Nuclear Power in Australia

Nick Cater, The Australian
Feb 26, 2024
The Goesgen Nuclear Power Plant near Daeniken, Northern Switzerland.

In 2004, Australian electricity bills were the fourth-lowest in the OECD. The wind and solar caper had barely begun, and coal and gas supplied 91 per cent of the National Electricity Market.

Today, after 20 years of subsidy chasing by the renewable energy industry, Australia has slipped to 10th place in the OECD rankings of end-user power prices.

Of the nine countries where electricity is cheaper, six have nuclear power stations. They are Finland, Mexico, Switzerland, South Korea, Canada and the US. Of the remaining three, the wet and hilly ones, Norway and Iceland run mostly on hydropower because that’s the way God made them. Israel, somewhat unfashionably, has stuck with coal and gas but has other things to worry about.

So much for Energy Minister Chris Bowen’s claim that the opposition is using nuclear power as a culture-war distraction. His argument collapses at the first brush with reality.

Nuclear is the only baseload alternative to fossil fuel for the inhabitants of a wide and flat brown land unless we care to drill down 40km through the Earth’s crust to tap geothermal energy, which even Bowen must concede is impractical. The minister’s forlorn grab for supporting evidence in his article in The Weekend Australian suggests he knows he is losing the argument.

Until recently, conventional wisdom held that a pro-nuclear policy would be the kiss of death for the Coalition. Yet Bowen would know how quickly public opinion is changing, even within the green movement. When voters are asked if they favour nuclear power, the numbers are usually tight.

When the pollster asks if they would consider nuclear power, however, a clear majority say yes. The readiness to consider nuclear grows when they are asked about small modular reactors, notably among younger voters.

Bowen’s foolhardy use of statistics is unnerving, given his power to call upon the resources of a sizeable government department to stop him from embarrassing himself. He writes that “by early 2025, renewable energy will surpass coal as the planet’s largest source of energy”. As the Energy Minister should know, energy differs from electricity, which accounts for just 20 per cent of global energy use, according to the International Energy Market’s latest data.

Wind and solar accounted for 2.2 per cent of the world’s energy mix in 2019 if we assume it is what the IEA means by “other”. If we include hydropower in the renewables basket, it rises to 4.8 per cent.
Edit: The figures in 2022 (on right) are somewhat higher, Renewables 7½ per cent, Hydro 6.7 per cent

Oil accounts for 31 per cent, down from 44 per cent in 1971, but the gap has been filled by gas (up from 16 to 23 per cent) and nuclear (0.5 per cent to 4 per cent). Coal has remained steady at 26 per cent.

The data does not exactly leap to Bowen’s defence, even if we assume he has conflated energy with electricity. In 2019, wind, solar and biofuels generated 10.8 per cent of the world’s electricity, and hydro 15.7 per cent. Fossil thermal fuel was by far the biggest contributor at 63 per cent.

Admittedly, the IEA’s reporting is somewhat tardy, but it would take a hockey stick curve of Michael Mann-ic proportions for renewables to overtake coal by this time next year, even if it were feasible.

Bowen’s suggestion that nuclear projects fall like skittles is equally hard to substantiate. The World Nuclear Association lists 62 nuclear plants under construction in 17 countries. They include 26 in China. Some 440 more are listed as either planned or proposed, of which 196 are in China, 25 in Russia and five in Iran.

Yet Peter Dutton would be foolish to assume the argument is as good as won, or that a nuclear policy is a substitute for a convincing energy policy.

Even on the most optimistic timetable, nuclear will not be part of our energy mix before the mid-2030s and investment won’t flow without a thorough reform of the energy market.

The short answer to almost every question is gas. The Opposition Leader will have little trouble persuading his own party room, where past battles have instilled a degree of energy literacy. He should prepare for considerable opposition from his own party at the state level, however, where many Coalition MPs have formed a unity ticket with Labor and the Greens in opposition to the imagined climate emergency.

Dutton should not underestimate the quantity of the venom in the hornet’s nest he has disturbed by challenging the orthodoxy that prevails in the media, universities and government departments. As Tony Abbott discovered, these people are not prepared to surrender their dogma in this policy debate without a fight.

An even more formidable opponent will be the energy industry, where a powerful combination of virtue signalling and naked self-interest has set in.

The energy industry with few exceptions is not campaigning for fossil fuel, as renewable advocates often claim. It is busy chasing subsidies and playing with the market. It has worked out easier ways to make money than supplying customers with affordable and reliable electricity. Renewable Energy Certificates have proved be a more dependable source of revenue than the energy itself.

Labor’s planned Capacity Investment Scheme, which is supposed to underwrite 32GW of renewal energy investment, has the added appeal of letting them make money without actually turning the generation plants on. It provides an even stronger incentive to stop nuclear before it eats their lunch.

Over the past 10 years, the renewable energy industrial complex has grown in strength and sophistication. It channels tens of millions of dollars into grassroots campaigns in Australia, creating an almost bottomless war chest to fund lawfare and buy influence in politics. Renewable energy interests almost entirely underwrote the teal campaign in 2022. Dutton shouldn’t expect any of these so-called independents to back nuclear anytime soon, despite their claim to be the heroes putting integrity back into politics.

Big renewables will fight almost as hard against gas, even though quick-start-up turbines are the quickest and cheapest way to firm the supply of the intermittent energy they fitfully supply. Gas threatens their investment in batteries for the same reason nuclear threatens renewables.

The cause of common sense is not just lost. Dutton has defeated the woke Goliath once and could do so again. Corporate support for the voice, however, was mainly motivated by virtue signalling rather than crude financial self-interest.

To use the words that turned boxing announcer Michael Buffer into a household name, “get ready to rumble”.

Nick Cater is senior fellow at the Menzies Research Centre.

Comment by Geoffrey

When voters are asked if they favour nuclear power, the numbers are usually tight.
The vast majority of noisy opponents would have no idea what nuclear power is. Well, here's a brief lesson.;
The power is exactly the same, the generators are exactly the same. The only difference is that the heat to boil the water to make the steam that drives the turbines, - uses a small nuclear reactor as its heat source, versus burning coal or gas. How neat and tidy is that?
That's it, it ain't more complicated than that.
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