Nuclear is not the answer to the biggest question

There are plenty of important questions to be asked about the prospect of Australia going nuclear under a Peter Dutton-led Coalition, including a singular, critical one.

First, the non-critical questions. The Coalition says it has costed its seven nuclear plants – some with more than one reactor – but maintains that premature release of the figure would be a distraction from the important issue of “baseload” power.

A distraction it most certainly would be, and for good reason. Rod Sims, former ACCC head and now chair of the energy think-tank The Superpower Institute, said last week the Coalition’s nuclear plan would increase power bills by over $200 a year – “at best”.

He told ABC Radio National that a megawatt-hour of wind and solar energy firmed by a mix of sources including batteries currently costs about $110, but the same from new nuclear plants in Europe and the US is as much as $300. He said that CSIRO’s apparently high capital cost estimate for nuclear was actually “incredibly optimistic” – about half the cost of plants currently being built in Western countries.

Another curly one: in South Australia rooftop solar currently supplies all grid demand, and shortly the same will happen in Western Australia. The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) forecasts that power from rooftop solar will increase from 20 gigawatts to over 70 gigawatts by 2040, when the Coalition expects nuclear plants to come on line.

Sims pointed out that “renewables will always get on to the grid because they come in at a zero price”, meaning that the only way AEMO will be able to accommodate nuclear power will be to shut off renewable energy – “which seems like a really silly thing to do”. Silly, and you’d think electorally suicidal given the number of households now getting paid for their rooftop power.

The Coalition’s “baseload” argument – that nuclear offers constant and uninterrupted supply to keep industry going – is less of an issue where there is a widely distributed renewable network. A reconstructed multi-state power grid will be able to access many energy sources at any given time, eventually including large-scale wind farms out in the restless ocean. 

There’s the question of radioactive waste. Peter Dutton claimed that new-age small modular reactors (SMRs) will produce vastly less waste than today’s reactors. But a 2022 Stanford University study concluded that SMR waste would be at least double that from standard reactors and possibly as much as 30 times greater – a bad sign in a country that can’t even find permanent storage for nuclear medicine waste.

All the above questions pale into insignificance alongside this, the big one:  On the basis of IPCC advice that the world faces catastrophic climate change unless it reduces carbon emissions this decade, what will nuclear do to help?

Answer: it will be a serious obstacle. The Coalition says it’s committed to net-zero emissions by 2050, but from the moment it takes office its funding focus will be on a power source that’s unavailable before 2040. Large-scale renewable rollout –  essential to cutting emissions this decade – will be curtailed and the crucial 2030 interim target will be abandoned. 

The Black Summer fires of 2019-20 and the record-breaking floods that followed  showed what global warming of just 1.2C can do to us. Left as they are, current national policies will see global temperatures rise between 2.3C and 4.5C, most likely around 3.5C. What’s that going to look like on the ground?

In her June Quarterly Essay, Highway to Hell, leading Australian climate scientist Joëlle Gergis reminded us that science expects the Paris Agreement’s danger threshold of 2C to be breached, with “profound and immeasurable” consequences, by the early 2040s – “within the lifetimes of most people alive today”. That’s about when the Coalition’s zero-emissions nuclear is supposed to kick in – sadly too late.

Gergis cited a 2023 Griffith University survey of 4000 Australians indicating that while most of us accept that climate change is real, only 15 per cent consider the problem to be “extremely serious”. Peter Dutton’s Coalition is clearly part of the remaining 85 per cent, but since PM Anthony Albanese and his cabinet continue to support gas and coal exploration, processing and export, should they be there too?

Cracks are appearing in the edifices of authority everywhere – including in the ageing leader of the world’s most powerful democracy – while at the same time humanity, in the words of UN chief Antonio Guterres, is heading for a clifftop with its foot on the accelerator. Democratic leaders seem powerless to lift the foot, while opponents, many of them climate change deniers, bay for their blood. 

Back to the drawing board. Ideas are most welcome.

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