‘Chasing unicorns’: NSW Liberal minister rejects federal opposition push for nuclear power

The New South Wales energy minister and treasurer, Matt Kean, has accused the federal Coalition of “chasing unicorns” over its push to overturn the moratorium on nuclear power in Australia.

Since it lost power at last month’s election, the new federal opposition has begun a push for the longstanding ban on nuclear power to be lifted.

Despite doing little to advance it as an energy source during its time in government, new Nationals leader, David Littleproud, has called for a “mature” conversation about the role of nuclear power in Australia.

The new leader of the opposition, Peter Dutton, has indicated that support for nuclear energy could be a part of the Coalition’s future policy platform, while former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce has backed calls to overturn the moratorium.

“I don’t think we should rule things out simply because it’s unfashionable to talk about them,” Dutton said on Monday.

But amid a reduction in new nuclear projects globally, Kean poured cold water on the push by his Coalition colleagues in Canberra on Wednesday, saying pursuing nuclear energy generation in Australia was currently a “fantasy”.

While conceding nuclear “may have a role to play in our energy system in the future”, Kean said he hoped for a role for emerging nuclear technologies – such as small modular reactors – but that they would not help address rising energy costs in the short to medium term.

Kean referred to the UK government’s underwriting of the construction of the Hinkley Point C station to the tune of about $300 a megawatt-hour, which he said was “three times more expensive than the current electricity bills at the height that we’re paying right now”.

He said the cost and timeline of new nuclear energy meant it was not realistic to consider it as an option.

“Not only that, they started the build of [Hinkley Point C station] in around 2008,” he said. “It’s now 2022 and it still hasn’t been turned on, so we can’t wait 20 years to chase some fantasy, which is large-scale nuclear.

“What we need to do is focus on things that are going to lower household bills today and set us up for more prosperity in the future.”

In 2019 the former federal Coalition government held a parliamentary inquiry into the role of nuclear. Chaired by the new shadow climate change and energy minister, Ted O’Brien, it recommended the government consider small modular reactors, which produce less energy but, proponents say, would be easier to keep safe.

But many small nuclear reactor proposals overseas have been beset by problems , and Kean said that two of the firms pushing the use of the technology – Rolls-Royce and US firm NuScale – wouldn’t have prototypes ready for construction until the next decade.

“So people talking about nuclear as an asset to our energy challenges right now are literally chasing unicorns,” Kean said.

“This is a fantasy, which is not ready at the moment. But who knows, at some time in the future, we may crack the code of small nuclear reactors and that could play a role in our energy mix.

“But right now, we are focusing on the things that we know work [and] that we know are going to drive down household bills and that’s why we’ve got our energy roadmap here in NSW to roll out solar, wind [and] pumped hydro storage with transmission lines. Because we know that that’s the best way to lower household bills to keep the lights on and to deliver clean, reliable electricity.”

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