Nuclear is a problem, but climate change is a much bigger one

Along with many of my generation, when conversations turn to matters nuclear I think of shattered cities, dark winters, scarce food, an uncivil, hostile world. That plus nuclear power’s toxic waste and the deadly consequences of a reactor accident.

The world is again in a dangerous place, this time from a heating planet, and circumstances are forcing us to think again. So it’s a relief to see, at long last, all major political players agreeing that climate change is no mere debating topic but something real, with real consequences.

That’s my explanation for the decision by Peter Dutton’s Coalition to support nuclear energy. Faced with the stark reality of a destabilised climate and a population that would never countenance decades of economic contraction to cut demand for energy, it’s simply impossible to leave nuclear out of the mix.

This is not to condemn the Albanese government’s present course. With the window for turning global emissions around now gone, it’s sound policy to go all-out on the free natural energy of wind and solar and a radically upgraded grid able to manage dispersed and fluctuating forms of power generation. 

Dutton knows that opposing rollout of wind and solar would be electoral death. In his statements about nuclear energy he is careful not to couch it as an alternative, but a means of “firming up” renewables – providing a steady power source for when wind and sunshine are not delivering. 

That question around stability of supply remains. Two months ago Dutton told the Institute of Public Affairs that “next generation nuclear technologies” were “the only feasible and proven” means of providing “clean, cost-effective and consistent power.” 

“Factory-built, portable, scalable” nuclear technologies “can be plugged into existing grids and work immediately,” he said. “We could convert or repurpose coal-fired plants and use the transmission connections which already exist on those sites.”

These statements need unpicking. Describing any technology that’s next-generation (by definition, ahead of us) as “feasible and proven” is a stretch. And “plug-in”, the widely-used shorthand for installing such advanced technologies in old coal plants, is grossly over-simplifying a process that is complex and anything but risk-free. 

Dutton seeks to have generators known in nuclear circles as “small modular reactors” (SMRs) installed in Australia’s existing array of coal-fired power plants after they shut down – a process due to be completed before 2050. He also wants micro-modular reactors (MMRs, or “nuclear batteries”) on the table for discussion.

The Coalition didn’t estimate costs of its nuclear option, so climate and energy minister Chris Bowen stepped up. The nuclear option, his department calculated, would cost $25,000 per taxpayer. It would require at least 71 SMRs each generating 200 megawatts and costing $387 billion – $18,167 per kilowatt compared to $1989 for onshore wind and $1058 for solar. 

These numbers may be exaggerations – who would know? – but this story is far from over. Issues over renewable and transmission projects continue to arise, as Greg Barns pointed out in these pages yesterday, and maintaining the level and stability of power supply we’ve become used to may not be met by batteries and pumped hydro. 

With nuclear fusion – in principle both achievable and safe – still many decades away, there is no current way to generate nuclear power safely. Disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima and a chronic global failure to deal permanently with toxic waste have persuaded Labor, and I’d guess most Australians, to rule it out entirely.

The World Nuclear Association promotes nuclear as a safe clean energy option, demonstrably less damaging to human health than fossil fuel plants, with new reactor technologies promising to make them safer again. The WNA’s detailed website describes massive public and private resources pouring into what is very much a going concern in the US, Canada, China, Japan, South Korea, India and Europe.

But budgets are not limitless and money does matter. Embedded in the WNA material on small modular reactors is some cautionary advice from an admiral leading the US mobile reactor program in the 1950s.

Hyman Rickover distinguished “academic” from “practical” reactors. The former, he said, are always simple, small, cheap, light, easy to build, flexible – and non-existent. The latter are being built now, but they’re behind schedule, large, heavy, complicated and very resource-intensive.

For now, Australia is right to put the effort into solar and wind. But the pace of climate change is picking up. If we can’t turn emissions around we face widespread economic collapse and a largely uninhabitable planet within the lifetime of today’s youth. We will need access to all energy options including Peter Dutton’s “next generation” nuclear, and for all its dire associations, Australia has to keep it on the table.

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