Nuclear debate is getting heated,but whose energy plan stacks up?

The Coalition’s nuclear power policy is less than a week old,but the political debate about Australia’s energy future has been raging since. The opposition’s claims about both its policy and the renewables-focused government plan have prompted plenty of questions about their veracity.

We take a look through the biggest of those talking points to see whether they stack up.

The seven sites earmarked for nuclear power plants by the Federal Coalition would each house several reactors,with details coming from the Opposition meaning the final price tag has grown dramatically.

Labor’s ‘renewables-only’ plan will cost more than $1 trillion:False

The opposition says it will cost more than $1 trillion for the Albanese government to reach its target of boosting renewables to 82 per cent of the electricity grid by 2030. Currently,about 40 per cent of the grid is renewable electricity.

Nationals leader David Littleproud on Sunday attributed the numbers toNet Zero Australia: a think tank of academics from University of Melbourne,University of Queensland and Princeton University.

The think tank calculated the estimated cost of reaching net zero across the entire economy,not just the electricity grid.

Vying for power:Peter Dutton and Anthony Albanese.

Vying for power:Peter Dutton and Anthony Albanese.Rhett Wyman,Getty Images,Alex Ellinghausen

They found that it would cost more than $1 trillion by 2030 and up to $9 trillion by 2050,largely driven by private investment. The figure includes a range of actions,from integrating electric vehicles into the transport fleet to heavy industry,such as smelting switching from gas to electric power.

The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) forecasts that the cost of reaching 82 per cent renewables,again largely driven by private investment in wind and solar farms and transmission lines,will cost $121 billion in today’s money.

The Albanese government has also committed $20 billion to underwrite transmission-line construction and has set up a fund called the Capacity Investment Scheme,estimated to be worth tens of billions of dollars. It will underwrite new renewable projects,and if private investors fail to achieve forecast returns,taxpayers could be on the hook to subsidise operations but will get a cut of the profits when they exceed a set threshold.

Nuclear energy will deliver cheaper power bills:False

Dutton said on Wednesday last week his plan would “see Australia achieve our three goals of cheaper,cleaner and consistent power”.

The opposition has committed to release the costings of their plan before the next election.

Many experts disagree with Dutton’s claim,arguing nuclear power delivers the most expensive form of electricity.

Thesame report cited by the opposition for a $1 trillion cost of the renewables rollout says there is “no role” for nuclear power in Australia’s energy mix.

“We only see a potential role for nuclear electricity generation if its cost falls sharply and the growth of renewables is constrained,” said Net Zero Australia’s report in July last year.

Internationally recognised financial services firm Lazard also found renewable energy sources continued to be much cheaper than nuclear. It said onshore wind was the cheapest,with a cost between $US25 and $US73 per megawatt hour. The second cheapest was large-scale solar at between $US29 and $US92. Nuclear was the most expensive,at between $US145 and $US222.

The CSIRO found the cheapest electricity would come from a grid that draws 90 per cent of its power from renewables,which would supply electricity for a cost of between $89 and $128 per megawatt hour by 2030 – factoring in $40 billion in transmission lines and batteries to back up renewables.

CSIRO calculated that a large-scale nuclear reactor would supply power for $136 to $226 per megawatt hour by 2040.

The renewables rollout needs 28,000 kilometres of transmission lines:False

“Labor has promised 28,000 kilometres of new poles and wires,there’s no transparency on where that will go,and we’ve been very clear about the fact that we don’t believe in that model,” Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said last week.

The CSIRO has deemed nuclear power "slower" and "more expensive" than renewables as debate rages over the future of energy in Australia.

The AEMO releases a document each year called the Integrated System Plan,after consulting private industry,that details a road map of what the most efficient energy system will look like in coming years,including new infrastructure,up to 2050.

The Integrated System Plan includes directives set by policymakers,such as the Albanese government’s commitment to reach 82 per cent of energy generation coming from renewables by 2030,and to hit net zero emissions by 2050.

The most recent plan,from January,says about 5000 kilometres of transmission lines are needed in the next 10 years to deliver the Albanese government’s goals,including 4000 kilometres of new lines and upgrading 1000 kilometres of existing lines. The AEMO said 10,000 kilometres of transmission lines would be needed for Australia to reach net zero by 2050.

The 28,000-kilometre figure cited by the opposition resembles the 26,000 kilometres of transmission the AEMO said would be needed by 2050 if Australia was to transform its economy to a clean energy export powerhouse,including large-scale production of green hydrogen and decarbonisation of other industrial processes.

The first reactor would be built before 2037:Questionable

The opposition says if elected,they would build a nuclear reactor and have it hooked up to the grid within 12 years of forming a government.

Its nuclear energy policy document,released last week,states that depending on what technology it chooses to prioritise,a large-scale reactor would start generating electricity by 2037 and a small modular reactor by 2035. Small modular reactors are a developing design not yet in commercial production.

This rollout would be as quick as anywhere in the world. The United Arab Emirates has set the global pace. It announced in 2008 that it would build four reactors under contract from Korean company KEPCO. Construction began in 2012,and the first reactor connected to the grid in 2020.

There are significant differences between the UAE and Australia. The former is a dictatorship without comparable labour laws or planning regulations that relies on cheap imported labour,whereas the latter has rigorous workforce protections,environmental laws and planning processes.

Opposition energy spokesman Ted O’Brien said a Coalition government would establish a Nuclear Energy Co-ordinating Authority that would assess each of the seven nuclear sites it had identified and determine what specific type of reactor would be built where,while also committing to 2½ years of community consultation. A new safety and management regime would need to be developed,and parliament would have to repeal the current federal ban on nuclear energy within this timeframe.

If the Coalition forms government in May next year,following the consultation phase,it assumes construction could begin in late 2027 and would take 10 years for a large-scale reactor. That is far quicker than other Western nations have achieved recently.

The UK’s Hinkley Point nuclear plant began construction in 2018 and is not expected to be completed until at least 2030. The only reactor now under construction in France is the Flamanville EPR. Construction began in 2007 and it is incomplete. A reactor at Olkiluoto Island,Finland,began in 2005 and was completed in 2022.

The annual waste from a reactor fits into a Coke can:False

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s claim that the annual waste generated by a small modular reactor amounts to the size of a Coke can is incorrect,experts say,with such facilities likely to generate multiple tonnes of high-level radioactive waste each year.

“If you look at a 450-megawatt reactor,it produces waste equivalent to the size of a can of Coke each year,” Dutton said on Tuesday.

Multiple experts told this masthead a 450-megawatt reactor referenced by Dutton would generate many tonnes of waste a year.

Large-scale reactors,which have been deployed in 32 countries around the world,have a typical capacity of 1000 megawatts and generate about 30 tonnes of used fuel a year. This includes high-level radioactive waste toxic to humans for tens of thousands of years,and weapons-grade plutonium.

Small modular reactors are still under commercial development,and expert opinion is divided over whether they would produce more or less waste per unit of energy compared to a large reactor.

Emeritus Professor Ian Lowe,of Griffith University’s School of Environment and Science,said it was safe to assume a small modular reactor would generate many tonnes of waste a year,and it was likely that waste would be more radioactive than the waste from a large-scale reactor.

“For a 400-megawatt SMR,you’d expect that to produce about six tonnes of waste a year. It could be more or less,depending on the actual technology,but certainly multiple tonnes a year,” he said.

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Mike Foley is the climate and energy correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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