Senate opposition firms against Coalition’s nuclear power plan as David Pocock blasts ‘reckless’ proposal

<span>The independent senator David Pocock says he’s not ideologically opposed to nuclear but it ‘just doesn’t make sense for Australia’. </span><span>Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP</span>
The independent senator David Pocock says he’s not ideologically opposed to nuclear but it ‘just doesn’t make sense for Australia’. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Senate opposition to the Coalition’s nuclear plan is firming, presenting a major hurdle to Peter Dutton’s proposal for seven nuclear power plants on top of state objections.

In addition to Labor and the Greens, independent senators Lidia Thorpe and David Pocock have voiced major criticisms of the policy, while Jacqui Lambie, who has previously expressed support for nuclear to be part of the mix, is investigating the Coalition’s proposal and is concerned nuclear plants are “incredibly expensive”.

Anthony Albanese has accused the Coalition of hampering power price reductions in the short term by pursuing a nuclear power “fantasy” and “disrupting certainty” of investment in renewable energy.

On Thursday the prime minister muscled up against Peter Dutton’s proposal to build seven nuclear power plants, arguing it had not survived one day of scrutiny and accusing the Coalition of pursuing the “destination of denial” instead of more practical steps to reduce emissions and prices.

Related: There’s a yawning Coalition credibility gap on the cost of renewables and nuclear | Temperature Check

“Now they’ve moved away from coal but they’ve found another destination of denial,” he said.

“There will be issues of more energy insecurity, because we know it is disrupting the certainty that the business community have been crying out for.

“That’s how you reduce prices – by increasing supply.”

Even if elected, Dutton would need the support of the Senate to overturn the federal ban.

Thorpe, whose term expires in 2028, said: “My people have known for thousands of years that uranium is poison and needs to stay in the ground. Nuclear doesn’t make sense economically, technologically or environmentally.”

“We should stick to what works: renewables.”

Pocock said he is “not ideologically opposed to nuclear energy, [but] based on the feedback I have received to date, the costs and timeline and the urgent need to decarbonise our economy now, nuclear just doesn’t make sense for Australia”.

“The Coalition proposing a nuclear pipe-dream … given the urgent need for climate action and Australians facing a cost-of-living crisis, is reckless and unrealistic.”

Labor, the Greens, Pocock and Thorpe currently command a majority of the Senate’s 76 seats.

A spokesperson for Lambie said, although the senator has said nuclear should be in the mix since about 2016, she is “concerned we haven’t invested in research and development, they’re incredibly expensive”. Lambie wants to do a “deep dive” on nuclear waste and costs before finalising her position.

Independent senator Tammy Tyrell has said she is open to nuclear power, while One Nation supports it.

Senior Coalition figures have struggled to explain how they would overcome key obstacles to the policy, including the federal and state bans on nuclear, unwilling sellers of the seven sites and what technology would be used.

On Thursday the shadow treasurer, Angus Taylor, confirmed the opposition would unveil its costings before the election.

Dutton made a virtue of the lack of detail in the plan, telling ABC TV the opposition had “taken a deliberate step not to be held hostage by the Labor party in the scare campaign”.

“We want the information out there in bite-size bits, if you like, so that people can consume exactly what it is that we’re proposing and understand what it’s not proposing,” he told ABC TV.

The CSIRO’s Gencost report advised nuclear power could be set up in Australia no sooner than 2040 and would be at least 50% more expensive than solar and wind, even factoring in the costs of transmission and firming of renewables. A theoretical 1,000MW nuclear plant built today would cost at least $8.6bn.

But Dutton claimed nuclear would be cheaper because “a wind turbine project probably has an amortisation period, or a lifespan, of about two decades” whereas nuclear has “an 80-to-100 year amortisation period … so the capital cost is spread over a longer period of time”.

“So, in terms of the current debate in the Illawarra, it’s about $10bn over 20 to 30 years, the proponents say.”

Albanese said the Coalition had made “an announcement without any substance: no costings, no real timelines [and] no idea of what form the reactors will be”.

“This is economic catastrophe,” he told Sky News. “When we look at the costs of nuclear, what we know is that it’s the most expensive form of new energy.

“The Dutton opposition are saying in two decades we’ll give you the most expensive form of energy there is.”

Albanese pointed to state Coalition governments’ record of selling government-owned power assets, and said the Coalition would “struggle to assemble an Ikea flat pack”, let alone develop an industry the federal government had no record of experience in.

Albanese noted the International Energy Agency, which is pro-nuclear, has nevertheless said it is not appropriate for Australia given its “comparative advantages” with wind and solar resources.

“Not only will this [nuclear] cost more, it will make energy supply insecure because there’s no answer either of what happens between now and two decades’ time for how energy supply is secured.”

Albanese noted in its nine years in office to 2022, the Coalition had wanted to build new coal power plants “and it ended up in zero”. He said the Coalition had also wanted to extend the life of existing coal plants but instead 14 announced closure “on their watch”.

Albanese said it was “tacky” that the Coalition had invoked the late Labor prime minister Bob Hawke in their advocacy for nuclear because he “can’t speak for himself” and they had quoted him “out of context”.

Earlier, Taylor accused Labor of confusing government ownership with subsidies, revealing the Coalition expects nuclear “to deliver a return on investment so it can be off-budget” like the national broadband network and Australia Post.

Taylor argued power prices could be reduced sooner than 2035-37 – the timescale the Coalition has put on the first two nuclear plants – because of “shorter term strategies” to use more gas in the meantime. Guardian Australia has previously reported that there is no evidence to suggest using gas would cut costs.

The Coalition has promised to abandon Labor’s 2030 emissions reduction target of 43% on 2005 levels and proposed limiting or capping the amount of investment in large-scale renewables.