Queenslanders held onto their state-controlled energy assets through two highly charged state elections which saw Labor exit government and the Queensland Liberal National Party (QLNP) depart at the following one.
Federal Opposition Leader (OL) Peter Dutton launched his coal to nuclear energy policy on The Today Show in July this year promising viewers it was cost effective, will decrease electricity prices and guards against drained renewable charged batteries at night.
“You can turn off old coal-fired power stations put the small modular reactors in and it allows that to be distributed across the existing network,” he claimed.Peter Dutton, The Today Show
The obvious place to implement such a plan is his home state of Queensland. With the state election due in October 2024, Dutton needs his state QLNP colleague, OL David Crisafulli, to form government. That would give Crisafulli governance of Queensland’s eight operating coal-fired power stations and one decommissioned site at Collinsville. The state electorates these reside in are Burdekin (QLNP), Mirani (One Nation), Gladstone (Labor), Callide x 3 (QLNP), Nanango x 2 (QLNP) and Southern Downs (QLNP).
So far Crisafulli has rejected the idea telling the Australian Financial Review that unless there was bipartisan support it would never happen.
“Until both sides of federal parliament agree that is the course of action, it is not going to happen. I’m not spending any energy on it – pardon the pun – because no one will invest in it unless both sides agree to it. It’s a reality.”David Crisafulli, No nukes in Qld: Crisafulli rejects Dutton’s plan
However, Crisafulli is not frightened of changing his policies. Just five months after voting for the Indigenous Path to Treaty legislation in the state parliament he suddenly reneged on the policy prompting backlash. The switch brought him into line with Dutton’s policy against treaties with Indigenous people.
Another QLNP member, National Party leader David Littleproud, has sought bipartisanship from Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on the topic. So far there has been no agreement from the federal Labor government.
The push for nuclear energy has been driven from within the QLNP. Politically they see it as a way to push back against the current implementation of renewable energy. Almost as soon as the federal election 2022 was declared, they began advocating for the untried Small Modular Reactor (SMR) technology on their favourite news outlet, Sky News Australia. A procession of QLNP members have been filing into the studios ever since, chief among them federal Shadow Energy Minister Ted O’Brien.
O’Brien has been clocking up international travel on the topic. In August he wrote in The Australian about his trip to Wyoming, United States of America (US) where he learned about the TerraPower project backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. Like those US coal fired-power station towns, he drew comparison to the ones at home in Queensland.
“In replacing coal for nuclear, most plant workers can live in the same town and stay in the same occupation, albeit work in a cleaner and safer workplace.”Ted O’Brien, Wyoming’s coal-to-nuclear shift a blueprint for Australia
However in a blow to the plan, another US project often spruiked by the Coalition called NuScale announced it would not be going ahead with its plan for six 77 MW reactors in Idaho due to the high cost.
The Coalition’s change to nuclear energy has been dramatic. As federal resources minister in 2019, Matt Canavan ruled out supporting any legislative change and like his colleague OL Crisafulli, he cited the lack of bipartisanship. Canavan now in opposition is a regular advocate on Sky News.
But Senator Canavan said despite the inquiry and the support of some prominent conservative politicians, he had reservations about the price of nuclear power.
“No one is going to make predictions about what happens in 20, 30 or 40 years’ time. All I want to see is a system which allows the most affordable and sustainable energy solutions coming forward,” he said.
“I have previously expressed that it’s relatively expensive and, obviously, we do have a task at hand domestically at the moment to get down our high power prices.
“We’re not afraid of the discussions or conversations and we have rightly said any change would have to be bipartisan, which is unlikely right now.”Matt Canavan, Canavan cold on the push for nuclear power
So who would be at the forefront to benefit from legislation allowing nuclear energy in Australia? One company in the mix for the SMR technology is linked to a political donor, Trevor St Baker. Donating to both the QLNP & the Labor party, he is the founder of ERM Power Ltd and also a director at SMR Nuclear Technology Pty Ltd.
Miner Gina Rinehart is also a supporter using the August Bush Summit to push for nuclear energy over renewables.
“Let’s not upset many farmers with bird-killing wind generators and massive solar panel stretches, and bring on clean, safe, nuclear energy please Australia.”Gina Rinehart, Australian billionaire Gina Rinehart throws weight behind nuclear energy
Former Senator Amanda Stoker is another QLNP member who has been using her regular spot on Sky News Australia to spruik the technology. Earlier this year she reassured viewers that it wouldn’t become a Simpsons episode.
Stoker has recently been chosen as the QLNP candidate for the state seat of Oodgeroo for the 2024 election. The electorate is to the east of Brisbane, running along part of Moreton Bay and where there are no coal-fired power stations to convert.
Her stance brings her into direct conflict with OL Crisafulli. A strong conservative and backed by Dutton, Crisafulli will come under additional pressure to change his mind.
The main problem with SMR is some need a special fuel called high-assay low enriched uranium (HALEU). There are currently no commercial factories in the world to make it. The Russian government has produced some for its projects and the United States Department of Energy has only recently begun production of it.
Allison Macfarlane is the director of the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia and former chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and explains:
“One of the reasons SMRs will cost more has to do with fuel costs. Most non-light water designs require high-assay low enriched uranium fuel (HALEU), in other words, fuel enriched in the isotope uranium-235 between 10-19.99%, just below the level of what is termed “highly enriched uranium,” suitable for nuclear bombs. Currently, there are no enrichment companies outside of Russia that can produce HALEU, and thus the chicken-and-egg problem: an enrichment company wants assurance from reactor vendors to invest in developing HALEU production.”Allison Macfarlane, The end of Oppenheimer’s energy dream
In a research paper published this year, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) sees economic and lack of evidence as roadblocks:
CSIRO, The question of nuclear in Australia’s energy sector
- Nuclear power does not currently provide an economically competitive solution in Australia.
- Lead author of Gencost, Paul Graham, says the main area of uncertainty with nuclear is around capital costs.
- There is a lack of robust real-world data around small modular reactors (SMRs) due to low global use.
Director of the Energy Program at the Grattan Institute in Australia, Tony Wood, concurs with the high cost assessment and that there’s very little real-world evidence for SMR energy to perform to the standard that the Coalition claims.
“The SMRs are still in the early stages of development and already costing more than the proponents had expected.”Tony Wood, Director of the Energy Program at the Grattan Institute. The Coalition’s likely embrace of nuclear energy is high-risk politics
Nuclear free campaigner Dr. Jim Green from Friends of the Earth Australia recently listed the high volume of proposed projects over the world that have fallen by the wayside.
“Dozens of SMR designs are being promoted — mostly by start-ups with a Powerpoint presentation. Precious few will reach the construction stage and the likelihood of SMRs being built in large numbers is negligible.”Dr. Jim Green, Small modular nuclear reactors: a history of failure
State Election 2024
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk ruled out nuclear reactors in 2020 and has not added them to the state’s new energy plan 2023. Dutton will need Crisafulli on board and in the premiership from 2024 to be able to commence any sort of work on the plan, even if the initial stages are large sums of public money to private companies for feasability studies at each of the coal energy sites.
Regardless of the cost and fuel source problems, Dutton still sees SMR technology as simple as plug and play. Crisafulli will come under increasing pressure to support the policy as Dutton continues to sell it. Crisafulli has demonstrated his ease with switching positions on the recent reneging on the Path To Treaty legislation.
Late last month Dutton reiterated his coal to nuclear plan at the New South Wales Liberal Party conference. It wasn’t without incident as anti-nuclear campaigners in hazmat suits interrupted proceedings. Later during his speech, he followed Amanda Stoker’s lead by attempting to allay fears of a Homer Simpson type disaster.
The nuclear energy debate is certain to feature in the Queensland 2024 state election.
***Apologies. Story has been adjusted to replace Idaho with Utah. Original sentence read, “However in a blow to the plan, another US project often spruiked by the Coalition called NuScale announced it would not be going ahead with its plan for six 77 MW reactors in Utah due to the high cost” which was incorrect.