Ponderous nuclear debate misses the mix for net-zero

Ponderous nuclear debate misses the mix for net-zero

July 4, 2024 Off By Jack Baker

The debate around Australia’s nuclear future continues on ponderously, with dubious facts, far-flung figures, and oft-baseless sentiment swirling around an issue increasingly drawn around political allegiances.

With abundant reserves of fossil fuels, there was previously little need for Australia to go down a more expensive and controversial yellowcake road.

But on the low-carbon campaign, low-emissions technology is the game, and nuclear still presents as the only reliable weather-independent option.

No sane person on the nuclear side of the debate is advocating for a full conversion, rather they’re presenting aging fossil fuel power stations as options for repurposing to a cause that already avoids emissions equating to the equivalent of removing one-third of all cars.

The renewables side of the line certainly makes fair points around high new nuclear-power costs and a long construction time producing more emissions than installing renewable operations.

Their arguments follow that natural gas, while a fossil fuel, ramps up faster to meet demand peaks, or that battery-stored renewables are adequate for the backup needs of a full renewable transition.

The Australian federal Labor government has shown its preference toward a gas supplement and released a long-term framework under the Future Gas Strategy to establish a transitionary role of its $72 billion export industry.

But the regulations keeping nuclear power under lock and key have also had a role in making natural gas operations slow to move, and the Australian Energy Market Operator has warned of immediate supply risks on the east coast after problems with both gas and renewable operations.

The federal Liberal Party opposition’s plans to build seven nuclear reactors have yet to come with a price tag, and there are multiple other roadblocks to legislation, making it a rather moot point for all the bluster and one even called contradictory to its own beliefs.

Renewable advocacy and lobbyist group The Smart Energy Council released its own dubiously far-ranging estimation of between $116 billion and $600bn – using methodology which has since found criticism.

Labor has claimed a $20bn cost for its own plans to connect remote renewable facilities to major power markets, a figure which has likewise come under scrutiny.

The contending sides both have nuclear and renewable energy projects with blown-out expenses and the promise of improving technology to point toward.

At least there is Australian data on building renewable, but with uncertainty and no real incentive for a company to find out the costs, it makes an accurate nuclear price tag all the more indeterminable.

The CSIRO included large-scale nuclear for the first time in its annual GenCost report based around South Korea’s nuclear program, estimating that long-term continuous operations would be around 1.5 times to twice as expensive as storage-backed renewables.

But the argument, outside of Australia at least, has never been a direct contention between renewables and nuclear, and instead around an ideal mix and what support should be provided to nuclear as a level playing field.

The United Nations atomic energy chief has said that without nuclear, decarbonisation by 2050 would be almost impossible, and while the opposition’s plans deserve scrutiny, the Australian debate seems to swirl more around ad hominem attacks and spook tactics out of the 1970s.

Anti-nuclear proponents argue against enabling that free hand of the market to work out costs and take the risk, saying that it would do nothing but open up partisan lobbying and pointless debate – but that already sounds a bit familiar.

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