Australian Opposition Pledges to Build 7 Nuclear Power Plants by 2050

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton says the next election will be a vote on whether the country embraces nuclear energy.
Australian Opposition Pledges to Build 7 Nuclear Power Plants by 2050
Leader of the Opposition Peter Dutton is seen during a Q&A at the Australian Financial Review Business Summit, in Sydney, Australia on March 12, 2024. (AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi)
Daniel Y. Teng

The federal opposition says it plans to build seven nuclear reactors across Australia, in an announcement on June 19.

The Liberal-National Coalition revealed that current, retiring coal-fired power stations would be repurposed for nuclear facilities.

They include Loy Yang Power Station in Victoria’s Gippsland area, Callide and Tarong in Queensland, Port Augusta in South Australia, Collie in West Australia, as well as Mount Piper in Lithgow and Liddell in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales.

All these sites are currently privately owned, and will be acquired by the government and placed under the control of a Commonwealth corporation, akin to how the National Broadband Network and Snowy Hydro companies operate.

The Coalition says it will first develop two projects, either the AP1000 developed by Westinghouse, or a larger plant, the APR1400 developed by Korea Electric Power Corporation by 2035-2037.

A full roll-out is to occur in the 2040s, prior to the 2050 net zero target.

“We know the [Labor] government has a renewables-only policy which is not fit for purpose,” Opposition Leader Peter Dutton told reporters.

“No other country in the world can keep the lights on 24/7 with the renewables-only policy. We need to ensure hospitals can stay on 24/7, we need to ensure that cold rooms can stay on 24/7, we need to make sure that our economy could function 24/7 and we can only do that with a strong baseload power,” he said.

“We want to utilise existing assets that we have got, and the poles and wires that are used at a moment on the coal-fired power station sites can be utilised to distribute the energy generated from the latest generation nuclear reactors.”

A general view of the Loy Yang power plants in Traralgon, Australia, on Aug. 17, 2022. (Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)
A general view of the Loy Yang power plants in Traralgon, Australia, on Aug. 17, 2022. (Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

However, the Coalition was unable to provide a detailed cost analysis of the project with Mr. Dutton saying it would “cost a fraction” of the government’s net zero policy, which is slated to exceed $1 trillion ($US667 billion), including the building of new transmission infrastructure, wind turbines, solar panels, and battery storage.

“We will have more to say in relation to the cost in due course and as you know we’ve done this in a step-by-step process,” Mr. Dutton said.

He also took aim at investors who have an interest in renewable energy companies, and said they would likely push hard against his party’s policy.

Further, the opposition leader pointed to overseas experience saying countries with nuclear power enjoyed lower energy prices, and that it would be easier to transition coal-fired power plant workers into nuclear facilities.

For nuclear, the main difference to existing coal-fired power stations is how water is heated to generate steam that in turn, spins turbines that create electricity for use.

Most employees working downstream of the heat generation stage can transition to a nuclear power site.

Liddell power station in the Hunter Valley region of New South Wales, Australia on Apr. 22, 2018. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)
Liddell power station in the Hunter Valley region of New South Wales, Australia on Apr. 22, 2018. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

The Response From the Government and Industry

The announcement was met with staunch criticism from the Labor government.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese called it a “fantasy.”

“It'll be a taxpayer funded nuclear fantasy,” he told ABC radio. “Here in Australia, we have the best solar resources in the world.

“This makes no economic sense, as well as leaving us in a position of energy insecurity because of the time that it will take to roll out a nuclear reactor.”

Climate Minister Chris Bowen continued his line of criticism against nuclear calling it the “most expensive form of energy.”

“To date, we’ve seen no costs, no gigawatts, no detail. This is a joke but it’s a serious joke because it threatens our transition,” he told reporters.

State leaders, who preside over proposed nuclear power sites, have been slow to give their endorsement.

“What we’ve heard this morning from Peter Dutton is not a plan. What it is, is an absolute fantasy. We know that renewable energy delivers the cheapest form of new electricity that you can build in this country,” Victoria’s Energy Minister Lily D’Ambrosio told reporters.

She also said she had yet to be consulted by the opposition on the adequacy of the site.

Mr. Dutton has said those consultations will come.

NSW Premier Chris Minns was more moderated in his comments.

“There’s a few questions about whether this is a fantasy or a pipe dream or it’s a legitimate energy policy,” he told ABC.

“We’ve got a prohibition on nuclear power in the state—my government’s not going to waive that, my understanding is that the Queensland opposition and government won’t waive it either.”

Meanwhile, Origin Energy CEO Frank Calabria said there would be several challenges to work through.

“They are all considerations because I don’t think we can see it being scalable for many years, probably well into the next decade,” he told a business conference in Sydney.

“So it’s not a decision that I think we can make immediately in order to achieve our goals today.”

Meanwhile, the Minerals Council of Australia has endorsed Mr. Dutton’s policy.

“It provides a crucial pathway for Australia’s industries to reduce emissions cost-effectively while maintaining access to reliable baseload power,” CEO Tania Constable said.

“A technology-neutral approach to energy solutions is necessary to tackle the substantial challenge of decarbonising the economy while maintaining its competitiveness and productivity,” she said.

Some Argue Nuclear Better for the Environment

Eco-modernist and author Michael Shellenberger has argued that renewable energy sources actually cost more as they scale up.

In a speech last year at the ARC Conference, he said the value of wind turbine energy dropped 40 percent when it reached 30 percent of an electricity grid’s mix.

Solar’s value declined 50 percent when it reached 15 percent of a grid.

“The more renewable you have, the higher the cost of your electricity,” he argued, saying the cost of transmission lines, storage, and re-engineering gas plants would grow.

Mr. Shellenberger also said organisations often undervalued the price of solar panels because they were produced in China, where panel production has been linked to Uyghur slave labour.

Just a few weeks ago, the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) and scientific research body, the CSIRO, estimated in its GenCost report 2023-24 that renewables would still result in cheaper energy compared to nuclear.

The report estimated costs to be between $83/MWh and $120/MWh in 2030, if they account for 80 percent of variable generation.

In contrast, the report states that if small modular nuclear reactors (SMR) were up and running in Australia by 2030 the cost of their power would be up to $382 MWh.

Daniel Y. Teng is based in Brisbane, Australia. He focuses on national affairs including federal politics, COVID-19 response, and Australia-China relations. Got a tip? Contact him at [email protected].