Australian news, and some related international items

Coalition clown show on nuclear on full display in Senate inquiry

A Senate nuclear power inquiry held its only public hearing on Monday. For the most part it was an opportunity for Coalition Senators to express their furious agreement with misinformation fed to them by pro-nuclear witnesses.

Jim Green 17 May 2023 2023

And it was an opportunity for culture warriors Matt Canavan and NSW Senator Hollie Hughes (Shadow Assistant Minister for Climate Change and Energy) to compete with each other to see who could get the most column-inches in the Murdoch tabloids and the most air-time on Murdoch’s Sky TV.

Canavan said he is getting fitted out for a koala suit to protest the loss of habitat due to wind farms. His laptop was adorned with a ‘Proudly powered by Aussie coal’ sticker even though he was in the ACT, which is proudly 100 per cent net renewable powered.

Hughes insisted that federal legislation banning nuclear power is “ridiculous” and “embarrassing”. That would be the legislation introduced by John Howard’s Coalition government and left untouched by the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison Coalition governments.

The Murdoch media dutifully parroted pro-nuclear nonsense from Monday’s hearing. But to his credit, News Corp’s national weekend political editor James Campbell noted that those “who seem keenest on nuclear energy as a solution to our climate change problems tend in many cases to be exactly the same people who up until five minutes ago were confidently telling us we didn’t need to worry about climate change at all.”

Hughes said last year that climate change is a “luxury issue”, that she opposed stronger emissions reduction targets, and that: “We could shut everything down tomorrow and all go live in trees.” As the Murdoch press noted, this was coming from the Coalition’s second most senior climate change spokesperson.

Public opinion

It was clear from Monday’s hearing that Coalition culture warriors are suffering under the delusion that nuclear power is popular, based on polls with loaded questions and/or tiny sample sizes.

The culture warriors are unaware of, or indifferent to, polls which find that support for nuclear power plummets if the question is posed as a local issue. A 2019 poll found that 28 percent of respondents “would be comfortable living close to a nuclear power plant” while 60 percent would not.

Another 2019 poll found that 19 percent of respondents would agree to a nuclear power plant being built in their area, 58 percent would be opposed and a further 23 percent would be “anxious”.

Inexplicably, Canavan said you “could call nuclear the great unifier”. In fact, the Howard government thought that promoting nuclear would be a great way to divide Labor and to divide the environment movement. It did neither, but it divided the Coalition with at least 22 Coalition candidates publicly distancing themselves from the government’s pro-nuclear policy during the 2007 election campaign.

More recently, Coalition members involved in a 2019 nuclear inquiry had to deal with submissions opposing nuclear power by the SA and Tasmanian Liberal/Coalition governments and the Queensland Liberal-National Party. Labor and environment groups were united in their opposition to nuclear power.

Each new generation of Coalition culture warriors needs to learn afresh that nuclear divides the Coalition, not Labor or the environment movement.

Small modular reactors

Attacking CSIRO for its GenCost nuclear cost estimates was a recurring theme at Monday’s hearing. CSIRO was accused of “cherry picking”, “misleading” the public, research which “doesn’t have much bearing on the real world”, and a “very incomplete process”.

Hughes said it is “misleading and deceptive” for CSIRO to cost small modular reactors (SMRs) but not large reactors. CSIRO doesn’t cost large reactors because the 2019 Coalition-led inquiry recommended retaining legislation banning large reactors. Ted O’Brien — chair of the 2019 inquiry and now the Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy — said “Australia should say a definite ‘no’ to old nuclear technologies”.

The Coalition culture warriors weren’t the least bit concerned about the difficulty of costing technologies which have no meaningful existence. Only two SMRs exist, one each in China and Russia, and those reactors don’t fit the SMR definition of serial factory construction of reactor modules.

The culture warriors were insistent that CSIRO should give much greater weight to ‘expert’ cost estimates, by which they mean vendor estimates. So let’s have a look at the track record of vendor estimates. The cost of China’s SMR was 2-3 times higher than early estimates. The cost of Russia’s SMR increased six-fold. The cost of the still-incomplete SMR in Argentina is more than 20 times higher than early estimates.

For large reactors, cost estimates for the only reactors under construction in the US have increased 12-fold. Cost estimates for the only reactors under construction in the UK have increased 8-fold. Cost estimates for the only reactor under construction in France have increased 6-fold. The current cost estimates for reactors under construction in those three countries range from A$25 billion to A$30 billion per reactor.

Yet the Coalition culture warriors think that vendor estimates should be taken as gospel and should underpin public policy making in Australia. CSIRO’s Paul Graham responded drily to the barrage of abuse: “We regard vendor estimates as the lowest quality data.


One witness told the Senate committee that US company NuScale estimates a cost of $4,200 per kilowatt for its SMR. In fact, NuScale’s latest estimate is A$30,000 per kilowatt (A$14 billion for a 462 megawatt plant). Despite lavish government subsidies amounting to A$6.3 billion, NuScale is struggling to secure private-sector finance to get the project off the ground.

NuScale’s history can be traced to the turn of the century but it hasn’t even begun construction of a single reactor. Likewise, Argentina’s SMR project can be traced back to the last millennium but it hasn’t completed construction of a single reactor.

In 1990, the Coalition’s energy spokesperson claimed that “new-generation reactors … are now coming into use”. A third of a century later, and we’re still waiting.

James Voss, Managing Director of Ultra Safe Nuclear Australia Pty Ltd, falsely claimed at Monday’s Senate hearing that the company is building SMRs in North America (“our first two plants that we’re building now”). The company still needs licensing approvals and funding before it begins construction.

Voss claimed that the there should be no taxpayer subsidies to facilitate the introduction of SMRs to Australia — but the company would not have made the progress it has in North America without taxpayer subsidies and other forms of government support, and it will grind to a halt without further subsidies and support.

The British government in the mid-2000s insisted that new nuclear plants would not be subsidised. But the UK National Audit Office estimates that taxpayer subsidies for Hinkley Point — the only reactor construction project in the UK — could amount to £30 billion (A$52.5 billion) while other credible estimates put the figure as high as £48.3 billion (A$84.5 billion).

Minerals Council of Australia chief executive Tania Constable told the Senate committee there is no difference between SMRs and nuclear-powered submarine reactors. If that were the case the US and the UK — Australia’s AUKUS partners — would have plenty of SMRs given that they have nuclear-powered submarines. They have none.

History repeating itself

Historically, Coalition leaders have backed off nuclear power in the lead-up to elections. The Howard government wrapped up the Switkowski nuclear inquiry in unseemly haste in late-2006, and tried to avoid the issue in the 2007 election year.

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.

When announcing the AUKUS agreement, Morrison insisted that nuclear powered submarines wouldn’t lead to a domestic nuclear industry in Australia.

But under Peter Dutton, who was spruiking SMRs in his budget reply speech, the Coalition has gone so far down the nuclear rabbit-hole that it will have little choice but to promise to repeal legislation banning nuclear power if it wins the next election.

The Coalition will lose the election, ditch the nuclear policy and probably ditch the leader as well – 2007 all over again.

Then the next batch of Coalition warriors will come up with the bright idea of dividing Labor and the environment movement by promoting nuclear power. Rinse and repeat.

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and lead author of a detailed submission to the Senate inquiry.

May 19, 2023 - Posted by | AUSTRALIA - NATIONAL, politics

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