BEN HARVEY: What’s the likelihood of Peter Dutton’s costly nuclear power plan winning over the masses?

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Ben Harvey
The Nightly
In this week’s show, Harvey explains why lame zingers and blind ideology could see Anthony Albanese lose the nuclear energy debate. Plus, why neither side can be trusted when it comes to energy policy costs.

And to think I had finally got my head around the political and economic nuances of the coal industry.

Peter Dutton’s political Hail Mary — the construction of seven nuclear power stations — is forcing me back to the study books.

I hope a few others join me in the journey of self-education. We’ve just entered a new public policy debate and you can count on one hand the number of people in Australia who understand the technical, political and commercial complexities of the subject.

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Half of the experts you hear talking say “nu-cu-lar”. God help us.

Dutton has acknowledged this knowledge gap by pledging to release information in “bite-sized chunks”.

They’re going to have to be easily digestible because this debate isn’t going to be won and lost in the national press or at business lunches — it’ll come down to what Kyle and Jackie O think of it.

It’s being billed as the riskiest political strategy since John Hewson’s GST-anchored Fightback! policy in 1993.

Angus Taylor should be mindful that all it takes is one birthday cake.

The Opposition has pledged to release full costings before the election. It needs to be because this was the party that said the Voice was too risky because it was short on detail. But can we trust the estimates?

When was the last time any government built anything on time or on budget, let alone on time and on budget?

Have a look at how Snowy Hydro is tracking. How’s the NBN bill going?

We can’t open a train station on time and on budget and we’ve been building those for 200 years; how are we going to go with something we’ve never done before?

Sure, it will be French engineers working for a Japanese firm under contract but it still needs oversight. And, let’s remember, if you mess up the design of a railway station it’s not going to result in a nuclear meltdown.

Anthony Albanese smells blood.

“Instead of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, this is Peter Dutton and the seven nuclear reactors,” was Thursday’s “zinger”.

An extensive array of creatively comical images depicting the intersection of Peter Dutton's announcement for nuclear power plants across Australia and an assortment of pop culture icons are making their way around social media as the debate around nuclear energy comes back into the public consciousness. Picture: Supplied
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese remarked that the Coalition’s nuclear plans were a fantasy. Credit: Supplied

Seriously Prime Minister?

Albanese is celebrating his ignorance on this issue. He and Labor are so blinded by ideology they’re ignoring a key learning from the Art of War — know thine enemy.

Meanwhile, the energy wars continue sucking the life out of public debate in this country.

When was the last time we talked about all those critical national issues raised by the Voice?

The politics of climate change is consuming all the oxygen, leaving tax reform, budget repair, housing affordability literacy and numeracy standards on the floor, gasping for air.

Numeracy, in particular, is a skill we will need during this debate.

The CSIRO (an institution with little experience in construction economics) says the first nuclear station would cost between $8.5 billion and $17 billion.

Let’s be really pessimistic (or is that realistic?) and say $20 billion each.

That’s $140 billion in total. We are talking about a government project, though, so let’s allow for the obligatory doubling of the Budget over time.

So, $280 billion. Call it an even $300 billion once the bonuses are paid to all those French engineers.

Astonishing cost, eh? Especially when some observers say gas-fired power stations could generate the same amount of juice for about 10 per cent of the price.

What’s more astonishing is the fact that $300 billion is a fraction of the cost of replacing the thousands of kilometres of transmission lines necessitated by large-scale renewable energy.

The amount needed to protect the grid from the erratic transmission of electrons from wind and solar projects is (where are you, Dr Evil?) $1 trillion.

Leader of the Opposition Peter Dutton speaks to media during a press conference in Sydney, Thursday, June 13, 2024. (AAP Image/BIANCA DE MARCHI) NO ARCHIVING
Leader of the Opposition Peter Dutton speaks. Credit: BIANCA DE MARCHI/AAPIMAGE

Dutton argues these costs can be avoided by going nuclear because it’s a plug-in-and-play option.

He’s being a bit duplicitous there.

First, the national grid is older than Yoda and parts need replacing anyway.

Second, under the Coalition’s plan, we’re still going to have some renewable energy, so we’re up for at least a portion of that $1 trillion.

Then there’s the debate about steady-state running costs. The Coalition will be quiet about that because wind and solar have it all over nuclear.

They’ll also be quiet about what happens to the radioactive waste generated by our mini Springfields. And you thought Andrew Giles was politically hazardous.

Labor reckons Dutton has Buckley’s of winning over the seven communities that will house the reactors.

It’s a tough ask but you could argue it’ll be easier than winning over the several hundred communities that will have to live near Labor’s windfarms and solar panel arrays.

And it’s possible that as time goes on people will become more sympathetic to the one-stop shop solution afforded by nuclear — especially when they come to understand the full scale of what we need to do for a truly renewable future.

Under Labor’s plan, we need to build one wind turbine every day for six years. It takes three trucks to move just one of them and we don’t know what to do with the blades when they need replacing.

We’ll have to clear God knows how much bush to make way for the solar farms and we don’t know what to do with millions of individual solar panels when they run out of life.

Will those considerations outweigh the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl-inspired concerns many voters harbour?

While the punters make up their minds, Dutton has other hurdles to clear.

To make his plan work he needs to overturn a Federal ban on nuclear power (a ban, incidentally, imposed by his own party) and he needs the State governments to be on the same page.

How often does that happen on anything?

National Cabinet couldn’t agree on how to manage COVID — something we all agreed was bad — so how can we get everyone on board for this?

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