RN Breakfast 05/08/2019

August 05, 2019


SUBJECT: Nuclear power
PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Morrison Government is ordering a Senate Inquiry into the feasibility of nuclear power in this country. Energy Minister Angus Taylor says the inquiry will look into the economic, environmental and safety implications of lifting the moratorium on atomic energy as a source of baseload power. The inquiry coincides with the United States flagging deployment of intermediate missiles in Darwin, after Donald Trump pulled the US out of a nuclear arms treaty with Russia. Mark Butler is the Shadow Energy Minister and he joins us from Adelaide this morning, good morning.
KARVELAS: Angus Taylor says he has an open mind about nuclear power as an industry in Australia. Why don’t you and the rest of the Labor Party?
BUTLER: Well I think this is just an ideological flight of fancy by Angus Taylor, while the country continues to suffer the worst energy crisis we’ve seen since the mid-1970s. We’ve seen gas prices triple, up to yesterday wholesale power prices, electricity prices, were up 158 per cent on average across the electricity market since 2015. So focusing on something that was practical, that could be done in the short to medium term I think would be something we expect from the Government, not this flight of fancy to appease the hard-right of the Liberal party room.
KARVELAS: All right. There was some polling in June that found that 44 per cent of Australians support nuclear power, 40 per cent oppose it. Now it is close, but a majority are in favour according to that polling. Doesn’t that suggest that the community could be open to nuclear power and energy powering their homes and offices?
BUTLER: There was some small community support, but the problem is that it’s not a practical idea for Australia. I mean, it would be at least a couple of decades before we would be able to get nuclear power stations operating here in Australia. We are one of the few OECD nations that essentially doesn’t have a nuclear industry here, and we know from the experience from every other developed country that the power from those stations, even if communities accept them in their backyards or at least in quarries in Jervis Bay, would be about three times as expensive as compared to renewable energy. We’ve seen that for example with the only new power station being built in the UK in a generation, power there is going to be about $200 a MWh, compared to $70 a MWh for renewable energy which is available 24/7 here in Australia.
KARVELAS:  Okay, so to be clear, you accept that maybe the community may be at least growing in its support for it, but you’re saying that your opposition is just that it’s uneconomic?
BUTLER: It’s a flight of fancy, we don’t have an industry here and it takes at least a couple of decades to get it up and running, so it does nothing to do with what we’ve invested in here. So instead of these ideological flights of fancy, I don’t know why Angus Taylor doesn’t simply respond to calls, for example by the New South Wales Liberal Government, to recognise that they made a mistake last year and bring the National Energy Guarantee back to the table, which would make a difference in the next couple of years, not in decades.
KARVELAS: All right, but nuclear power can provide baseload energy, and it has close to zero carbon emissions. Doesn’t that make it a cleaner alternative than dirty fossil fuels such as coal and gas, and more reliable than some of the old coal-fired power stations that repeatedly break down during periods of high demand obviously in summer?
BUTLER: Well the problem is that those coal-fired power stations are breaking down now, they’re not breaking down in two decades time. If the country had decided 20 years ago that this was going to be a transition out of coal towards nuclear, then maybe the timing would favour it. I still don’t think that the community would call for that, as it would be so expensive for the whole of the manufacturing industry. 
KARVELAS: We are having trouble with your line at the moment Mr Butler, let’s see if we can get it a bit clearer. Just on that issue though, you do accept that this is a cleaner alternative than fossil fuels that our country relies on? Just on that issue though, you do accept that this is a cleaner alternative than fossil fuels that our country relies on?

BUTLER:  Well, obviously I think experience around the world has shown that nuclear power stations have some unique risks associated with them but, from a carbon point of view, they are cleaner. The problem though, is that they are just not practical. We have coal-fired power stations that are coming to the end of their life now, not in 20 years’ time. So we need investment policy from the national government that allows new kit to be built now, not in 20 years’ time. That is not what we are getting from the Federal Government that’s had 15 energy policies now since 2015.

KARVELAS: But it is cleaner though, isn’t it?
BUTLER:  Well, there are less carbon emissions but there are a whole range of other risks and it is phenomenally expensive. This new power station that is being built in the UK, which is a brownfield site that replaces an existing power station, is going to cost about $36 billion AUD. I mean, they are phenomenally expensive things and I know also, if you were to go down this track other investments by the Government such as Snowy Hydro would be unviable as well. So you can’t have your cake and eat it in this industry.

KARVELAS: You say nuclear energy is dangerous, as you have been arguing. But there are about 450 nuclear reactors operating in 30 countries, they generate around 11 per cent of the world’s electricity. If it is so dangerous, how do you explain the rapid take up of nuclear?    

BUTLER:   Well, there’s no rapid take up, you’ll struggle to find a developed country that has built a nuclear power station in the last 20 years. As I’ve said, the UK is going ahead with one now, but the costs of it are blowing out dramatically. That would be the first nuclear power station built there for a generation. Other developed countries are phasing them out, industrially developed countries are facing enormous coast blow outs (inaudible).  So, I don’t accept that there is a rapid take up. And, I would just make the point, again, you can’t go from 0 to 100kph with nuclear in Australia. This would take 20 years to build. We don’t have 20 years to replace our energy generation infrastructure.  
KARVELAS: All right let’s just move to another issue. You say that the inquiry is a sign that the extreme right of the Liberal Party is still dictating the Government’s energy policy. It would only take an amendment to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act for the moratorium to be lifted. Now Labor and Greens would oppose, meaning it would essentially come down to the crossbench. Cory Bernardi is in favour, Jacqui Lambie has flagged her support, Centre Alliance says it doesn’t have a closed mind on the question. Could nuclear power be another example of what Anthony Albanese was talking about last week when he said Labor would often be powerless to stop the Government in the Senate? 

BUTLER: Well I think if you talked to the industry, not that the nuclear industry really exists here in Australia, but if you talked to any industry with these sort of investment dollars, the only way they’re going to do that is if there’s a bipartisan support for creation of nuclear power. I’ve not seen a very strong level of community acceptance and I just don’t think that you’re going to get that. This is not a new debate here in South Australia. The Royal Commission into the nuclear fuel cycle only two or three years ago explored this issue among many others and also concluded that this is not a practical option for Australia. Leaving aside people’s views about nuclear from a political perspective, it’s just not practical. So let’s focus on practical solutions to the worst energy crisis this country has seen since the 1970s rather than these ideological fights with them.

KARVELAS: Last week Donald Trump pulled the US out of the nuclear treaty with Russia. That’s cleared the way for America to deploy warheads in Asia. Now the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is not ruling out basing mid-range missiles in Darwin. If the government approves such a deployment on Australian soil would it have the support of Labor?
BUTLER: Well this, as I understand it, emerged from a media interview by the Secretary of Defence Mark Esper to an email which was the subject of some discussion between both the American domestic ministers and also Anthony Albanese and senior Shadow Ministers from Labor had discussions with the American (inaudible) so I’m not going to go into discussions (call cuts out).

KARVELAS: Mark Butler are you still with us? I think we’re having some trouble with that line from Mark Butler. That’s Mark Butler, Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy and apologies for that line, it was obviously losing it really towards the end there, it was very difficult to hear Mark Butler just at the end of that interview.