The latest push for nuclear power in Australia came last week in the New South Wales Productivity Commission economic recovery plan “white paper”. The Productivity Commission recommend lifting the ban on nuclear power. The National Branch of the Electrical Trades Union responded in a media release: “Expensive and dangerous: Nuclear doesn’t stack up.” The ETU said the Productivity Commission had lost the plot and criticised their evaluation of the issue and their findings. See summary below.
Also last week, the politically appointed chair of the Climate Change Authority Grant King told the Minerals Council of Australia that there is a “secret society” who have been lobby the government to lift the ban on nuclear power.
This week the Adelaide Advertiser has had another go at putting some spin on nuclear power as a climate solution with yet another poll claiming support for nuclear power in South Australia.
The latest push for nuclear will not be the last as there is a clear ramping up of efforts by nuclear apologists to lift the ban on nuclear power.
Summary of the NSW Productivity Commission’s view and our response (thanks to Dr Jim Green of Friends of the Earth).
NSWPC: While nuclear energy continues to be a significant energy generation source across Europe and Asia, its commercial use poses some issues.
Response: Nuclear power’s contribution to global electricity supply has fallen from a 1996 peak of 17.6% to 10% currently.
NSWPC: The biggest issues arise with large-scale nuclear reactors. High fixed costs and long delivery times mean such reactors tend not to be feasible for private investors.
NSWPC: Existing nuclear reactors have been delivered either by state-owned or regulated monopolies, with consumers and taxpayers shouldering some of the risk. Low-cost renewables now pose an additional risk to the economics of large reactors.
Response: The Productivity Commission report notes (p.221) that electricity produced by SMRs would be far more expensive than renewables. 5‒6 TIMES MORE EXPENSIVE!
The Minerals Council of Australia says that there will be no market for SMRs above a cost of A$60‒80/MWh. The figure relied on in the Productivity Commission report (sourced from the CSIRO and Australian Energy Market Operator) is ~A$300/MWh.
NSWPC: Prospects are better, however, for smaller nuclear generators that can firm energy systems and support overall security.
Response: The prospects for SMRs are poor, hence the paucity of investment and the paucity of SMR construction projects. Expert opinion is highly sceptical as evidenced by a 2017 Lloyd’s Register report based on the insights of almost 600 professionals and experts from utilities, distributors, operators and equipment manufacturers … they predict that SMRs have a “low likelihood of eventual take-up, and will have a minimal impact when they do arrive”.
Likewise, a 2014 report produced by Nuclear Energy Insider, drawing on interviews with more than 50 “leading specialists and decision makers”, noted a “pervasive sense of pessimism” resulting from abandoned and scaled-back SMR programs. Dr. Ziggy Switkowski ‒ who headed the Howard Government’s nuclear review in 2006 ‒ noted in 2019 that “nobody’s putting their money up” to build SMRs and “it is largely a debate for intellects and advocates because neither generators nor investors are interested because of the risk.”
NSWPC: Proponents say: Their modularity generates economies of scale, with pre-fabrication of individual components at specialist facilities.
Response: Diseconomies of scale are an inevitable consequence of scaling down, hence the high cost of the small number of SMR construction projects, and hence the paucity of investment.
NSWPC: They (SMRs) are less risky in the face of earthquakes and floods and can incorporate contemporary fail-safe mechanisms that largely eliminate potential for catastrophic failure.
Response: This is industry propaganda which has no basis in reality. See: SMR safety issues.
NSWPC: Their reduced consumption of water for cooling avoids the requirement to build near large water sources, which can be flood prone.
Response: There is no reason why water consumption (per unit of energy produced) would be lower for SMRs compared to large reactors.
NSWPC: This technology is currently being developed in the United States, where NuScale Power expects to have its first small modular reactor operating by 2026
Response: NuScale does NOT expect to have its first SMR operating by 2026 – the date has been repeatedly pushed back. NuScale was founded in 2007 yet still hasn’t raised the funds to build its first reactor. Construction could not proceed in the absence of massive taxpayer subsidies. A WSP / Parsons Brinckerhoff study commissioned by the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission estimated a cost of A$225 / MWh for NuScale power. The Minerals Council of Australia acknowledges that there will be no market for SMRs above a cost of A$60‒80/MWh.
NSWPC: A further option for firming capacity is small-scale nuclear reactors, an emerging form of baseload generation.
Response: No existing SMRs have firming capacity.
NSWPC: RECOMMENDATION 5.12. LIFTING THE BAN ON NUCLEAR ELECTRICITY GENERATION: Propose the national ban on nuclear generation be lifted for small modular reactors that satisfy safety conditions
Response: This is an irresponsible recommendation based on a superficial analysis.