NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro’s nuclear falsehoods

Correcting the nuclear falsehoods of NSW Deputy Premier and Nationals leader John Barilaro. Mr. Barilaro has been repeatedly provided with factual information so there is no excuse for his ignorance.

March 2020

Contact: Jim Green, FoE Australia national nuclear campaigner, jim.green@foe.org.au

Mr. Barilaro: Nuclear power is “probably the cheapest cost to the average Australian household”.


* Nationals Senator Matt Canavan acknowledges that nuclear power is “very expensive”.

* Industry insiders and lobbyists freely acknowledge that nuclear power is suffering from an economic crisis that could prove to be terminal.

* Nuclear power is in decline worldwide and a growing number of countries are phasing out nuclear power including Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Belgium, Taiwan and South Korea.

* Laws banning nuclear power have saved Australia from the huge costs associated with failed and failing reactor projects in Europe and North America, such as the twin-reactor project in South Carolina that was abandoned in 2017 after the expenditure of at least A$13.4 billion, bankrupting Westinghouse. That expensive fiasco could so easily have been replicated in NSW if not for the prudent legal ban.

* There are many other examples of shocking nuclear costs and cost overruns, including:

‒ The cost of the two reactors under construction in the US state of Georgia has doubled and now stands at A$20.4‒22.6 billion per reactor.

‒ The cost of the only reactor under construction in France has nearly quadrupled and now stands at A$20.0 billion. It is 10 years behind schedule.

‒ The cost of the only reactor under construction in Finland has nearly quadrupled and now stands at A$17.7 billion. It is 10 years behind schedule.

‒ The cost of the four reactors under construction in the United Arab Emirates has increased from A$7.5 billion per reactor to A$10‒12 billion per reactor.

‒ The cost of the only two reactors under construction in the UK has increased to A$25.9 billion per reactor. A decade ago, the estimated cost was just A$4 billion. The UK National Audit Office estimates that taxpayer subsidies for the project will amount to A$58 billion.

Mr. Barilaro: “As I write this piece, a further 50 nuclear reactors are being built globally (450 reactors currently operate in 31 counties) including in Finland, France, the UK, China and Canada.”


* The number of power reactors under construction has fallen steadily from 68 in 2013 to 49 as of Feb. 2020.

* As noted above, reactors under construction in Finland, France and the UK have been subject to catastrophic cost overruns.

* There has only been one reactor construction start in China in the past three years. The number of reactors under construction in China has fallen from 20 in 2017 to 10 now. Renewables generate twice as much electricity in China as nuclear power.

* No reactors are being built in Canada.

Mr. Barilaro on small modular reactors (SMRs): “Given their size and efficiency, their waste is minimal (new advancements in technology continues to address the waste issue)”.


* SMRs would produce more nuclear waste per unit of energy produced compared to large reactors.

* A 2016 European Commission document states: “Due to the loss of economies of scale, the decommissioning and waste management unit costs of SMR will probably be higher than those of a large reactor (some analyses state that between two and three times higher).”

* Mr. Barilaro’s “new advancements” (‘Generation IV’ concepts) have failed spectacularly and have clearly worsened nuclear waste management problems (see p.42-43 of our joint submission to the NSW inquiry).

Mr. Barilaro: “The compact nature of SMRs means they need close to only 5 per cent of the nuclear fuel required for large conventional reactors.”

Fact: As the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission report noted: “SMRs have lower thermal efficiency than large reactors, which generally translates to higher fuel consumption and spent fuel volumes over the life of a reactor.”

Mr. Barilaro: SMRs are “becoming very affordable”.


* Every independent economic assessment finds that electricity from SMRs will be more expensive than that from large reactors.

* SMRs will inevitably suffer from diseconomies of scale: a 250 MW SMR will generate 25% as much power as a 1,000 MW reactor  but it will require more than 25% of the material inputs and staffing, and a number of other costs including waste management and decommissioning will be proportionally higher.

* A December 2019 report by CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator concluded that wind and solar power, including two to six hours of storage, is two to three times cheaper than power from small reactors per unit of energy produced. Nuclear lobbyists dispute the construction costs that underpin this estimate but, in fact, they are a neat fit with real-world construction costs (as opposed to self-serving industry speculation). Indeed the CSIRO/AEMO estimate is lower than the average cost of small-reactor projects in China, Russia and Argentina.

* SMRs in China, Russia and Argentina are, respectively, 2, 4 and 23 times over-budget. None could be described as “very affordable”.

Mr. Barilaro: SMRs “are now on the horizon”.


* A handful of SMRs are under construction (half of them to power fossil fuel mining operations in the Arctic, the South China Sea and elsewhere).

* Private sector investment has been pitiful and the main game is to find governments reckless enough to bet billions of taxpayer dollars on high-risk projects. SMRs under construction are all being built by government agencies.

* The prevailing scepticism is evident in a 2017 Lloyd’s Register report based on the insights of almost 600 professionals and experts from utilities, distributors, operators and equipment manufacturers. They predict that SMRs have a “low likelihood of eventual take-up, and will have a minimal impact when they do arrive”.

* Likewise, a 2014 report produced by Nuclear Energy Insider, drawing on interviews with more than 50 “leading specialists and decision makers”, noted a “pervasive sense of pessimism” regarding SMRs.

Mr. Barilaro: SMRs are “not as water hungry as traditional nuclear power plants, because they use air or sand to cool the core.”


* SMRs will likely use as much water per unit of energy produced compared to large reactors ‒ possibly more due to lower thermal efficiencies. Nuclear power, large or small, is incredibly thirsty: a typical large reactor consumes 35‒65 million litres of water per day. Gas cooling creates its own set of problems and inefficiencies, leading to higher costs ‒ that is why a very large majority of reactors are water-cooled.

* Sand to cool a reactor core? Perhaps he means sodium ‒ which has caused a number of fires in fast neutron reactors. Sand has only been used as a desperate measure in the event of major accidents, e.g. Chernobyl.

Mr. Barilaro: “We want to see investment in renewables but we know it’s not giving us the baseload.”

Fact: Some renewables provide baseload (e.g. hydro, bioenergy, geothermal) and intermittent renewables coupled to storage are effectively baseload. (Our supplementary submission to the NSW inquiry lists relevant literature.)

Mr. Barilaro: Nuclear power has “zero emissions”

Fact: The claim is false.

Mr. Barilaro: “The vast majority of us are not aware of the technological changes the industry has gone through for the past 45 years.”

* The ‘advanced’ nuclear power sector is dystopian because of its contribution to carbon emissions, troublesome nuclear waste legacies, and weapons proliferation.

* The ‘advanced’ nuclear power sector isn’t advancing. Many ‘advanced’ reactor projects are promoted ‒ there are lists of them, even lists of lists ‒ but meaningful funding, from governments and industry alike, is lacking.

Mr. Barilaro: “Last year, I attended and spoke at a global seminar in the US on the next generation of nuclear energy systems”.


* Not everything said at nuclear industry conferences turns out to be true!

* Westinghouse said in 2006 that it could build an AP1000 reactor for as little as A$2 billion but the actual cost of AP1000 reactors under construction in the US state of Georgia is 10 times higher.

* EDF said it could build an EPR reactor in the UK for A$4 billion but the cost of the two EPR reactors now under construction in the UK is A$25.9 billion per reactor, a more than six-fold increase.

Mr. Barilaro: “While Australia’s future energy issues continue to go round in circles, the world is moving forward.”


* Nuclear power is in decline worldwide and continues its downhill slide from its historic peak of 17.6% of global electricity generation in 1996 to 10.1% now.

* Renewable electricity generation has doubled over the past decade and now accounts for over 26% of global electricity generation.

Mr. Barilaro: SMRs “can be buried to withstand almost any physical or natural disaster.”


* SMRs will be subject to the same risks as large reactors.

* Burying reactors below-grade would add a new set of problems as identified by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

“Potential fire and explosion hazards: below-grade facilities present unique challenges, such as smoke/fire behavior; life safety; design and operation of the HVAC [heating, ventilating, and air conditioning] system and removal of waste water.

“Potential flooding hazards: below-grade reactors and subsystems raise concerns with regard to hurricane storm surges, tsunami run-up and water infiltration into structures.

“Limited access for conducting inspections of pressure vessels and components that are crucial for containing radiation, such as welds, steam generators, bolted connections and valves.”

Mr. Barilaro: “Rolls-Royce is currently leading a consortium to build SMRs and install them in former nuclear sites in the United Kingdom. The company plans to build between 10 and 15 of these stations by 2029.”


* Rolls-Royce sharply reduced its small-reactor investment to “a handful of salaries” in 2018 and is threatening to abandon its R&D altogether unless the British government agrees to an outrageous set of demands and subsidies.

* There are disturbing connections between small reactor projects and nuclear weapons proliferation. Rolls-Royce provides one example: part of the company’s sales pitch to the British government includes the argument that a civil small-reactor industry in the UK “would relieve the Ministry of Defence of the burden of developing and retaining skills and capability” for its weapons program.

Mr. Barilaro: SMRs “can be mass-produced in an off-site factory, shipped to locations, and then assembled.”

Fact: No SMRs are being produced in an off-site factory. No such factories are being built.

Mr. Barilaro: “If we can mine uranium, we can embrace nuclear as tomorrow’s solution to deal with the climate change crisis of today.”


* Uranium’s contribution to Australia’s economy is negligible (0.2% of export revenue, 0.01% of employment).

* NSW has no economic uranium deposits as the NSW Parliamentary inquiry acknowledged.

* A 2018 analysis by Australian economist Prof. John Quiggin concludes that it would be “virtually impossible” to get a nuclear power reactor operating in Australia before 2040. More years would elapse before nuclear power has generated as much as energy as was expended in the construction of the reactor. Thus it would be a quarter-century or more before nuclear power could even begin to reduce greenhouse emissions in Australia (and then only assuming that nuclear power displaced fossil fuels).

Mr. Barilaro: “This is going to test those who claim to be focusing and worried about the climate change emergency. If it is an emergency we need urgent and immediate actions. … Small modular reactors will provide exactly that.”


* SMRs are at an early developmental stage. They are not a short-term proposition.

* In 2019, the Climate Council ‒ comprising Australia’s leading climate scientists ‒ issued a policy statement concluding that nuclear power plants “are not appropriate for Australia – and probably never will be”. The statement continued: “Nuclear power stations are highly controversial, can’t be built under existing law in any Australian state or territory, are a more expensive source of power than renewable energy, and present significant challenges in terms of the storage and transport of nuclear waste, and use of water”.

Premier must stand up to Barilaro on nuclear power

Sydney Morning Herald editorial, 11 March 2020

Deputy Premier John Barilaro has issued another ultimatum to the NSW government, this time over his obsession with starting a nuclear industry, but it is high time Premier Gladys Berejiklian called his bluff. Mr Barilaro is demanding that cabinet endorse a report by an upper house parliamentary committee backed by One Nation which recommends lifting the ban on uranium mining and nuclear power generation that has been in place since 1986. If cabinet refuses, he is threatening that he and perhaps the whole National Party will go their own way and vote in favour of a bill to that effect. The Herald reported on Monday that some cabinet ministers who oppose nuclear power are threatening to respond by quitting if Ms Berejiklian caves in.

The question of whether NSW can or should develop a nuclear industry is complicated. In theory, mining uranium could earn money and nuclear power generation could help reduce emissions. In fact, both face huge practical problems.

Of course, the Northern Territory and South Australia already mine uranium. But there is little reason for NSW to follow them now because, quite apart from concerns over waste storage, safety and proliferation, the business case is very weak. As the upper house report says, the state does not have any proven commercial deposits of uranium and, since the Fukushima disaster in Japan, the global market for uranium has been depressed. The conservative government in Western Australia ended its ban on uranium mining in 2010 but no new mines have opened.

Similarly, the prospects are also poor for nuclear power generation here any time soon. Nuclear reactors are very expensive and would take decades to build. By most reckonings, they cannot compete on cost with renewables – backed up by battery storage – or pumped hydro. Private companies will not build them without subsidies from taxpayers.

Given those practical issues, it is hard to understand why Mr Barilaro has joined One Nation’s crusade for nuclear power. Cynics would argue that his main goal is shielding the coal industry by delaying other more immediate and practical forms of action to reduce carbon emissions. And for Mr Barilaro, it might be a political winner. He might steal One Nation’s thunder and win the support of older regional voters and radio shock jocks who have a vendetta against those they see as renewables-loving green hippies.

But Mr Barilaro’s nuclear adventure risks doing damage to the government including a repeat of what happened to the Howard government in 2007 when it campaigned on nuclear power. The ALP pointed out that because plants require enormous amounts of water, they would have to be located on the coast. That went down like a lead balloon with voters and that was before Fukushima.

With a two-seat majority, Ms Berejiklian is more than usually dependent on her Coalition partner. Over the past year, Mr Barilaro has been able to extract some questionable concessions from her on water policy and regional jobs in the energy sector.

But she must not allow policy on such an important issue to be driven by a minority of Nationals MPs and the whims of One Nation backbenchers. As Premier, it should be Ms Berejiklian who sets the priorities of the state’s energy policy.

This is a good chance for Ms Berejiklian to stamp her authority on the government. Mr Barilaro has backed down in the past. He knows how much he and his party need to be in government. His bark is often worse than his bite.