Modular Reactors. Peter Dutton hasn’t done his nuclear homework

by Rex Patrick | Apr 16, 2024 | Energy & Environment, Latest Posts

Is Peter Dutton’s proposed ‘rollout’ of modular nuclear reactors real policy or just politics? What research has he done to develop the policy? Not much, it seems. Rex Patrick reports.

In September 2020, the Morrison Government released a Low Emissions Technology Statement that placed Small Modular Reactors (SMR) on a list of watching brief technologies. SMR developments were to be monitored to see if they might play a part in Australia’s energy future.

Consistent with that listing, the Government directed the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) to join an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Coordinated Research Project focused on the Economic Appraisal of SMRs to provide information to assist in evaluating the technology’s economic viability.

ANSTO assembled a team to prepare, among other things, a case study on Australia’s potential to adopt SMR technologies in the future and analyse financing options for the technology. As part of that project, ANSTO even supported a University of Queensland PhD thesis on SMRs.

Flip flop politics

Peter Dutton, a minister in the Government that commissioned the ANSTO work, came out mid-way through 2023 with a proclamation of the Coalition’s plans for Australian to adopt SMRs as a preferred tool in our movement towards net zero carbon emissions.

In doing so Dutton opened himself up to a political battering because of the nascent state of SMR development around the world and huge questions around costs.

Dutton’s Nuclear Folly: Small Modular Reactors a political mirage

Undeterred, in early March Dutton doubled down on nuclear power, switching his thinking to large nuclear power plants scattered about the country. As public controversy raged about the new plans, Dutton has started reinjecting SMRs into the total mix.

There are now to be a mix of economic and taxation incentives for the local communities targeted by the Coalition to host a nuclear reactor.

Somewhere in a Coalition back office, there’s a whiteboard with a map waiting to be unveiled.

Missing homework

In response to their hip flip to a larger nuclear power plant and his small flop back to SMRs, I thought MWM set out to see if Dutton has visited ANSTO or taken a brief from them in relation to his plans.

After all, there’s no shortage of precedent for parliamentary oppositions to seek factual briefings from government agencies, especially on complex and specialised subjects.

In a recent nuclear estimates brief prepared for the CEO of ANSTO, the first two paragraphs stated:

“As the custodian of Australia’s nuclear expertise and capabilities, ANSTO is well positioned to advise governments, Australian parliaments, and members of the public on the technical aspects of nuclear power and nuclear power developments globally.”

“ANSTO has significant insight into what other countries and jurisdictions are doing around the world in terms of nuclear power.”

As mentioned above, ANSTO was specifically engaged by the former Coalition Government to take a look at SMRs.

So, I was left gobsmacked when a Freedom of Information request I made to ANSTO to find out what Dutton’s interactions with ANSTO had been over the past five years returned nil information.

ANSTO FOI response

ANSTO FOI response

Dutton has not visited Australia’s only nuclear reactor and has not received a brief from our country’s expert agency on the policy area he was developing.

In some measure, it explains the flip-flopping and limited detail in many of his announcements.

For completeness, I also asked the Government’s nuclear safety regulator, ARPANSA, if Dutton had visited them or sought advice from them. FOI came up with the same answer from them. Nothing at all.

ARPANSA FOI Response

ARPANSA FOI Response

Politics, not policy

You can’t develop policy just by chin-wagging at party room meetings and with briefs from vested business interests. That’s not how it works. You have to get independent and expert advice, and in the case of nuclear matters, a vital place to get that advice in Australia is ANSTO and ARPANSA.

So, just what policy work has Dutton done? In large part, he appears completely dependent on the Google skills of his little-known Climate Change and Energy spokesperson, Ted O’Brien.

With a background in marketing, O’Brien has no ministerial experience, so the practicalities of major project implementation may be quite novel for him. He did once chair a parliamentary committee inquiry into nuclear energy, but as so often is the case, the research there was largely done by the committee secretariat, with O’Brien just adding a thin layer of pro-nuclear evangelism on the top.

It’s pretty safe to say that, in the absence of comprehensive briefs from and engagement with Australia’s leading experts, Dutton is not engaging in serious policy development. Rather it’s a manoeuvre to achieve political differentiation and keep the anti-renewals, climate-change-denying core of his Coalition happy.  

Dutton’s approach to policy development, in this instance, says just as much about him as it does about his nuclear plans. 

It’s all politics.  

Peter Dutton’s India escape and the secret meetings with the colourful coal baron

Rex Patrick is a former Senator for South Australia and earlier a submariner in the armed forces. Best known as an anti-corruption and transparency crusader - www.transparencywarrior.com.au.

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