Growing Up: Australia’s Nuclear Submarine Deal Paves Way For Nuclear Powered Future

Spread the love


Nuclear power is the obvious choice for naval submariners keen on speed, reliability and stealth. Which is why Australia has just signed up to join the big boys with a fleet of its very own nuclear-powered submarines.

While there might be plenty to debate about the terms of that deal, one thing is crystal clear: now that Australia is set to have a swag of nuclear-powered U-boats, there is no good reason to maintain its idiotic ban on nuclear power plants, and every good reason for set that aside, and crack on with a nuclear-powered future. A move that can begin right now, with Small Modular Reactors of the kind being developed and built by America’s NuScale and Britain’s Rolls-Royce.

SMRs are no pipe dream: 200 small nuclear reactors are presently powering 160 ships and submarines all around the world, and have been for decades.

Thanks to an obsession with heavily subsidised and chaotically intermittent wind and solar, consumers have been belted with routine annual double-digit increases over the last decade. In July, a round of further punishing increases of 25-30% will add to their suffering. And all this in a Country blessed with an abundance of coal, gas and uranium, but cursed with a political and rent-seeking class without the wit and temerity to use any of it to the national advantage.

As The Australian’s Chris Kenny details below, if there was ever a time for safe, reliable and affordable nuclear in Australia, it starts now.

If it can power our defence, our nation can be nuclear-powered too
The Australian
Chris Kenny
18 March 2023

About 10 years ago, a group of senior nuclear technicians at Australia’s only nuclear plant, the medical and research reactor at Lucas Heights on Sydney’s suburban fringe, were discussing their energy needs. They considered installing solar panels but decided that without subsidies the finances did not stack up.

One of them suggested harnessing the excess heat from the reactor, which is expelled by steam through a chimney. A series of Stirling engines could convert that heat into electricity, the boffins figured, delivering cheap, emissions-free power.

But the thought bubble was quickly dismissed. Such a steam-driven contraption on a research reactor would, under national legislation, be defined as nuclear energy – so it would be illegal.

Our nation’s prohibitive stance on nuclear energy has long been an absurdity. The AUKUS initiative and its centrepiece task of running and building nuclear-propelled submarines strips the paradoxes bare.

A modern industrial nation that has run a research and medical nuclear reactor for many decades, hosted nuclear weapons testing, mines and exports uranium, will manufacture nuclear-powered submarines, and will store nuclear waste from their maritime power units, will not avail itself of the proven, reliable, emissions-free energy generated from nuclear fission.

Once dubbed the Lucky Country, we seem determined to prove Donald Horne wrong by vandalising all our good fortune. Blessed with bountiful coal, gas and uranium reserves, our modern, woke politicians are happy to export them all but determined not to use them for our own benefit.

Instead, other nations – including our strategic adversaries – grow rich and strong from our resources, while they replace the carbon dioxide emissions we save, many times over. This is Australia’s national self-harm, official vandalism, that delivers no environmental benefit to the planet.

Federal Climate and Energy Minister Chris Bowen continues to reject a domestic nuclear energy industry on the spurious basis of cost – which tells you where the old arguments about safety and proliferation have landed. Bowen is worth listening to because it is sometimes difficult to believe what is coming from his mouth.

This week he said nuclear would be “particularly expensive” in Australia because we “don’t have a nuclear industry to start with” and “we’d be starting from scratch” without the infrastructure the industry would need. This was on the same day he opened another solar farm – developing renewables infrastructure from scratch – and announced $6m in grants to trial cattle feed supplements, such as seaweed, to reduce their belching and other emissions.

Bowen reckons sushi for steers is worthy of taxpayer support but developing expertise in nuclear technology, even when we are building a military nuclear propulsion capability, is too much of a leap forward. For a party that keeps banging on about following the science, Labor behaves like a bunch of troglodytes.

Even Paul Keating – who once famously slighted John Howard as a “pre-Copernican obscurantist” – has been out this week promoting a return to diesel-electric submarines. Keating has become a post-combustion abolitionist.

Back in the late 1960s and early ’70s, as Cold War tensions escalated around Vietnam and Eastern Europe, Australia was ready to enter the brave new world of nuclear energy. A reactor was to be built on commonwealth land at Jervis Bay – the current Murrays Beach car park on the southern headland is an area that was cleared for the construction.

After these initial site works, the plan was abandoned because our vast coal resources and then rapidly expanding gas projects rendered it economically superfluous. Now, given we have decided to eschew coal and gas in order to meet emissions-reduction imperatives, it is obvious nuclear should be back in play.

Environmentally, it is a no-brainer. Aside from not emitting greenhouse gases, it is an intense energy source that has a smaller geographic footprint than any other electricity source and can be located close to existing transmission networks. Nuclear waste is also very compact compared to the detritus of renewables and other sources; and the lifespan of nuclear plants is three to four times that of solar and wind infrastructure.

Crucially, its output is not intermittent. Indeed, a complication with nuclear is the inability to wind down generation at will – for our circumstances, excess electricity might be used for desalination or to produce hydrogen.

Given our projected demand for increasing amounts of electricity to power cars, trucks, trains, kitchens and anything else current fuelled by gas or petroleum, nuclear is a no-brainer. The world cannot get to net zero without massively increasing nuclear generation, so Bowen might want to talk to his colleague Richard Marles, the Defence Minister, and discuss the inescapable need for this country to develop nuclear expertise and infrastructure for defence and civilian purposes.

I do not suspect Marles would argue such a plan is too expensive to bother with because we would be starting from scratch. Rather, he would see the defence nuclear upgrade as essential for the nation’s future.

The issue of cost is not irrelevant, of course. But as I detailed last week, the International Energy Agency has found the long-term costs of nuclear electricity are highly competitive: “Nuclear thus remains the dispatchable low-carbon technology with the lowest expected costs in 2025.”

In Canada, the province of Ontario produces about 60 per cent of its energy from nuclear and calculates its costs as lower than wind and solar, and similar to gas generation. In Japan, too, nuclear is costed competitively, and is enjoying a post-Fukushima renaissance.

France is modernising and expanding its dominant nuclear generation in response to Europe’s energy crisis. China and India, while not reducing their demand for coal, are constructing more than two dozen nuclear plants ­between them.

If Australian uranium can fuel these plants cost-effectively, the same can happen on our shores. If we can run nuclear power plants on our floating defence platforms, doing the same onshore is not ­beyond us.

The Hinkley Point C plant under construction in Britain provides a salient lesson on costs. It is a massive nuclear generator that will provide more than 3000 megawatts of electricity for at least 60 years but has run overtime and over budget thanks to Covid and other factors.

But once up and running, it will substantially underpin Britain’s currently tenuous energy security. Renewable installations need to be overbuilt threefold across geographically dispersed locations to account for weather variations, connected by transmission lines, and backed up by storage that is invariably expensive and inadequate – and even after all that, there is no guarantee the power will be there when you want it.

When politicians like Bowen try to hide from a rational nuclear debate by citing costs, they should be made to justify the costs of the renewables experiment. The Snowy 2.0 project, so loved by Malcolm Turnbull and embraced by Labor, was originally costed at $2bn but is running at least three years late and is set to cost five times that amount.

Even if it does become operational, after burning $10bn or $12bn it will not add any generating capacity, but merely store renewable energy. Calculating the total cost of our renewables push is an important task but for some reason governments and other agencies have failed to do the maths – if they are so proud of this crusade, why would they not be boasting about their investments?

The fact is that too much money has been spent and, while it has reduced our emissions, it has only made our electricity much more expensive and dangerously unreliable. This reality does not match the rhetoric – and the pain is being reflected in families and small businesses who cannot make ends meet.

Three years ago, a Reserve Bank Bulletin suggested $20bn had been invested in renewable energy across the nation. Last year an AAP Factcheck said $25bn had been spent in the previous three years, and in last year’s first Albanese/Chalmers budget, $25bn was allocated over the next four years which, among other things, is designed to underpin a $100bn spend on 28,000km of transmission lines. Clean Energy Australia also claims more than $18bn of private investment is currently committed to renewable projects.

These figures are unlikely to include all of the countless billions in subsidies and direct grants from state and federal governments for small and large-scale solar. Still, conservative estimates would suggest we have already spent something in the order of $60bn with at least $100bn to go – and for what? Increasingly expensive electricity supplies and a looming energy ­security crunch.

A similar investment in nuclear might have already replaced all the output lost from coal and gas so far. And Bowen has the nerve to dismiss nuclear on the grounds of cost.

If we do not have the stomach to build large, fixed nuclear plants, small modular reactors are the game-changers that improve the practicalities and economics of nuclear. They could be dropped in to places like the Hunter Valley in NSW, Latrobe Valley in Victoria, and the Iron Triangle in South Australia, where they can plug into existing transmission networks near mothballed coal plants.

The first thing we need to do is repeal the anachronistic state and federal prohibitions against nuclear energy, so that nuclear can be considered on its merits. Perhaps those Lucas Heights experts could then install some Stirling engines to help power the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, and we would finally be on our way.
The Australian