As the first week of the COP28 climate talks were winding up in Dubai earlier this month Andrew Forrest managed to secure Joe Biden’s chief climate diplomat, John Kerry, as guest of honour at a party on his ship docked in Dubai Harbour.
Forrest beamed as Kerry, voice horse from a cold, takes the microphone and calls him the “great Australian disrupter” and starts listing the technologies he says the world will rapidly need to scale up to keep the 1.5-degree warming threshold alive.
“Ammonia,” says Kerry as Forrest grins and nods. We are on the deck of the Fortescue Green Pioneer, which Forrest claims is the first ammonia-powered ship. Ammonia can be made from hydrogen, which Forrest plans to make from renewable electricity as part of a global green power push.
“Hydrogen,” says Kerry, prompting Forrest, who has a glass of white in one hand, to stick his other thumb up Trump-style.
“Nuclear,” says Kerry. Forrest does not lose his supportive smile but shakes his head firmly at this.
But Kerry insists that any energy source that does not emit carbon may have a role in the energy transition.
Kerry’s signature is still drying on a pledge signed by 22 nations at the COP to triple their nuclear capacity and speaking at Forrest’s function he says it is the role of government not to pick winners, but to set conditions to allow carbon-free energy technologies blossom.
But there is a growing divide between those people who believe that nuclear’s role will shrink over the coming decades, and those who believe it is the future.
That divide exists not only in Australia, but within the Coalition itself.
Standing a few feet from Forrest that night is Matt Kean, the NSW state Liberal MP and former climate change and energy minister. He is in Dubai with a group of mostly state conservative MPs who want to see the Coalition embrace stronger climate policies.
Nuclear, he says that night, would simply take too long to deploy in Australia, even if it was worth the cost.
Not on board that night in Dubai was federal Liberal MP Ted O’Brien, climate change and energy spokesman, who was in town with a second group of Coalition representatives that was in town to voice their support for nuclear energy.
O’Brien addressed a side-event at the COP co-sponsored by the group Coalition for Conservation and the World Nuclear Association, an industry lobby. There he told an audience of around 20 that should the Coalition win power he would end the ban on nuclear energy in Australia and sign the 22 nation pledge. He had little to say about the pledge signed by 120 nations to triple renewable energy and double energy efficiency.
The Coalition is moving ever closer to nuclear power as being its central policy response to both climate change the pressing need to replace ageing coal-fired power stations. It favours small modular reactors (SMR), a nascent technology not yet in commercial use that would deliver far smaller facilities than the traditional, large scale nuclear power plants operating around the world.
But evidence continues to mount that it is neither the cheapest nor fastest solution to either problem.
The CSIRO on Thursday released findings that helped fill a glaring information gap on the costs of clean energy and responded to mounting criticisms by the federal opposition and the nuclear industry of the government’s focus on renewables.
The top science agency’s GenCost report showed that a grid supplied almost entirely by wind and solar produces cheaper energy than one that included coal power, or nuclear reactors now, and would continue to do so for decades to come.
Previous GenCost reports have been criticised for not incorporating the costs of tens of billions of dollars of transmission lines needed to link the growing fleet of wind and solar farms across the country to population centres.
But the latest findings included more than $30 billion of new transmission lines and projects to provide back up power when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining – such as the $12 billion Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro project.
GenCost uses the metric known as the levelised cost of electricity. This is how much it costs for a power plant to generate electricity, which includes capital expenditure as well as the revenue required to create a return on investment.
It showed that a mix of wind and solar power in 2023 would generate electricity for $90 to $134 per megawatt hour. This cost range is projected to fall to a $70 to $100 by 2030 – with renewables generating 90 per cent of the grid’s electricity.
Coal generation is more expensive, even without the cost of transmission lines to link the power stations to the grid, costing between $110 and $220 per megawatt hour in 2023. This price drops slightly to a range of $85 to $135 in 2030.
CSIRO updated its findings on electricity generation from SMRs, using US company NuScale’s, which developed the world’s most advanced commercial SMR project in Utah, which in November copped a 70 per cent blowout in project costs.
CSIRO found that were SMR technology available today it would generate electricity at a cost of $380 to $640 a megawatt hour. This marked an increase from its July projections for SMRs to generate electricity at between $200 and $350 per megawatt hour.
CSIRO said SMR costs would fall as the technology develops, with a projected cost of $210 to $350 a megawatt hour of electricity generation in 2030.
Again using NuScale as a guide, CSIRO said its 15-year development pipeline for its Utah project indicated Australia could not feasibly expect to have a functioning SMR before 2038.
This timeline is backed by Australia’s former chief scientist, Alan Finkel, who said in August it was highly unlikely Australia could open a nuclear power plant before the early 2040s, pointing out the autocratic United Arab Emirates took more than 15 years to complete its first nuclear plant using established technology.
In a further challenge to establishing a nuclear power industry in Australia, the CSIRO addressed the argument that Australia should follow the lead of countries like France, UK, US, Canada, Spain and South Korea, which power their electricity grids with traditional large scale nuclear plants.
It said claims of cheap nuclear power in these countries are ignoring the fact that these plants were either funded by taxpayers, or have been in operation for a considerable time – over which the capital costs have already been recovered
“Such prices will not be available to countries that do not have existing nuclear generation such as Australia,” GenCost said.
The CSIRO’s analysis echoes other international research showing that the nuclear industry continues to shrink as it is undercut by newer technologies.
This year’s World Nuclear Industry Status Report - an annual 500-page survey of the global industry by a nuclear-sceptical think tank based in France – finds that nuclear’s share of global energy capacity continues to shrink as the cost of its renewable competitors rapidly falls.
The WNISR found that last year for the first time nuclear’s share of power generation fell below 10 per cent of total gross electricity generation for the first time since the 1980s, accounting for just 9.2 per cent.
It said that there was little prospect that small modular reactors would reverse the trend over the few years the world has left to arrest greenhouse gas emissions in line with climate goals set at the COPs.
“The international media continues to provide large-scale coverage of early, often vague developments of Small Modular Reactor designs, despite no significant progress on the ground to report – at least not outside China and Russia – with no startups, no construction starts, not even a design certification,” says the report.
And the report says most countries underestimate the cost of nuclear power by failing to include the expense of decommissioning nuclear power plants and liabilities for accidents in their estimates of the cost of nuclear energy.
Nuclear, it says, is the most expensive form of power.
It cited analysis last updated in April by Lazard, one of the oldest banks in the world, suggesting that the unsubsidised average electricity generating costs of utility scale solar between 2009 and 2022 declined by around 84 per cent to $US60 ($89) per megawatt hour. For wind power the fall was 63 per cent. Nuclear increased by 46 per cent to $US180 per MWh.
So far the opposition is unmoved by these arguments and is sticking with its advocacy for nuclear and against new renewables.
Responding to the CSIRO report on Thursday O’Brien claimed Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen had misrepresented it.
“As an author of the report, CSIRO, has confirmed, GenCost considers only costs to investors, not consumers,” he said.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton is calling for the government to halt the rollout of new energy transmission lines amid a farmer backlash over land access. He is also campaigning against offshore wind projects, warning they will blight coastal views and disrupt whale migrations. Along with O’Brien, Dutton is calling for nuclear power to be added to the nation’s energy mix, with SMRs deployed on the site of closed coal plants to provide backup for wind and solar and generation.
Equally, the government is digging in.
It is telling that when O’Brien was set to speak at his side event at COP one government official went out of his way to ensure Australian media knew where and when the event was to be held on the sprawling Dubai campus.
Asked about the opposition’s for nuclear at the event Bowen was unequivocal, saying that even if nuclear was affordable it could not be deployed in Australia before coal plants retire and emissions reductions targets need to be met.
“I don’t have time for distractions.
“We have 73 months between now and 2030. Even the National Party and the Liberal Party now, apparently, accept that a nuclear power station in Australia could not open by 2030. David Littleproud says we can start in 2045 or something, that we’ve got time.
“We don’t have time. He’s wrong. He’s wrong on reliability. He is wrong on the climate. He is dead, plain wrong.”