Going nuclear

The Opposition’s push towards nuclear energy is nonsensical – and that’s just the way the fossil fuel lobby wants it

The tedious march towards nuclear energy as an ingrained narrative in Australian politics was rudely interrupted on the weekend by democracy. The exercise in democratic expression at the Dunkley byelection was an irritating disruption to the coal lobby’s Trojan Horse strategy to promote yet-to-be-designed (or proven) nuclear technology as the only way to get to net zero. Instead of capitalising on the investments in renewables and new technologies that Australians have been all too willing to avail themselves of (think solar, think electric cars), the coal lobby wants us all to focus on nuclear energy, for which the technology is, at best, decades off and at worst a figment of Peter Dutton’s imagination.

Fresh out of hiding after the weekend’s byelection defeat, the Opposition leader is set to announce an actual policy in the form of an energy plan, which is likely to feature large-scale nuclear reactors and the nifty small modular reactors (or SMRs). In an attempt to address community fears when it comes to nuclear, Opposition energy spokesperson Ted O’Brien told The Australian: “I wouldn’t touch old Soviet-era nuclear reactors with a barge pole, but new and emerging nuclear technology is something else altogether.”

This seems to be the extent of the Coalition’s vision: non-Soviet-era nuclear reactors and a nuclear technology that doesn’t yet exist anywhere in the world (and is unlikely to play a part in Australia’s energy mix until the 2040s, if at all).

The problem for the Coalition and its fossil fuel backers is that they lost their chance to get on the renewables bandwagon long ago. Consumers are now enlightened and therefore empowered enough to make their own energy choices. Take a stroll through Australia’s suburbs and regions and you will see a proliferation of solar panels and country landscapes dotted with wind farms. Hydro, too, is so built into the nation-building narrative of Australia as to be almost folkloric. From a purely economic viewpoint, nuclear power offers no relief to people’s energy bill woes and the cost-of-living crunch.

On the question of cost, the GenCost Report – a collaboration between the CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator – estimates that the cost by 2030 from a small modular nuclear reactor would be between $200 and $350 per megawatt hour, compared to between $60 and $100 per megawatt hour for wind and solar.

It makes for an easy line of rebuttal for the government, with Treasurer Jim Chalmers telling Sunrise this morning: “If [Peter Dutton] was genuine about wanting cheaper electricity for Australians, he would have voted for our electricity bill rebates, and he wouldn’t be going down this path, which will cost hundreds of billions of dollars, take decades to build and will turn our back as a country on the big renewable energy opportunity before us.”

But the biggest problem for the fossil fuel lobby – besides facts – is the current generation of conservative politicians, who are so far removed from the wants and needs of the Australian electorate as to be ineffective. A case in point is that Dutton thought it was more worth his time to fly across the continent to attend Gina Rinehart’s birthday party for an hour than it was to stand by his own candidates and volunteers on the eve of a crucial byelection.

The Coalition is all too aware that it has a problem being believed when it comes to net zero. “Politically, I’ve acknowledged that we had problems, and that did indeed lead to our political demise,” Opposition foreign affairs spokesperson Simon Birmingham told ABC Melbourne’s Raf Epstein this morning. “In policy terms, if you have a look at Australia’s emissions and how they trend down over that time, indeed we did oversee a period of significant investment in clean energy.”

This far into an election cycle, voters will by now have picked up on the Opposition’s penchant for culture warring. The risk Dutton runs is that his party will start to be seen as captured by vested interests and the pet peeves of billionaires instead of focused on the welfare of the Australian people.

If the “debate” around nuclear energy is all a bit nonsensical, it’s because that’s the way the fossil fuel lobby wants it – it wants a national conversation to distract from the harms of gas and coal, and to try and generate uncertainty about renewables as an investment. It’s all a coal-generated smokescreen.

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