The Guardian • Issue #2072


Anna Pha

Coalition leader Peter Dutton is calling for small modular (nuclear) reactors (SMRs) to replace coal-fired power stations as they are closed. SMRs are a class of nuclear fission reactors which are smaller than standard ones, and transportable. This is yet another diversion from phasing out fossil fuels. First it was the “gas-led transition,” now it is the nuclear-led transition. The former is hogwash, the latter is dangerous. The Coalition’s agenda is driven by the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) and the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association – two powerful resources lobby groups.

Under the proposal, 71 SMRs would replace the output of coal-fired power stations. In pure economic terms the idea does not stand up. According to Peter Farley, a fellow of the Australian Institution of Engineers, renewable power plus backup power (e.g. pumped hydro or battery storage) is possible for one-third of the cost of nuclear power, in one-third of the time. The Department of Energy estimates SMRs that it would cost $387 billion – even more than the estimated $368 billion commitment for nuclear submarines – and with a similar delivery time in the 2040s or later. Yet the science, as reported by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) dictates that urgent action is required before the end of this decade.

SMRs are by no means a proven technology commercially, with only two in operation, a third one licenced to take off and around 80 on the drawing board. They present a range of dangers.

Neutron leakage rates are estimated to be higher for SMRs than for larger nuclear reactors. Some designs use water as a coolant, others use liquid metal coolants which also becomes radioactive. Another potential issue is that a lower fraction of the fuel is consumed, also increasing waste volumes.

The question of how and where to store nuclear waste long term has not been resolved. There are literally thousands of tons of solid fuel from nuclear power plants and millions of litres of radioactive waste from weapons production stored in temporary containers. Some have already begun leaking. It would be madness to expand the nuclear industry posing greater risks to health and the environment. The Fukushima power plant and release of radioactive water into the ocean should be warning to all. So far in Australia a terra nullius approach has been taken when governments discuss possible sites for disposal of nuclear waste.

SMRs pose particular security risks. Being much smaller and in far larger numbers they are likely to be spread more widely and be more difficult to protect from terrorist attacks or sabotage.

Nuclear power was banned by legislation in Australia in 1998. Queensland LNP Senator Matt Canavan has a private member’s bill to scrap that ban which was referred to a Senate committee. The committee rejected lifting the ban, pointing out that there was not enough time to develop nuclear power in Australia to reach the national target by 2030. It said it would take 10-15 years to have an operational plant in Australia.

Labor has opposed the idea saying it would be too costly. There is little public support for nuclear power plants of any type. Labor in opposing the idea on the grounds of cost, is avoiding the question of nuclear itself – after all it has signed up for nuclear submarines. Labor continues to ignore warnings from the IPCC, the International Energy Agency, and scientists not to open new coal or gas projects or expand existing ones. The Coalition would use nuclear to delay transitioning from fossil fuels.

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