in the US] is costing US$25 billion plus financing costs, insurance and long term waste storage. ... For the full cost of US$30 billion, we could build 7,000 MW of wind, 7,000 MW of tracking solar, 10,000 MW of rooftop solar, 5,000MW of pumped hydro and 5,000 MW of batteries. ... That is why nuclear is irrelevant in Australia. It has nothing to do with greenies, it's just about cost and reliability."

In January, the Climate Council ‒ comprising Australia's leading climate scientists and other policy experts ‒ issued a policy statement concluding that nuclear power plants "are not appropriate for Australia – and probably never will be". The statement continued: "Nuclear power stations are highly controversial, can't be built under existing law in any Australian state or territory, are a more expensive source of power than renewable energy, and present significant challenges in terms of the storage and transport of nuclear waste, and use of water".

Nuclear costs increase four-fold, seven-fold, ten-fold

The 2006 Switkowski report estimated the cost of electricity from new reactors at A$40–65 per megawatt-hour (MWh). That's roughly one-quarter of current estimates. Lazard's November 2018 report on levelized costs of electricity gives these figures:

  • New nuclear: A$161‒271 / MWh (US$112‒189)
  • Wind: A$42‒80 / MWh (US$29‒56)
  • Utility-scale solar: A$52‒66 / MWh (US$36‒46)
  • Natural-gas combined-cycle: A$59‒106 / MWh (US$41‒74)

In 2009, Switkowski said that the construction cost of a 1,000 MW power reactor Australia would be A$4‒6 billion. Again, that's about one-quarter of all the real-world experience over the past decade in western Europe (and Scandinavia) and north America, with cost estimates of reactors under construction ranging from A$1424 billion.

The V.C. Summer project in South Carolina (two AP1000 reactors) was abandoned after the expenditure of at least A$12.9 billion. The project was initially estimated to cost A$14.1 billion; when it was abandoned, the estimate was around A$36 billion. Largely as a result of the V.C. Summer disaster, Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy and its parent company Toshiba almost went bankrupt as well.

The cost estimate for the Vogtle project in US state of Georgia (two AP1000 reactors) has doubled to A$38.8‒43.2+ billion and will increase further, and the project only survives because of multi-billion-dollar government bailouts. In 2006, Westinghouse said it could build an AP1000 reactor for as little as A$2.0 billion ‒ that's 10 times lower than the current estimate for Vogtle.

In the UK, three of six proposed reactor projects have been abandoned (Moorside, Wylfa, Oldbury), two remain in limbo (Sizewell and Bradwell) and Hinkley Point C is at the early stages of construction. The estimated combined cost of the two EPR reactors at Hinkley Point, including finance costs, is A$48.7 billion (£26.7 billion  the EU's 2014 estimate of £24.5 billion plus a £2.2 billion increase announced in July 2017). A decade ago, the estimated construction cost for one EPR reactor in the UK was almost seven times lower at A$3.7 billion.

The UK National Audit Office estimates that taxpayer subsidies for Hinkley Point ‒ primarily in the form of a guaranteed payment of A$169 / MWh, indexed for inflation, for 35 years ‒ will amount to A$55 billion, while other credible estimates put the figure as high as A$91 billion.

Hitachi abandoned the Wylfa project in Wales after the estimated cost of the twin-reactor project had risen from A$26.4 billion to A$39.7 billion. Hitachi abandoned the project despite offers from the UK government to take a one third equity stake in the project; to consider providing all of the required debt financing; and to consider providing a guarantee of a minimum payment per unit of electricity (expected to be about A$137 / MWh).

In France, one EPR reactor is under construction at Flamanville. It is seven years behind schedule (and counting) and the estimated cost of A$17.7 billion is more than three times the original estimate of A$5.4 billion.

In Finland, one EPR reactor is under construction. It is 10 years behind schedule (and counting) and the estimated cost of A$13.8 billion is nearly three times the original A$4.9 billion estimate. The A$13.8 billion figure was Areva's estimate in 2012; true costs have likely increased.

Nuclear exits Australia's energy debate, enters culture wars

The far-right won't let facts get in the way of their promotion of nuclear power. NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro claims that nuclear power would probably be the cheapest power source for the average Australian household and is "guaranteed" to lower power bills. The claim by the Institute of Public Affairs that 10 power reactors could be built for A$60 billion is out by A$100 billion or so. Jim Molan claims nuclear power is cheap and the cost is comparable to coal. Clive Palmer claims that nuclear power is cheap and that the federal government should fund the construction of a nuclear power plant.

The far-right repeatedly claim that 'small modular reactors' (SMRs) will come to the nuclear industry's rescue. But real-world experience with SMRs under construction suggests they will be hideously expensive. According to a December 2018 report by the CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator, the cost of power from SMRs would need to more than halve to be competitive with wind and solar PV even with some storage costs included (two hours of battery storage or six hours of pumped hydro storage).

Tony Abbott's rationale for supporting nuclear power ‒ and repealing Howard-era legislation banning nuclear power plants ‒ is to "create a contest" with the unions, GetUp, the Greens and the Labor Party. Likewise, he said last year that promoting nuclear power "would generate another fight with Labor and the green left."

Abbott ‒ and some others on the far-right ‒ would undoubtedly oppose nuclear power if Labor and the 'green left' supported it and they would be pointing to the A$14‒24 billion price-tags for new reactors in western Europe and north America.

Abbott seems to have forgotten the experience in John Howard's last term as Prime Minister. Howard became a nuclear power enthusiast in 2005 and the issue was alive in the 2007 election contest. Howard's nuclear promotion did nothing to divide the Labor Party. On the contrary, it divided the Coalition, with at least 22 Coalition candidates publicly distancing themselves from the government's policy during the election campaign. The policy of promoting nuclear power was seen to be a liability and it was ditched immediately after the election.

Lunatics in charge of the asylum

Those of us opposed to nuclear power can take some comfort in its increasing marginalisation to the far-right. But there are far-right-wingers highly placed in the federal government and a number of state governments.

Right-wing National Party MPs are lobbying for a Senate inquiry and for a repeal of the legislation banning nuclear power. According to Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young: "Talk of overturning the ban on nuclear power in Australia is crackpot stuff. Aside from being a dangerous technology, nuclear power is wildly expensive and would take a decade or more to build. It would be a funny joke if it wasn't so embarrassing to have the Nationals, who are in government and who sit around the cabinet table, pushing for this. These people are meant to be in charge, and they're running around like a bunch of lunatic cowboys."

Senator James McGrath claims that many Nationals support nuclear power, hence the push for a Senate inquiry "to make informed decisions rather than allow the loons of Twitter to shout down this important discussion." Speaking of loons, McGrath's performance on ABC's Q&A program in April was likened to a "one way trip to crazy town".

It has the sense of a political set-piece: the far-right wins control of the numbers on a Senate inquiry and the government agrees with its pro-nuclear findings and repeals the legislation banning nuclear power.

But would Prime Minister Scott Morrison agree to repeal the ban given that there is no prospect of nuclear power being a viable option for Australia in the foreseeable future? Surely that would be an own goal, providing ammunition to political opponents and opening up divisions within the Coalition. If Morrison agreed to repeal the ban ‒ and he says the government has no plans to do so ‒ it would presumably only be because he felt constrained to do so by far-right Coalition MPs and by non-government far-right Senators such as Pauline Hanson. (He is also dealing with the far-right push for government funding for a new coal-fired power plant.)

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has the same calculation to make in response to the nuclear power push driven by right-wing Nationals (including Deputy Premier John Barilaro) and by One Nation's Mark Latham (who introduced the Uranium Mining and Nuclear Facilities (Prohibitions) Repeal Bill 2019 to the NSW Parliament in May 2019).


Of course, support for nuclear power in Australia isn't exclusively limited to the far-right, although it is heading that way. A tiny number of self-styled 'pro-nuclear environmentalists' or 'ecomodernists' continue to bang the drum. Ben Heard, for example, continues to voice his support for nuclear power ‒ his advocacy lubricated by secret corporate donations and amplified by the right-wing media and by invitations to any number of nuclear-industry talk-fests.

Heard continues undeterred by the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission's clear acknowledgement that nuclear power is not economically viable in Australia or by its complete rejection of his 'next generation' nuclear fantasies.

But what impact could Heard's nuclear advocacy possibly have in the current context, with fossil fuel interests fighting to protest their patch and to curb the growth of renewables, and with nuclear power being so exorbitantly expensive that isn't part of any serious debate about Australia's energy options? Surely the only effect of nuclear advocacy in the current context is to muddy the debate about transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables and thus to shore up incumbent fossil fuel interests.

Australian economist John Quiggin discussed these issues last year:

"The problem is that nuclear fans like Ben Heard are, in effect, advocates for coal. Their line of argument runs as follows:

(1) A power source with the characteristics of coal-fired electricity (always on) is essential if we are to decarbonise the electricity supply
(2) Renewables can't meet this need
(3) Nuclear power can

"Hence, we must find a way to support nuclear. The problem is that, on any realistic analysis, there's no chance of getting a nuclear plant going in Australia before about 2040. So, the nuclear fans end up supporting the Abbott crew saying that we will have to rely on coal until then. And to make this case, it is necessary to ignore or denounce the many options for an all-renewable electricity supply, including concentrated solar power, large-scale battery storage and vehicle-to-grid options. As a result, would-be green advocates of nuclear power end up reinforcing the arguments of the coal lobby. … In practice, support for nuclear power in Australia is support for coal. Tony Abbott understands this. It's a pity that Ben Heard and others don't."

Dr Jim Green is the editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter and national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia.

This article originally appeared in 13 June 2019 in RenewEconomy.

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