In Australia, energy crunch prompts a heated debate on going nuclear

Australia’s opposition leader has proposed building the country’s first nuclear plants, but many are unconvinced.

energy Australia
Australia is trying to transition away from fossil fuels as it seeks to reduce greenhouse emissions by 43 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 [ David Gray/AFP]

Mudgee, New South Wales, Australia – The Mount Piper coal-fired power station sits just 25km (15 miles) to the west of one of Australia’s most scenic natural landscapes, Blue Mountains National Park, known for its spectacular eucalyptus-covered canyons, sandstone cliffs and waterfalls.

The facility, set in hilly, drought-prone grazing country, is one of seven sites where conservative opposition leader Peter Dutton plans to build Australia’s first nuclear energy power stations should his Liberal and National Party coalition win next year’s federal election.

Dutton has argued that the current centre-left Labor Party government will not be able to reach its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 with renewables such as wind and solar alone.

“I want to make sure that the Australian public understands today that we have a vision for our country to deliver cleaner electricity, cheaper electricity and consistent electricity,” Dutton told reporters last month.

For many Australians, Dutton’s proposals lit a match under a discussion they had assumed was put to bed decades ago.

In 1998, a previous conservative government banned nuclear power in favour of coal, a commodity that remains Australia’s second most valuable export after iron ore – the fuel last year made up 15 percent of total exports, worth some 102 billion Australian dollars ($68bn).

But since 2006, conservative parties have periodically called for a new debate on the nuclear question – although never seriously while last in power between 2013-2022.

Under the current government’s plans, Australia is one of the few major economies not using, or planning to use, nuclear energy to provide guaranteed power to underpin renewable sources like solar and wind.

In Blue Mountains communities such as Lithgow, a gentrifying town that once hosted more than a dozen coal mines, the nuclear proposals have prompted mixed reactions.

Larissa Edwards, one of a growing number of “tree changers” who have relocated to Lithgow to escape city life, said she was horrified when she learned of the plans.

“I came because it’s a beautiful and special part of the world,” Edwards told Al Jazeera.

“I was gobsmacked really. It’s an obvious spot for Dutton’s plan, which he had signalled to some degree. But as the whole area is moving to renewables, I was still shocked,” she said.

“I don’t think it’s the right solution for the energy crisis, nor for the climate crisis that we’re in.”

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Australia’s opposition leader has proposed nuclear power as a solution to the country’s energy challenges [Peter Dutton Gray/AFP]

However, coal miners in Lithgow who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity expressed hope that a nuclear facility would bring new jobs for the next generation following the closure of all but three of the town’s mines.

While there is a divide between those who prioritise the economy versus the environment, there is widespread dismay about the lack of consultation ahead of the announcement, or a detailed estimate of costs expected to be in the billions of dollars.

“The polling I have carried out so far is on the ground in the Lithgow area and from what I can tell, there is already strong division between those supporting a reactor and those opposing it, with a heap of people in the middle asking for more details and information,” Andrew Gee, an independent MP who represents the region, told Al Jazeera.

“The community can’t be expected to make an informed choice on this issue if there’s no consultation and the community simply doesn’t have the facts. Its leaders can’t be expected to either.”

The governments of the affected states in Australia’s federated model have given Dutton’s nuclear plans a resounding “no”.

Three of the five states with sites in the plan – New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland – have bans on the construction of nuclear facilities.

In a further obstacle, the proposed sites are privately owned and, in most cases, have prior commitments for renewables projects.

“It’s clearly got a fundamentally political objective, which is to differentiate the opposition on energy policy, and has been successful so far in that the government hasn’t yet worked out what its reaction should be,” Tony Wood, the director of the energy program at the Grattan Institute think tank, told Al Jazeera.

The chosen sites all host ageing coal-fired electricity plants, which the incumbent government has promised to phase out as quickly as possible.

On an optimistic timetable, nuclear energy would take at least 10-15 years to come online.

Critics see the policy as aimed at propping up members of Dutton’s coalition in electorates where communities are anxious about the economic impact of the transition away from coal, as well as leveraging a backlash in regional areas against what many rural residents see as unsightly renewables projects.

At the heart of the debate are questions about the economic viability of renewables as Australia transitions to net-zero emissions by 2050, a commitment supported by both major parties.

While policymakers are tasked with finding the most effective solutions for the nation’s energy grid, they must also take heed of Australian voters’ sensitivity to rising power bills.

Australia’s energy demand is forecast to double by 2050, according to a report released last month by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO).

Its key message was to speed up the rollout of renewables.

“This doesn’t do anything for the cost of living. It could even make it worse, because it creates uncertainty,” the Grattan Institute’s Wood said of the nuclear proposals.

Other critics have expressed concern about the lack of any plan for nuclear waste.

“I am concerned about how things are going to be transported through the area and I’m concerned about the storage of waste and the impact that that would potentially have on an area that’s so close to our World Heritage environment,” Lithgow resident Edwards said.

Such fears have been compounded politically by the fact that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has yet to say where waste from Australia’s planned fleet of nuclear submarines, the first of which is not due to arrive until 2030, will be stored.

“That’s something that Australia is going to have to sort out, and it’s proven to be very thorny politically in the past and I don’t see that changing,” Ebony Bennett, the deputy director of the Australia Institute think tank, told Al Jazeera.

There are also questions about what type of nuclear technology – from large-scale plants to emerging but largely untested small modular reactors and next-generation sodium-cooled fast reactors – would best suit drought-prone Australia.

The first reactor using the latter technology, developed by United States company TerraPower, broke ground last month in the US state of Wyoming.

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US companyTerraPower last month broke ground on a next-generation sodium-cooled nuclear reactor in Wyoming [Natalie Behring/AP]

In a recent policy paper, Ken Baldwin, a professor at Australian National University’s Research School of Physics, argued that all options should be allowed to compete on a level playing field if there is “even a small chance that nuclear power could fill the reliability gap in a 100 percent clean energy system”.

“This is a strong argument – currently favoured by public opinion – for removing Australia’s legislated ban on nuclear power, so the nation can evaluate the best option without one hand tied behind its back,” Baldwin wrote.

At present, though, it is clear that investors, in an energy sector privatised decades ago, do not currently see nuclear as viable in Australia.

“Most companies that I’ve spoken to and state governments who are driving renewables will continue despite what an opposition would do in government,” Wood said.

Perhaps for this reason, Dutton’s proposals envisage state ownership, an unexpected reversal for a party that championed privatisation of the energy grid.

With Australia struggling to keep up the pace needed to meet its 2050 net-zero goal, the nuclear option has so far had little traction outside of conservative political circles and media.

While Dutton and his allies continue to make the case for nuclear, the as-yet elusive price tag, above all else, could prove to be the proposals’ undoing.

The AEMO report found that nuclear power was “one of the most expensive ways to generate electricity”.

“I think the economics of it probably didn’t stack up particularly well 20 years ago, and they’re even worse now,” the Australia Institute’s Bennett said.

“There was a huge amount of community opposition back [then]. The reality is we have missed the boat on nuclear, if there ever was a boat to catch.”

Source: Al Jazeera