Nuclear power stations are not appropriate for Australia – and never will be

10.05.24 By

The prospect of nuclear power in Australia has been a topic of public debate since the 1950s. While Australia has never had a nuclear power station, we do have 33% of the world’s uranium deposits and we are the world’s third largest producer of it. Periodically, as with the changing of the seasons, various individuals appear in the media singing the virtues of nuclear energy – claiming it is the only option for clean and reliable electricity in Australia.

In fact, over one third of Australia’s electricity is already powered by renewables, and new initiatives like the Capacity Investment Scheme are set to push us towards 82% renewable energy by the end of this decade. While the move to clean energy is still not happening fast enough, it is underway and starting to speed up. We do not need distractions like nuclear to derail our progress now, so let’s set the record straight.

GIF of Homer Simpson juggling nuclear

Why doesn’t nuclear power make sense for Australia?

1. Nuclear power stations take too long to build.

A nuclear power station has never been built in Australia. As a result, we are not at the starting line for a nuclear energy industry. In fact, before we get there, laws and regulations would need to be set at state and federal levels, billions in funding would need to be secured and a large and highly skilled workforce would need to be trained.

The nuclear industry’s own analysis shows power stations take an average of 9.4 years to build — and, with no domestic nuclear industry experience, Australia’s first nuclear power station will almost certainly take much longer. In contrast, major wind and solar projects take between 1-3 years to build.

Australia’s coal-fired power stations need to be replaced as soon as possible so that we can slash climate pollution this decade and avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis. We can’t wait years and years for our first nuclear power station. We don’t have the time — quite simply, later is too late.

2. Nuclear power stations are extremely expensive.

Independent experts agree: nuclear energy is prohibitively expensive for Australia. The Australian Energy Market Operator’s Integrated Systems Plan — the blueprint for future development of Australia’s energy grid — finds clean energy paired with storage, like batteries and hydro, is the cheapest and quickest way to replace our old and unreliable coal-fired power stations.

Australia’s independent science information agency, CSIRO, has found solar and wind are by far the cheapest ways to produce electricity (even when storage is factored in), whereas nuclear is the most expensive option for Australia.

3. Nuclear power poses significant community, environmental, health and economic risks.

Radiation from major nuclear disasters, such as Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011, have impacted hundreds of thousands of people and contaminated vast areas that take decades to clean up. Even when a nuclear power station operates as intended, it creates a long-term and prohibitively expensive legacy of site remediation, fuel processing and radioactive waste storage.

4. Nuclear power is not renewable, and it is not safe.

Uranium is a finite resource just like coal, oil and gas. It needs to be mined and, just like mining coal, oil and gas, this carries serious safety concerns, including contaminating the environment with radioactive dust, radon gas, water-borne toxins, and increased levels of background radiation. On the other hand, energy generated from the sun and wind releases no pollutants into the air and is overwhelmingly considered to be safe. 

There you have it: nuclear power is expensive, dangerous and decades away from powering our homes and businesses. It makes no sense. On the other hand, energy from the sun and wind is cheap, abundant, safe and available now. So, let’s get on with building more renewable energy!

What is a nuclear power station?

Nuclear power stations run on uranium. When a uranium atom is split inside a reactor, heat and radiation is produced. This process is called nuclear fission. The heat produced from this process is used to create steam from water. The steam drives a turbine that powers a generator. The generator creates electricity.

Unlike coal and gas, no greenhouse gas pollution is created in the operation of the nuclear reactor. However, all other steps involved in producing nuclear power – from mining, to construction, decommissioning and waste management – result in greenhouse gas pollution.
Small modular reactors are nuclear reactors with a ‘small’ capacity of 300 megawatts or less and ‘modular’ in the way reactor components are produced. Based upon these definitions, no small nuclear reactors have ever been built.

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Case Study 1: Hinkley Nuclear Power Station, United Kingdom

When this project was first being promoted, the CEO of EDF, the majority owner of the Hinkley Power Station, predicted that the nuclear power station could be switched on in 2017. It is currently slated to open in 2031, almost a decade and a half late.

Around the same time, the UK Government priced the project at 4 billion UK pounds. It is now expected to cost between £35 and £46 billion pounds. 

These enormous cost overruns have even created tension between the UK and French governments, with the political leaders in both countries disagreeing over who is responsible for covering billions in additional costs.

Case Study 2: NuScale Power, United States of America

Rising project costs forced the only company to have secured regulatory approval in the US for a Small Modular Reactor to cancel its first project

When it launched in 2020, NuScale’s Idaho-based project was expected to cost $3.6 billion US dollars and produce 720 megawatts of electricity. Just three years later, in 2023, the project cost had blown out to $9.3 billion US dollars while capacity had reduced to 496 megawatts. 

At the time the project was cancelled, NuScale had attracted just 20% of the customers it needed to deliver the project.

Meeting the climate challenge means taking bold and decisive action this decade with the technologies that are ready to go in Australia today. The significant limitations nuclear energy faces means that there is no real prospect of it playing a role in reducing Australia’s emissions.

Need more information?

If you are looking for another source of trusted information on nuclear energy, we recommend reading the latest explainer from Australia’s independent science-based information agency, CSIRO.