The nuclear zombie, undead yet again

Zombie ideas never die. Among the hardiest, it seems, is the suggestion that nuclear power represents a possible solution to Australia’s energy problems, including the need to decarbonize energy supply. I just received an invitation to an event entitled Going Nuclear: Reconsidering Australia’s Energy Mix being organized by the by Centre for Market Design at the University of Melbourne.

The speakers are Renaud Coulomb of the University of Melbourne talking about public attitudes and, more interestingly to me, Mr Tony Wood, Director of the Energy Program at the Grattan Institute.

I was struck by the suggestion that Wood planned to discuss his, report; ‘No easy choices: which way to Australia’s energy future?‘, which I hadn’t seen come out. I looked it up, and it turns out to have been published back in 2012.

It gets worse. Wood’s cost estimates are based on cost estimates from a February 2010 report by the US-based Electric Power Research Institute, drawing on its internal database from 2009. No details are given, but it’s safe to assume that the original data would be from 2008 at the latest, making the estimates a decade old.

A decade ago, nuclear still looked like a plausible option, certainly to me. But that was before the massive decline in the cost of renewables, and the collapse of the nuclear renaissance in the US and elsewhere. The number of nuclear plants under construction is dropping steadily as projects are completed or abandoned while hardly any new ones take their place. Even existing nuclear plants are closing down.

The illusory nuclear power option has only ever served to derail debate around energy policy in Australia. Reviving this zombie now, and using outdated information to do it, is totally irresponsible.

27 thoughts on “The nuclear zombie, undead yet again

  1. Sounds like it would go well with NSW coal projections for 2 % annual growth out to 2050.
    As an aside do you have any printable observations on the academic credibility level/robustness of the Grattan Institute?

    I looked at their web site once but was not overawed. The bumpf suggested they were not an academic institute of the kind I am familiar with but a mix of a few senior spin doctors and bright young space cadets none of whose CVs were clear. I’m not suggesting the Grattan people are dumb but evidence of academic horsepower/creativity/imagination looked to be scarce and less than most universities could muster with a little interdepartmental cooperation. Also their reports suggested they were ideologically bound to recycling neoliberal beliefs by starting at point where neoliberalism is a given and then all else is fitted into that paradigm.

    Yet they seem to occupy a special place in the policy development universe. Clearly they are modelled on older think tanks of the right and left. But how good are they – for that matter how good are Australian think tanks outside of the Universities?

    Do they have genuine intellectual giants whose expertise spans all the sciences, humanities and arts, like the Rand Corporation e.g. Elsberg, Kahn, John Von Neumann and Alan Marshall (aka Yoda)? Or are they guns for hire? In honesty I am but as anyone reading this can gather. The answer would determine whether when hearing of one of their reports e.g. on the ABC, a. I should pay close attention, b. switch off, or c. file under ‘recycled neoliberalism and the next item on its agenda’.

  2. Grattan is a mixed bag, both politically and in terms of ability. The same is true of universities. In both cases, comparison to von Neumann is setting the bar way too high.

    Given that filtering is needed, I think you need to do it at the individual rather than institutional level for most unis and thinktanks. Exceptions: no need to pay attention anything by the IPA*, with the exception of Chris Berg, or coming from the big consulting firms.

    * It is necessary to pay attention to IPA policy proposals since they are likely to end up on the LNP agenda. But the supporting reasoning is invariably shoddy and self-serving, even more so since they started working for Rinehart.

  3. It is a good time now for Zombies, especially those connected with supposed budget economics. Fascinating to see the old household budget similes wheeled out yet again.

  4. The nuclear zombie is one of the few zombies that is definitely not coming back. Nuclear power is way too expensive compared to solar power. Anyway, this country can’t even build an NBN. After how many years of trying? Nuclear power? Tell ’em they’re dreamin’.

    However, there are still enough zombie ideas out there to drag us all down. I still see little to no sign that the neoliberal hegemony is being challenged. However, it is the nature of maladaptive hegemonic systems that they look unchangeable until right near the end. Then they can collapse surprisingly rapidly. I keep hoping it will happen in my lifetime… even if it kills me.

  5. @John Quiggin

    Von Neumann. Apart from making major contributions to (from Wikipedia)

    “mathematics (foundations of mathematics, functional analysis, ergodic theory, representation theory, operator algebras, geometry, topology, and numerical analysis), physics (quantum mechanics, hydrodynamics, and quantum statistical mechanics), economics (game theory), computing (Von Neumann architecture, linear programming, self-replicating machines, stochastic computing), and statistics”

    what did he really do that was so important? Maybe if he hadn’t died at 53 he might have accomplished something.

    It’s perfectly reasonable to hold the Grattan people to the Von Neumann standard.

    Back on topic, aside from the cost, the reason nuclear power will never get going here is the environmental approvals would take so long by the time the thing is started to get built the sun will have become a red giant and engulfed the earth. (I think this is estimated to happen in about 5 billion years).

  6. Does the cost of renewables include the cost of batteries needed alah Finkel?

  7. @Smith

    I guess he might have got around to inventing expected utility theory, and maybe proved existence of a market equilibrium. But in those days, he didn’t have the benefit of a mission statement and strategic plan to guide him, so it’s no wonder he lacked focus.

  8. As long as the focus is “public fear about residing near nuclear power plants” and doesn’t venture into the impacts of climate science denial and it’s excessive allaying of public fears about excessive fossil fuel burning – it won’t address the single most significant political impediment to nuclear. Not that the political is the only or even most significant impediment; the all or nothing (not incremental) nature of nuclear investments, high costs, the complexity of regulatory regimes, the need for extreme government interventions in energy markets all work against nuclear.

    Plenty of Aussie politicians claim to want nuclear for an emissions solution; as far as I can tell every single one is a pro-fossil fuels climate science denier. Which says clearly that climate solutions are not their true intention.

  9. @John Quiggin
    Yep. Grattan was originally funded by a Victorian Labor government (though the funding was very visibly and clearly on a “no strings attached” basis). So far as its positioning goes it sees itself as technocratic – ie broadly centrist. My experience, like John’s, is that the quality of its work is variable precisely because individual researchers are given pretty much a free hand (there are some really good people there, and a couple – well, not so much). The CIS used to be much the same in this except that it chose its researchers from a far narrower ideological range.

    The IPA is not variable in its output – it says what its funder-du-jour wants to hear. Strangely enough that makes it less predictably “neoliberal” than the CIS as the CIS tends to be as scornful of business welfare as any other welfare. The IPA much prefers to push the “capitalise the gain, socialise the loss” interests of those funding them. In terms of profile, pay and policy influence that seems to have been a far superior strategy.

  10. We may find out more about nuclear zombies sooner than we think, if warmonger Netanyahu has his deranged way.

  11. Even if companies could be certain they’d never have to pay for their carbon emissions, we’d still never see a new coal power station built in Australia given the current cost of renewable energy here and overseas. This is particularly true given the low cost of rooftop solar in this country, which will continue to expand when most support for renewables is removed in 2020. Nuclear power is more expensive than coal, at least when coal doesn’t have to pay for its externalities, and so is not going to happen here.

  12. Among the shrinking band of believers in civilian nuclear power are the government of Iran, and from polls, the Iranian people. The government may well have been acting in bad faith as a cloak for military nuclear ambitions, but the people have been sold on the nuclear programme on the basis of the civilian story. One of the large benefits of the nuclear deal was that it allowed German and other entrepreneurs to invest in Iran’s ample solar and wind resources. By now, the government must be aware of the huge cost differential: I’m not sure if this has sunk in to the people. Trump now proposes fierce sanctions on the German entrepreneurs for providing this geopolitically vital service. The test of European courage does not lie in nominally upholding the deal minus Trump, but in protecting and immunising European businesses from the sanctions.

  13. Iran certainly has excellent solar and wind resources, James. Iran has great hydroelectric potential and no doubt plenty of locations suitable for low cost pumped storage. While Iran is overall quite dry it is very lumpy. In flat Australia we have to get creative with pumped storage locations and look for existing holes left by mines and quarries. But scattered small scale pumped storage still looks considerably cheaper than Snowy River II which might be shaping up to be Australia’s version of nuclear power.

  14. @James Wimberley

    Civil nuclear power is one of those touchstones of independence in the Iranian mind – have been for decades. It started (reasonably) as a means to conserve oil and gas for export, but it has morphed (as in, Iran signed the NPT, complied with the IAEA regs and then got stiffed, just as it had been with the oil agreements). If you want to understand Iran, think France but with more history and more grievances.

  15. I have invested in solar and wind. I wonder if any nuclear boosters have put their money where their mouths are and invested in nuclear. I’m thinking not.

  16. I’ll just mention the budget of ANSTO, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization is $214 million this year. In return for this we get zero kilowatt-hours. ANSTO does do some useful things but has any country ever spent this much on nuclear science and technology without the expectation of getting either bombs or power?

  17. @Ronald

    That’s quite stunning. As you suggest, we need radio-isotopes, but it’s hard to believe that we need to spend so much on them.

  18. Just checking the figures and its worse than that. Apparently ANSTO will receive an estimated $219 million from taxpayers this financial year. The extra 5 million is not what I found surprising. Rather it’s that what ANSTO makes ANSTO keeps. They are expected to make $87 million this financial year from sales of goods and services which all goes to fund ANSTO. With money from interest and a mysterious “other” category they will spend a total of around $323 million this year. What’s more, they don’t just run Australia’s nuclear reactor, the organization owns it. I’m going to look further and see if I can find a budget line for white Persian cats.

    It appears a huge amount of money is being spent on research into the nuclear fuel cycle. So Australians are paying to subsidize the nuclear power industry which is something Australia does not have and never will have. What is Australia getting in return for this? Can I rock up to Electricity De France and get a free beer if I tell them I’m Australian?

  19. Nuclear isotopes are used in lots of things – including many handy pieces of industrial detection equipment, scanners and so on. They all have to be produced, accounted for, tracked and disposed of. ANSTO does this. This includes things like neutron scanners (used to continuously check moisture content on iron ore loaders). So nor white Persian cats needed – the budget is reasonable for the work.

  20. @Ronald

    You got me thinking of Inspector Gadget’s nemesis Dr. Claw and his cat, M.A.D. Cat. But this cat is clearly not a white Persian cat. Dr. Claw’s catchphrase is great:

    “When I want your opinions, I’ll give them to you!”

    I knew a few union bosses who talked to members like that. I told one at a members’ meeting that he was “in bed with the economic rationalists”. It wasn’t the CFMEU. I am not that brave or stupid.

  21. What Peter T says. Running a small but very old reactor is expensive, and distributing, closely tracking and disposing of its products is also expensive. And basic physics research – which ANSTO also does – is expensive too. A couple of hundred million out of a $500 billion Budget seems positively frugal.

    If they were seriously researching nuclear power or nuclear weapons options they’d need at least an order of magnitude more.

  22. Not sure what he plans to say at the forum but here is the abstract of his recent paper:
    Renaud Coulomb & Yanos Zylberberg, 2016. “Rare Events and Risk Perception: Evidence from Fukushima Accident,” Department of Economics – Working Papers Series 2020, The University of Melbourne,
    Abstract: We study changes in nuclear-risk perception following the Fukushima nuclear accident of March 2011. Using an exhaustive registry of individual housing transactions in England and Wales between 2007 and 2014, we implement a difference-in-difference strategy and compare housing prices in at-risk areas to areas further away from nuclear sites before and after Fukushima incident. We find a persistent price malus of about 3.5% in response to the Fukushima accident for properties close to nuclear plants. We show evidence that this price malus can be interpreted as a change in nuclear-risk perception. In addition, the price decrease is much larger for high-value properties within neighborhoods, and deprived zones in at-risk areas are more responsive to the accident. We discuss various theoretical channels that could explain these results.

  23. There’s certainly some nuclear power research going on, which seems a misdirection of scarce resources. For example, Australia is a member of the Gen IV Forum, researching the unicorn idea of a further generation of nuclear reactors. Given that Gen III was a complete failure, this seems like a waste of time, but even more see for a country that has no nuclear industry or prospect of one.

    Since ANSTO receives revenue from isotopes, it’s obviously reasonable to ask whether this part of the institution covers its own costs, and why such a massive subsidy is needed.

  24. Apropos of zombie ideas and the indefatigable Ben Heard of pro-nuke Eco activist site Bright New World…

    On Monday 7 May 2018, Graduation Day at the University of Adelaide included one Benjamin Paul Heard for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Part of a cohort of candidates whose theses titles included “Development and Applications of CRISPR/Cas9 Genome Editing Technology”, “Multi-Temporal Remote Sensing for Estimation of Plant Available Water-holding Capacity of Soil”, and “Molecular Characterization of Metastatic Endometrial Cancer by Mass Spectrometry”.

    On the other hand, Heard’s thesis title is “Clean. Reliable. Affordable. The role of nuclear technology in meeting the challenge of low greenhouse gas electricity supply in the 21st century.” The degree was conferred by the Chancellor of the University, Kevin Scarce, former Commissioner of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission.

    Following the ceremony, Dr Heard hit the Tweetersphere and remarked that he’s looking forward to continuing his work with his Bright New World NGO that Dr Jim Green has reported on. His other tweets make interesting reading of the pro-nuclear alternative universe variety at

    “In 2016, Heard launched Australia’s first pro-nuclear not for profit environmental organisation, Bright New World. Bright New World’s board is Chaired by Martin Thomas AM, former Vice President of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE). Fellow board members are Rachael Turner, Stephanie Bolt and Corey Bradshaw.”

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