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‘Unrealistic’: Experts sceptical of Dutton’s nuclear plan as Coalition seeks energy election

The Coalition's plan for a nuclear Australia is being met with immediate opposition.

The Coalition's plan for a nuclear Australia is being met with immediate opposition. Photos: Peter Dutton/AAP

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has fired his first major salvo after reigniting the political war over climate policy, unveiling plans for taxpayers to build seven nuclear power plants by 2050.

Unveiling details about his proposal on Wednesday, Dutton gave voters a hint about the tenor of the looming federal election, saying he was “happy” for a referendum on climate and energy policy.

“We believe Australians are up for this discussion and are open-minded about including zero-emissions nuclear technology as part of a balanced energy mix,” Dutton said.

But voters are still in the dark about what going nuclear will cost, with a Coalition refusal to release costings throwing doubt over its claims it will be cheaper than Labor’s renewables-led plan.

Modelling by the CSIRO has found nuclear power would be several orders of magnitude more expensive to build and operate than renewables and also warned about billions in cost blowouts.

Experts are also sceptical about Dutton’s timeline, which promises the first nuclear plant opened by 2035 and possibly another in 2037.

Climate Councillor and economist Nicki Hutley panned the policy as “completely unrealistic”, saying a Coalition government would first need to rescind bans on nuclear across the country.

Even that would be difficult, with state politicians against rescinding bans. That includes the LNP in Queensland, Dutton’s home state – state leader and election frontrunner David Crisafulli has said the party doesn’t support nuclear power.

“It’s bad for the environment and it’s bad economics – they’ve gone down an ideological warpath that makes absolutely no sense,” Hutley said.

Grattan Institute energy program director Tony Wood said it would be “very difficult” to build nuclear power from scratch within the timeline needed to achieve emissions targets by 2050.

“The timeline problem is a real one because they need to get these things on by the mid-2030s otherwise all the coal [power]  is gone,” he said.

Nuclear plan explained

The policy outlined by Dutton on Wednesday would involve seven nuclear plants built on sites of decommissioned coal-fired power stations across NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia:

  • Loy Yang in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley
  • Port Augusta in SA
  • Tarong in Queensland
  • Muja in WA (outside Collie)
  • Mount Piper in NSW
  • Callide in Queensland
  • Liddell in NSW (Hunter Valley).

The first is slated for opening within 11 years, a second within 13.

The remaining five would open progressively through to 2050, when the Coalition projects all seven would be done.

Dutton said taxpayers will own the plants once constructed and that existing transmission infrastructure (poles and wires) used by the coal-fired power stations will be repurposed for nuclear.

The opposition’s timeline conflicts with detailed modelling on the potential for nuclear power by the CSIRO, which found it would take at least 15 years to open a plant at a massive cost.

The uncertainty over the timeline for when most of the planned plants will open is significant because it has ramifications for how the Coalition would ensure Australia hit net zero by 2050.

If the plants open later than mooted, there would need to be a larger reliance on legacy fossil fuels. That could deliver a substantial increase in emissions over the coming decades, research suggests.

Dutton reacts to 'discredited' CSIRO report

Source: Sky News Australia

What will it all cost?

A key element of the Coalition’s policy – costings – was also missing on Wednesday, with Dutton saying site analysis was still needed before an estimate on the price tag was possible.

Despite that, opposition energy spokesperson Ted O’Brien continues to claim the plan would push down power prices, pointing to the experience of Canada, which has nuclear power.

But O’Brien failed to mention that Canada, which has already invested billions in taxpayer funds in building a nuclear industry over decades, continues to subsidise the power with public money.

Meanwhile, the CSIRO estimates a single nuclear plant would cost at least $8.6 billion. Even this is likely an underestimate, with experts warning cost blowouts would be likely and significant.

Wood said caution must be taken in comparing CSIRO data with the Coalition plan, as there’s not enough detail about the Opposition’s policy to avoid the risk of comparing apples with oranges.

“Given the fundamental nature of what they’re [the opposition] talking about here it seems to me they should be expected to produce more substance than they have,” Wood said.

Nevertheless, Hutley said the key issue for any nuclear power proposal in Australia is that it would invariably cost more than a renewables-led plan, particularly as the nation has no existing nuclear industry to lean on.

“This is about [finding] the cheapest form of non-fossil fuel electricity that we can employ quickly,” Hutley said.

“This [nuclear power] plan is just completely unrealistic.”

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