These Are The Problems With Nuclear Energy in Australia

These Are The Problems With Nuclear Energy in Australia

The Federal Opposition was the headline act this week in Australia, announcing a nuclear energy plan in Australia. The idea involves the installation of seven nuclear reactors across the country, with two to be operational in 2035 and 2037. And it’s an easy plan to poke holes in.

No costings have been provided, the owners of several of the nominated power plant sites have not been consulted, and promises of cheaper electricity don’t make sense.

According to UniSA Justice and Society lecturer Dr Adam Simpson, it’s difficult to shake the reality that nuclear is only being spoken about in Australia as a smokescreen policy from the Opposition.

“This is a fantasy policy. The phoney war, where Dutton could make broad generalisations based on disinformation, is now over and the details of his plan will expose it for the farcical policy it is,” Simpson told Gizmodo Australia.

Speaking beyond the plan put forward from the Opposition – would nuclear ever make sense in Australia? And is it worth pursuing when the country has abundant space and opportunity for solar and wind rollouts?

Let’s go through a few points.

The legislative barriers

We wrote an entirely separate article on this earlier in the week, but we’ll give you a quick rundown. Across Australia, there are legislative hurdles that prevent the installation of nuclear power plants at the Federal level under two laws. At the state level, there are bans on such plants in QLD, NSW, and VIC, and bans on transporting nuclear materials in South Australia and Western Australia.

If nuclear were ever to be rolled out to Australia, these laws would need to be changed, and looking at the hardline anti-nuclear stances from the current state governments, this would likely require a change in government. That bit is super important as we start to talk about the time to build a reactor.

The time

The Opposition has earmarked 2035 as the start date of its first reactor, which gives us about 11 years – 10 from the next Federal election, where this nuclear push will be a major policy.

Putting aside the legislative barriers explored in the previous section, the CSIRO, tips that it would take 15 years at least to build the first reactor. A reactor was built in the UAE in a much shorter timeframe of 13 years, but the UAE has a completely different political environment.

This point is merely implied, but should not go without mention in this section, that time matters. The main thrust of doing nuclear is to have a climate-positive energy source, but solar and wind offer a much more time-effective to rollout.

“Later is too late – we need clean energy now to slash climate pollution and keep our kids safe. With no workforce, no industry and no waste facilities, nuclear is a generation away in Australia. Nuclear reactors are a dangerous delay tactic that would mean climate pollution explodes in the next two decades,” Climate Council CEO Amanda McKenzie said.

On top of that, nuclear projects are prone to delays, so even the 15-year target is optimistic. Such delays obviously blow out costs, which could rise by 20 per cent given the extra time. Which is a great way to lead into…

The cost

This is one of the leading problems with nuclear in Australia In CSIRO’s most recent GenCost report, the national science body reported that it would cost at least $8.6 billion to build a 1,000MW nuclear power plant in Australia – but establishing the first plant could go as high as $17 billion.

A 1,000MW solar farm build in Queensland was projected to cost $1.5 billion in 2017, with additional batteries to be installed later. A separate 1,000MW wind farm would cost as much as $2 billion.

And that’s just talking about build costs. The Opposition’s argument revolves around acquiring power plants currently in use or being repurposed; some of which are privately owned. Acquiring those, or working out contracts with those companies, will make things even more costly.

The savings

It’s quite easy to break down the argument that nuclear power will result in cheaper power bills for consumers, which Dutton provided no explanation for this week. Cost estimates from the CSIRO put the bill for nuclear energy in 2030 at between $141-$233/MWh – or between $230-$380 in the case of small modular reactors, which we’ll get to in the next section.

The cost for solar and wind is expected to be between $73 and $128/MWh.

That’s just putting things side-by-side, but the Opposition’s plan is to also use gas power to keep the lights on as nuclear is built out and as coal is phased out – which is also expected to make things even more expensive in the interim.

The ‘SMRs’

Small modular reactors, or SMRs, are smaller-scale nuclear power generators that can generate up to 300MW, with the main thrust of the argument being that they can be deployed at and repurpose coal power plants. The Opposition wants to deploy two of these.

The problem is that SMRs don’t actually exist – at least in a capacity that would be equivalent to an Australian rollout. There was an SMR project being rolled out in the U.S., but cost estimates ballooned out of proportion and it was scrapped. The Opposition actually pointed to this project as a guiding light.

“The simple fact is that commercial SMRs don’t exist. There are zero in operation or even contracted for construction outside Russia and China,” clean energy advocate behind Climate 200 Simon Holmes à Court told The Guardian.

This isn’t a silver bullet argument – all technology requires time and bucketloads of money to be developed – but the deployment of SMRs goes against the actual purpose of them – to have a positive impact on the climate, which we could do so quicker and cheaper with currently existing solar and wind power.


We’re waiting eagerly to see more detail about the Opposition’s nuclear plan. Whether or not he’ll have an answer to all of the problems with nuclear in Australia, we’ll have to wait and see.

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