Conservative push for nuclear power will drive a wedge into the Coalition

The NSW Parliament’s State Development Committee has released its report into nuclear power. In a rare show of unity, conservative committee members held together, with Liberals, Nationals, Shooters Fishers and Farmers, and Paulina Hanson’s One Nation all recommending repeal of state laws banning uranium mining and nuclear power. But that unity is unlikely to last. Comments by Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Energy Minister Matt Kean suggest they oppose the push to repeal legislation banning nuclear power.

Elsewhere, deep rifts are evident within the Coalition. The SA Liberal government’s submission to a 2019 federal nuclear inquiry opposed the pursuit of nuclear power, as did the Tasmanian Liberal government’s submission and even that of the Queensland Liberal-National Party.

The federal government said it would not repeal laws banning nuclear power even before it established the nuclear inquiry. The majority report of the inquiry recommended a partial repeal of the bans ‒ retaining the ban against large, conventional reactors but permitting the development of non-existent ‘Generation IV’ reactor concepts ‒ but that recommendation is unlikely to be adopted by the Morrison government.

The prospects for Generation IV concepts ‒ such as thorium or fusion ‒ were studied by the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission. The Commission concluded in its 2016 report that Generation IV concepts are unlikely to be feasible or viable in the foreseeable future, and carry a high commercial and technical risk.

For both conventional and Generation IV nuclear power, cost is the main sticking point ‒ even for conservatives. “I don’t sign up on anything if I can’t look Australians in the eye and say how much it will cost,” Prime Minister Morrison recently said.

There are many examples of shocking cost overruns overseas. The cost of the two reactors under construction in the US state of Georgia has doubled and now stands at A$20.4‒22.6 billion per reactor. In 2006, Westinghouse said it could build a reactor for as little as A$2.1 billion ‒ 10 times lower than the current estimate.

The only other reactor construction project in the US, a twin-reactor project in South Carolina, was abandoned in 2017 after the expenditure of at least A$13.4 billion. Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy soon after, almost bankrupting its parent company Toshiba in the process.

The cost of the only reactor under construction in France has nearly quadrupled and now stands at A$20.0 billion. The cost of the only reactor under construction in Finland has nearly quadrupled and now stands at A$17.7 billion. The projects in France and Finland are both 10 years behind schedule, and still incomplete.

The cost of the four reactors under construction in the United Arab Emirates has increased from A$7.5 billion per reactor to A$10‒12 billion per reactor. South Korea ‒ which is supplying the UAE reactors ‒ is held out to be a model for the global nuclear industry. But South Korea is slowly phasing out its nuclear reactors, its nuclear industry is riddled with corruption (the courts have dispensed a cumulative 253 years of jail time to 68 offenders), and its business model clearly sacrifices safety in order to improve economics.

In the UK, the estimated cost of the only two reactors under construction is A$25.9 billion per reactor. In the mid-2000s, the estimated cost was almost seven times lower. The UK National Audit Office estimates that taxpayer subsidies for the project will amount to A$58 billion, despite earlier government promises that no taxpayer subsidies would be made available.

The Australian debate should be seen in the context of the culture wars, not the energy debate. With few exceptions, pro-nuclear conservatives don’t believe in climate science, they support subsidised fossil fuel plants, and they vigorously oppose renewables. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull describes nuclear power as the “loopy current fad … which is the current weapon of mass distraction for the backbench”.

Pro-nuclear conservatives hope to split the Labor Party and environmentalists on nuclear power, but they are only dividing themselves. They should take a history lesson. The Howard government’s promotion of nuclear power was alive in the 2007 election campaign, but the policy did nothing to divide the Labor Party or the environment movement.

On the contrary, it divided the Coalition, with at least 22 Coalition candidates publicly distancing themselves from the government’s promotion of nuclear power during the 2007 election campaign. The policy of promoting nuclear power was seen to be a liability and it was ditched immediately after the election.

A December 2019 report by CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator finds that construction costs for nuclear reactors are 2‒8 times higher than costs for wind or solar. Costs per unit of energy produced are 2‒3 times greater for nuclear compared to wind or solar including either two hours of battery storage or six hours of pumped hydro energy storage.

Australia can do better than fuel higher carbon emissions and unnecessary radioactive risk. We need to embrace the fastest growing global energy sector and become a driver of clean energy thinking and technology and a world leader in renewable energy technology. Our shared energy future is renewable, not radioactive.

Dr. Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and editor of the World Information Service on Energy’s Nuclear Monitor newsletter.