The Minerals Council of Australia pushing zombie ideas

Fighting zombies is a tiresome business. Even when you think you’ve finally killed them, they bounce back as often as not. But it has to be done, and there are some benefits. When you see a supposedly serious person or organization pushing zombie ideas, it’s an indication that nothing they put out should be presumed to be serious.

There can be few zombies more thoroughly undead than nuclear power in general, except for the idea that nuclear power is a sensible option for Australia. The strongly pro-nuclear SA Royal Commission demolished this zombie so thoroughly that it should have taken a decade at least to regenerate.

But here’s the Minerals Council of Australia, which has taken a break from promoting coal to push the idea that Australia needs a nuclear power industry and that the biggest obstacle is a legal prohibition imposed in 1998. The supporting “analysis” is riddled with absurdities, some of which have already been pointed out. I’ll give my own (incomplete) list over the fold

Most obviously, there’s the statement that 58 nuclear reactors are currently under construction. As anyone who’s been paying attention could tell them, that number was 66 not long ago. The decline reflects the abandonment of half-built projects like the VC Summer plant in North Carolina and the fact that some long overdue projects like Watts Bar, started back in 1973, have been completed, while new starts have slowed to a crawl.

That’s only going to accelerate. China currently has 23 plants under construction, but they haven’t approved a new one in eighteen months. Other countries with projects under construction, but no recent approvals include the US and France. Unless something changes, the completion of current projects will cut the number under construction in half within a few years.

Then there’s the claim that nuclear power is affordable. There’s no reference to the dismal record of the existing industry. Instead, the MCA is relying on vaporware

Small modular reactors (SMRs) are close to commercialisation in the US. A Nu-scale 50MWe SMR, for example, is projected to cost around US$250 million.10 Three of these would cost and produce around the same amount of power as the largest wind farm in the southern hemisphere – and it would be reliable, synchronous, on-demand power

The reality is that the NuScale SMR doesn’t exist even as a prototype. Any estimate of the costs of such a reactor is purely speculative. The SA Royal Commission looked hard at SMRs and concluded they weren’t a viable option now or in the foreseeable future.

Showing patent bad faith, the MCA quotes the Royal Commission’s claims about the potential for a nuclear waste dump (an idea that has been abandoned) but ignores the more significant finding that nuclear power, including SMRs is hopelessly uneconomic for Australia.

Even more startling is the suggestion that we should follow the example of Canada which supposedly has a thriving nuclear industry. The reality is that nuclear power in Canada has been a failure, with massive cost overruns and frequent breakdowns. After spending at least a billion in subsidies, the Canadian government sold its nuclear energy business for a mere $15 million in 2011. It’s highly unlikely that Canada will ever build another nuclear plant.

Then there’s a reference to some real vaporware, notably including Transatomic a startup backed by Peter Theil. Google reveals that Transatomic had to back away from its inflated claims by a factor of more than 30. An honest mistake, apparently, but not promising as a basis for Australian energy policy.

Regardless of whether the prohibition on nuclear energy is lifted, it’s not going to happen in Australia, or most other countries. The real lesson from this episode is that any analysis coming out of the MCA should be treated with extreme scepticism. In particular, the next time an MCA spokesperson pops up to say that we need coal-fired power indefinitely into the future, remember their similar, and patently false, claims about nuclear power.

28 thoughts on “The Minerals Council of Australia pushing zombie ideas

  1. @John Quiggin
    John if we had more renewables to generate power then IF nuclear were cheaper than coal and given it is essentially emission free then this would be the power source to generate the supply needed that renewables cannot at least at present.

    I do not see that contradicting your article unless I have missed something

  2. It’s worth having a look at the Sundrop Farm at Pt Augusta. Mirrors track and redirect the sun onto a collector, which glows with a burning golden intensity, even early in the morning. The collected energy enables them to operate independently of the grid and they can desalinate sea water, climate control the growing sheds and are looking at onselling the minerals obtained from desalination. And they can grow tomatoes.

    All this talk of baseload is just a bunch of cobblers.

  3. @I am and will always be Not Trampis

    Every sunny day or windy period will see electricity supplied at lower cost than nuclear can deliver; it must be profitable enough the rest of the time to run at a loss during those periods. It won’t be an average daily price but the prices outside those periods it has to beat; higher than average prices, yes, but only intermittently. Batteries begin looking a lot more attractive under such circumstances and can be built and working before the feasibility studies for nuclear are done.

    Nuclear requires special treatment all the way – which the MCA’s rhetoric ignores; a whole security and regulatory regime has to be put in place, a process that would, were there a real nuclear program, include removing a bit of symbolic legislation ‘banning” nuclear. Removing it would not make an iota of difference to nuclear’s prospects. Their rhetoric is slick but no-one who matters is taken in.

    Most of all nuclear requires enduring government commitments and extreme interventions in energy markets of the kind that are (supposedly) an anathema to the very organisations – like the MCA, IPA, LNP – that throw up these misleading pieces of puffery. Ironically it looks like the free market will inhibit nuclear and enable renewable energy and storage.

    As AEMO is saying, despatchable power is needed, not “baseload” – which concept, I agree with Pr.Q is a consequence of building a system based on inflexible generation technologies, not something intrinsic. That is near term; longer term gets harder to predict, but PM Turnbull’s team is proving it is incapable of having a clear longer term vision beyond appeasement to the big miners let alone a plan worth sticking to.

    I think there will be advantages to time variable pricing at retail level to reflect the wholesale supply and demand but it will not be good for coal or for nuclear.

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