Nuclear After-Life: From tragedy to farce, the claims of a nuclear renaissance

In 1981 Split Enz sang that ‘history never repeats’. Karl Marx knew it was more complicated. He explained that the French revolutions had been corrupted by the successive dictatorial coups d’etat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799 and his nephew Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte in 1851. Opening his analysis in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Marx quipped that ‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.’

Marx meant that Bonaparte I was a tragedy and Bonaparte III a farce. The same applies to the history of the global nuclear industry. Nuclear power has moved from a bloated and technocratic imposition of existential risks and hubris (tragedy) to a so-called renaissance with all the hallmarks of farce (a desperately incompetent white elephant in a decarbonization revolution destined to be defined by renewables).

Yesterday’s hero

The World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR) is an annual update charting what is in effect the demise of the nuclear industry. The WNISR (2022) shows that nuclear power’s global share of commercial gross electricity generation peaked at 17.5% in 1996, but by the end of 2021 had dropped to 9.8%. Reactor construction starts peaked in 1979 at 234, but forty-eight of those were later abandoned. Thus 1979 was also a year of peak-abandonment. The number of operating reactors peaked in 2005 at 440. Net operating capacity peaked in 1990 at 312GW and has held roughly steady at 312-381GW until the present; it is what can be called a stagnant industry.

Dating the demise of the nuclear industry involves making selections from all those past peaks; I suggest 1985. The number of national nuclear programs reached thirty in 1985 and grew only by three up to 2023. Reactor startups (connections to the grid) peaked in 1985. Markets and publics were rejecting nuclear power.

In Australia, the 1985 Palm Sunday rally drew 350,000 people across Australia to show their opposition to nuclear endeavours (mining, weapons, power). It was also 1985 that nuclear authorities showed their opposition to civil dissent. French secret service agents planted bombs on the hull of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior, which was due to confront French nuclear testing in the Mururora Atoll.

Such brazen disregard for civil society fell just shy of the peak of nuclear authorities’ social credibility. That honour goes to the Chernobyl accident of 26 April 1986, which captured the public imagination for its human and environmental toll and its governance failures. Radioactive meltdown represented a risk that was both imperceptible and inescapable, with complex causes, indeterminate effects, and unpredictable future implications. In other words, as Ulrich Beck discussed in his Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, nuclear risk perfectly symbolizes the tragedy of a social order that creates and amplifies risks by pretending to be in control of hazards.

The false claim of mastery of technological destiny is a key part of the tragedy of nuclear power. A tragedy is not just an unhappy ending, but a story of an imperfect and flawed hero occasioning his or her own downfall. In many Greek tragedies, that flaw was hubris, and hubris characterized the development of the nuclear industry.

While Dwight D. Eisenhower’s ‘Atoms for Peace‘ speech in December 1953 promised to solve the atomic dilemma by turning that power from death to life, that hope was immediately translated into hubristic over-promising. Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, promised in 1954 ‘electrical energy too cheap to meter’. Steven Cohn’s Too Cheap to Meter documents how the nuclear dream became driven by the goal of emotion management, desperately trying to balance fears about nuclear war and accident with hopes about commercial applications.

But it all became ridiculous. Spencer Weart’s Nuclear Fear delves into the fantasies that were never fulfilled, including atomic cars, atomic trains, and nuclear power used to melt highways into landscape and control the weather. A pattern was established whereby nuclear power could be and often was offered as the solution to any problem. It was thus not just former US President Donald Trump’s stupidity and propensity to lie that led him to suggest ‘nuking hurricanes’ to keep them away from US coasts, but also a perfectly natural political extension of the nuclear industry’s hubris.

The over-confidence of the nuclear industry is illustrated by its failed projections. In the 1970’s, nuclear agencies including the IAEA and USAEC and their fellow multi-national travellers like the OECD projected nuclear capacity by 2000 would be somewhere between 2500-5300 GW. Installed capacity only reached 350 GW (see WNIRS 2019: Fig. 2). This hubris bred an insensitivity to the industry’s own flaws, leading to multiple tragedies throughout the nuclear fuel cycle.

The nuclear industry has always tried to distance itself from its parent, the atomic bomb, but in the 1950’s and 60’s the legacy of weapons testing was a litany of environmental, political, and social injustices. British weapons testing in Australia is a case in point. Christobel Mattingley, in Maralinga’s Long Shadow, follows the criminal disregard shown to Indigenous peoples’ rights, culture and humanity. Elizabeth Tynan, in Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga Story, documents how security was put ahead over safety, leaving a legacy of displacement, injury and death for Indigenous people.

Nuclear power is also an extractive industry, and uranium mining is a story of environmental degradation, contamination, and health inequalities visited upon vulnerable communities. As Stephanie Malin argued in The Price of Nuclear Power: Uranium Communities and Environmental Justice, the nuclear industry touts its own sustainability but in practice treats communities as national sacrifice zones. In the United States, the Navajo provided that sacrifice zone, with uranium mining relying on exploitative labour practices and disregard for community health, leaving a legacy of environmental contamination, abandoned mines, and high rates of lung cancer.

The closing of the nuclear fuel cycle is similarly problematic, with waste disposal programs encountering persistent technical and social obstacles. My own volume, Nuclear Waste Management in Canada: Critical Issues, Critical Perspectives, co-edited with Genevieve Fuji-Johnson, shows how public participation initiatives nevertheless retain a scientistic framing of the issue. Only the public’s knowledge was problematized, as either emotively irrational or too diverse to constitute a coherent political demand. Despite myriad technical uncertainties evaporating trust, this lack of social acceptance was converted to the idea of the science being solid but the task of voluntary local acceptance needed work. The nuclear industry continues to treat the publics as an obstacle, a worrying sign in democracies.

Nuclear power is therefore not only yesterday’s hero, it is also a tragedy of its own doing. When Karl Marx reflected on the two Bonaparte’s in his Eighteenth Brumaire, part of his explanation for how two dictators had warped the French revolutions was that too many supporters put faith in miracles and supermen and permitted an absurdly rosy image to go without sufficient scrutiny. Yet when asked to perform those miracles, the supermen failed. This is also the tragic past of nuclear power, which in the giddy discourse of the nuclear renaissance, is history repeating itself as farce.

Is nuclear power necessary for decarbonization?

The discourse of the ‘nuclear renaissance’ arose in the early 2000’s, driven by concerns about the need to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and decarbonise the electrical grid, yet also achieve energy security and, oh, do something about an ageing nuclear fleet due for decommissioning. Reviving the moribund nuclear industry was draped in the self-congratulatory language of reviving old wisdom. To decarbonize, nuclear power, being low carbon in operation mode, would be necessary. Renewables fluctuate with the wind and sun and are thus not secure supply. Or so went the new old wisdom.

Like the tragic projections, promises and diagnoses of the nuclear industry in its first incarnation, current reality has departed from the farcical industry wishes of today. Non-hydro renewables have now overtaken nuclear power, with wind and solar alone reaching 10.2% of global gross power generation in 2021. Investment in non-hydro renewable electricity capacity is now fifteen times that of reported global investment decisions for nuclear construction.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) reported in April 2022 that hydropower makes up 59% of renewables’ share in electricity generation, with wind and solar comprising 33% and growing. IRENA further reports in its Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2021 (2022) that Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) for wind has dropped 15% and solar 13%. Investment bank Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis (2021) reported that wind and solar are five times cheaper than nuclear.

Nuclear advocates like to reply that LCOE under-values nuclear and over-values renewables, typically by not factoring in integration and storage costs. Nuclear advocates are also happy to not appropriately factor in many future costs of nuclear, including refurbishment, decommissioning, and waste disposal, and the multiple effects of predictable cost and construction overruns. Regardless, the GenCost 2022 report by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), in conjunction with the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), found renewables vastly cheaper than nuclear even after factoring in integration costs such as storage and transmission.

Dumbfounded by such cost comparisons, those new to the nuclear vs renewables debate wonder how nuclear survives as a financial idea at all. Martin Cohen and Andrew McKillop, in The Doomsday Machine: The High Price of Nuclear Energy, provide some clues, revealing an array of nuclear industry accounting tricks and a strategy that amounts to a nuclear asset bubble. Cost and construction overruns at the Vogtle 3 & 4 plants in the US state of Georgia are symptomatic. Scheduled to cost USD$14 billion and start up in 2016, Vogtle is still not operational and has ballooned to $30 billion and climbing. Georgia Power shifted risk onto (mostly residential) customers, using its monopoly power to have customers pay in advance for financing costs prior to delivery of electricity, essentially profiting from delays. As Cohen and McKillop quip, this is go-go financing. Independent energy analysts concluded power from Vogtle 3 & 4 will be five times as expensive as Georgia Power having acquired the same amounts of energy and capacity from renewables plus storage.

A poor fit for Australia

The WNISR, IRENA, Lazard and CSIRO/AEMO estimates of nuclear industry health are confirmed by the BP Statistical Review of World Energy (2022), which shows that all-renewables (excluding hydropower) share in global power generation reached 13% in 2021. In 2019-2021 non-hydro renewables share of power generation grew more than the combined total of coal and natural gas, and non-hydro renewables’ generation accounted for 60% of the growth in global power generation 2015-2021. The BP Statistical Review of World Energy (2021) had shown that nuclear power’s share of global electricity generation had started declining in 1999. In that year, the percentage share of natural gas ‘crossed over’ nuclear power’s share, replacing it, and nuclear continued to decline, replaced again by the upward swing of non-hydro renewables in about 2020. The trend is clear: nuclear is being replaced as a source of electricity. The first replacement was by natural gas and the second by non-hydro renewables. Renewables advocates point to such trends as indicators that nuclear power is not necessary for decarbonization.

Australia, which operates an Open-pool lightwater 20MW research reactor at Lucas Heights in New South Wales, has no commercial nuclear power reactors, and is thus an interesting test-case for the ‘nuclear is necessary’ claim.

South Australia is the model for an all-renewables grid, having already had extended runs (10+ days) in which wind and solar accounted for 100% of local demand. Moreover, AEMO’s Quarterly Energy Dynamics report (for 2022) depicts a north/south divide. Northern States (Queensland and New South Wales) are reliant on unreliable coal plants and suffer price spikes, while the southern States (Victoria and South Australia) saw a surge in renewables penetration into the grid, driving prices down. Renewables directly replace coal and lower prices.

Nuclear power is not deemed necessary for decarbonization in the Australian context. AEMO’s Integrated System Plan of 2022 modelled a step-change scenario, regarding it both most likely and compatible with net-zero emissions, in which renewables generate 98% of national electricity market energy by 2050 (including 10GW gas and 26GW dispatchable storage). Successive GenCost reports by AEMO, up to the latest in 2022, have deemed nuclear power in general too costly compared to renewables.

AEMO also skewers Small Modular Reactors (SMR), which are the modern nuclear industry fantasy. AEMO argues that SMR cost estimates are hopelessly biased and unreliable and that evidence of a positive learning rate (capacity to lower costs and build time when scaling up) is absent. AEMO considers nuclear power will only come in to play in the ‘diverse technology’ scenario, in which support for renewables and net zero has waned.

The meanings of nuclear power

The Australian example suggests nuclear power is not a solution to climate concerns, but a potentially costly and burdensome engineering redundancy. The relevant social groups who see the technology are diverse; including the market operator AEMO, prominent scientists, and many environmental groups. For these social groups, nuclear power is interpreted as ‘burdensome and redundant’, and social groups often try to instantiate (act upon) their version of what an artifact means to them. However, whether nuclear power is necessary for decarbonization is not simply an engineering question.

My field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) suggests that it is not the intrinsic properties of a technology and its fuel source that are most influential in how a technology is received. If, instead, we see technological ‘artifacts’ as a part of much larger sociotechnical systems, we may understand how the value of a particular technology is interpreted and why particular meanings are resistant to change. In the nuclear case, the sociotechnical system includes the technological infrastructure (mines, processing, reactors, transmission grids, disposal techniques, weapons) plus regulatory bodies, financial institutions, national governance styles, technical specialists, civil society groups and value questions. The larger the sociotechnical system, the more expansive and capital-intensive it is in scale and the more coordinated it is in goal-seeking activities, the more varied are the system interactions that need to be considered and the more obdurate they tend to be.

So, our choices about particular technologies are also choices about different social, economic, political and cultural arrangements: choosing a fuel source is also choosing a sociotechnical energy system and the socio-political apparatus that supports it. Far from that group which sees nuclear power as ‘burdensome and redundant’, we find multiple interpretations related to the larger institutional linkages and commitments that different actors value.

A second group, then, are what might be called technology pragmatists. They may believe global warming to be due to anthropogenic causes, but their thrust is that any means (technology) justifies the end of decarbonisation. The recommendation here is not to discriminate between low-carbon energy options—hydro, wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and nuclear—and to choose all-of-the-above. An example is Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline, in which nuclear power is a ‘neutral part of an energy portfolio’.

A third vision of nuclear power is held by ‘technorationalists’. These are climate hawks who regard solar and wind intermittency as disqualifying them from helping with decarbonization, leaving nuclear to provide 100% of electricity to the grid. Opponents’ politics and perhaps politics in general, are dismissed as emotive and obstructive. Here the perception of nuclear reliability is all that matters; it’s a technocratically specific claim that can circulate easily and does so especially well on social media. In this realm, where the relevant social groups are bound by weak not strong ties, reciprocal and honest exchanges about complicated values-based choices are absent and impatience with dissenting considerations reigns. In this frame nuclear power is ‘progress’ and opponents are villains for standing in the way.

A fourth framing of nuclear power is visible when we look through the eyes of industry groups. Reluctant to display their conflicts of interest they nevertheless want to combat their declining market position and win some public support. Consider the World Nuclear Association (WNA) and their ‘harmony programme‘, which aims at nuclear generating 25% of global electricity by 2050, requiring an average build rate of 33 GWe of new nuclear capacity per year (climbing each year the industry fails to hit that target. Low-carbon energy is deemed necessary to address climate concerns, but power must be reliable to support increased energy consumption, which is needed to sustain material well-being and reduce energy poverty. The WNA presents the nuclear industry as the victim of a renewables-biased investment and electricity market and an over-zealous regulatory environment. Calling for a more level playing field, nuclear power here is ‘victimized nuclear power’.

Technological dramas

A fifth interpretation of nuclear arises from adopting a critical, interventionist stance. All four views above share the goal of decarbonisation and are informed by the idea of a climate crisis. But each suggests a different path forward: not adopting a burdensome and redundant technology; adopting whatever might work; adopting only what is considered most technically rational; levelling the playing field.

The fifth view of nuclear power has a constituency whose climate credentials are questionable. Relevant social groups are the far-right, lukewarmer ecomodernists, and right-wing social and economic conservatives.

The far-right are straight climate deniers, yet fans of nuclear power. In Australia, see Pauline Hanson and Craig Kelly. In Europe, see the AfD (Germany), SvP (Sweden), Nye Borgerlige (Denmark), Fdl (Italy), Vlaams Belang (Belgium) and RN (France). Lukewarmer ecomodernists agree on anthropogenic warming but minimize the climate problem, criticize environmentalism for being alarmist, and support nuclear power on scientistic grounds Some craft their messages in a way that climate deniers and/or advocates for fossil fuels always (just so happen to) find them acceptable. Social and economic conservatives, the Australian Liberal-National Coalition for example, entertain the prospect of nuclear power in an effort to cosplay energy policy. Lacking an authentic commitment to decarbonization and unwilling to frame their politics by the idea of a climate crisis, the promise of nuclear power acts as a delay tactic. Nuclear power in this scenario is ‘nuclear power as strategic compromise’.

Recall the idea of a sociotechnical system suggests artifacts are parts of material and social orders. Nuclear reactors were once part of a mature sociotechnical system that symbolized technical mastery, national pride, and energy abundance, but by the 1990’s had lost its lustre, deemed an accident threat and economic albatross, and unable to solve their own waste problems. The technology was first regularized, its sophisticated technical features embodying noble political aims, then destabilized, its dangerously complex technical features representing fraught political risks. This is a technological drama of statements and counter-statements about what nuclear power means.

Talk of a nuclear renaissance is thus a re-regularisation —a new way to link the claimed technical features of nuclear reactors with political aims: not a second but a third life—great hope, risky disappointment, new hope. The low-carbon operating mode of nuclear power could be linked to the moral cause of addressing the climate crisis, but this could just as well become an adjustment strategy.

Thus, in the conservative and ecomodernist views, nuclear power represents an adjustment where the baseload features of nuclear powered electricity are turned toward the aim of business-as-usual (fossil fuels are baseload), preserving as much of the investment, centralization and growth features of fossil fuel incumbency patterns as possible.

These newcomers to the cause of decarbonisation often invoke the moral authority of regularization regularisation—‘we must act to address the climate crisis’—and throw up claims of ‘alarmist decarbonisation’, resulting in everything from claims that civilisation is imperilled by degrowth (nuclear is pro-growth, renewables are degrowth) to claims that electric vehicles will ruin your weekend (renewables will decouple you from fun).

Go big or go home

The nuclear renaissance has been offered as a magical and flexible antidote to concerns that we cannot power our way through to decarbonization. But as Marx was well-aware his Eighteenth Brumaire, once we demystify Bonapartist magic we are left with a material and social inquiry into the conjuring tricks used to elevate mediocrity to saviour status.

Chief among the conjuring tricks is a conflation of abundant and minimum power. The World Nuclear Association depicts the future as a big energy world, where electricity demand will rise substantially, engorged by urbanisation and the electrification of end-uses, and outpace total final energy demand. Simultaneously we are told that renewables are intermittent and only nuclear power can supply baseload power (minimum power required to supply average electricity demand). We are told that only baseload (nuclear) gives us reliable power. ‘Reliable’ is made to stand for both abundant and minimum. Unpacking each of those elements is part of demystifying the potential role of nuclear power.

Forecasts of electricity demand vary greatly. Amory Lovins predicts soft energy paths can protect both climate and economy at the same time as curtailing rampant consumption; the Breakthrough Institute predicts a rebound effect where efficiency gains are converted to increased consumption, and even renewables advocates can lean into renewables meeting the goals of ‘deep electrification’. But current reality gets a say too. Vietnam, South Korea, and Slovakia have, respectively, cancelled, revisited, or doubted cost-recovery plans for reactor projects due to slowing electricity demand. Canada considered reduced electricity demand so likely they built the assumption into get-out clauses within futures contracts for potentially refurbishing existing reactors.

‘Baseload is required for reliable power’ is a myth. Baseload power is more an economic than a technical concept, because baseload power supplies average electricity demand: it is the minimum power a power plant can produce without being switched off. When your car is idling at a traffic light, it is at baseload power. Practical experience and modelling confirm that variable renewables can be balanced by dispatchable (supply on demand) energy sources (including solar thermal with storage) and synchronous condensers, diversification of renewables and their geographic distribution, coupled with transmission upgrades, demand management, and battery and pumped hydro storage. Of course, there are significant temporally relevant engineering and economic challenges to reconfiguring a large sociotechnical system, hence why gas and nuclear as bridging technologies will remain in energy conversations for some time to come.

But the anachronisms of the ‘reliable power’ discourse – with its conflation of abundant and minimum power – obscure the true nature of the challenges. Consider some simple framings. ‘Reliability’ means not letting you down, or as AEMO defines it, ‘satisfying 99.998% of forecast demand in any region per year’. ‘Resilience’ is failing gracefully, or as AEMO defines it, ‘the ability of the system to limit the extent, severity, and duration of system degradation following an extreme event’.

AEMO’s Insights paper of 2019 argued that we are transitioning to a power system of utility-scale renewables, energy storage and distributed resources. Because average demand has changed from traditional flat line to more of a ducked shaped curve, flexible generation that can ramp output up or down (note that no reactor fleet has ramped successfully) and upgraded transmission to better incorporate distributed energy is the transition challenge. Not baseload power. Indeed, as AEMO discussed elsewhere, an emerging challenge in grids featuring distributed power is rapidly declining minimum operational grid demand.

Moreover, a key feature of AEMO’s Insights paper is that variability in weather, consumer demand and renewable supply, while of course making energy storage vital, also means we must build a resilient power system and ‘this, in turn, creates a dispatchable and reliable power system’ (AEMO 2019: p. 6). Resilience and reliability are system properties, not magical gifts technocratically bestowed by nuclear reactors as stand-alone ‘abundant energy machines’. So long as nuclear reactors are depicted as the gigolo of the big energy society—the only instrument capable of satisfying its ravenous desires—our energy transition discourses will be impoverished.

The nuclear renaissance

Some final observations about the global nuclear project, again taking Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire as a rhetorical jumping-off point. Why could the French revolution not be recreated? asked Marx. Why was the second coming nothing but a parody of the first? Why the descent into farce? Marx’s method was to investigate the material conditions of life. Doing the same for the nuclear industry demonstrates that the nuclear renaissance is a farce.

Is nuclear power there when you need it, as renaissance rhetoric suggests? France has a fleet of fifty-six reactors supplying 70 per cent of its electricity, but as gas shortages hit Europe in 2022 in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Électricité de France fleet suffered an annus horribilis. Over half of the fleet was shut down for repair, maintenance, and cracking and corrosion issues, resulting in record unplanned outages and nuclear output at a thirty-year low. Consider the Japanese nuclear fleet post- Fukushima. Gross electricity generation dropped from 275 TWh in 2011 to about 50 TWh as of July 2022. As WNISRs have documented in the past decade, the IAEA routinely lists Japanese reactors in Long Term Outage (LTO) as ‘operational’, inflating the health of the Japanese fleet. Hence the IAEA’s ‘33 operating reactors’ is in fact ten operating and twenty-three in LTO (WNISR 2022). Neither reliable nor resilient, nuclear is often not there when you need it.

Can nuclear be there if we want it? In the 2022 WNISR there is clear evidence that construction times for reactors completed in the 1970s and 1980s were homogenous— around 4–8.5 years on average. But since 1990 construction times have varied widely, bordering on limited predictability: 6–10 years on average through the 1990s before exploding post-2000 into a 6–20 year free-for-all. In 2019–2021 the mean construction time for reactors connected to the grid was 8.2 years, exceeding ‘expected’ estimates, which are usually quoted in the range of 4–5 years. Moreover, a host of Generation III+ reactor projects, touted as resolving engineering and project management issues that contributed to cost and construction blowouts, have all experienced cost and construction blowouts.

Prime examples are Olkiluoto-3 in Finland (expected 2009 become 2023, costs quadrupled), Flamanville-3 in France (expected 2012, still building, and costs increased fivefold), and Vogtle 3 & 4 in the USA (expected 2016-17, still building, and costs increased fivefold). The nuclear power industry has a negative, almost forgetting by doing, learning curve, rather than a positive learning curve. Even the IAEA admitted investors were being scared off nuclear power by repeated failure to live up to promises. Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner’s How Big Things Get Done, which analyses why megaprojects fail, put nuclear projects in the worst of the worst list for a reason: their scale-up is either dumb or fumbled, due to cost and time overruns.

Can nuclear power change? Advocates often pin their hopes on Small Modular Reactors (SMR), defined as sub-300MWe, designed for either serial construction or as sub-15MWe reactors for remote uses. Yet SMR’s are framed by the same kinds of utopian rhetorical visions we saw in the industry development stage, such as SMR’s as risk-free (extreme reliability and perfect safety), vehicles for indigenous autonomy (remote, portable or infrastructure-lite), and environmental saviours (waste and carbon free). Meanwhile material reality reveals the would-be emperor already has excessively expensive clothes. As documented by independent energy analysts at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, the NuScale SMR-plant proposal offered to Utah in the USA has already seen a reduction in units and a 53% jump in costs that render it even less cost-competitive with renewables than its originally uncompetitive offer.

SMRs do more than inherit farcical versions of the nuclear industry’s past over-promising. SMR proponents also push the technology in a way that would be a hindrance to decarbonisation. Consider a University of Queensland study on what would be required for SMR’s to be operating in Australia from the 2030s, which suggested SMRs could be sited on disused coal plants and thereby use existing electricity infrastructure. Because SMRs could be integrated into the existing system, the study concluded deployment of SMRs ‘would not require additional large investments in transmission and storage’. Then, on 19 August 2022, representatives of Australian nuclear lobby groups (including the Australian Nuclear Association) testified in Senate hearings on the Climate Change Bill (Consequential Amendments), the emissions reductions bill. Citing the University of Queensland study of SMR potential, the lobbyists sought to counter AEMO’s position that decarbonisation hinged on increasing the supply of renewables in the national electricity market and would require grid upgrades (high and low voltage transmission, ancillary services and storage). Nuclear was presented as a cheaper option for decarbonising the grid because ‘if we particularly use suitably-sized nuclear power plants on our grid, we do not need to expand the grid’.

Nuclear proponents have thus put their projections — which rhetorically present grid upgrades as technically redundant and not required to lower costs—on a crash course with AEMO projections that grid upgrades are required to achieve greater penetration of renewables into the national electricity market. We should thus be suspicious about breezy nuclear industry claims that nuclear power and renewables can co-exist. In fact, research on resource allocation between nuclear and renewables finds evidence for the ‘crowding-out hypothesis’: that countries with greater attachment to nuclear will tend to have lesser attachment to renewables and vice versa). Any talk of SMRs should be interrogated for signs of material commitments, such as opposing grid upgrades, that would in fact mitigate against renewables, thus casting doubt on claims of ‘all of the above’ and on lip service paid to renewables as parts of decarbonisation pathways.

Nuclear Afterlife

Some will respond to this analysis by suggesting my anti-nuclear stance is anti-technology or anti-science. Despite this being a non sequitur, a little Luddism can go a long way. Modern day Luddism is not about breaking machines but instead about foregrounding the need to critically scrutinize and democratically govern any technology, treating technologies not as sacred and above politics but as worthwhile only insofar as they benefit society.

An apt metaphor for nuclear power might thus be that of the afterlife: not the religious one – rather the Netflix series After Life, a dark comedy written and produced by Ricky Gervais. The central character Tony, played by Gervais, has lost his wife and, in his grief, decides he is just going to punish himself and the world by being a complete jerk. That is the nuclear industry. It is the option you choose when you have trouble moving on and you embrace absurd self-destruction and the visiting of farce and misery on others.

Australia’s Nuclear Future?

John Hinkson, Dec 2021

…if Australia can’t renew itself within terms appropriate to its own region—that is, renew our relations with Indigenous Australians, as well as the peoples of the Pacific and of Indonesia and Asia generally—it will remain an outpost supported only by imperialist powers…

About the author

Darrin Durant

Dr Darrin Durant is Senior Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Melbourne. He has published widely on the relation between experts and citizens in democratic decision-making, disinformation and democracy, climate and energy politics, and nuclear waste disposal. His most recent book is Experts and the Will of the People: Society, Populism and Science (Palgrave, 2020), and of relevance to the nuclear cycle is Nuclear Waste Management in Canada: Critical Issues, Critical Perspectives (UBC Press, 2009). He Tweets @DarrinADurant

More articles by Darrin Durant

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I agree in part. I work in renewable energy, and I can evangelise the benefits better than most. But we have to acknowledge the challenges of the renewable future as well. Solar and wind can generate everything that we need ten times over, this much is true. But the delivery of this requires the locking up of unmeasurable hectares of land. As a rule of thumb, 1MW of Solar would require 2-3 ha of land, and this doesn’t account for the transmission to get it to where it needs to go. And in order to use this energy when we need it, we require storage.

Long duration storage, most likely pumped hydro, will result in huge amounts of land being inundated for the dams. Then there are batteries, of which lithium is currently the best option but is also (like uranium) a non-renewable resource. Hydrogen will play a role, but the creation or hydrogen is ~70% efficient so 30% of the energy created is wasted in the conversion process. And this doesn’t account for desalination if that is the source of purified water.

I guess my point is, what we consider Renewable Energy isn’t without its downfalls. And what we actually need to do is appropriately analyse use cases for everything we have at our disposal rather than broadly damning entire technologies. Nuclear is an incredible technology and, although it’s not the sole answer to our climate challenge, it will play an important role. And what’s critical is that we don’t devalue any potentially impactful technology,. The key to our success, the key to achieving net zero in the timeframe we have given ourselves, is smart investment in the development of safer, cleaner more efficient versions of the technology that we have…. And this includes nuclear.

Thanks for your remarks, Corey. I agree, land use is an important metric. However, I have seen many comparisons of, say, solar to nuclear vis a vis land use, written by nuclear advocates, that tend to argue asymmetrically. The asymmetry, or double standards in other language, usually involves the following kinds of claims. If talking solar vs nuclear, rooftop solar is added to ground-based utility-scale solar, to get total solar vs nuclear, which of course over-estimates solar land use by not discounting for rooftops not using any additional land. If talking wind vs nuclear, the direct footprint of nuclear but excluding unavailable land in the nuclear exclusion zone, is compared to wind turbines’ direct footprint but including available land between the turbines, thus over-estimating land use of wind power. Note the pattern: systemic over-estimation of solar and wind. And that’s before we get to under-estimating nuclear land use, where life cycle considerations for nuclear are often excluded, even though sometimes lifecycle for solar and wind is included, in the same analysis, as if no-one can spot the rank double standard going on.
I think, in other words, the ‘footprint’ discourse is rife with bad faith comparisons. You are correct to suggest footprint is important, but hopefully such footprint discussions, which at present seem to border on misinformation exercises, will become more accurate as RE scales up.

There’s another aspect in these asymetric area comparisons. While wind turbines are usially placed on farm lands, where their footprints only occupy 2% of the field with the rest of the field still available for farming, or even at see, far from the coast, and land based solar plants usually placed on low value remote grasslands, nuclear power plants need a location with direct access to large amounts of water, which means precious land along coasts and river banks.

Counting the area within say 1 km from all coasts and river banks, it represents the tiny fraction of land area that has always been the most attractive to civilisation.

True, nuclear reactors can be air cooled through closed loop cooling systems, that doesn’t require direct access to a large boby of water, but it adds both area and a great amount of costs to an already too costly technology.

Corey, I also work, and am committed to, renewable energy. I do not argue with any of your thoughtful comments except your conclusion that nuclear should be a part of a solution in Queensland to the mess that the excessive influence of the extractive industries have had over state and national governments’ policies have put us in. Their answer, after generating the existential problem and lobbying to delay potential solutions, is that they are the solution. Extract more gas, coal, oil, uranium, whatever. Re nuclear, they offer more (publicly subsidised) uranium mining and also a global waste dump ( Both involve digging big holes and alienation of vast land areas, even in the unlikely event that they will not generate a local Three Mile Island or Chernobyl or Fukashima, and Australia is very good at digging big holes and also at riding rough-shod over whoever or whatever was there before, continually “falling short of our values” as a routine business model ( to access more sites for more holes.

Whenever I fly (yes, fair-cop, in kerosene-fuelled aircraft) I try to observe the roof-scapes of the cities I am departing or arriving at. Your excellent company does on-ground PV “solar farms” and I applaud you for that, but I cannot help noticing that our our nations’ roofs are still mostly just keeping the rain out and, especially for the dark residential roofs beloved of the construction industry, overheating the buildings beneath.

Australia still has vast opportunities for rooftop PV generation that avoid land alienation altogether. The lures, as I expect you already know, are avoidance of transmission losses and cheaply offsetting daytime (business hours) urban loads and the fact that rooftop generation competes with retail purchases when used in the same building. There are outstanding unsolved issues for using many of our roofs (split incentives between landlords and tenants, multi-occupancy benefits sharing, etc) but I contend that these problems pale before those arising from the nightmare scenarios of a meltdown at St Lucia, although the Brisbane River will likely be too dry and/or too warm for reactor cooling anyway (,-This%20article%20is&text=The%20French%20energy%20supplier%20EDF,water%20to%20cool%20the%20plants.), thanks to the extractive industries’ assault on the global climate. The same risk applies to Lake Burley Griffin, in case the risk is supposed to be offloaded to a national “facility”. Will the waste dump be at St Lucia too or will an indigenous community outside Brisbane be assigned the role of dealing with that long-term unsolved problem? Will the people hosting the facilities be willing to share the terror of the Ukranian people in being threatened by a vulnerable bomb in their midst ( How will UQ prevent the blindingly obvious path from civilian nuclear power to nuclear weapons (including “dirty bombs” that has been easily exploited by multiple countries and very probably by at least one more in the very near future?

In any case, the old saying that nuclear power is 20 years in the future remains true (but even that never-never ignores the actual site selection, community consultation (maybe the St Lucia residents will embrace it and the impact on their real estate value??) and construction, construction delays, cost overruns, contract disputes, etc. And, we need to remember, all the fuss is for a pie-in-sky possible, maybe, buy-before-you-try potential SMF silver bullet that might happen in a rolling 20 years into the future. Since the extractive industries have convinced governments to delay action for decades, we no longer have time to dream of future silver bullets (in any case, we need all the silver for PV cell contacts).

(I also acknowledge, in case of rebuttal, that renewable energy technologies rely on extractive industries too (eg. quartz for silicon, low-iron sand for glass, bauxite for aluminium frames, silver for contacts, etc. but contend that Chernobyl is much worse.).

Please keep your good work in PV. We need that and you and your colleagues (in PV, wind, solar thermal, hydro-power, geothermal, ocean energy, waste-to-biofuels, energy efficiency) to achieve more and more renewables on either side of “the meter” in grids and off-grid too. I don’t think there are any silver bullets to avoid the hard work and compromises forced on us by the extractors and their lobbyists but we have real, actually available, and continually improving, technologies with which we can minimise the damage we will do to the world in the future.

Silicon PV and nuclear power were both brought to commercial reality in the mid-twentieth century but PV has a longer history (Becquerel, E. (1841). Sur les rayonnment chimique qui accompagne la lumière, et sur les effets électriques qui en resultent. Comptes Rendus des Séances de l’Académie des Sciences XIII, 198-202.) of developments and false starts. Note that its failures and mistakes have not blighted vast regions or led to deliberate radioactive pollution of the globe’s biggest ocean (,Fukushima%3A%20Japan%20insists%20release%20of%201.3m,of%20%27treated%27%20water%20is%20safe&text=Almost%2012%20years%20have%20passed,along%20its%20north%2Deast%20coast.)

Nuclear power, despite the vast public investment it has consumed, has missed the boat, if there was ever going to be a boat to accept such a risky cargo. If low-density Queensland, bathed in renewable energy resources, cannot support itself without importing nuclear power stations, the outlook for the future of humanity is bleak.

Hi Corey – You say 1MW Solar require 2-3 ha, which is likely correct. So in 2021 Australia had 19 GW solar, or ~475 km2, to cover more than 10% of Australias demand, you’ld need 4750 km2 to cover all demand in 2021, perhaps even 7-8000 km2 by 2050.

That’s 0.1% of Australias land area, if all energy should be generated by solar. Combined with wind, it requires much less.

Please help me to understand how less than 0.1% is “locking up of unmeasurable hectares of land”?

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