Skip navigation

Nuclear Energy

Why it's not right for Australia

Nuclear Energy

There’s been a lot of talk about whether nuclear energy could play a role in Australia’s energy transition. Nuclear advocates and the federal Coalition are saying that we should slow the roll-out of renewables and start a nuclear industry in Australia. 

I’m not ideologically opposed to nuclear and it will certainly have a role to play in other countries.  

But it’s not right for Australia – and the evidence is clear that we can achieve a much faster and cheaper transition with renewables, backed by storage.  

Here are the reasons why...

1. Nuclear is too slow.

2023 was the hottest year on record and our window to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees is closing fast. What we do in the next decade really matters. 

Unfortunately, nuclear power plants take a long time to plan and build.  

Even under the Coalition and nuclear industry’s most optimistic forecasts, nuclear energy could not be deployed in Australia in the next decade. The CSIRO, Australia's independent science information agency, recently said it would take at least 15 years to build a nuclear power station in Australia and this has also been confirmed by our energy regulators during a parliamentary inquiry. [1]

That’s too late for the climate. And it means nuclear can't help us meet our 2030 emissions reduction target our our Paris Agreement committments.

It’s also too late to replace our ageing coal-fired power stations, with 90% of coal generation expected to retire in the next decade. [2]

Many nuclear projects globally have been even slower to develop.  

The last five nuclear reactors connected in the United States have taken on average 16.5 years to build [3]. And whilst the UK’s Hinkley Point Power Station was supposed to be “cooking Christmas turkeys” in 2017, it has now been delayed until 2030 (14 years late) and the budget has quadrupled to at least £31-34 billion. [4] 

2. Nuclear is too expensive.

Report after report has made clear that nuclear is the most expensive form of energy available. 

For example, CSIRO found that large scale nuclear was around twice as expensive as renewables, and small modular reactors are around 4-6 times more expensive. That's even after accounting for storage and new transmission lines related to new renewable projects [5]. 

Their latest study showed that renewables, backed by storage and transmission cost $100-140 per megawatt hour in 2023, decreasing to $89-125 in 2030. In contrast, nuclear SMRs come in at an average $387-641 per megawatt hour in 2023 and $230-382 in 2030. Large scale nuclear would cost $155-252 per megawatt hour in 2023 and $141-233 in 2030. [6] 

The cost of nuclear is one of the reason why Australia’s big electricity generators – like AGL, Alinta, EnergyAustralia and Origin – have all said nuclear power is not a viable option for Australia. [7] 

3. Small modular reactors are unproven.

There’s been a lot of talk about the potential for “SMRs”. Unfortunately, these don’t currently exist commercially anywhere in the world. 

The US nuclear industry’s flagship SMR project, NuScale, recently collapsed because it was too expensive and had not attracted enough customers. [8] The company’s failure has left US taxpayers on the hook for the US$9.3 billion cost blow-out [9]. 

This technology may become viable in future, but it will not be in the short term.  

There is also a question as to whether large scale nuclear power are the appropriate size for Australia’s relatively small electricity grids. [10] 

4. Nuclear has no social licence.

Nuclear energy is currently banned at the federal level, as well as in Queensland, NSW, and Victoria. [11]  

Whilst the federal Coalition have suggested lifting the national ban, the Victorian and Queensland Coalition leaders have not supported lifting the bans in their respective states. 

Many people across the community don’t want to live near a nuclear reactor. Radiation from major nuclear disasters, such as Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011, have impacted hundreds of thousands of people and contaminated vast areas that take decades to clean up. 

Numerous federal Coalition MPs who say they back nuclear power have also refused to commit to having a nuclear reactor in their electorate. [12]  

5. Australia has amazing renewables and a clear plan to transition.

Australia has world-leading renewable energy opportunities, and even after accounting for transmissions, solar and wind are by far the cheapest form of electricity available. [13] 

More than 3 million Australian households already benefit from rooftop solar, saving on average $1,100-1,800 per year on their power bills compared to those without.  

Large scale renewables are also driving down wholesale power prices and reducing our emissions at the same time. [14] 

The Australian Energy Market Operator has set out a clear plan to reach 82% renewables by 2030, [15] and whilst projects need to roll-out more quickly, the share of renewables in the national electricity market is already nearly 40%. [16]  

South Australia enjoyed 82% renewables in the last quarter of 2023, and Tasmania and the ACT are both already powered by 100% renewables. [17] We can do this! 

Read more from the experts: 

  • CSIRO – 2023-24 GenCost report (read more)
  • CSIRO The question of nuclear in Australia’s energy sector (read more) 
  • Steve Hamilton and Luke HeeneyNuclear is OK if it makes economic sense. But Mr Dutton, in Australia, it doesn’t (read more) 
  • Dr Alan Finkel – Here’s why there is no nuclear option for Australia (read more) 
  • Saul Griffith, John Hewson et al. – Nuclear energy is not viable for Australia (read more) 
  • The Conversation Is nuclear the answer to Australia’s climate crisis (read more) 

Case studies 

Case Study 1: Hinkley Nuclear Power Station, United Kingdom 

When this project was first being promoted, the CEO of EDF, the majority owner of the Hinkley Power Station, predicted that the nuclear power station could be switched on in 2017. It is currently slated to open in 2031, almost a decade and a half late. 

Around the same time, the UK Government priced the project at 4 billion UK pounds. It is now expected to cost between £35 and £46 billion pounds. 

These enormous cost overruns have even created tension between the UK and French governments, with the political leaders in both countries disagreeing over who is responsible for covering billions in additional costs. 

Case Study 2: NuScale Power, United States of America 

Rising project costs forced the only company to have secured regulatory approval in the US for a Small Modular Reactor to cancel its first project.  

When it launched in 2020, NuScale’s Idaho-based project was expected to cost $3.6 billion US dollars and produce 720 megawatts of electricity. Just three years later, in 2023, the project cost had blown out to $9.3 billion US dollars while capacity had reduced to 496 megawatts.  

At the time the project was cancelled, NuScale had attracted just 20% of the customers it needed to deliver the project.

Footnotes and Further Reading

[1] CSIRO – 2023-24 GenCost report (read more)

[2] AEMO – 2024 Integrated Systems Plan (read more)

[3] Comanche Peak-2 (18.4 years), Watts Bar-1 (22.7), Watts Bar-2 (20.8), Vogtle-3 (10.1), Vogtle-4 (10.4) (read more) 

[4] EDF Energy – Hinkley Point C Update, January 2023 (read more); Renew Economy - Cost of flagship project blows-out (read more)

[5] CSIRO – 2023-24 GenCost report (read more)

[6] CSIRO – 2023-24 GenCost report (read more); The question of nuclear in Australia’s energy sector (read more)

[7] The Guardian – Australia’s big electricity generators say nuclear not viable (read more) 

[8] The Guardian – Small modular reactor cancelled (read more)

[9] The AFR – Flagship nuclear reactor project collapses (read more)

[10] CSIRO – The question of nuclear in Australia’s energy sector (read more)

[11] The Guardian – Peter Dutton in standoff with state Liberal leaders (read more)

[12] SMH – Liberals, Nations go cold on nuclear (read more)

[13] CSIRO – 2023-24 GenCost report (read more)

[14] SMH – Renewable energy is slashing emissions, now it’s cutting prices too (read more)

[15] AEMO – 2024 Integrated Systems Plan (read more)

[16] OpenNEM, based on data from January 2023 to January 2024 (read more)

[17] OpenNEM, based on September-December 2023 (read more)

Last updated: 23/05/2024

Continue Reading

Subscribe to my Newsletter