LAUNCESTON, Australia (Reuters) - If another sign was needed that Australia’s energy policy is dysfunctional, the government provided it in the form of launching a parliamentary inquiry to consider nuclear power.
Energy Minister Angus Taylor last week requested a parliamentary committee examine requirements for developing a nuclear power industry in Australia.
The country currently has a moratorium on nuclear power and has no reactors, other than a small unit used for medical purposes located near the main city of Sydney.
However, Australia is the world’s third-largest miner of uranium, accounting for about 10% of global output of the nuclear fuel.
Taylor’s decision to have parliament investigate nuclear power has been broadly viewed in Australia as a sop to the right-wing of his ruling conservative Liberal-National coalition government.
Several prominent members of the coalition have been promoting nuclear power as a solution to Australia’s high electricity costs, the ageing of the existing coal-fired fleet and the need to lower the country’s emissions, which are the highest in the developed world on a per capita basis.
Whatever the government’s reasoning for pursuing an inquiry into nuclear power, if conducted without bias, it’s unlikely to show what the proponents of atomic generation are probably hoping for.
While nuclear power, once built and operating, is emissions free and reliable, the massive capital costs, the need for reliable and large water reserves and the problem of safely disposing of waste will likely make it a non-starter for Australia.
Throw in the difficulty in winning over much of the public given nuclear’s poor image in the wake of 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, and the chances of a nuclear industry getting off the ground in Australia seems very remote.
There is also the lack of expertise in the industry in Australia, meaning skills would have to be imported at a cost high enough to incentivise people to move.
The recent experience of building nuclear plants in developed countries has also been a litany of woes, with two plants under construction being abandoned before completion in the U.S. state of South Carolina, and huge cost overruns at plants in the United Kingdom and Finland.
There is also virtually no chance that nuclear power can be as cost efficient as virtually any other source, but especially renewables such as wind and solar, even if they have the additional cost of battery storage.
While nuclear power proponents point to the relatively low operating costs of a generating unit, what they usually fail to take into account is the upfront capital costs and the rehabilitation costs at the end of the plant’s life.
These are considerably lower for renewables, and even for natural gas and coal-fired power plants.
The other factor with modern nuclear power plants is that to achieve economies of scale they tend to be very large, often with several thousand megawatts (MW) of generating capability, far in excess of a typical gas- or coal-fired unit, which is more typically between 200 and 600 MW.
Building a large-scale nuclear plant would cost so much that it’s unlikely any private utility, or even a consortium, in Australia would be keen to take on the project.
For instance, the 3,200 MW Hinkley Point C plant under construction in Britain has an estimated cost of about $25 billion, and that doesn’t include the generous guaranteed amount to be paid for the electricity it will produce.
Any nuclear power industry in Australia would likely have to be either government-owned or heavily subsidised to make it viable.
It’s also likely that the nuclear fuel would have to be imported as Australia doesn’t have an industry able to enrich uranium ore into nuclear fuel rods, and building the capability would be massively expensive and inefficient.
Overall, it’s hard to imagine why the government would wish to look at developing a nuclear industry, unless the inquiry is planned as some sort of stalking horse to show that coal remains a good option for Australia’s future.
The same conservative politicians pushing for nuclear are also backers of coal, and have been frustrated by the unwillingness of the utility sector to consider new coal-fired stations as a solution to Australia’s high electricity costs.
Despite Australia being the world’s second-biggest exporter of thermal coal used in power plants, utilities have been increasingly switching to renewables for generating needs, along with gas-fired units to meet peak demand.
The problem for Australia’s energy sector is that there is too much politics and not enough non-partisan expertise being used to develop workable, and affordable solutions.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.
Editing by Joseph Radford