US reactor project fail heats up Australia’s nuclear power debate

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A nuclear energy developer championed by the Coalition has canned its most advanced project in the United States, raising questions over the viability of the technology in Australia.

NuScale Power, which was developing small modular reactors at a US government-owned site in Idaho with plans to sell electricity to suppliers across the regional network by 2029, on Thursday said it had abandoned the project due to a lack of customer sign-ups.

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

The federal opposition, which wants Australia to overturn its longstanding ban on nuclear energy, claims small modular reactors – the next generation of nuclear power plants – are the only viable backup for renewable energy as the country transitions away from fossil fuels.

But Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen said NuScale’s announcement was further proof that small modular reactors were not viable for Australia.

“The opposition’s only energy policy is small modular reactors,” Bowen said. “Today, the most advanced prototype in the US has been cancelled. The [opposition’s] plan for energy security is just more hot air from Peter Dutton.”

NuScale’s small modular reactor design was the first to be approved by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission in January. It was awarded more than $US1 billion ($1.56 billion) in government funding to support its development.

The company said in 2021 it would supply power from its small modular reactor plant for $US58 a megawatt hour. Since then, that figure has more than doubled to $US89 a megawatt hour.

Mason Baker, the chief executive of NuScale’s government-owned partner, Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, said it was working with the company and the US Department of Energy to wind down the project.

“This decision is very disappointing given the years of pioneering hard work put into the [project],” Baker said.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has said small modular reactors could easily replace Australia’s coal-fired power plants.

“Australians must consider new nuclear technologies as part of the energy mix,” he said in July. “New nuclear technologies can be plugged into existing grids and work immediately.”

Opposition climate change and energy spokesman Ted O’Brien said in May that NuScale’s designs offered “exceptional flexibility” and would allow a “simple expansion” for Australia’s energy grid.

“North America has done the maths. It has mapped its course to a net-zero future, and it’s one that sensibly includes next-generation, zero-emissions nuclear energy.”

But recent Energy Department modelling found more than 70 small modular reactors, which are forecast to generate 300 megawatts each, would be needed to replace all of Australia’s coal plants at an estimated cost of $387 billion.

O’Brien said on Thursday that Bowen had applied “faulty logic” to NuScale’s announcement and if he applied the same test to renewables, they too would be considered a failure.

“Is Bowen arguing that wind power is dead because the world’s leading supplier, Siemens, is seeking a €15 billion government bailout, or the days of solar are over because plans for the world’s largest solar plant, Sun Cable, have run into trouble,” O’Brien said.

“If Australia is serious about reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 while keeping the lights on and getting prices down, we cannot afford to take any option off the table.”

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