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Trevor St Baker and the latest push for nuclear energy

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Coal baron Trevor St Baker has been advocating for Australia to switch to nuclear power (Screenshot via YouTube)

Quickly following the Morrison Government’s new ill-defined arrangements to obtain nuclear technology from its UK and U.S. (AUKUS) alliance partners, we have seen a new push from nuclear advocates for a domestic nuclear power industry.

Senator Matt Canavan, the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and pieces appearing in the Murdoch media have been leading the charge. There was also a puzzling link made by Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce on ABC's Insiders.

In response to a question about de-carbonising the economy and what it means for regions, Joyce stated:

“That’s why we went into the nuclear submarine contract. We plan for the future.”

This doesn’t make much sense unless it was a loaded hint as to the intentions of the Government in relation to some undisclosed domestic nuclear initiative. Or am I reading too much into this?

Perhaps not. It wasn’t too long ago when Energy Minister Angus Taylor’s inquiry into a new domestic nuclear energy sector was held. Submissions by the nuclear industry and their lobbyists were widely condemned as containing shiploads of misinformation regarding the cost of nuclear versus renewables and the greenwashing of the carbon footprint. The Committee, however, recommended a partial lifting of the standing nuclear energy ban for ‘new and emerging technologies’.

The leading “new and emerging technology” is a reference to small modular reactors (SMRs), designed specifically to provide baseload power to the grid via a network of nuclear generators. As it turns out, Taylor has been leaking information to a far-right media outlet on the need to develop this sector in Australia with the co-operation of expertise from the UK, even with the assistance of our nuclear agency ANSTO.And here emerges a key player in this debate in Australia — the managing director of the company set up to develop this industry, Trevor St Baker.

With respect to his acknowledged need to de-carbonise our economy, Mr St Baker is on the record for claiming that “to reduce CO2 we must go nuclear” and that a rush to renewables would be a disaster for the power network. He claims that “intermittent” renewables are only projected to supply little more “than 25% annually any time soon” and that “electricity supply grids need synchronous generation supply for at least 40% of electricity demand at any time”.

Inherent in this way of thinking is that a dispatchable renewable power system backed by batteries cannot meet a base-load (24 hour) demand, a common theme expressed by other nuclear and fossil fuel lobbyists but an argument nonetheless increasingly on shaky ground. Nonetheless, the nuclear lobbying effort is attempting for all its might to gain momentum.

St Baker, depending on how you look at it, is a very clever businessman, one of the richest in Australia or one who is extremely “well connected”. His position on energy seems to many to be incongruous, attacking banks for withdrawing support for new fossil fuel ventures on the one hand yet investing substantially in renewable projects such as EV recharging stations through his Energy Innovation Fund.

His purchase of the Vales Point Power Station for $1 million and which subsequently turned around $100 million in profit in five years outdid accepted notions of the life of the plant. He now boasts contributing 20% of the electricity retail market in NSW. He also owns gas-fired power stations across Queensland where he was also instrumental in establishing the onshore LNG sector.

But St Baker had the benefit of starting his career within the public service in energy, with a 23 year service to 1980 in Queensland and NSW. Here, he started power stations and energy departments as well as deregulating energy sector procurement in Queensland.

Obviously well informed by this experience, St Baker left the public service and established ERM Consultants Pty Ltd, Australia’s first specialist energy consulting practice. In 2006, he went on to establish ERM Power Pty Ltd (renamed Sunset Power in 2013) which became Australia’s largest energy retailer, expanding his business into the USA. He sold this to which was then on-sold to Shell eight months ago. He still serves on Sunset Power’s board as Non-Executive Director and Deputy Chairman.

Trevor knows his way around the energy market but he has also done his fair share of lobbying, as has the nuclear sector within and outside Australia.

In terms of political donations, the St Baker Family Trust has given some $323,000 to both sides of politics in the last three years, the majority to the Queensland LNP, while the ALP has received some $110,000 — about one-third of the total.

St Baker chaired the National Generators Forum for three years to 2013, a body that represents electricity producers in the National Electricity Market. He had a directorship with the Queensland Resources Council (to 2015) and currently holds non-executive director roles on the board of the Energy Policy Institute of Australia Limited (EPI), both important lobbyist organisations for the fossil fuel energy sector. A look at the EPI’s website shows they heavily lobby for nuclear power.

The Australian Nuclear Association (ANA) is our leading nuclear lobby group whose views on the need for a domestic nuclear industry mirror those views articulated by St Baker, including the view that SMR reactors are more or less “ready to roll”. Their latest media maintains that a poll has been conducted showing that ‘Australians support for considering nuclear energy reaches 70%’. However, the polls mentioned were conducted by the Liberal Party-affiliated Menzies Research Centre, so it's hardly an independent poll given the Government’s past position on the issue and given the Centre’s position that ‘nuclear is beautiful’.

Like the international fossil fuel lobbying network, there are national and international bodies operating in tandem in the nuclear sector. The ANA is an affiliate of the World Nuclear Association (WNA) who it seems is conducting a vamped-up PR campaign to open new markets for nuclear power. Central to this is an emphasis on small modular reactor technology, announcing the first such reactors in Russia in December 2019 and now is most concerned by issues with licensing and design of SMRs. Other themes include the suitability of such technology for rapid changes in energy systems in response to climate issues.

Of course, this is what St Baker is banking on, literally with his considerable investment in the SMR technology. It is clear that the ruling political party in Australia would dearly love to get behind the nuclear transition as quickly as possible. The only real stumbling block is Labor’s opposition to the concept, public opinion and our adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The latter is not an issue according to the WNA, providing safeguards can be mandated and the issue of public opinion is being dealt with by the Liberal Party spin merchants. So, in reality, we are left with the ability of the Parliament to hold the Government to account.

Given St Baker has never really bet on a losing horse, never has the outcome of an upcoming election been so important for the future of our country.

David Paull is an Australian ecologist and blogger on politics and the environment. You can follow David on Twitter @davesgas.

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