It’s time for rational debate on nuclear

Prime Minister Scott Morrison started a hare running a week ago with his comment that he has “no issue” with nuclear power for Australia – but, in the same breath, he tripped it up by adding that the technology “doesn’t stack up” as an investment compared with Hydro Tasmania’s “battery of the nation” concept.

Morrison, in effect, says that the test for nuclear generation here is “will it lower household bills,” begging a heap of questions, not the least of which is that neither he nor anyone else can predict consumer power prices a decade from now. Too many moving parts. However, an important aspect of nuclear power is that it is capital-intensive to build but relatively low-cost to operate.

Most of the ensuing noise flowing from his comments (including a particularly inane contribution from Bill Shorten, dragging in Chernobyl) was just that – noise – but Ziggy Switkowski, who chaired a 2006-7 nuclear inquiry for John Howard, provided the proper framework: the answers, he said, to what technologies can meet Australia’s future power needs should be pursued in terms of cost, reliability and market resilience (ie economics and risk), not on the basis of ideology.

To which an op-ed this week in the Australian Financial Review by Coalition senator Amanda Stoker has rightly added that “For too long we have allowed nuclear energy to remain off-limits in the discussion about the security of Australia’s energy supply. What we need is an informed and rational debate that isn’t driven by fear.”

Stoker is a fan of small modular reactors (SMRs), emerging technology with capacity between 50 and 300 megawatts compared with 1,000 MW or more for conventional nuclear plants – its proponents argue it will be far cheaper and safer and capable of competing with wind and solar farms when all issues (including capacity factors and the costs of network support, storage and other “firming” needs and land use charges) are taken in to account.

Even more than in other technology areas, much of the nuclear debate is powered by opinion but this a poor substitute for expert, whole-of-system analysis.

The challenge for Morrison and his cabinet is not to pick generation winners for the decade ahead (which is essentially what Labor, with the Greens breathing down their neck in marginal seats, want to do with their renewables approach) but to ensure that the public interest is served by efficient investment.

This goal can in part be achieved by proposing to lift the legislative ban on use of nuclear energy and initiating an expert inquiry in to the costs, risks and benefits of the technology, taking the scaremongers head on with the argument that this is acting in the best, long-term interests of the country without committing to guessing how investors, confronted eventually with a sensible, stable and all-embracing policy, will choose to spend their funds – or, worse, by trying to buy their investment with subsidies of one sort or another.

Of course, this approach comes with political risk – but, let’s face it, getting out of bed each morning comes with risk for the federal Coalition in the present environment and the looming Wentworth by-election may add to, or marginally ease, the pressure.

Being seen by supporters and potential supporters living in the “sensible middle” of the national electorate as seeking to act in an adult fashion in two areas of public concern – energy affordability and reliability as well as underpinning on-going carbon abatement – may actually be a plus.

Leaving aside political hysteria on the nuclear issue, what is the downside to proposing to change the law to overthrow this ban?

It can be presented – honestly – as an enabling action to allow Australia to take advantage of important technology innovation, specifically via SMRs if they fulfil their promise. After all, if this technology does achieve a breakthrough, it’s a pretty good bet it will be adopted in many other countries, including our trade competitors.

PS: Many of the “pathways” in the latest IPCC climate change report – about which there has been so much media fuss in recent days – allow for an increased role for nuclear power (while, of course, talking up solar and wind power big time). One of these “pathways” actually sees global nuclear power production five times above its 2010 level in 2050 (where, in turn, electricity use is expected to be far higher than now).  Of course, the report also includes a ritual nod to the claimed risks of nuclear energy with respect to proliferation and health – but the anti-nuke brigade (who have leapt on this) can’t escape the fact that in the past decade the IPCC has gone from minimizing the abatement role of nuclear power to including it as a key element in climate change mitigation.

One of the perennial problems with these reports is that the activists wave the bits they like as proof “top scientists” want us to adopt their eco-socialist agenda while ignoring anything that doesn’t suit their propaganda. This is happening again now when, in fact, the 2018 document strongly talks to private investment and innovation, including non-trivial spending on nuclear generation. In this context, I rather like a comment in Canada’s Globe & Mail newspaper in the past week that “good climate policy pleases no crowds; there are no raucous rallies in its name.” Worth remembering in Canberra.

PPS: Former Pancontinental Mining chief Tony Grey has an op-ed on the nuclear issue worth reading in today’s The Australian.

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