Merry dance: The legal fandango over coal sets the stage for any switch to nuclear

If you think Peter Dutton’s nuclear strategy adds up be prepared to open your wallet. The big winners in this will be the lawyers, writes John McCarthy

Jun 20, 2024, updated Jun 20, 2024
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer being asked questions as he talks to workers during a visit to Hinkley Point nuclear power station in Somerset.  Ben Birchall/PA Wire

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer being asked questions as he talks to workers during a visit to Hinkley Point nuclear power station in Somerset. Ben Birchall/PA Wire

When the Hinkley nuclear power station in the UK was first proposed it was expected to cost about $A17 billion and would generate enough power for 6 million homes. It was expected to be completed in 2017.

That’s now looking a tad naïve. The flagship of Britain’s nuclear expansion is now likely to cost $90 billion and come on line around 2031.

That’s not an outlier.

According to Alan Finkel in, a 5.6 gigawatt nuclear power plant in the United Arab Emirates has taken 16 years to develop at cost $US24 billion ($A36 billion).

Another one in the US has cost $52 billion.

The uncosted Coalition plan is for seven, two of which would be in Queensland. It effectively takes away energy generation from the states.

There are so many legal, political, corporate and logistic issues with the Coalition’s nuclear strategy that it makes the nuclear submarine deal look well run.

If you think the Opposition is right in saying we could have a nuclear power station up and running in just over a decade I’ll give you two words: New Hope.

Its relatively small expansion of a coal mine near Oakey took somewhere between 12 and 15 years to go through government approvals because of all the legal objections thrown at it by environmental groups.

To sidestep that, what Dutton will need is for a possible LNP State Government to block the environmentalists from using the legal process in the courts to delay and disrupt any nuclear power station in Queensland.

This was the strategy the environmental groups used so effectively more than a decade ago when it appeared that the Galilee Basin in central Queensland was about to become the site of massive coal mines to feed the economies of Asia.

Back when the Newman government was in power it introduced legislative change at midnight to restrict the legal opposition to coal and smooth the path for developments, but that was later reversed by the Palaszczuk Government.

Any hope of that legal fandango being repeated has its own stumbling block. First of all, the LNP has to win the next election, which, as we have seen from previous performances, is not a sure bet.

And State Opposition leader David Crisafulli has already said he is opposed to nuclear so Dutton will have to move a few mountains to change that roadblock. He’d also have to get Crisafulli to overturn a legislated ban on nuclear.

The Senate would also have to agree to overturn a federal ban which would require a significant change in the current make-up of the upper house where the Greens and independents have a big voice.

The environmental strategy of obstruct and delay through the courts worked, kind of.

Adani, now Bravus, was not stopped, but that was mostly to do with the fact that the company was more belligerent and far richer than the environmental groups that opposed it.

A lot of other companies, like Gina Rinehart’s, folded their tables and walked away as the market for coal changed and the mood against them turned sour. And of course, Clive Palmer suffered an embarrassing blow to his coal project in the Queensland courts when a small group of activists opposed him.

And that’s still going on. Winchester South is facing legal appeals as is another coal mine in the Hunter Valley.

And judging by the outcry from those same environmental groups about Dutton’s plan you can be assured they will have a crack at nuclear.

Another problem is the sites themselves, but Dutton has suggested there was a Commonwealth power for compulsory acquisition.

Then there are the communities surrounding the projects which will have little say in what occurs.

It would be naive to think we should never consider nuclear power. Technology is changing rapidly and fusion energy, while still embryonic, is a possibility we should not ignore. Small modular reactors could potentially be a game changer, but there is no commercial evidence of that.

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However, we should also not ignore the potential dangers or the fact that Australia’s big engineering cred has suffered a few sharp blows to the nose from such Federal Government disasters such as Snowy 2.0.

Now add to that the fact that we don’t have the skilled workforce or any company capable of building one, let alone seven, nuclear plants. Companies that do take on the task would have to go through some pretty intense security vetting.

The federal and state bureaucracies, who would have to approve and regulate nuclear, don’t even know what they don’t know.

Then there is the public opposition to it which will change from the current mood of “oh yeah, maybe it’s not such a bad idea’’ to two polarised sides with their own scare campaigns.

Not to mention that as soon as people start to think about the ramifications, the issues of water use, transport and waste disposal will rear their heads and provide a lot of ammunition for scare campaigns.

Care to have a truck full of nuclear waste drive through your suburb?

On the plus side for nuclear is Bill Gates, the Microsoft billionaire, who is developing a new generation of nuclear power station in the US.

Gates’s project relies on sodium cooling which takes the need for water out of the equation and is considered to be safer.

However, there is broader political support for nuclear in the US which does not occur here. It’s also just a plan and is yet to get regulatory approvals.

And while it may take a decade to actually build a nuclear power station, Dutton is talking about building seven using taxpayer funds. The projects for WA and SA would be SMRs (small modular reactors) which of course don’t exist yet.

The bill for all seven would be astronomical and no one in the Coalition is brave enough to put a number on it.

It would also require governments that come after Dutton’s potential government to continue spending vast fortunes.

Is 10 years a likely development time frame? No, never. Try 20 and then another 10 years of slippage and legal delays and we are probably getting close.

This is a plan that gives the Liberals a point of difference, but that’s all.

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