What the experts say…on nuclear power

| June 21, 2024

Peter Dutton has announced he will go to the next election promising to build seven nuclear power stations, located across the country. The sites will be located at retiring or retired coal sites, and the opposition leader says the new stations will be operational by between 2035 and 2037. Below a range Australian experts respond to the announcement.

Tony Irwin, an Honorary Associate Professor at the Australian National University, the Technical Director of SMR Nuclear Technology Pty Ltd and Chair of Engineers Australia Sydney Division Nuclear Engineering Panel, welcomed the proposal, saying “At last a plan for a diverse low emission energy mix with some elements independent of the weather.

It’s sensible to repower retiring coal-fired sites with nuclear power plants, using the existing transmission system and existing cooling water but most importantly providing well paid jobs. Retrain the staff (as Bill Gates is doing in Wyoming), save the local communities and big economic benefits to the region.”

Associate Professor Martin Anda, from the Harry Butler Institute, Centre for Water, Energy and Waste in the School of Engineering and Energy at Murdoch University, says “The energy transition to renewable sources is already well underway in Western Australia and moving forward. I doubt that Peter Dutton has gone to Collie and met with the people there. I do not believe that they are remotely interested in having a nuclear power plant in their backyard.

The Opposition’s approach also fails to consider that nuclear is not just an energy source to drive a power station – the power station is thermal, running on a steam cycle and it therefore needs water.

The rivers and groundwater at Collie are already over-abstracted by the coal thermal power station so nuclear is not the solution.

The WA Government and private players are already well advanced in building large batteries at Collie and Kwinana to firm the grid for increasing amounts of solar and wind energy that will come – proven technology that can be built quickly with no local impacts. Geothermal energy will be next, and this can firm the grid for large industrial estates like Kwinana.”

Dr Liam Wagner, an Associate Professor in Sustainable Energy Systems at Curtin University, cautions that “The proposed nuclear energy policy of the opposition will not only rapidly increase electricity prices, it will fundamentally impact the stability of the national electricity market.

By relying on seven small nuclear reactors, the system will be unable to provide enough electricity generation capacity to keep up with planned retirements of coal fired generators.

Furthermore, the fanciful reliance on sitting new nuclear reactors on the sites of retired/retiring coal fired generators completely disregards the proper geological installation requirements for this type of power station.

The opposition are quite clearly operating on very little to no insight to what the technology requires for establishment, nor their operation.”

Ian Lowe, an Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University, Qld and former President of the Australian Conservation Foundation, asserts that “Nuclear power is legally impossible, economically unachievable and environmentally irresponsible.

The Howard government legislated 25 years ago a national prohibition of nuclear power. No State government is in favour of reactors in their State. Mr Dutton’s LNP colleagues in Queensland, with an election later this year, are desperate to assure electors they do not support the plan.

In economic terms, the global average price for nuclear power last year was four times the price of power from solar farms or wind turbines. As CSIRO’s annual GenCost study shows, adding the storage needed for renewables to be firm capacity, they are still less than half the cost of the most optimistic estimates of nuclear power.

The more important point is that we are now, after a decade of inaction, part of the international move to slow climate change. A decision to put our trust in nuclear power would effectively be a decision to keep burning coal for at least a decade, more realistically until about 2050. There is no way we could achieve net zero emissions with that approach, so it would be in breach of the previous Coalition government’s acceptance of the Paris agreement.”

Dr Adam Simpson, a Senior Lecturer of International Studies from the school of Justice & Society at the University of South Australia, notes that “Dutton has just announced a nuclear power plant for SA, a state which in three years will be running off 100% renewable energy.

A nuclear power plant would only appear in 15 years or more, at the very earliest, by which time the state will likely have 200% renewable energy, exporting half of it together with a thriving green hydrogen and a renewables-driven manufacturing industry. There is no foreseeable situation in which an SA politician would agree to build a hugely expensive and unnecessary nuclear power station in the state.

All three eastern states, where most of the power stations would reside, have nuclear bans which their governments have pledged not to overturn. Even in Queensland, Dutton’s home turf and Australia’s most conservative state, the LNP leader, who may be premier later this year, has reconfirmed his opposition to nuclear power.

This is a fantasy policy. It’s based on disinformation regarding cost, timeline, waste storage, political pathways and security impediments. The phoney war, where the Coalition could make broad generalisations based on disinformation, is now over. Over the next 12 months before the next election Labor, the Greens and the teals will have a field day exposing the folly of this policy. As well as being scientifically and economically unfounded this policy will prove to be very bad politics for Dutton and the Coalition.

This strategy is based on holding up the renewable energy rollout and delaying the end of Australia’s fossil fuel dependency, not providing a serious policy for Australia’s future energy needs.”

Dr Katherine Woodthorpe, the President of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, warns that “The associated timescales, expense, skills gap, legal and regulatory barriers and social acceptance of nuclear power renders the technology unproven. It is possible that nuclear technology may be part of Australia’s long-term energy mix beyond 2040.

In Australia, renewable technologies such as solar and wind are proven and mature with widespread deployment underway. Large-scale nuclear will be outcompeted by renewables in the current timeframe and does not appear a viable economic option in the short or medium term. Importantly, focusing on nuclear power now could distract from the transition away from fossil fuels, send mixed signals to industry and hamper efforts to deploy renewable technologies at pace.

ATSE advocates for a technology neutral approach which requires that all options compete on a level playing field. Further non-partisan analysis is required to objectively examine technology readiness and the role of nuclear technology in the long-term.

Asma Aziz, a Senior lecturer in Power Engineering in the School of Engineering at Edith Cowan University, believes that “Australia needs diverse generation and storage but also requires proper assessments before making any decisions.

Nuclear energy’s carbon footprint is comparable to wind and less than solar, but it faces high capital costs, long build times, substantial operating expenses, and integration difficulties, making it impractical for addressing the climate crisis. Integrating nuclear power plants (NPPs) into the grid involves complex regulatory and engineering challenges due to their constant ‘baseload’ supply, which requires other plants to be ‘load following’.

Other major drawbacks include safety concerns, high costs, and long-term radioactive waste storage. Japan, Germany, Belgium, Spain, and Switzerland are phasing out nuclear power due to these issues. In the USA, ageing reactors are being retired early due to high costs. France’s reactor in Flamanville is significantly delayed and over budget. Small modular reactors (SMRs) are not yet viable, with recent cost estimates at $20,100 per kW compared to $700-$1,700 for solar and wind.”

Associate Professor Mehdi Seyedmahmoudian, a renewable energy expert from Swinburne University, agrees that “Peter Dutton’s approach could potentially reduce costs and accelerate deployment by utilising existing infrastructure.

However, advancements in renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and hydropower, combined with energy storage technologies, offer more sustainable and efficient alternatives. Innovations in battery storage, hydrogen fuel cells, and hybrid energy systems are significantly enhancing the reliability and cost-effectiveness of renewable energy.

Smart grid technologies, community microgrids, and demand response management systems optimise energy distribution and consumption, facilitating the seamless integration of intermittent renewable sources. This reduces the need for large-scale, centralised power plants and addresses environmental and safety concerns associated with nuclear energy, such as radioactive waste management and potential catastrophic failures.

By investing in research, innovation, and infrastructure for renewable energy and smart grid technologies, we can achieve a reliable, sustainable, and cost-effective energy transition without relying on nuclear power, ensuring long-term energy security and environmental sustainability.”

Dr Nathan Garland, of the School of Environment and Science – Applied Mathematics and Physics Discipline at Griffith University, says “From a purely scientific, technical, or engineering perspective the announcement of proposed nuclear plants around Australia is relatively uncontroversial – as many countries have successfully used fission plants for some time, and the technology is well matured and demonstrated to be safe enough.

Though large practical issues do remain, for instance around long term nuclear waste storage, which is something that has been controversial in Australia previously. We currently have no long-term storage policy and method to do so, and this has to be talked about first before any nuclear site is proposed. It is putting the cart before the horse in the grandest sense.

Another large issue is that Australia’s nuclear workforce is minuscule, and this would take considerable time and cost to be built properly as well. Roles with deep nuclear training and experience, such as technicians, physicists, engineers, lawyers, and more, will be essential for any such national plan. Would the government additionally fund the University and VET sectors to train this workforce? Or simply try to buy and import people from overseas?”

Associate Professor Tony Hooker, the Director of the Centre for Radiation Research, Education and Innovation (CRREI) at the University of Adelaide, argues that “Nuclear technology is used around the world with more countries ramping up investment in what is the safest form of reliable, clean energy available.

Nuclear has a valuable role to play in Australia’s future energy mix along with renewable energy while gas will still be an important energy source in the interim as we transition to nuclear power.

Nuclear energy is not new to Australia and we have safely managed three nuclear research reactors since 1958 without major incident.

Co-location of reactors next to existing coal-fired power stations is ideal because it will lower transmission costs and provides for a ready-made workforce with transferable skills.

Australia’s primary weakness in moving towards nuclear is our lack of a trained workforce of nuclear engineering and safety specialists. That is something we at the Centre of Radiation Research, Education and Innovation are committed to addressing.”

Dr Jeremy (Jing) Qiu is a Senior Lecturer in Electrical Engineering in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Sydney

“As we navigate the complexities of the low carbon energy transition, it’s imperative to explore diversified energy sources that bolster both energy independence and security. Peter Dutton’s proposal for seven nuclear power plant sites in Australia presents a strategic step towards achieving these goals. Nuclear power offers a reliable, base-load energy option, complementing intermittent renewables and reducing reliance on fossil fuels. By strategically locating these plants, we can ensure a robust and resilient energy infrastructure, less vulnerable to supply disruptions.

Additionally, integrating nuclear power into our energy mix enhances our ability to meet emissions targets while maintaining grid stability. However, it’s crucial to approach this endeavour with meticulous planning, incorporating comprehensive safety measures and rigorous regulatory frameworks. By embracing nuclear energy alongside renewables, Australia can forge a path towards a sustainable, secure, and independent energy future.”