The Nuclear White Elephant

Events in August–September 2021 put the prospect of a commercial nuclear-power industry in Australia back on the agenda (again), so it seems time to discuss why the current apolitical framing of the nuclear option is political chicanery.

After the sixth assessment report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned of dire climate consequences the longer Australia stalls (9 August 2021), and Australia entered into a trilateral security arrangement with the United States and United Kingdom that included buying nuclear submarines (16 September 2021), nuclear power re-entered political consideration under the guise of technological neutrality and national security.

The Liberals responded to the AR6 by saying the challenges of climate change must be tackled by technological not political solutions. Their technology roadmap is a love affair with technical fixes. The Nationals went both further and nowhere by calling for the removal of the ‘nonsensical prohibition’ on nuclear power and also demanding someone (other than the sitting government) come up with a costing plan for zero emissions. Despite Prime Minister Scott Morrison denying that the nuclear-submarine deal signalled an intention to acquire a civilian nuclear industry, the Minerals Council of Australia suggested that supporting nuclear submarines requires a domestic nuclear industry.

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four the Newspeak term for the Ministry of Truth was ‘Minitrue’. Doctoring truth relied on the doublethink of knowing but not knowing, of being conscious of truth but telling carefully crafted minitrues. The idea that technology (and national security) are above politics is a minitrue, crafting a path for nuclear energy to enter Australian political-economic discourse without anyone in power being responsible or accountable for its introduction.

Even those disillusioned about the state of modern politics, bedevilled as it is by post-truth gaslighting and neoliberal values, should reject an apolitical framing of nuclear power. Instead, we should interrogate the political vision squirrelled away in the political choice to advocate nuclear power for Australia. Certainly, when we see right-wing politicians and commentators in Australia on the nuclear bandwagon, it seems little more than a culture war to wedge the political Left, creating a fight over technological feasibility to mask the lack of an actual energy policy. Moreover, the long lead time of nuclear reactors benefits the coal industry, which can secure the private advantage of arguing for prolonging coal-fired power plants while plans are made (to plan for) nuclear power. 

Yet to the extent nuclear power remains wedded to an image of centralised power pumped to dumb, passive consumers, political engagement, not political cynicism, is needed to combat a politics of inflexible policy sclerosis and occluded citizens.

Inflexibility might seem an inappropriate metaphor, given the Coalition technology roadmap and lobby groups like the Minerals Council of Australia advocate small modular reactors (SMR), not big reactors. Large-scale—more than 750 megawatts electric (MWe)—centralised, baseload-power nuclear reactors have earned the ‘inflexible’ tag: they have historically been poor at ramping (adjusting their output to market needs), and thus are a brake on significant shares of wind and solar in any electrical grid. SMRs are defined as sub-300MWe fission reactors, designed for either serial construction (emulating a large plant) or as sub-15MWe reactors for remote communities.

Setting aside that SMRs are estimated to cost five to ten times more per kilowatt hour than renewables and their viability is built on rhetorical fantasies, actual flexibility is replaced by potential capacity in nuclear visions of electrical grids. The Australian Nuclear Association defines ‘nuclear reliability’ as ‘operat[ing] at capacity factors in excess of 90%, well-suited to meeting continuous base-load demand at gigawatt scale’. This imagery is camped in the 1950s, when nuclear power was the prototype of the ‘abundant energy machine’: ‘cheap energy supplies delivered by large-scale centralised institutions in a manner responsive to the demands of high-consumption society’.

By contrast, the Australian Electricity Market Operator (AEMO) champions ‘resilience’ , defined as ‘the ability of the system to limit the extent, severity, and duration of system degradation following an extreme event’.

The GenCost reports produced by AEMO and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) (CSIRO) find SMRs too costly and fragile. GenCost 2018 found large nuclear facilities infeasible for Australia because the excessive redundancy needed to cover outages failed the resilience criterion. GenCost 2020–21 declared SMRs too ‘immature’ and the costs too ‘fraught’ to bother costing them before 2030.

But it is the political connotations of energy scenarios containing SMRs that AEMO/CSIRO have come to criticise the most. Within the ‘diverse technology scenario’ in which nuclear SMRs are envisioned as playing a role, GenCost 2018 and GenCost 2019–20 envision nuclear SMRs playing a ‘modest’ role and only if artificial limits are placed on renewables. By GenCost 2020–21 the diverse technology scenario is said to capture:

a world where most developed countries are striving for net zero emissions by 2050 but others are lagging such that global net zero emissions is reached by 2070.  Furthermore, there is lack of social, technical and political support for variable renewable electricity generation and subsequently a greater role for other technologies.

Painting SMRs as technologically neutral masks a political choice to interrupt any social movement toward renewables. Any semblance that citizens are imagined as choosing agents is subsumed by the idea that citizens are passive recipients of reactor outputs. But the future electricity consumer will be a prosumer, consuming and producing energy: the former in tailored ways via smart-meter technology and demand-reduction (efficiency) measures, and the latter in creative ways via a host of grid-integration technologies and applications.

The King of Siam (Thailand) traditionally gifted white elephants to those who displeased him. The white elephant was considered sacred, could not be put to work, and required expensive care. To be gifted a white elephant is to be saddled with a useless, impractical burden that threatens financial ruin. Nuclear power is the white elephant of the modern age.

Nuclear Promises, by Tilman Ruff

Tilman Ruff, Oct 2019

Back on the political agenda in Australia, but for what benefit?

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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