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Although a parliamentary inquiry is revisiting the possibility of nuclear power in Australia, recent history suggests any support is unlikely to gain critical mass. By Royce Kurmelovs.

The pipe dream of nuclear power

When the federal energy minister, Angus Taylor, announced a new parliamentary inquiry into what it would take for Australia to get into the nuclear power business, he might have expected a bigger headline.

In a letter sent last Friday, the minister said the inquiry would “consider the economic, environmental and safety implications of nuclear power” and that he was confident the multi-party committee was “the best way to consider this issue in a sensible way”.

Taylor, himself a long-time advocate for nuclear power, made the announcement on the heels of a recent campaign by Coalition MPs and the Australian Minerals Council to consider the economic benefits of going nuclear.

Queensland MP Ted O’Brien, chair of the standing committee on the environment and energy, which will oversee the inquiry, said he took seriously the responsibility handed to him, and the committee would “determine the circumstances under which future Coalition or Labor governments might consider nuclear energy generation”.

O’Brien stressed the Coalition government had no current plans to lift the moratorium on nuclear power generation.

All told, it was an odd series of qualifiers for an announcement meant to shock, leading some observers to ask: Why bother?

Nuclear power generation in Australia has been thoroughly investigated in recent times, with any federal inquiry likely to rehash ground covered in the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, established by the South Australian government in 2015.

That investigation began as a way to forensically examine whether South Australia could play any part in the nuclear fuel cycle, beyond simply digging uranium out of the ground.

Australian uranium exports make up 9.6 per cent of the world’s supply, with 7343 tonnes of material dug up and sold in 2017–18. Much of it comes from South Australia, particularly BHP’s Olympic Dam uranium mine.

Thanks to this resource, the idea of South Australia as a “Saudi Arabia of the south” has been a dream for some policymakers since then premier Mike Rann first floated the idea during a press conference in 2007.

That dream of a nuclear industry – and the money it would bring – has been kept alive by advocates including former Liberal senator Sean Edwards and nuclear advocate Ben Heard.

In April this year, the Institute of Public Affairs, a libertarian think tank with strong ties to members of the Coalition government, published a 15-point wish list of policy proposals the organisation said would “fix Australia”.

Overturning the moratorium on nuclear power was listed at No. 15.

This was already canvassed during the 2015 royal commission in South Australia. The then-Labor government, led by Jay Weatherill, had called for the commission to investigate the potential for new industry opportunities in the nuclear fuel cycle.

In doing so, the commission examined the latest nuclear technologies and updated the fact base around nuclear power. A year later, when it delivered its findings, the royal commission found that a nuclear power plant was not commercially viable, and this was considered to have killed off any prospect of a nuclear-powered Australia.

Instead, the commission lowered its ambitions to a plan for a nuclear radioactive waste storage facility, which was predicted to generate $100 billion a year in income for the state.

This led to two separate proposals for nuclear waste dumps in South Australia: a state government initiative that would accept material from across the world for a price; and a federal initiative to house domestic radioactive waste.

Of the two, the state government’s case for storing other countries’ nuclear waste collapsed after a “citizens’ jury” rejected the plan. This was partly due to the legacy of nuclear weapons testing at Maralinga, where even today a visible line of vegetation rings the poisoned soil at the Taranaki test site.

Though the state proposal was abandoned in 2017, the federal proposal remains on the cards, with the government sounding out local communities in the state’s mid-north as potential sites.

That process has been quietly moving ahead in the regional South Australian community of Kimba. However, the local Barngarla people, who claim they as native title holders were excluded from a vote on the issue, have launched legal action.

Four weeks ago, their lawsuit was dismissed by the Federal Court, though it is understood that case is under appeal.

All of this makes recent news of the federal government’s determination to keep the nuclear option alive a source of confusion to many in South Australia and beyond. Not least when renewable energy is getting cheaper and represents a growing proportion of the country’s energy mix.

South Australian senator Rex Patrick, of Centre Alliance, said his party has yet to form a position on nuclear power. However, his personal view is that this latest inquiry is a “distraction” from the real work of transitioning the electricity grid to clean energy.

“They haven’t solved the real problem, which is to bring reliable, clean, affordable energy to the Australian public,” he told The Saturday Paper.

“South Australia already answered the question with the royal commission and there have been reports on this before. But that’s going to the substantive question, as opposed to calling it out for what it really is – a distraction. A distraction from a total policy failure by the Liberal government.”

University of Queensland economist John Quiggin, who made a submission to the 2015 royal commission on the nuclear fuel cycle, echoed Patrick’s comments.

“It’s highly unlikely that we’ll get nuclear power,” Quiggin told The Saturday Paper. “An absolute condition is a carbon price high enough to make nuclear power competitive with coal. And the people promoting this have no interest in a carbon price, so it’s not going to happen.

“[The announcement] is essentially culture-war stuff. This is trolling the greenies. I don’t regard it as a serious exercise.”

Even if Australia were to lift the moratorium on nuclear power – a move that would require bipartisan support – Quiggin said the legislative and regulatory work required to choose a site, select designs, approve them, build prototypes and carefully oversee the process to completion would take at least two decades. “And that is being optimistic,” he said.

By then, renewable energy will by all indications be cheaper, more effective and more widespread than it is today, leaving nuclear power a costly waste of time – a conclusion supported in a report published in late July by the Berlin-based German Institute for Economic Research (DIW).

The organisation examined the economic record of every nuclear power plant built since 1951 and found they were uniformly costly, dangerous and not worth the effort.

“The economic history and financial analyses carried out at DIW Berlin show that nuclear energy has always been unprofitable in the private economy and will remain so in the future. Between 1951 and 2017, none of the 674 nuclear reactors built was done so with private capital under competitive conditions,” said the report.

None of this has come as any surprise to Nicky Ison, a research associate with the Institute of Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney. Ison, who worked on the Victorian green energy campaign Repower Australia, described the recent announcement as the latest in a “seven-year cycle”.

“There’s a core group of mainly older white blokes who think nuclear is a great idea. Every seven years it becomes a political moment where there is too much talk about the need for action on climate change and these folks go, ‘Right, we got a moment,’ ” she told The Saturday Paper. “Most of the climate movement, most of the investors and most of the companies are focusing on renewable energy.”

At a time when there is a global renewables boom and a serious debate happening around ideas such as the Green New Deal, said Ison, Australia should be looking to build on its comparative advantage.

“We should be building the energy systems of the future,” she said. “Which is continuing the renewables boom, building the backbone infrastructure in terms of transmission lines, to open up new renewable energy zones and using our world-class renewable resources – wind, solar, hydro – to not only power our homes but our transport, our industry, and build a fantastic export industry.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 10, 2019 as "Nuclear freeze". Subscribe here.

Royce Kurmelovs
is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist and author.