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Part 1: The Journey of Nuclear Power: A Personal Account - Virpi Barrett

Updated: Jun 17

This is a 3-part series written by Geni.Energy Director Virpi Barrett and Sunshine Hydro CTO Chris Baker.

As a student of energy technology during the 1990's, I felt like I had to take a stance, either for or against nuclear power. I studied various nuclear reactor types and learned about the multiple layers of safety procedures that far exceed those of any other industries. I also found that after the high capital cost of establishing nuclear power, generation is cheap and carbon-free.

At that time, in Europe where I lived, it seemed like all the smart, educated people supported nuclear power. My country, Finland has a very stringent safety culture, but I saw that the wider community held doubts, fears and indeed misinformation about nuclear.

I really wanted to identify myself among the smart ones! But I wasn't completely convinced about nuclear so I decided to see it for myself. I took a job in radiation control at a nuclear power plant in my early twenties.

Black humour on the team T-shirt tells you to keep a two-meter distance from the "Actives", i.e. keep clear of the members of the Radiation Control and Protection Team who may have been exposed to radioactivity.

As the nuclear discussion in Australia becomes mainstream again, I have been reflecting on my personal journey. Having lived and breathed the technology, I have more to say about it than your average Australian energy professional.

I’m originally from Finland, a country that stood strong by nuclear power even when the rest of the western world wavered after the Fukushima accident in Japan.

My first memory of nuclear power is of my primary school teacher telling us about the accident in Chernobyl. We didn’t take shelter at the time; Soviet Union kept quiet about it until the high levels of radiation were finally detected by the Scandinavian countries.

I recall adults talking about whether it was safe to eat mushrooms and fish, but details of what happened only became clear to me as I grew up.

(If you want to read the stories of the people in the center of the action, read Serhii Plokhy’s “Chernobyl, History of a Tragedy”. You won’t be able to put it down.)

Even after seeing the industry from the inside I sat on the fence for several more years, but then the nuclear context started shifting.

Two decades later, the hard facts are clearly stacking up against nuclear. And interestingly, in the current Australian debate, the misinformation seems to have moved to the pro-nuclear camp and most energy professionals are against new nuclear.

I can finally truly identify with my peers.

So, let’s have a look at the facts.

Cost and global trends

Many people have the impression of cheap nuclear power enjoyed by other countries who have built their reactors decades ago. What they may not realise, is that the price of nuclear power follows the same pattern as the price of coal power: old power plants may generate cheaply, but new coal is not affordable.

New nuclear power is very expensive now that the energy sector is mostly privatised and follows real commercial terms rather than relying on the deep pockets of taxpayers.

One of the latest western examples of a new-built large scale reactors is the 1,600 MW Olkiluoto 3 in Finland. The production cost of this recently completed reactor is EUR49 to generate one MWh of electricity, while the two old units at the very same plant cost EUR18 to generate one MWh of electricity. This is simply due to the modern day real costs of building reactors and is well researched in the recent GenCost report from CSIRO.

Nuclear power construction is becoming infamous for unplanned cost overruns.

Again, Olkiluoto 3 (pictured here) is a great example: It was meant to cost EUR3 billion and be built in five years, but it ended up taking an extra 13 years and the final cost estimate is at EUR11 billion. Since the year 2000 when the project first started, two other units have been planned in Finland, but the commercial and political reality has terminated those projects. So, I wouldn't call Finland an example of a pro-nuclear country anymore.

And Finland is not the only western country giving up on well-advanced projects. US based UAMPS (Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems) developed a new SMR (small modular reactor) type unit called the Carbon Fee Power Plant project. This 462 MW plant had its cost estimates updated from USD8 billion to USD13 billion before the project was cancelled in November 2023.

Development time

The other widely discussed point is the lead time for nuclear power to operate in Australia. For the United Arab Emirates (UAE) it took 13 years from releasing their nuclear strategy to commissioning their first large-scale reactor. Even so, the UAE is not a democratic country like ours, with public consultation requirements. In Australia, it is estimated that it would take around 15 years from a decision to build nuclear SMR to production.

The discussion around development time can be confusing. You will find estimates of about five year construction times, which doesn’t sound too bad. However, the pre-construction development time is significant – this includes finding a suitable location and community consultation, permitting, design, financial close, etc.

Nuclear power, unlike other energy projects, requires check points and approvals from a radiation safety agency to ensure that the design and manufacturing quality are at a standard required from such a high-risk facility.

And of course, in Australia we don’t currently have such agencies, legislation, nor standards with an energy production scope - so all these would need to be developed with public funds. We also lack a sufficient pool of experienced people needed to establish these bodies and regulations as the local nuclear professionals are few and focused on research and medical use of nuclear technology.

Locations and political risk

Politically it seems like the biggest challenge for the nuclear debate is choosing the location for the power plants.

Communities near coal-fuelled power plants don't necessarily welcome a nuclear power plant in their backyard.

The challenge is well demonstrated by the difficulty in finding a location to store even low and medium-level nuclear waste from OPAL, the Australian research reactor. The latest community to stand up against becoming a nuclear waste dump ground was Kimba in SA.

Hosting a nuclear power plant would mean housing thousands of international, specialised construction workers and making the community susceptible to a housing boom and bust. Refuelling and maintenance shutdowns will also create a seasonal housing challenge for a few weeks each year.

Siting of new nuclear power plants will be a topic politicians need to tread around very carefully.

However, the lack of bipartisan support for nuclear creates another, perhaps less obvious obstacle for nuclear power in Australia. Even if the prevailing government was supportive of a project, the long development time increases the likelihood of a change of government and subsequent termination of the project before all permits are granted. This is a significant risk for investors to take and can further increase the price of capital.

Energy mix and radioactivity

The above touches on different aspects of nuclear power in Australia, but there are two topics that are hardly discussed in the mainstream media at all. They deserve a blog of their own.

The next part of this series examines the impacts of nuclear power in the Australian energy mix.

"People with solar rooftops aren't going to be happy," writes energy developer Chris Baker.

In the final blog of this series I will look into nuclear waste management and provide some insights into the jobs nuclear power would create for these communities.

"While a nuclear fuel rod is safe to touch before use, once the reaction has started in a nuclear reactor, the radiation can’t be stopped and any proximity to the used rods would be fatal."

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