Nuclear power and Australia

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.

96 thoughts on “Nuclear power and Australia

  1. wilful

    I am not sure you are interpreting things properly – hence your problem.

    If I say:

    “cheap” “efficient” nuke energy for some, that cannot be shared amongst all the worlds nations and that risks a very rare accident but with catastrophic outcomes,

    but then someone “interprets” this as

    So it’s about safety and risk of catastrophic accident? [WRONG]

    then they demonstrate they cannot interpret plain words reasonably.

    So it is hard to then waste time when the same people ask, viz:

    what I’m doing is asking you to state your non-economic objections clearly. Until you do so, we’re forced to interpret,

    The solution is for you to increase your skills in interpretation, as the text already is at a level suitable for intelligent 15-year olds.

    The objections at @11 seem reasonably clear and easy to interpret – for most anyway.

    Do I have to dumb it down further?

  2. No chris, the problem is that you’re leaving it open for interpretation. Don’t be all passive aggressive smartarse on me*, all I’m asking is for you to clearly state what your problem is. There was some problem with the thread here, obviously, where you clearly articulated genius failed to show through. I didn’t see your post at #11 until after I’d asked you to clarify what the hell you were on about.

    Anyway, your argument at #11, is that what we should respond to?

    * actually, go ahead, I’ll just ignore you as someone who’s more interested in winning arguments than debating ideas.

  3. @Chris Warren
    “and I do not make a distinction between social and moral”

    Chris, this is you earlier:

    social and moral aspect…the bad social, environmental, generational, and moral issues

    So either you are making a distinction, or you consider “social, environmental, generational and moral” to all be the same thing.

    “i never said this and it is not my view.”

    But you did say:

    Commission economists would take the “good” economic effect without looking at the “bad” social and moral aspect…the general uselessness of economic logic, that argues for nuclear power based on it providing a cheap “good” ignoring the social “bad”…simplistic arguments being peddled by economists

    So obviously you consider economists as having little to contribute beyond glorified accounting. As for ‘dogma’, I was pointing out your inconsistency in decrying economic analysis, then citing economists.

    “I presume that a responsible, democratic goverment based on separation of powers is sufficient.”

    Sufficient for what? And I put it to you that in fact your claim that we “need” government to tell us what to do because we can’t choose it for ourselves relies on heroic assumptions about the capacity of government to assimilate and act upon information in an optimal (or even ‘better’) way.

  4. wilful


    I didn’t see your post at #11 until after I’d asked you to clarify what the hell you were on about.

    If you’d read what you should have, you wouldn’t have raised the issue.

    The other objections were posted but seem to have got misdirected by this blog.

  5. You should take a step back, Chris, take a chill pill, stop posting for a few minutes, and realise that I wasn’t attacking you, and your aggression is getting in the way of things here.

  6. To those who find fault with nuclear’s need for government support I could point out that the fossil fuel industry gets plenty while showing little sign of belching fewer megatonnes of CO2. For example the WA and Federal governments have indemnified Chevron the operator of the Gorgon gas field. If any or all of an eventual 120 million tonnes of CO2 escapes from storage in a saline aquifer below Barrow Island the taxpayers pay all damages. That’s CO2 that was already dissolved in the natural gas; the cleaned gas still creates more CO2 when it is burned. In the US nuclear indemnity, the Price Anderson Act, went through legislation. To my knowledge the Oz gas equivalent is purely an administrative decision.

  7. The economics of nuclear energy,as always, requires olympian optimism. No matter how sure the numbers they always balloon to the ridiculous in reality. And nowhere has yet shown how the the cradle to grave costs can be justified. Always hiding costs and hoping noone notices. No matter, the proponents win if ground is turned, and the sunk costs preclude cancelling the project.

    I’m actually supportive of nuclear in the energy mix. Maybe someone can oneday prove that it’s possible to build a safe reactor on a sensible budget. It’s silly for Australia to consider it at this stage though.

  8. Eh.. South Korea? Japan? Both have nuclear industries with recent building experience and reactors that are proven designs, and a willingness to export them.

  9. Fran – it is somewhat amazing that cutting payroll tax is too complex and yet lumbering industry with mountains of red tape isn’t. If we can have wall to wall Labor across state and federal tiers and they can’t work things out through dialogue then what business do they have telling the rest of us what to do.

  10. I don’t doubt that nuclear does work but it shouldn’t do so without strong regulation – which makes it less of a libertarian’s ideal energy source.

    Back to geothermal; I’m not sure it’s ever gotten much serious funding and definitely not the kind of fast-tracking nukes got to get started and that geothermal needs. Australian gov’t R&D funding strongly favours Carbon Capture but I suspect that’s only because they are the captives of carbon. Geothermal’s share is a pittance in comparison. Large scale energy storage’ share? I suppose we’ll rely on the laptop market for battery R&D and hope it’s scalable. One thing for sure is that it won’t become a high priority in Australia.

    For all the hype about new gen nuclear, there doesn’t look to be a lot of it yet. It sounds promising – but so do highways paved with solar cells.
    Isn’t the real problem that we don’t want clean energy enough to pay extra for it and all the policies to tackle climate change involve no significant costs and negotiating to do the very least we can get away with.

    I think that Pr Q’s point that nuclear doesn’t look economical without a strong carbon price is where the most likely answer lies; put a big price on Carbon and a lot of alternatives to fossil fuels, including nuclear, will look more attractive. But that would be a “big new tax” no matter where and how productively that revenue gets spent. Of course, the moment that looks like becoming reality will be when the rolling shutdowns of coal plants will begin – to show everyone who has the real power in Australia’s energy sector. It’s a sector that will welcome nuclear no more readily than renewables and it’s not above flexing it’s muscle.

  11. wilful

    You need to reconsider your conduct and revisit the issue in more sensible terms. without adding to confusion.

  12. To free up a lazy $20 bil I suggest cutting the broadband rollout in half. Satellite and wireless internet provide reliable alternatives to fibre optic cable. $20 bn might buy three gigawatt nuclear power stations with integrated desalination. I’m pessimistic that any form of the ETS that gets up will impose a serious carbon price, more than say $10-20 a tonne. The Commonwealth could lend the funds at low interest to generators who agree to retire coal fired power stations.

  13. The problem of nuclear waste has been mentioned by several commenters. As for safety, there seems to be a perception that there have been improvements since Chernobyl. In one sense the perception is justified (there hasn’t been another event like Chernobyl) but in another it turns out to be a bit more complex even if one assumes that no more Chernobyl or TMI events will occur.

    Below is a link to a May 2007 paper, authored by seven EU and USA scientifically qualified specialists, titled “An Account of Events in Nuclear Power Plants Since the Chernobyl Accident in 1986”

    It is a rather long paper, but worthwhile reading – IMHO.

    To call nuclear energy ‘clean’ is, IMO, irresponsible public relations stuff which may be counterproductive.

    To illustrate difficulties arising for individuals, consider the following bits of information.

    1. The said ‘improvement’ does not exclude the release of radioactive iodine 131. Only if the release of this agent exceeds a specified annual limit will it count as an ‘event’.

    2. Individuals who have a particular thyroid condition abosorb radioactive iodine 131 more (in some precise sense which is too long to specify here) than other people. This is harmful.

    3. The only known cause of non-H. lymphoma is radiation.

    How easily would an individual with condition 1 find the bits of information 2 and 3? How is the individual supposed to choose a place of residence and how often does this individual (and family if applicable) have to move? These are practical questions.

  14. @Ernestine Gross
    Ernestine – thanks for this link on the residual risk of the nuclear industry. It is a very good study.

    It is a long paper but for anyone here who thinks that nuclear energy is the solution to the problems of AGW and or brushes aside risk of nuclear failures like Chernobyl (on the basis that “nothing has happened since”) dont miss this.

    So Ill post Ernestine’s link again (and Ernestine – this should be a regular standing journal link – to be posted monthly!).

  15. Having read through all of the other comments I think JQs perspective is fair. That being that nuclear is someway off, if at all. Further that it only makes sense if you are convinced that the current approach to baseload power is required.

    I would have thought that the need to change from coal presents a whole range of alternatives, that need to be considered. Why not move to a much more diversified energy network. If I have solar panels on my roof, and send all my garbage to a small waste-to-energy plant (that is located where the current transfer station is), how much significant “baseload” power will be required? This distributed approach also encourgaes me as the consumer to minimise my energy usage and to update my technology whenever I wish. I would have thought that like so many things that an individualised solution was likely to be the way of the future.

    Yes industry will require energy, but perhaps that simply becomes an additional factor when siting a new plant. So it means you have your aluminium smelter adjacent to a major solar facility, or wind, or geothermal, or tidal.

    Then you dont need nuclear – unless industry wants it and can justify the cost and clean up. Which I would think in a modern world would be unlikely as many of their shareholders would be unlikely to support the notion.

  16. @JJ

    Although I am in favour of including nuclear power (especially throium, IFRs etc) in Australia’s (and the world’s energy mix) I don’t disgree with the kinds of no regrets measures you propose. These and others I can imagine would seem eminently sensible in terms of waste management, energy efficiency and public buy-in of the broader goal of having a small footprint. I strongly support urban consolidation, and within that model, localised energy options (such as roof-mounted wind on high rise), ground-heat pumps perhaps incorporating waste heat from stored onsite waste, relatively localised processing of sewage and grey water and associated water recycling, some localised pumped storage at the same facilities, increased local public transport, parking hubs connected to transport nodes along main connecting roads, marginal real-time charging for access to road infrastructure and so forth …

    Where I part company with the many of the advocates of such measures is the idea that these (along with renewables) represent a whole solution to the problem of decarbonisation. They don’t and can’t. At best really good ubiquitous measures can slow the growth in emissions in greater volume and at at lower cost and earlier than can new clean energy sources. It’s the low hanging fruit, but as the allusion implies, once it is picked, it is gone. If you haven’t also decarbonised by the time that day arrives, emissions (both of GHGs and associated toxics), will continue to accrete. This is especially true if a substantial part of what is now transport energy demand gets put onto the grid (which is after all one of the things one would want to do). It’s also very clear that world population will continue to grow until at least 2050 and thopse 3 billion of us now (and their successors) who live a lot worse than we would minimally accept will need to do things that will increase their per capita energy demand. Again, good design of human systems can slow this growth relative to what it be if they copied the western model, but it won’t eliminate or reduce it, obviously. While rural Asia, Subcontinent, Africa and Latin America can obviously make significant use of renewables (especially the non-grid-connected parts) urban areas will need serious baseload capacity if they are to be able to supply their rural hinterlands with the light industrial goods they will need.

    In some cases — geothermal may be a good renewable baseload option — certainly those with access to the geothermal energy of the Rift Valley in East Africa will do well to use it. That said, figures of $5-10,000 installed are being quoted. Until some serious plants go up, we simply won’t know.

  17. @JJ
    Given that the six aluminium smelters allegedly pay (it’s a commercial secret) only 10% or so of what households pay for electricity, I doubt whether substantial price increases are politically possible. Thus a smelter paying 3c per kilowatt hour for grid electricity is not going to pay 30c and survive the overseas competition. To get a regular enough power supply from non-hydro renewables will require excess generation capacity and energy storage, both expensive. The process before smelting that converts bauxite to alumina is also energy intensive. That’s why the aluminium industry got free permits under the ETS due to trade exposed status. I think a cash subsidy or tariff protection would be more transparent.

    As to some other ideas about distributed small scale generation I don’t see the evidence that they work on a pilot scale let alone getting enough public participation. Carbon penalties may tip the odds somewhat but then we are all paying more. The major replacement for coal must have massive grunt and round the clock reliability.

  18. @Hermit

    That’s why the aluminium industry got free permits under the ETS due to trade exposed status. I think a cash subsidy or tariff protection would be more transparent.

    Personally, I’d favour making them pay full price and then forcing them to choose between trying to sell stranded assets and trading with their costs internalised.

    Australian aluminium (well the aluminium in Victoria certainly) is some of the filthiest and most CO2-intensive aluminium in the world. If the smelting went anywhere else, it would be cleaner, even allowing for transport costs. (In practice, it would probably go to Queensland)

    Really, with the subsidy being paid, you could put every displaced Victorian aluminium smelter worker on a “retraining” stipend of $50K per annum for the next ten years and still have plenty of change.

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