March 05, 2020

PAUL TURTON, HOST: Well do you reckon nuclear energy is the way to go? Would you have a facility in your own town? Would you support it? Upper Hunter MP Michael Johnsen thinks that the idea has legs. Here he is speaking to our Muswellbrook colleague Eliza Goetze:

MICHAEL JOHNSEN, MEMBER FOR UPPER HUNTER: If we are to go down the path of reducing our emissions quite dramatically over the next couple of decades then nuclear has to be an option or a tool within the toolbox of energy sources. Given what I know about the small modular nuclear reactors, in principle I’d be comfortable with having that discussion around having one in the Upper Hunter.

TURTON: Mr Johnsen speaking in reaction to the NSW Nationals decision to back One Nation MP Mark Latham’s bill which would lift the ban which exists in the state on nuclear energy. It could pave the way for nuclear energy in the state. So what do you make of that? 0487 99 1233 is the number to get in touch with us on. Do you reckon nuclear energy is the way to go and would you have the facility in your own town?

Well Pat Conroy is the Federal Member for Shortland. He joins me to share his thoughts on the subject. Pat, thank you for doing that by the way.


TURTON: Okay, let’s go over the current ban. Why is there a ban on the generation of nuclear energy in NSW?

CONROY: Well there’s a NSW ban and a federal ban and both reflect I think the widespread community sentiment that nuclear power is unacceptable in this country and the strong majority sentiment that we shouldn’t contemplate it.

TURTON: We are hearing all the time that the technology is getting safer, we hear about these small generators that are manageable and are used fairly widely particularly in transportation of course. But for small communities, isn’t it a sensible way to generate power?

CONROY: Well I have to pick you up on a view that they are somehow widely used. The small modular reactors Mr Johnsen referred to don’t exist yet. They’re still on the design boards of various nuclear power companies. The first one scheduled to even be operating isn’t until the second half of this decade in America. They’re purely blueprints. But what we know is that currently nuclear power is three times as expensive as renewable energy backed up by gas and pumped hydro, and there’s still significant safety fears. This is an entirely hypothetical debate around small modular reactors.

TURTON: But small generators, the reactors are used in powering submarines among other things so there is a similar technology available is there not?

CONROY: Well we’ve had nuclear power plants for submarines since the 1950’s but no one has successfully transferred one of those into a stationary power plant to power a town or a region. They simply do not exist. The only nuclear power stations that exist are the very large ones that you saw at places like Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. They are the current nuclear technology. Small modular reactors for power generation for cities and populations are still purely on the drawing board.

TURTON: Now, small reactors then in the sense of being a possibility, have you ruled out the probability or possibility that scientists will actually will actually get the technology right and they will be effective in which case, should they necessarily be excluded from our mix moving forward?

CONROY: Well what we know for example is that the South Australian government had a Royal Commission into the nuclear power cycle a few years ago, and they examined small modular reactors and the numbers just didn’t stack up. Even if you look at the claims and even if you took the claims of proponents seriously, they just don’t add up from a cost point of view. So leave aside safety and community concerns, they are just much more expensive than both the current cost of producing electricity and the future cost of things like renewable energy. It just doesn’t make economic sense, and it’s a bit of a red herring that’s been thrown into the climate change debate by people who don’t want to take action to be quite frank. They say ‘well look, we can just put all of our eggs in the nuclear power basket and not worry about decarbonising the rest of the economy’. It’s just wrong, and it’s doing a great disservice to regions like ours.

TURTON: Hang on, are you saying it’s a tactic to make fossil fuel generation seem acceptable?

CONROY: Well no, no, it’s a tactic by people who want to pretend to be taking action on climate change. It’s separate to the debate around fossil fuels. So people on the sort of right wing of politics who realise they have to move beyond simple denial of climate change science now are pushing the nuclear bandwagon as an alternative to supporting more renewable energy going into the grid. And you can see that by the campaigns that are being run by the groups behind this and the agenda in certain newspapers such as The Australian. This is a political tactic by people who are wanting to avoid the cheapest and most simple way of combating climate change.

TURTON: Jase at Salt Ash, we appreciate your text message. He says if we want reliable baseload power and don’t want coal there’s no other option. Solar and wind won’t produce baseload power when there’s high demand from power. In fact, he cited South Australia’s inquiry and of course they had a massive power failure on their grid a few years ago. They don’t necessarily have the right solution either do they Pat Conroy?

CONROY: Well they had a power failure because they had cyclonic winds knocking down the pylons carrying electricity transmission lines. It had nothing to do with renewable energy or coal fired energy or gas power. It was the network knockdown, so this is a bit of a furphy. And look, you can’t run economies purely on renewable energy at the moment, but what you can do is see a significant increase in the penetration of renewable energy into the grid supported by pumped hydro storage and peaking gas plants. The Australian Energy Market Operator which is the government agency tasked with designing the grid forecasts that we are going to lose a number of coal fired power stations out of the grid in the next two decades because of their age. They looked at what was the cheapest and most reliable replacement, and they concluded that it was wind and solar backed by pumped hydro and gas with more transmission connections so we take advantage of the huge scale of Australia. So when the sun’s going down on the east coast of Queensland, the sun’s still shining in South Australia so solar power will be coming from there, and when the wind’s not blowing in Queensland for example, it will be blowing in Tasmania. Our geographical size is actually an advantage when it comes to putting more renewable energy into the grid, and if you plan it properly, back it up with pumped hydro and gas, it can be reliable. It can be very, very reliable and it is the cheapest possible alternative. The cost of producing renewable energy backed up with pumped hydro or gas is about $70 a megawatt-hour. The current grid is about $90 a megawatt-hour, and the cheapest nuclear power that we have seen built around the world is about $200 a megawatt-hour. So nuclear power is three times the cost of renewables made reliable.

TURTON: Pat Conroy, the NSW Nationals as we mentioned are supporting the bill put forward by One Nation MP Mark Latham who of course is the former leader of the Labor Party. Is there any discussion within the Labor Party about the possibility of nuclear power at all?

CONROY: No, not at all, because –

TURTON: So the Otis Group wouldn’t consider it, for example? This is the group that’s headed up by Joel Fitzgibbon as we understand it?

CONROY: Well you’d have to ask them, I’m not a member of the Otis Group, and the focus in terms of the public reporting is making sure that Labor is seen to be supporting coal miners and of course we are. We support the coal mining industry, we’re really proud of the economic contribution they make and continue to make in exporting both thermal and coking coal around the world and powering our existing coal fired generators. That has nothing to do with nuclear. Nuclear, there is a unity ticket in Labor on it. It just doesn’t make economic sense let alone the safety concerns. I can certainly say that in the Lake Macquarie region and the broader Hunter, I don’t want one, I’m yet to meet a community group that wants one, it doesn’t make sense and it should be opposed.

TURTON: Pat Conroy, thanks for coming on I appreciate it.

CONROY: My pleasure.