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Nuclear power exits Australia's energy debate, enters culture wars

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

With a dwindling number of exceptions, all of the support for nuclear power in Australia comes from the far-right of the political spectrum. They aim to have national legislation banning nuclear power plants repealed … but that seems unlikely.

The pro-nuclear far-right includes a number of politicians and ex-politicians, and some business lobby groups such as the Minerals Council of Australia, and the Business Council of Australia.

Few would be surprised that the far-right supports nuclear power (if only because the 'green left' hates it). But in Australia, support for nuclear power is increasingly marginalized to the far-right. Indeed support for nuclear power has become a sign of tribal loyalty. You support nuclear power (and coal) or you're a 'cultural Marxist' (the far-right's description for anyone who isn't far-right). You oppose renewables and climate change action or you're a 'warmist' … and a cultural Marxist.

Unsurprisingly, support for nuclear power in Australia has ebbed in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, catastrophic costs overruns on reactor projects in western countries, and the falling costs of renewables.

Dr Ziggy Switkowski used to be nuclear power's head cheerleader in Australia and he led the federal government's review of nuclear power in 2006.1 But he said last year that "the window for gigawatt-scale nuclear has closed"2, and that nuclear power is no longer cheaper than renewables with the costs continuing to diverge rapidly in favour of renewables.3

Peter Farley, a fellow of the Australian Institution of Engineers, wrote: "As for nuclear the 2,200 MW Plant Vogtle [in the US] is costing US$25 billion plus financing costs, insurance and long term waste storage. ... For the full cost of US$30 billion, we could build 7,000 MW of wind, 7,000 MW of tracking solar, 10,000 MW of rooftop solar, 5,000MW of pumped hydro and 5,000 MW of batteries. ... That is why nuclear is irrelevant in Australia. It has nothing to do with greenies, it's just about cost and reliability."4

In January, Australia's Climate Council ‒ comprising our leading climate scientists and other policy experts ‒ issued a policy statement concluding that nuclear power plants "are not appropriate for Australia – and probably never will be".5 The Climate Council's statement continued: "Nuclear power stations are highly controversial, can't be built under existing law in any Australian state or territory, are a more expensive source of power than renewable energy, and present significant challenges in terms of the storage and transport of nuclear waste, and use of water".

The 2006 Switkowski report estimated the cost of electricity from new reactors at A$40–65 per megawatt-hour (MWh).1 That's roughly one-quarter of current estimates. Lazard's November 2018 report on levelized costs of electricity (LCOE) gives these figures6:

  • New nuclear: US$112‒189 / MWh (A$161‒271 / MWh)
  • Wind: US$29‒56 / MWh (A$42‒80 / MWh)
  • Utility-scale solar: US$36‒46 / MWh (A$52‒66 / MWh)
  • Natural-gas combined-cycle: US$41‒74 / MWh (A$59‒106 / MWh)

In 2009, Switkowski said that the construction cost of a 1,000 MW power reactor Australia would be A$4‒6 billion.7 Again, that's about one-quarter of all the real-world experience over the past decade in western Europe (and Scandinavia) and north America:

  • The cost estimate for the Vogtle project in US state of Georgia (2 x AP1000 reactors) has doubled to US$27‒30+ billion (A$38.8‒43.2+ billion).8 In 2006, Westinghouse said it could build an AP1000 reactor for as little as US$1.4 billion (A$2 billion)9 ‒ that's 10 times lower than the current estimate for Vogtle.
  • The V.C. Summer project in South Carolina (2 x AP1000 reactors) was abandoned after expenditure of at least US$9 billion (A$12.9 billion).10 The project was initially estimated to cost US$9.8 billion (A$14.1 billion); when it was abandoned, the estimate was around US$25 billion (A$36 billion).11
  • The estimated combined cost of the two EPR reactors at Hinkley Point in the UK, including finance costs, is £26.7 billion (A$48.7 billion) (the EU's 2014 estimate of £24.5 billion12 plus a £2.2 billion increase announced in July 201713). A decade ago, the estimated construction cost for one EPR reactor in the UK was almost seven times lower at £2 billion (A$3.65 billion).14
  • The Wylfa (Wales) project was abandoned by Hitachi after the estimated cost of the twin-reactor project had risen from ¥2 trillion (A$26.4 billion) to ¥3 trillion (A$39.7 billion).15
  • France: The EPR reactor under construction at Flamanville is seven years behind schedule and the estimated cost of €10.9 billion (A$17.7 billion) is more than three times the original estimate of €3.3 billion (A$5.4 billion).16
  • Finland: One EPR reactor under construction, 10 years behind schedule (and counting), the estimated cost of €8.5 billion (A$13.8 billion) is nearly three times the original €3 billion price tag.17 The €8.5 billion figure was Areva's estimate in 201218; true costs have likely increased for the long-delayed project.

Nuclear exits energy debate, enters culture wars

The far-right won't let facts get in the way of their promotion of nuclear power. New South Wales Deputy Premier John Barilaro claims that nuclear power would probably be the cheapest power source for the average Australian household19 and is "guaranteed" to lower power bills.20 Far-right ex-politicians Jim Molan21 and Clive Palmer22 claim nuclear power is "cheap". The claim by the Institute of Public Affairs that 10 power reactors could be built for A$60 billion23 is out by A$80‒180 billion based on recent experience in western Europe and north America.

The far-right repeatedly claim that 'small modular reactors' (SMRs) will come to the nuclear industry's rescue. But real-world experience with SMRs under construction suggests they will be hideously expensive.24 According to cost estimates in a December 2018 paper by the CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator, the cost of power from SMRs would need to more than halve to be competitive with wind and solar PV even with some storage costs included (two hours of battery storage or six hours of pumped hydro storage).25

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott's rationale for supporting nuclear power ‒ and repealing legislation banning nuclear power plants ‒ is to "create a contest" with the unions, GetUp, the Greens and the Labor Party.26 Likewise, he said last year that promoting nuclear power "would generate another fight with Labor and the green left."27

Abbott ‒ and some others on the far-right ‒ would undoubtedly oppose nuclear power if Labor and the 'green left' supported it and they would be pointing to the A$14‒24+ billion price-tags for new reactors in western countries.

Abbott seems to have forgotten the experience in John Howard's last term as Prime Minister. Howard became a nuclear power enthusiast in 2005 and the issue was alive in the 2007 election contest. Howard's nuclear promotion did nothing to divide the opposition Labor Party. On the contrary, it divided the governing Liberal/National Coalition, with at least 22 Coalition candidates publicly distancing themselves from the government's policy during the election campaign. The promotion of nuclear power was seen to be a liability and it was ditched immediately after the election.

Lunatics in charge of the asylum

Those of us opposed to nuclear power can take some comfort in its increasing marginalisation to the far-right. But there are far-right-wingers highly placed in the federal government and a number of state governments. Right-wing National Party MPs are lobbying for a Senate inquiry and for a repeal of the Howard-era legislation banning nuclear power.

It has the sense of a political set-piece: the far-right wins control of the numbers on a Senate inquiry and the government agrees with its pro-nuclear findings and repeals the Howard-era legal ban which prohibits the construction of nuclear power reactors in Australia.

But would Prime Minister Scott Morrison agree to repeal the ban given that there is no prospect of nuclear power being a viable option for Australia in the foreseeable future? Surely that would be an own goal, providing ammunition to political opponents and opening up divisions within the Coalition. If Morrison agreed to repeal the ban ‒ and he says the government has no plans to do so ‒ it would presumably only be because he felt constrained to do so by far-right Coalition MPs and by non-government far-right Senators such as Pauline Hanson. (He is also dealing with the push for government funding for a new coal-fired power plant.)


Of course, support for nuclear power in Australia isn't exclusively limited to the far-right, although it is heading that way. A tiny number of self-styled 'pro-nuclear environmentalists' or 'ecomodernists' continue to bang the drum. Ben Heard, for example, continues to voice his support for nuclear power ‒ his advocacy lubricated by secret corporate donations28 and amplified by the right-wing media and by invitations to any number of uranium- and nuclear-industry talk-fests.

Heard continues undeterred by the 2015/16 South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission's clear acknowledgement that nuclear power is not economically viable in Australia or by its complete rejection of his 'next generation' nuclear fantasies.29

But what impact could Heard's nuclear advocacy possibly have in the current context, with fossil fuel interests fighting to protest their patch and to curb the growth of renewables, and with nuclear power being so exorbitantly expensive that isn't part of any serious debate about Australia's energy options? Surely the only effect of nuclear advocacy in the current context is to muddy the debate about transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables and thus to sure up incumbent fossil fuel interests.

Australian economist Prof. John Quiggin discussed these issues last year:30

"The problem is that nuclear fans like Ben Heard are, in effect, advocates for coal. Their line of argument runs as follows:

(1) A power source with the characteristics of coal-fired electricity (always on) is essential if we are to decarbonise the electricity supply
(2) Renewables can't meet this need
(3) Nuclear power can

"Hence, we must find a way to support nuclear. The problem is that, on any realistic analysis, there's no chance of getting a nuclear plant going in Australia before about 2040. So, the nuclear fans end up supporting the Abbott crew saying that we will have to rely on coal until then. And to make this case, it is necessary to ignore or denounce the many options for an all-renewable electricity supply, including concentrated solar power, large-scale battery storage and vehicle-to-grid options. As a result, would-be green advocates of nuclear power end up reinforcing the arguments of the coal lobby. … In practice, support for nuclear power in Australia is support for coal. Tony Abbott understands this. It's a pity that Ben Heard and others don't."


1. Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review (UMPNER), 2006, Final Report,

2. Cole Latimer, 11 Jan 2018, 'Australia has 'missed the boat' on nuclear power',

3. Cole Latimer, 25 Jan 2018, 'Safety risks stall nuclear role in Australia's energy mix',

4. Peter Farley, 4 Feb 2019, 'How did wind and solar perform in the recent heat-wave?',

5. Climate Council, 23 Jan 2019, 'Nuclear power stations are not appropriate for Australia – and probably never will be',

6. Lazard, Nov 2018, 'Lazard's Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis ‒ Version 12.0',

7. Ziggy Switkowski, 18 Dec 2009, 'A clean and green way to fuel the nation',

8. Nuclear Monitor #867, 15 Oct 2018, 'Vogtle's reprieve: snatching defeat from the jaws of defeat',

9. Jon Gertner, 16 July 2006, 'Atomic Balm?',

10. World Nuclear Industry Status Report, 2 Feb 2017, 'Toshiba-Westinghouse: The End of New-build for the Largest Historic Nuclear Builder',

11. Brad Plumer, 31 July 2017, 'U.S. Nuclear Comeback Stalls as Two Reactors Are Abandoned',

12. European Commission, 8 Oct 2014,

13. Adam Vaughan, 3 July 2017, 'Hinkley Point C is over budget and a year behind schedule, EDF admits',

14. Mycle Schneider, Antony Patrick Froggatt and Steve Thomas, 21 Aug 2014, 'The saga of Hinkley Point C: Europe's key nuclear decision',

15. The Mainichi, 25 Dec 2018, 'Editorial: Japan must ditch nuclear plant exports for global trends in renewable energy',

16. GCR, 15 Oct 2018, 'France's nuclear regulator finally approves Flamanville reactor vessel',

17. Jason Deign, 9 Jan 2019, 'Europe's EPR Nuclear Reactor Model May Finally Go Live in 2019',

18. Jussi Rosendahl, Tuomas Forsell, 10 Oct 2017, 'Areva's Finland reactor to start in 2019 after another delay',

19. John Barilaro, 2 June 2019, 'It's time we started talking about nuclear power as an option in Australia', The Daily Telegraph,

20. Daily Telegraph, 19 May 2017, 'Editorial: Political correctness is restricting our ability to talk about solutions to our energy crisis',

21. Jim Molan, 13 Nov 2018, 'We can't ignore our unique nuclear opportunity',

22. Brinkwire, 10 May 2019, 'Clive Palmer's UAP backs SA nuclear energy',

23. Giles Parkinson, 20 Feb 2018, 'Frydenberg, IPA trolling renewables on ABC's Q&A – again',

24. Nuclear Monitor #872-873, 7 March 2019, 'SMR cost estimates, and costs of SMRs under construction',

25. Paul W Graham, Jenny Hayward, James Foster, Oliver Story and Lisa Havas, December 2018, 'GenCost 2018: Updated projections of electricity generation technology costs',

26. Joe Kelly, 15 Sept 2018, 'Abbott's election advice to Morrison: it's time to hit the nuclear switch',

27. Tony Abbott, 16 Aug 2018, 'Government must focus on lowering prices in any energy guarantee: Tony Abbott',


29. Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission Report, May 2016,

30. John Quiggin, 13 Aug 2018, 'Coal and the nuclear lobby (updated)',