Energy Minister Chris Bowen (file image)
Chris Bowen says transitioning to nuclear energy in Australia makes no sense. Image by Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS
  • politics

Energy debate explodes over nuclear transition costs

September 18, 2023

A debate has erupted over the price tag of nuclear power, with the energy minister criticised for weaponising the eye-watering sums.

Chris Bowen on Monday pounced on forecasts suggesting switching from coal to nuclear power would cost $387 billion.

The price tag was based on needing at least 71 small modular reactors to retire the coal fleet, with Opposition Leader Peter Dutton refusing to accept the projected cost.

Mr Dutton said the minister had his head in the sand when it came to nuclear power.

“I wouldn’t take anything he says as credible,” the Liberal leader told reporters in Melbourne.

“He’s been embarrassed by the attempt today to discredit nuclear.

“I’ve not seen somebody more incompetent than Chris Bowen in recent years.”

Mr Bowen fired back, laughing at the opposition for using Canada as an example of a nuclear power success story.

The coalition suggested 60 per cent of Canada’s power was sourced from nuclear, but the government said it was closer to 15 per cent.

“Energy Canada points out the reason why Canada has cheap power prices by international comparisons is because they have so much renewable hydro,” Mr Bowen told reporters in Canberra.

“Nuclear is the wrong fit for Australia … it’s not a flexible source like gas you can turn up and down, it’s not cheap and it’s not on the time frame.”

Australian Energy Council CEO Sarah McNamara said along with the financial, technological and legal hurdles presented by nuclear, the country faced a social licence issue.

“Australian communities are fearful of what nuclear energy might mean … that’s an unfortunate fact of life,” she said.

“From a technical perspective, there may be a time in the future where nuclear would be a good addition to our energy mix but it’s hard to see in the short term.”

Other experts said it was difficult to estimate the cost of transitioning to nuclear.

“It’s a bit like if you see something on a website that looks like a nice thing to buy, then you find out ‘Well, we actually haven’t made it yet’,” the Grattan Institute’s Tony Wood told Sky News.

Greens leader Adam Bandt said the nuclear discussion was a distraction from the urgent need to end coal and gas.

“The battle lines are clear – the Liberals are for nuclear, Labor is for more coal and gas and the Greens are for clean renewables,” he said.

“We should not allow ourselves to be distracted by Peter Dutton’s push for nuclear when Labor keeps opening new coal and gas projects in the middle of a climate crisis.”