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Peter Dutton’s nuclear option – and politicised electorates reactors could land in

Source: Sky News Australia

It was 2015 when Coalition leader Peter Dutton, at that time home affairs minister, was caught on a hot mic joking with then-PM Tony Abbott about water lapping at the door of Pacific nations.

It was a cynical jibe made in poor taste about rising sea levels and the climate realities faced by those living in the Pacific.

Fast forward almost a decade and the climate denier-cum-fixer Dutton seems committed to another cynical attempt at sowing confusion and misinformation to the masses in pursuit of political gain.

But this time, it’s in the form of the Coalition’s nuclear-centric carbon emissions reduction policies.

Following the CSIRO GenCost report released last week (which concluded that nuclear, large and small scale, is by a big margin more expensive than any of the other clean energy generation options), Dutton goes forth on the edge of the nuclear wedge.

GenCost and the CSIRO

Produced by the CSIRO (Australia’s official national science agency) in conjunction with the Australian Energy Market Operator since 2018, GenCost is an “annual process for updating electricity generation, storage and hydrogen technology cost data for Australia”.

This year, for the first time, the GenCost report included large-scale nuclear in addition to the cost analysis of small modular reactors that have been included since reporting began.

Since its first release, GenCost annual reports have consistently assessed nuclear small modular reactors as significantly more expensive power generators than wind, solar and battery alternatives.

Despite that conclusion though, Dutton said in his latest budget reply: “In the 21st century, any sensible government must consider small modular nuclear as part of the energy mix.”

But perhaps every sensible government has then concluded nuclear is not a viable nor realistic option to achieve our net-zero goals, given the associated cost and the time required to bring any nuclear option online.

On the time issue, GenCost says the earliest deployment of any large-scale nuclear “due to the current state of the development pipeline in Australia … would be from 2040”.

Economics or politics?

Why then, with official data that has painted a clear and consistent picture of the difficulties faced by Australia’s nuclear generation options, would the alternative government so doggedly pursue it as a centrepiece to climate policy?

Maybe the real bang for buck lies not in the economics, but rather the politics.

And given that the closure of coal-fired power stations across the country will undoubtedly cause some heartache for the communities that surround them, in the form of job losses and the closure of businesses that support the power station operations, a political opportunist may see bounty in a nuclear wedge issue.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the likely sites for the nuclear reactors set to be announced by the Coalition in coming weeks, in its plan to build nuclear on old coal sites, also happen to be in marginal federal electorates.

These could play a critical role in any prospect the Coalition will have of forming government at the next election.

Station closures and marginal electorates

In Victoria, for example, the heartbeat of coal-fired power generation is the Latrobe Valley, which is in the Liberal-held (by 2.9 per cent) marginal electorate of Monash.

There, it is expected that by 2035 both the 2.2-gigawatt Loy Yang A and the 1.4GW Yallourn Power Station will be closed, with job losses likely to be in the thousands.

There is no obvious place for those workers to then find a job.

The scenario is similar in Queensland, where two power stations, the 1.6GW Gladstone and 600-megawatt Callide B, in the LNP-held (by 3.8 per cent) marginal seat of Flynn, are also scheduled for closure by 2035, again likely resulting in direct and indirect job losses in the thousands.

If we look across to the west, it’s a similar tale, with Collie and Muja power stations, in the Liberal-held (by 7 per cent) seat of O’Connor, to be closed by 2030.

Maybe that’s why, despite an avalanche of evidence to the contrary, Dutton says that “small modular nuclear technologies are safe, reliable, cost effective, can be plugged into existing grids where we have turned off coal, and emit zero emissions”.

Dutton also says nuclear is part of the solution to “firm up renewables”, in reference to firming technology that deploys energy when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.

But an analysis by researchers at Griffith University published in 2022 titled “Firming technologies to reach 100 per cent renewable energy production in Australia’s National Electricity Market” concluded that the optimal mix of firming technology includes pumped hydro, batteries and hydrogen.

By my count that report mentioned the word “nuclear” only once.

There’s no doubt that the impact of closing major-employing coal-fired power stations in regional Australian communities is a problem in need of a genuine solution.

But people shouldn’t be lured into the wedge issue of the dreamiest nuclear dream only to wake up and find their new reality is worse than the current one, with no prospects and no plan.

Scott Riches is an employment lawyer and former union official. He is also director principal of Capacita

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