Andrew P. Street
Stop trying to make nuclear happen, Gretchen.
Unless you’ve been blissfully slumbering in a very welcome coma, you’d be aware that Scott Morrison abruptly cancelled the terribly important contract we had with France, to build new submarines, in order to get fancy nuclear sink-boats from the US instead (in decades time and at incalculable cost, much like the previous contract).
And much has been said about the failure in diplomacy this has entailed: how it provokes China, insults the European Union and makes things mighty awkward with staunchly anti-nuclear New Zealand. What a triumph!
Even so, it’s not hard to see the argument that’s already starting in op-eds and Coalition talking points. ‘Well,’ reasonable sounding people with ties to the mining and energy industries will say thoughtfully, while trembling with barely concealed avarice, ‘if we’re looking at a nuclear submarine fleet, then it makes sense for us to have a domestic nuclear industry.’
Short version: we don’t.
In fact, the one selling point which the US submarine design had over the French one was that the engines never need to be refuelled with more nuke-coal, making them like those children’s toothbrushes where you can’t change the heads or batteries and therefore go straight from our kids’ mouths to proudly clogging up our nation’s landfills.
But Australia should avoid a nuclear industry for a whole lot of reasons, and submarines aren’t remotely the biggest one.
Neither is safety, incidentally. Yes, nuclear fission does produce plutonium, the most poisonous substance known to humankind, which we have no good way of storing for the thousands of years it takes to decay into safety. And nuclear accidents are horrendous, but they’re also vanishingly rare – and nuclear is unambiguously a better bet than burning coal or gas in terms of its effect on human health or warming the climate.
So what’s the problem with nuclear power? Well, there are two.
One is that reactors are staggeringly expensive to build. Like, jaw-droppingly, eye-wateringly, scrotum-clenchingly expensive.
A new reactor in the US right now would set you back the equivalent of about $31 billion in Australian dollarbucks, and that’s without the added need to build a whole new supply chain and industry knowledge base from scratch.
Plants typically take about seven to twelve years to build, assuming everything goes reasonably smoothly (which seldom happens). They also need to be built away from where people are living, which means there’s a lot of bonus infrastructure costs. They also use a lot of water – a resource of which Australia has a very finite amount – unlike, say, wind and sunshine which are ample, versatile, and require much, much cheaper tech to harness.
But the bigger problem is the way that nuclear power companies have a rich and storied history of getting the hell out of Dodge the second reactors stop making money, leaving the public to handle the question of what to do with the big useless radioactive power plant sitting poisonously on the edge of town.
The profit curve for a nuclear reactor over time is a lot like a brontosaurus: very long and flat at the start while they’re being built, huge in the middle where they’re reasonably cheap to run, and then long and flat again at the end during the cleanup. And that’s why companies tend to get governments (ie: you) to pay for the building bit, and then profiteer heavily until such point as they move the profits to the parent company and shunt the ageing physical assets off to a shell company to collapse into bankruptcy.
That’s so that when the government says ‘Okay, power company, time to start cleaning up the site like we agreed’, they can look confused at why they’re being expected to deal with a site that doesn’t belong to them. And that’s the point at which the whole de-plantification project gets paid for by the government (ie: you) again.
If that sounds cynical, it’s worth noting that splitting off the dud physical assets from the profitable power concern is not just what companies have done all over Europe, the US and the UK – it’s also literally what AGL are doing right now with their Australian coal plants, because they have a better grasp of the future than does the current federal National Party.
And cleanups can be tricky, expensive, and far outlast the reactors’ lifespan. For example, in May this year the rate of neutrons streaming out of Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl site started rising at an alarming rate. It’s hypothesised that rainwater has seeped into the still highly reactive core, thanks to less-than-perfect construction and maintenance of the supposedly sealed off dome, and nobody is entirely sure how to address it – least of all the Ukraine government.
In other words, don’t believe the greenwashing campaign when it inevitably arrives. A local nuclear industry is not simply unnecessary; it’s yet another opportunity for power companies to hang onto their profitable monopolies and pass a new generation of costs on to you.