Topics:  Coalition nuclear policy;

08:05AM ACST
20 June 2024


David Penberthy: Well, without a doubt, it’s the biggest story in Australian politics right now and the biggest part of that story in South Australia is, as we reported yesterday morning, Port Augusta. In what ended up being a little bit of a surprise move given some of the murmurs coming out of the National Party federally. But Port Augusta has been earmarked by Peter Dutton as one of the seven sites for a nuclear reactor. Peter Dutton has said that the next election will be a referendum on nuclear power. Simon Birmingham is the most senior Liberal senator here in South Australia. He leads the Opposition in the Senate, and we have him on the line now for Breaking at 8. Senator, good morning and thanks for joining us.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, guys.


David Penberthy: What’s your take on I reckon it’s fair to say that the economics of this plan, the response to the vagueness of the costings and how it’s all going to stack up financially has been overwhelmingly negative.


Simon Birmingham: Well, Penbo, I think what we have outlined in what Peter has released is a clear vision for how Australia, looking into the future, can achieve net zero by 2050, but do so with an energy market that is reliable, that underpins the continued existence of industry and manufacturing in Australia, and supports jobs. That gives people a certain baseload power that will be generated into the future. And we’ve been very clear that we are releasing the different policy elements in stages so that Australians can understand precisely what it is that is being proposed for the future. Yesterday was about releasing the limited number of sites and making clear that in lifting the moratorium, the ban on nuclear energy that exists in Australia. It’s not about to then be open slather, but that we’ve given careful consideration to the sites. Because a key part of the economics is using the existing transmission infrastructure. We’ve of course, limited it to sites that historically have played a big role in providing significant baseload power into the grid.


Will Goodings: Senator, the impetus for a nuclear future then, is it about perhaps energy security or is it about lowering power bills? Because that seems to be what’s confusing people?


Simon Birmingham: Well, people know their power bills are going up at present. They were promised under Labor’s modelling that was-.


Will Goodings: They know that. But is anyone in the Opposition saying that this will actually lower power bills?


Simon Birmingham: This won’t be the only aspect of the energy policies that we take to the next election.


Will Goodings: Okay, so if it’s not going to lower power bills, it must be then about making sure we’ve just got power to keep things going for the future.


Simon Birmingham: It’s importantly about ensuring we have as low and reliable, as low cost and reliable energy in the long term as possible. But of course, in the near term, we will have other policies that we take through to the next election as well. But if you look at some of the international comparisons in terms of energy prices, parts of Ontario in Canada, for example, pay significantly less in their energy. This is a part of the Canada with nuclear generation as a significant part of its generation mix, and they’re paying a lot less than in Australia. But of course, you can’t do this sort of thing overnight. But we have to have if we’re serious about doing net zero and serious about having affordable, reliable power, you’ve got to be willing to have the long-term conversations around Australia’s future, not just pretend that it’s all going to happen easily, quickly or overnight.


David Penberthy: Senator Birmingham, one of the key obligations Australia now faces under the AUKUS deal is that by about 2040, from memory, we have to be ready and able and willing to house high-level nuclear waste, which will be produced as a by-product of these nuclear-[powered] submarines. As a senator for South Australia, do you think that SA should put itself forward as a potential venue for a waste disposal dump and is that something that you are prepared to pursue?


Simon Birmingham: The short answer there is we should be prepared as long as the geology all stacks up. And of course, previous research has demonstrated, and indeed a royal commission conducted by a Labor Government in this state demonstrated, that the geology did stack up for South Australia to play a role in terms of nuclear storage. Now, these next generation nuclear facilities, particularly the small modular reactors, produce very, very small amounts of waste. They are much more efficient than previous ones in the past. But I think one of the most reckless things the current federal Labor Government has done was to simply walk away, abandon and give up on the low and medium level storage facility at Kimba. That when the Federal Court handed down its decision there, this government didn’t appeal it. They didn’t seek to legislate to remedy the issues that had been identified. They just gave up and took us back years or potentially decades on the way they handled this-


David Penberthy: You could say the same about the state liberals here doing that with the Royal Commission because they didn’t want to lose the seat of Adelaide.


Simon Birmingham: Well, look they were debates at another time around the royal commission. We had got to the point where in terms of low-level storage, after decades of the country faffing around, we actually had a site. It had gone through the development phases, it had gone through community polling and got support from the community. It had been legislated and then one errant court decision on a particularity of the process, and the Government just walked away from it. That’s not going to help us, be it in terms of handling that low level waste or what we have to commit to under AUKUS. Or of course, if this policy, if we are elected at the next election and Australians give a mandate to developing next generation zero emissions nuclear technology for the future in this country, then we will have to confront all of those issues sensibly and properly, as we should be able to as a nation.


Will Goodings: Senator, do you think now would be then a reasonable time to coupled with this debate about nuclear storage and nuclear power generation to talk about relaxing some of the onerous restrictions on uranium exploration and mining in Australia?


Simon Birmingham: I think we should be playing as big a role as we can in terms of uranium and mining industry, not just for domestic consumption in Australia, but of course, for the increasing role that nuclear energy is playing in many countries around the world. If Australia doesn’t go down this path, then we will be the only one – and we currently are the only one of the G20 nations, the biggest economies in the world – who are not either using nuclear power or have plans to develop nuclear power in our economy. They’re all doing it because it is zero emissions, because it can get them towards the net zero pathway that the world is committed to. And because it does make economic sense in terms of providing reliable baseload power for industry and consumers to use in the years ahead.


David Penberthy: Senator Simon Birmingham, the Opposition Leader in the Senate, thanks very much for joining us this morning for Breaking at 8.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, guys. My pleasure.