ABC 7:30 Tuesday 12 March 2024

Sarah Ferguson: Well, here he is. Ted O’Brien is the Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy. Welcome to the program.

Ted O’Brien: Thanks very much, Sarah.

Sarah Ferguson: So, how many, uh, nuclear powered – how many nuclear power stations would the Coalition build, and how long would it take to build them?

Ted O’Brien: So, the advice we’ve received from the best experts in the world is that small modular reactors could be constructed between about 3-5 years; large reactors 6-12 years –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] I’m just going to stop you –

Ted O’Brien: – but, of course…

Sarah Ferguson: I’m just going to stop – I know it’s jumping in very quickly, but forgive me because –

Ted O’Brien: No, that’s ok.

Sarah Ferguson: – we’ve spoken to a lot of experts and there’s a lot of expertise on the table from the CSIRO over a number of years, and – and other groups. The timetable for getting a nuclear reactor up and running in the rest of the world in a comparable economy is a lot more than the timeframe that you’re describing. In the United States, it’s 19 years on average. So, how does Australia, with no supporting laws, no regulations, no workforce, no experience, no waste plants, no social license, do it in under 10 years?

Ted O’Brien: So, let me unpack this. Firstly, just to finish my earlier response, construction, 3-5 SMRs –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] And that’s small modular reactors?

Ted O’Brien: It’s 3-5 years for small modular reactors. 6-12 years for large reactors. And as I was about to say, that is the advice of ANSTO. That is the advice of the Albanese government’s nuclear agency.

Sarah Ferguson: Not from a standing start. So, let’s –

Ted O’Brien: No, construction, right.

Sarah Ferguson: So, let’s –

Ted O’Brien: So, before construction, you’re right, you do need to stand up a regulator and so forth –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] So, I’m just going to ask you a question now –

Ted O’Brien: So, can I answer – can I answer that question?

Sarah Ferguson: Let me just say this one thing, because I think this is very important for the audience. And forgive me for interrupting you there –

Ted O’Brien: No, that’s ok.

Sarah Ferguson: – but this is important. This is a complex subject. It’s an extremely serious subject given the nature of our commitments to reduce our emissions. Being straightforward about the detail and not trying to snow people seems to be incredibly important. So, why would you start off by saying – not here but out there – uh, in making public statements that you could do it in under ten years when you know you can’t?

Ted O’Brien: That’s not true, Sarah, with all due respect. I take your point, and I actually agree with it. You have to be straightforward; you have to be completely transparent, and this is serious. And so, as your prelude showed, by counterpart, the Minister cracking, you know, great one liners about Saos and “Tell him he’s dreaming”. One liners is not the way you run Australia’s energy system. Right now, we are in a mess, because we have somebody with one liners trying to run the system –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] Well, to be –

Ted O’Brien: So –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] To be fair to him, he was talking about a whole series of things. That was the thing –

Ted O’Brien: No, that was specific.

Sarah Ferguson: – that he said in the end.

Ted O’Brien: That was specific to nuclear, Sarah.

Sarah Ferguson: Alright.

Ted O’Brien: And this is the issue. Because we have a government right now who is refusing to have a mature debate –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] Alright, well, let’s –

Ted O’Brien: I mean, we have –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] Let’s have –

Ted O’Brien: We are paying –

Sarah Ferguson: Let’s have it –

Ted O’Brien: So, we are – but let me make this point.

Sarah Ferguson: Yep.

Ted O’Brien: Australians right now are paying among the highest energy prices in the world. We already have blackouts, it’s getting worse. And our renewables target is failing –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] I have brought you –

Ted O’Brien: – and we have this government –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] – in here to talk about nuclear energy. So, let’s not waste time talking about the –

Ted O’Brien: Well –

Sarah Ferguson: – government for the moment. No, I’m going to stop you there –

Ted O’Brien: That is the problem.

Sarah Ferguson: – because I want to talk about…

Ted O’Brien: I will now shift to nuclear –

Sarah Ferguson: Yes.

Ted O’Brien: – but to make the point, that is the problem we need to solve.

Sarah Ferguson: Yes.

Ted O’Brien: In comes zero emissions nuclear energy. Not as a silver bullet –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] Well, let me –

Ted O’Brien: But –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] – put this to you –

Ted O’Brien: – as part –

Sarah Ferguson: – let me –

Ted O’Brien: Can I just finish my sentence? As part of a balanced energy mix. This is key.

Sarah Ferguson: Yes.

Ted O’Brien: Working together with renewables.

Sarah Ferguson: Yes.

Ted O’Brien: Working together with –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] So, not a –

Ted O’Brien: – gas.

Sarah Ferguson: So, not a – not a silver bullet.

Ted O’Brien: Not a silver bullet.

Sarah Ferguson: Let’s talk about the facts. So, a very optimistic timetable could potentially see one large scale nuclear reactor – and we’ll come to the smaller reactors in a moment. But in terms of the large-scale nuclear reactors, because that what the Opposition Leader, Peter Dutton’s been talking about. An optimistic timetable could see one of them potentially up and running in the mid-2040s. So, is it your policy to keep coal fired generators running longer?

Ted O’Brien: So, if you’ll allow me now to unpack. So, you’re right. You need a regulator stood up and you need a whole bunch of things done. Now, if you look at the way this is done internationally and best practice, the advice we have, which aligns with the Australian government’s advice – which is the point I was making earlier, ANSTO – is that you actually can, if it’s a small modular reactor, work within a decade. A ten-year period –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] Yeah, I think we’re talking about the large-scale reactor.

Ted O’Brien: And I’m getting to that.

Sarah Ferguson: Yep.

Ted O’Brien: And large-scale reactors will take a handful of years after. Again, subject to the design and planning. Now, if you look at the most recent entrant into the civil nuclear program globally, it’s the UAE. And they hosted COP –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] To be – to be clear to the audience – just let’s make it clear to the audience, we’re talking about a country that is partially a command economy. So, it’s not a country like Australia. It’s not a country where people can object to a nuclear reactor in their constituency, So, just to be clear, UAE is not comparable to Australia. So, it can set up its regulatory framework, and in the UAE, even there, even in an autocracy, it took 4 years. So, I want to come back to the question I asked you.

Ted O’Brien: And can I finish my point though –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] I just want to –

Ted O’Brien: – because you just interrupted me, Sarah, on my point, and you finished a different point on the same subject.

Sarah Ferguson: I think you hadn’t answered the first question.

Ted O’Brien: So, the UAE –

Sarah Ferguson: Yes.

Ted O’Brien: – they are the most recent entrant.

Sarah Ferguson: Indeed.

Ted O’Brien: Right. Now, when you look at the inclusion of Covid, that apparently took them out for two years. They went from a decision to actually having nuclear on the grid within a ten-year period. These weren’t small modular reactors which happen faster, right. These are the larger plants; the 1.4-gigawatt plants. They were bringing on a new reactor, around about one every 12 months. Now, you might say –

Sarah Ferguson: Yes.

Ted O’Brien: – that a very different system of government – and I agree with that. But I have visited the plant. I have spoken with the people who have implemented it. They actually moved the site from the original site to a secondary site. Why? Because of community pushback, right –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] Not – not –

Ted O’Brien: So, it’s not like they –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] You will accept, not –

Ted O’Brien: – steamrolled over a community.

Sarah Ferguson: Well, not at the same level –

Ted O’Brien: Albeit not a democracy, but I’m happy to talk about democracies too.

Sarah Ferguson: Alright. So, my question was, in terms of a large-scale nuclear reactor – and we’re still parking the small ones, because as you well know, the economics of small modular reactors have suffered tremendous setbacks in recent years, including the recent collapse of one of the most promising ones.

Ted O’Brien: We are looking at SMRs and large to be very clear –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] Yeah, so –

Ted O’Brien: – and I disagree with that point, but we can come back to it, if you like.

Sarah Ferguson: Let’s just come back to that question. So, if you could get one nuclear reactor up in 2040 – and that’s not a given in the timeframes that we’ve seen around the world. Bear in mind, the United States, 19 years with a fully fledged industry already in existence.

Ted O’Brien: The Australian government’s agency disagrees with you, and multiple other experts around the world disagree. But –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] This is the question –

Ted O’Brien: – Anthony Albanese agrees with you –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] This is the question –

Ted O’Brien: So does Chris Bowen.

Sarah Ferguson: This – your policy, with uncertainty – at least we can agree that there is no certainty over the operational date of a large-scale nuclear reactor being built in a country with no existing nuclear reactor business in its landscape. Do you – the question was, is it your policy to keep coal fired power stations running longer?

Ted O’Brien: So, our view is we should not be closing our coal fired power stations prematurely. Now, the reason I say that is, as of today, we are looking at 90 per cent – nine zero per cent of our baseload energy exiting the grid by 2034. So, we’re talking within a decade, 90 per cent of our baseload energy gone because Labor’s policy settings. Now, Sarah, the lights will go out –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] But hang on, are you saying –

Ted O’Brien: – the lights will go out if that happens.

Sarah Ferguson: – it is going to be Coalition policy, that you will keep those coal fired power stations running longer than the dates that have been set in [inaudible] now.

Ted O’Brien: No, they’re –

Sarah Ferguson: I think –

Ted O’Brien: They’re – they’re your words –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] No, they’re the –

Ted O’Brien: Let me clarify –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] They’re the decisions taken by the companies and the organisations that run –

Ted O’Brien: Let me clarify.

Sarah Ferguson: – those power stations, that they’ve set dates for them.

Ted O’Brien: Let me clarify, if I can. Is that alright?

Sarah Ferguson: [laughing] Yes, of course.

Ted O’Brien: Ok, thank you. So, our position is, you shouldn’t be closing those coal fired power stations prematurely. As for policies that we will announce, we will announce them in due course. I’m not doing that this evening. But, so as much as Labor like to say, “We’re closing coal”. In truth, Sarah, I believe their policy, the way it’s going to pave out, is renewables plus coal. And we know that why? Because the Victorian Labor government has done two deals – behind closed doors, no transparency of those deals – to keep coal in the system. Same as WA –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] Alright I want to –

Ted O’Brien: – and you wait until –

Sarah Ferguson: – I want to come back –

Ted O’Brien: – NSW Labor –

Sarah Ferguson: – to what you’re doing. I want to what –

Ted O’Brien: – NSW Labor –

Sarah Ferguson: – you’re doing.

Ted O’Brien: – on the Eraring coal fired power station they’re negotiating. So, that’s what Labor’s doing right now. Chris Bowen and Anthony Albanese don’t event want to talk about it. That’s the truth –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] Let’s –

Ted O’Brien: – because their renewables plan is failing.

Sarah Ferguson: Let’s come back to what you’re doing, because I’ve asked you a couple of times what your view is on the future mix. Let’s – I want to talk about this. Both you and the Opposition Leader, Peter Dutton, have quoted Bill Gates in support of new nuclear – of a new nuclear policy. As we know, Bill Gates, one of the world’s most successful businessman [sic] and someone who invests in new nuclear technology.

Ted O’Brien: Yes.

Sarah Ferguson: So, you’ve both spruced him as an example of –

Ted O’Brien: Among many.

Sarah Ferguson: Among many. But a significant one, you’d agree. So, I asked Bill Gates, on this program, whether Australia should be involved in nuclear energy, and this was his answer: “Australia doesn’t need to get engaged on this. Australia should aggressively take advantage of Australia’s natural endowment to do solar and wind. That’s clear cut and beneficial to Australia.” So, does the Coalition think it understands the business of nuclear energy better than Bill Gates?

Ted O’Brien: The best experts in the world have told us that Australia needs nuclear in order to get to net zero –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] But you’re the ones –

Ted O’Brien: – and Sarah –

Sarah Ferguson: – quoting Bill Gates –

Ted O’Brien: No, no, that’s fine. Well, let me –

Sarah Ferguson: – and Bill Gates says –

Ted O’Brien: – talk about Bill Gates –

Sarah Ferguson: – it’s not a good idea –

Ted O’Brien: Well, here’s –

Sarah Ferguson: – for Australia.

Ted O’Brien: – what I love about Bill Gates, right. In the state of Wyoming, in the United States, the northern power plant is actually transitioning from being a coal plant to a nuclear plant. Now, they are able to do so by moving the unionised labour workforce into the nuclear plant with higher wages. And that community was 1 of 4 that vied to host –

Sarah Ferguson: Yes.

Ted O’Brien: – that plant. That is Bill Gates’ plant –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] I’m aware

Ted O’Brien: – and that part, I think –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] So, Bill Gates –

Ted O’Brien: – that is excellent.

Sarah Ferguson: – a successful investor in nuclear energy, says it makes no sense for Australia in this – in this moment to invest in nuclear energy, when it has an abundance of solar and wind. So, to come back to my question –

Ted O’Brien: And as an investor – as an investor –

Sarah Ferguson: – what is it that the –

Ted O’Brien:  that is his right. I’m not going to question what he does with his money, Sarah.

Sarah Ferguson: He’s criticising – he is saying it is a not a good decision, it’s not a wise decision for Australia to invest in nuclear energy at this stage. Wait 10-15 years, see whether these highly experimental, uh, new plants work and then decide whether it should be in the mix. But right now, what does he say? Stay with what Australia has an abundance [of], solar and wind. That is Bill Gates’ advice. Will you listen to it?

Ted O’Brien: I will listen to the underlying principle, and I agree with the underlying principle. Because what I hear there is, you’ve got to leverage your comparative advantages. Do we have a comparative advantage of wind and sunshine? Yeah, we do. Therefore, are renewables important to our future grid? Absolutely. But I tell you what we also have a comparative advantage in. We are blessed with abundant resources – abundant resources. We have the world’s largest reserve of uranium, the fuel that powers nuclear power plants the world over, yet none of our own. And we also have enormous amounts of gas. So, we have to leverage our comparative advantage and get the mix right, Sarah –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] Let must just ask you this quickly –

Ted O’Brien: – because it’s all about balancing the mix.

Sarah Ferguson: – because we do have to wrap up. But, um, just on the question of – two questions. On the question of cost. So, as we know, at the moment, nuclear is still the most expensive new build electricity generation in the world, particularly compared to renewables. Why choose the –

Ted O’Brien: If you’re an investor.

Sarah Ferguson: – most expensive technology when we have access to the cheapest?

Ted O’Brien: If you are an investor, I’m sure it is more expensive –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] So…

Ted O’Brien: – for the CapEx [capital expense]. But what counts, Sarah, is not the developer or the investor, it is the consumer. And this is where –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] Well, if you – but if you –

Ted O’Brien: This is where Labor –

Sarah Ferguson: – take out – I’m sorry –

Ted O’Brien: Let me finish my answer.

Sarah Ferguson: No, no, no.

Ted O’Brien: This is where Labor gets it wrong. You put the consumer –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] I’m going to have to interrupt you there because –

Ted O’Brien: – at the centre…

Sarah Ferguson: – you’re making an argument that says that it’s not attractive for investors. That means that the government –

Ted O’Brien: No, I didn’t make that argument.

Sarah Ferguson: Well –

Ted O’Brien: I said it’s a higher CapEx.

Sarah Ferguson: Yeah.

Ted O’Brien: Higher capital expense.

Sarah Ferguson: Yes, yes.

Ted O’Brien: I didn’t say it’s unattractive –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] So, you’re not going to have to fill the gap –

Ted O’Brien: A higher CapEx.

Sarah Ferguson: – with –

Ted O’Brien: But my point –

Sarah Ferguson: – subsidies.

Ted O’Brien: But my point was this. In Canada, in Ontario, what drives down prices for consumers who pay half the price that we do in Australia? Nuclear. When I sat down –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] Six –

Ted O’Brien: – with the Japanese –

Sarah Ferguson: – billion dollars –

Ted O’Brien: When I sat –

Sarah Ferguson: – worth of subsidies –

Ted O’Brien: When I sat down with –

Sarah Ferguson: – in Ontario.

Ted O’Brien: Well, hang on. If you look at – why? Because Chris Bowen said that on television? Because I tell you what, the research of that paves out very differently. The Australian government also provides some relief. If you look at the relief that’s provided, it’s actually due to contracts signed –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] We’ll have to –

Ted O’Brien: – with renewables.

Sarah Ferguson: We’ll have to –

Ted O’Brien: The Japanese –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] We’ll have to park that –

Ted O’Brien: The Japanese –

Sarah Ferguson: Yep.

Ted O’Brien: – I’ve sat down with them. I’ve met with the departments there. I’ve seen the figures. Nuclear gets prices down. Canada: nuclear gets prices down. United States: nuclear gets prices down. The UK: nuclear gets prices down. But here we are in Australia, and we have the Australian Labor Party, that’s not been interested in this debate suddenly now becoming experts –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] Just –

Ted O’Brien: – and disagreeing –

Sarah Ferguson: [interjecting] Just before –

Ted O’Brien: – with their own agency.

Sarah Ferguson: Just before we close –

Ted O’Brien: That doesn’t make sense to me, Sarah.

Sarah Ferguson: – I’m just going to have to make a point about the United Kingdom, because you are ignoring the fact that the current nuclear program in the United Kingdom is in terrible trouble with the French nuclear program at Hinkley going over costs. So, I’m going to finish there. We have to wrap it up, but –

Ted O’Brien: That’s fine.

Sarah Ferguson: – we’ve clearly got a lot more to talk about.

Ted O’Brien: And we can talk about the UAE next time, on time, on budget and within just over a decade. How good’s that?

Sarah Ferguson: And an autocracy. Thank you very much for joining us.