Nuclear engineer dismisses Peter Dutton’s claim that small modular reactors could be commercially viable soon

<span>Peter Dutton’s plan involves building seven nuclear power stations at existing coal plant sites, with the first potentially operating by the mid-2030s.</span><span>Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP</span>
Peter Dutton’s plan involves building seven nuclear power stations at existing coal plant sites, with the first potentially operating by the mid-2030s.Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

Australia would need “many decades” to develop the regulations and skills to operate a nuclear power plant, and the experience gained at the existing Lucas Heights facility won’t help much, according to New South Wales’ chief scientist and engineer.

Hugh Durrant-Whyte said he stood by comments made to a 2019 NSW upper house inquiry into uranium mining and nuclear facilities that running a plant and its fuel supply chain would require skills “built up over many decades”.

Stressing he spoke in the capacity of a trained nuclear engineer rather than as the state’s chief scientist, Durrant-Whyte said the industry demanded regulations and monitoring for all stages of fuel handling, power generation and waste management.

Related: Peter Dutton’s nuclear plan is an economic disaster that would leave Australians paying more for electricity | Tristan Edis

He told Guardian Australia that 2040 or even 2045 was the “realistic” timeframe.

“We would need people who were trained [on] how to measure radioactivity, how to measure containment vessel strengths, how to [manage] everything we do.”

The federal opposition on Wednesday revealed plans to build seven nuclear power stations in five states at existing coal plant sites, promising the first could be operating by the mid-2030s.

The government would own the plants and compulsorily acquire the sites if the owners – private companies as well as the Queensland and Western Australian governments – declined to sell them.

The shadow energy spokesperson, Ted O’Brien, has cited France and Canada as examples Australia could follow. He also offered the example of Lucas Heights, located in Sydney’s south, where a small reactor has been used for medical research for decades.

Durrant-Whyte said Canada’s nuclear industry employed about 30,000 people while France’s employed 125,000 – “not a trivial number of people”.

The United Kingdom, which operated nuclear plants for many years, has just one nuclear engineering program at an undergraduate level, limiting the supply of talent that could be imported from there.

He was also dismissive of the prospect that small modular reactors (SMRs) – which the opposition proposes to start its nuclear program with – were likely to be commercially viable soon.

“When I was [at Rolls-Royce] in 1979 my colleagues in the couple of desks next to me were designing SMRs,” he said. “It’s always the issue with anything big and complex. Whether it’s an aeroplane or a nuclear reactor, the first one is always the hardest.”

The capabilities learned at the Lucas Heights Ansto (Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation) facility would make “little contribution” to supporting a nuclear power industry in the country, he wrote in his 2019 report.

“[I]t must be recognised that this is a ‘zero-power’ pool reactor where the complexities of high pressure, high power, high radiation environments do not exist.”

Similarly, the capabilities needed to manage nuclear-powered submarines as part of the Aukus program also offered few transferrable skills. The pressurised water reactors on the submarines would be, in effect, SMRs of a 100-200 megawatt capacity size.

“My suspicion is we will buy the reactors in a piece of submarine and assemble that piece into submarines here,” Durrant-Whyte said. “But even then, let’s be clear, we’re not going to be doing that until the mid-2040s.”

As for safety, he said nuclear reactors were designed to be “very, very safe”. However, there “have been a lot of accidents because of fuel handling and things like that” as a result of human error.

“It’s not like we haven’t had this [nuclear] conversation many times over the last 20 years in Australia,” Durrant-Whyte said. “[I]t would be expensive, and likely more expensive than anything else you could possibly think of.”