Nuclear myth-making is a dangerous distraction

Published on Wed 12 February 2020 4:00pm

It’s absurd that, when we should be talking about the big priorities in this country in relation to energy and emissions, we have been sent off on another nuclear frolic and some people are taking that as the basis for floating all kinds of nuclear thought bubbles.

Mr Wilson (4:00pm) — I’m glad to make some comments on the tabling of this Environment and Energy Committee report, which covers the inquiry we were tasked with by the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction to look into the prerequisites for a nuclear power industry in Australia. I should be absolutely clear at the outset, for those who might not listen too far into this speech, in saying that there was no testimony or evidence to the inquiry that supported a change to Australia’s existing bipartisan moratorium on nuclear energy.

More than 10 years on from the Switkowski review, nuclear energy continues to be expensive, slow, inflexible, uninsurable, toxic and dangerous. In evidence to our inquiry, Dr Switkowski, who conducted the review for the Howard government, said there is ‘no coherent business case to finance an Australian nuclear industry’. Dr Switkowski also said:

… one of the things that have changed over the last decade or so is that nuclear power has got more expensive rather than less expensive.

So it is frankly bizarre that Liberal and National members of the committee have recommended that the moratorium on nuclear power—the bipartisan and longstanding moratorium on nuclear power in Australia—should be lifted, and, what’s more, that considerable government and agency resources should be expended to pave the way for that to occur. In itself, that would be madness. But, in the circumstances we find ourselves in in this country, with the challenges we have before ourselves with respect to climate change and our energy system more broadly, to waste those resources on a nuclear frolic would be nothing short of ridiculous, especially when you consider that it is the record of this government to cut funding to the CSIRO and to cut funding to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

The clearest, most sensible and most consistently supported proposition to emerge from the evidence to our inquiry was that Australia’s highest priority should be the design and settlement of a national energy policy. Almost every expert who appeared before us made that point. I will quote one of them, Ian Macfarlane, a member of a previous coalition government. It was put to him:

… would you agree with Dr Switkowski that the No. 1 priority in Australia is a settled national energy policy framework?

Mr Macfarlane said:

Of course I would, having been the longest serving energy minister in Australia and seeing the various and diverging views. Until we settle on a single energy policy you’ll continue to have the investor uncertainty that is creating all sorts of issues combined with the unreliability of the grid, due to different mixes of energy which don’t sustain the frequency and, therefore, are prone to blackouts and shortages of energy at certain peak periods. So it would be, in my opinion, a great outcome to achieve a single national energy policy.

Yet that is the one core task of the government, particularly in this portfolio area, that they can’t bring themselves to focus on. We don’t have a national energy policy to guide Australia at a significant time of change, when our electricity system is being transformed and reconfigured. That’s an abject failure of this government. It’s cost them multiple leaders. We’re onto our third prime minister, largely because they cannot get their act together on that front. Yet, when Labor members of the committee recommended quite simply that government should work towards the design and settlement of a national energy policy, they wouldn’t have that, and government members of the committee said they wouldn’t have that because they thought it would reflect badly on the government.

I want to address some of the key myths that underpin the strange recommendations in this inquiry report. The first is that we need to lift a moratorium on nuclear power in order to have a conversation about nuclear power. We’re having a conversation about nuclear power right now. I spent four or five months, as you did, Deputy Speaker Zimmerman, and as did other members present, having a conversation about nuclear power. Of course, it follows on, at the federal level, from the Switkowski review 10 years ago. In the meantime, there was the royal commission in South Australia. There is currently a Victorian upper house inquiry. We have done nothing other than have conversation after conversation after conversation about nuclear power. That is an utter furphy.

The second myth is—notwithstanding all its other failures: that it’s slow, that it’s dangerous, that we don’t know what to do with the waste, that it doesn’t suit the emerging needs of our energy system—that somehow nuclear power is cheap. Nothing could be further from the truth. The GenCost report by CSIRO and AEMO originally found that nuclear, in terms of capital cost, was far and away the most expensive form of new generation. That was updated in December. I know there were members of the committee who didn’t want to accept the original report. It was updated in December, and it repeats the findings of the earlier report that nuclear power is far and away the most expensive form of new energy.

We had evidence from countless experts, including AEMO, about the way that we should go with respect to new generation in our system. The chair of AEMO said:

What we find today at current technology cost is that unfirmed renewables in the form of wind and solar are effectively the cheapest form of energy production. If we look at firmed renewables, for example wind and solar firmed with pumped hydro energy storage, that cost, at current cost, is roughly comparable to new build gas or new build coal-fired generation. Given the learning rate effect that we have just discussed, our expectation is that renewables will further decrease in their cost, and therefore firmed renewables will well and truly become the lowest cost of generation for the NEM.

That’s not just what our experts find in Australia; that is what is happening around the world. In the previous decade, levelised cost estimates for utility-scale solar dropped by 88 per cent and wind by 69 per cent, while nuclear increased by 23 per cent. Remember that the evidence from Dr Switkowski, who undertook a review for the Howard government, previously found that, in the years that have since elapsed, nuclear has only got more expensive.
Myth No. 3: we can never get a zero emissions electricity system without nuclear energy. That has also been shown to be wrong. I put it to Professor Blakers of the ANU that some people believe that maybe 60 or 70 per cent renewables is the most that we can get. Professor Blakers said:

No, you can never get beyond 100 per cent, and 100 per cent is technically straightforward. It’s also not very difficult economically.

That’s what Professor Blakers, an expert in new energy technology, said to the inquiry.

Myth No. 4: the rest of the world is going big in nuclear and Australia is somehow missing out. Again, nothing could be further from the truth. The World Nuclear Industry Status Report makes it clear that nuclear power generation peaked in 2006. The number of reactors peaked in 2002. The share of nuclear power in the electricity mix worldwide peaked in 1996. The number of reactors under construction peaked in 1979. The share of nuclear power in the world has dropped from its peak in 1996 of 17 per cent to 10 per cent today. Countries that were big in nuclear, like France, have committed to reducing their current reliance by a third. Countries like Korea that were looking at building nuclear in their own country have decided not to do that. Nuclear is a dead industry, and the idea that we would take it up is, frankly, absurd.

The fifth myth is that nuclear is now safe and no longer a problem, so we should build nuclear plants in coastal cities around Australia. This industry likes to tell fairytales at every turn, and the fairytale is always that the nightmares of the past have been magically fixed by the nuclear fairy and we don’t have to worry about that anymore. That was said after Three Mile Island. Then we had Chernobyl. It was said after Chernobyl. Then we had Fukushima. In Fukushima, 40,000 people continue to be displaced. Nuclear radiation is pouring into the ocean with every day. It has cost the Japanese government $200 billion. The Japanese government estimate is that the final cost will be between $450 billion and $650 billion. Our own agencies, ANSTO and ARPANSA, say that nuclear should never and can never be considered safe. We have a plan, even in New South Wales, in relation to the very small ANSTO facility that ensures that there’s sufficient iodine kept for the possibility of some sort of nuclear accident. It’s the same in France; it’s the same in all developed countries.

It’s absurd that, when we should be talking about the big priorities in this country in relation to energy and emissions, we have been sent off on another nuclear frolic and some people are taking that as the basis for floating all kinds of nuclear thought bubbles. We don’t have a settled energy policy in this country. Our emissions are not falling and we are not taking on the challenges when it comes to transmission and grid design that we desperately need.

Nuclear power should never occur in Australia, and anyone who argues that has their head in the sand.

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