Explaining Dutton’s dumb nuclear plan

UK’s Hinkley nuclear power station – 17 years and $50 billion over.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s desperate clinging to a nuclear-power policy tells us a great deal about what is wrong with Australian politics today.

Seventy years ago next month, the world’s first nuclear-power station at Obninsk in the Soviet Union was connected to the Moscow grid.

Eleven years later, construction of the Beznau nuclear power plant in Northern Switzerland began. Nearly 60 years later it is the oldest nuclear power station still in use.

Nuclear energy is an old technology and we know a lot about it. Switzerland knows enough about it to ban any more nuclear power plants, on economic, environmental, and safety grounds.

Almost everything we know about nuclear energy and everything we are likely to know tell us that, even for countries that already have the technology, it is the most expensive way to produce electricity.

From the 1950s until just recently, coal was a better option for Australia, but now the climate change imperative and the new renewable technologies tell us there is a better way to go,

No economist or scientist with an ounce of integrity or modest knowledge could support extending coal for a minute longer than necessary or support the nuclear option ever.

Yet why does Dutton cling to it? Ignorance, stupidity or male fides? Or a combination of all three?

The idiocy of nuclear is so obvious that it is boring to recite it. It will take 15 years for a nuclear power station to come on line. Even the Coalition admits to a 10-year build. The cost – between $9 billion and $17 billion – will be vastly higher than coal, hydro, wind or solar.

The task for Australia right not now is to rejig and to add to the poles and wires and  battery back-ups to make renewables work smoothly. White elephant nuclear plants are not the answer. 

They are so bad economically and environmentally that there should be a law against them. And guess what? There is. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 were passed by the Howard Government as a short-term political reassurance to voters.

No Senate would ever allow their repeal, so Dutton’s nuclear push is dead in the water anyway.

But he is not promoting it because he wants to do it or because it is the best solution (the politics of yesteryear). After all, a nuclear plant is at least four elections away.

He is doing it for short-term political gain. He wants the inevitable transition to net-zero – backed mostly by renewables – to be as difficult as possible. He is probably praying for widespread blackouts so he can say, “I told you so” and vindicate 10 wasted years of Coalition opposition to renewables and climate action.

The Coalition has started with the proposition of anything but wind and solar and worked backwards to come up with the nuclear option. Its desperate Snowy Hydro 2.0 has been a delayed costly fiasco.

Yes, there has been a softening in voter opposition to nuclear, but only because it is seen as a possible solution to climate change. But that opposition will harden now this month’s CSIRO GenCost report proves it is the most expensive way to go – double the $73 to $128 per MWh of the solar wind combination.

The private sector will not build a nuclear power station from scratch in Australia when it is easier (but still very risky) to invest in already-nuclear nations. 

Dutton talks about reliable base loads. You get a picture of nuclear and coal producing massive amounts of always-available electricity, not relying on winds blowing or the sun shining. 

Dutton talks about small modular nuclear reactors. It conjures images of a portable Honda or Yamaha generator in a caravan park. A quick pull start and you have a reliable power source. But the small modular nuclear reactors have never been made and even hypothetically the cost of the electricity is prohibitive.

Everyone, including Dutton, is right to talk about reliability. He talks about what if the sun in not shinning or the wind blowing. Well, the weather map shows you that it is shining or blowing somewhere in the Australian grid all the time. We must build better linking wires and build more battery back up.

But Dutton and his few nuclear backers do not address the question of what if their great big nuclear power plant has to be shut down. It would take out 1400 megawatts in one go. Even coal power stations are composed of several units not all of which have to be taken out at once.

If a nuclear power station goes out, it means instant widespread blackouts. The redundancy needed to prevent blackouts with nuclear is immense.

Meanwhile, on the renewable front, technology to link rooftop and battery systems into virtual power stations – which power companies can feed into the grid in a millisecond – is pushing ahead, making the system more reliable and addressing the problem of rooftops producing too much power sometimes and not enough at other times.

Indeed, Labor should make it easy for DIY super funds to buy profit-making batteries linked into virtual power stations. That would be a better use of super than letting young people blow their savings in an ever-heating housing market. 

We know the limitations of old nuclear energy which cannot be and have not been overcome. We know the dangers (Chernobyl and Fukuyama). But the boundaries of renewable energy are expanding; costs are going down; and the dangers are minuscule.

Yet Dutton persists with this nuclear nonsense. Why? Vindication, we have pointed out. There is also helping mates in the fossil industry make profits for as long as possible, and generating fear among voters – who have been bombarded with misinformation about climate and renewables – for cynical short-term political gain.

Australians should be embarrassed that one of our major political parties is so scientifically and economically ignorant and stupid. Worse, it should be frightened that one of our major political parties would for base male-fide reasons promote such a policy.

The words of Prime Minister Paul Keating in response to then Coalition Opposition Leader John Hewson’s 1992 Fightback! policy is apposite here: “I want to see you squirm out of this load of rubbish over a number of months. You have perpetrated one of the great mischiefs on the Australian public with this thing.” But at least Hewson had thought it out and believed it was best for Australia.

Mr Dutton, do yourself and your party a favour and give up this demonstrably and embarrassingly bad policy.

Crispin Hull

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 28 May 2024.

2 thoughts on “Explaining Dutton’s dumb nuclear plan”

  1. All your points are valid. To my mind the fact that it has proved impossible to get community acceptance for a storage site for low level radioactive waste from medical use says it all, fear of “rays” would stymie any proposal.
    A minor point: there are of course “small modular reactors” in nuclear submarines and other warships, however they generate only enough power for perhaps 5,000 households and require specialised operators. Not something that could be scaled up on-shore.

  2. Why does Dutton hold such positions (too threadbare to be called policies) like nuclear, “If you don’t know vote no” or Israel? It’s all domestic politics.
    In the same manner, Howard dog-whistled Hanson by deriding multiculturalism, claimed Mabo would steal your backyard, or cried “Children overboard!” It all aims to attract a few percentage points in voter support through “Howard’s Battlers.”
    Dutton aims for a couple of Teal seats, swings in WA and Queensland, and targeted coal seats. The purpose of Cambridge Analytica was the same. Dutton remains, like Howard, a policy-free zone.

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