Powerful majority supports nuclear option for energy security

Two thirds of younger Australians would back a proposal to replace retired coal-fired power plants with small modular nuclear reactors, signalling significant and growing community support for nuclear power as a future net-zero solution.

An exclusive Newspoll conducted for The Australian shows 55 per cent of all Australian voters supported the idea of small modular nuclear reactors as a replacement technology for coal-fired power. But support was highest among 18 to 34-year-olds – the demographic most concerned about climate change – with 65 per cent saying they would approve of such a proposal.

The Coalition is yet to confirm its energy policy but it is widely ­expected to include a network of several small modular reactors (SMRs) as a firming source of power for renewables once the country transitions away from gas and coal.

This would require overturning the 1998 ban on nuclear power and banking on SMR technology that is not expected to be deliverable until the mid-2030s. Labor has firmly ruled out nuclear as an ­option, focusing instead on a ­renewable and battery dominated energy system.

The special Newspoll survey of 1245 voters across the country, conducted from February 19-23, shows strong community support for nuclear power, with a majority across all age groups backing SMRs. More than half of Labor voters, 51 per cent, and 53 per cent of Greens voters also backed the proposal when asked if they would support building SMRs. The poll showed that while 55 per cent of all voters supported the proposal, 31 per cent were opposed. Support was strongest among Coalition voters at 71 per cent, with 20 per cent opposed. A total of 14 per cent of voters said they didn’t know.

There was also a significant gender gap in support, with 70 per cent of male voters in support but only 41 per cent of female voters. Yet the number of women voters in support was still higher than those opposed at 38 per cent.

Among 35 to 49-year-olds, 50 per cent approved and 34 per cent were opposed.

The findings were similar within the 50 to 64-year-old demographic, with a 50-35 per cent split – the majority in favour.

Support rose again among those aged over 65, with 56 per cent in favour and 32 per cent saying they disapproved.

The backing of SMRs was similar across the country, with 57 per cent of metropolitan voters in favour and 53 per cent of regional or rural voters supporting the idea.

Labor argues that the cost of nuclear power is prohibitive, and that the cheapest forms of power will be wind and solar.

But the Coalition has countered that the cost of Labor’s plans is driving up power prices and risking the reliability of the network amid growing community opposition to offshore wind and transmission lines required to connect renewable precincts to the grid.

Mining magnate Andrew Forrest will on Monday use a National Press Club address to rally support for renewable energy in a speech expected to be strongly critical of nuclear power.

The executive chairman of Fortescue, who has signed off on a $1bn-plus investment in green hydrogen projects, said: “People in the bush will suffer because of the misinformation being plucked out of thin air to create division – whether it’s pushing expensive nuclear energy, or labelling windfarms industrial wastelands.

“And if you don’t like the look of a wind tower, try a nuclear power plant next door.”

Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen has lampooned the idea of nuclear power, claiming the cost is prohibitive, while accusing the Coalition of engaging in a culture war.

Mr Bowen at the weekend described a nuclear power option for Australia as a fantasy with SMRs having yet to be proven viable in any Western country.

“No plan for nuclear power in Australia will survive contact with reality. Australian people deserve more than hot air to power their homes and businesses,” Mr Bowen said.

“Like many things in the climate debate, the push for nuclear power has taken on a singular importance in the culture wars.

“It’s striking that a party that once prided itself on economic rationalism could embrace a frolic so spectacularly uneconomic.

“This is the triumph of culture wars over climate pragmatism in the alternative government.”

The Coalition is expected to finalise a policy that will include future SMRs in the belief that technology is rapidly advancing and will become cost effective by the time it is needed.

It also argues that the environmental footprint of SMRs is insignificant when compared to the vast geographic requirements of wind and solar farms.

Deploying them at the sites of retired coal plants would also forego the need for new transmission lines.

The Australian last week revealed that the Coalition was finalising an energy policy that would likely include nuclear power as part of a mix of net-zero energy replacement technology.

Ted O’Brien, the opposition climate change and energy spokesman who is working with Liberal leader Peter Dutton on the Coalition’s election policy, said they were adopting an “all-of-the-above” approach to “practically deliver net zero by 2050”.

“Other nations think we’re nuts as we destroy our world-famous natural environment in an unprecedented radical experiment of a ‘renewables-only’ grid while ­ignoring zero-emissions nuclear energy, especially given no one has more uranium reserves than us,” the Queensland MP said.