Australia's nuclear power debate refuses to die. The debate was neatly summarised by Bernard Keane in Crikey in August:
Nuclear power has to be the single most boring and ossified ritual in Australian public policy. Someone on the right will call for a "debate" on nuclear power. Critics will point out that nuclear power is ludicrously expensive, takes decades to build, and is prone to multi-hundred per cent cost blowouts.
The right will then invoke, reflexively, small modular reactors, which aren't operating anywhere in the world despite having been promised for 30 years. Someone else will then ask which electorate the proponents propose to put a reactor in. Rinse, repeat."
As repetitive as the debate has become, there are interesting contributions from time to time.
Dr Ziggy Switkowski led the Howard government's nuclear review in 2006 and was arguably Australia's most prominent champion of nuclear power. But, to his credit, Switkowski has been following the dramatic cost reductions of renewables and the equally dramatic cost escalations of nuclear power. In 2019, Dr. Switkowski dropped a bombshell, stating that "the window for gigawatt-scale nuclear has closed" with renewables winning on economic grounds.
Former NSW Premier Bob Carr is another former supporter who has been swayed by the facts. Carr noted in The Australian last November that "nuclear is lumbering, subject to breakdowns and cripplingly expensive" and that "the contrast with the surge to renewables is stark."
Conservative commentator Paul Kelly poured cold water on the Coalition's nuclear crusaders in The Australian last November. Kelly's column pointed to the "popular pull of renewables" and their falling costs. He noted that "nuclear plant construction remains poor in advanced OECD nations, the main reason being not safety but its weak business case". Kelly also questioned the rhetoric around small modular reactors given that "none has so far been built in developed nations".
On the politics, Kelly wrote:
The populist conservatives have form. Before the 2019 poll, they campaigned on the mad idea that Morrison follow Donald Trump and quit the Paris Agreement. Now they campaign on the equally mad but more dangerous idea that he seek to split the country by running on nuclear power… As for those conservatives who say Morrison's job is to fight Labor, the answer is simple. His job is to beat Labor. That's hard enough now; vesting the Coalition with an unnecessary ideological crusade that will crash and burn only means he would have no chance."
Some Coalition MPs seem incapable of understanding the politics. On September 28, nine hyper-conservative Coalition Senators introduced a private members bill to Parliament calling for the repeal of Howard-era legislation banning nuclear power. But the Liberal and National Senators don't even have the support of their own parties, so their private members bill was dead on arrival.
Matt Canavan was among the group of nine Senators. He claims to oppose policies that will drive up power prices but supports nuclear power even though he has himself noted that it would increase power bills. Perhaps he should read Paul Kelly's column in The Australian. And he should read the work of CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator which dispels any notion that nuclear power is economically viable in Australia.
'Advanced' nuclear power
A 2019 federal parliamentary Environment and Energy Committee inquiry was controlled by Coalition MPs who were, in principle, exceedingly enthusiastic about nuclear power. However the Committee's report argued that the government should retain legal bans prohibiting the development of conventional, large nuclear power reactors. Committee chair Ted O'Brien said "Australia should say a definite 'no' to old nuclear technologies".
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