Coalition’s campaign for nuclear energy implausible, experts say

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Former chief scientist Alan Finkel says it would take decades to develop a local nuclear energy industry, as he and other experts reject the Coalition’s push to switch focus from renewables to nuclear energy as implausible since Australia needs urgent replacement for its ageing coal-fired power plants.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton wants Australia to deploy emerging nuclear power technology, while Nationals leader David Littleproud has criticised what he calls the government’s “reckless race to renewables” and asked for the government’s clean energy target to be paused and reconsidered.

The federal opposition is proposing nuclear as a solution to Australia’s urgent need for new energy generation. Credit: AP

The Albanese government has pledged to more than double the amount of power the electricity grid sources from renewables to 82 per cent by 2030, to help achieve its target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 43 per cent by the same deadline.

Federal parliament banned nuclear power in 1998 and the moratorium has remained in place with bipartisan support, but Dutton is calling for the deployment of small modular reactors to reduce emissions from the electricity sector, instead of renewables that require a vast array of new power lines to link wind and solar farms to the cities.

Finkel said it was highly unlikely that Australia could open a nuclear power plant before the early 2040s, pointing out the autocratic United Arab Emirates took more than 15 years to complete its first nuclear plan using established technology.

“There are a lot of very attractive things about nuclear energy for our clean energy transition. The problem is timing and cost,” Finkel said. “If we did large-scale [nuclear power], I would imagine something approaching 20 years in Australia.”

The economic viability of Australia’s ageing fleet of coal-fired power stations, which still make up two-thirds of the electricity grid, has been hammered by cheaper sources of renewable energy. Replacement power is urgently needed, with five of 15 plants due to shut within a decade and more tipped to follow.

Responding to assertions that small modular reactors, which are smaller than traditional nuclear plants, may be quicker and cheaper to build, Finkel said: “The reality is, it’s not being done in Europe and America.

“There’s no operating small modular reactor in Canada, America or the UK, or any country in Europe.”

Finkel noted that private company Nuscale is aiming to commission 12 small modular reactors starting from 2029, but he said it would probably take at least a decade to follow suit in Australia.

Former chief scientist Alan Finkel says the problem with nuclear energy is timing and cost.Credit: Eamon Gallagher

“I just can’t see anything less than 10 years from the time that the [Australian] government saw Nuscale start operating in America,” he said.

However, Finkel said from a “purely engineering” perspective, nuclear technology was appealing, with zero emissions, a continuous supply of baseload power and a small mining footprint for fuel.

The Coalition has called for nuclear plants to be built on the sites of retiring coal-fired power plants, to link up with existing transmission lines.

Energy analyst Dylan McConnell, a senior research associate at University of NSW, said retired coal plants “are not a stranded asset that’s sitting there unused”.

“The connection points at coal-fired power stations are very valuable and coal plant owners are already building batteries on these sites,” he said.

McConnell said deploying a small modular reactor at an old coal plant would not be the “plug-and-play” operation some optimists have suggested.

“You would have to decommission the existing coal plant and then build a new nuclear plant,” he said.

Alison Reeve, a climate and energy expert at the Grattan Institute, said investors could not start to investigate a nuclear project in Australia until the moratorium was lifted by federal parliament, and it would probably take years after that for states to pass their own laws and for a regulatory framework to be developed.

“This is not as simple as just removing the moratorium and then everything will be fine,” Reeve said.

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.

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