The Current Australian Debate over Nuclear Energy. The facts (about nuclear energy and the debate …)

Andreas Ortmann
10 min readJun 23, 2024

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Note: A few updates and additional references at the end.

Peter Dutton, the current leader of that part of the Aussie opposition that is the LNP, earlier this week released a plan to build seven nuclear reactors across the country, with each of the states — save Tasmania — being on the receiving end of one or two.) Predictably that led to a major debate (if you can call it that) on (social) media with Duttonistas making his case with questionable arguments such as this one by the World Nuclear Association.

The argument is wrong along several dimensions.

Germany is a good case in point. It has almost completely exited nuclear energy production which currently accounts for slightly more than 1 percent, down from almost 30 percent in the year 2000! You are a particular kind of dingbat to either not know or pretend not to know. Germany is currently in a state of transition, having weened itself off Russian energy (oil, gas) late last year. This has led to a temporary increase in the production of local coal (lignite and hard) — not an ideal development by any measure. Alas, Putin’s war has caused considerable disruptions and upheaval not just in Ukraine. The current German federal government has to deal with multiple policy objectives and constraints and it has done so, IMHO, reasonably well. Far from perfect I grant you that but …

According to the Statista Research Department (May 14, 2024)

Over 50 percent of the gross electricity generated in Germany in 2023 came from renewable sources, with wind power being the most prominent. However, the country is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels for domestic power production. In 2023, some 25 percent of gross electricity was generated using lignite and hard coal, considered the most polluting of energy sources. Natural gas contributed another 15.5 percent. …

Despite coal’s continued contribution to the power mix, Germany’s renewable electricity generation has increased by roughly 70 percent in one decade. Growth within the wind power sector has been especially notable. By 2022, onshore wind farms generated almost 100 terawatt-hours of electricity, while offshore farms produced an additional 25 terawatt-hours.

It has been argued that Germany currently uses nuclear energy, mostly from France which is heavily dependent — for now — on its nuclear power plants. The evidence suggests that claim is true but, importantly, French nuclear energy accounts for only about half a percent of Germany’s energy mix.

What’s also wrong with the World Nuclear Association (essentially a peak body and world-wide industry lobby) argument is the claim that nuclear energy (alone) can provide affordable and reliable energy, or in Dutton’s rhetoric, “cheaper, cleaner, more consistent”. Mike Foley has, in an excellent piece, in the Sydney Morning Herald, tested Dutton’s claims and found them severely wanting.

Nuclear energy is already now, and will definitely be forward going, not cheaper. By for example the CSIRO’s reading, “the cheapest electricity will come from a grid that draws 90 per cent of its power from renewables, which would supply electricity for a cost between $89 and $128 per megawatt hour by 2030”. Smaller “modular reactors” (once, and if, they go into production) are expected to supply electricity by 2040 at two to three times that price range. Large-scale nuclear power reactor would supply electricity at about one to two times that price range. It is noteworthy in this context that France’s state-owned operator of its nuclear plants (Electricity de France, or EDF) is afflicted with substantial debts and can survives only with financial help from the state. See also this piece from Le Monde.

These price estimates do not take into account the very specific Aussie circumstances of the production of nuclear energy currently being prohibited by federal law — ironically by law from the Howard era — and politically unlikely to stand a chance in the three major Aussie states both on behalf current governments (all Labor) but also by the state opposition parties, as Simon Holmes à Court has pointed out:

Nuclear is banned in Australia by two acts of parliament. Naturally, to repeal the ban the Coalition would need to win back control of the house — a daunting task when they are 21 seats shy of a majority — and control of the Senate, power it hasn’t held since the end of the Howard era.

Once the federal ban is lifted, Dutton needs a plan for lifting state bans in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.

The leaders of the Labor governments and their Coalition oppositions in each of these key states have expressed their clear opposition. Dutton rehashed the old quip that you wouldn’t want to stand between a state premier and a bucket of money, indicating that he thinks dangling commonwealth carrots will solve the issue.

They will not be cheap carrots!

All of which explains why Dutton failed to provide costings for his nuclear plan; it tells you all you need to know really. An important problem with Dutton’s approach is that — once again — it injects considerable uncertainty into the planning of private investors, whether foreign or domestic. The Coalition has, of course, form in that. Abbott and his mob destroyed single-handedly the wide-reaching consensus that existed in 2009 on the need to price bads, a carbon pollution reduction scheme that (experimentally tested in 2010 by yours truly and others) showed its mettle in the second half of 2012.

Nuclear energy is not cleaner. Just ask the folks in the extended neighborhoods of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, or Fukushima. It was the Fukushima accident that led the then-German (conservative) government to reverse itself and initiate the phase-out of the production of nuclear power. And that is not even mentioning the issue of the final repository for high-level radioactive waste which remains a contentious issue in many countries but at least from a technological point of view seems the least of the problems.

Nuclear energy is (not) more consistent. This is probably the biggest selling point for now, as acknowledged by David Crowe in this Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece. That said, with increasing battery-based storage capability and the lucky country awash in sun, wind, and hydro power (the latter not so much but a good example of another Coalition implementation failure and staggering cost blow-outs), the land of Oz is in an enviable driver seat. Just ask the good people of South Australia. By 2050, South Australia wants to generate 500% of its energy needs from renewable sources.

In sum, nuclear energy solves a problem that Australia does not have in the way Germans, for example, have. Dutton’s proposal is a costly solution to a non-existent problem. It will at least take a decade to build plants that produce nuclear energy (and probably more given that Australia does not have the kind of expertise in the production of nuclear energy that, say, France has).

The current debate seems motivated by political posturing by Dutton and his motley crew of pitiful shadow ministers (Sussan Ley, Angus Taylor) who have no policy proposals of substance to offer addressing problems like the cost-of-living pressures and lack of (public) housing and in their desperation now have started to resort to the Trump playbook of personal insults and unhinged rhetoric. It is no coincidence that this policy is likely to serve the interest of billionaire coal and gas miner Gina Rinehart and the interest of the Murdoch empire. Whatever the motivations are, while the Coalition’s nuclear utopia will not put renewables on ice — that train has long left the station — it has the potential to slow the transition. It is just the mirror image of what happened in Germany when that country de facto exited nuclear energy and witnessed a surge in renewables investment.

Update 1: ALP federal government has appointed former NSW deputy Liberal leader (Matt Kean) as head of the Climate Change Authority

Smart move and a good appointment me thinkst. If you need any confirmation, the reactions today of the nuclear (social) media cheer squad -- it has foam coming out of their mouths -- is proof positive.

Kean’s appointment is a major development in the federal energy debate, given the former NSW deputy Liberal leader pushed his government to adopt the most ambitious climate change and renewable energy policies in Australia.

It will allow Labor to point to Liberal support for its renewables rollout as federal Coalition leader Peter Dutton reignites the country’s climate wars by promising to scrap the government’s legislated 2030 emissions reduction target and build seven nuclear power plants by 2050.

Kean will head the Climate Change Authority as it provides advice to the Albanese government on its 2035 emissions targets, meaning any criticism from the federal opposition will be seen as an attempt to discredit a recommendation from the senior Liberal MP.

Upate 2: Former ALP PM Paul Keating (who is known to have a way with words) is not mincing many here.

Former prime minister Paul Keating has compared Peter Dutton to the “most wicked and cynical of individuals” in a searing statement that accuses the opposition leader of opportunism and climate change denialism in his advocacy for nuclear power.

As the political debate over nuclear energy became increasingly personal over the weekend — with the Coalition mounting character attacks on Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and teal MPs — Keating released a statement late on Sunday that began: “[Peter] Dutton is a charlatan — an inveterate climate change denialist.”

“A denialist now seeking to camouflage his long-held denialism in an industrial fantasy [nuclear power] … Dutton, like [former prime minister Tony] Abbott, will do everything he can to de-legitimise renewables and stand in the way of their use,” Keating wrote.

“Only the most wicked and cynical of individuals would foist such a blight on an earnest community like Australia. A community which fundamentally believes in truth and decency and which relies on its political system to advance those ideals.”

Update 3: Columnist and author Peter FitzSimmons interview with Professor Ty Christopher, an electrical engineer with four decades of experience in the power industry, is the director of the Energy Futures Network within the faculty of engineering at the University of Wollongong. Worth a read. A couple of excerpts:

Fitz: Which is one reason the nuclear option is problematic, I get that. But at least its capacity factor is 100 per cent.

TC: Again, no. It is the highest of any energy source, but it is about 90 per cent because it, too, has maintenance downtime, where it is pulled back from full throttle. But the factors against building nuclear power stations in Australia right now are incontrovertible. The International Atomic Energy Agency publishes a guidelines handbook — basically a step-by-step guide on how to go nuclear in your country. It is the internationally recognised manual on what you have to do to go from zero to a functioning nuclear energy power plant. That manual says that the minimum time of establishment, starting from it being legal — which I might add, it is not in Australia at the moment — is 15 to 20 years. So the first big problem with nuclear in Australia is, what do we do to have reliable power in the 10-year gap between when most of the coal exits and only the first nuclear power plant could possibly be commissioned?

Fitz: You have a certain fatigue in your voice as if you’re a little tired of explaining plain facts for the umpteenth time.

TC: Anyone telling you for political reasons that we can do this as a nation in less than 20 years or that that delay won’t cause terrible problems is divorced from reality in what they’re saying, Peter. I say this from the point of view of being an engineer who’s delivered billions, literally billions of dollars worth of energy projects throughout my life. Even 20 years is very optimistic. And then, with nuclear, you still haven’t solved the problem of cost. The most recent CSIRO annual review shows that the cost per gigawatt out of nuclear is five times more expensive per gigawatt than out of wind.

Fitz: Do you foresee the electricity bills in NSW and Australia going lower, as renewables keep coming online?

TC: Yes. And the more renewable energy there is, the lower those bills will be.

Update 4: Mike Foley addresses some key claims by the nuclear cheer squad in this SMH article.

Labor’s ‘renewables-only’ plan will cost more than $1 trillion: False

Nuclear energy will deliver cheaper power bills: False

The renewables rollout needs 28,000 kilometres of transmission lines: False

The first reactor would be built before 2037: Questionable

The annual waste from a reactor fits into a Coke can: False

Update 5: That part of the federal opposition that is the LNP now tries to have it multiple ways. Also, if you have no coherent plan, then you have no choice but revealing your plan at a later date.

Opposition energy spokesman Ted O’Brien will tell a room of clean-energy businesspeople on Thursday that the Coalition sees a central role for wind and solar power if it forms government at the next election, even though the party won’t reveal the proportion of renewables in its plan until a later date.

Update 6: Peter Martin has summarized the gist of a recent Special Issue titled Dawn of the Solar Age by British weekly mag The Economist here. The title of his piece sums it up: When it comes to power, solar is about to leave nuclear and everything else in the shade.

Whereas nuclear power is barely growing, and is shrinking as a proportion of global power output, The Economist reported solar power is growing so quickly it is set to become the biggest source of electricity on the planet by the mid-2030s.

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Andreas Ortmann

EconProf: I post occasionally on whatever tickles my fancy: Science, evidence production, the Econ tribe, Oz politics, etc. Y’all r entitled to my opinions …