Why nuclear power must remain outlawed in Australia

Radioactive resistance. Photo: Friends of the Earth Victoria

Nuclear power is prohibited in Australia under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC). A review is underway and the nuclear industry wants to remove the bans.

Laws banning nuclear power have saved us from the huge costs associated with failed and failing reactor projects in Europe and North America, such as the Westinghouse project in South Carolina that was abandoned after the expenditure of at least A$13.4 billion.

There are many examples of shocking nuclear costs and cost overruns, including:

• The cost of the two reactors under construction in the US state of Georgia has doubled and now stands at $20.4‒22.6 billion per reactor;

• The cost of the only reactor under construction in France has nearly quadrupled and now stands at $20 billion. It is 10 years behind schedule;

• The cost of the only reactor under construction in Finland has nearly quadrupled and now stands at $17.7 billion. It is 10 years behind schedule.

• The cost of the four reactors under construction in the United Arab Emirates has risen from $7.5 billion per reactor to $10‒12 billion per reactor;

• The estimated cost of the only two reactors under construction in Britain is $25.9 billion per reactor. A decade ago, the estimated cost was almost seven times lower. The British National Audit Office estimates that taxpayer subsidies for the project will amount to $58 billion, despite earlier government promises that no taxpayer subsidies would be made available.

Nuclear power has priced itself out of the market, and will decline over coming decades. Indeed, nuclear industry insiders acknowledge it is in crisis. Westinghouse, the most experienced reactor builder, filed for bankruptcy in 2017 due to catastrophic cost overruns on reactor projects. A growing number of countries are phasing out nuclear power, including Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Belgium, Taiwan and South Korea.

Nuclear power cannot pass any reasonable economic test. First, it cannot be introduced or maintained without huge taxpayer subsidies and secondly, it would undoubtedly result in higher electricity prices.

There is no solution for the safe, long-term management of streams of low-, intermediate- and high-level nuclear wastes.

Too dangerous

No country has an operating repository for high-level nuclear waste. The United States has a deep underground repository for long-lived intermediate-level waste — the only one worldwide — but it had to be closed in 2014–17 after a chemical explosion.

Safety standards and regulatory oversight fell away sharply within the first decade of its operation — a sobering reminder of the challenge of safely managing dangerous nuclear wastes for tens of thousands of years.

The Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters resulted in the evacuation of more than half a million people and costs ran into the hundreds of billions of dollars. In addition to the danger of nuclear reactor meltdowns, fires and chemical explosions, there are other dangers.

Doubling nuclear output by the middle of the century would require the construction of 800−900 reactors. These would not only become military targets, they would also produce more than 1 million tonnes of high-level nuclear waste, containing enough plutonium to build more than 1 million nuclear weapons.

Nuclear power plants have been described as “pre-deployed terrorist targets” and pose a major security threat.  This would likely lead to an increase in policing and security operations, not to mention the commensurate negative impact on civil liberties and public access to information.

Other nations in the region are likely to be concerned about Australia’s nuclear aspirations, as many aspects of the technology are the same as those required for nuclear weapons.

Too slow and thirsty

As a short-term response to climate change, nuclear power is also impractical. An analysis by Australian economist Professor John Quiggin concluded that it would be “virtually impossible” to get a nuclear power reactor operating before 2040.

More time would be needed before nuclear power could generate as much as energy as was expended in the construction of a reactor: a University of Sydney report concluded that the energy payback time for nuclear reactors is 6.5‒7 years.

Taking into account planning and approvals, construction and the energy pay-back time, it would be a quarter of a century, or more, before nuclear power could begin to reduce greenhouse emissions (and then only assuming that nuclear power displaced fossil fuels).

Nuclear power is also extraordinarily thirsty. A single nuclear power reactor consumes 35‒65 million litres of water a day for cooling. The water consumption of different energy sources, in litres per kilowatt hour, are as follows: nuclear 2.5; coal 1.9; combined cycle gas 0.95; solar photovoltaic 0.11; and wind 0.004.

Nuclear power plants are also vulnerable to climate change threats, including dwindling and warming water sources, sea-level rise, storm damage, drought and jellyfish swarms.  As nuclear engineer David Lochbaum said: “I’ve heard many nuclear proponents say that nuclear power is part of the solution to global warming. It needs to be reversed: you need to solve global warming for nuclear plants to survive.”

By contrast, the REN21 Renewables 2015: Global Status Report says that renewable energy systems “have unique qualities that make them suitable both for reinforcing the resilience of the wider energy infrastructure and for ensuring the provision of energy services under changing climatic conditions”. In January 2019, the Climate Council, comprising Australia’s leading climate scientists, issued a policy statement concluding that nuclear power plants “are not appropriate for Australia — and probably never will be”.

First Nations' rights

The pursuit of a nuclear power industry would almost certainly further disempower and dispossess First Nations communities as a result of nuclear and uranium projects.

For example, the National Radioactive Waste Management Act dispossesses and disempowers Traditional Owners in many respects. The nomination of a site for a radioactive waste dump is valid even if Aboriginal owners are not consulted and do not give consent. 

The act can nullify state or territory laws that protect archaeological or heritage values, including those that relate to Indigenous traditions. It curtails the application of federal laws, including the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 and the Native Title Act 1993 in the important site-selection stage; the Native Title Act 1993 is expressly overridden in the case of land acquisition for a radioactive waste dump.

There is no social license to introduce nuclear power. Opinion polls have repeatedly found that Australians are overwhelmingly opposed to a nuclear power reactor being built in their local vicinity.

Polls also find that support for renewable energy sources far exceeds support for nuclear power. A 2015 IPSOS poll found there was between 72‒87% support for solar and wind power and just 26% support for nuclear power.

As the Clean Energy Council noted in its submission to the 2019 federal nuclear inquiry, it would require “a minor miracle” to win community support for nuclear power.

The pursuit of nuclear power would also require bipartisan political consensus at state and federal levels for several decades.  Currently, there is a bipartisan consensus at the federal level to retain the legal ban.

While the ultra-conservatives within the Coalition are lobbying for nuclear power, their push has been rejected by the federal Liberal Party leadership, the Queensland Liberal-National Party, the South Australian Liberal government, the Tasmanian Liberal government, the New South Wales Liberal Premier and environment minister and even ultra-conservative Nationals Senator Matt Canavan.

The introduction of nuclear power would delay and undermine the development of effective and economic energy and climate policies, based on renewable energy sources and energy efficiency.

A December 2019 report by CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator found that construction costs for nuclear reactors are 2‒8 times higher than the costs for wind or solar.

Comparing the cost of energy technologies over their lifetimes, nuclear is 2‒3 times greater than that of wind or solar.

[Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia. For more information see Nuclear power: No solution to climate change, WISE Nuclear Monitor, June 2016.]