Australian news, and some related international items

Dr Jim Green addresses Australia’s Federal Nuclear Inquiry

Dr Green: Thanks for the invitation to speak. Mr O’Brien, I would respectfully ask you to revisit and reconsider your express view that small modular reactors and other new technologies are leading to ‘cleaner, safer and more efficient energy production’. That argument would be compelling if there were fleets or networks of these SMRs operating anywhere in the world and operating successfully, but as you know, and as Dr Switkowski mentioned in his testimony, there are no such networks anywhere in the world, so we have no idea if or how a network of SMRs might operate in Australia. Further, there isn’t even one single SMR operating anywhere in the world. There isn’t even one prototype SMR operating anywhere in the world. So operating SMRs, of which there are precisely none, clearly provide no basis for arguing that new technologies are leading to cleaner, safer and more efficient energy production.

The next level of evidence that we would logically turn to would be SMRs under construction. And if we ignore the icebreakers, and the floating nuclear power plant under construction by the Chinese and Russian governments, then we’re left with just two SMRs under construction. One is the disaster in Argentina, which has been several decades in gestation. The latest cost estimate for that is $32.4 billion per gigawatt, so wildly uncompetitive. The second one is China’s high-temperature SMR. There’s not a great deal that we know about that reactor, but we do know that plans for 18 further high-temperature SMRs at the same site have been dropped—to use the language from the World Nuclear Association. There have clearly been cost overruns. There have clearly been delays. It’s not terribly promising.

Given the absence of any operating SMRs and the unpromising nature of the two under construction, or the two relevant ones under construction, the argument that SMRs are leading to cleaner, safer and more efficient energy production could only possibly be justified with reference to paper designs until the unproven claim is promoted by the nuclear industry. It ought to be obvious, and I’m sure it is obvious, to everyone here that paper designs and corporate claims are no basis for public policy, especially given the history of the past decade.
The current cost estimates for EPR reactors in the UK are seven times greater than the estimates going back to the mid 2000s—not seven per cent greater or even 70 per cent greater but 700 per cent greater. It’s even worse in the United States where the current cost estimates for AP1000 reactors are 10 times greater than the numbers being floated by Westinghouse in 2006, a 1,000 per cent increase. So we need to be incredibly sceptical with corporate cost claims. I think a good starting point for those claims is to add a zero onto the end and it’s a good chance that your estimate would be better than the company estimates.

NuScale is said to be the next big thing in the SMR world, if only because most of its competitors have collapsed. It’s notable that the South Australian royal commission’s estimate of NuScale costs is 2.4 times higher than NuScale’s own estimate. That’s highly significant because if NuScale can deliver power at its projected costs it will certainly be competitive. But if the royal commission’s figures are correct, as I believe they will be and quite possibly understanding the real costs, then it’s not going to be competitive. The royal commission’s figure was $225 per megawatt hour……….

The private sector is not prepared to bet billions of dollars on SMRs, not even to get a prototype up and running. This is what we see in the US, the UK, Canada and elsewhere. It will not build a single prototype in the absence of very large amounts of taxpayer subsidies, amounting at a bare minimum to hundreds of millions of dollars and almost certainly into the billions of dollars. To date governments are resisting. The British government has invested tens of millions of pounds in grants, but that would need to be increased by one to two orders of magnitude if a single prototype is to be built, let alone a fleet of SMRs. In the US, government largesse has amounted to roughly half a billion dollars. Once again, it’s not even close to getting a single prototype off the ground. The debate in Canada is at an earlier stage, and they haven’t come up with any serious ideas about how they’re going to get a single prototype SMR funded, let alone a fleet of SMRs.

The only thing that would actually change in Australia if the ban against nuclear power were repealed is that nuclear companies would descend on Canberra to try to gouge as much taxpayer money as they could possibly get from the federal government.  That would be the one practical change. Dr Switkowski told the committee that, because of Australia’s prohibition against nuclear power, the US company TerraPower can’t collaborate with an Australian company. But if an Australian company were rich or brave or crazy enough to invest in TerraPower, they’d be most welcome. TerraPower, like all of these other companies, has no intention of building even a single prototype in the absence of huge taxpayer subsidies. So, once again, if Australia’s legal prohibition against nuclear power were repealed, the only change would be that TerraPower company representatives would be lined up outside ministerial offices trying to stitch together a package of direct and indirect taxpayer subsidies.

There are dozens of start-ups involved in the SMR sector and the advanced reactor sector. There are said to be well over 50 in the United States alone. But if all of those companies pooled all of their money into one single pot it’s highly doubtful they would have enough money to build one single prototype—hence the attempts to get billions of dollars of taxpayer money. The executive summary from our joint NGO submission includes a very long and growing list of failed SMR and advanced reactor projects, and there have been further failures in the short time since this committee was initiated.
Finally, Mr O’Brien, in light of the findings of the South Australian royal commission, I would ask you to reconsider your expressed view that SMRs are leading to cleaner, safer and more efficient energy production. The royal commission investigated these issues in detail. It commissioned expert research, and the royal commission concluded:

… fast reactors or reactors with other innovative designs are unlikely to be feasible or viable in South Australia in the foreseeable future. No licensed and commercially proven design is currently operating. Development to that point would require substantial capital investment. Moreover, the electricity generated has not been demonstrated to be cost-competitive with current light water reactor designs……

October 8, 2019 - Posted by | AUSTRALIA - NATIONAL, politics

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