Dutton’s nuclear push heats up debate, energy prices, but won’t cool the climate

July 4, 2024
Used with permission from Alan Moir, moir.com.au

Former Coalition Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull famously described Coalition leader Peter Dutton as a “thug”.

That description appears particularly apt in Dutton’s nuclear power plan.

The Coalition’s nuclear project is opposed by Labor governments in each of the five states being targeted.

Victoria, NSW and Queensland have laws banning nuclear power. Labor governments in South Australia and Western Australia may follow suit if they think state laws will give them some legal protection, or political advantage. Or both.

Could a Dutton Coalition government override state laws banning nuclear power?

Anne Twomey, a Sydney University Professor Emerita with lengthy experience teaching and practising in constitutional law, argues that states probably could not prevent the Commonwealth establishing a nuclear power plant, nor could they prevent necessary associated operations, such as transmission lines and nuclear waste transport.

Would a Dutton Coalition government attempt to override state opposition to nuclear power plants? Almost certainly it would.

Nationals leader David Littleproud said in March that “if the Australian people vote for us that’s a fair indication to premiers that they should get out of the way”.

Federal Coalition and Labor governments have pursued attempts to impose a national nuclear waste dump in SA and the NT, despite state and territory laws banning such facilities.

Those attempts have all failed, largely due to community opposition led by affected Traditional Owners.

Legal challenges helped stop three of the four proposed nuclear dump sites — Woomera (South Australia) under the Howard government; Muckaty (Northern Territory) under the Abbott government; and Kimba (SA) under the Morrison and Albanese governments.

But the legal difficulties could have been overcome if the government of the day was ruthless enough and wasn’t suffering too much political pain because of its own racist, undemocratic waste disposal plan.

There is no doubt a Dutton Coalition government would ignore the wishes of Traditional Owners and Native Title holders opposed to the construction of a nuclear reactor on their country.

They would be stripped of their land rights and heritage protections, as has been the case with nuclear waste dump proposals.

Compulsory acquisition

What about the companies which own the sites being targeted by the Coalition for nuclear power plants and which have their own multi-billion dollar plans to develop their own clean energy industrial hubs based around renewables?

According to Labor’s energy minister Chris Bowen, six of the owners of the seven targeted sites have ruled out agreeing to nuclear power reactors.

Dutton hasn’t bothered to consult these companies, but he has sought legal advice. This is what he said: “We will work with the companies, the owners of the sites. If we find a situation where we apply a national interest test and we require that site to be part of the national grid, then the legal advice that we have is that the Commonwealth has ample power to compulsorily acquire that with ample compensation.”

The Coalition also has not bothered to consult communities around the sites targeted for nuclear reactors. Like state governments and the owners of the targeted sites, opposition from local communities will be overridden.

Nationals deputy leader Perin Davey made the mistake of saying that the Coalition would not impose nuclear power plants on communities that were adamantly opposed.

Davey was corrected by Littleproud who said: “She is not correct and we made this very clear. Peter Dutton and David Littleproud as part of a Coalition government are prepared to make the tough decisions in the national interest.”

Likewise, Dutton said: “Perin I think made a mistake yesterday as everybody does from time to time ... We’ve identified the seven locations and we believe it’s in the community’s interests and the national interest to proceed.”

According to Dutton and Littleproud, democracy is for “traitors” who oppose the “national interest”.

This stands in stark contrast to a 2019 parliamentary inquiry, led by current shadow energy minister Ted O’Brien, whose report was titled Not without your approval: a way forward for nuclear technology in Australia.

Announcing the release of the parliamentary report, O’Brien said then that a future government should only proceed with nuclear power on the condition that it make “a commitment to community consent as a condition of approval for any nuclear power or nuclear waste disposal facility”.

He also spoke about about “maintaining a social license based on trust and transparency” and putting people “at the centre of any approval process”.

That was then and this is now.

Twomey noted that a Dutton government would need to get laws through Parliament, including the Senate, to repeal federal laws banning nuclear power and also “to provide any necessary legal support and protection for a nuclear power industry in Australia”.

An uncooperative Senate could block Dutton’s nuclear power plans but could not stop him expanding and prolonging the use of fossil fuels and derailing the renewable energy transition.

Only voters can do that.

Nuclear power for South Australia

SA is destined to get one or more nuclear power reactors, whether or not it likes it and whether it needs the additional power supply.

SA has gone from 1% renewable electricity supply to 74% over the last 16 years and the government aims to reach 100% net renewables by 2027.

While there is doubt about the 2027 timeline, it’s a safe bet we’ll reach 100 percent net renewables by the time a nuclear reactor could possibly begin generating electricity 20-plus years from now.

The Northern Power Station near Port Augusta, one of the Coalition’s seven sites, was shut down in 2016 and the region has since become a renewables hub.

Are Dutton and O’Brien unaware of these developments? Are they planning a renewables-to-nuclear transition for SA?

It’s difficult to see their non-negotiable plan for a nuclear power plant in SA as anything other than an ill-conceived uncosted thought bubble.

The Coalition insists that nuclear power would reduce power bills. But there’s no evidence to support that claim and plenty to suggest otherwise.

That claim is not supported by CSIRO’s GenCost: cost of building Australia’s future electricity needs or by a recent report prepared for the Clean Energy Council by Egis, a leading global consulting, construction and engineering firm.

Neither is it supported by a recent report on small modular reactors by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, or in the latest economic analysis released by investment firm Lazard.

SA Premier Peter Malinauskas is not convinced about the Coalition’s economic claims either, saying: “Every single objective, independent analysis that has looked at this has said nuclear power would make power more expensive in Australia rather than cheaper.

“Why we would impose that burden on power consumers in our country is completely beyond me.”

[Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and co-author of a new report by the Australian Conservation Foundation Power Games: Assessing coal to nuclear proposals in Australia. He also helped produce Nuclear Power Can't Save the Climate: Don’t Nuke The Climate.]

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