October 2021 — Friends of the Earth Australia has advised the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) that we intend to systematically expose all of the MCA’s nuclear misinformation until such time as the MCA chooses to stop promulgating nuclear misinformation. We will also pressure MCA member companies to stop the MCA promulgating nuclear misinformation or to withdraw their membership.
Small nuclear reactors, huge costs
Jim Green, RenewEconomy, 11 Oct 2021, https://reneweconomy.com.au/small-nuclear-reactors-huge-costs/
Even by the standards of the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), the new report published by the country’s most influential coal lobby on the subject of small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) is jiggery-pokery of the highest order.
Why would a mining industry body promote SMRs? After mining for some years — or at most decades — no company would want to take on the responsibility of decommissioning a nuclear reactor and managing high-level nuclear waste for millennia. No companies are cited in the report expressing interest in SMRs to power their mining operations.
Perhaps the MCA – which infamously provided the lump of coal for Scott Morrison to wave around in parliament – thinks that promoting nuclear power will slow the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, and believes that it is in the interests of some of its member companies to slow the transition.
If so, the timing of the report isn’t great, coming in the same week as the Business Council of Australia’s report which argues for a rapid, renewables-led decarbonisation, and Fortescue’s announcement that it plans to build the world’s largest green energy hydrogen manufacturing facility in Queensland.
Perhaps the MCA is doing the bidding of the (mostly foreign-owned) uranium mining companies operating in Australia? The MCA’s CEO Tania Constable said: “Australia should take advantage of growing international interest in nuclear energy and look to expand its already significant uranium sector.”
Perhaps … but there’s no evidence that the two companies mining uranium in Australia — BHP (Olympic Dam) and Heathgate Resources (Beverley Four Mile) — are lobbying for nuclear power. And Australia’s “already significant” uranium industry could hardly be more insignificant — it accounts for about 0.2 percent of Australia’s export revenue and about 0.01 percent of all jobs in Australia.
Bob Carr’s atomic bombshell
The MCA report also came in the same week as Bob Carr’s striking about-face on nuclear power. Having previously supported nuclear power, Carr wrote in The Australian: “In 2010 one enthusiast predicted within 10 years fourth-generation reactors and small modular reactors would be commonplace, including in Australia. None exists, here or abroad.”
The MCA report says SMRs are an “ideal fit” for Australia, citing their enhanced safety, lower cost than large-scale nuclear reactors or equivalent energy production methods, and lower waste production than current reactors.
It’s all nonsense. The safety claims don’t stack up. Nor do the claims about waste. Academic M.V. Ramana notes that “a smaller reactor, at least the water-cooled reactors that are most likely to be built earliest, will produce more, not less, nuclear waste per unit of electricity they generate because of lower efficiencies.” And 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).”
SMRs have a similar capacity to many existing coal and gas-fired power plants in Australia, the MCA report states, so would make an ideal replacement. Back to Bob Carr:
“Where is the shire council putting up its hand to host a nuclear power plant? Harder to find than a sponsor for a high-temperature toxic waste incinerator. Nobody in the Hunter Valley has urged nuclear for the Liddell site, even on the footprint of this coal-fired power plant scheduled to close. And not even invoking the prospect of a small modular reactor that 10 years back was the vanguard of the nuclear renaissance. About to be planted across the Indonesian archipelago and the rest of Asia, we were promised. Today they exist only on the Rolls-Royce drawing boards they have adorned since the 1970s.”
The MCA said in June 2020 that SMRs won’t find a market unless they can produce power at a cost of A$60-$80 per megawatt hour (MWh). That’s a big problem for enthusiasts because there’s no chance whatsoever that SMRs will produce power in that cost range.
An analysis by WSP / Parsons Brinckerhoff, prepared for the 2015/16 South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, estimated a cost of A$225 / MWh for a reactor based on the NuScale design, about three times higher than the MCA’s target range.
CSIRO estimates SMR power costs at A$258-338 / MWh in 2020 and A$129-336 / MWh in 2030.
Russia’s floating nuclear plant is said to be the only operational SMR in the world, although it doesn’t fit the ‘modular’ definition of serial factory production. A 2016 OECD Nuclear Energy Agency report said that electricity produced by the Russian floating plant is expected to cost about US$200 (A$273) / MWh, about four times higher than the target range cited by the MCA and more expensive than power from large reactors (US$129-198 / MWh). Completion of Russia’s floating plant was nine years behind schedule and construction costs increased six-fold.
Yet, despite a mountain of evidence that SMRs won’t come close to producing power in the A$60-80 / MWh range, the new MCA report asserts that “robust estimates” using “conservative assumptions” suggest that SMRs will produce power at a cost of A$64-77 / MWh by 2030.
One wonders who the MCA think they’re kidding.
The MCA report was written by Ben Heard, who recently closed his ‘Bright New World’ nuclear lobby website and now works with Frazer-Nash. Heard promotes Canadian SMR-wannabe Terrestrial Energy in the MCA report but does not disclose his role on the company’s advisory board. Heard also contributed two chapters on nuclear power to a 2020 book titled ‘An Australian nuclear industry: Starting with submarines’.
Follow-up correspondence with the MCA:
Dear Tania [Constable – MCA CEO), just to let you know as a courtesy that I’m going to do my best to publicly expose all of the MCA’s nuclear misinformation from now on. It’s been going on for too long. Also, you should make yourself aware of Ben Heard’s track record of promulgating nuclear nonsense and his consistent failure to declare relevant interests, e.g. last week’s MCA report promotes Terrestrial Energy but doesn’t disclose Heard’s position on the company’s advisory board. My initial response to last week’s MCA report is copied below.
regards, Jim Green / FoE
Dear Dr Green,
Thank you for your email of 11 October. I am surprised that you are so concerned about the MCA commissioning a piece of work that provides a serious look at small modular reactors in the Australian context. You may not agree with the report, but to claim the MCA has engaged in ‘nuclear misinformation’ is fundamentally incorrect.
MCA publications are based on leading-edge research and analysis. Dr Heard has produced a heavily referenced report including three pages of references and end notes. He is one of Australia’s leading authorities on nuclear energy. His engagement and relationships with a number of nuclear technology providers is a testament to that expertise.
The MCA has long advocated that Australia needs a technology driven and neutral approach to address climate change. Reaching net zero emissions by 2050 – which the MCA supports – poses a number of challenges. Having available all technologies capable of meeting that challenge is imperative, and this includes nuclear, CCS, renewables and storage, along with offsets for difficult-to-abate sectors.
I understand your long term opposition to nuclear power. However, a clear majority of Australians are open to a serious discussion about it. This should be based on clear-eyed assessments. As such, Small Modular Reactors in the Australian Context provides a timely contribution to that discussion.
Yours sincerely, Peter Kos / MCA
Dear Peter, clearly you haven’t read my response to Heard’s paper – copied below.
To pick just one point, you know as well as I do that this is laughable: “robust estimates” using “conservative assumptions” suggest that SMRs will produce power at a cost of A$64-77 MWh by 2030.
Please make sure that MCA CEO Tania Constable knows that I plan to public expose all of the MCA’s nuclear misinformation from now on.
I’ve put your pathetic response on the FoE website.
Jim Green / FoE
P.S. If the MCA is serious about climate change, why did you provide Coalition MPs with a lump of coal to wave around in Parliament?
Australia’s coal and nuclear lobbies have just recruited a new puppet
By Noel Wauchope, 25 January 2019
Newly-appointed Mining Council CEO Tania Constable has been championing nuclear power at a time when we should be discussing renewables, writes Noel Wauchope.
WHAT BAD TIMING. Only in dictatorships – Russia and China – is nuclear power thriving. In the Western world, it’s problematic due to costs and waste issues. As for coal, even China is working to phase it out.
In Australia, renewable energy is going ahead in leaps and bounds. Our coal-loving Liberal Coalition Government is so on the nose, they’ll be forgotten men within a few months.
But never mind, Australia’s fossil fuel and nuclear lobbies are on the propaganda trail and they’ve just recruited a new puppet, Tania Constable. Appointed as CEO of the Mining Council in July last year, Ms Constable’s first job is to mouth the standard pro-coal and nuclear platitudes. Here she goes …
A headline in the 22 January edition of The Daily Telegraph reads: ‘Heatwaves proof positive Australia needs nuclear’.
In the article, Constable says: “Energy costs are rising and renewables can’t meet all our needs but a new generation of clean reactors could.”
‘Heatwaves proof positive Australia needs nuclear’? No, Tania, proof positive that Australia needs solar air conditioners. She seems unaware of the fact that nuclear power is highly water intensive, and subject to shutdowns due to hot weather.
Ms Constable mourns that: “The influx of part-time power sources such as wind and solar which make it more difficult for older baseload power stations to operate will likely see the early closure of a number of them well before 2030.”
So, it’s renewable energy’s fault that coal is not doing well? She goes on to enthuse about “baseload” power — coal, of course. But that’s seen as a myth, nowdays, as reliable power is no longer synonymous with coal.
Now she gets to her main point – changing the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 – which happens to be due for review this year.
“The removal of four words — ‘a nuclear power plant’ — in Section 140A(1) (b) would allow nuclear industries to be considered for development in Australia.”
Ms Constable writes approvingly of nuclear power in countries around the world – not a mention of the financial problems of nuclear power development in UK and USA, and Japan, too. Not a mention of the nuclear waste problems.
She is even more approving of the “new nukes”:
“Nuclear energy has changed significantly. There is now a family of new technologies – small modular reactors – leading the way in cost. These are readily deployable and produce zero emissions.”
There is now a family of new technologies — small modular reactors? But these reactors do not actually exist in a physically tried and tested operating form, and are far from being deployed as Ms Constable implies.
As to “leading the way on costs”, this is a pretty meaningless statement. Many experts have investigated this question, always coming up with the conclusion that these small reactors could be economical only if they were ordered en masse. This factor poses difficult problems in the market, and tax-payer funding would be essential. The necessity for safety measures also runs counter to the need to cut costs.
As for “zero emissions”, there remains the problem of the entire fuel cycle, from mining of thorium through transport, to the reactor and its waste disposal. Unlike sun and wind power, the fuel must continue to be mined and transported.
And here comes the real, though actually fanciful, push:
“Nuclear power is also behind the new generation of innovative nuclear start-ups, such as Bill Gates’s TerraPower and Transatomic out of MIT. Australia, with its educated workforce, established uranium mines, nuclear research and university sectors and strong non-proliferation credentials, would be a partner of choice for private venture capital-funded new nuclear energy.”
Let’s look at this enthusiastic statement.
First of all, Bill Gates has just had the door slammed on his TerraPower project. He’s closed it down for now, but hopes to find a country that will back it.
Secondly, Transatomic has also had a big setback. Its nuclear start-up folded, in disarray.
This company was spruiked by an enthusiastic young woman, Leslie Dewan. The nuclear lobby seems to pick them for the poisoned chalice of propaganda work.
Nuclear depression: brother, can you spare US$25.7 billion?
Nuclear power is affordable, says the Minerals Council. But the market (and power companies) beg to differ.
Bernard Keane, 1 Sept 2017
Fans of nuclear power might have got excited this morning when they read that the Minerals Council of Australia had produced an “analysis” on how it was time to end the prohibition on nuclear power plants in Australia.
“Analysis” calls to mind a sober assessment of the pros and cons, some consideration of evidence, an exploration of issues commonly raised on a subject, but alas, the “analysis” or, as it’s termed, “policy paper” from the Minerals Council is more like a brochure.
As always, we went immediately to the (short) bit about the costs of nuclear power, given the long history of nuclear power plants running hundreds of per cent and decades over budget and schedule. According to the Minerals Council’s “policy paper”:
“Nuclear power is affordable. All baseload power projects are capital intensive, but countries that invest in nuclear plants – and there are 58 reactors under construction today – will have assets that generate large amounts of power for 60 years at a stable cost.”
One has to feel a little sad for the MCA that between the presumed finalisation of this “policy paper” and today, there have been some unhappy developments. That “58” figure is based on the International Atomic Energy Association’s list (which is actually 57, but that’s OK), which includes two reactors under construction in the United States. But that is likely soon to be zero reactors under construction in the United States. At the start of August, one of the projects shut down: the VC Summer power plant in South Carolina,, which was already 35% built, will be abandoned. And two days later, the firm building the Vogtle project in Georgia admitted (another) blowout in the cost — to $25.7 billion for two reactors.
The original Vogtle cost was projected to be $14 billion, as Fox News helpfully pointed out, so the near-doubling of the budget isn’t actually too bad by nuclear standards. The usual delay in the project, by at least two years, was also announced. There’s a widespread expectation Vogtle will now be cancelled as well. But the cost blowouts at the two projects were so massive, they bankrupted nuclear reactor company Westinghouse Electric earlier this year. And on Wednesday, a Florida energy company abandoned plans for a new nuclear power plant in that state and will instead invest in a massive new solar plant and battery storage.
In July, the company charged with building the proposed Hinkley Point nuclear power plant in the UK revealed the cost had blown out from £18 billion to £20.3 billion and would be delayed by 15 months. The British Audit Office has warned the final cost may well be £50 billion.
And in case you think cost blowouts and project delays are purely a result of NIMBY Westerners and extreme environmental red tape, China, which is engaged in a substantial ramp-up of its nuclear reactor capacity and doesn’t have to worry about pesky things like community opposition or the rule of law, has also encountered multi-year delays.
Sadly none of this made it into the Minerals Council’s brochure. You might think that’s simply because it wants to mindlessly spruik the interests of the uranium mining industry, but we would never accuse the MCA of such a thing.
The Minerals Council of Australia pushing zombie ideas
John Quiggin, 4 Sept 2017
Fighting zombies is a tiresome business. Even when you think you’ve finally killed them, they bounce back as often as not. But it has to be done, and there are some benefits. When you see a supposedly serious person or organization pushing zombie ideas, it’s an indication that nothing they put out should be presumed to be serious.
There can be few zombies more thoroughly undead than nuclear power in general, except for the idea that nuclear power is a sensible option for Australia. The strongly pro-nuclear SA Royal Commission demolished this zombie so thoroughly that it should have taken a decade at least to regenerate.
But here’s the Minerals Council of Australia, which has taken a break from promoting coal to push the idea that Australia needs a nuclear power industry and that the biggest obstacle is a legal prohibition imposed in 1998. The supporting “analysis” is riddled with absurdities, some of which have already been pointed out. I’ll give my own (incomplete) list over the fold
Most obviously, there’s the statement that 58 nuclear reactors are currently under construction. As anyone who’s been paying attention could tell them, that number was 66 not long ago. The decline reflects the abandonment of half-built projects like the VC Summer plant in North Carolina and the fact that some long overdue projects like Watts Bar, started back in 1973, have been completed, while new starts have slowed to a crawl.
That’s only going to accelerate. China currently has 23 plants under construction, but they haven’t approved a new one in eighteen months. Other countries with projects under construction, but no recent approvals include the US and France. Unless something changes, the completion of current projects will cut the number under construction in half within a few years.
Then there’s the claim that nuclear power is affordable. There’s no reference to the dismal record of the existing industry. Instead, the MCA is relying on vaporware: “Small modular reactors (SMRs) are close to commercialisation in the US. A Nu-scale 50MWe SMR, for example, is projected to cost around US$250 million. Three of these would cost and produce around the same amount of power as the largest wind farm in the southern hemisphere – and it would be reliable, synchronous, on-demand power.”
The reality is that the NuScale SMR doesn’t exist even as a prototype. Any estimate of the costs of such a reactor is purely speculative. The SA Royal Commission looked hard at SMRs and concluded they weren’t a viable option now or in the foreseeable future.
Showing patent bad faith, the MCA quotes the Royal Commission’s claims about the potential for a nuclear waste dump (an idea that has been abandoned) but ignores the more significant finding that nuclear power, including SMRs is hopelessly uneconomic for Australia.
Even more startling is the suggestion that we should follow the example of Canada which supposedly has a thriving nuclear industry. The reality is that nuclear power in Canada has been a failure, with massive cost overruns and frequent breakdowns. After spending at least a billion in subsidies, the Canadian government sold its nuclear energy business for a mere $15 million in 2011. It’s highly unlikely that Canada will ever build another nuclear plant.
Then there’s a reference to some real vaporware, notably including Transatomic a startup backed by Peter Theil. Google reveals that Transatomic had to back away from its inflated claims by a factor of more than 30. An honest mistake, apparently, but not promising as a basis for Australian energy policy.
Regardless of whether the prohibition on nuclear energy is lifted, it’s not going to happen in Australia, or most other countries. The real lesson from this episode is that any analysis coming out of the MCA should be treated with extreme scepticism. In particular, the next time an MCA spokesperson pops up to say that we need coal-fired power indefinitely into the future, remember their similar, and patently false, claims about nuclear power.
The MCA’s nuclear greenwashing campaign
As of 2023, the MCA is running a greenwashing campaign led by Nicholas Crowther, who styles himself NetZeroNicholas on twitter. Crowther’s greenwashing campaign involves nothing other than promoting nuclear power. Economist Prof. John Quiggin notes that, in practice, support for nuclear power in Australia is support for coal. Prof. Quiggin also argues that nuclear advocacy in Australia is “a dog whistle to the climate denialists”.
The MCA is the organisation that gave us the ‘coal is amazing’ campaign, the organisation that gave Scott Morrison and Barnaby Joyce a lump of coal to wave around in parliament, the organisation that is heavily funded by the fossil fuel industries.
So should we believe that the MCA is suddenly serious about reducing greenhouse emissions? Obviously not.
If the MCA refused further funding from the fossil fuel industries, that would be a sign that the organisation is changing. That won’t happen. The fossil fuel industries are promoting nuclear power because they know it poses no threat to their industries and it provides some potential for greenwashing and it works well as a culture war talking point in the Murdoch/Sky media.
Nicholas Crowther’s nuclear greenwashing campaign for the MCA has generated literally zero momentum. It is arguably the least effective greenwashing campaign ever. His time at the MCA will quickly come to an end. Hard to imagine where he might end up when the MCA — arguably the most dishonest, racist and backwards organisation in Australia — is finished with him. He might well be unemployable.
Before working for the MCA, Crowther worked for the Morrison federal government attempting to impose a national nuclear waste dump on the land of the Barngarla Traditional Owners in South Australia despite their unanimous opposition. Thankfully, a Federal Court challenge by the Traditional Owners was successful and at the time of writing (July 2023) it seems likely that the (Albanese) federal government will abandon the plan.