Part-time power is worse than having no power at all: our industrial heartbeat and the timing of daily chores hasn’t been dictated by the weather for more than a century. Harnessing thermal power set us on the road to the modern, ordered and (largely) civil society we presently enjoy. For a refresher course Google up “Industrial Revolution”, “steam engine”, “James Watt” and “George Stephenson”.

The obsession amongst our political betters with unreliable wind and solar threatens to undo that Revolution; it’s almost like they’re out to de-industrialise and destroy us.

Coal sat the heart of the steam age, but the fuels used to boil water under pressure went on to include oil and gas.

Then, after physicists began to grapple with and master forces at a nuclear level, uranium and its enriched derivatives did away with the need for any combustible fuel, at all.

450 clean, safe and reliable nuclear reactors are quietly delivering baseload power in 32 countries around the world, with a dozen countries building another 60 reactors among them and another dozen or so countries considering doing the same.

There is one glaringly ludicrous exception: Australia.

Australia, despite holding the world’s largest uranium reserves and, despite its shifting policy of limiting the number of mines and states that have banned them, is the world’s third-largest uranium exporter, banned nuclear power generation back in 1998 and has never had a nuclear power plant.

Sure, places like Australia with abundant coal reserves will be using coal-fired power for generations to come. But that’s not a reason to reject a nuclear-powered future, out of hand.

STT backs nuclear power simply because it works. And, moreover, it’s the perfect foil for those who would send us back to the dark ages, because of their fixation on human-generated carbon dioxide gas.

With Australia facing the prospect of a suicidal net-zero carbon dioxide gas emissions target, means that the choices for reliable and affordable power will soon reduce to nuclear power, or nothing. Coal has been demonised for years by spineless Liberals (within the notionally conservative political party) and the Green-Labor left alliance. And Australia’s gas supplies have been locked up by State governments that refuse to exploit our abundant reserves.

Against all that, Australia has squandered the best part of $30 billion on solar panels and wind turbines, which collectively attract around $4 billion a year in subsidies. The consequence of which is a chaotic power market, routine power rationing and mass load shedding (controlled blackouts) – whenever peak demand coincides with sunset and/or dead calm weather.

So, the fact that Australia stands at the only G20 nation that’s thumbed its nose at nuclear power is – as The Australian’s Greg Sheridan carefully details below – not just diabolical, it is positively insane.

Nuclear stacks up – cue the meltdown
The Australian
Greg Sheridan
10 July 2021

Australia has a unique distinction among the G20 nations. We have taken a stand, outlawing a practice every other G20 member allows and almost every G20 member engages in.

We are environmental outliers, in effect climate deniers. We outlaw a pro-green, emissions-reducing practice that is increasingly important across the planet.

What could it be? Are we doing something weird to assist our vital minerals sector, the source of our national wealth, or our agricultural sector?

Alone among G20 nations, we have a legislative prohibition on nuclear energy.

Most G20 nations use nuclear energy – Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Russia, the UK, the US and the EU.

Of the remaining G20 nations, Turkey is building nuclear power stations, Saudi Arabia is beginning the procurement process, Indonesia has an active program. Italy shut its reactors but imports nuclear energy from other European nations.

Only Australia, a true laggard and outlier, holds nuclear energy as illegal. In this, Australia is not just eccentric, but nuts.

The International Energy Agency outlined a possible path to net zero emissions. I think the world will never get to net zero, but developed countries will substantially reduce their emissions. In the IEA scenario, to get to net zero nuclear doubles its physical capacity by 2050 and accounts for 50 per cent of global energy by then.

No one is cleaner or greener, at least at declaratory level, than the EU. Nuclear accounts for 26 per cent of EU energy.

No government is more committed to net zero than that of Joe Biden in the US. The US has formal targets of a 52 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030, 100 per cent clean energy by 2035 and a net-zero economy by 2050. I don’t think there’s any chance of this actually happening, but those are the targets. So what is the view from the clean, green White House? Biden’s Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, in a message frequently repeated, has said: “President Biden is absolutely committed to getting this country powered by clean energy, using every single clean energy tool available … Let me say it loud and clear: Carbon-free nuclear power is an absolutely critical part of our decarbonisation equation.”

Nuclear energy, along with submarines, budget repair, fiscal incoherence in the federation, the maintenance of an Australian-flagged merchant fleet of cargo vessels, is one of the great, epic, world class, humungous policy fails in Australian life.

For a long time we had plentiful cheap energy from our own coal, oil and gas, so we didn’t worry about nuclear. Then when environmental politics dictated we cut our emissions, we basically shut down our manufacturing industry and exported it to China and other developing nations. We stayed wealthy because of the high prices we got for iron ore, coal and other commodity exports.

But even for the lucky country, one day the luck runs out. We cannot sustain ourselves as a wealthy nation if we shut down fossil fuels and don’t have nuclear. More than 80 per cent of the world’s energy still comes from fossil fuels. The biggest source after that is nuclear.

Climate change is an area of public policy where no one really ever tells the truth by acknowledging evidence contrary to their argument, because everyone feels they are not only making a case but pursuing a moral cause. Those who back traditional energy sources should recognise that big emissions reductions are coming whether they like it or not. Advocates of renewables ought to acknowledge they can never do the main job for Australia. Renewables look economically competitive only because of the subsidies they get, the massive distortions to the regulatory structures required to make them viable at all, and because they have no obligation to be available all the time.

Nuclear energy, once the concrete and steel in the constructions is accounted for, is a zero emissions technology in which a single plant runs for decades and decades. And it has the best safety record of any major energy source.

Traditionally, nuclear plants were too big for the Australian system, and too expensive. But with the development of small modular reactors (SMRs), this has all changed. Biden has called SMRs “affordable, game-changing technologies that are smaller, safer and more efficient”.

The SMRs are much smaller than traditional reactors, much cheaper, even safer, have a tiny footprint, much faster to construct, don’t use huge amounts of water, don’t need to be near the coast and would fit perfectly into Australia’s electricity grid. They are a developing technology. The US company NuScale has had its SMR design approved by the exhaustive US approvals process and is now gaining site-specific approvals and could well be operating by 2028. Such plants are big enough to compensate for a coal fired power plant going offline.

How did we get to our ridiculous legislative ban, and where do we go from here?

The legislative ban came about during John Howard’s prime ministership, in 1999. It was part of senate horse-trading involved in securing senate approval for the ongoing operations of Australia’s medical research nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights. At the time, with coal abundant and SMRs not yet developed, it looked as though Australia would never have the economic need, or space, for nuclear power.

Howard confirms to Inquirer that he vigorously supports getting rid of this legislative ban and thinks the nation should have a mature investigation of nuclear power. He also points out he was making efforts in the last years of his prime ministership to open up a national discussion on nuclear energy.

Scott Morrison’s government is more open to nuclear power than any since Howard’s. However, quite reasonably, it won’t breach bipartisanship on the issue. This is because of the deadly, wretched, wholly negative, nihilistic scare campaigns and demonising that the ALP left and its Green allies have conducted against nuclear energy for 40 years. Anthony Albanese is a key veteran of all these campaigns.

They are a classic example of the sterile politics of veto which our culture has reached. Each side can veto reform by the other side. A noisy community group can stop something; nobody can create anything.

Bill Gates sponsors nuclear power research, Justin Trudeau is all in for nuclear, Joe Biden and the EU, they all back it, but Albanese and the official Labor Party, in tandem with the Greens, they make sure we cannot ever access the only zero-emissions baseload power on the planet.

The Morrison government has included nuclear SMRs in its Technology Investment Roadmap. In a statement to Inquirer, Energy Minister Angus Taylor said: “If we’re going to make any progress here, it’s got to be bipartisan. We have put it on the table … that this is a technology that has great potential and we should be evaluating it and considering it.

“We’re open to having that discussion with Labor. But right now, Anthony Albanese has shown absolutely no interest in it. In fact, he’s campaigned against it for much of his career. The irony is it is a baseload zero-emissions power source. Nuclear energy is playing a key role in reducing emissions around the world, particularly in Europe, the United States, China and the United Kingdom.”

This is one of those insane policy roadblocks where everyone except the ideological purists and fanatics knows this is true, that officially evaluating nuclear – the first step to eventually acquiring a nuclear energy capacity – is sound policy, but the roadblock is impassable.

Even within Labor, opinion is moving, but nowhere near fast or far enough. The Parliamentary Friends of the Nuclear Industries group has several Labor members, and there is support within elements of the union movement, especially the AWU and the CFMEU.

Joel Fitzgibbon, a member of the parliamentary friends group, tells Inquirer: “We need to get rid of this ridiculous prohibition. Then at least if someone has a proposal it can come forth and be properly scrutinised. Nuclear energy is more economical now. Given the massive changes in nuclear technology, and our difficulties in reducing emissions, we should consider it. There is also a gross moral hypocrisy in claiming that it is not safe here but exporting it to others so they can, I suppose, blow themselves up.”

Fitzgibbon’s logic is unarguable. But nuclear energy also engages a much broader set of strategic issues. Some 32 countries now operate nuclear energy and another nearly 30-odd are acquiring it or considering doing so. We will not be a credible modern nation in the long run without it.

Dennis Richardson was at the heart of national governance for 40 years. He was Bob Hawke’s chief of staff, ambassador to the US, head of both the defence and foreign affairs departments. He tells Inquirer: “If you’re serious about climate change, you’ve got to be serious about nuclear energy. To refuse to talk about nuclear energy undercuts anyone’s credibility on climate change. We are part of the global nuclear cycle anyway. We have among the largest deposits of uranium in the world and export it under safeguards.

“If you look further down the track, unless we develop a more sophisticated nuclear industry, we’re going to have great difficulty developing nuclear submarines, which are absolutely essential for the submarines we will get after the future (French) submarines.

“We should be looking at nuclear submarines for the 2050s and to do that we need to be looking at nuclear energy over the next 10 years. Look at the difficulties fossil fuels are experiencing, yet 60 per cent of our power comes from coal. It’s clear we need a reliable source of power to take over from coal and gas. The obvious answer is nuclear, especially given our uranium resources.”

Climate Change Authority chairman Grant King expressed similar sentiments to Richardson in saying recently that Australia should be open to nuclear options.

There is overwhelming support for this within the federal Nationals. But one of the problems is that, like submarines, there is a decade of work to do before you would actually get a reactor to come online. It’s a policy area that needs long-term planning and our politics is allergic to long-term planning. A few years of feasibility studies, then a few years of site selection, then a decision in principle, then a couple of years of construction.

Former resources minister Matt Canavan tells me: “It could take 10 years to build a nuclear power station. We should be kickstarting the process now so that we have the option in a few years.”

Newly restored Nationals minister David Gillespie, is chairman of the parliamentary Friends of Nuclear Industries. He tells Inquirer: “I’m encouraged by the broad acceptance of nuclear as part of the technology we have to consider if we are transitioning away from coal.”

Gillespie understands he can’t change policy overnight. His efforts are bipartisan, directed at removing the nuclear taboo, getting the politicians educated on nuclear, normalising discussion about it.

Nuclear energy is the classic case of politics versus national development, of bad politics hurting good policy, of ideological hang-ups and shibboleths vetoing an essential structural reform and making our nation weaker, more vulnerable.

The veto on nuclear means not just that it will be harder to reduce our emissions. It means we are setting ourselves up to be a uniquely weak modern nation. At a time when we are supposedly learning hard lessons about the need for sovereign capability, secure supply lines, mastery of modern technology and national resilience and self reliance, we are bizarrely ensuring that we have no knowledge, no capability and no benefit from one of the most important technologies of our time.

And if we ever do transition to electric cars and the rest, if we ever aspire to recover a manufacturing industry, if we plan to remain secure, we will need vast amounts of electricity. Solar panels and windmills won’t cut it.


The Australian

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July 10, 2021