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Australia’s Climate Minister Estimates the Cost of Transitioning to Nuclear Energy at $387 Billion

Australian Energy Minister Chris Bowen has renewed his criticism of nuclear energy following the release of a government analysis saying it will cost hundreds of billions of dollars to transition from coal to nuclear.

This comes as the Opposition continues its push for nuclear power to be included in Australia’s energy mix amid the country’s pursuit of net zero by 2050.

In an interview with ABC Radio, Mr. Bowen said Australia would need a large number of small modular reactors to replace all the existing coal-fired power plants.

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“The Opposition is proposing small modular reactors, which are 300 megawatts each, which means you need a lot of them to replace the retiring coal-fired power,” he said.

“And in fact, you need 71 of these reactors to replace the 21 gigawatts of coal-fired power we have in the system.

“It’s a unicorn and a fantasy, and somebody has to pay for it if they are really serious about this plan.”

The federal government’s analysis said it would cost the country $387 billion (US$243 billion) to build those nuclear reactors.

However, the Liberal-National Coalition energy spokesperson Ted O’Brien questioned the accuracy of the government’s estimate.

“The last time Australians saw Chris Bowen out there releasing a big number based on modelling, he was predicting a $275 reduction in power bill,” Mr. O’Brien told Nine radio.

“It doesn’t surprise me if Labor were to introduce nuclear energy into Australia, it would come with a whopping price because that’s what Labor does … the number itself doesn’t make any sense.”

Minister Says Small Modular Nuclear Reactors Unproven

As the energy minister elaborated on the cost of transitioning from coal to nuclear, he said the Opposition’s push for nuclear power was based on unproven technology.

“There are two small modular reactors in the world, one in Russia and one in China. Neither of them is operating commercially,” Mr. Bowen said.

“I mean, it is an unproven technology.”

The two reactors' cooling towers are in action at the Golfech nuclear power plant in southwestern France on Nov. 27, 2012. (Eric Cabanis/AFP/Getty Images)
The two reactors’ cooling towers are in action at the Golfech nuclear power plant in southwestern France on Nov. 27, 2012. (Eric Cabanis/AFP/Getty Images)

Mr. Bowen also stated that it would take a long time to build nuclear reactors while the urgent task of reducing carbon emissions remained.

“It is utterly bizarre that the Opposition is hanging its hat on these unproven technologies … I can’t think of a worse fit for Australia than nuclear power,” he said.

The minister’s remarks stood in stark contrast to what the Opposition recently said about nuclear energy.

During the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Sydney in July, Mr. O’Brien said 32 countries currently generated energy from nuclear and that China and Russia were ahead of Australia in the nuclear game.

“Small modular reactors already commercialised being sold in China,” he said.

Meanwhile, Greens national leader Adam Bandt alleged that the Opposition was trying to distract the country from ending coal and gas with the nuclear discussion.

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

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

Canadian Energy Minister Encourages Australia to Adopt Nuclear Energy

Mr. Bowen’s remarks come as a Canadian state energy minister pushed Australia to embrace nuclear energy.

In late August, Ontario Energy Minister Todd Smith rebutted Mr. Bowens’ claim that nuclear energy was expensive, citing his state’s situation.

“We’re producing our nuclear power for about … 9 or 10 cents a kWh in this province,” he said.

In comparison, analysis from a financial comparison website showed electricity prices were about 25 cents/kWh in Queensland and 28 cents/kWh in New South Wales.

Mr. Smith also dismissed concerns about the safety and affordability of small modular nuclear reactors, saying that nuclear had already proven itself as an effective and safe base-load power for the last 60 years.

“So it’s just a smaller, scaled-down version of what we’ve had working here in North America for a long time,” he said.

Daryl Vandenberg contributed to this article.

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