Wishin’ and hopin’: Peter Dutton’s nuclear plan isn’t passing the Kerrigan test

The federal coalition’s proposal for seven nuclear power plants around Australia needs a lot more detail before Australians will buy it, writes Madonna King

Jun 20, 2024, updated Jun 20, 2024

It’s almost three decades since the 1997 comedy The Castle took over our screens, but Peter Dutton’s grand nuclear plan has brought back its iconic line “tell ‘em they’re dreamin’’.

Like it or loathe it, seven nuclear plants – without the requisite technology, no costings nor states on board and a wobbly timetable – simply don’t add up.

Indeed, the Federal Coalition’s pitch for pop-up nuclear power plants in five states carries an even more fictitious plot than Darryl Kerrigan and his clan’s fight to protect their castle from the march of development.

Ask almost anyone.

The premiers of Victoria, NSW, Western Australia and Queensland denounced it with a Kerrigan-style ‘suffer in your jocks’ message – along with a reminder that states have a legislative ban on nuclear power in their patch.

In Queensland, Peter Dutton’s party colleague LNP leader David Crisafulli – who is odds on favourite to be Queensland’s premier in a few months – declared it would not happen on his watch. Tell ‘em they’re dreamin, he said, in a roundabout way.

And while we might be used to ‘he said-he said’ scraps between the states and the Commonwealth, this plan raises many, many significant questions.

What technology would be used? Does it exist yet? And how might it work?

And, perhaps because we are trying to put food on the table, what about the cost?

At least there are some answers there, although they’re not as palatable as you might like.

Experts vary widely, but the cost of one reactor can conservatively be $8.5 billion. The overseas experience has seen flagship projects cost between $35 billion and $90 billion. Imagine, for a moment, seven nuclear plants arriving at the taxpayer checkout, with a tally of $500 billion; maybe more!

But let’s put cost aside.

When might this all happen? The Coalition, when pressed, says the first reactor – although they are careful not to use that word – might be up and running in 12 or 13 or 14 years.

That’s the first one. But with seven in mind, how long does Peter Dutton expect to be in power? On that timetable, we are talking about something that will happen when we are all very old.

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For my money, I’d rather spend the dosh finding a cure for cancer.

Dutton wants to capitalise on his rise in the polls. That’s understandable. He wants to be transparent, his supporters say, and tell voters that he has a plan – as the alternative leader- to run the country. He also wants voters to know he worries about climate change.

But in the process, he’s set up an own goal, where the next poll will become a referendum on his nuclear power plan. And given our track record on referenda, that’s a precarious play.

While talkback callers, social media and politicians and even the communities where plants are proposed are divided over the plan, the NIMBY factor will go nuclear when the size of these small modular reactors – which are not yet in commercial production – is understood.

An average small modular reactor needs about seven hectares of land space, according to some experts. That, in footballer terms, in about 14 footy fields.

A traditional one needs about 260 hectares.

Imagine that down the street  in Tarong or Callide. Or even in Bonnie Doon, where many other Australian followers of The Castle believe Peter Dutton is headed.

“How the serenity then?’ Darryl Kerrigan might ask.

Perhaps the final word should go to the hapless Denuto, in The Castle, who tries to find an authority to support his client’s case. “It’s the vibe of it,’’ he says.

So far, the Australian jury is just not feeling it.

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