The Coalition’s ambition to build nuclear power plants in Australia will face significant cost overruns, timing blowouts and constitutional hurdles, according to project management and legal experts.

Community backlash against site selection and how to dispose of nuclear waste is also likely to see the time frame for building and running a nuclear power plant in Australia pushed even further into the future, University of Sydney School of Project Management associate Professor Petr Matous said.

“It’s basically impossible to do before 2040.

“If you think about multi-billion [dollar] mega projects in Australia, or anywhere else, you probably won’t find many examples that could have been implemented on schedule without any delay.”

Dr Matous pointed to the Snowy Hydro 2.0 project as an example of a recent government-led energy project that has failed to meet budget and schedule targets.

“If you think about the delays and cost overruns there, I think the nearest available example to compare with.

“It was first announced for $2 billion, then it became $6 billion, now we are perhaps at over $12 billion.

“So you can imagine what could happen with this type of announcement with this type of [nuclear] project.”

Project pipedreams

Griffith University emeritus professor Ian Lowe, a trained physicist, also cast doubt on the reality of the Coalition’s nuclear ambitions.

“The Commonwealth government is not very good at managing large projects,” he said.

“And any large project they’ve done in recent years has always been years behind schedule and billions over budget.”

But Centre for Independent Studies energy analyst Adian Morrison is critical of how the costs of nuclear are portrayed.

In an April report, Mr Morrison said the methodology used by the CSIRO to cost nuclear energy in its GenCost report was “deeply problematic”, because of the limited focus on one type of reactor.

“If we look at large-scale, mature designs, the CSIRO has come up with a much more realistic number for what the energy would cost and it now looks close to competitive with renewable energy,” Mr Morrison said.

“And in fact, if you consider how long the lifetime of the asset actually is, it could be very competitive indeed, with other energy sources.”

Community concerns

Among voters, support for the best path to reduce emission is split, with 43 per cent preferring Labor’s plan and 37 per cent backing the Coalition’s, according to a recent poll conducted by Resolve Political Monitor for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.

But drawing from recent community pushback against new transmission lines and wind farm developments, Mr Matous said the backlash in communities near the proposed sites, against small nuclear reactors, was likely to be significant.

“Think about how rushed community consultation would need to be for these nuclear power plants, if you wanted to have them running in 2035, or 2037,” he said.

“I would assume that the community resistance would be quite significant.”

“I don’t think that you would find a case where this type of project would be finished ahead of schedule.”

Professor Lowe does not believe it will be politically or financially feasible to construct seven nuclear reactors before 2040.

“I’d be prepared to gamble large amounts of money that we won’t see nuclear power stations in Australia in my lifetime.”

“So we could only have a nuclear power station within 13 years if we were to emulate countries like China, perhaps the United Arab Emirates, where the community aren’t involved, where there is no prospect of the community objecting — and I can’t imagine how that would be politically defensible in Australia.”

Petr Matous says any plan to construct a nuclear power plant in Australia will face significant cost and time overruns.(ABC News: Daniel Irvine)

Legal hurdles

Australia’s nuclear ban is “irrelevant” and it is time to overturn it, according to former deputy prime minister John Anderson.

As a senior cabinet minister in the Howard government, Mr Anderson helped legislate the ban on nuclear energy in 1998, which he now describes as regrettable.

“It would have been preferable to have avoided it,” he told The Business.

“Sometimes, political realities produce outcomes that you later regret. I think that’s true of all governments.”

Mr Anderson believes overturning the ban is an important part of ensuring Australia can properly debate all available energy options.

“This is a test of our national maturity,” he said.

“The last major reform we had came out of a long and protracted, but very vigorous and important, debate.

“And that was about tax reform and the goods and services tax [GST] 26 years ago.”

Former Nationals leader John Anderson says the debate over nuclear power will be a test of the nation’s maturity.(ABC News: John Gunn)

The Coalition’s first hurdle will be securing enough seats to win the next federal election and have the numbers in the House of Representatives and the Senate to overturn the nuclear ban, Professor Lowe said.

“Even if, hypothetically, Mr Dutton was swept into office for the landslide majority, the half-Senate election would not give him a majority in the upper house.

“So the ban could not be removed unless the greens and independent senators like David Pocock were in favour of it, and I can’t see that happening.”

The constitution, through the external affairs power, allows the Commonwealth to override state-level bans on nuclear energy projects, University of NSW law professor Rosalind Dixon said.

But relying on that power was conditional on Australia remaining committed to its obligations under the Paris Agreement.

“If you stick it in the Paris Agreement, you can pass this plan, as long as you’ve got the numbers in the House and the Senate, Ms Dixon said.

“But if you withdraw from the international treaty, and set of commitments that creates the moral and legal basis for national climate action, you’re on shaky ground.”

Rosalind Dixon says the Coalition faces an uphill battle as it argues for a nuclear future in Australia.(Supplied)

Professor Dixon said the Coalition’s plan would need to be closely aligned with its obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement to ensure it would stand up to legal challenges brought by states or other community groups that opposed it.

“Legally, it depends enormously on the time frames [2030/2050 targets] and Paris context.

“I think that there would be an argument that they get there. But it’s going to be at least a slightly ‘inclined hill’, if not an ‘uphill battle’.”

Aidan Morrison says the upfront investment in nuclear will be worth it in the future.(ABC News: John Gunn)

Financial question marks

Speaking on his first day as the chair of the Climate Change Authority, former NSW energy minister Matt Kean cast doubt on the ability of nuclear power to bring down energy costs in Australia.

Recalling advice he received in 2019 from NSW chief scientist Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte, Mr Kean said he was told nuclear would “bankrupt” NSW.

“His advice was that in order to bring nuclear into the system, it would take far too long and would be far too expensive for NSW.

“I didn’t want to bankrupt the state, and put those huge costs onto families, and that’s why I introduced the Electricity Infrastructure Roadmap, which planned the transition to renewables rapidly backed up by firming and storage.

“Because we know that was the cheapest option for NSW.”

Still, others maintain that over time, the costs associated with nuclear energy will reduce.

“I think something approaching $40–$50 billion is a good amount of money to spend, and that will replace, for example, most of the coal in either New South Wales or Victoria,” Mr Morrison said.

“So I think, yes, the up-front cost should be high, that’s something to be celebrated, not shied away from, because of the value of the electricity that provides in the long term.”

Based off Mr Morrison’s research into overseas nuclear projects, he believes constructing multiple plants at once would help manage the overall cost of the Coalition’s plan.

“The overseas lessons showed the right way to do nuclear was to basically not take a tiny little bite of the apple, you need to size your plants correctly, and ideally, commit to building at least four units at the same time.”

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