The Coalition’s nuclear plan is becoming less – not more – clear.

The shadow climate change and energy minister, Ted O’Brien, now says there will be more than one nuclear reactor at each of the Coalition’s seven nominated sites, but he can’t say exactly how many.

The Coalition has said that the nuclear waste from these reactors would be stored at the same seven sites across Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia for the lifetime of the plants.

O’Brien also can’t say what percentage of Australia’s future energy demand nuclear energy would contribute.

This is important because it will determine how much business is willing to invest in different energy forms now. So this uncertainty can undermine investment, which affects the economy.

O’Brien told ABC TV’s Insiders program on Sunday that a future independent nuclear coordinating authority would determine the kind of reactor at each site – whether they would be small modular reactors, which are not yet available commercially, or larger-scale – the number of reactors at each of the seven plants and the percentage of nuclear energy in Australia’s future overall mix.

Where in Australia would Peter Dutton’s nuclear reactors go? – video

That body would not be set up until after the Coalition won office, which suggests the information may not be available before the next election. Nevertheless, O’Brien insisted that would be “very clear”.

O’Brien was asked repeatedly on Sunday if he knew how much of the energy mix would be nuclear under the Coalition plan. He said the percentage would be announced “at the time that we announce our broader mix” and that the Coalition wants “the optimum amount” of renewables, not the “maximum amount”, but couldn’t say what that would be.

O’Brien and the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, have said repeatedly that Labor’s current plan to increase the use of renewables would cost $1tn.

O’Brien said that estimate comes from a joint study by Princeton University, the University of Queensland, the University of Melbourne and international consultancy Nous Group. The study, published last year, examined different scenarios to determine what it would take for Australia to get to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

O’Brien acknowledged the estimated cost of the energy transition covered not only the cost to government but the total cost across all sectors of the economy, both private and public.

After comparing all the scenarios, the same report says there is “no role for nuclear energy unless costs are constrained and renewable energy growth is constrained”.

Peter Dutton outlines timeline of Coalition’s plan for nuclear power rollout – video

More specifically, it says nuclear energy will only be viable in Australia if the current growth in renewable energy is curbed and if the costs of introducing nuclear energy are at least 30% lower than current international best practice.

This means even if that cost reduction could be achieved, unless the growth in renewables is actively slowed, the Coalition’s nuclear-energy policy won’t work.

That would seem to be a motive for promoting the idea that renewable energy is not reliable.

O’Brien dismissed the report’s criticisms of nuclear energy, saying the Coalition had done “far more methodical and comprehensive” work than the three universities.

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O’Brien was asked if the Coalition would subsidise the wholesale price of nuclear energy for users. He said the Coalition was “not talking about subsidisation”.

However Coalition documents issued when the proposed sites were named on Wednesday suggested subsidies would be available for residents living near nuclear power plants.

“Zone tenants will pay lower wholesale electricity prices and avoid network costs because they will have direct power connection to the plant,” the plan’s explanatory statement said.

O’Brien was also asked why locals were not being given any choice about having plants in their area, when the report from a parliamentary inquiry that he chaired in 2019 emphasised prior consultation and agreement was crucial.

“The Committee believes the will of the people should be honoured by requiring broad community consent before any nuclear facility is built,” the report says.

A reactor in the backyard? What Latrobe Valley residents think of Dutton’s nuclear plan – video

“That is, nuclear power plants or waste facilities should not be imposed upon local communities that are opposed to proposals relating to nuclear facilities presented to them.”

On Sunday, O’Brien said the report was produced under the Morrison government and before the 2022 election.

“We are now taking this to the Australian people,” he said. “We are seeking a mandate. So what I wrote in the report then is consistent with this term of government, albeit this term of government we are going to all Australians saying ‘this is what we plan to do’.”

He declined to say whether if it lost the election, the Coalition would accept it as a mandate against nuclear power.

The Coalition has promised to make more details – including its costings – public “very soon” and to also unveil policies on gas and renewables.

Overall, they have some clearing up to do.

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