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Nuclear discord and the siren’s song of the small modular reactor

by | May 10, 2023 | 0 comments

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By David Salt

‘Have you heard about these small modular nuclear reactors they’ve got these days? They’re only the size of a shipping container and they can produce enough energy to power a town for decades, if not centuries? We’re talking clean, carbon-free energy that can deliver your power needs come rain or shine; no need for the wind to blow or the sky to be cloud free. Why isn’t the government making this a priority rather than ugly wind turbines (which can’t be recycled and only have short life spans) or mass arrays of photovoltaics that displace valuable farmland and only work when the sun is out?’

Last weekend I visited a couple of farms in the central west of New South Wales (Australia), prime sheep/wheat country, where I heard iterations of the above statement from three separate (unrelated) people – white, 60-something males, all of whom were smart, technically savvy adults. Indeed, in most ways I have a deep respect for these guys and enjoyed chatting with them.

These observations on the potential of nuclear energy weren’t served up to me as a passionate climate-denying manifesto. They simply arose from conversations we were having on the challenges facing farming landscapes in the region. They all had concerns about the proliferation of wind and solar energy over prime farmland, the cost of living (and energy) and the decline of rural Australia. They’d all heard that the nuclear option was technically feasible and a viable option. All it needed was a little government backing, a bit of hard work and maybe a little less attention paid to the concerns of all those woke, inner city greenies who wouldn’t recognise the functioning end of a farm tractor if it was run over them.

And, based on my reaction to their ideas on small modular nuclear energy, I suspect that they began to suspect that I may have been one of those woke, inner city greenies myself.

Because, the truth is, I was pretty sure that what they had each shared with me was basically bullshit!

Unfortunately, while they strongly believed in the validity of their claims, all my memory could dredge up was a few general facts from news commentary pieces I had read on the viability of nuclear energy in Australia. I didn’t have specific facts and figures at hand but I did remember the general conclusions of a recent CSIRO report on nuclear energy. It said that nuclear energy was simply too expensive to be an energy option – full stop! And, I’m pretty sure I read somewhere, that small modular reactors simply don’t exist in any form other than as experimental apparatus that had never been commercialised anywhere.

And that’s what I told these men, to each individually, though possibly not with the certainty they had about their beliefs.

Then I blew it

And then, on each of telling, I blew it. I expressed my doubt about their claims and then proceeded to vent my spleen, with growing loudness, on the misinformation being put out by fossil fuel lobbies (and the climate denialists they sponsor) attempting to muddy the water about different energy options and sucker people into believing that nuclear was as valid as renewable energy options. I had, in effect, accused these men of being suckers while sounding like a ranting conspiracist myself. I might have been wearing an Akubra but it takes more than drover’s hat to conceal the green beating heart of a know-nothing city slicker.

So, while I had never intended to fire up a cultural battle over sustainability and energy, that’s what happened anyway. I just couldn’t believe that these good people who should have known better had accepted technological myths that were being constantly repeated to them by conservative politicians, technocrats and denialists. The fossil fuel lobbies had won by default.

Too slow, too expensive

So I slunk back to my city and I did my desktop searches and found the relevant CSIRO report which turned out to be a dense and technical brief. However, all the commentaries around it, and there were many, said the same thing: ‘The latest version of the CSIRO’s important GenCost report still ranks nuclear as the most expensive of existing technologies, and at least double or up to five times the cost of “firmed” wind and solar, including storage and transmission costs’ (Renew Economy, July 2022).

They go on to say: “It has long been accepted that existing large-scale nuclear is way too expensive and too inflexible to play any role in Australia’s future grid, but the pro-nuclear lobby has been pushing the idea of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), and has been putting intense pressure on the CSIRO to embrace it.”

CSIRO, for its part, won’t even include SMRs in their analysis because they don’t exist in Australia, and none are expected until 2029 at the earliest. CSIRO economist Paul Graham, the lead author of the report, says until the first SMRs are deployed it is not possible to find good evidence about the claims of the industry. SMRs do exist overseas but they are largely experimental and the whole technology is still in development.

None of this has dampened the nuclear appetite of the conservative Coalition party that got thrown out at the 2022 Federal elections, partly for its total lack of action on climate change. It responded to its electoral defeat by appointing a pro-nuclear advocate on energy, and intensifying its campaign against wind and solar.

And, as to the oft heard claim that wind turbines can’t be recycled, I say ‘do your own research’. As far as I can see (from multiple respectable sources I viewed), around 95% of wind turbines can currently be recycled and they’re close to figuring out how to reuse all of them.

A siren’s song

But the whole episode left a foul taste in my mouth.

The debate around nuclear energy in Australia is really just a delaying political tactic by the same vested interests that have stymied effective action on climate change for decades. It appeals to anyone who already has doubts about climate change, who thinks technology will save us, and that renewables are just another form of green virtue signalling.

The campaign for nuclear is fuelled by false information, hyperbolic claims and constant repetition. It has become a bit of a cause célèbre for conservative politicians who serve it up again and again as a reason to stop worrying about the future or to reflect on the consequences of our unbounded economic growth. ‘Technology, not taxes’ is their mantra…

… and in many quarters it’s a siren’s song that works a treat.

Image by Markus Distelrath from Pixabay

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