Some while ago I wrote that, whatever the advantages of nuclear energy, no one is seriously looking at investing in building it in Australia, and nuclear energy seems to be primarily used as a rod to beat climate activists with (“you are hypocrites because nuclear energy could save us”). However if no one is trying to build it, or wanting to build it, then it becomes a distraction from problems, even worse than Carbon Capture and Storage.
A few days after writing that post, a friend wrote to me, saying that nuclear energy was ‘on the table’…. They said, and this is paraphrased a little:
In December 2019 a report called “Not without your approval” was prepared by the Environment and Energy Committee was presented to parliament. It’s available here. It proposes three recommendations to the Commonwealth Government.
1) that it consider the prospect of nuclear technology as part of its future energy mix
2) that it undertake a body of work to progress the understanding of nuclear technology in the Australian context
3) that it consider lifting the current moratorium on nuclear energy partially—that is, for new and emerging nuclear
Subject to assessment of technology and a commitment to community consent for approving nuclear facilities.
This is absolutely correct. The recommendations of the Committee are possibly a step towards doing something, but we shall have to see. I would think that if community consent for wind farms is difficult, then it would be close to impossible to obtain that consent for nukes.
However, as far as I can tell from the Parliamentary records, although a motion was tabled in February to speak to this report, it has not been discussed as yet (last tabled 18 June).
I may be wrong here, because it can be difficult to follow parliamentary procedure. But it certainly does not seem to have been greeted with eagerness, or even formally noted.
The Federal Government’s response to Covid has shown little sign of interest in building or funding, or raising the question of nuclear energy. This is perhaps surprising given that the massive subsidies which are being proposed for Gas and gas pipelines, which do emit methane and other GHGs. Although the stacking of the committee making recommendations with fossil fuel people, might explain this.
I, at least, have heard nothing from the Federal government of a move to free up the path for nuclear energy, which is what would be needed, given the legislation that prevents it from happening.
Now the leader of the National Party and Deputy Premier. John Barilaro, in NSW, part of the Coalition, did at one time say the NSW Nationals would support Mark Latham’s (One Nation) bill to allow nuclear energy in NSW, However the government’s own Energy Minister, Matt Kean, stressed the government’s focus was on “cheap reliable energy” as provided by renewables.
Barilaro later told a budget estimates hearing the matter would first need to be considered by the party room as well as the cabinet. There are people in the party room who are strongly opposed to nukes, especially if the reactors where to be in their electorates. Mr Barilaro, himself, was in favour of “small nuclear reactors”, which he called “the iphone of reactors”. However, in response to questioning he said he was aware these did not exist, but which “we know is on the horizon”. He also said he welcomed it in his own electorate.
In this context, it is worth exploring the estimated costs of small nuclear reactors. The Gencost 2019-20 report by the CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator concludes that the cost of energy through small nuclear reactors would be $16,304 per kilowatt (kW) [these figures are from RenewEconomy. I do not know where their exact figures come from, but the graphs in the Gencost report give the price per kW as over $16,000], which would need massive reduction to be economical. Which of course could happen.
RenewEconomy comments on the cost of small nuclear reactors being built or just built:
There is just one operational SMR, Russia’s floating plant. Its estimated cost is US$740 million for a 70 MW plant. That equates to A$15,200 per kW – similar to the CSIRO/AEMO estimate of A$16,304 per kW.
Over the course of construction, the cost quadrupled and a 2016 OECD Nuclear Energy Agency report said that electricity produced by the Russian floating plant is expected to cost about US$200 (A$288) per 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 World Nuclear Association states that the cost of China’s high-temperature gas-cooled SMR (HTGR) is US$6,000 (A$8,600) per kW….
Argentina’s Bariloche Atomic Center… By April 2017, the cost estimate had increased [to] US$21,900 (A$31,500) per kW (US$700 million / 32 MW).Small modular reactor rhetoric hits a hurdle. RenewEconomy 23 June 2020
The GenCost Report says:
there is no hard data to be found on nuclear SMR.
While there are plants under construction or nearing completion, public cost data has not emerged from these early stage developments….. Past experience has indicated that vendor-based estimates are often initially too low
Constructing first-of-a-kind plant includes additional unforeseen costs associated with lack of experience in completing such projects on budget. SMR will not only be subject to first-of-a-kind costs in Australia but also the general engineering principle that building plant smaller leads to higher costs.
SMRs may be able to overcome the scale problem by keeping the design of reactors constant and producing them in a series. This potential to modularise the technology is likely another source of lower cost estimates. However, even in the scenario where the industry reaches a scale where small modular reactors can be produced in series, this will take many years to achieve and therefore is not relevant to estimates of current costsGencost p.4
The estimated costs for nukes is about twice that of black coal with CCS <!> and about 8 times that of solar PV or wind (GenCost p.5). Only gas without CCS is cheaper than renewables. Gencost remarks “we should see more competitive costs [for nukes] from the late 2020s assuming planned projects go ahead” (p.15).
These figures are sure to be disputed. Giles Parkinson, who does favour renewable energy, remarked of submissions to an inquiry:
The nuclear lobby has largely given up on existing nuclear technology, recognising that the repeated cost blow-outs and delays means that it is too expensive, too slow and not suited for Australia’s grid…Parkinson. Why the nuclear lobby makes stuff up about cost of wind and solar. RenewEconomy 23 October 2019
So they have been promoting the new small reactor technology which is just off being ranked as fantasy, and certainly has no long term data, and
insisting to the parliamentary inquiry that wind and solar are four to seven times the cost of nuclear, and to try and prove the point the lobby has been making such extraordinary and outrageous claims that it makes you wonder if anything else they say about nuclear – its costs and safety – can be taken seriously…. When it comes to wind, solar and batteries, they just make stuff up.Parkinson. Why the nuclear lobby makes stuff up about cost of wind and solar. RenewEconomy 23 October 2019
So it’s all a bit confused, but as far as I know NSW does not have the power to act alone on this, even if small nuclear reactors were a settled and cheap technology – which they don’t appear to be.
My friend then wrote:
In reference to the second part of your question about who in Australian industry is seeking to build nuclear power plants, here is a list of seven submissions, made between September 2019 & April 2020. There is an eighth still in process of publication https://www.brightnewworld.org/submissions.
As far as I can see, Brightnewworld seems to be a guy, and some friends in a bedroom or an office, somewhere, trying to become a registered NGO. They have no obvious ways of raising finance to engage in actual nuclear reactor building, although they are soliciting corporate donations to support the organisation.
They primarily seem to be an information organisation, not investors. So they do not count, any more than writers in the Murdoch Empire. They could be as much a part of the distraction process as anything else.
The World Nuclear Association reports on nuclear power prospects in Australia & states that in November 2018 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) completed a 12-day integrated regulatory review service mission focused on ARPANSA (Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act) to assess the regulatory framework for nuclear and radiation safety in Australia.
While interesting, the World Nuclear Association report is primarily about uranium mining. It does mention that the ARPANS Act 1998 would have to be repealed to get nuclear energy going, but does not seem to indicate that anyone of any significance is interested in repealing it, or that there is any near future prospects for nuclear energy in Australia.
I’m also not sure if the IAEA “assess[ing] the regulatory framework for nuclear and radiation safety in Australia,” has anything to do with real agitation for building reactors either. It could just be checking the regulations, and seems to be something the IAEA would do for any country that had a reactor and mining. As far as I can tell from the annual report for the year 2018, the “integrated regulatory review service mission” was primarily concerned with radiation safety and education, not with changing legislation or promoting nuclear energy.
Another friend wrote:
Given our geography (pretty stable inland where there are few earthquakes or tsunamis etc) and the fact that it can be done in a remote area I think a lot of the risk is not there that is in other countries and I think that’s why it’s being pushed from the back bench of the government – it’s just how many fights the PM wants to take on.
However, I’m not entirely sure nuclear energy can be done economically in remote areas in Australia, I think reactors are used to generate steam to drive turbines, and require water for the steam and for cooling.
Given that we happily give coal mines masses of water, which is polluted by its uses, we could possibly allow reactors to consume the Artesian basin, but that is probably not a good idea in the long term, assuming we want anyone to be able to live and farm outback, with the increasing droughts.
The last serious proposal I know of, for nuclear power was at Jarvis Bay using sea water (after it was purified). It might be possible to have a closed circuit water cycle, but I don’t know how often its been done. I gather there are non-water cooled reactors, but at this moment I can’t tell if they are primarily experimental or not – some sites claim they are and some claim they are standard if rare. There is always a lot of hype about new tech. They may still use water for steam.
You also use water to cover the fuel rods.
The point is that they would probably end up being built on the coast, in relatively fertile regions. So I don’t see this happening, even if people were agitating for it
Altogether, I don’t really see that much evidence that agitation for nuclear energy in Australia is not a fantasy or distraction from the real problems we face. Given that any such successful agitation for nuclear energy will face considerable opposition, this will significantly add to the time frame of building the reactors, which is important as we need emissions reductions now not in 20 years. However, we could be surprised, and something useful might happen.