Let’s Talk About Why Nuclear Won’t Work in Australia

Let’s Talk About Why Nuclear Won’t Work in Australia

The CSIRO has just put out the latest draft of its GenCost report, a report that delves into the cost of electricity in Australia and what energy types would work in the Australian market. Over the past years, CSIRO has gotten behind onshore wind and solar as the cheapest energy generation methods, and stresses that these energy sources will be instrumental to the future of Australia’s grid, but nuclear energy is something that the science body has shunned for some time now, and this latest report draft seems pretty definite on why.

In tandem with the release of the draft report, the CSIRO has released a blog post directly addressing why nuclear won’t work down under. Put simply, the CSIRO references the collapse of a Small Modular Reactor (SMR) program in the U.S. in November, the Carbon Free Power Project, where project costs were estimated at 70 per cent above what was initially projected. It’s a pretty good example of why we can’t just simply introduce nuclear in Australia.

“We don’t disagree with the principle of SMRs.They are an attempt to speed up the building process of nuclear plants using standardised components in a modular system, and it may well be possible to achieve cost reductions over time. However, for now, the technology is yet to be deployed commercially,” GenCost author Paul Graham said.

Timeline of nuclear SMR cost estimates (calendar year) and current costs included in each GenCost report (financial year). For further information refer to section 2.4, ‘Update on current costs and timing of nuclear SMR’, in draft GenCost Report 2023-24, page 15. Image: CSIRO

Put simply, it’s far too expensive and takes too long to set up, according to the CSIRO. With the timeline of projects shown above, the CSIRO is confident that nuclear just won’t work as well for Australia right now, or at least it won’t work as well as onshore wind or solar.

Down to the megawatt hour, CSIRO estimates that wind and solar cost $112 per megawatt hour in 2023, and could cost as little as $82 per megawatt hour in 2030.

Conversely, CSIRO expects SMRs to cost $509 per megawatt hour in 2023, decreasing to $282 in 2030. The CSIRO explains how it calculates these costs here, including things like infrastructure and transmission costs (but excluding things like nuclear storage costs and birds striking wind farms).

Putting dollar figures to it, it’s pretty clear, right? That being said, one of the things being widely discussed about SMRs is that they can be deployed strategically at a site where vital energy infrastructure is already present (such as a decommissioned coal mine or substation), and save costs and time by leveraging unused and present tech. However, it’s really not that simple.

“Let’s take the general definition of an SMR being 300 megawatts per unit of output,” Nous Group Principal Richard Bolt told Gizmodo Australia in October (Nous released a great report on making net-zero happen in Australia in July).

“If you take the Erraring coal-fired power station in NSW, that’s about 3,000 megawatts. So, if you did a like-for-like replacement, you’re talking 10 SMRs to replace one power station. That’s not a small undertaking, and the amount of land required for that in that vicinity and the ability to connect it all to the grid would have to be rethought on the basis that you’ve got such a relatively dispersed series of reactors replaced one fairly tightly integrated power station.

“Is that a show-stopper? No, it’s not, but it does add to the complexity of thinking ‘how would I make this happen?’ The other thing to remember is, as we electrify our energy system, and as we move towards net-zero in transport in particular, and as our power demand goes up enormously, meaning you’ll have many more SMRs again required to meet all of that need.”

Keeping in mind that solar and wind farms, if deployed at scale, would have a huge land requirement, that is achievable, but is exceptional when you think about it.

So if we’re confident that nuclear just not going to work for us right now, why are we even talking about it? Obviously, Bolt thinks that there’s a political argument that is inspiring people – adopting nuclear reactors instead of solar and wind due to the lesser impact on the landscape. “I do think the parties that represent those constituencies [in energy generating regions] are looking to nuclear as an easy way out,” Bolt added, saying that the introduction of new energy types is a question of who is going to cop the change and where.

Meanwhile, economist Professor John Quiggin told Gizmodo Australia in September that it’s a very hyped thing, like crypto or AI, and that arguments around nuclear in Australia have been formed from a political place.

“I think the obvious point that people are making is ‘why is Dutton talking about this now? the government was in office for nine years’, because if they started doing something about it in 2013, for example, repealed the ban on nuclear and started establishing an authority, by the time they went out 10 years later, nine years later, then the thing would have been an obvious goal,” Quiggin said.

“It always has to be kept at this stage of ‘why don’t we have the vote?’ because it is just a debating point.”

You can view the GenCost consultation draft here.

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