Why nuclear power won’t work in Australia — yet another explainer

My latest piece in Independent Australia over the fold

OPPOSITION LEADER Peter Dutton’s call for nuclear power, made as part of his Budget reply speech, should not be taken too seriously. In its nine years in office, the L-NP took no steps to promote nuclear energy, not even an attempt to repeal the largely symbolic ban imposed by John Howard in 1998. Dutton’s renewed call can best be understood as a dog whistle to the climate denialists who dominate the party’s base, allowing him to oppose practical measures for decarbonisation without explicitly embracing denialism.

Still, it’s worthwhile to be informed about the current state of nuclear power and the prospects for deploying it in Australia. If nuclear power really was the cheap and reliable option claimed by its proponents, the immediate benefits of replacing coal and preventing imminent climate disaster would outweigh long-term concerns about adding to the (already large) stock of nuclear waste that will require indefinite storage.

In reality, however, nuclear power is set for continued decline globally. In a country like Australia, with no existing regulatory structure or skills base, nuclear power is hopelessly uneconomic and will never happen.

HELEN CALDICOTT: Albanese needs to keep Australia nuclear-free
HELEN CALDICOTT: Albanese needs to keep Australia nuclear-free

The election of Anthony Albanese as Prime Minister heralds a new era in Australia’s approach to nuclear disarmament.

Twenty years ago, it seemed likely that nuclear would be a viable option to replace coal. The development of new “Generation III” designs seemed to overcome many of the safety problems of 20th-Century reactors like those at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. And while solar PV and wind technologies were improving, they were still massively more expensive than new coal and gas. 

As a result, there was hope for a “nuclear renaissance”, embodied in the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005, which offered the nuclear power industry a range of financial incentives and economic subsidies. Dozens of proposed nuclear plants were a bust.

But the nuclear boom turned out to be a dud. Only two projects, each involving two AP1000 reactors, started construction. One was abandoned after the expenditure of billions of dollars. The other, the Vogtle plant in Georgia, is now almost complete, years overdue and billions over budget. The fiasco sent Westinghouse, which designed the AP1000, into bankruptcy and almost took down its parent company, Toshiba, in the process.

Elsewhere in the world, a trickle of new projects has continued, with about 60 plants under construction. Outside China, most of these are being built by the Russian company Rosatom. If, as seems likely sooner or later, Rosatom is sanctioned for its role in the invasion of Ukraine, these plants will never be completed.

The delay in sanctioning Rosatom reflects its close ties with U.S. and European nuclear enterprises such as Framatome, which are proving difficult to unwind. But the dependence goes both ways. Once separated from its U.S. and European partners, Rosatom will find it impossible to deliver its promised plants.

Talking nuclear and 'the smoke and mirrors game of shadows'
Talking nuclear and ‘the smoke and mirrors game of shadows’

Noel Wauchope tests the ‘nuclear’ facts in an interview between former CEO of Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, Dr Adi Paterson, and Sky News host Chris Kenny.

It’s now widely recognised that traditional large reactors like the AP1000 have no real future. Attention has turned instead to “small modular reactors” (SMRs), and these were Dutton’s central focus. The idea is to avoid cost blowouts by building small reactors in factories and then shipping them to the sites where they are to be installed.

This idea is so appealing that lots of designs have adopted the label even though many are neither small nor modular (that is, factory produced). Even Westinghouse has re-entered the fray, with a 300-megawatt (MW) version of the AP1000.

The only SMR design advanced enough to be licensed in the U.S. is the VOYGR developed by NuScale, which is marketed as being available in sets of four, six or 12 units, each with a capacity of 77MW. NuScale has an agreement (not yet final) to build six VOYGR units for the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), with a current estimated completion date of 2030.

But just as fusion power is said to be “always 20 years away”, SMR projects have shown plenty of slippage. Perhaps because of their smaller scale, SMRs always seem to be 7-10 years away. Back in 2014, NuScale received government funding based on a promised operating date of 2023 — nine years later. But now it’s 2023 and fabrication of parts for the reactors has barely started.

Nuclear power is a stalking horse for gas
Nuclear power is a stalking horse for gas

The recently appointed Chair of the Climate Change Authority, Origin Energy boss Grant King, has yet again raised the idea that nuclear energy is an important policy option for Australia.

In the meantime, as usual with nuclear power, costs have escalated. As recently as mid-2021, the target price for power was estimated at US$58 (AU$87.24) per megawatt-hour (MWh); it’s risen to US$89 (AU$133.84)/MWh, a 53 per cent increase. And even this price depends on large government subsidies. By contrast, the levelised price of utility-scale solar PV systems, with battery storage, is currently between US$30 (AU$45.12) and US$40 (AU$60.19)/MWh. 

At these prices, SMRs will, at best, be confined to niche applications such as aluminium or steel mills, operating with constant, ’round-the-clock electricity demand.

A look at construction plans confirms this. The NuScale project would supply less than 500MW of power, half the capacity of a single conventional coal or nuclear plant. Even assuming all the projects that have been mooted recently go ahead, the total capacity of SMRs will be less than 5 Gigawatts (GW). The world is currently installing that much solar PV every week.  

Even if SMRs prove to be cost-competitive in some limited niches, they do not represent a serious option for Australia. The cost of setting up an entire regulatory and technical infrastructure for, at most, a handful of small plants some decades away is simply not worth considering.

17 thoughts on “Why nuclear power won’t work in Australia — yet another explainer

  1. I have to admit I eye-rolled at this. “what, again?” {sigh} I guess claiming that the Waitangi Tribunal rules Aotearoa with an iron fist hasn’t distracted us enough, time for a new old gambit. How long until Dutton brings a literal dead cat into parliament?

    It came up on reddit recently as well, with the pro-nuke types having no positive arguments but a great love of the r word. Not so much the traditional argument from ignorance as “I literally don’t have an argument”. Maybe twitter is still better?

  2. “At these prices, SMRs will, at best, be confined to niche applications such as aluminium or steel mills, operating with constant, ’round-the-clock electricity demand.”

    Green hydrogen to be used for heat in energy intensive production processes, such as aluminium and steel mills, could surely also be used to generate the round-the-clock electricity.

    The disposal costs of uranium waste are simply prohibitive.

    By all means, let any idea find its niche market, but please along market price conditions with full insurance premiums for negative externalities.

    “.. the LNP base”. I live in one of the bluest of blue LP seats and, to the best of my grape vine knowledge, the population doesn’t constitute a base for nuclear power and anti-climate change ideas. The Teals in Victoria also seem to represent ex-LP voters who do not fit into this LNP base on this subject matter.

  3. The concept of nuclear power is just a distraction, much like drilling a tunnel through the mountains to irrigate the inland deserts.

    The primary purpose of these gas bag boondoggles is to stir the pot thereby creating a point of difference. Once the target is engaged in argument tactics can be deployed to wear them down.

    You would think that by simply ignoring the bait the whole shebang would just naturally expire. But politics doesn’t work like that, it’s part theatre and people do like to be entertained.

  4. Ernestine, green hydrogen is made by electrolysing hydrogen using green electricity. Why not store the electricity in batteries and use it from there? There’s much less waste that way.

    Green hydrogen is definitely needed, to replace coking coal for reducing iron ore to steel, to make fertilisers, and to make industrial chemicals and plastics, but using it to generate electricity doesn’t make financial sense.

    Particularly in Australia, which does not have long dark winters with hardly any sunshine or wind (think Germany or northern China).

    Its use for high temperature heat is moot. There are other ways to do that, including electrical resistance heaters.

  5. gregvp, of course I agree with you on the general point of using solar power and batteries when suitable. My point is situation and location specific. That is, I responded to the situation where SMRs are considered to provide electricity for aluminium and steel mills, which, as you seem to agree with, will be powered by green hydrogen instead of coal in the future. To the best of my information, SMR supplied electricity is not cheaper than green hydrogen (disposal costs alone make sure of that). I assume aluminium and steel mills operators would be in the best position to know whether their location is suitable for solar PV and batteries. If the location is unsuitable (space constrained), then green hydrogen, which is supplied anyway, is then the next best option, assuming an industrial heat pump is also unsuitable. This leaves a hypothetical situation for a niche ‘market’ for SMRs, which I cannot think of.

    In short, location specific technological possibilities and prices are the determining factors.

  6. I used to be a renewables enthusiast but have become increasingly sceptical the more I look into it and the more dependent on renewables conventional wisdom has become. Until the Net Zero Australia report in May, my potted calculation was that nameplate generation capacity would have to quadruple or quintuple for intermittency and treble again to electrify the economy ie increase the size of the grid by its current size every two years to 2050, with all the entailed technical, financial and delivery risk, leaving aside environmental impact and social licence/public support. (I must admit to a lifelong aesthetic abhorrence of power lines, but that’s the least of such problems.)

    To *actually* decarbonise, including replacement of coal and gas exports with green energy and “clean” minerals, NZ Au says we have to increase capacity by 40 (sic) times including a doubling or quadrupling of the gas fleet (to be used “sparingly”) plus large amounts of expensive storage. So that’s growing the grid which has taken 70-80 years to build, by 1.1/3 it’s current size *every* year, give or take.

    And NZ Au says we’ll need to find $7-9 trillion of investment capital to do it, which sounds like betting the farm, all our homes and super not to mention our children’s future on it. I just don’t think we will, individually or collectively, or that the financial markets would facilitate it.

    Meanwhile, almost every other developed country in the world has missed John’s memo and is prioritising nuclear, with some piling in eg, Canada, Finland, France with USA heading that way. The main exceptions Germany and Japan are confused and dangerously dependent on imports, not role models to look to. Many less developed countries are too. The game has changed, beware deja vu.

    Call me a climate denier or whatever you like!

  7. Markoh: OK, you’re a climate denier, or at least in denial. Canada hasn’t started a new nuclear plant in decades, Finland just cancelled its sole remaining project, France has one under construction massively overdue and over-budget, US the same. Maybe, as I mention, SMRs will change things, but not for a long time to come. In the meantime, lots of talk but no real money on the table.

    As for your scary numbers, $7-$9 trillion over the period to 2060 implies annual investment of something like 5-8 per cent of GDP in the energy sector to decarbonize both domestic and export energy. That’s big, but we already invest something comparable in carbon-based energy.

  8. Markoh: – “Meanwhile, almost every other developed country in the world has missed John’s memo and is prioritising nuclear, with some piling in eg, Canada, Finland, France with USA heading that way.

    Where are these (proposed/planned or under construction) sites?
    When do they become operational?
    How much will they cost to build (& to dismantle when they eventually close)?
    How much will the supplied electricity cost per MWh?
    Who pays when things go wrong?
    Where will the nuclear waste go to?
    Do you know, or are you just regurgitating propaganda from nuclear proponents, Markoh?

    A comprehensive analysis of the world’s nuclear industry can be found in the latest edition of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report-2022, at:

    The thorium fuel cycle is immature, not yet self-sustaining and at least decades away (if ever), as explored in the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency publication titled Introduction of Thorium in the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Short- to long-term considerations, at:

    Click to access 46066594.pdf

    An analysis by physicist and University of British Columbia Professor M.V. Ramana, published in a perspectives paper titled Small Modular and Advanced Nuclear Reactors: A Reality Check, in IEEE Xplore on 9 Mar 2021, examines some of the claims being made by nuclear technology proponents, with a particular focus on the economic challenges. It briefly discusses the technical challenges confronting advanced reactor designs and the many decades it might take for these to be commercialized, if ever. It concludes with:

    All of these problems might just end up reinforcing The Economist magazine’s observation from the turn of the century: “nuclear power, which early advocates thought would be ‘too cheap to meter’, is more likely to be remembered as too costly to matter”.


    Nuclear is very slow to deploy – 10+ years (to plan, design, procure, site prepare, construct, grid connect and commission) for existing technologies by experienced countries, and 15–20 years for inexperienced countries, like Australia.

    It seems nuclear promoters are now staking their hopes – and Australia’s energy future – on SMR technologies which are uncertain and unproven.

    I’d suggest nations seeking to base their energy future (and climate response) on technologies that have not yet been developed are reckless and irresponsible.

    Nuclear technologies cannot be deployed fast enough to compensate for the expected closure of many aging, increasingly unreliable and more costly to operate coal-fired plants currently supplying electricity to the NEM. Waiting for new nuclear power technologies to become operational increases the risks of ‘the lights going out’.

  9. John, I might have got a bit excited about Canada, can’t find the reference I saw recently about doubling up on the 19 or so Candu reactors over the next 20 years, but don’t rule it out:
    Canadian budget support for nuclear

    Finland – it is not surprising they cancelled a contract with Rosatom in the circumstances! They are very happy with the Olkiluoto 3 which came onstream in April though (yes, way over time and budget) which has had a large immediate downward impact on electricity prices. (I heard that direct from Tea Törmänen, one of the key Finnish Greens involved in their going pro-nuclear, when she was in AU recently.)

    A few other links in support of the tide turning are below.

    Your statement that we invest “something comparable [to $7-9 trillion between now and 2060] in carbon-based energy doesn’t feel right, but I don’t have time research this and I defer to your superior knowledge. I just think it sounds like a lot compared to maybe a couple of hundred billion or so to add nuclear to the mix, which would reduce the need for much of the $7-9 trillion. I can imagine some sort of business case and financing of nuclear, for all its issues. I simply can’t see it for a totally renewables-dependent one, gas or no gas.

    SMRs have been deployed reasonably on time and budget for nuclear subs for decades and the cost of large reactors will come down as volume picks up again. Sure, it will take time but so would building out a massive renewables-dependent grid.

    The standard response that nuclear costs to much and will take too long seems to me to apply even more to a heavily renewables-based policy – increasing the capacity of the grid by its current size or more *every year* for the next 30 years, etc. Actually, it just seems like a fantasy.

    Geoff – I can’t answer your detailed questions off the bat and don’t have time to do the research, but then I haven’t seen them answered for any all-renewables or renewables+gas scenario, mutatis mutandis. So far I haven’t found a case from any renewables advocate about the feasibility or fully-accounted electricity costs of anything like the NZ Au scenarios, which seem like a reasonable proxy for conventional wisdom and official policy.

    I’m genuinely curious, so will keep looking as my time permits, but have to turn to other matters now.

    Cheers, Markoh

    Plans For New Reactors Worldwide(Updated May 2023)
    Nuclear power capacity worldwide is increasing steadily, with about 60 reactors under construction.
    Most reactors on order or planned are in the Asian region, though there are major plans for new units in Russia.
    Significant further capacity is being created by plant upgrading.
    Plant lifetime extension programmes are maintaining capacity, particularly in the USA.
    Today there are about 440 nuclear power reactors operating in 32 countries plus Taiwan, with a combined capacity of about 390 GWe. In 2021 these provided 2653 TWh, about 10% of the world’s electricity.

    France to speed up nuclear power deployment
    “The first construction is expected to begin in 2027. The same day, on Tuesday morning, 16 European states participated in the “nuclear alliance” to prepare a roadmap for developing an integrated European nuclear industry to reach 150 GW of nuclear in the EU electricity mix by 2050.”

    Italian parliament backs Meloni plan to reactivate nuclear
    “The Italian parliament on Tuesday backed the government’s plan to include nuclear in the country’s energy mix as part of its decarbonisation efforts after abandoning its nuclear programme nearly four decades ago.”

    (USA) This Is the Biggest Moment for Nuclear Energy Since the Dawn of the Atomic Age’
    200 legislative bills and at least 100GW in the pipeline

    (China) Vigorously developing nuclear energy is of great significance to the construction of a new energy system
    “By 2060, my country’s nuclear power installed capacity will reach about 400 million kilowatts, accounting for about 18% of power generation, which is close to the current average level of developed countries in the world.”

  10. Markoh: – “SMRs have been deployed reasonably on time and budget for nuclear subs for decades and the cost of large reactors will come down as volume picks up again.

    Nuclear proponents theorize that reactors used for military purposes (in nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers) can be transitioned easily to civilian applications. So far, theory hasn’t translated into reality.

    Russia has a floating nuclear power plant, called the Akademik Lomonosov, with two modified KLT-40 naval propulsion reactors on board, rated at 150 MWₜₕ / 35 MWₑ (gross) capacity each. Construction started on 15 Apr 2007, with operations commencing on 22 May 2020, after lengthy delays (about four times as long as originally planned), as well as huge cost overruns, from an initial estimate of around 6 billion rubles (US$₂₀₀₇232 million), to at least 37 billion rubles as of 2015 (US$₂₀₁₅740 million).

    According to the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency, electricity produced by the Russian floating plant costs an estimated US$200/MWh (circa AU$294/MWh).
    See the 2016 NEA report #7213 titled Small Modular Reactors: Nuclear Energy Market Potential for Near-term Deployment.

    China has the world’s first prototype of a demonstration twin unit (2x 250 MWₜₕ) high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) connected to a single steam turbine to generate 211 MWₑ (gross), at Shidaowan (Shidao Bay) in Weihai city. Initially approved in November 2005, construction began on 9 Dec 2012, and first grid connection occurred on 14 Dec 2021.

    Both the Russian and Chinese physical examples undermine claims by nuclear proponents that SMRs could be built in as little as 2-3 years and provide cheap electricity.

    The World Nuclear Association claims (up to May 2023):

    Today there are about 440 nuclear power reactors operating in 32 countries plus Taiwan, with a combined capacity of about 390 GWe. In 2021 these provided 2653 TWh, about 10% of the world’s electricity.

    The World Nuclear Industry Status Report-2022, published Oct 2022, provides slightly different data, including (on page 16):

    * Nuclear energy’s share of global commercial gross electricity generation in 2021 dropped to 9.8 percent—the first time below 10 percent and the lowest value in four decades—and 40 percent below the peak of 17.5 percent in 1996.

    * International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) statistics show a peak in officially operating reactors, both in terms of number (449) and capacity (396.5 gigawatt), in 2018. The IAEA’s total of 437 reactors “in operation” in the world at the end of 2021 included 23 reactors that have not generated power since 2010–2013.

    * As of mid-2022, 411 reactors were operating in 33 countries, four less than a year earlier, seven less than in 1989, and 27 below the 2002-peak of 438.

    * Six units were connected to the grid in 2021, of which three were in China. Five new units became operational in the first half of 2022, including two in China.

    * Eight reactors were closed in 2021; two additional closures in the U.K. were announced during the year but the units had not generated any power since 2018.

    * Over the two decades 2002–2021, there were 98 startups and 105 closures. Of these, 50 startups were in China which did not close any reactors. Thus, outside China, there was a net decline by 57 units over the same period; net capacity dropped by 25 GW.

    * Nuclear electricity generation in the world increased by 3.9 percent but remained below the 2019 level. Outside of China, nuclear production increased 2.8 percent to a level similar to 2017.

    Markoh: – “Geoff – I can’t answer your detailed questions off the bat and don’t have time to do the research…

    And yet it seems to me you appear to accept claims by nuclear proponents at face value.

    Markoh: – “…but then I haven’t seen them answered for any all-renewables…

    I’d suggest you aren’t looking hard enough.

  11. Markoh I suggest you read up on the nuclear renaissance, which was supposed to begin around 2000. Then think about how many of these plans are actually going to be delivered.
    Even if they are, compare the nuclear industry’s hoped-for 100GW *by 2050* (about 4GW per year) with actual US installations of solar and wind, 60GW per year and rising.

  12. A final point: There’s nothing new about small reactors, we have one here in Australia, for example. For obvious engineering reasons small reactos are more expensive, per MW, than large reactors built with a similar design.

    The claim is that small *modular* reactors, produced on a large scale in factories will turn the economics around. But there are no small modular reactors in existence as yet, and won’t be until at least 2029.

  13. Geoff – I’m looking here amongst other places at the moment and I’m not finding anything! Do feel free to share any thoughts, suggestions or links explaining how rapid transition to an all-renewables grid can possibly happen *and* optimise the energy trilemma for Australia (cost, security, environmental impact).

  14. Without any apparent commitment to serious emissions reductions the LNP’s promotion of nuclear comes across as utterly insincere; whatever Dutton is about it is NOT about the fixing of the climate problem, let alone fixing it BETTER.

    But I think the insincerity is not so much a flaw as a feature – for one thing Dutton wouldn’t want to upset the climate science deniers the Libs and especially the Nats have so assiduously cultivated and encouraged for so long by actually proposing coal and gas use be curtailed in favour of nuclear!

    So, if “promoting” nuclear is not about fixing global warming, what IS the point? It is not like the LNP needs Labor and Greens to “have a conservation about it” and agree with them before they can have, say, an Industrial Relations or a Taxation policy – yet in this case they seem to be claiming they do. Could be it is simply remaining consistent – that, like the very existence of the climate as a problem at all is somehow the fault of green and left politics everything about it is their fault, including giving support to renewable energy instead of what the LNP says they would use, if they actually had a policy, ie nuclear.

    Honestly I don’t think the LNP really would support nuclear if they – somehow – did choose to ditch the denial and faced up to the climate problem with eyes open, head on; the same reasons nuclear has failed to thrive and renewables have become the world’s most built new energy options would cause them to support renewables over nuclear. As a rhetorical blunt instrument for whacking greenies is one thing; as something to force fossil fuel extraction into history, no.

  15. Ken Fabian: – “So, if “promoting” nuclear is not about fixing global warming, what IS the point?

    Nuclear is a stalking horse for coal and gas.

    I’d suggest it’s a distraction for the gullible, and a delaying tactic to keep coal and gas interests going for as long as possible.

    Ken Fabian: – “Honestly I don’t think the LNP really would support nuclear if they – somehow – did choose to ditch the denial and faced up to the climate problem with eyes open, head on; the same reasons nuclear has failed to thrive and renewables have become the world’s most built new energy options would cause them to support renewables over nuclear.

    I’d suggest if the LNP were ‘fair dinkum’ about supporting nuclear then they would have repealed the legislation banning nuclear power plants in Australia when they were recently in government for 3 consecutive terms.

    Dr Jim Green wrote recently:

    The Morrison government didn’t even bother to respond to the December 2019 Coalition-led nuclear inquiry. Nor did the government act on the inquiry’s recommendation to amend legislation to allow for the construction of “new and emerging” nuclear power technologies.


    Prof Stefan Rahmstorf tweeted a thread on May 25 (translated from German to English), including:

    The area no longer inhabitable for humans (purple) changes depending on the extent of global warming. Current study from Nature Sustainability…

    = = = = =

    The 29°C annual mean temperature (in Potsdam: 10°C) is of course only a simple criterion and therefore the limits are not exact. The study also discusses precipitation, humidity and temperature extremes, such as the number of days above 40°C. Around 1980, about 0.3% of the world’s population lived in the zone above 29°C.
    The problem when it gets too hot: the data shows increasing mortality and pregnancy problems, decreasing labor productivity, the ability to think and learn, and problems with crop yields, so that many people try to move away from such regions.

    Watch the areas no longer inhabitable for humans (shown in purple) on the global map grow, including increasingly large portions of Australia.

    I think the LNP are working for coal & gas interests, and not for the longer-term good of all Australians.

  16. John and/or Geoff,

    I’d still appreciate any references explaining how an all-renewables transition is actually going to work – or are you happy to rest your case on the Net Zero Australia results?
    I’ve been looking and am starting to work my way through AEMO’s ISP, which is very different and presumably more realistic, based as far as I can tell so far on trebling grid capacity rather than increasing it 40 times (though this doesn’t seem to allow for much electrification or clean energy exports).

    I am genuinely trying to understand how Australia is going to be the first country to build a grid many times larger than today’s with no baseload and what the costs and risks are in trying to do so.

    BTW, I am not denying that there aren’t issues about nuclear generation, thanks for a few points on that side. I want to understand both sides to compare them in terms of the energy trilemma – cost, security and environment (or as I saw it expressed somewhere recently: equity, security and sustainability).

  17. Markoh,
    Have you tried web searching “100 renewable energy study”?
    I’d suggest you start there…

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