Like cheap, clean energy? You’ll love nuclear

There is no greater act of economic or environmental vandalism in Australian history than our nonsensical prohibition on nuclear power. It’s doubly perplexing that successive state and federal governments have given in to the whims and bullying of anti-nuclear activists and special interest lobbyists when Australia has the world’s largest uranium reserves.

But this article isn’t about the past. It’s about the future. And if the federal government’s current inquiry into nuclear energy supports an end to the ban, that future could be very bright indeed.

There is currently a massive movement underway to ‘decarbonise’ electricity in the name of addressing climate change. Whatever your thoughts are on the idea, the results in Australia have not been good for families or businesses.

State and federal governments continue to throw billions in taxpayers’ funds into corporate welfare as handouts to energy companies for wind and solar. This has helped to drive the premature retirement of coal-fired power stations which produce power more cheaply, yet which incur higher operation and capital costs and struggle to compete in the face of subsidised renewables receiving first preference on the grid. This ultimately means more volatile electricity prices which are often twice or thrice what American families and businesses pay.

Perversely, the unreliable and intermittent nature of wind and solar has meant that despite all the hits to your hip pocket, fossil fuels have not gone anywhere. They remain vitally important to back up renewable sources that can only produce power some 30-40 per cent of the time.

The biggest beneficiaries of this predicament have been energy companies. They now reap excellent profits through subsidies for renewables as well as through selling us expensive and undersupplied natural gas as coal-fired power stations across Australia continue to close, potentially further destabilising our electricity grid.

With renewables backed by battery storage and hydroelectric power remaining woefully inadequate for replacing fossil fuels in the foreseeable future, there is only one viable long-term solution which simultaneously produces lesser emissions than even a solar plant while delivering reliable and affordable electricity. And that’s nuclear power.

Paradoxically, this is also the one clean energy source which is strongly opposed by a zealous activist lobby with a hangover from the cold war era. And it’s downright tragic.

Innovation in the nuclear power space rapidly brought down costs during the early years of the 1960s. By the 1970s, lobbying by activists declaring nuclear to be unsafe resulted in a proliferation of regulatory burdens and restrictions that deterred investment, drove up construction costs, and made power more expensive. This was especially true in the United States and France, both early adopters of the technology. To this day, France continues to generate a majority of its energy through nuclear power.

Ironically, Australian National University research finds that anti-nuclear lobbyists and activists might have inadvertently perpetuated deaths. An estimated 1.84 million premature deaths are attributed to air pollution from fossil fuel-generated electricity worldwide which could have been avoided had nuclear power replaced fossil fuel-based generation between 1971 and 2009.

By contrast, countries which encouraged innovation, adopted standardized designs for new plants which could be better replicated, and learned from the experiences of others before them, saw their costs either rise at a far slower rate with the growth in regulations, or even saw a continuous decline in costs to the present day. This was the case in South Korea.

There is no reason why a best practice regulatory framework for the Australian nuclear space that is more closely modelled on South Korea than the USA or continental Europe couldn’t work. But the lesson is that each country must focus on its own unique needs.

The Howard government-era inquiry on nuclear power from 2006 concluded with scepticism about the suitability or economic feasibility of large-scale old-style reactors. Yet it expressed optimism about smaller, modular reactors which produce a fraction of the waste. Innovations in this space overseas continue to this day, and we’d be best placed to take advantage of them if a blanket moratorium on nuclear energy didn’t exist.

As for technical expertise, if a country like the United Arab Emirates with a low local population base can build large-scale nuclear plants in a cost-effective manner by bringing in foreign knowhow and skills to supplement local knowledge, then there is no reason why Australian companies couldn’t do the same.

None of this is to say that nuclear power is safe without regulations or restrictions. But we should focus on regulations proportionate to the risks it carries instead of having a blanket ban. Consider even an extreme and easily avoidable scenario such as Fukushima, Japan in 2011: an incident involving the perfect storm of a tsunami, an ageing plant based on a primitive design built on the coast in a zone of great and regular seismic activity. Recent research has shown that a vast majority of the ill health effects for the local population are psychosocial rather than physical in nature. Even today, visitors experience exponentially higher levels of radiation exposure at the airport or French embassy security scanner than at the site of the incident.

By contrast to Japan, Australia is significantly more geologically stable with ample sites suitable for nuclear reactor construction and safe waste disposal located away from communities or farmlands.

With recent polling indicating that there is growing public support for nuclear power, backed by the support of pragmatic environmentalists driven by the science, it is quickly becoming clear that anti-nuclear zealots are on the wrong side of history.

And that their ongoing campaigns to increase taxpayer-funded handouts for unfeasible, unreliable, and expensive wind and solar power which has still left Australians dependent on the very fossil fuels that they say they want to end, are just a distraction from informed and informative debate on energy and environmental policy.

Satya Marar is the Director of Policy at the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance.

The Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance’s submission to the federal government inquiry on nuclear power can be viewed here.

This article was originally published in The Spectator on 18 September 2019.

Satyajeet Marar