What’s more chilling: watching Chernobyl or cogitating the cost of going nuclear?

Person in protective clothing with a spray pack on their backThe sudden push by the Murdoch media and Coalition right-wingers to overturn Australia’s nuclear power ban ignores the chilling economic cost —  huge public subsidies, storing radioactive waste for thousands of years, the heavy costs of decommissioning and, potentially, radiation-related health costs. Veteran nuclear writer Noel Wauchope reports on the popular TV series, Chernobyl, and the economics of nuclear power.

THE frightening TV miniseries “Chernobyl” could put a few Australians off the idea of nuclear power but nuclear economics might turn out to be the bigger scare.

It is bad news for the Minerals Council of Australia and nuclear lobbyists, that Chernobyl has now arrived on some Australian TV screens, but pro-nuclear advocates are continuing to push their campaign anyway.

The miniseries “Chernobyl” has just finished in Europe and USA, outdoing “Game of Thrones” in popularity. HBO’s Chernobyl topped film and TV database IMDB’s list of the greatest 250 TV shows of all time.  The first episode was screened on 12 June, 2019 in Australia, on Foxtel.

The series has had a big impact. It was highly praised by numerous reviewers but criticised by pro-nuclear lobbyists, and infuriated some Russian politicians.

The series graphically tells a shocking story of disaster, of official secrecy and cover-up. It must, surely, have its effect on public opinion about nuclear power.

But, perhaps not in Australia, as it is showing only on Foxtel — and so not available to most Australians.

The latest public opinion poll indicates a slight increase in public support for nuclear power, with an Essential poll finding that 44 per cent of Australians support nuclear power plants and 40 per cent oppose them. However, it is noted that 60 per cent don’t want to live near one.

The Coalition’s renewed push for nuclear power

In March this year, 11 Coalition MPs (Andrew Broad, James Paterson, Tony Pasin, Tim Wilson, Chris Back, Craig Kelly, Eric Abetz, Andrew Hastie, Warren Entsch, Bridget McKenzie and Rowan Ramsey) urged then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to put nuclear power on the table as an electricity source for Australia. That call is now repeated by  Queensland and Coalition MPs calling for an inquiry into the feasibility of nuclear power in Australia.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he is open to considering nuclear power if it can stand on its own two feet. Energy Minister Angus Taylor told The Guardian on 12 June 2019 he wouldn’t rule out revising Australia’s nuclear ban “when there is a very clear business case which shows the economics of this can work”. Two days later, Environment Minister Sussan Ley also told The Guardian she was open to the review considering a removal of the ban.

But — are the economics of nuclear power viable for Australia?

When even Australia’s former top nuclear promoter has doubts, it doesn’t look promising. In an interview in The Age on 11 January 2018, Dr Ziggy Switkowski admitted that “the window for gigawatt-scale nuclear has closed” and renewables were now a more economically viable choice:

The series graphically tells a shocking story of disaster, of official secrecy and cover-up. It must, surely, have its effect on public opinion about nuclear power.

But, perhaps not in Australia, as it is showing only on Foxtel — and so not available to most Australians.

The latest public opinion poll indicates a slight increase in public support for nuclear power, with an Essential poll finding that 44 per cent of Australians support nuclear power plants and 40 per cent oppose them. However, it is noted that 60 per cent don’t want to live near one.

The Coalition’s renewed push for nuclear power

In March this year, 11 Coalition MPs (Andrew Broad, James Paterson, Tony Pasin, Tim Wilson, Chris Back, Craig Kelly, Eric Abetz, Andrew Hastie, Warren Entsch, Bridget McKenzie and Rowan Ramsey) urged then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to put nuclear power on the table as an electricity source for Australia. That call is now repeated by  Queensland and Coalition MPs calling for an inquiry into the feasibility of nuclear power in Australia.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he is open to considering nuclear power if it can stand on its own two feet. Energy Minister Angus Taylor told The Guardian on 12 June 2019 he wouldn’t rule out revising Australia’s nuclear ban “when there is a very clear business case which shows the economics of this can work”. Two days later, Environment Minister Sussan Ley also told The Guardian she was open to the review considering a removal of the ban.

But — are the economics of nuclear power viable for Australia?

When even Australia’s former top nuclear promoter has doubts, it doesn’t look promising. In an interview in The Age on 11 January 2018, Dr Ziggy Switkowski admitted that “the window for gigawatt-scale nuclear has closed” and renewables were now a more economically viable choice:

“With requirements for baseload capacity reducing, adding nuclear capacity one gigawatt at a time is hard to justify, especially as costs are now very high (in the range of $5 billion to $10 billion), development timelines are 15+ years, and solar with battery storage are winning the race.”

The 2016 South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission found that that nuclear power is not economically viable in Australia. Peter Farley of the Institution of Engineers wrote in RenewEconomy on 4 February, 2019:

“As for nuclear the 2,200 MW Plant Vogtle [in the US] is costing US$25 billion plus financing costs, insurance and long term waste storage. … For the full cost of US$30 billion, we could build 7,000 MW of wind, 7,000 MW of tracking solar, 10,000 MW of rooftop solar, 5,000MW of pumped hydro and 5,000 MW of batteries. … That is why nuclear is irrelevant in Australia. It has nothing to do with greenies, it’s just about cost and reliability.”

How viable is nuclear power elsewhere?

Nuclear economics in America is really a tale of woe. You hardly know where to start, in trying to assess how much this industry is costing communities and tax-payers. There are the attempts to save the nuclear industry via subsidies. There are the continuing and ever-increasing costs of radioactive wastes.  There are the compensation payments to workers with radiation-caused illnesses, $15.5 billion and counting, and the legal battles over where to put the wastes. Needless to say, really, America is not initiating any new nuclear “big build”. The much touted “Small Modular Nuclear Reactors” are turning out to have no market and little prospect of being economically viable.

Compensation for nuclear workers

The UK nuclear industry is in the doldrums with repeated postponement of new projects – Hinkley Point C, Wylfa Newydd, Moorside, Sizewell C, Oldbury B and Bradwell B. See chart below:

Schedule for new nuclear reactors, UK (chart courtesy http://www.no2nuclearpower.org.uk/new-reactors/)

The 2018 forecast for future clean-up of Britain’s aging 17 nuclear power stations has blown out to £121 billion which has had to be spread across the next 120 years. As  the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s Nuclear Provision project must be discounted to a “today” value using rates laid down by HM Treasury and linked to government borrowing costs (adjusted for inflation), this results in a discounted provision of £234 billion.

France’s Flamanville nuclear project is taking years, remains bogged down with costly problems. Electricite de France (EDF)  has financial woes but hopes to save itself by switching from nuclear to renewables. France’s former nuclear giant AREVA went bankrupt and has changed its name to Orano and Framatome — and French tax-payers are still caught up in Areva/Orano costly legal corruption scandals.

Canada is up for increasing costs for managing its nuclear wastes. Interestingly, Canada abandoned its nuclear project for producing medical radioisotopes and now leads in non nuclear production of these isotopes.

India had grand plans for nuclear power, but has cut these back, and recently cancelled 57 reactors. It continues to have problems and many outages, at its huge Kudankulam nuclear station.

Of course, nuclear proponents will point to Russia, and to China. Well, for these totalitarian states, it’s almost impossible to get information on nuclear costs. Both countries are enthusiastically trying to market their nuclear technology overseas. Russia keeps offering “generous” funding to the buyer countries. But will those countries end up with big debts? Reuters reports that in China,

“No new approvals have been granted for the past three years, amid spiralling costs”

So — what does it all mean for Australia?

Those of us able to view Chernobyl may well ponder on the health and environmental risks of nuclear power.

Australia’s right-wing pro-nuclear zealots may well claim that nuclear power is the cleanest and safest source of electricity. But they’re unlikely to claim that nuclear power will solve climate change, given most are climate sceptics. Nor are they likely to consider a CARBON PRICE — the only way nuclear will stack up against gas and coal, according to the  Australian Nuclear Association.

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