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 ā€“ 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. Tesla exploring partnering with wind and PV providers for battery co-location will be the end of it.

    If the grid operators are smart, they will support that very quickly, in case domestic users commence grid defection pronto.

  2. Why does the MCA bother? Australia mines and exports uranium. The vested interest is large enoigh for most potential readers to write the paper off as mere lobbying, while it’s small enough to make no practical difference on the off chance it were successful.

  3. It’s not about advancing nuclear as a low emissions pathway, it is about impeding it by putting delays in the way of uptake of Renewable energy, protecting the ongoing viability of coal and gas. Further delay of any firm commitment to a low emissions transition – while we revisit this failed option. The nuclear option is the most politically, financially and technologically difficult pathway to low emissions that LNP/IPA/MCA leadership and members reject the need for and delays any commitment to any clear pathway to the phasing out of coal and gas.

    If they were serious about nuclear for climate they would seek to make clear how serious the climate problem is, in order to advance their case for it; they cannot bring themselves to do that because they are not serious, not about climate and not about nuclear.

    Bad faith and BS arguments aren’t evidence of the MCA’s principles slipping, those are their principle tools of persuasion.

  4. Such a rich mine of BS. The mini nuclear power stations have been flogged for the past 10 years – always 2 years away a bit like fusion with its always 20 years away or ‘breakthrough’ along the lines of fred the farmer’s secret cancer cure based on a backyard still that went m.

    Its fascinating that for once bean counter economics is on the side of the angels when they add up
    – the need for a fleet of these things to make them viable inflating the costs over the top
    – the lack of infrastructure within the country to service and maintain thing especially with the running down of the engineering sectors.
    – who would put up the capital and who would insure these things after Fukushima which said that from time to time a society has to lose a few bets if they have lots of these. (In the case of Chernobyl it was possible to ascribe the problems to the dissolving Soviet state and a bit of underlying racism. But with the Japanese you have the world experts in Tsunamis and earthquakes and a ‘mature’ nuclear power industry? – this shows the face of unacceptable risk and it isnt just a matter of summing the DALYs in a model).
    – the ongoing patent payments
    – lead time
    – the Nimby issue
    – Chernobyl/Fukushima
    – The need especially in the case of the minireactors of an oversight bureaucracy and education sector to support these things.

    Maybe we will shortly see Thorium being also resurrected? The perfect solution with no waste….a yet despite pilot scale reactors this technology went nowhere. One has to ask why.

    One intriguing question is what ever happenned to the ultimate solution, the Gen IV reactors. Barry Brook was pushing these some years back after a helicopter tour. There were no less than 6 designs on the drawing board with pretty coloured artist impression diagrams which belied the fiendish engineering problems. Thorium was my favorite here to.

    Then there is the story of the Breeder reactors……which noone wants to talk about.

  5. It is a shame. Nuclear power is essentially emission free and would make the grid quite stable.

  6. On consideration you may have missed one further aspect here John and that is the Kim Jonh Un factor. He has nukes so we need nukes too which are home grown – at least this will be a consideration/thinking on the part of the more thoughtless right who havent done their homework on the uselessness of these things and the madness of MAD.

    Who these days remembers Baxter and Titterton and their dreams for Jervis Bay? And how again it was a quasi economist in the form of Billy McMahon who reportedly scotched that project after he saw the bill for the British reactor design which conveniently would have supplied the fissile material.

  7. @I am and will always be Not Trampis It is a shame. Nuclear power is essentially emission free and would make the grid quite stable.

    But the Sun is an excellent energy producing nuclear power station driving as it does sunlight, the wind, the rain and photosynthesis. And it has 4 billion year potential lifespan.

    And it disposes of most of the waste/nuclear biproducts on site, save a few solar eruptions.

    And it does all this raw energy provision for free…….ah there is the problem now I see. Within the neoliberal economy we need to put a price on all this and allow windfall parasites like the miners, extraction and rent charging rights.

    Dont worry the privatization wonks are already onto this. Given a little bit of time the mining industry will figure out how to turn every natural resource into a minable extractable revenue source including sunlight. Indeed renewables are so much better because they dont exhaust in 20-30 years.

    And if you think I am joking remember back to the Bechtel water story There is nothing governments wont privatize and sell off to their mates if there is a buck in it.

  8. Nuclear power generation and Hydro power generation only make sense in the context of the Twentieth Century theory about unlimited growth. The environmental damage caused, over a long period of time, should preclude both from serious Twenty-First Century power generation policies. Unfortunately, John’s observation is so true. Politicians, in particular, are too ready to reach for outdated solutions.

  9. @Newtownian Which must be why govts are so anti renewables, no royalties from sun or wind.

    The comparison to the sun is valid. Why try, at great cost and increased risk, to recreate what happens naturally every day?

  10. newtonion remembers the dreamers of Jervis Bay but wasn’t it the WA dreamer, Charlie Court who saw nuclear ‘detonations’ cutting a giant water canal from the empty north (Fitzroy River) all the way to ag customers in the south of WA? Now that was a dream!

  11. Was the MCA [or whatever it was called back then] lobbying for nuclear power forty years ago? Is it something they have consistently and publicly pushed for over the last few generations? Hmmm..

    I reckon they were happy to let ‘the greenies’ and NIMBYs do their work for them, in opposing nuclear…so that coal generation could stay entrenched and dominant. Interests served.
    This current campaign is just spam.

  12. In order to be serious about committing to nuclear to fix the climate problem the MCA and it’s members would need to be serious about fixing the climate problem. They aren’t.

    Seeking or at least accepting the end of coal and gas – and the gas made from coal seams that’s otherwise can’t be mined – is the logical consequence of a commitment to fixing the climate problem. They don’t.

    Between the lines (so, so much effective LNP/IPA/MCA rhetoric is between the lines – lefty PC censorship forces – forces!- them to not say what they really mean) is the reiteration of an ongoing strategy of blameshifting onto “green” politics. Whilst blaming green politics for the very existence of a climate problem at all isn’t working so well any more falling back on blaming green politics for preventing governments from fixing it using nuclear plays to the long cultivated anti-environmentalist sentiments within conservative Australia.

    Although I do wonder to what extent the repeated raising of the nuclear thing is intended to divert the internal bloc within conservative/right politics that does think the problem needs fixing; it reframes it so it is not their cowardly reluctance stand up and make it an issue, it’s those damned totalitarian lefty, greenies forcing them – forcing them! – to oppose less than perfect, non-nuclear solutions.

    The climate aware on the Right could be excused for imagining that if greenies and lefties would just shut up about it the LNP/IPA/MCA could – would – just fix the whole problem, easily. The question then becomes whether to use nuclear or low emissions (seriously!) coal technology… one guess which.

  13. My guess is that the CME is trying to stir the pot a bit to assist the Liberals in continuing to delay meaningful energy reform for a while.

  14. The LNP seem to be in serious denial; Turnbull says they are having serious talks over Liddell closure, on twitter Abbott congratulates AGL for not getting out of coal only to have AGL respond that they will close Lidddell as previously announced and they are getting out of coal.

  15. I was surprised to learn (via The Guardian) that the CSIRO is an associate member of the Mineral Council of Australia; whilst scientists within the CSIRO are prohibited from discussing or advocating climate policy the organisation itself contributes financially ($10,000 pa) to MCA and it’s lobbying against strong and science informed climate action. Even AGL saw fit to part company with the MCA over their climate advocacy.

  16. Not Trampis, South Australia has no coal power stations and does not continuously import coal power from out of state. (Currently, South Australia is exporting electricity to Victoria.) Yet South Australia’s baseload demand is still met. I suspect the definition you are using for baseload is different from its established definition.

  17. This paper is not so much lobbying by the MCA as wishful thinking designed to comfort just one or two of its members. It’s all about “despite what our stock price says, the Ranger uranium mine is TOO viable, if only the government would just sling a few billion our way”. In this case the MCA is more concerned with its internal politics rather than external politics.

  18. I am all in favour of fusion power. We have this great big fusion reactor in the sky. It’s called the sun. It has no capital cost, no maintenance costs and supplies energy for free, apart from the now modest costs of gathering it. The challenges of storing and using energy overnight are all already solved. Put away the glasses (and the calculating machines). The energy race is already over.

  19. @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

  20. 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.

  21. @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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