There’s been a bit of discussion about nuclear power lately, but it tends very much to the abstract. I thought I would look into the question of when, if ever, nuclear power might be a reasonable option for Australia to consider, and how we should go about it.
An obvious starting point is the Switkowski report commissioned by the Howard government, which I’ve uploaded here. There are three main points which allow me to provide an answer to the question, at least for the next decade or so.
(i) In the absence of a substantial carbon price nuclear power is not competitive with coal
(ii) First-of-a-kind (FOAK) nuclear plants are likely to be very expensive (above $80/MWh), not competitive with wind or gas (even with CCS)
The estimate is that ‘settled down’ long run costs could be $40-$65/ MWh, which is competitive with wind and cheaper (for the moment) than other renewables.
Let’s take “settled down” to refer to a design with at least 5 examples completed and operating in developed countries, at least some of them built on greenfield sites (that is, not next to existing nuclear power plants which already have a lot of the necessary infrastructure). It seems clear that these minimal conditions can’t be met before 2025 at the earliest. The US, which has been attempting for a decade to restart its nuclear industries is still at the pilot stage, exploring a number of technologies, and offering to subsidise the construction of three plant designs for each major option. Most of the proposals are on existing sites, only six have reached the point of a plant actually being ordered, and none is anywhere near starting construction. Given a sharp acceleration in progress, the emergence of a highly successful design and a lot of new orders towards the end of this decade, the 2025 date might just be reached.
That suggests that Australia should forget about nuclear power entirely for at least the next five years. If things are going well for nuclear, and not so well for renewables, that would be the time to start setting up regulatory structures, looking for sites and so on.