The Coalition says its nuclear plants will run for 100 years. What does the international experience tell us?

<span>Construction of England’s Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, which has experienced rounds of delays and could have final costs approaching $90bn. The Coalition’s nuclear plan involves building seven reactors in Australia.</span><span>Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP</span>
Construction of England’s Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, which has experienced rounds of delays and could have final costs approaching $90bn. The Coalition’s nuclear plan involves building seven reactors in Australia.Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP

The federal Coalition’s pledge to build nuclear reactors on seven sites in five states if elected has continued to raise questions this week.

Ted O’Brien, the shadow energy minister, says the plants can operate for between 80 and 100 years, providing “cheaper, cleaner and consistent 24/7 electricity” compared with renewables.

That claim comes despite the CSIRO’s Gencost report estimating each 1-gigawatt nuclear plant could take 15-20 years to build and cost $8.4bn. The first may be double that given the high start-up costs.

But what does the state of the nuclear energy internationally tell us about the Coalition’s proposal?

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What is the state of the global nuclear industry?

The world opened five nuclear reactors last year and shut the same number, trimming 1GW of capacity in the process, says Mycle Schneider, an independent analyst who coordinates the annual world nuclear industry status report.

During the past two decades, it’s a similar story of 102 reactors opened and 104 shutting. As with most energy sources, China has been the biggest mover, adding 49 during that time and closing none. Despite that burst, nuclear provides only about 5% of China’s electricity.

Last year, China added 1GW of nuclear energy but more than 200GW of solar alone. Solar passed nuclear for total power production in 2022 while wind overtook it a decade ago.

“In industrial terms, nuclear power is irrelevant in the overall global market for electricity generating technology,” he says.

As for small modular reactors, or SMRs,nobody has built one commercially. Not even billionaire Bill Gates, whose company has been trying for 18 years.

The CSIRO report examined the “contentious issue” of SMRs, and noted that one of the main US projects, Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, was cancelled last November. Even then, its estimated costs in 2o2o of $18,200/kiloWatt, or more than double that of large-scale plants at $8,655/kW (in 2023 dollars).

So at least some nations are still building large reactors?

Of the 35 construction starts since 2019, 22 were in China and the rest were Russian-built in various nations. Russia sweetens its deals by agreeing to handle the waste from the plants it builds.

“The US has blacklisted CGN and CNNC, which are the two major [Chinese] state-owned nuclear companies [in China] that could respond to an international call for tender,” Schneider says. “So could you imagine that Australia would hire a Chinese company under those conditions to build nuclear reactors?”

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Aren’t allies like France an option?

France’s EDF was a poster child for the industry, not least because nuclear provides almost two-thirds of the country’s electricity. However, the firm has €54.5bn ($88bn) debt and hasn’t finished a plant since 2007.

Construction of its Hinkley Point C plant in the UK – two giant, 1.63GW units – began in 2018, aiming for first power from 2025. Rounds of delays now mean it might not fire up until 2031 and the costs may approach $90bn when it is complete.

South Korea’s Kepco has been active too, building the 5.6GW Barakah plant in the United Arab Emirates. As Schneider’s report notes, the UAE “did not agree” to the disclosure of cost, delays or impairment losses.

That Kepco debt totals an astonishing $US154bn ($231bn) is perhaps “a slight indication that they cannot have made tonnes of money in the UAE”, Schneider says.

The 4.5GW Vogtle plant reached full capacity in April, making it the US’s largest nuclear power station. Its first two units exceeded $US35bn, with the state of Georgia’s Public Service Commission saying cost increases and delays have “completely eliminated any benefit on a lifecycle costs basis”.

Can these plants really run 80-100 years?

Of the active 416 nuclear reactors, the mean age is about 32 years. Among the 29 reactors that have shut over the past five years, the average age was less than 43 years, Schneider says.

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There are 16 reactors that have been operating for 51 years or more. “There is zero experience of a 60-year-old operating reactor, zero. It never happened. Leave alone 80 years or beyond,” he says. (The world’s oldest, Switzerland’s Beznau, has clocked up 55 years with periods of outages.)

CSIRO’s report looked at a 30- or 40-year life for a large nuclear plant as there was “little evidence presented that private financing would be comfortable” with risk for any longer.

As plants age, maintenance costs should increase, as they have in France. That’s not the case in the US, though, with declining investment in the past decade even as the average reactor age has jumped from 32 to 42 years.

“You have two options as to the outcome: either you hit an investment wall, so you have to have massive investments all over the place at the same time, or you get a very serious safety or security problem somewhere,” Schneider says.

US plants have been running an “incredible” 90% of the time over the past decade. Compare that with France’s load factor in 2022 of just 52%, he says.

“The best offshore wind farms in Scotland have a five-year average load factor of 54%.”