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Why nuclear power won’t solve the energy crisis

Former Greens senator and anti-nuclear activist Scott Ludlam on the nuclear fantasies of conservative politicians and why they continue to make headlines.
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There’s a type of power plant we don’t have in Australia. Advocates say that it could help us overcome both the climate crisis and the energy crisis.

They’re suggesting bringing nuclear energy to Australia.

So why is there a conversation about nuclear power right now? Is it safe? And could it even work in Australia?

Today, former Greens senator and anti-nuclear activist Scott Ludlam on the Nuclear fantasies of conservative politicians and why they continue to make headlines.

 

Guest: Former Greens senator and anti-nuclear activist, Scott Ludlam.

 
Read Transcript

[Theme Music Ends]

ELLE:
From Schwartz Media, filling in for Ruby Jones, I’m Elle Marsh, this is 7am.

There’s a type of power plant we don’t have in Australia. Advocates for it say that it could help us overcome both the climate crisis and the energy crisis.

They’re suggesting bringing nuclear energy to Australia.

So why is there a conversation about nuclear power right now? Is it safe? And could it even work in Australia?

Today, former Greens senator and anti-nuclear activist Scott Ludlam on the Nuclear fantasies of conservative politicians and why they continue to make headlines.

It’s Tuesday June 21st.

[Theme Music Ends]

ELLE:

Scott, This winter we're seeing a real energy crisis in Australia. Prices have been spiking and we're struggling to get electricity into the grid. And that's brought up this suggestion, which a lot of Australians probably haven't heard for a few years of building nuclear power plants. So who's making this proposal, and what are they saying? 

SCOTT:

Well, the people who are proposing nuclear energy are the same ones who just got smashed on the 21st of May in the last federal election for wasting nine years on energy policy and driving the country into the ditch. 

Archival Tape -- Peter Dutton:
“I’m not afraid to have a discussion on nuclear, if we want to have legitimate emission reductions if we want to lower electricity prices..…”

SCOTT

So what we've heard in the last week or two is people like Peter Dutton, David Littleproud, 

Archival Tape -- David Littleproud:

“There's an opportunity for us as political leaders to take away the angst in the community and create an environment, a conversation around alternative energy like nuclear power…”

Archival Tape -- Chris Kenny:

“Joining me now from Maroochydore in Queensland is the new Shadow Climate Change & Energy Minister, Ted O’Brien. Don't we need to consider nuclear as part of the mix?” 

Archival Tape -- Shadow Energy Minister Ted O’Brien:

“Chris It absolutely has to be on the table for serious consideration” 

SCOTT:

So Liberals and Nationals proposing nuclear power as a resolution to this incredible energy price crunch.

Archival Tape -- Peter Dutton:

“But I don't think you rule things out simply because it's not fashionable to talk about them”

SCOTT:

I don't think it should be taken seriously, but it is worth, I guess, unpacking the reasons why these people are suddenly so interested in nuclear power rather than genuine solutions. 

ELLE:

Yeah so, what do you make of these comments coming at a time like this? 

SCOTT:

I think that the best thing to do if we're thinking about this, this kind of amber claim by Peter Dutton for nuclear power, is to take a look at the causes of the crisis that we're in. 

And there are multiple. There's not a simple cause for the jam that we're in at the moment. We've got a fleet of ageing coal fired power stations that even the utility companies want to close down because they're barely serviceable, some of them. 

We've got incredibly high gas prices at the moment because Australian gas is being exported by this small cartel of foreign owned gas companies who have linked Australian domestic gas prices to international markets. 

Now those international markets in turn are sky high in part because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has sent energy prices spiralling. So it's something of a perfect storm. So that's the set up, now into that. Peter Dutton And some quarters the mining industry and Sky News and the usual suspects have suggested, well, why not introduce nuclear power into that mix? Why not bring the most expensive electricity that we know how to produce and bring it on line in the 2030s or 2040s? That's how that's just how deranged and unnecessary these suggestions are. 

ELLE:

And so you're saying it's expensive to bring this sort of technology on. Can you explain some of the independent analysis that sort of unpacked that? 

SCOTT:

Look, My go to for getting a sense of where the nuclear industry is at globally is a document called the World Nuclear Industry Status Report. They track costs, of the tiny handful of new reactors that are going online in North America and in Europe by these catastrophic cost and time overruns, they keep very accurate track of that.

I suppose for people who are considering in good faith with a nuclear power is a good idea. And there are folk out there who would ask in a climate emergency, Are we sure we haven't left any good options on the table? You would just want to take a look at how long it takes to get a nuclear power plant designed, licenced and built.

It can be anything from I guess seven years is about as fast as it can be done in China through to 20 years or even longer in Europe and North America. And part of the reason for that is the technology itself is so unforgiving. And then at the end of that very long licencing and construction process, after you've had to forcibly override the will of local communities, however governments choose to do that. You've got a power plant that you're stuck with the most expensive electricity there is, and that's going to be competing against wind and solar generators, generating effectively for free. And that's part of the reason why these plants are just going to be dead on arrival in Australia. 

ELLE:

Hmm. And so it's clear that the Coalition is in this political fight with Labor over electricity prices and emissions reductions, and it looks like they're trying to push nuclear power as their new solution. Would nuclear power be a good option in any way? It's low carbon emissions. It produces a lot of electricity. Are there any merits at looking into this as an option? 

SCOTT:

Really? Genuinely none. It's expensive. It's unsafe. It's extremely inflexible. It's got these radiation risks which other energy sources don't carry. And it's it's not something that we could really feasibly introduce, even if we wanted to, inside ten or 15 years. 

So I can't see anything that 's got going for it. Just, you know, just one instance. For example, the nuclear power station is good at what they call baseload. So it just sits there and it chugs away. It's not very flexible, but it just kind of chugs away 80 or 90% of the year delivering big blocks of power, which is different to variable energy sources like solar and wind. But the problem with getting so much solar and wind on to Australia networks, we're just finally hitting critical mass. Is that the last thing you want is a baseload plant that can't be switched off in a hurry. You need really flexible what they call load following suppliers to back up wind and sun, which is the opposite of what nuclear is good at. So even on those niche grounds, it's a hopeless idea. 

ELLE:

Right. So you're saying that even as a backup to renewables, it doesn't quite work. 

SCOTT:
No, because it's not flexible. You switch on a nuke and then you just let it run flat out. It is no good at all for load following and ramping up and down rapidly with wind or sun depending on demand. And we don't need it for that. even if it was good at that, we don't need it because we're getting better with geographic distribution of solar and wind, with batteries, with hydro, with other energy sources, we just don't need nuclear. 

I think it's worth being aware that Dutton and his colleagues use this as a culture war wedge. They use it as a, you know, rhetorical hand grenade. It's not a serious contribution to the energy debate .

They had nine years to introduce legislation to reverse the ban on nukes. This is something John Howard introduced. It's illegal to build a nuclear power station in Australia for good reason. If Dutton and his accomplices thought it was a good idea, what were they doing for the last nine years? 

As it turns out, what they were doing was everything that they could to engineer this supply crunch and this crisis, this price crisis that we're in at the moment. And it's people on low incomes who are getting smashed by these unbelievable power bills or will in the next quarter or two. The idea that you would then introduce the most expensive form of electricity is just completely beyond me. 

ELLE:

We’ll be right back.

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ELLE:

Scott, we've been talking about nuclear power and the coalition is floating that as a solution to energy problems. But away from the politics of all this, is nuclear power safer now? And are the concerns about it well-founded or are they becoming a bit outdated? 

SCOTT:

The technology is certainly outdated, but the concerns are not. You think about Japanese government and Japanese electricity utilities. They run a pretty tight ship. They have been invested in nuclear energy since the 1960s, 1970s. And they run amongst the safest nuclear industry, you know, nuclear power complexes in the world, arguably, and compared to other places. 

But anything at all, whether it's an accident, a disaster or an attack that cuts off a reactor core from its cooling can lead to a meltdown. Anything at all. And it doesn't matter whether it's 1960 or 2022. Those risks are there and they will always be there. 

Archival Tape -- News tape:

“In the 90 minutes since the tsunami, Japan’s government had been scrambling to deal with one of the biggest natural disasters in the country’s history.

Now, the PM was informed that the cooling systems had failed at Fukushima.”

SCOTT:

So the Fukushima accident and I don't know whether people realise this because it's the worst of its kind. It could have been vastly worse.

Archival Tape -- Naoto Kan:

*Kan in Japanese* “Having experienced that type of accident, I believe that if we can do without nuclear plants, then that's the way to go…”

SCOTT:

I had the opportunity to speak to Mr. Naoto Kan, who was the Prime Minister of Japan at the time of the Tohoku earthquake and then the subsequent meltdowns at Fukushima. 

Archival Tape -- Naoto Kan:

“That's why I believe we should stay away from the large risk posed by nuclear plants and focus instead on renewable energy by changing our sources of power” *Kan in Japanese*  

SCOTT:

They were seriously contemplating and Mr. Kan was being briefed on evacuating the northern half of Honshu Island. They would have had to evacuate an area of 250 kilometres in all directions, and that takes out a big part of Greater Tokyo, population of 30 million people. That's how serious it was.  

And the only reason that that didn't occur is because the staff and the employees, the workers basically stayed on site and kept it contained as best they could. But Fukushima was a long way from the worst case scenario. 

If you cut the cooling off whether it's an engineering experiment like it was in Chernobyl or a tsunami that knocks out the cooling in the backup systems as it was in Japan, then you then you're facing a meltdown scenario. It doesn't matter if you're engineering as good as the Japanese is. That's the situation. 

I don't think we've seen the last bad reactor accident because there's too many of these old plants still, still in existence. The safest thing we could do in a measured way is look different in different parts of the world is phase them out. 

ELLE:

But the Coalition currently isn't talking about creating these big Fukushima type reactors, though. They're talking about small modular reactor technology, which they are saying is safer. What do you say about this sort of technology and would that address any of those issues around safety? 

SCOTT:

I think it's fascinating that when you scratch the pro-nuclear argument, they're actually freely admitting that the gigantic light water reactors that they've been promoting since the sixties are no longer fit for purpose. 

So when you scratch a lot of pro-nuclear advocates, you realise they're actually talking about these incredible new designs called small modular reactors, which are clean, safe, cheap, reliable, small and can be put on trucks and they can be taken to where you need it. They don't have proliferation risks. They can just be switched on. They can follow renewables. They have all these qualities and they don't exist. They're made up.

There's one prototype plant that just went online in China at the end of last year, and they've no plans to build any more of that model. There's nothing at any kind of commercial scale operating anywhere in the world. 

And even, really even people who believe in that technology don't think that it could be deployed before the 2030’s or 40’s. And, of course, the energy challenge that we've got is in front of us now. We don't have that long. The former chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, so not a greeny, but a US regulator has said when it comes to averting the imminent effects of climate change, even the cutting edge of nuclear technology would prove to be too little, too late. 

ELLE:

And you know, as you say, if nuclear as an option is so much more difficult, it's less safe, it's more costly, it's going to take more time than it first appears. Why do you think the conservative side of politics is so attached to this fantasy of nuclear power if the evidence suggests that Australia shouldn't go down that path? 

SCOTT:

So I think it's deceptive in the extreme that even these very pro-nuclear people, including some of Dutton's spokespeople, when they say are we're very, very pro-nuclear, we think it's time we had the debate scratch the surface and actually not talking about the stuff that they've been pushing on us since the ‘60s. They're talking about these imaginary ones that don't exist yet. They have no idea how much it costs. They don't know how long it would take to bring it to market. They have no sense at all whether it could compete successfully with solar and wind generation that's bidding into the market practically at zero marginal cost.

And this is what I mean, It's just a debating hook. It's a rhetorical hand grenade that they're using to cop a headline. And unfortunately, it always works. 

And I think what the Australian population, the message that has been collectively delivered in May was that we've had enough delay, we've had enough sabotage, we've had enough of state capture. And if the coal and gas industry is dictating energy policy and it's time to get on with this transition. So the biggest worry I've got about this nuclear push is that it becomes yet another roadblock, yet another expensive distraction when all the tools that we need are actually right in front of us. 

It's it's - Chris Bowen called it a complete joke. Nuclear power a complete joke. And he's right. 

Sometimes I imagine the nuclear industry is like that idiotic black knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. that it's stumbling around, squirting blood everywhere insisting that it's ready for a fight and just basically refusing to die. It should be taken about as seriously as that character. 

ELLE:

Mm. Scott, thank you so much for chatting with me today. I appreciate it. 

SCOTT:
Thank you for taking the time. I hope we never have to have this conversation again. 

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ELLE:
Also in the news today,

Clive Palmer's United Australia Party has claimed its first and only senate seat in the federal parliament.

Victorian UAP candidate Ralph Babet claimed the final senate spot almost a month after the election was held.

**

In France, French President Emmanuel Macron has lost his parliamentary majority after legislative assembly elections saw major gains for the countries left wing coalition and Marine Le Pens far right party.

The result has raised the prospect of a frozen Parliament - unless Macron manages to negotiate an agreement with unlikely political allies.

I’m Elle Marsh, this is 7am, see you later.

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