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AGAINST – Matters of Urgency — Nuclear Energy

Glenn Sterle

The Senate will now consider the proposal from Senator Duniam. The President has received the following letter, dated 2 July 2024, from Senator Duniam:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I give notice that today I propose to move "That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

The need for the Albanese Government to drop its ideological opposition to nuclear energy and agree with other left of centre political parties across the world, such as UK Labour leader Keir Starmer who describes zero emissions nuclear energy as "critical" to lower household energy bills, create jobs and energy security."

Is consideration of the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

With the concurrence of the Senate, the Clerks will set the clock in line with the informal arrangements made by the whips.

Jonathon Duniam

I move:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

The need for the Albanese Government to drop its ideological opposition to nuclear energy and agree with other left of centre political parties across the world, such as UK Labour leader Keir Starmer who describes zero emissions nuclear energy as "critical" to lower household energy bills, create jobs and energy security.

The motion, just to remind the chamber, is a very important one about a very important issue, and that is, of course, the intransigence, based on nothing other than ideology, around this energy debate we're having in this nation. Our motion calls on the Albanese Labor government to drop its ideological opposition to nuclear energy in this country and to agree with left-of-centre parties in other countries that are adopting this approach to energy generation for two reasons. The first one is the most important one, which we'll spend most of our time talking about today, and that is the cost of energy. The second one is the Holy Grail that has often been talked about, and that is the pursuit of net zero. Chief amongst those centre-left political parties pursuing nuclear as a form of energy generation that will assist in achieving both of those goals is the UK Labour Party, set to romp it in in the polls not too long from now.

To that end, I remind anyone who happens to be unfortunate enough to be caught listening to this debate that 97 times before the last election a promise was made to Australian households that energy prices would drop by $275 per household per year by the year 2025. Since that promise was made, energy prices have gone up, on average across the country, by about $1,000 per household. If you add those two numbers together, we're about $1,275 away from where we should be based on that promise, which rather does put into perspective and paint as very insignificant what the government has done, as opposed to what it promised. So it is a fail on that count, and it's not just a political failure. It is a failure that is hurting Australian households and businesses. The reason we are in this situation is that this government has put all of its eggs in one basket when it comes to energy generation, and that is because it is a pursuit of renewables at the expense of any other form of energy generation.

Before we have the howls—or the calls, rather—that we are anti renewables, the fact is that we believe renewables are an important part of the mix—the mix, because renewables, when it comes to wind and solar, are only an intermittent source of energy. It is not baseload. It is not dispatchable. It is not there to flick on with the flick of a switch. It is, unfortunately, something that only operates when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. So this policy approach being taken by this government, to pursue renewables with dispatchable baseload energy generation coming offline—90 per cent of it by the year 2034—is a recipe for disaster. The proof is in the power prices Australian households are paying now and in the blackouts and gas shortages that energy market operators and other experts are predicting will occur. The proof is there.

We're behind our target when it comes to emissions reduction, despite this ideological pursuit of an emissions reduction target and transitioning to renewables completely. We're not meeting our promises when it comes to power price reductions, yet we won't change the plan. The government will not change course and will not adopt any different policy when it comes to how we deal with these problems. Why are we being so bloody minded about this? I do not understand. Why do we not say yes to something instead of just saying no? If it's not working, why wouldn't you try something new? And I look forward to hearing whoever the first Labor speaker is in this debate as to what justification there could possibly be to continue doing what isn't working. As I said before, it's got nothing to do with political failure, as embarrassing as that might be—and you will be judged on election day against the promises you made. But the fact is, Australian households are hurting.

So, instead of doing anything different, this government is doubling down and ignoring what other leaders, who are going to romp it in across the world, are doing. You only have to listen to what Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition, the Labour Party, in the UK said. He said, 'My government will lower household energy bills, create jobs and ensure Britain's energy security.' Nuclear is a critical part of the UK's energy mix, and it's a once-in-a-generation opportunity now to seize the jobs of the future. Why this government refuses to heed the call of other labour leaders around the world and adopt a solution that they're currently blindly ruling out is a mystery to me and to all Australians. (Time expired)

Varun Ghosh

Well, what's a mystery to all Australians are the details of the coalition's plan. I spoke on a misconceived urgency motion about this last week and raised questions about the missing details in the coalition's nuclear mud map, and none of those details have been revealed since. What are the type and size of the nuclear reactors to be used? How many reactors will there be at each site? How much radioactive waste will be produced? Where will the waste be stored? How much will it cost? How much time will it take? And will local communities have a real say about whether they have to live next to one of these reactors? Those questions need to be answered urgently, but they have not been.

Rather than bringing these vague and performative urgency motions to the Senate, the Liberal Party should urgently work out the details of its policy and urgently reveal these to the Australian people. Months on, they have no detail in their plan. Last time I spoke about the cost of nuclear energy and the Lazard L eveli z ed_ _C ost of Energy analysis, which says that nuclear energy is between three and six times more expensive than renewable options.

We could also talk about time. In the absence of the details referred to earlier, it is difficult to know when any Australian nuclear power plant would be able to be brought online. There are estimates being provided, but they are necessarily speculative. In circumstances where Australia has no substantial nuclear power production industry, there are legislative impediments to this plan at a state and federal level. Significantly more expertise in nuclear energy production will be needed, and there is already a shortage of people, materials and expertise around the country. Any estimates currently in the public debate may be quite far wrong. Indeed, there is reason to believe, logically, that this is going to take quite a bit longer.

But I want to talk about economic feasibility as well. Again, in the absence of details, it is impossible to be precise. Mr Dutton initially speculated that the plan would use small modular nuclear reactors. There's no detail on what reactors are going to be used, but small modular reactors are not currently in widespread commercial production. Where are the reactors coming from? Although they may have lower up-front capital costs, their economic uncompetitiveness or viability is neither established nor refuted. In the context of either smaller or larger nuclear reactors, how do they work in relation to existing power grids across the country?

Just today, Steve Edwell, who is the chair of the Economic Regulation Authority in Western Australia—that's the independent umpire tasked with keeping utility prices down in WA—observed that he struggled to see how nuclear would ever be cost competitive. He also observed that nuclear reactors were not designed to be turned on and turned off to match demand and thus would not work with existing renewables feeding into the Western Australian grid. So while my colleague opposite says this is designed to augment or supplement renewables, that's just not possible in the WA grid. So, there's a kind of furphy going on here.

To get nuclear into the grid, the coalition basically has two options. It either puts on hold existing renewable projects and hobbles existing renewable power options that are currently feeding into the grid, or it accepts that it's got nuclear power plants that are going to be severely underutilised, as they are in many of the examples that they and some colleagues opposite cited last week. How do they deal with underutilisation of nuclear power plants? The difficulty there is that, because these will be state owned nuclear power plants that the coalition has to pay for, you're effectively saddling Australia and the Australian taxpayer with uneconomic assets—assets that will become stranded in the short to medium term once they're brought online.

Put simply, this government has an alternative that involves commitment to renewable energy and using gas as a firming fuel in the interim. Since coming to office the Albanese government has seen a 25 per cent increase in renewable energy in Australian grids, has greenlit 50 Australian renewables projects which, when completed, will power three million Australian homes, or the equivalent, and continues to invest in battery and storage technology and infrastructure. The other point is: if long duration battery technology comes online, these nuclear power plants will not be economically viable, so either the Australian taxpayer pays through the energy bills or they pay because they've underwritten an uneconomic asset.

David Shoebridge

It's hard to know whether to laugh or cry when the coalition points to the UK as the example of cheap nuclear power. The Hinkley Point reactors would have to be the global test case for the economic insanity that is nuclear power. I think it's worthwhile remembering that, when the UK first decided to build this nuclear power station at Hinkley, the now former—very former!—CEO of the entity said in 2007 that the Hinckley project would be cooking Christmas turkeys in England by 2017 at a cost of nine billion pounds. Talking about turkeys—and the coalition are obviously keen for a bunch of Australian turkeys—what's the current cost of that same reactor? If you have a look at the current cost, it's coming in at more than A$90 billion—not nine billion pounds, but A$90 billion—and the only turkeys that are being cooked by that Hinkley reactor are the fools in government who thought that that nuclear power station would produce anything like reasonable power. It is extraordinary. Iin fact, it beggars belief that the coalition has had a look at Hinkley and looked at the UK nuclear industry and said, 'We want a bit of that!' You couldn't make this stuff up.

Talking about turkeys, whilst the coalition wants us to join the UK nuclear turkey hunt, the Labor government has gone really strangely quiet about their naval nuclear propulsion bill. Do you remember how it was really urgent that we had to get this new naval nuclear propulsion safety bill up? The Labor government suddenly wanted to go hot to trot on naval nuclear reactors. And, whilst the Labor Party jumped out with a bunch of weird memes against the coalition's nuclear strategy—do you remember the three-eyed fish?—maybe Labor was thinking about a three-eyed Port Adelaide kingfish or a three-eyed Fremantle redfish, because that's where Labor wants to put its nuclear reactors. Worse than that, that's where Labor wants to have toxic nuclear waste dumps. They've got legislation in parliament right now to put a toxic nuclear waste dump in Port Adelaide, to put another toxic nuclear waste dump on Garden Island, just off Fremantle. So, when Labor comes in here and says, 'Oh, nuclear is terrible,' they seem to have suddenly forgotten that Labor wants floating nuclear reactors—five or more in Port Adelaide and five or more in Fremantle. Maybe when they're talking about three-eyed fish, they're talking about themselves.

Long debate text truncated.


Date and time: 5:41 PM on 2024-07-02
Senator Pocock's vote: No
Total number of "aye" votes: 26
Total number of "no" votes: 31
Total number of abstentions: 19

Adapted from information made available by