Speaking to Australian media in late August, the energy minister of Canada’s largest province made some remarks that the Albanese Government’s Climate Change and Energy Minister, Chris Bowen, would do well to heed.
Reflecting on his own country’s experience, Minister Todd Smith explained: “Our government here moved on wind and solar in a big, big way. And it’s created some serious problems for our system operator.”
Today, up to sixty per cent of Ontario’s energy comes from nuclear power plants—and electricity in the (almost completely decarbonised) province costs just a fraction of what it does in Australia.
In statements that parallel eerily Canada’s experience with wind and solar, Australia’s electricity market operator is forecasting rising energy prices and increasing risk of blackouts, which will put further pressure on households and businesses already impacted by the cost-of-living crisis.
Yet Minister Bowen continues to dismiss the lived experience of countries like Canada and refuses to even consider nuclear energy in the Australian context. Instead, he has maintained a rigid, ideologically driven energy policy that will only drive power prices up further.
Indeed, Minister Bowen’s latest attempt to discredit nuclear energy has been a spectacular failure.
In an attempt to show that nuclear energy is too expensive to even consider, he released departmental figures on the cost of building seventy-one fully-taxpayer-funded small modular reactors (SMRs)—something the Coalition has never suggested and even Labor insiders admit is a “shocking” misrepresentation of the Coalition’s position.
And yet Minister Bowen’s final figure of $387 billion is still a fraction of the $1.2 to $1.5 trillion that Net Zero Australia estimates the climate transition will cost Australia in just the next seven years if we don’t use nuclear energy. By 2060, that cost is expected to blow out to between $7 and $9 trillion.
The truth is that Australia is becoming increasingly out of step with the rest of the world when it comes to next-generation, zero-emissions nuclear energy. For instance, we are the only G20 nation to ban it—an absurdity compounded by the fact that Australia is about to become just the seventh nation on earth to operate nuclear-powered submarines (and the only nation to do so without an existing civil nuclear power industry).
In a push to protect energy security and reduce power prices while lowering carbon emissions, around thirty nations are considering, planning, or investing in new nuclear power programmes, while another twenty have expressed interest in doing so.
The Biden Administration in the United States and the Canadian Government under Justin Trudeau have signed a deal to expand the use of nuclear power generation in North America. According to the Canadian SMR Action Plan, next-generation SMR technology is a “source of safe, clean, affordable energy, opening opportunities for a resilient, low carbon future…”
Japan also plans to restart seventeen of its nuclear power plants—and build more—in the face of increasing energy security concerns. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said that nuclear power is “essential”—alongside renewables—for a successful “green transformation”.
Similarly, the United Kingdom has announced that it intends to triple the amount of nuclear energy in its grid, with an aim to reach a target of twenty-five per cent nuclear energy by 2050.
Another example is Sweden, which recently overturned its long-standing target of 100% renewables by 2040. Instead, the Government has opted for a “fossil-free” pathway by 2045—paving the way for increasing investment in nuclear energy.
Yet even in the face of rising electricity bills and forecast shortfalls in energy supply with the closure of coal fired power stations—not to mention significant schedule delays and cost blowouts for renewable energy projects—the Albanese Labor Government continues to dismiss the nuclear energy option.
But in taking this position, it is ignoring authoritative evidence from expert economic, engineering and environmental organisations like the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
In April last year, a key assessment on meeting climate change targets was released by the OECD. Citing research, modelling, and reports from the IPCC and the IEA, among others, the strategic briefing challenges two key assumptions underpinning current Australian government policy.
Firstly, it demonstrates that high levels of intermittent, variable renewables in the energy mix will only drive-up power prices—ultimately making the cost of reaching net zero likely prohibitive. Such sources must be firmed by clean baseload sources like nuclear and hydropower.
This is borne out in the real world. Look, for example, at the countries that are considered to be leading the “clean energy transition”.
Of the top ten, France, Sweden, Switzerland and Finland all enjoy low-cost, low-carbon electricity generated by nuclear energy and hydropower—while the United Kingdom, Norway, Austria, Iceland and New Zealand all use substantial amounts of either nuclear or baseload hydro.
Secondly, however, the report presents findings that undermine Minister Bowen’s narrative around the cost of nuclear power itself.
It highlights that a grid-level systems approach—which factors the cost of connection, distribution, and transmission as well as production—must be taken when comparing the cost of intermittent and variable renewables with nuclear power, baseload hydropower or fossil fuels.
As a result, Minister Bowen fails to recognise that the CSIRO’s GenCost report, which he so frequently cites, cannot be properly used to compare the cost of nuclear energy with that of wind or solar. As CSIRO’s chief energy economist Paul Graham says, GenCost fails to consider the cost of “generation, storage and transmission capacity up to 2030”.
Considering what is at stake from a cost-of-living, national security and environmental perspective, the Government must reconsider its refusal to even have a conversation about nuclear as a part of Australia’s future energy mix.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s well-established “Milestones Approach” encourages a phased, evidence-based and comprehensive assessment of nuclear power for countries considering introducing it for their own context.
Should Australia choose to do so, expert advice indicates that Australia’s existing regulatory and technical expertise and infrastructure would provide us with a significant head start in establishing a domestic nuclear power industry.
Given the lived experience of nations like Canada, we need to seriously consider nuclear energy if we want low cost and reliable electricity in the transition to net zero.
Senator the Hon David Fawcett is a Liberal Senator for South Australia and the Deputy Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.