It is curious that in his Fairfax column Peter Costello takes what appears to be almost an afterthought of President Obama, and turns it into an argument for nuclear energy in this country. A little bit of rational discussion of the nuclear option, maybe even an economic analysis, might have made a worthwhile contribution to the debate. Instead it seems he has given us the infamous Costello smirk implying those dim-witted greenies who in their Obamania will slavishly follow the great one’s every word.

I don’t believe Obama is serious about new nuclear power plants. In the Australian context it is even less likely or justifiable. And the colour green has very little to do with it except in reference to humungous amounts of the folding stuff needed to fund a nuclear power program.

I lived in France and am in admiration of their nuclear program which is probably the best managed in the world and provides about 75% of their electrical power. Unlike most of the other European countries (Sweden, Germany, UK) who have abandoned nuclear power, perhaps the most significant factor in France was the political consensus amongst both politicians and voters. Their decision has largely proven correct over the ensuing decades and must have saved them several trillion dollars of imported oil, and it generated a world-beating export industry too.

Does this stellar example mean it is obvious we should attempt the same? Perhaps in the 1970s but today, no. The situation for Australia is very different. It may seem that we have the geography but actually the generators need to be close enough to the cities (not to mention massive water supply) so that the politics will always remain a problem. It is unrealistic to think we can create a nuclear export industry to compare with those already established.

Then there is the myth that nuclear provides a quick off-the-shelf solution. I was living in the UK during their last attempt to build a new nuclear power station but I was gone for a decade (in France) and returned again by the time Sizewell-B was finally built — in 1995 the last one to have been built in the UK. It took about 14 years and anyone who thinks it would be any easier in Australia is kidding themselves. In the US the last completed plant was begun in 1977 and opened in 1996. Anyone that imagines California building a new plant is dreaming, and anyone who imagines that Obama is seriously thinking this is seriously out of touch.

Then there is the economics, something one might have thought Peter Costello could have been able to comment intelligently on. In France (and Japan, Germany and others) it made sense mostly because of the displacement of oil imports and few other energy options. (Though it is notable that France also has the world’s largest percentage of its power derived from hydro.) This equation does not work for Australia where politics ensures it has to compete with the cheapest coal in the world. The nuclear plants are hugely expensive to construct and hugely expensive to decommission so that private industry will only do it if the government takes up these “stranded costs”. Anyone who claims nuclear plants produce the cheapest electricity is being economical with the whole truth.

It might have made marginally more sense in the 1970s when the first oil scare could have greased the politics but its time has passed. The earliest realistic date we could actually get any power out of an Australian nuclear generator would be 2025. In all likelihood if the process was begun we would expend absurd amounts of political will and energy to the endless enquiries (pop quiz for Peter Costello: are we more similar to the UK and USA or France?) and in the end it would still fall flat. Meantime we could have done something with geothermal, wind and solar-thermal that would make nuclear redundant. We could have Gigawatts from solar-thermal feeding into the grid in one quarter of that time if only government would commit. So forget safety and waste issues, think politics, time-to-build and economics. Looks dead in the water to me and Peter Costello’s superficial and simplistic observations do not make one jot of difference.

There are plenty of scientists and economists who have similar views. Here is commentary in the world’s top science journal:

As climate and fuel security dominate the energy agenda, the battle between traditional and innovative electricity intensifies around the world, notably in fast-growing economies such as China. After half a century, nuclear power is the ultimate in tradition. It needs climate more than climate needs it. To avert catastrophic global warming, why pick the slowest, most expensive, most limited, most inflexible and riskiest option? In 1957, despite the Windscale fire, nuclear power was worth trying. We tried it: its weakness proved to be economics, not safety. Now nuclear generation is just an impediment to sustainable electricity. — W.Patterson, NATURE|Vol 449|11 October 2007.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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