April 19, 2024

We may not yet be entering a nuclear age in Australia, but we would all be best advised to handle the rhetoric around the issue as carefully as we would radioactive waste.

This week opposition leader Peter Dutton said an annual CSIRO report that had included estimates of costs for small modular reactors – which are not yet available commercially – was “discredited” because it “doesn’t take into account some of the transmission costs, the costs around subsidies for the renewables”.

Dutton is referring to a report known as GenCost, which calculates the cost of generating electricity from different technologies when fuel, labour and capital are included. This metric is known as the levelised cost of electricity.

Despite Dutton’s claim, the most recent GenCost report does include the cost of integrating renewables such as solar and wind into the electricity grid. That is, it includes the cost of building new transmission lines and energy storage such as batteries.

The most recent GenCost report estimates a theoretical small modular reactor built in 2030 would cost $382 to $636 per megawatt hour. It says this is much more expensive than solar and wind, which it puts at between $91 and $130 per MWh even once integration costs are included.

The calculations in GenCost don’t include subsidies for any generating technologies – including renewables or future SMRs.

The cost estimates for SMRs are challenging because no commercial plant has been built. But the closest a project has got to existing – the Carbon-Free Power Project in Utah – was cancelled late last year primarily because the cost of the power would have been too high. And that project was given more than $2bn from the US Department of Energy.

Mycle Schneider is an independent nuclear expert and coordinator of the annual World Nuclear Industry Status report that tracks nuclear power development around the globe. He points to research from US financial group Lazard that says in the US, the costs of unsubsidised solar and wind including firming costs, such as batteries, range from US$45 to $141 per MWh compared to new-build nuclear at US$180 per MWh.

“That is no doubt one reason why global investments in stationary batteries outpaced investments in nuclear in 2023,” he said.

Ramping up the nuclear rhetoric

On Tuesday, Dutton said he would soon reveal six potential sites for nuclear reactors around Australia – likely to be close to, current or retiring coal-fired power stations.

Shadow energy minister Ted O’Brien claimed this week Australia could have nuclear power “up and running” within a decade.

“Nuclear ‘up and running within a decade’ does not fit with the experience we have seen elsewhere,” said Prof MV Ramana, a nuclear expert at the University of British Columbia and a contributor to the nuclear industry status reports.

Ramana points to Finland that has operated reactors since the 1970s, where parliament voted in 2002 to add a fifth reactor to the country’s fleet. Work started in 2005 but the reactor didn’t connect until 2022 “almost exactly 20 years after the parliamentary vote,” he said.

“We can see similar long periods of time between decisions to build reactors and when they start operating, again in countries that already have nuclear plants, in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom.”

Dutton and O’Brien have both said there are 30 economies around the world using nuclear and “50 more” that want to.

But Schneider says there are actually 32 countries with nuclear reactors, “but the top five generators produced 72% of the nuclear electricity in the world.”

“Over the past 30 years, only four countries started nuclear programs (Romania, Iran, Belarus, UAE) and three phased out their programs (Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Germany). There are reactors under construction in three more newcomer countries (Bangladesh, Egypt, Turkiye). Most other ‘plans’ are vague.”

The UAE – a model case study?

On Sky News, O’Brien pointed to the United Arab Emirates as a country that had commissioned South Korea’s Kepco to build four reactors of the size that could be considered for Australia in less than a decade.

In fact, each of the 1.4GW UAE plants was expected to be delivered in five years, but took eight, according to the industry status report. And it took 12 years from the announcement of the plan in 2008, to the first unit coming online in 2020.

The problem with using the UAE as a case study is that it is not a democracy, but an autocracy.

“The UAE is not a good model for Australia,” Ramana said.

The full cost of the project isn’t known, and the country did not have to worry about selecting sites (the plant is built in the desert on the coast), passing legislation through parliament – including to create regulatory bodies – or gaining environmental approvals.

In 2017, the Korea Times reported 17,000 workers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, India and other developing countries had been brought in to work at the reactor sites. Another 3,000 South Koreans were also working on the plants, the newspaper said.

Reactor reactions

Experts have told the Guardian that even if Australia were to remove its federal and state bans on nuclear energy, it would be unlikely to see reactors generating power until the 2040s – at which point most, if not all, of Australia’s coal-fired power will have been turned off years earlier. One nuclear advocate questioned whether Australia could actually find a company to build reactors.

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This week one political journalist said on Sky that “Canada is about to put in small modular reactors” and had selected a site in Ontario.

While Ontario Public Generation does plan to build a fleet of four small modular reactors, the company doesn’t yet have a licence to construct them.

If it does go ahead, OPG has said it doesn’t expect the first-of-its-kind unit – each about one-tenth the size of Australia’s biggest coal-fired power plant – to be working commercially until the end of 2029.

Expertise needed to make giant leap

O’Brien and Dutton have rejected the notion that Australia would be “starting from scratch” on nuclear, citing the existence of the tiny reactor at Lucas Heights near Sydney, the country’s existing reserves of uranium and the agreement to buy nuclear-powered submarines in the future.

Glenne Drover, the secretary of the Victorian branch of the Australian Institute of Energy and a broad supporter of nuclear power, said it was “quite a step up” from the 20MW Lucas Heights research reactor “to 1,000MW+ and to build, own and operate a pressure reactor”.

Drover said the expertise within the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation was a good start “but [Australia] would need a lot more, and would be trying to do this at the same time as UK, France, Canada and USA, and a few others.”

As for uranium reserves, he said: “Yes we have uranium, but we do not have processing/concentrating. That is very specialist. It would be quite a leap to start doing that here.”

‘Skewed and crude’

Writing in The Australian last weekend, Danish political scientist Bjørn Lomborg said the news media made it feel as though “climate change is making the planet unliveable” but such an impression was “wildly misleading”.

“Deaths have dropped precipitously,” he wrote. “Across the past decade, climate-related disasters have killed 98% fewer people than a century ago.”

To achieve fewer disaster deaths, we should promote prosperity, adaptation, and resilience.

But when we are inundated with ‘weather porn’ and miss the fact that deaths have dropped precipitously, we end up focusing on the least effective policies first.https://t.co/T9n50Qx1GS pic.twitter.com/roT1gNnzgt

— Bjorn Lomborg (@BjornLomborg) February 16, 2024

Lomborg, whose same article appeared a few weeks ago in the New York Post, has been making a similar claim for several years, pointing to data from EM-DAT – the International Disaster Database.

Dr Damien Delforge, a researcher at the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters that administers the database, said he regarded Lomborg’s claims as a “skewed and crude trend analysis” that was “irrelevant to current climate change management and discussions”.

The database has well-known biases. The data also doesn’t fully capture the health impact of climate change, Delforge said.

The creation of the US government’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance in the 1960s and gradual improvements in communication technologies has seen many more disasters being reported in modern times. The centre actually warns that pre-2000 data should be excluded from any trend analysis.

Delforge said Lomborg’s starting decade of the 1920s had just 39 disasters in the database with mortality figures.

Of the deaths from that decade, he said, 99% came from only four disasters – two famines in China that killed 3.5 million people, a 1921 drought that killed 1.2m in Ukraine and a 1922 typhoon that killed 100,000 in the Chinese city of Shantou.

The famines were exacerbated by lack of relief and political decisions that left many to starve.

“Were these events’ mortality impacts primarily driven by climate or political conditions?” Delforge asked.

“Is it appropriate to base contemporary policy decisions on climate change on four events that occurred in China and the Soviet Union during the 1920s?”

Factchecks by Reuters and USA Today about similar claims on death rates made by others have found them to be false or misleading.

This article was amended on 14 March 2024 to correct the reference to firming technologies ranging in price from US$45 to $141 per MWh. This price range is actually for unsubsidised wind and solar generation including firming technologies.

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