Peter Dutton and the Coalition’s call for a nuclear debate

David Havyatt

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton chose an address to the Institute of Public Affairs (the IPA) last week to renew his call to consider nuclear power stations to replace coal power stations.

There are three aspects to this speech; the choice of audience, Dutton’s own conversion, and finally, the substantive issue of whether nuclear should be a part of Australia’s energy system.

The IPA is sometimes described as a Liberal-aligned think tank. Certainly, its origins are with the same groupings from which the Liberal Party emerged; however, it sits firmly in the libertarian rather than classical liberal tradition.

The IPA was a strange place to deliver a lecture about pathways to net zero. It has been a leading campaigner against net zero. It sits firmly in that group of ‘climate deniers’ that asserts that Government agencies have manipulated climate change evidence by falsifying temperature data.

This position is not surprising, given the relationship of the IPA with the Atlas Network. The Atlas Network website used to list all its partner organisations, but now only a map indicates seven in Australia and New Zealand.

Opposition leader Peter Dutton

Funded by fossil fuel corporations and billionaires, the network practices “global climate policy obstruction“. The fossil fuel lobby likes any discussion proposing a delay to the transition, in this case, on the premise of nuclear technology.

That the LNP officially proposes that nuclear should be explored as an option is mighty strange. As Matt Canavan told the Senate, the current prohibition on granting environmental approval to nuclear power stations was a Green amendment on 10 December 1999 to the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety (Consequential Amendments) Bill 1998.

The Howard Government introduced the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Bill 1998 in response to a review of radioactive waste, which, in turn, was a response to Future reaction: the report of the Research Reactor Review.

That review concluded that the disposal of radioactive waste must be addressed before a decision could be made on the future of Australia’s research reactor at Lucas Heights.

Canavan describes the Howard Government’s acquiescence to the amendment as purely pragmatic as the Government sought legislative support to build a new nuclear research reactor. (The OPAL reactor opened in 2007.)

Dee Margetts (WA Greens) suggested the government’s agreement was more than pragmatic. Referring to the proposed ban on a nuclear fuel fabrication plant, a nuclear power plant, an enrichment plant, or a reprocessing facility, she observed:

“Considering the government has made statements on a number of these issues, especially in recent times on waste storage, disposal and so on, then I am sure it would have no problem at all in agreeing to this and indicating quite clearly without any doubt that this is not what this legislation is meant to, or can, be used for in the future.”

Whatever the consideration, the consequence is that the Howard Government agreed to the amendment to make it law.

In the next six years of the Howard Government and nine years of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government, there was no attempt to remove the prohibition.

As recently as May 2022, LNP policy did not include nuclear power, though Dutton left an opening for a subsequent decision in his comments. By June, both Dutton and Nationals leader David Littleproud were calling for a “mature conversation” about the role of nuclear power.

There are many claims and counterclaims about the relative costs of generation using renewables (with storage), fossil fuels and nuclear.

If the consensus is that nuclear is more expensive than fossil fuel generation, then economist John Quiggin suggests that the conversation must include a carbon price. Such a price remains anathema to both sides of politics.

In his speech, Dutton tries to create a perception that Australia’s energy policy is being developed based on ideology, not science, which Dutton calls “renewable zealotry.” However, nuclear options are regularly reviewed by a House of Representatives Committee chaired by now LNP energy spokesman Ted O’Brien.

The committee’s report recommended lifting the moratorium on nuclear energy in relation to Generation III+ and Generation IV nuclear technology, including small modular reactors, subject to the results of a technology assessment and a commitment to community consent as a condition of approval. (The American Academy of Arts and Sciences publication Nuclear Reactors: Generation to Generation describes the generations of nuclear technologies.)

Dutton was also surprisingly coy on the private member’s Bill introduced by Matt Canavan and a posse of Senators who are more usually associated with denying climate change. That Bill has already been referred to a Committee.

The Committee was due to report by 31 March but has thus far received four extensions, with the report now due on 11 August.

Submissions to the inquiry are useful in identifying whether nuclear needs to be part of Australia’s future energy needs. Missing from the submissions is any proponent proposing to develop a nuclear power generating facility anywhere in Australia.

One company, Terrestrial Energy which claims to have had an interest in supporting Australia’s energy transition through nuclear since 2015, notes, “Our company’s ability to commit resources for the purpose of comprehensive business case development and formal engagement with governments and institutions in Australia is unambiguously constrained by legislative prohibitions.”

While the company has been selected to provide its Generation IV nuclear technology for a Repowering Coal project in Canada, it appears its first reactor will not come online till 2030.

A further submission from USNC Australia Pty Ltd extolled the virtues of Modular Micro Reactors developed and deployed by Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation in the USA.

Apart from the fact that the five projects the company lists are yet to be built, the company’s pitch to the Senate committee is that these MMRs are ideal for replacing the 4,000 megawatts provided by large diesel generators.

One of the more curious submissions is by SMR Technology Pty Ltd. Despite its name, SMR Technology is a consultancy, not a technology developer.

Its chair is Robert Pritchard, better known as the executive director of the Energy Policy Institute of Australia.

The Board of the EPIA includes executives from domestic suppliers Alinta Energy and Origin Energy and LNG supplier INPEX.

Aside from these three and Pritchard, Trevor St Baker is the only other board member. He converted ERM Power from a boutique advisory company before turning it into a business market focussed wholesaler, which he subsequently sold to Shell. St Baker is also the founder of SMR Technology Pty Ltd and an investor and founder of battery and fast vehicle charging company Tritium.

To the extent that interest has been expressed, it is entirely in very small reactors (micro) rather than the SMR technology that the Opposition Leader and others tout.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) defines a small reactor as less than 300MW and there are only five operational and four under construction. This creates a fundamental problem for the proposal that SMRs replace retired coal plants.

The big generating units built in and after the 1950s consisted of individual turbines, usually providing 500 to 660MW, and most power plants had multiple turbines (often four). Replacing coal power stations with SMRs doesn’t take just one unit; it would require multiple units.

This itself might not be an issue. Proponents of nuclear keep talking of the need for ‘base load’ power without understanding what this means; the term refers to the lowest load seen in the system.

Because of rooftop solar, there are already parts of the distribution system for which the base load is negative.

The economic problem the coal fleet has faced is that these power stations can’t just start and stop throughout the day; they have to keep generating though not necessarily at full capacity.

They have been burning coal to get zero or negative prices, which is why they are retiring early. The same is true for nuclear plants.

Finally, the important question is where to build them without the prohibition. A weakness of the Canavan Bill is that it only withdraws the prohibition and doesn’t replace it with a fit-for-purpose approval process.

The committee that Ted O’Brien chaired recommended:

The Australian Government, in cooperation with relevant state and territory governments, respect the will of the Australian people by committing to a condition of approval for any nuclear power or nuclear waste disposal facility being the prior informed consent of local impacted communities, obtained following extensive consultation with local residents including local Indigenous peoples.

Community acceptance, or social licence, is already a big issue in the transition. As Energy Minister Chris Bowen told CEDA in May, “When it comes to transmission, social licence is the most important issue we have to face.”

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the minister has now announced a review of community engagement.

However, it isn’t only transmission facing this issue. In a submission on Canavan’s Bill by Voice for Walcha, the case for nuclear was based on the objection to a 750MW wind farm “very close to the Walcha township”.

To the apparent surprise of the group, the Committee invited them to a hearing, where they did get asked the obvious question of whether they would be happy to have a nuclear power station instead of a wind farm. They didn’t answer the question claiming there had not been enough discussion.

Despite all the global discussion, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences publication Nuclear Reactors: Generation to Generation concluded:

Public attitudes will be crucial in determining whether nuclear technologies are part of the portfolio of energy technologies on which the world relies to confront the challenges of the twenty-first century. Two persistent questions are “What is safe enough?” and “What are we going to do about the waste?”

Switching from active to passive safety features is a key component of addressing the safety question. Long-term dry cask storage addresses the second question. However, in the very long-term, we will need to develop and implement an acceptable strategy for the disposal of high-level waste and used nuclear fuel. Thus, for the next few decades, the long-term waste issue will remain a nettlesome problem for nuclear energy.

The choice of audience, the process of the LNP adopting the need to “consider nuclear”, and the disconnect between the imagined need and any real opportunity suggests the LNP isn’t serious about nuclear.

This is just the adoption of yet another diversionary tactic from the fossil fuel-lobby playbook.

David Havyatt is a former telco executive, former adviser to Federal Labor ministers and former advocate on behalf of energy consumers. He is a long term observer of Australian innovation policy.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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