Sky News Regional with Janyie Seal

22 June 2024

JANYIE SEAL, HOST: Returning to one of our top stories, the Opposition Leader will look to get his Liberal Party faithful on board with his nuclear pledge at a meeting of the party's federal council later today. The Coalition is yet to place a figure on its nuclear ambitions but claim Labor's renewable plan will cost Australia more than a trillion dollars. The Opposition Leader will look to get his liberal party faithful on board with his nuclear pledge at that meeting. Joining me live is Senator Tim Ayres, Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing. Senator, thank you very much for joining us.


SENATOR TIM AYRES: Really good to be in the studio with you. Usually, I'm out the front of some factory in a country town.


SEAL: You just came back from PNG?




SEAL: But let's talk nuclear because obviously this week it's been a massive discussion, some saying that the policy is a gamble. But let's start with energy, nuclear as an energy. Are you opposed to nuclear being an energy in Australia for civilians?


SENATOR AYRES: Well, we've certainly got a nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights that does medical isotopes. We plan to build, with the United Kingdom and the government of the United States, submarines that will be nuclear propelled, conventionally armed. But nuclear power for Australia is a very bad idea from an engineering perspective, from a capability perspective and from a cost perspective.


Put aside all of the risks and other issues that are associated with it. The economies around the world that have a nuclear power sector have had an established nuclear industry for decade after decade after decade since the 1950s. So, they are established facilities where the capital costs have been sunk into them. For Australia, it would be stratospherically expensive to do. The timelines are at best uncertain. So, no power online until the 2040s.


One of the communications challenges here, of course, is that the idea is so bad on so many fronts. I don't know how much time we've got this morning, but when you get to my portfolio areas of manufacturing and trade, for our exporters in manufacturing, and agriculture in particular, this is a disaster in competitiveness terms, as we try and fight for market share for our exports overseas. So, it's bad for consumers, bad for households, bad for industry and it's stratospherically costly.


SEAL: So, in terms of the timeline; how long, if it was to go ahead, do you think it could potentially take to get on board if it was to go ahead?


AYRES: Let's take comparable projects overseas (and bear in mind that they're being constructed in economies that have an established nuclear industry with the thousands of nuclear PhDs and scientists and engineers who are engaged in those sectors). United Kingdom’s Hinckley Sea power station [took] 21 years at best, to build that power station, at best. It was projected to cost $25 billion. It's now projected to cost $85 billion, that’s one nuclear power station.


In the United States, after the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island reactor in 1979, the first reactor that they are building again is hopelessly over time and hopelessly over budget. Gone from $35 billion to $53 billion and what the state of Georgia says about who is going to bear the cost, guess who? It's the taxpayers of Georgia who are going to bear 80% of the cost of that massive blowout.


There's no good example on the cost front on this issue.


SEAL: All right, and yes, that is what's happening overseas. But looking at those timelines, they factored in the COVID outbreak, so there was a bit of a time delay there. We've also got to look at potentially what's happening in the world of AI and how fast that is moving, including in the nuclear space. I don't know about this, but, you know, looking at what AI experts are saying overseas especially, would you potentially look at that as a factor in terms of safety, reliability, lowering costs and so forth?


AYRES: I wouldn't be surprised at all if Peter Dutton comes out tomorrow and says, “robots are going to build our nuclear reactors.” But it is too silly for words, really. This is a bad idea, trying to latch onto some justification somewhere. When Peter Dutton looks at the real experts on costings, which put nuclear as the most expensive, he says; “oh, that's fake news.”


SEAL: I'm getting the wrap up here. I just want to quickly ask you, we’re looking at energy prices, including gas, going through the roof of places like Sydney and Melbourne. What could Labor do then, at this point in time? If you're looking at this scenario, would you say that potentially you've got a bit of a silver platter there to go; right. if you're really that concerned about the energy crisis that is happening here and across the world, would you not potentially go, okay, we can upgrade and we can fast track more renewables or whatever other energy types you would think would be feasible from an economic and a climate point of view.


AYRES: I'll give you three quick answers. Seven days, $300 off power bills for every Australian household.


SEAL: It's not a one off payment.


AYRES: It's $300 over the twelve months, if we can agree on that. Fifty large scale renewable projects approved under our watch and making progress. Major offshore wind developments that will secure the future of industry in the Hunter Valley and the Latrobe Valley. Thirdly, our Future Made in Australia agenda. Building…processed minerals, iron ore in Australia for export overseas to push us up the value chain. New jobs based on green hydrogen, solar and wind. Three examples in two minutes. These are major things for the future of our economy and for the future of regional Australia.


SEAL: Are you happy with the targets at this point in time?


AYRES: Yeah, absolutely. This isn't a government that sets easy to beat targets.


SEAL: Can you do better?


AYRES: We've set ambition. We're working with the private sector and the investment community and the best manufacturers and energy experts, energy companies in the world, to deliver projects that will deliver it. And we're doing it in the national interest because it makes our exports more competitive, pushes down prices, and it's good for business and good for manufacturing.


SEAL: Can you do any better, though?


AYRES: Well, we're always going to try and do better, but this is why people are struggling. We're working…


SEAL: They're not heating, as Dutton calls it. They're eating, not heating.


AYRES: We're in the real world of economics and engineering and science, delivering big projects that are going to shape the economy, that are going to bring the price of power down for households. The truth is, there are challenges out there. We've had a war in Europe that has put up energy prices right around the world. That is not something that can be wished away. We've had a decade of policy in action in this area. These characters who are suddenly up and about nuclear said last year they were opposed to it during government. Did nothing about it. Fourteen power stations closed down on their watch. These are real things that we have to deal with. We're dealing with them in a steady and effective way, and they are having real results for Australians right now.


SEAL: And we can accept what has happened in the past, but quickly again, I'm getting the wrap up. Would you potentially look at nuclear as an energy source after we get through this crisis for perhaps ten years? I've spoken to people that are very pro-renewables on both sides. They're not against nuclear as an energy source. But would you potentially look at that if fast track AI SMR is working overseas and doing really well. Is there a chance that Labour would potentially look at that?


AYRES: The problem is with this argument that we should just open the door to nuclear and see what happens is the message it sends to real people who have to make real investments in the future of the Australian energy market; don't bother knocking. It's a message that creates disinvestment. It means if there's any uncertainty about Australia's energy framework, that's disinvestment. Billions of dollars’ worth of investment go somewhere else where there's a more rational argument. That's banana republic territory for us if we start to create sovereign risk. But that's what the last decade has looked like. That's why four gigawatts went out of the energy system and only one gigawatt went in. It's disinvestment.


SEAL: That makes a lot of sense. However, would it? On the flip side, people are certainly saying, why not have nuclear in the mix? And again, not as the main source, but as a side kick, you know, looking at gas prices again, increasing, yes, we can talk about ten years. We're going to talk about, you know, hundreds of years down the track. Is it not even a possibility to look at that, even park it for ten years and go look and talk to your investors, as you were saying? Very good point there. But not just actually look at potentially having it as part of the solution?


AYRES: Well, because this isn't a university liberal club, a debating society, this is the real world where real people have to make investment decisions in manufacturing and in energy. That kind of uncertainty, it just spells death for investment. That's the problem. And we are going to focus on what is in the national interest and in the interest of making Australia a more competitive economy with good jobs in the regions and suburbs.


SEAL:  Plenty more questions to ask you, but we’ve run out of time. Thank you very much.