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Supporters of nuclear need a reality check: it's staggeringly expensive

Supporters of nuclear need a reality check: it's staggeringly expensive

The NSW Parliament's State Development Committee released its report into nuclear power last week. Conservative committee members recommended repeal of state laws banning uranium mining and nuclear power, while Labor members want to retain the legal bans.

What the conservatives and other supports of nuclear power ignore is that it has priced itself out of the energy debate. Its costs are staggering and the worldwide pattern for the industry is one of stagnation and decline. In the US, the cost of the only two reactors under construction has skyrocketed to between $20.4 billion and $22.6 billion for one reactor. In 2006, Westinghouse said it could build a reactor for 10 times less than that amount.

Another project in the US, a twin-reactor project in South Carolina, was abandoned in 2017 after the expenditure of at least $13.4 billion. Over in New Mexico, the world's only deep underground nuclear waste repository was closed for three years following a chemical explosion in an underground nuclear waste barrel in 2014.

In Britain, the estimated cost of the only two reactors under construction is $25.9 billion reactor each. In the mid-2000s, the estimated cost was almost seven times lower. The British National Audit Office estimates that taxpayer subsidies for the project will amount to $58 billion.

The cost of the only reactors under construction in France and Finland has nearly quadrupled and now stands at $17.7 billion to $20 billion per reactor. Both projects are 10 years behind schedule.

Tomorrow, Japan will commemorate the ninth anniversary of the meltdowns, fires and explosions at the Fukushima nuclear plant. The Japanese government's estimate of clean-up and compensation costs is over $300 billion, and rising.

Insiders and lobbyists freely acknowledge that the nuclear power industry is in crisis and that worldwide decline is certain. But its Australian supporters are unfazed. Their only sideways nod to reality is to argue that even if large, conventional reactors are too expensive, the emerging "small modular reactors" would be a good fit for Australia.

Again, a reality check is in order. A handful of small reactors is under construction but they have been subject to huge cost overruns and delays. William Von Hoene, senior vice-president of Exelon ‒ the largest operator of nuclear power plants in the US ‒ says that no more large reactors will be built in the US and that the cost of small reactors is "prohibitive".

Private sector investment in small reactors is pitiful and the main game is to find governments reckless enough to bet billions of taxpayer dollars on high-risk projects.

Our energy future is renewable, not radioactive. A December 2019 report by CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator concluded that wind and solar power, including two to six hours of storage, is two to three times cheaper than power from small reactors per unit of energy produced. Nuclear lobbyists dispute the construction costs that underpin this estimate but, in fact, they are a neat fit with real-world construction costs (as opposed to self-serving industry speculation). Indeed the CSIRO/AEMO estimate is slightly lower than the average cost of small-reactor projects in China, Russia and Argentina.

NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro claims that Rolls-Royce plans to build 10‒15 small power reactors in Britain by 2029. In fact, Rolls-Royce sharply reduced its small-reactor investment to "a handful of salaries" in 2018 and is threatening to abandon its R&D altogether unless the British government agrees to an outrageous set of demands and subsidies.

There are disturbing connections between small reactor projects and nuclear weapons proliferation. Rolls-Royce provides one example: part of the company's sales pitch to the British government includes the argument that a civil small-reactor industry in the UK "would relieve the Ministry of Defence of the burden of developing and retaining skills and capability" for its weapons program.

The Climate Council, comprising Australia's leading climate scientists and other policy experts, said in a 2019 policy statement that nuclear power is "not appropriate for Australia ‒ and probably never will be".

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia. His PhD thesis in Science and Technology Studies dealt with the debates over the replacement of the Lucas Heights nuclear research reactor.

This article originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald

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