Nuclear circus

Where would you build them?

Nuclear bill shock is a taste of what Australian consumers can expect, if the Coalition’s quixotic policy to build new nuclear generation in this country ever comes to pass. As any expert can tell you, including the CSIRO, nuclear power is one of the most expensive ways to build new electricity generation.

That’s if we can built it. Nearly every new civilian nuclear project in the industrialised world has run into massive cost overruns and crippling delays.

Late in 2023, electricity consumers in the American state of Georgia got some bad news. Their bills would be going up an extra 10%. The reason for the bill shock? Consumers across one of America’s most important states are paying for the cost overruns of two new nuclear power stations at Vogtle.

Despite strong political support and an established US nuclear industry, Vogtle has been a long and expensive journey to new electricity. Vogtle’s new plants were budgeted to cost $US14 billion in 2009 – today it’s up to $35 billion, and the plant’s parent company has gone bankrupt.

The staggering cost blow-outs at Hinkley C in the UK are well known. Currently being built by an experienced French firm EDF, the plant was expected to be finished in 2017 for a cost of £18b. EDF admitted in January that it might not be ready until 2031, and cost up to £35b.

Finland’s Olkiluoto-3 nuclear reactor connected to the power grid for the first time in 2022. It was twelve years late and more than €8 billion over budget. Those costs are being passed on to consumers.

In his budget reply speech this month, Peter Dutton committed to a policy to put “new nuclear technologies on- or near- the brownfield sites of decommissioned or retiring coal-fired power plants using the existing grid.” But the Coalition has presented vanishingly little detail. You can’t point to an actual document anywhere. Supposedly a formal policy is in the works, but it hasn’t been released yet.

Who will build these plants? Dutton and his energy spokesman Ted O’Brien can’t tell us – maybe the South Koreans or the UAE.

What technology will be used? O’Brien is a big fan of so-called “small modular reactors”, but they’re not actually commercially available.

What will happen to the nuclear waste? O’Brien has hinted that we can bury it in the same hole we’re digging for AUKUS.

Most importantly, where will the new plants be built? Dutton won’t say. Apparently, he’ll tell us “very soon”. (There is good news for the constituents of Wannon, however: Dan Tehan has already assured his voters that there won’t be any nukes at Anglesea, or anywhere else in his electorate).

Perhaps the most dishonest aspect of this ‘debate’ has been the Coalition’s near complete silence on nuclear safety. Nukes have partially or completely melted down at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. Safe nuclear power requires extensive engineering and constant regulatory vigilance. But the Libs and Nats have paid essentially zero attention to the industrial and regulatory requirements of starting an entire civilian nuclear industry, from scratch.

Unless, of course, the Coalition’s nuclear ramp-up is not really about energy policy at all – but rather, about positioning the Nationals as anti-wind and anti-solar.

As Sean Kelly pointed out on Insiders at the weekend, Dutton and O’Brien’s nuclear plans are not really about decarbonising Australia’s energy grid. Instead they are about using nuclear as a wedge issue to campaign at the next election.

The focus is really on local NIMBY issues against renewables projects such as power lines and wind farms in regional Australia. We’ve already seen a well-funded astroturf campaign opposing the offshore wind farm at Port Stephens. Laughably, the National’s David Littleproud has been giving interviews to Sky claiming that “wind turbines and solar panels” are “destroying … the natural environment.”

Labor’s Chris Bowen is having a fine old time lampooning the Coalition’s energy policies (which also helps to deflect from Labor’s latest policy to drill gas forever). And there are plenty who agree the Coalition’s nuclear adventure is worthy of ridicule. Malcolm Turnbull, who had his own problems with the Coalition’s backbench when it came to energy policy, has called Dutton’s push for nuclear “bonkers”.

But there is a serious side. On current polling, the Coalition has a genuine chance of winning the next federal election. Australians deserve to know if this means a nuclear future.

Ben Eltham is a writer, journalist, researcher and unionist.

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