Chris Bowen labels Coalition’s nuclear plan a ‘risky scam’ as premiers affirm state bans

<span>The climate change and energy minister, Chris Bowen, says the Coalition’s nuclear power plan is not feasible because several states have banned the energy source. </span><span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
The climate change and energy minister, Chris Bowen, says the Coalition’s nuclear power plan is not feasible because several states have banned the energy source. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Chris Bowen has labelled the Coalition’s nuclear plan a “risky scam”, citing the fact owners of six of the seven proposed sites for power plants won’t sell and five are located in states with their own bans on nuclear power.

In a move that frustrated some on his backbench on Wednesday, Peter Dutton revealed the sites but without providing costings for the proposed government-owned nuclear power plants, nor an estimate of the amount of electricity to be added to the system and or justification for the ambitious 2035-37 timeframe for the first two plants.

Although the Coalition has said it proposes to build the plants – at Tarong and Callide in Queensland, Mount Piper and Liddell in New South Wales, Collie in Western Australia, Loy Yang in Victoria, and one near Port Augusta in South Australia – it has not committed to doing so.

The deputy Nationals leader, Perin Davey, revealed that if local communities were “absolutely adamant” they didn’t want them then the Coalition “will not proceed” and will not search for alternative sites.

The Nationals leader, David Littleproud, later refuted Davey’s comments, saying he and Dutton would be “prepared to make the tough decisions in the national interest”.

The independent MP Andrew Gee, whose electorate of Calare includes Mount Piper, said that “even supporters of nuclear power have questions about this announcement”, including cost and whether the current owners had been consulted.

So far Coalition MPs whose electorates will host the power plants, including Littleproud, and MPs Colin Boyce and Darren Chester, have backed the plan.

Related: ‘Raises red flags’: Coalition nuclear power plan met with widespread scepticism from business groups

But other MPs felt the snap Coalition party room on Wednesday morning wasn’t a genuine consultation, with key details missing from the proposal. Those MPs have muted their criticism only because it is pointless to criticise a policy that will likely never come to fruition.

One federal Liberal MP, who spoke to Guardian Australia under the condition of anonymity, said the Liberals would struggle to campaign on the plan until there were more details and costings.

“If we don’t see the detail of it before the election, the electorate won’t take us seriously. Australians aren’t stupid,” they said.

“It’s a bunch of statements without any detail.

“You can’t turn off coal one day and start nuclear the next day like that. You can’t unplug one and plug in the other and I think that’s why conversations around nuclear are important to see where and how it might work.”

Most MPs accept the policy as a high-risk, high-reward manoeuvre that could wrong-foot Labor by offering low emissions power, but could also saddle the opposition with an unpopular and expensive policy akin to the tax changes former Labor leader Bill Shorten took the 2019 election or the former Liberal leader John Hewson’s ill-fated Fightback! platform he proposed at the 1993 poll.

Bowen, the climate change and energy minister, said the policy “fails at the first hurdle”. “Mr Dutton needs to explain how he would overturn [state nuclear bans], not abuse the premiers, not berate and complain … but outline what his own plan is,” he told reporters in Sydney.

“The Australian people now have a very clear choice: stick with the plan or go with this un-costed, un-modelled fantasy that Mr Dutton is proposing today.”

Bowen said the policy would cause “a complete breakdown of investment in renewable energy and that’s what the Liberal and National Party wants”.

The premiers of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland reiterated on Wednesday that they would not lift their states’ bans of nuclear power, as the Queensland Liberal National opposition leader, David Crisafulli, did earlier in the week.

But Dutton told reporters in Sydney he would negotiate with the states and joked that the proverbial “bucket of money” could overcome their objections.

With none of the sites currently owned by the commonwealth, Dutton also suggested they could be compulsorily acquired. AGL is turning Liddell into a battery, to start operations in 2026, and is planning to manufacture solar panels there.

Dutton had conceded that a “significant amounts of gas” would be used to generate electricity in the interim, before two plants he claims could be online by 2035-2037 and the rest to commence operations in the 2040s.

The shadow attorney general, Michaelia Cash, who is a senator for WA, suggested the power station at Collie would be built closer to 2050.

Related: The Coalition’s nuclear power plan offers the worst of all energy worlds: higher emissions and higher electricity costs | Malcolm Turnbull

The CSIRO’s Gencost report advised nuclear power could be set up in Australia no sooner than 2040 and would be at least 50% more expensive than solar and wind, even factoring in the costs of transmission and firming of renewables.

Boyce, whose electorate of Flynn contains the site of the proposed Callide power station, suggested his community would welcome it as it has a “proud heritage as an energy-producing region and there is a high level of ‘energy literacy’ in the community”.

Chester, who previously warned that his community would need to receive “direct economic benefits” if it were to host a power plants, on Wednesday welcomed the release of the plan.

“I will be listening to locals, consulting the experts, and putting the needs of Gippsland and Latrobe Valley first, and endeavouring to act in the national interest at all times,” he said in a statement.

The NSW Liberal senator and former state party president Maria Kovacic said all resources should be leveraged, including wind and solar.

“An affordable, clean, balanced, stable and efficient energy mix is critical. We need to ensure that we set ideology aside as we deliver on this,” she said.

Andrew Bragg, the shadow assistant minister for home ownership and a leading Liberal moderate, backed the nuclear policy, labelling the federal nuclear ban “thoroughly unscientific” and a “bizarre prohibition”.

The Liberal MP Rowan Ramsey, whose seat of Grey contains the Northern power station, said in March that any talk of where nuclear power plants would be built is “conjecture” that cannot sensibly be tackled until after the nuclear ban is lifted.