NSW Productivity Commission Has “Lost The Plot” On Nuclear Power

Nuclear power and the NSW Productivity Commission

The Electrical Trades Union has weighed in on the New South Wales Productivity Commission’s recommendation to lift the ban on nuclear electricity generation for small modular reactors.

The recommendation was one of many contained in the Commission’s 371-page “Rebooting the economy” whitepaper released last week.

What’s A Small Modular Reactor?

A small modular reactor, or SMR, as the name suggests is much smaller than a conventional reactor and for the most part built in a factory in modules to be shipped to a site where it will be put together and operate. While SMRs may be cheaper than their full-scale kin on a project basis, they won’t be cheaper per megawatt capacity – and new nuclear power is very expensive as is.

While acknowledging a “wide degree of uncertainty” about future price paths for small-scale nuclear reactors, the Commission states:

“New South Wales should not support ongoing prohibition of potential sources of firming capacity. It should, instead, seek lifting of the ban on nuclear energy generation, subject to safety concerns being addressed.”

SMR = Vaporware

But it’s not just “future price paths” where there is a great deal of uncertainty; there’s also the issue of viability.

Small modular reactors operating as terrestrial power stations are vaporware at this point; they do not exist. The Commission notes a U.S. company expects to have its first small modular reactor operating by 2026. “Expecting” gives wiggle room for that to not happen and it’s not unreasonable to assume it won’t given the challenges the SMR technology faces, including the renewables juggernaut.

ETU: Nuclear Power “Not The Answer”

With renewables and storage rapidly evolving and their cost continuing to plummet, it sounds a bit nutty to be even considering SMRs – and the Electrical Trades Union agrees.

“The Productivity Commission has lost the plot if it thinks small modular reactors, a technology that has been ‘just around the corner’ since the 1970’s but still doesn’t exist, is the answer to NSW’s productivity growth,” said ETU National and NSW Secretary, Allen Hicks. “Even if someone finally manages to build one that works, the electricity price forecast for their output is six times more expensive than renewables.”

The Commission notes low-cost renewables pose an additional risk to the economics of large reactors, but doesn’t seem to tweak to the fact they pose the same threat to SMRs.

NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet has already stated the government “will consider everything” in the report.

Mr. Hicks’ advice:

“Boosting the economy, providing more jobs, and dealing with climate change are big problems, but nuclear power is not the answer.”

But something that wins the trifecta are renewables such as wind and solar power along with supporting technologies.

The 70,000-member strong Electrical Trades Union says it has a  long history of opposing uranium mining and the nuclear power industry, and has had a ban on members working in both sectors since 1945. You can learn more about the ETU’s stance on its “No Future For Nuclear” website.

About Michael Bloch

Michael caught the solar power bug after purchasing components to cobble together a small off-grid PV system in 2008. He's been reporting on Australian and international solar energy news ever since.

Comments

  1. Geoff Miell says

    Michael Bloch,
    You state:

    “The Commission notes a U.S. company expects to have its first small modular reactor operating by 2026.”

    I’d suggest the NSW Productivity Commission seems to be relying on highly optimistic US company propaganda and wishful thinking.

    Per the GreenTechMedia Oct 2020 article headlined: “NuScale Faces Questions on Nuclear Reactor Safety and Financing Its First Project”, it includes:

    “This could prove problematic for NuScale’s first project, the 12-reactor Carbon Free Power Project (CFPP) in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Over the past two years, the project has seen expected costs double from $3 billion to $6.1 billion and its completion date moved from 2026 to 2030, putting pressure on parent company Fluor Corp. to keep further cost increases in check and secure financial backers for the project.”
    https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/nuscale-faces-questions-over-nuclear-reactor-safety-path-to-financing-first-project

    Why bother when renewables + storage technologies have already won the energy technology race (i.e. much cheaper, much faster to deploy, cleaner, and lower risks, compared with nuclear fission technologies that are all NON-RENEWABLE and unsustainable in the longer-term)?
    https://global100restrategygroup.org/

  2. Michael John Little says

    How about your base your statements about Nuclear on Science and not on your emotional prejudices that maybe belies ignorance on one’s part…?

    The European Union have been making the same assessment as to the safety of Nuclear Energy [‘do no significant harm’ criteria..], and the Joint Research Centre (JRC) found it did not…

    https://t.co/DpKJNeGMsV?amp=1

    Is your solution that same as proposed by the well known anti-nuclear activist who proposes we should all return to using candle-light [ !]….

    https://t.co/roTNi3OHsq?amp=1

    I would suggest be better informed and open to all solution that solves that energy challenges that we face.. rather than showing one is being led by emotive, ill informed statements that have no basis in fact, nor science except serving one’s agenda for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt….

    In fact, Bill Gates new SMR allows the back up of solar energy to molten salt so that energy can be dispatch when required..
    https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/utility-small-nuclear-reactor-firm-select-wyoming-next-us-site-2021-06-02/

    Isn’t that a win for all of us?

    • graham3196 says

      I dont understand how an SMR uses molten salt as a backup or why? Or does the SMR melt salt as a backup for renewable energy? Neither seems to be correct.
      There seems to be no doubt that renewables can provide all the electricity we need for the medium term future, say 50 years. By then we will have fusion if you believe the spruikers of that process.

      I would feel a lot safer with a large nuclear reactor 300 km away from population centres than a SMR in the basement. A once in a 100 years accident is a lot worse with any nuclear reactor than a PV panel or even a wind turbine.

      There still a few questions.
      What fuel do SMRs operate on?
      How do we get rid of waste?
      How difficult is it for a customer to modify it to produce military grade material?

    • Geoff Miell says

      Michael John Little,
      Where is the “win for all of us” with nuclear energy when nuclear fission technologies are much more expensive and getting more expensive, compared with renewables + storage, which are still getting cheaper?
      See the graph titled “The price of electricity from new power plants” at: https://ourworldindata.org/cheap-renewables-growth
      Also see Lazard: https://www.lazard.com/perspective/levelized-cost-of-energy-and-levelized-cost-of-storage-2020/
      Also AEMo/CSIRO’s GenCost 2019-20: https://aemo.com.au/-/media/files/stakeholder_consultation/consultations/nem-consultations/2019/2020-inputs-and-assumptions/prelimresultswebinar_final.pdf?la=en

      Your reference to “Bill Gates new SMR” does not yet physically exist and apparently won’t be until well beyond 2030, as a “demonstration plant” (per the article you link to). Humanity cannot afford to wait that long to deal with getting our GHG emissions down fast before 2030 – see Table 1 in: https://esd.copernicus.org/articles/12/253/2021/

      Where is the “win for all of us” with nuclear energy when it takes much longer (i.e. 10+ years, and usually more for the TOTAL project duration) to deploy compared with renewables?
      See Fig 8 in the IAEA’s document at: https://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/Publications/PDF/Pub1537_web.pdf
      Median construction times indicated for nuclear power plants do not include the substantial times needed for planning, design, and procurement that is usually hidden ‘behind closed doors’ – see: https://www.statista.com/statistics/712841/median-construction-time-for-reactors-since-1981/

      Where is the “win for all of us” with nuclear energy when it relies on FINITE fissile nuclear fuels that are inadequate to sustain a so-called ‘nuclear renaissance’ for the longer-term? Nuclear fuels will only get more energy-intensive (and therefore more monetarily expensive) to obtain.
      See my comment at: https://www.solarquotes.com.au/blog/victoria-ev-tax-mb1967/#comment-1075075

      Where are the proven long-term solutions to deal with high-level nuclear waste?

      How do more nuclear fission plants reduce the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation and terrorist attacks? I’d suggest they don’t.

      The affordable, timely, safe, reliable energy solutions are already available without the need for unproven promises of new nuclear technologies on the never-never.
      https://global100restrategygroup.org/

      Michael, rather than accusing others of “ignorance” and “being led by emotive, ill informed statements”, perhaps you could provide compelling evidence/data/analyses to support what you are trying to argue?

  3. There are several Small Modular Reactor technologies under development in the US. Some use light water, which is the technology used in the 440 operating nuclear plants around the world and the ~60 under construction. Light water nuclear power provides ~20% of the electricity in the US and more than 60% of the amount that is carbon-free. Nuclear power provides more than 60% of the electricity in the Canadian province of Ontario. NuScale Power, a light water SMR technology that I helped launch in 2008, has received approval for its design from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and is proceeding through the process for regulatory approval in Canada. NuScale’s technology would be an excellent fit for Australia. If one cares about carbon reduction, nuclear energy needs to be in the mix. Wind and solar are terrific but they operate on average between 19% and ~25% of the time. In the US, nuclear plants run 90%+ and for the most part the only time there not producing electricity is when they are shutdown for refueling.

  4. Ian Thompson says

    Hi Michael B

    SMR=Vaporware? China might not agree with this comment of yours.

    Their High Temperature Gas-cooled Pebble Bed Gen IV demonstration SMReactors are installed on site, have completed their cold functional testing, and are well into their Hot Functional Testing phase – they completed their vacuum dehumidification, and heating and dehumidification stages at the end of last year – with the reactor loop temperature stabilised at 250 deg C, and helium pressure at 7MPa for the reactor pair – with the final stage now commenced. They have had fuel delivered to site, and expect to go online this year. This is a FOAK design, and was delayed as a result of Fukishima impact – construction started 8.5 years ago.

    https://world-nuclear-news.org/Articles/Hot-functional-testing-of-HTR-PM-reactors-starts

    Michael – this is real, solid, hardware – China is using these reactors with the primary purpose of rapidly reducing pollution from existing coal-fired steam plant – the reactors are replacing the coal-fired boiler function. Of course, they are also pursuing wind and PV. To put this into perspective, the HTR-PM pair are designed to produce 210 MWe – with a peak output very similar to WA’s new Yandin 214 MW wind farm, but a annual energy output of about twice as much or more (66+% more than Hornsdale’s 316MW wind farm) – without the need for a big battery either.

    18 further HTR-PM units are proposed for the Shidaowan site, and China proposes a scaled up HTR-PM600 version consisting of 6 HTR-PM units in parallel. As the containment vessels and other parts were factory-built, I would suspect these future builds will go much faster.

    Hardly ‘Vaporware’.

    These are of GenIV design – with intrinsic safety (the nuclear reaction automatically stops as temperature rises, before the containment parts are put at risk of over-temperature) – the fuel design makes unauthorised recovery of weapons-grade material (proliferation) difficult if not impossible.

    In my opinion, Michael – China are going to ‘wipe-the-floor’ with us.

    I’m guessing much of the World will eventually go to Fast Neutron Reactors of GenIV SMR design – these have the added advantage of being able to use nuclear waste from existing reactors as a fuel, and burning that fuel down to eliminate actinides – which are the long-lived isotopes that we need most worry about. They also ‘burn’ uranium vastly more efficiently than conventional designs. The World has had 400 reactor-years of operating experience for FNRs – so many know what they are talking about.
    https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/current-and-future-generation/fast-neutron-reactors.aspx
    I CANNOT believe so many countries are continuing with nuclear, if their is no future for this technology. Geoffrey Miell’s ‘they are to slow’ is a red herring – wind turbines and PV panels do wear out eventually, and down the track decisions will be made to replace them like-for-like, together with their batteries, or replace them with alternative technologies.
    I believe we would be foolish not to become involved again.

    • Geoff Miell says

      Ian Thompson,
      You state: “I CANNOT believe so many countries are continuing with nuclear, if their is no future for this technology.”

      I’d suggest it’s about having the option to access sufficient quantities of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. Even if the initial intent is only for peaceful purposes, a regime/policy change can make diverting fissile materials from nuclear power plants for military purposes so much easier. A nuclear power reactor core contains enough fissile materials, with further reprocessing/enrichment, to produce quite a few nuclear weapons. Where there’s a will, there will be a way!

      You state: “Geoffrey Miell’s ‘they are to slow’ is a red herring…”

      The first demonstration modular high-temperature reactor (HTR) in China, called the HTR-10, (modelled on the German HTR-MODUL) began construction in 2005 and first gained criticality in Dec 2000 and operated at full power in Jan 2003.

      The HTR-10 led to the HTR-PM, an industrial scale demonstration power plant with modular HTRs, a proposal by INET in 2001 and subsequently approved by the central government in 2006 as one of the sixteen National Science and Technology Major Projects (NSTMPs). The first concrete of the HTR-PM was poured on 9 Dec 2012, and the civil work of the reactor building was completed on 30 Jun 2015.
      https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S246860502100003X

      My observations:
      1. Its taken circa 15 years so far to get from initial approval for the HTR-PM to initial commissioning hot tests, and yet it’s still not fully operational – IMO, MUCH TOO SLOW;
      2. The HTR-PM is a “demonstration power plant” that still hasn’t yet DEMONSTRATED it works entirely as claimed;
      3. There’s no indication of costs – good luck with getting accurate costs from China;
      4. The primary cooling circuit coolant is helium – see: https://oilprice.com/Energy/Energy-General/A-Global-Helium-Shortage-Is-Now-Looming.html
      5. It doesn’t solve the finite nuclear fuel supply situation;
      6. It doesn’t solve the ultra-long-term storage of high-level nuclear waste.

      The evidence I see indicates new nuclear technologies cannot save us.

      Nuclear reactors wear out eventually and need to be decommissioned. Decommissioning costs are expensive and not included in LCOE analyses.

      Meanwhile, on Jun 7, the International Military Council on Climate and Security published its report titled “The World Climate and Security Report 2021”, which warns of the compound security threats posed by the convergence of climate change with other global risks, such as COVID-19. The report reveals that the increasing pace and intensity of climate hazards will strain military and security services around the world as they are called on to respond to climate-driven crises, while also facing direct climate threats to their own infrastructure and readiness.
      https://imccs.org/the-world-climate-and-security-report-2021/

  5. Ian Thompson says

    Yes Geoffrey – you appear to not understand the concepts behind the GenIV protocol types of nuclear reactors, and especially Fast Neutron Reactor (FNR) operational characteristics (400 reactor-years of experience in this industry).

    1. Many proposed SMRs are of FNR type. FNRs burn up waste from existing conventional reactors – thereby REDUCING the existing stockpiles to vastly smaller volumes. This of itself provides a considerable source of fuel. Also, they can burn up the very long-lived actinide isotopes, leaving only a small volume of vastly shorter half-life waste left (100 years, instead of thousands of years). I think, therefore, your ‘ultra-long-term storage of high-level nuclear waste’ statement is overstated, or inaccurate, or is primarily based on misplaced fear. Finland appears to have an answer, anyway.
    2. A typical conventional reactor producing 1 GWe (3 GWth) will convert 1.051 kg of matter to energy (E=mc^2), and displace about 3,200,000 tonnes of coal per annum. https://www.nuclear-power.net/nuclear-power-plant/nuclear-fuel/fuel-consumption-of-conventional-reactor/ , although to do this will consume just over 1 tonne of fissile material, or 25 tonnes of enriched uranium. This is the OLD technology.
    3. FNRs use uranium at about 60 times the efficiency of conventional reactors – therefore will only use about 1.7% as much of our fuel resources, as conventional nuclear is doing. Fast breeder reactors can actually ‘make’ fuel, from U-238, rather than having to be fed enriched U-235. Natural uranium is composed of only 0.7% U-235, the other 99.3% being mostly U-238 which a fast breeder reactor can convert and consume. Uranium is available in seawater. I think your concerns about running out of fuel are well overstated – you appear locked into an old mind-set.
    4. Yes, too slow for immediate application – and I support both wind and solar and hydro for at least our immediately urgent, and likely ongoing requirements – but I feel nuclear and other low-CO2 sources can be ultimately deployed together as circumstances may dictate (nuclear ‘firming’ intermittents, if our sources of Li become problematic, for example). There is no reason I can see, that they need to be considered in any way mutually exclusive. I retain some concern that we may not yet understand possible ‘further effects’ of massive deployment of intermittent sources of energy (e.g. wind turbines slow wind speed by their very means of recovering energy – effectively creating a localised climate change; solar panels create localised ‘hot spots’ due to reducing the local albedo – also creating a localised climate change), and therefore feel we should entertain some ‘Plan B’ just in case we should get caught out down the track. New SMRs may make vast cost reductions – or may not – only work to find out will provide an answer. I’d rather have a solution in the fullness of time, than ignore an obvious means to reduce CO2 emissions in the future if needs be. http://www.neimagazine.com/opinion/opinionnuclear-rivalling-renewables-8403077/ Immediate timing is not the issue you make out.
    5. One of the whole thrusts of GenIV protocols, is to make proliferation a non-issue. New encapsulated fuel systems can make it impractical to recover plutonium for weapons use, by design I feel your fear-mongering is therefore greatly overstated, or harbours a superseded mind-set.
    6. Another thrust is to make sure designs are intrinsically safe – using passive cooling, and integrated physical chemistry shut-down characteristics, etc. New SMRs will be NOTHING like Chernobyl (which was primarily focussed on making plutonium), nor Fukashima.
    6. I had included a link elsewhere – the Rolls Royce consortium IS planning to fully include decommissioning costs within their unit costs.
    7. Someone once said ‘follow the money’ http://www.neimagazine.com/news/newsbarclays-report-says-nuclear-is-essential-for-decarbonisation-8803261

    In my opinion – your vision may prove more than a little myopic – even though we MUST deal with CO2 right now, there is no reason why we should not allow for other, new, developments in time (tidal power, wave power, geothermal, reflective sails in space, whatever!) – and nuclear, right now, IS providing a significant contribution to reducing CO2 emissions world-wide – surely there can be room to allow it to flourish, if it can, to be available down-the-track to supplement our future, increasing, energy demands, if and when it can be made available or is needed.

    Your final comments seem to imply that all countries with existing old conventional technology (able to provide weapons-grade nuclear materials), should be prevented from upgrading to non-proliferating new technology, in the face of increasing military threats stimulated by climate change. And, Australia should have neither the benefit of the newer technologies, not the means to defend itself (not that I ascribe to the nuclear deterrent). Logic here seems a bit ‘wonky’.

    BTW – the HTR-PM demonstration project was heavily based on the earlier HTR-10 prototype design – construction of which was started in 1995, and which DID operate online at full power for a 72 hour test objective in early 2003 – and I understand it’s status is presently operational. Other plans for the HTR-PM is co-generation, and even the manufacture of hydrogen.
    The HTR-10 proved the concept, the HTR-PM is about to demonstrate it and will likely be the very first GenIV reactor put into service in the world. China has indigenous nuclear design capabilities (e.g. Gen III ACPR-1000, et al), and follow strict International safety protocols – makes me feel Australia has only just migrated from living in caves…

    • Geoff Miell says

      Ian Thompson,
      I don’t care about “the concepts behind the GenIV protocol types of nuclear reactors”. I’m interested in:

      1. Can these nuclear technologies be deployed AND fully operational within the next few years at large-scale? The evidence I see indicates NO; THEY CANNOT – far, FAR TOO SLOW to provide any meaningful contribution to rapidly reduce GHG emissions by 2030;

      2. Are nuclear technologies economically competitive with other low/zero GHG emissions technologies? The evidence I see indicates NO; THEY ARE NOT.
      https://independentaustralia.net/environment/environment-display/nuclear-power-is-a-stalking-horse-for-gas,15174

      Ian, you are apparently relying on unproven technologies that don’t yet (if ever will) exist:
      • **PROPOSED** “SMRs are of FNR type”;
      • Extraction of uranium from seawater at large-scale.

      IMO, so-called “non-proliferating new technology” is meaningless. Possession of fissile materials, in whatever form, with effort and purpose, can be reconstituted and repurposed for military uses. Without possession of fissile materials, it’s impossible to produce nuclear weapons.

      The overwhelming evidence I see indicates the combustion of all coal and gas globally needs to cease by 2030 – the sooner the better. Combustion of all petroleum oil/fuels globally needs to cease well before 2040 – the sooner the better. If we/humanity don’t achieve this there is a high probability that human civilisation will collapse later this century due to an increasingly more hostile planet Earth for humanity.

      Key points that I see revealed by Sir David King, Founder and Chair of the Centre for Climate Repair, University of Cambridge, in the Vimeo video (see link below) include:

      • There is NO CARBON BUDGET REMAINING for a safe climate for humanity;

      • Three stages are required to mitigate the climate emergency:
      o Deep and rapid decarbonization of civilisation ASAP – no more new fossil fuel developments AND a rapid phase-out of utilisation of ALL existing fossil fuel infrastructure;
      o ‘Negative emissions’ or atmospheric carbon drawdown to get CO2 levels back to 350 ppm – Mauna Loa Observatory readings in May 2021 were nudging/breaching 420 ppm – see: https://keelingcurve.ucsd.edu/
      The combined influence of all GHGs in the Earth’s atmosphere reached the CO2-equivalent of 500 ppm in 2019 – see: https://gml.noaa.gov/aggi/
      o Maintain arctic summer sea ice cover.

      • “What we, humanity, do in the next 4 to 5 years will determine the future of humanity for the next few thousand years” – Sir David King

      IMO, EXISTING operational nuclear plants do help to contribute lower GHG emission energy, but for any NEW nuclear fission energy technologies, the overwhelming evidence indicates they are undeniably far, FAR TOO SLOW to provide any additional meaningful contribution. Existing and new nuclear technologies have NOT ever demonstrated that they can be deployed, at large-scale, within the REQUIRED timeframe to mitigate catastrophic climate change.

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