The ignorance, either wilful or ideological, around nuclear energy that has reared its head in the media again this week does no one any good.

ABC’s Insiders regular Andrew Bolt was doing it again Sunday. In a veritable cyclone of misinformation he claimed that to obtain 20% of power generation from renewable sources by 2020 was “impossible”, and if it was attempted using wind generation it would be at “huge, huge cost”, which would require a wind turbine spaced every 300 metres from Perth to Sydney. Oh, and nuclear power was essential and inevitable for Australia.

Based on approximately 4500 kilometres of coastline, this implies that 15,000 turbines would be needed. Modern land-based turbines have a generation capacity of 2.5MW (sea-based can be 3.6MW), thus he is implying 37.5GW capacity, which is actually about 95% of the last published total power generation for all of Australia. But 20% of generation estimates for 2020 (arguable but approximately 50GW generated from about 65GW capacity, neglecting expected efficiency gains) is about 10GW.

No one is suggesting that all renewable energy should come from one source such as wind (though it is the only renewable that is proven to be cost competitive with coal-without-CCS, ie. with dirty coal) but let’s even accept the implied 15,000 turbines, as wild as it is — even if it doesn’t strike one as impossible on our vast land and coastline, the longest of any country in the world.

At about $1 million each, it amounts to about $15 billion without considering grid costs (much of which will be required whatever new energy sources are built). A large amount of money to be sure, but is this sum really a “huge, huge cost”? Of course, sensibly one has to look at what the differential would be if the power was obtained by other means.

By comparison, the most recently completed and largest ever (750MW) Australian coal-fired plant at Kogan Creek in Queensland cost a reported A$1.1B. At these prices, without CCS or any provision for future CCS, 10GW capacity would cost $14.7 billion at 2005 prices. Allowing for the considerable inflation in the cost of building materials, particularly steel and cement, it doesn’t seem that coal power is much cheaper than wind even if adopting the most pessimistic estimates re wind turbines.

Not to mention the likely doubling in the costs of coal power due to health and environmental impacts, according to an expert scientific report. Or the stupendous cost of CCS — more than $2 billion for UK plants, which capture at most 25% of the carbon output.

Whichever way one does the sums, the nuclear option is more expensive and without factoring in insurance  — usually only from government — and “stranded” end-of-life costs, also ultimately carried by government. While renewable energy costs are on a consistent downward trend, nuclear plants have a long-established history of “huge, huge” cost over-runs.

This might explain why private financing for new nuclear power plants in the USA has proven almost impossible (though some states are trying hard; Missouri has recently suspended plans for its own Areva EPR) and why last year 42% of all new electrical generation capacity was in fact wind power.

These financial facts kind of knock the wind out of certain arguments. One wonders how the “nuclear not solar or wind” champions such as Barnaby Joyce, an accountant no less, do their sums? Probably by total denial in the same way they do not want to be reminded that it was their government who lost the Australian expatriate Shi Zhengrong, CEO of China’s Suntech, which has just taken over Germany with the No.2 solar company and is closing in on the world No.1, the American company First Solar.

Almost every single statement made by our Insiders’ commentator contained errors of fact. An ill wind indeed. As argued previously and as the nuclear industry continues to prove in Finland and elsewhere, while “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.”

The author is an Australian research scientist. These are the author’s personal opinions and do not represent the views of any organisation or institution with which he is affiliated.

Peter Fray

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