Coalition’s nuclear option would cost $387b, says Bowen

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Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen says the opposition’s push for nuclear reactors to help cut emissions would cost $387 billion, based on departmental costings the government says are 20 times higher than its renewables investment fund.

The Albanese government is taking the fight to the Coalition over the latter’s campaign to end the moratorium on nuclear energy in Australia as Bowen attempts to corner Opposition Leader Peter Dutton over his claim that nuclear poses a cheaper and more reliable power source than converting the national energy grid to wind and solar.

Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen has challenged Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s assertion that nuclear technology provides a cheap form of energy.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

“Peter Dutton and the opposition need to explain why Australians will be slugged with a $387 billion cost burden for a nuclear energy plan that flies in the face of economics and reason,” Bowen said in reference to the figure produced by the Department of Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water.

“After nine years of energy policy chaos, rather than finally embracing a clean, cheap, safe and secure renewable future, all the Coalition can promise is a multibillion-dollar nuclear-flavoured energy policy.”

Dutton has said coal-fired power plants could be supplanted by small modular reactors, using the existing transmission connections in place at those sites. He argued in a speech to the Institute of Public Affairs in July that “new nuclear technologies can be plugged into existing grids and work immediately”.

“And if nuclear power is so prohibitively expensive, why are more than 50 countries investing in it, including those with smaller economies than Australia?” he said.

Peter Dutton is pushing for discussion about introducing small modular reactors to complement other low-emission technology.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

According to the departmental analysis, which used the CSIRO’s and Australian Energy Market Operator’s GenCost electricity estimates, at least 71 300-megawatt small modular reactors would be needed to replace Australia’s retiring coal plants.

The department came to the $387 billion figure through the estimated upfront cost of $18,167 a kilowatt for the reactors in 2030, compared with $1058 for large-scale solar projects and $1989 for onshore wind.

The GenCost report into the cost of electricity generation based on technology type found that an energy grid running on 90 per cent renewables, including transmission lines and back-up battery or gas power, would cost between $70 and $100 a megawatt hour in 2030.

Small modular reactors would cost between $200 and $350 a megawatt hour, were that technology available by 2030.

“The opposition want to trumpet the benefits of non-commercial [small modular reactor] technology, without owning up to the cost and how they intend to pay for it,” said Bowen, who has previously accused Dutton of failing to understand how renewables work and has derided nuclear energy as a “fantasy story”.

The government’s Rewiring the Nation fund, an investment vehicle in clean energy projects, costs $19 billion.

Energy analyst Dylan McConnell, a senior research associate at the University of NSW, said invoking the underwriting facility in the comparison with a nuclear set-up wasn’t apples for apples, and the $320 billion cited last year for transitioning the national infrastructure was a more reasonable comparison.

He also said any analysis using coal-fired plants’ full capacity was not accurate as the system was under-utilised.

McConnell said that while it was correct nuclear would be by far the most expensive option, even the CSIRO numbers – although reasonable – were controversial among nuclear advocates and within parts of the Coalition.

Dutton has said of the nuclear reactors that they would be “factory-built, portable, scalable and can even be relocated” while Nationals leader David Littleproud has volunteered his own outback Queensland electorate of Maranoa as a potential exploration ground for small modular reactors.

Former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, whose electorate of New England in northern NSW does not have coal plants, has also backed developing the technology in his electorate.

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