Australia’s energy future is renewable, not radioactive

The CAREM small nuclear plant in Argentina has been under construction since 2014. Costs have ballooned. Photo: Mariadelmar28/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 4.0)

Australia’s nuclear power “debate” refuses to die.

Bernard Keane neatly summarised the phenomenon in Crikey in August like this: “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 John Howard Coalition government’s nuclear review in 2006 and was arguably Australia’s most prominent champion of nuclear power.

But Switkowski has been following the dramatic cost reductions of renewables and the equally dramatic cost escalations of nuclear power.

Switkowski dropped an atomic bombshell in 2019, stating that “the window for gigawatt-scale nuclear has closed” with renewables winning on economic grounds.

Former New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, another former nuclear power supporter, has also 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 said “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”.

He wrote: “The populist conservatives have form. Before the 2019 poll, they campaigned on the mad idea that [then-Prime Minister Scott] 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…”

Some Coalition MPs seem incapable of understanding the politics.

Nine ultra-conservative Coalition Senators introduced a private members bill on September 28, calling for the repeal of Howard-era legislation banning nuclear power.

As these Liberal and National senators do not even have the support of their parties, their bill was a stunt.

Matt Canavan, one of the group of nine, claims to oppose policies that will drive up power prices, but he supports nuclear power, even though he has himself noted that it would increase power bills.

‘Advanced’ nuclear power?

A 2019 federal parliamentary Environment and Energy Committee inquiry was controlled by Coalition MPs who were enthusiastic about nuclear power.

However the committee’s final report argued 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”.

The report called for a partial repeal of legal bans to permit the development of “new and emerging nuclear technologies,” including small modular reactors. But that was ruled out by Scott Morrison’s Coalition government.

As propaganda about “advanced” nuclear power persists, the Australian Conservation Foundation’s (ACF) has released a new briefing paper that debunks it.

Conventional, or “light water”, reactors are fuelled by uranium and cooled by ordinary “light” water, which also slows, or “moderates”, the neutrons that maintain the nuclear chain reaction.

Advanced nuclear power generally refers to reactors — large or small — with different fuels, moderators and coolants.

Most of these concepts are far from advanced: previous research and development projects have been underwhelming, or outright failures, and have therefore been abandoned. Most “Generation IV” nuclear concepts could best be described as failed Generation I concepts.

David Elliot, author of Nuclear Power: Past, Present and Future, noted in 2017 that many “advanced” nuclear power concepts “are in fact old ideas that were looked at in the early days and mostly abandoned. There were certainly problems with some of these early experimental reactors, some of them quite dramatic.”

Physicist Dr Edwin Lyman has written a report for the Union of Concerned Scientists debunking claims that “advanced” nuclear power concepts offer significant advantages over conventional nuclear power.

The report considers sodium-cooled fast reactors, high-temperature gas-cooled reactors and molten salt reactors.

Lyman wrote: “Based on the available evidence, we found that the designs we analysed are not likely to be significantly safer than today’s nuclear plants.”

Small modular reactors

If developed, “small modular reactors” (SMRs,) would have a capacity of under 300 megawatts (MW), whereas large reactors typically have a capacity of about 1000 MW.

Construction at reactor sites would be replaced with standardised factory production of reactor components (or “modules”) followed by installation at the reactor site. (The term “modular” can also refer to the option of building clusters of small reactors at the same site.)

While nuclear proponents like to talk up SMRs, not many actually exist: mass production of SMRs only exist in their hopes and dreams.

There is currently no SMR mass manufacturing capacity no company, consortium, utility or government is seriously considering betting billions building one.

Just two SMRs are said to be operating — neither meeting the “modular” definition of serial factory production of reactor components. Both exhibit familiar problems of massive cost blowouts and multi-year delays.

Russia has a floating nuclear power plant (with two 35 MW reactors). The construction cost rose six-fold from 6 billion rubles to 37 billion rubles (A$964 million), equivalent to A$13.8 billion/gigawatt (GW).

According to the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency, electricity produced by the Russian floating plant costs an estimated US$200 (A$308)/megawatt-hour (MWh), with the high cost due to large staffing requirements, high fuel costs and resources required to maintain the barge and coastal infrastructure.

The Minerals Council of Australia stated that SMRs won’t find a market in Australia unless they can produce power at a cost of A$60-80/MWh — about one-quarter of the cost of electricity produced by the Russian plant.

Rapid construction timelines are said to be a feature of SMRs, but the Russian floating plant took 12 years to build. Russia’s plan for seven floating nuclear power plants by 2015 was not realised.

China’s SMR

The other operating SMR is China’s demonstration 210 MW (2x105 MW) high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR).

A 2016 article said that the estimated construction cost was about US$5 billion (A$7.7 billion) per GW — about twice the initial cost estimates — and that cost increases arose from higher material and component costs, increases in labour costs and project delays.

The World Nuclear Association stated that the cost of the demonstration HTGR is US$6 billion (A$9.3 billion)/GW. Those figures are 2–3 times higher than the US$2 billion (A$3.1 billion)/GW estimate in a 2009 paper by Tsinghua University researchers.

Wang Yingsu, secretary general of the nuclear power branch of the China Electric Power Promotion Council, said last year that HTGRs would never be as cheap as conventional light-water reactors.

Construction of a demonstration HTGR began in 2012 and it was only completed in 2021, undermining claims that SMRs could be built in 2–3 years.

NucNet reported in 2020 that China’s State Nuclear Power Technology Corp dropped plans to manufacture 20 HTGRs after levelised cost of electricity estimates rose to levels higher than a conventional pressurised water reactor such as China’s Hualong One.

Likewise, the World Nuclear Association stated that plans for 18 additional HTGRs at the same site as the demonstration HTGR have been “dropped”.

False promises

SMRs would be more inefficient than large reactors in every respect and hence they are more costly.

A 2016 European Commission report noted that decommissioning and waste management costs of SMRs “will probably be higher than those of a large reactor (some analyses state that between two and three times higher)”.

The 2016 South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission report stated: “SMRs have lower thermal efficiency than large reactors, which generally translates to higher fuel consumption and spent fuel volumes over the life of a reactor.”

SMRs are being promoted as important potential contributors to climate change abatement but the primary purpose of the Russian floating plant is to power fossil fuel mining operations in the Arctic.

Russia’s pursuit of nuclear-powered icebreaker ships (nine are planned by 2035) is closely connected to its wish to establish military and economic control of the Northern Sea Route — a route that owes its existence to climate change.

China's General Nuclear Power Group plans to use floating nuclear power plants for oilfield exploitation in the Bohai Sea and deep-water oil and gas development in the South China Sea.

Too expensive

SMRs will inevitably suffer diseconomies of scale: a 250 MW SMR will generate 25% as much power as a 1000 MW reactor but it will require more than 25% of the material inputs and staffing, and a number of other costs including waste management and decommissioning will be proportionally higher.

Potential savings arising from standardised factory production will not make up for those diseconomies of scale.

Every independent economic assessment has found that electricity from SMRs will be more expensive than that from large reactors.

The pursuit of SMRs or “advanced” nuclear power in Australia would be expensive and protracted.

The South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission said in its 2016 report: “Advanced fast reactors and other innovative reactor designs are unlikely to be feasible or viable in the foreseeable future.”

The federal Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources expects 69% renewable supply to the National Electricity Market by 2030.

The Anthony Albanese government’s target is 82% renewable supply to the National Electricity Market by 2030.

State and territory governments (including Liberal and Coalition governments) are focused on the renewables transition. Tasmania leads the pack, thanks to its hydro resources. South Australia is another pace-setter: wind and solar supply 64% of local power generation and SA could reach its target of net 100 percent renewables within a few years.

The pursuit of nuclear power would slow the transition to a low-carbon economy. It would increase electricity costs. It would unnecessarily introduce challenges and risks associated with high-level nuclear waste management and the potential for catastrophic accidents.

Australia’s energy future is renewable, not radioactive.

[Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and co-author of an Australian Conservation Foundation briefing paper Wrong reaction: Why ‘next-generation’ nuclear is not a credible energy solution. A longer version of this piece can be read at RenewEconomy.]