Small Nuclear Reactor, Huge Costs

Even by the standards of the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), the new report published by the country's most influential coal lobby on the subject of small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) is jiggery-pokery of the highest order.

Why would a mining industry body promote SMRs? After mining for some years — or at most decades — no company would want to take on the responsibility of decommissioning a nuclear reactor and managing high-level nuclear waste for millennia.

No companies are cited in the report expressing interest in SMRs to power their mining operations.

Perhaps the MCA – which infamously provided the lump of coal for Scott Morrison to wave around in parliament – thinks that promoting nuclear power will slow the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, and believes that it is in the interests of some of its member companies to slow the transition.

If so, the timing of the report isn't great, coming in the same week as the Business Council of Australia's report which argues for a rapid, renewables-led decarbonisation, and Fortescue's announcement that it plans to build the world's largest green energy hydrogen manufacturing facility in Queensland.

Perhaps the MCA is doing the bidding of the (mostly foreign-owned) uranium mining companies operating in Australia? The MCA's CEO Tania Constable said: "Australia should take advantage of growing international interest in nuclear energy and look to expand its already significant uranium sector."

Perhaps … but there's no evidence that the two companies mining uranium in Australia — BHP (Olympic Dam) and Heathgate Resources (Beverley Four Mile) — are lobbying for nuclear power. And Australia's "already significant" uranium industry could hardly be more insignificant — it accounts for about 0.2 percent of Australia's export revenue and about 0.01 percent of all jobs in Australia.

Bob Carr's atomic bombshell

The MCA report also came in the same week as Bob Carr's striking about-face on nuclear power. Having previously supported nuclear power, Carr wrote in The Australian: "In 2010 one enthusiast predicted within 10 years fourth-generation reactors and small modular reactors would be commonplace, including in Australia. None exists, here or abroad."

The MCA report says SMRs are an "ideal fit" for Australia, citing their enhanced safety, lower cost than large-scale nuclear reactors or equivalent energy production methods, and lower waste production than current reactors.

It's all nonsense. The safety claims don't stack up. Nor do the claims about waste. Academic M.V. Ramana notes that "a smaller reactor, at least the water-cooled reactors that are most likely to be built earliest, will produce more, not less, nuclear waste per unit of electricity they generate because of lower efficiencies." And a 2016 European Commission document states: "Due to the loss of economies of scale, the decommissioning and waste management unit costs of SMR will probably be higher than those of a large reactor (some analyses state that between two and three times higher)."

SMRs have a similar capacity to many existing coal and gas-fired power plants in Australia, the MCA report states, so would make an ideal replacement. Back to Bob Carr:

"Where is the shire council putting up its hand to host a nuclear power plant? Harder to find than a sponsor for a high-temperature toxic waste incinerator. Nobody in the Hunter Valley has urged nuclear for the Liddell site, even on the footprint of this coal-fired power plant scheduled to close. And not even invoking the prospect of a small modular reactor that 10 years back was the vanguard of the nuclear renaissance. About to be planted across the Indonesian archipelago and the rest of Asia, we were promised. Today they exist only on the Rolls-Royce drawing boards they have adorned since the 1970s."


The MCA said in June 2020 that SMRs won't find a market unless they can produce power at a cost of A$60-$80 per megawatt hour (MWh). That's a big problem for enthusiasts because there's no chance whatsoever that SMRs will produce power in that cost range.

An analysis by WSP / Parsons Brinckerhoff, prepared for the 2015/16 South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, estimated a cost of A$225 / MWh for a reactor based on the NuScale design, about three times higher than the MCA's target range.

CSIRO estimates SMR power costs at A$258-338 / MWh in 2020 and A$129-336 / MWh in 2030.

Russia's floating nuclear plant is said to be the only operational SMR in the world, although it doesn't fit the 'modular' definition of serial factory production. A 2016 OECD Nuclear Energy Agency report said that electricity produced by the Russian floating plant is expected to cost about US$200 (A$273) / MWh, about four times higher than the target range cited by the MCA and more expensive than power from large reactors (US$129-198 / MWh). Completion of Russia's floating plant was nine years behind schedule and construction costs increased six-fold.

Yet, despite a mountain of evidence that SMRs won't come close to producing power in the A$60-80 / MWh range, the new MCA report asserts that "robust estimates" using "conservative assumptions" suggest that SMRs will produce power at a cost of A$64-77 MWh by 2030.

One wonders who the MCA think they're kidding.

The MCA report was written by Ben Heard, who recently closed his 'Bright New World' nuclear lobby website and now works with Frazer-Nash. Heard promotes Canadian SMR-wannabe Terrestrial Energy in the MCA report but does not disclose his role on the company's advisory board. Heard also contributed two chapters on nuclear power to a 2020 book titled 'An Australian nuclear industry: Starting with submarines'.

First Published In RenewEconomy, 11 Oct 2021,

Dr Jim Green is lead author of a 2019 Nuclear Monitor report on SMRs and national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia.

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