The Nuclear pipe dream

This latest nuclear power fever dream from Peter Dutton is really quite odd. Relying, as it does, on a technology that doesn’t really exist at the moment, on costs that are unknowable, in locations yet to be determined and on a timeframe that would be several decades away.

Or maybe it’s not odd. Maybe it’s just the last gasp of a party that knows it has lost the battle on renewable energy but can’t admit it. Instead, it wants to talk about nuclear as if that’s a realistic option. It’s hard to believe Dutton isn’t reviving the nuclear debate as a way to keep coal going as long as possible in Australia. After all, he is smart enough, just about, to understand that he can’t advocate for new coal-fired power stations in Australia.

In an ideological sense, I don’t have any particular objection to nuclear power.

It’s just that for Australia, it’s far too late. Maybe if Dutton’s Coalition had started this debate when Tony Abbott came to power in 2013 it could have made sense. If John Howard had followed the nuclear path any time between 1996 and 2007, the same.

But now it is far, far too late. Renewable energy has made enormous strides over the last decade and that rate of change is only going to accelerate. In South Australia, in the last three months, 76 per cent of our energy has come from wind and solar. There are many days when that figure is 100 per cent.

By the time, any hypothetical nuclear power station came on line in the mid 2040s or 2050s, it’s not really clear what problem it would be solving. It certainly won’t be helping with the energy problems we have in the here and now.

And that is before we come to issues of how much it would cost and what technology would be used.

The Coalition is placing a lot of faith in what are known as small modular nuclear reactors. The general idea being that the power station is, obviously, smaller, cheaper and quicker to construct than your general nuclear generator.

But as mentioned before, they don’t really exist. Yes, the technology could be there, but no one has figured out how to market them commercially.

The company that got closest was a US outfit called NuScale which last year cancelled its first project because it couldn’t find enough customers because it raised the expected price its electricity because of a cost blowout. Its project in Utah that was budgeted at $US5.3 billion was going to cost $US9.3 billion.

That is the familiar tale in the nuclear world. Massive cost blowouts and lengthy delays.

In the UK, the Hinkley Point C project was supposed to be providing energy by 2017. When the project did finally start in 2016 it was to cost 18 billion pounds. The most recent estimate is that work will be complete in 2031 and cost 35 billion pounds. Finland opened a new nuclear power station last year that was 12 years late at quadruple the cost.

It’s worth pointing out that the US, UK and Finland all had existing nuclear power regimes. Australia doesn’t. Australia would be starting from scratch. We would need to put together legislation, safety requirements, waste disposal, figure out locations, budgets. And that’s before we get to the political arguments.

Australia doesn’t have that time to spare.

Reading this week. Still Lanark. Still enjoying it. On the listening front it was Dervla McTiernan’s The Scholar. Good, solid crime caper stuff. Worked well as a balance with Lanark. Even geographically. One being set in Glasgow and one in Dublin.