In Australia, the energy crisis is nuclear | Economy

Mudgee, New South Wales, Australia – Mount Piper coal-fired power station is located just 25 km (15 mi) west of the Blue Mountains National Park, one of Australia’s most beautiful natural landscapes, known for its spectacular eucalyptus-covered valleys, sandstone cliffs and waterfalls.

The facility, set in mountainous, drought-prone pastoral country, is one of seven sites Conservative opposition leader Peter Dutton plans to build Australia’s first nuclear power plants if his Liberal and National Party coalition wins next year’s federal election.

Dutton argued that the current centre-left Labor government could not meet its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 43 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 with renewables such as wind and solar.

„I want to make sure the Australian public understands today that our country has a vision to deliver clean electricity, affordable electricity and consistent electricity,” Dutton told reporters last month.

For many Australians, Dutton’s proposals lit a fuse under a debate they thought had been shelved for decades.

In 1998, the previous Conservative government banned nuclear power in favor of coal, which remains Australia’s second most valuable export after iron ore — the fuel accounted for 15 percent of total exports last year, about 102 billion Australian dollars ($68 billion).

But since 2006, the Conservatives have periodically called for a new debate on nuclear power – something that was not as serious when they were in power between 2013-2022.

Under current government plans, Australia is one of the few major economies that does not use, or plans to use, nuclear power to provide guaranteed power to renewable sources such as solar and wind.

In Blue Mountains communities like Lithgow, a mining town that once hosted more than a dozen coal mines, the nuclear power projects provoked mixed reactions.

Larissa Edwards, one of a growing number of „tree shifters” who have moved to Lithgow to escape city life, said she was horrified to learn of the plans.

„I came because it’s a beautiful and special part of the world,” Edwards told Al Jazeera.

„I was really blown away. It was an obvious place for Dutton’s plan, which he had signaled to some degree. But as the whole area is moving towards renewables, I’m even more shocked,” he said.

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„I don’t think it’s the right solution to the energy crisis or the climate crisis we’re in.”

Australia’s opposition leader has proposed nuclear power as the solution to the country’s energy challenges [Peter Dutton Gray/AFP]

However, coal miners in Lithgow, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, expressed hope that the nuclear facility would bring new jobs for the next generation following the closure of all but three of the town’s mines.

While there is a divide between those who prioritize the environment and the economy, there is widespread dissatisfaction with the lack of consultation before the announcement or a detailed estimate of the costs, which could be in the billions of dollars.

„The polling I’ve done so far is on the ground in the Lithgow area, and what I can say is that there is already a strong divide between those who support nuclear power and those who oppose it, with a lot of people in the middle asking for more details and information,” Andrew Key, an independent MP representing the region, told Al Jazeera.

“Society cannot be expected to make an informed choice on this issue if there is no consultation and the society does not have the facts. Nor can its leaders expect it.

In Australia’s federal model the governments of affected states pledge „no” to Dutton’s nuclear plans.

Three of the five states with sites in the program – New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland – have bans on the construction of nuclear facilities.

As a further constraint, the proposed sites are privately owned and, in most cases, have prior commitments to renewable projects.

„Differentiating opposition to energy policy clearly has an underlying political purpose, and has succeeded so far in that the government has yet to figure out what its response should be,” Tony Wood, director of Energy, told Al Jazeera in a program at the Grattan Institute think tank.

The selected sites all run old coal-fired power plants, which the current government has promised will be phased out as quickly as possible.

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On an optimistic timetable, nuclear power will take at least 10-15 years to come online.

Critics see the policy as aimed at stalling Dutton’s coalition members in elections where communities are anxious about the economic impact of leaving coal, and a backlash in regional areas that many rural residents see as unsightly renewable projects.

At the heart of the debate are questions about the economic viability of renewables as Australia moves to net-zero emissions by 2050, a pledge supported by both major parties.

Even as policymakers work to find more effective solutions to the nation’s energy grid, they must take note of the Australian electorate’s sensitivity to rising electricity bills.

Australia’s energy demand is predicted to double by 2050, according to a report released last month by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO).

Its main message is to accelerate the rollout of renewables.

“It does nothing for the cost of living. Because it creates uncertainty, it can make it worse,” the Gratton Institute’s Wood said of the nuclear programs.

Other critics have raised concerns about the lack of a plan for nuclear waste.

„I’m concerned about how materials are transported in this area, and I’m concerned about the storage of waste and the impact it could have on an area that’s so close to our World Heritage environment,” said Edwards, who lives in Lithgow. .

Such fears have been heightened politically by the fact that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has yet to say where the waste from Australia’s planned nuclear submarines, the first of which is due to arrive by 2030, will be stored.

„It’s something that Australia needs to sort out, it’s proven to be very thorny politically in the past and I don’t see that changing,” Eboni Bennett, deputy director of the Australia Institute think tank, told Al Jazeera. .

There are also questions about what kind of nuclear technology – from large-scale plants to emerging but largely untested small modular reactors and next-generation sodium-cooled fast reactors – is best suited to drought-prone Australia.

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The first reactor using the latter technology, developed by US company TeraPower, went underground in Wyoming, US last month.

Wyoming
US company TerraPower broke ground last month on its next-generation sodium-cooled nuclear reactor in Wyoming. [Natalie Behring/AP]

In a recent policy paper, Ken Baldwin, a professor at the Australian National University’s Research School of Physics, argued that „all options should be allowed to compete on a level playing field, even if there is even a small chance of filling the nuclear reliability gap.” In a 100 percent clean energy system”.

„This is a strong argument – currently supported by public opinion – for lifting Australia’s legal ban on nuclear power so that the country can assess the best option without having one hand tied behind its back,” Baldwin wrote.

Currently, however, it is clear that investors in the energy sector, which was privatized decades ago, do not currently see nuclear power as viable in Australia.

„Most of the companies and state governments that I’ve talked to that run renewables will continue to do whatever the opposition in government does,” Wood said.

Perhaps for this reason, Dutton’s proposals anticipate state ownership, an unexpected shift for a party that has emphasized the privatization of the energy grid.

As Australia struggles to keep pace with its 2050 net-zero goal, the nuclear option has so far had little traction outside conservative political circles and the media.

Although Dutton and his allies continue to make the case for nuclear power, above all, the still-elusive price tag could prove to be the proposals’ undoing.

The AEMO report found that nuclear power is „one of the most expensive ways to generate electricity”.

„I think 20 years ago its economies weren’t great and now they’re even worse,” said the Australia Institute’s Bennett.

„There was a huge amount of social resistance [then]. If ever there was a boat to catch, it’s the fact that we’ve missed the boat on nuclear power.

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