Thursday, June 13, 2024

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HomeIssue 4Small nuclear reactors: NT Senator out of step

Small nuclear reactors: NT Senator out of step


Senator Samantha McMahon’s ongoing promotion of nuclear energy and attack on renewable energy are astoundingly outdated, dangerous and need to be confronted.

She has declared that “renewables are the dole bludgers of the energy mix … they are a great hoax perpetrated by the industry on the gullible”.

She is calling the technology “fundamentally flawed”. These remarks leave the Senator isolated from the rest of Australia and the world as a renewable energy revolution sweeps the planet, driven by cost effectiveness and climate repair.

It is creating whole new economies, jobs and industries for those riding the wave. Is the Senator (inset) seriously advocating that we ignore this opportunity and pursue a non-existent micro-nuclear industry?

It is renewables which will ignite sustainable jobs and industries in the Territory, bringing sustainable and ethical revenue to our government coffers.

Renewables will create green jobs in solar, hydrogen and green aluminium, steel and cement.

But our leaders need to act now to set up green energy transport corridors, industrial hubs and the appropriate regulatory environment to ensure maximum benefit is realised across the Territory. This is the NT economic vision that is lacking from Senator McMahon.

Right now, SunCable is planning to build the world’s largest solar farm near Elliot, 250kms north of Tennant Creek, providing electricity via a subterranean cable to Singapore.

The Senator calls this a “hoax” while her Government, the Federal Government, has granted this development “Major Project” status.

Australia’s north has traditionally exported gas and coal to the world. Now we are on the verge of exporting big solar energy, scalable well beyond SunCable’s $20 billion proposal.

Bauxite has been mined and shipped out of Arnhem Land for decades. Green energy can convert this to aluminium locally, led by Aboriginal enterprises.

Cement is made in Mataranka at a small scale. This can be upsized to produce green cement for export.

Customers pay a premium for these products. Massive data storage centres now exist in the deserts of the USA and use hundreds of megawatts of power. Alice Springs can emulate this using renewable energy.

The Senator’s views are out of touch with Territory politics. The CLP has a formal policy position that the “transition to renewables represents the future of energy production … growth in the sector presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the Territory … in less than a decade the Territory can be a clean energy powerhouse, if we move quickly”.

Senator McMahon’s position makes no economic sense. The cost of nuclear energy is six times greater than standalone solar and three times greater than solar with storage but she is advocating for small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs), a technology which currently has zero reactors operating globally.

Alex Vaughan is the Policy Officer of the Arid Lands Environment Centre.

Images of micro-nuclear plants: World Nuclear Association, American Institute of Chemical Engineers.


  1. “Bauxite has been mined and shipped out of Arnhem Land for decades. Green energy can convert this to aluminium locally, led by Aboriginal enterprises.”
    Here is the news: “An aluminium smelter could never be built at Gove without cheap power from the Government according to mining investment authorities in the south.
    “They said the Government’s insistence that the application for the Gove lease must build an aluminium smelter implied it would help in providing cheap power.
    “One source said that if the Commonwealth wanted the immediate industrialisation of the Territory it would have to make some substantial contribution such as the provision of a nuclear power station” (Centralian Advocate, 18/6/1964).
    Senator McMahon’s support for nuclear power is a throwback to the CLP’s policy of the late 1980s for developing a nuclear energy industry (sans nuclear power) based in the NT – see my comment in The Conversation for a brief history of this period.
    The CLP’s nuclear industry vision as the economic godsend for the Territory’s economy in the late 1980s echoed a similar vision promoted a decade earlier in the run-up to the election campaign of August 1977 that was fought over imminent self-government for the NT, in particular the supposed wealth and employment to be gained from exploiting the uranium reserves of the Alligator Rivers region in the Top End.
    “The NT Country Liberal Party sees uranium mining as a boon to the Northern Territory and will campaign on the issue throughout the three weeks left until election day.
    “In Darwin the Party’s leader, Dr Goff Letts, told a crowd of three hundred at the campaign launching that he was confident the Federal Government will announce in the next few days a policy on the controlled mining of uranium.
    “It is beyond doubt that uranium mining would create thousands of new jobs both in mining and supporting industries.
    “It will inject millions of dollars per year into the local economy and create further demands for goods and services, Dr Letts said” (“Uranium seen as key issue”, Centralian Advocate, 28/7/1977).
    Dr Letts was backed by deputy PM, Doug Anthony: “On the uranium issue Mr Anthony said ‘The most obvious direct benefits from the development of deposits would be to the Northern Territory.
    “The development of the Alligator Rivers region would provide a sound economic basis for the approaching self-government and should enable it to be self-supporting.
    “Despite its conservative assumptions, the Ranger Inquiry estimated that uranium mining operations would add between $65 million and $105 million annually to incomes in the Territory.
    “The operation of the uranium mines would create direct employment opportunities, including the provision of local services for 1250 to 1500 workers and other job opportunities would follow in supporting industries” (“Political ‘heavies’ talk on statehood, uranium”, Centralian Advocate, 11/8/1977).
    The elections actually resulted in the loss of several jobs – Goff Letts and several senior CLP members lost their seats!
    Today the Alligator Rivers region, centred on the declining uranium mining township of Jabiru, is the focus of a massive rejuvenation plan costing $446 million, the bulk of it at taxpayers’ expense.
    Nevertheless, how familiar are these kinds of claims by Territory politicians of either major party of imminent economic nirvana from major projects to this very day.
    Our history should give us no confidence that such visionary claims today will meet with any better success than the political mirages of our recent past.

  2. @ Alex: Don’t you think you’re being a bit of a wet blanket?
    Remember the 1986 song by Timbuk 3? The future’s so bright I gotta wear shades …
    As I perceive it such optimistic scenarios hardly if ever live up to the hype.
    The yellow cake of the 1970s, we only got crumbs, and even these not all that evenly distributed.
    Remember Everingham’s high rollers? Remember the Alice Springs to Darwin railway? Not to mention such as the gas pipeline to the Granites goldfield.
    I don’t see much trickling down onto a level playing field.
    As for those politicians that wax lyrical about impending Manna from heaven – pull the other one.

  3. I am intrigued by the mentioning of the Sun Cable project. Can someone tell me how this is financed? Free enterprise or Government subsidies? I would be most interested.
    By the way I still believe nuclear is the only certain way to go until fusion takes its place. Then we will have real free energy.
    [Hi Hermann, google Sun Cable in these pages. We’re giving it ongoing coverage.]

  4. Hermann, we already have fusion.
    It’s that big yellow reactor in the sky.
    A safe and comfortable distance away.
    Sending its “real free energy” down to us in beautiful, bountiful sunbeams.
    Which we now have the cheap, efficient technology to turn into electricity.
    What little government support it may have had has evaporated, and is no longer needed.
    Fossil fuel and nuclear still get vast subsidies.
    Why do you think banks refuse to fund nuclear, and are running away from coal?

  5. Sam McMahon is such a hoot!
    There is no way she will survive being challenged at pre-selection, even her own party staff are apparently plotting against her.

  6. @ Charlie Carter: Charlie, I am not convinced yet that the yellow reactor to produce electricity is cheap or efficient. The best panels in the world are less than 28% efficiency with most panels being around 20%. Then of course there is the storage issue.
    IMHO, more money needs to go into R&D with a focus on cheap storage and in the background not too far behind, would be the panels.

  7. I’m Surprised that you haven’t really twigged that the “efficiency” of photovoltaic cells is only important in relation to costs.
    There is so much energy in the sunlight that we only need to harvest a tiny proportion of it to cover all our needs.
    Anyhow, the efficiency is improving all the time, the last figure I read from UNSW was in the 30s. Hence cheaper.
    Likewise battery technology.
    There are other storage options; small scale hydro for example. You could pump water up to Mt John, and have a small hydro-electric plant run as it flowed down.
    As Twiggy Forest is saying in the Boyer lectures (ABC RN running at the moment): Hydrogen production from solar electrolysis will be the all purpose storage solution.


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