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Flirting With Nuclear Energy Down Under

It was a policy that was bound to send a shiver through the policymaking community. The issue of nuclear energy in Australia has always been a contentious one. Currently, the country hosts a modest nuclear industry, centred on the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), nuclear medicine and laboratory products. But even this has created headaches in terms of long-term storage of waste, plagued by successful legal challenges from communities and First Nation groups. The advent of AUKUS, with its inane yet provocative promise of nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy, adds yet another, complicating dimension to this fact. Without a clear idea of a site, a vital part of the nuclear dilemma remains unresolved.

Broadly speaking, the nuclear issue, in manifold manifestations, has never entirely disappeared from the periphery of Australian policy. The fact that Australia became a primary testing ground for Britain’s nuclear weapons program was hardly something that would have left Canberra uninterested in acquiring some nuclear option. Options were considered, be they in the realm of a future weapons capability, or energy generation.

In a June 29, 1961 letter from Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies to his counterpart in the UK, Harold Macmillan, concerns over the impediments imposed by a potential treaty that would impose limitations on countries the subject of nuclear testing were candidly expressed. Were that treaty to go ahead, it “could prove a serious limitation on the range of decisions open to a future Australian Government in that it could effectively preclude or at least impose a very substantial handicap on Australia’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.”

Menzies put forth a suggestion that was ultimately never pursued – at least officially. An arrangement deemed “more practical,” suggested the Australian PM, might involve “the supply of ready-made weapons” at the conclusion of such a treaty.

A sore point here were efforts by the Soviets to insist that countries such as Australia be banned from pursuing their own nuclear program. Menzies therefore wished Macmillan “to accord full recognition of the potentially serious security situation in which Australia could find herself placed as a result of having accommodated United Kingdom testing.”

Australia eventually abandoned its nuclear weapons ambitions with the ratification of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in February 1970, preferring, instead, the nuclear umbrella of extended deterrence offered by the United States. (The nature of that deterrence has always seemed spectacularly hollow.) Domestically, nuclear technology would be sparingly embraced. Nuclear power stations, however, were banned in every state and territory, a policy left unchallenged by a number of parliamentary inquiries.

The quest of meeting emissions reduction targets during the transition to the goal of net zero was bound to refocus interest on the nuclear power issue. The Liberal-National opposition is keen to put the issue of nuclear power back on the books. It is a dream that may never see the light of day, given, according to the chief government scientific body, the CSIRO, its uncompetitive nature and the absence of “the relevant frameworks in place for its consideration and operation within the timeframe required.”

Australian politicians have often faced, even when flirting with the proposition of adopting nuclear power, firm rebuke. South Australian Premier Malinauskas gave us one example in initially expressing the view late last year that “the ideological opposition that exists in some quarters to nuclear power is ill-founded.” It did not take him long to tell the ABC’s 7.30 program that he did not wish “to suggest that nuclear should be part of the mix in our nation.” Australia had to “acknowledge that nuclear power would make energy more expensive in our nation & [we should] put it to one side, rather than having a culture war about nuclear power.”

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has been by far the boldest, pitching for a gentler exit from the fossil-fuel powered nirvana Australia has occupied for decades. Australia, he is adamant, should join “the international nuclear energy renaissance.” Of particular interest to him is the use of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), which might be purposefully built on coal generator cites as part of the general energy package alongside renewables. SMRs, as Joanne Liou of the International Atomic Energy Agency explains, “are advanced nuclear reactors that have a power capacity of up to 300 Mw(e) per unit, which is about one-third of the generating capacity of traditional nuclear power reactors.”

The heralded advantages of such devices, at least as advertised by its misguided proponents, lie in their size – being small and modular, ease of manufacture, shipping and installation. They also offer, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, “savings in cost and construction time, and they can be deployed incrementally to match increasing energy demand.”

For all these benefits, the cold reality of SMR designs is how far they have yet to go before becoming viable. Four SMRs are currently in operation, though these, according to Friends of the Earth Australia’s lead national nuclear campaigner, Jim Green, hardly meet the “modular definition” in terms of serial factory production of components relevant to such devices.

Russia and China, despite hosting such microreactors, have faced considerable problems with cost blowouts and delays, the very things that SMRs are meant to avoid. Oregon-based NuScale has tried to convince and gull potential patrons that its small reactor projects will take off, though the audience for its chief executive John Hopkins is primarily limited to the Coalition and NewsCorp stable. The company’s own cost estimates for energy generation, despite heavy government subsidies, have not made SMR adoption in the United States, let alone Australia, viable.

In his second budget reply speech in May, Dutton showed little sign of being briefed on these problems, stating that “any sensible government [in the 21st century] must consider small modular nuclear as part of the energy mix.” Labor’s policies on climate change had resulted in placing Australia “on the wrong energy path.”

Such views have not impressed the Albanese Government. Energy Minister Chris Bowen insists that counterfeit claims are being peddled on the issue of the role played by nuclear energy in Canada along with false distinctions between the costs of nuclear power and renewable energy.

“If they are serious about proposing a nuclear solution for Australia, the simplistic bumper stickers and populist echo chamber has to come to an end. Show the Australian people your verified nuclear costings and your detailed plans about where the nuclear power plants will go.”

Such verification will be a tall order indeed. As the CSIRO concedes, “Without more real-world data for SMRs demonstrating that nuclear can be economically viable, the debate will likely continue to be dominated by opinion and conflicting social values rather than a discussion on the underlying assumptions.”

 

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15 comments

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  1. andyfiftysix

    its all about policy differentiation.

    Just like NBN. Fibre should have been the way to go but nooooo, “we can do it cheaper and you dont need more than 20mb/s download speeds”………which fuckwits took that coolaide?

    So just like that, they think they can make it popular……..talk about hubris. They screwed up the referndum with negativety and dont see a problem with making a deeply unpopular form of energy a policy. But most importantly they havent got a costing nor a time frame nor an industry ready to go.

    Nuclear is dead man walking technology. Its way past its prime and in steady decline. Its just too expensive compared to renewables. Which suggests to me, they are willing to sacrifice the country to meet their ideological agenda……..again

  2. Kerri

    Only an uneducated fool would seriously consider nuclear power.
    Oh wait!!

  3. Douglas Pritchard

    I think I am right in saying that radioactive poisoning is not the finish that most of us would enjoy?
    So disposal in a responsible way should be an important consideration.
    For instance U- 235 has a “half life” of 700 million years. Thats just the HALF life of sending out radioactive influence.
    Lets say you could devise a mechanical system to usefully, and responsibly, use it to make energy for a few thousand years without some catastrophic failure, then you store it away from humans.
    Well then lets do it, if those conditions are met.
    However 3 nuclear submarines are suddenly thrust upon us, but in this case disposal is easy.
    They are weapons of war and will therefore cease to be considered once they end their days in 50 fathoms of sea water somewhere to contaminate what is left of humanity.

  4. B Sullivan

    Always left out of the discussion on nuclear power, even though the Fox Royal Commission did mention it ages ago, is the issue of terrorism that the nuclear industry is not unlikely to attract. The report recognised that the steps that would have to be taken to safe guard society from this terrorist threat could impose severe restrictions to the liberty of citizens. Think Patriots Act.

    Since then we have even had state sponsored terrorism from the US with its pre-implanted computer code that allowed it to make an Iranian nuclear power plant malfunction, and we also have witnessed but ignored Ukraine’s deliberate attacks on a Russian captured and controlled nuclear power plant.

    Also we’ve seen the product of nuclear power, depleted plutonium, used as ammunition and recklessly spread all over Iraq and Ukraine, again with the approval of the USA.

    Uranium is, like the fossil fuels, not an unlimited commodity, and wasting it on Earth will deprive future explorers of using it to travel to remote space, out where solar power is no longer an option.

    We should conserve what we’ve got, and use the more sensible renewables which are all that we need.

  5. Canguro

    Bumpkins like Dutton et al who articulate their brain farts without the benefit of a wider understanding of the matter on which they speak will forever only serve to increase confusion and controversy. It’s paradoxical that in these times of great need for nuanced comprehension of the challenges faced by this and other societies that we are faced with political players and their media supporters who by some mysterious manner have arrived at public platforms that licence them to spruik their ignorance.

    In an ideal world -hah! – we would defer to the model proposed by Plato close to 2,300 years ago with his preference for philosopher kings; he is reported to have noted that “Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, . . . cities will never have rest from their evils . . . .”

    The unending conflict between nations and states, along with the disastrous outcomes of manifold political and economic decisions that have characterised the history of mankind since that time would seem to attest to the wisdom of his words.

  6. leefe

    Quite apart from everything else, nuclear is not financially competitive against truly sustainable methods and has far too long a lead time to be practical. This country is perfectly placed to focus on wind and solar as our primary generators.

  7. Stir it up

    Bowen is right to rebut with practicalities. I don’t recall LNP agitating for nuclear as a step in the phase out of fossil fuels in their tenure…. Gas was the go to. Admittedly, Now AUKUS and the headaches that go with how to reconcile this with the budget bottom line (we don’t produce the fuel required to run the subs, so will have to source it elsewhere, at what cost?), plus the question of waste disposal, not to mention the nuclear nonproliferation treaties and our proximity to NZ who have a very sound and specific stance on the subject,.. to be fair, seeing what the new NZ coalition elected has put forth as their forward plan is a little “Duts light”. They even sport the same reflective pate. Scary!

    Of course, even a spoon can be a weapon in the right hands…

    But I digress…. The LNP’s sudden epiphany with regard to shift away from fossil fuels (did they finally outsource to someone who can read the room?) is interesting, and the timing is just… pure coincidence, right?

  8. wam

    Put the dump in dutton’s ejectorate and watch him squeal or barnaby???
    Fusion would solve everything???
    ps
    iran with the bomb could be an ending???

  9. New England Cocky

    @andyfiftysix: You must be a thinking person to identify the abysmal RAbbott NBN policy that has set Australia back into the Internet dark ages, from where it is costing more to escape than the total original FTTP proposal. Did Murdoch Media monopoly benefit from this COALition shooting themselves in both feet decision??

    @ kerri: Is it true that a pre-requisite for pre-selection in the LIARBRAL$ party is being able to easily demonstrate an inability to understand simple mathematics, an inability to objectively assess a proposal plus a willingness to ” be a good little person” and follow the orders from the unelected political hacks who control the pre-selection process and future promotions within any government?

    @ B Sullivan; A very sound comment.

    @ wam: Keep your dirty spent nuclear rods in your own electorate. We have sufficient environmental problems here in New England dealing with the rubbish representatives of the NOtional$ that are polluting Australian politics.

    The southern half of Australia lies under weather movement from west to east, so the only safe location for a nuclear dump is Cape Byron NSW, the most easterly location in Australia. But even that is inadequate, given local storms and cyclones.

  10. andyfiftysix

    new england cocky, it didnt take too long. I was an electronics person from my diploma days. Fibre was the holly grail back in 74 when i started tech school. I was so over the moon when labor announced fibre to the home. When Malcolm changed it, my “world” collapsed lol. How could you destroy something so fundamentally fantastic…….the future was obvious in the tech fields…….you want to know why i want to throw some knuckle sandwiches?

    what i have learned is that malcolm was great at making deals and money in a commercial bank but had no fucking clue about anything else.

    Dutton, now he is an all together different fish. Dutton acts like a mobster. No finesse in his arguements but still with a taint of plausible deniability. If you can say the sun is black with a straight face, your half way there in his books.
    “We should have small scale nuclear hubs…” as we tackle climate change because “renewables dont work when the sun dont………”, you heard that BS before, i am sure.
    Its such a blatant bit of lying by ommission. It says the libs are concerned about climate change when every bit of evidence says they dont care. It says they are concerned about the phase out of coal and gas by putting a reactor at every coal station,removing power anxiety. Its saying that they are the money experts and no other authority knows how to add up. Its saying that we can affect the global temperature rises AFTER it goes up cause nuclear aint going to help before 2050-2060 if we start today……obviously crap way to look at it. lets help the patient after he dies.
    The other obvious big black hole in the whole arguement is costs. No private company worth anything will invest in nuclear in this day and age. So the government will have to take it on, including INSURANCE. $350b estimate puts covid funding into perspective. Just look at how the car companies are doing with massive debts…..paralysed by fear.
    Dont let the bastards anywhere near government for the next 100yrs. As Abbott fucked us over for ten years, Dutton would be in that same mould.
    as i have pointed out , its all based on lying by ommission.

  11. Zathras

    The purpose of the so-called nuclear “debate” has always been to delay the implementation of other technologies while continuing to burn fossil fuels.

    It’s simply a delaying tactic and I remember when it was being discussed by John Howard who said he would be happy to have a nuclear reactor in his own electorate (as if that was even feasable). Decades later, nothing has changed.
    As long as it remains even a vague possibility other options seem unimportant.

    In any case, who will fund such a costly project, apart from governments that long ago sold off the generation and distribution networks?

    The SMR option is talked about as a real solution but remains a pipe dream and it would take about 20 such reactors to replace a single coal-fired generator. Distributing SMRs around a large area would require extensive additional wiring, likely even more troublesome than current proposals.

    The opportunity had come and is long gone.

  12. GL

    Talking about SMR’s and radiation and the Spud has reminded me of a Tom Baker Doctor Who, “The Hand of Fear”

    To paraphrase a line, “The Spud must live!” He would thrive if they put up a SMR one side of his crypt, um, house, and the waste site on the other side. On second thought…agh, the horror…a giant mutated potato…the horror.

  13. Ken Fabian

    Does anyone even believe the LNP would heavily subsidise nuclear energy to stop fossil fuels? Seriously? The most expensive, slowest to build option, the most distrusted and most unpopular? How does it mesh with their climate science denial, their no problem = no need position that is the very opposite of the “global warming really is an urgent crisis” needed to win popular support for nuclear, a position that complements absolute support for fossil fuels in perpetuity? What is there for a staunch opponent of zero emissions commitments and renewable energy not to like?

    It is all “Oh, too bad, we have to keep using fossil fuels until Greens support nuclear” – and even then… any excuse to dither and delay – “damned greenies”.

    After more than 3 decades of top level expert advice on climate the LNP TALKS about nuclear whilst denying their own denial of the very problem nuclear is supposed to fix. They still cannot bring themselves to have an actual emissions reductions policy they are committed to – with or without nuclear.

    I think the brazen insincerity of it is the most sincerely held part of LNP efforts to save fossil fuels from global warming using nuclear energy.

    Since when does Green opposition decide what the LNP has for policy? Since when do they abandon what they believe to be best because of anything Greens say or do? It looks to me like they don’t; what they believe in is fossil fuels without climate accountability, to the benefit of big donors/highest bidders, not climate accountability with nuclear – and they have never at any point abandoned a fundamental anti-climate action position.

    Like Rupert’s “no denying climate change around here” (because the climate is always changing, ha, ha) what Australia’s premier Doubt, Deny, Delay party says and what they mean – and what results they seek – is a chasm.

  14. GL

    Ken,

    If the donations were big enough the LNP would subsidise cockroach powered electricity. So, no they wouldn’t hesitate throwing tax payer funding at nuclear.

  15. Ken Fabian

    GL – there is little to no money to be had from nuclear energy, unlike fossil fuels. Who would these self-interested major donors be? I don’t see any.

    Given an ultimatum – decarbonise or perish – and given a choice of what energy options to use most captains of industry will now choose renewables. But if they don’t have to a too significant portion will continue to choose Don’t Have To, ie choose fossil fuels. They are more likely to SAY they want nuclear but they don’t – and are financially savvy as well as informed enough to know better than to blow their money betting on nuclear.

    An LNP vanity Australian nuclear power plant or two, as a raised finger to renewable energy, with diversion of emissions reductions funding away from what works now – renewables – perhaps. But it would be a bit like Morrison’s home cooked Kurri-Kurri gas plant, that may never recover it’s costs and won’t help a transition to zero emissions.

    Pro fossil fuels climate science deniers (sincerely) committing to nuclear to REPLACE fossil fuels? That is NOT the outcome they are seeking. These nuke spruikers are utterly insincere – the insincerity being a feature not a flaw; wouldn’t want the denier voters to think they mean it.

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