Unsubstantiated claims of nuclear energy’s worth distracts from the urgency to act now on climate crisis
The vague, ideological push for nuclear energy backed by the Coalition and News Corp and given legitimacy this week on the ABC’s Q+A should be treated as what it is: the latest step in a decades-long campaign of delay and denial on the climate crisis.
Nuclear energy likely has a role to play in the global shift to zero-emissions energy in places that already use it or that have few other options. As with other technology, its role may grow or recede over time as the world moves. This stuff is going to change.
But no case has been made to support claims it has a place in the rapid transition under way in Australia. The reason for this is pretty straightforward: the technology that is being spruiked – small modular reactors (SMRs) – doesn’t exist. Not meaningfully.
That alone tells you that, with few exceptions, the current wave of nuclear boosterism is at its heart an anti-renewable energy campaign.
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It is based on an arrogant and – despite the reams of column inches given over to it – unsubstantiated rejection of the detailed evidence from the Australian Energy Market Operator (and plenty of others) that solar, wind, hydro, batteries and other “firming” support can provide a reliable, affordable, low-emissions electricity supply.
Coincidentally or otherwise, many prominent members of the pro-nuclear and anti-renewable energy campaign dismiss climate science. Some do it directly. Others do it indirectly by arguing there is no urgency to act.
The primary sources of this climate rejection are the federal Coalition, the Australian newspaper and the misinformation sewer of Sky News After Dark. The Australian is happy to run unquestioning news stories claiming multibillion-dollar “black holes” in renewable energy plans based on flawed analyses by former mining executives, but then devote pages to tut-tutting over an estimate by Chris Bowen’s energy department that says nuclear energy would be – shock horror – really expensive.
This is, of course, a newspaper that gives more space to contrarian campaigns by individual scientists who claim that the Great Barrier Reef is not under threat and the Bureau of Meteorology’s temperature records cannot be trusted than it does to the overwhelming weight of thousands of peer-reviewed science papers. Considered and balanced scepticism is healthy. The Australian’s coverage of these issues has the rigour of an old bloke shouting in the corner of a pub as last drinks are served.
The Coalition’s position on nuclear energy is a little more slippery. In its limited defence, we’re only 16 months on from the last election and it’s reasonable that it doesn’t yet have a developed energy policy. But the language it uses is not that of a party gently exploring an idea. Peter Dutton has asserted that Australia could build nuclear plants, which are banned here, on existing coal-fired plants.
The Coalition considered, and rejected, abolishing the nuclear ban while it was in power for nearly nine years. Then, the party stuck with its status quo on climate, including hyping a subsidised “gas-fired recovery” that never happened. Now, Dutton and Ted O’Brien, the energy and climate spokesperson, speak of nuclear as the obvious solution and mock those who back the rollout of renewable energy and transmission lines.
On Q+A, O’Brien said the cost of introducing nuclear power in Australia “depends on which way you model it”, which is certainly true, but doesn’t take us very far.
Bowen’s back-of-envelope claim is that it could cost $387bn to replace every Australian coal plant with nuclear SMRs – a step that, at this stage, the Coalition has not proposed. O’Brien’s response was to cite the nuclear-heavy Canadian province of Ontario as an example of a power grid that is much cleaner and cheaper than here.
This was a red herring. The Ontario system runs on old, large-scale nuclear technology that nobody is proposing for Australia. It has a different cost profile, has been heavily subsidised and a new plant has not been completed for 30 years.
A true comparison would involve looking at the cost of SMRs today and considering what it would cost to start an industry in Australia.
The CSIRO, which has looked at the evidence, concluded this is near impossible due to a lack of robust data. It says there are only two known SMRs in operation – one in Russia (on a barge) and one in China. Both suffered the cost blowouts and delays that have become common with nuclear projects.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there are more than 80 other SMR designs in development, only some of which would be used for electricity generation if successful. But it says their economic competitiveness is “still to be proven in practice”.
It is likely to be years before that picture becomes any clearer, and even then it will be on a tiny scale. Ontario hopes to have an SMR online in 2028 and three more by the mid-2030s. O’Brien has highlighted a plan by the Bill Gates-backed company TerraPower to build a demonstration SMR in Wyoming. It has a budget of about $6bn for a plant with about a quarter the capacity of an Australian coal generator, and construction has been delayed. The company hopes it will be running by late 2029.
We should hope some of these work. While concerns about nuclear waste remain real, the world needs all available technology to get off fossil fuels.
But the idea Australia should wait for an unproven technology to possibly arrive when it already has extraordinary clean energy resources at its disposal defies all logic.
There is a genuine opportunity cost here. Time focused on the nuclear sideshow is playing into the delay game. I’m giving it succour just by writing this column.
Meanwhile, the world is in the grip of the hottest year on record. The fire season is under way in mid-September. Antarctic sea ice is at a record low level. Credible bodies such as the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering now argue the country should be aiming to be net zero by 2035 – a date by which, if things go really well, just a small handful of SMRs may be in operation.
The transition away from fossil fuels is genuinely challenging. There are huge policy and social licence issues that need to be navigated so the rollout of renewable energy can accelerate. Emissions from transport, major industry and agriculture are not coming down. We barely talk about what adapting to the changes under way will mean.
But solutions are available. Imagine what might be possible if the political energy dedicated to the nuclear energy furphy went into developing those.
Adam Morton is Guardian Australia’s climate and environment editor