Nuclear Power for Australia

SOME OTHER WEBPAGES WITH INFO ABOUT NUCLEAR POWER

Impacts of nuclear power and uranium mining on water resources:

www.archive.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/oz/water-nuclear

Pubic opinion - nuclear power in Australia: www.archive.foe.org.au/public-opinion-nuclear-power-australia

Ethical investment, uranium and nuclear power www.archive.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/oz/ethical

Main nuclear power section of this FoE website www.archive.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/nfc

Nuclear power section on the links page

EnergyScience Coalition Critique of the 2006 UMPNER/Switkowski report:

www.energyscience.org.au/energyscience%20response.doc


THE NUCLEAR RENAISSANCE IS STONE COLD DEAD

Jim Green, 23 Dec 2013, Online Opinion

http://onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=15860&page=0

The nuclear renaissance is dead ... stone cold dead. And the prospects for nuclear power in Australia are dead. If nuclear power is economically prohibitive (or nearly so) in nuclear nations such as the UK and the US, it is far more so in Australia given that we have little relevant infrastructure or expertise. The major parties seem to be well aware that nuclear power is a non-starter, so the nuclear debate in Australia is reduced to the slow, repetitive drum-beat of a small but vocal nuclear lobby.

Australia's uranium mining and export industry is also in a world of trouble. Uranium accounted for a lousy 0.19% of Australia's national export revenue in 2011/12. The spot price for uranium has halved since the Fukushima disaster in March 2011. As John Borshoff, head of Australian-based uranium miner Paladin Energy, noted this year, "the uranium industry is definitely in crisis".

The full article is posted at http://onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=15860&page=0


WHERE WOULD THE REACTORS BE LOCATED?

Do you live near one of the areas most likely to be targeted for nuclear power reactors? Using four primary criteria and six secondary criteria, a report by The Australia Institute identified the following sites as potential sites for nuclear power:

Queensland:
Townsville
Mackay
Rockhampton (e.g. around Yeppoon, Emu Park or Keppel Sands)
Bundaberg
Gladstone
Sunshine Coast (e.g. near Maroochydore, Coolum or Noosa)
Bribie Island area

New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory:
Port Stephens (e.g. Nelson Bay)
Central Coast (e.g. near Tuggerah Lakes)
Port Kembla
Botany Bay
Jervis Bay and Sussex Inlet

Victoria:
South Gippsland (e.g. Yarram, Woodside, Seaspray)
Western Port (e.g. French Island, Hastings, Kooweerup, Coronet Bay)
Port Phillip (e.g. Newport, Werribee, Avalon)
Portland

South Australia:
Mt Gambier/Millicent
Port Adelaide
Port Augusta and Port Pirie

Western Australia and the Northern Territory were excluded from the Australia Institute siting study because they are  not on the National Electricity Market grid. The report does not consider Tasmania in any detail and considers it unlikely that a nuclear power plant would be constructed in Tasmania in the short to medium term.

Siting criteria

The study used four primary criteria for the siting of nuclear power plants in Australia:

1. Proximity to appropriate existing electricity infrastructure; sites close to the National Electricity Market, preferably near existing large generators;

2. Proximity to major centres of electricity demand;

3. Proximity to transport infrastructure to facilitate the movement of nuclear fuel, waste and other relevant materials; and

4. Access to large quantities of water for reactor cooling − coastal sites

Secondary criteria included the following:

1. Population density − sites with adequate buffers to populated areas.

2. Geological and seismological issues.

3. Atmospheric conditions − sites with low risk of extreme weather events and suitable pollution dispersion conditions.

4. Security risk  − sites with low security risks (e.g. sufficient buffers to potentially hazardous areas).

5. Sensitive ecological areas − sites that pose minimal risk to important ecological areas.

6. Heritage and aesthetics − sites that pose minimal risk to important heritage areas.

7. Economic factors – sites that accommodate local economic and social factors.

Andrew Macintosh (The Australia Institute), 2007, "Siting Nuclear Power Plants in Australia  Where would they go?", Web Paper No. 40 https://www.tai.org.au/file.php?file=web_papers/WP96.pdf


Some Reasons to Say 'No' to Nuclear Power in Australia

UNNECESSARY

We don't need nuclear power. Several renewable energy sources - such as bioenergy, geothermal hot rocks, solar thermal electricity with storage, and sometimes hydroelecticity - can provide reliable baseload electricity.

More information : www.archive.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/clean-energy

NUCLEAR WEAPONS

Nuclear power is the one and only energy source with a direct and repeatedly-demonstrated connection to the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction. For example, the first and only serious push for nuclear power in Australia was driven by a weapons agenda as then PM John Gorton later acknowledged.

More information: www.archive.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/nfc/power-weapons

ACCIDENTS AND ATTACKS

In addition to the risk of accidents, nuclear power reactors are vulnerable to disasters from sabotage, terrorism, or the use of conventional forces to attack nuclear facilities during war.

More information: www.archive.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/nfc/power

ROUTINE EMISSIONS − RADIATION & CANCER

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation notes that international cancer incidence and mortality data demonstrate statistically-significant links between radiation and all solid tumours as a group, as well as for cancers of the stomach, colon, liver, lung, breast, ovary, bladder, thyroid, and for non-melanoma skin cancers and most types of leukaemia.

More information: www.archive.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/nfc

NUCLEAR WASTE

The 2006 government-commissioned Switkowski report envisages the construction of 25 power reactors, which would produce up to 45,000 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste. There is not a single permanent repository for spent fuel or high-level nuclear waste anywhere in the world.

More information: www.archive.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/nfc/waste

DEMOCRACTIC RIGHTS

Democratic rights have often been trampled in the pursuit of nuclear projects. The Howard government sought legal advice on its powers to override state laws banning nuclear power plants. The current (2012) Labor government is working to impose a nuclear waste dump at Muckaty in the NT despite the opposition of many Traditional Owners, an unresolved Federal Court challenge, and NT legislation banning the imposition of nuclear dumps. The government also plans to give itself the power to override any and all state/territorry laws, and affected local councils and communities have no say.

COST

Too cheap to meter, or too expensive to matter? The nuclear power industry survives only because of huge taxpayer subsidies.

More information: EnergyScience Briefing Paper #1: www.energyscience.org.au

REDUCED PROPERTY PRICES. COMPULSORY LAND ACQUISITION. NO INSURANCE.

A nuclear power plant would reduce local property values. The government may use compulsory land acquisition powers to seize land for reactors - just as it has previously seized land for a nuclear waste dump. Insurance companies do not insure against the risk of nuclear accidents.

WATER

Nuclear power is the most water-intensive of all the energy sources. Reactors typically consume 35-65 million litres of water per day.

More information: www.archive.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/oz/water-nuclear

TOO SLOW

It would probably take 15 years or more to develop nuclear power in Australia. Clean energy solutions can be deployed immediately.

GREENHOUSE GASES

Nuclear power emits three times more greenhouse gases than wind power according to the 2006 Switkowski report. Nuclear power is also far more greenhouse intensive than energy efficiency measures.

More information: www.archive.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/power


Nuclear power, Watt a waste

Natalie Wasley and Jim Green

Online Opinion, 6 Dec 2010

http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=11321&page=0

With some federal Labor MPs and Senators now openly promoting nuclear power, one important question is how Australia would manage the waste arising from a nuclear power program

How much radioactive waste would be generated by a nuclear power industry in Australia? Obviously it depends on the number of reactors. Ziggy Switkowski, Chair of the Board of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), has been promoting the construction of 50 power reactors in Australia.

Over a 50-year lifespan, 50 reactors would be responsible for 1.8 billion tonnes of low level radioactive tailings waste, assuming the uranium came from the Olympic Dam mine in SA. The reactors would be responsible for 430,000 tonnes of depleted uranium waste, a by-product of the uranium enrichment process. Enrichment would most likely take place overseas. The reactors would directly produce 75,000 tonnes of high level nuclear waste and 750,000 cubic metres of low level and intermediate level waste.

As the 2006 Switkowski Report noted: "Establishing a nuclear power industry would substantially increase the volume of radioactive waste to be managed in Australia and require management of significant quantities of high level waste."

The Switkowski Report stated that a repository would be required for the more voluminous low level wastes soon after the first reactors began operating. The smaller volumes of high level waste could be managed initially through interim storage, followed by deep geological disposal. All of that is easier said than done, of course: there isn't a repository for high level nuclear waste anywhere in the world.

Repositories for lower level wastes exist but there have been numerous problems. In Asse, Germany, for example, all 126,000 barrels of waste already placed in a repository are being removed because of large-scale water infiltration over a period of two decades.

Ideally, sound science and democratic principles would guide decisions on how to manage the radioactive waste. In practice, industry and governments would throw science and democratic principles out the window and look to dump the waste on politically 'soft' targets. This has been the experience with radioactive wastes generated at ANSTO's Lucas Heights research reactor.

You'd think that Martin Ferguson, as the minister responsible for managing the waste generated at Lucas Heights, would have thoroughly assessed all the available options before deciding to establish a remote dump. You'd be wrong. The viability of ongoing waste storage at Lucas Heights has been acknowledged by ANSTO, by the federal nuclear regulator, and even by Mr Ferguson's department − but Mr Ferguson dismisses that option out of hand.

You'd think that Mr Ferguson would insist on a rigorous site selection process for a remote repository. You'd be wrong. Mr Ferguson's preferred dump site, at Muckaty, 120 kms north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory, didn't even make the short list as a ''suitable'' site when a preliminary site selection study, based on scientific and environmental criteria, was carried out in the 1990s by the federal Bureau of Resource Sciences.

And you might even hope that Mr Ferguson would abide by binding Labor Party policy to handle this controversial issue in an open, transparent and fair manner. But again, you'd be wrong. Mr Ferguson has put the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill (NRWMB) before Parliament. This draft legislation is draconian, overriding all state/territory laws including NT legislation which seeks to ban the imposition of radioactive waste dumps.

The NRWMB limits the application of federal environmental protection legislation, Aboriginal heritage protection legislation, and appeal rights. It limits rights to 'procedural fairness'. It entrenches Muckaty as the only site under active consideration.

Mr Ferguson claims that Muckaty Traditional Owners support the nomination of the site. But he well knows that many oppose the dump − he has received a letter opposing the dump signed by 25 Ngapa Traditional Owners and 32 Traditional Owners from other Muckaty groups. Senior Traditional Owners have initiated legal action in the Federal Court challenging the nomination of the Muckaty site. Yet Mr Ferguson persists with the fiction the nomination of the Muckaty site has the support of Traditional Owners. He ought to get his head out of the sand.

There is growing opposition to the government's handling of this issue, such as concerted union activity culminating in the unanimous endorsement of a strong resolution by the national congress of the ACTU in 2009. Councils and communities along potential transport routes have begun to voice their opposition. Thousands have attended public meetings around Australia to listen to Muckaty Traditional Owners voice their concerns. An impressive legal team is working pro bono.

Former Liberal Party Senator Nick Minchin was one of a succession of Howard government ministers in charge of the failed attempt to impose a national nuclear waste dump in South Australia from 1998-2004. He said: ''My experience with dealing with just low level radioactive waste from our research reactor tells me it would be impossible to get any sort of consensus in this country around the management of the high level waste a nuclear reactor would produce.''


Nuclear priced out of Australia’s future energy equation in new report

By Sophie Vorrath & Giles Parkinson, 26 November 2015, RenewEconomy, http://reneweconomy.com.au/2015/67465

Australia’s official economic forecaster has finally admitted that the cost of nuclear energy is more than double other clean energy alternatives, suggesting it would likely play no role in a decarbonised grid based around lowest costs.

The Australian Power Generation Technology Report – a 362-page collaborative effort from more than 40 organisations, including the CSIRO, ARENA, the federal government’s Department of Industry and Science and the Office of the Chief Economist – clearly shows that solar and wind will be the cheapest low carbon technologies in Australia.

It comes at a critical time, with the nuclear lobby, supported by existing coal generators, pushing nuclear generation heavily, on the basis of previous technology cost assessments that had unrealistically optimistic views of its costs.

But the APGT report has essentially ruled out nuclear power for the whole of Australia, revealing that the technology is becoming more and more prohibitively expensive, at around double the capital cost estimated three years ago – and double the cost of competing technologies.

The research – undertaken by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), Worley Parsons in Australia and Ernst and Young, and peer reviewed by the Australian Government Bureau of Resource Research Economics (BREE) – has been used to provide “credible technology cost and performance data for 2015 to 2030.”

And one of the big take-aways from its findings is that the cost projections for nuclear have changed considerably from previous estimates – particularly the 2012 Australian Energy Technology Assessment (AETA) by BREE, which we described as “astonishing” at the time, given the real-world experience.

Based on the levelised cost of energy (LCOE) – which is the the average cost of producing electricity from that technology over its entire life – nuclear is found to be more expensive than wind and five out of six solar technologies in 2015. By 2030, it is more expensive than everything. And this is the figure that counts, because it is an impossibility that nuclear could be built in Australia before that time. Some would suggest it would take another 10 years.

The cost inputs (of building new nuclear generation) go from roughly $4500/kW (AETA 2012) to $6000 (AETA 2013) to $9000/kW in today’s update.

As noted above, this is quite a revision. The 2012 AETA by BREE evaluated 40 utility-scale generation technologies including large nuclear plants and small modular reactors, and named the latter two among the six lowest-cost options by 2040.

Similarly, the eFuture study by CSIRO showed that the inclusion of nuclear power as an option caused wholesale prices to be 34-37 per cent lower, and led to a 53 per cent nuclear share in 2050.

In an updated report in 2014 – concluded after “consultation” with various industry sectors – AETA rectified its errors by lifting its estimates of the capital costs of nuclear by around 50 per cent. And we wondered how quickly the CSIRO would amend its own modeling.

Today, a spokesperson from the CSIRO said that “as the outlook for nuclear costs has deteriorated with each update, eFuture has accordingly decreased the role that nuclear can play in Australia’s electricity mix.”

As we said last year, getting the LCOE of different energy generation technologies right – or at least improving on previous efforts – is critical for Australia as it makes decisions about its energy future.

The findings of this new report are particularly salient in light of the current SA Royal Commission into nuclear power, especially considering many of the submissions made in favour of nuclear – like this one from the representatives of coal fired generators, and this one from the World Nuclear Association.

Both of these submissions relied on the previous cost estimates from BREE that suggested nuclear was much more cost effective than solar.

The WNA ignored the 2013 cost estimates, and used the 2012 estimates incorporated by the CSIRO to suggest that the inclusion of nuclear power would cause wholesale prices to be 34-37 per cent lower, and would lead to a 53 per cent nuclear share in 2050. The ESAA reached a similar conclusion on wholesale prices.

Both the nuclear and the coal industry lobbies have a shared advantage in slowing down the deployment of wind and solar, because it narrows and ultimately removes the need for large-scale centralised generation. The energy system of the future will be based around dispatch able generation.

On this note, the latest estimates for solar thermal and storage are also interesting – vastly cheaper than the estimates for nuclear, despite the pretensions of many in the nuclear booster camp.

The new report came one day after nuclear power was ruled out as a contributor to the future low-carbon electricity mix of South Australia by a government-commissioned advisory panel, which said it was too expensive.

The South Australian government embraced its recommendation to target net zero emissions by 2030, although held back on its suggestion of going 100 per cent renewable energy. Presumably it will await the outcome of the nuclear royal commission. Hopefully the commission looks at the new cost estimates, and does not rely on hopelessly out of date and optimistic cost estimates.


Nuclear economics just don't add up

Michael R. James

December 24, 2009

http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/nuclear-economics-just-dont-ad...

The fall-out from Copenhagen has left the world's biggest "carbon criminals", among them Australia, exposed on climate change. With the overthrow of Malcolm Turnbull in the Liberal party along with the proposed ETS, the ascension of Tony Abbot and his emphasis on "direct action" it was inevitable that the federal Opposition would revisit nuclear power as an option for a low-carbon future in Australia. Given the recent sobering Government report on carbon capture and storage, "clean coal" seems less and less as the likely saviour.

An article on this website by Martin Nicholson (Renewable energy is not as reliable as nuclear, 14/12) proposed nuclear power over alternative renewable energy as the solution to a low-carbon energy future for Australia. Elsewhere with his colleague Barry Brook they have discussed common objections to nuclear power such as safety, waste handling and storage, and weapons proliferation. These, however, are among the most contentious and unresolved issues, both scientifically and politically, and by no means did the authors resolve them to the satisfaction of anyone informed on these topics.

Surprisingly they avoided the single major issue that is much more convincingly resolvable: costs. And a second major issue, that of time.

Advocates of an Australian nuclear industry often cite France as an excellent model to emulate because the French obtain 75 per cent of their electrical power from nuclear. As someone who has lived for a decade in France I agree that it is impressive but since they established their industry four decades ago, partly as a strategic response to poor indigenous energy resources and rising oil import bills, many things have changed. And no one should need reminding that we are nothing like France not least in their bipartisan consensus among both politicians and citizens.

The French not only solved their energy supply but created a successful high-technology export industry. Therein lies a lesson for Australia, but not today in the realms of nuclear energy. It is unconvincing to imagine, with many long-established suppliers of nuclear technology, that there is any space for a Johnny-come-lately such as Australia to establish a competitive industry. The Switkowski report into uranium mining confirms that if we actually started building reactors we would import enriched uranium fuel processed from our own uranium ore exports. A bit like buying back Japanese paper products made from Tasmanian woodchips.

Contrary to the claims of a nuclear resurgence in Europe and the world, it is far from certain how much of Europe will actually implement their plans. Most nuclear plants under construction are in Asia, principally China (15 plants), India (six), South Korea (five) and Russia (nine). Among developed economies Austria, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Poland and Eire (Ireland) have no active nuclear plants and none under construction, though some have plans of varying credibility. The Netherlands has one plant and no plans for any new ones. In France the last completed plant was in 1999. In the UK the last one completed, Sizewell-B, was in 1995 after 14 years of inquiries and protracted construction delays. In the US, the last completed plant took 25 years, opening in 1996.

Only time will tell if the UK, the US or others with much less political and social cohesion can implement their proposed nuclear renaissance. The British Government has already said it will suspend many of the usual democratic processes involved in licensing and site selection. The world will watch to see how that goes.

In the US despite up to 45 new applications for nuclear power plants (licensing processes are advanced for three), no hard investment decisions have been taken on a single new reactor. Of course nuclear power has never stood on its own economic legs and relies upon endless subsidies, tax concessions and government guarantees not to mention government liability insurance including for the unsolved long-term waste handling — or as in France and China, the whole project is government financed and operated.

In countries where the state plays less of a role and the private profit motive reigns, there are obvious reasons why no private interests (stock market, private companies etc) are seriously putting up the money for such plants. As Michael Grunwald reported in Time a year ago: "It turns out that new plants would be not just extremely expensive but spectacularly expensive. The first detailed cost estimate, filed by Florida Power & Light (FPL) came in at a shocking $12 billion to $18 billion." He cites Rocky Mountains Institute chairman and chief scientist Amory Lovins' calculations that "new nuclear wattage would cost more than twice as much as coal or gas and nearly three times as much as wind".

In Europe there are two nuclear plants under construction, one in Flamanville, France and one in Olkiluoto, Finland both by France's state-owned Areva. Both have been subject to significant troubles, partly related to being the first-build of the most evolved advanced model in production, Areva's EPR, which was supposed to be simpler, more efficient, cheaper and faster to build. In Finland's Olkiluotu a 50 per cent blowout in costs (to $US6.4 billion so far, lawsuits pending) and doubling in construction time (from 3.5 years to at least seven years) is typical of nuclear projects over the decades. Today Areva concede that construction of a similar reactor of 1.6 gigawatts would be $US8 billion ($A9 billion).

The reasons why nuclear plants routinely run into such troubles are that it is hugely capital intensive so delays greatly add to the cost of capital long before any revenue is generated. Construction is extremely complex, which is greatly compounded by safety regulation — this was another major cause of the slowdown at Olkiluoto. For these reasons the industry prefers to use "overnight" costs, which are the costs as if a plant was constructed overnight at today's prices.

Dr Ziggy Switkowski, chairman of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), has said that Australia should build 50 reactors though this assumes a doubling of electricity consumption by 2050. Dr Ian Smith suggested, when chief executive of ANSTO in 2008, that Australia could realistically construct six to 14 plants but this would still provide only 10-20 per cent of total electricity requirements.

Australia's current electricity consumption is almost 40 gigawatts from installed capacity of about 50 gigawatts. So, to replace most of this would require about 25 reactors of the EPR design, each of 1.6 gigawatts (or 40 of the Westinghouse AP1000 1 gigawatt design). This could cost about $225 billion in today's money, or close to half a trillion dollars for 50 reactors. Using Smith's more modest suggestions the cost could be up to $126 billion but displace a lot less coal burning. Switkowski may be correct in the sense that why create all these contentious issues and still not substantially solve the problem? This points to another weakness: with nuclear it appears to be an all-or-nothing gamble with hundreds of billions of dollars.

Nuclear advocates always cite "next-gen" designs and purported much swifter and cheaper construction but the figures given above are the actual costs of the plants being constructed in Europe today, not even the much higher industry estimates reported by Grunwald for the proposed US plants. The timetable of this construction is anyone's guess except that history warns us to be pessimistic. By comparison China plans for 50-60 of the simpler, smaller Westinghouse design by 2030, but nuclear will still account for only about 4 per cent of their energy needs.

Those are just the construction costs. As is well known, liability insurance needs to be covered by government. The other big cost is the decommissioning of reactors. Even with many of the world's 439 existing reactors approaching the end of their productive lives, so far none have been decommissioned. The world's first commercial nuclear power generator, Calder Hall at what is now called Sellafield (previously Windscale), was turned off in 2003. It has been estimated by the UK industry that full decommissioning of Calder Hall, if ever done, will cost about $2 billion at today's prices. Meanwhile, old plants need continuous maintenance and high-security against decay and incursion including against potential terrorists.

But the biggest cost, especially for Australia, could be the opportunity cost of throwing these vast sums into an old technology dominated by other countries, rather than investing in new renewable technologies and industries of the future. From relatively modest funding Australia has already produced world-beating solar-photovoltaic and solar-thermal technologies, even if both have moved offshore due to lack of investment support. Geothermal power has just received government grants, which will allow full prototypes to be tested in a few years. Many scientists believe that it is inevitable that these technologies will be viable, provide so-called baseload power cost-competitively, and that their maturation would be faster than the typical construction schedules of nuclear power stations if comparable budgets and subsidies were deployed.

Is this any different to the claims by the nuclear dreamers such as Brook and Nicholson? Emphatically yes. The nuclear industry is not a new one but an old mature one. For more than 50 years it has consistently over-promised and under-delivered, yet its advocates continue to propose that governments should provide massive subsidies to nuclear construction, provide unlimited liability insurance, assume most of the decommissioning costs and — after 50 years — continue to search for the elusive "permanent" storage of high-level waste.

There are not minority views and indeed are not contested by the nuclear industry, or the Wall Street Journal, or Lazards the merchant bank. Or many scientists. Here is commentary from the world's top science journal Nature (W.Patterson, Vol 449, 11/10/07): "As climate and fuel security dominate the energy agenda, the battle between traditional and innovative electricity intensifies around the world, notably in fast-growing economies such as China. After half a century, nuclear power is the ultimate in tradition. It needs climate more than climate needs it. To avert catastrophic global warming, why pick the slowest, most expensive, most limited, most inflexible and riskiest option? In 1957, despite the Windscale fire, nuclear power was worth trying. We tried it: its weakness proved to be economics, not safety. Now nuclear generation is just an impediment to sustainable electricity."

It is a clear enough choice. The economics and the long time to approve and build show nuclear is not the smart choice, arguably for the world but certainly not for Australia with its plentiful resources in renewables (solar, wind, wave, tidal, geothermal).

The real question for Australia is whether we have what it takes to grasp the opportunities.

Dr Michael R. James is an Australian research scientist and occasional journalist.


The nuclear debate we have to have

Jim Green

This is a longer version of an article published in The Punch, Aug 17 2009

www.thepunch.com.au/articles/how-exactly-are-we-to-introduce-nuclear-power

Thanks to The Punch for the opportunity to respond to recent contributions on nuclear power, in particular those by David Penberthy and Clive Mathieson. Let's start with the claim that the federal Labor government is shutting down debate on nuclear power. David says "our dominant politicians are determined to not even allow a debate on an issue" while Clive claims that nuclear power is "a debate Labor desperately doesn’t want us to have". But is the government shutting down debate every time it expresses opposition to policy proposals? By that strange logic, the government could also said to be shutting down debate every time it expresses support for any particular policy. And if the government is intent on shutting down debate on nuclear power, it is failing spectacularly.

David and Clive ought to spell out exactly what they want from the government. A public inquiry to study the merits of nuclear power and other energy sources? If it was designed to illuminate the issues rather than arrive at predetermined answers, such an inquiry would be welcome. It would be a welcome antidote to the Switkowski report which was written by a group of nuclear advocates. It would be a welcome antidote to the pro-nuclear, pro-coal and anti-renewables 'green paper' that will be released by resources and energy minister Martin Ferguson later this year.

The uranium industry is keen to shut down debate on issues such as the flawed and under-resourced nuclear safeguards system. BHP Billiton has released a 4000-page Environmental Impact Statement on its plans to expand the uranium/copper mine at Olympic Dam but it is silent on the proliferation risks associated with the proposal to increase uranium production from 4,000 to 19,000 tonnes annually. Likewise, the Australian Uranium Association argued that the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties should avoid any consideration of proliferation risks associated with uranium mining in the course of its ongoing 'Inquiry into Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament'. The Uranium Association's specious arguments were not accepted by the Committee and the inadequacies of nuclear safeguards are being considered.

The government − and in particular the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office − is also keen to shut down debate on the flawed safeguards system and does so by refusing to release crucial information. Examples include the refusal to release:

  • information on nuclear accounting discrepancies (Material Unaccounted For) including the volumes of nuclear materials, the countries involved, and the reasons given to explain accounting discrepancies.
  • country-by-country information on the separation and stockpiling of plutonium produced from Australian uranium; and
  • 'Administrative Arrangements', which contain vital information about the safeguards arrangements.

Hypocrisy

David and Clive claim that the Labor government is being hypocritical by supporting uranium mining but opposing nuclear power in Australia. David looks forward to a future when the "hypocrisy and contradictions" and this "stupid double-standard" are resolved. Clive bemoans Labor’s "schizophrenic platform on uranium − pro-mining, pro-exports but anti-power". Of course there is overlap between the two issues but there are also fundamental differences and it is not necessarily illogical − let alone hypocritical − to support one but oppose the other. The uranium debate turns on the availability of reasonably large and accessible uranium deposits and the pros and cons of mining and exporting it. The debate over nuclear power turns on a different set of factors - availability of various energy options, population size and energy demand, access to water (required in abundance at coal-fired plants and in even greater abundance at nuclear plants) and so on.

Lest this be seen as a defence of the Labor government, let me briefly point out a couple of areas of genuine Labor hypocrisy. When in Opposition, senior Labor MPs described the Howard government's Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act − which allows the imposition of a nuclear waste dump in the NT without any consultation with or consent from Traditional Owners − as "extreme", "arrogant", "heavy-handed", "draconian", "sorry", "sordid", "extraordinary" and "profoundly shameful". Yet the Labor government has not repealed the Act and is actively using it as the legislative basis for ongoing site-selection studies in the NT. That is hypocritical and it is racist.

As another example of the government's hypocrisy, in 2006 and 2007 Kevin Rudd warned about the "fracturing" of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, yet the Rudd government has done nothing to strengthen the regime and has weakened it in various ways. The government's support for a resumption of civil nuclear trade with India − which is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) − clearly weakens the non-proliferation regime. Likewise, foreign minister Stephen Smith could hardly be setting the bar any lower with his proposal to export uranium to Russia with no requirement for any International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards inspections − a proposal which hangs in the balance after the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties made the entirely reasonable recommendation that there should be safeguards inspections.

Sections of the media are also acting hypocritically − routinely attacking the Labor government and illiberal 'greenies' for allegedly shutting down nuclear debate while simultaneously using their media outlets to give full voice to nuclear advocates but precious little to critics.

Climate change, nuclear power and nuclear weapons

David claims that Australia remains "hysterically opposed" to the domestic use of nuclear power. There's no need to be hysterical to oppose nuclear power − it may help but it's not essential. As a climate change 'solution', nuclear power is a blunt instrument. The 2006 Switkowski report found that building six nuclear power reactors would reduce Australia's greenhouse emissions by just 4% if they displace coal-fired plants, or just 2% if they displace gas. Globally, doubling nuclear power would reduce emissions by about 5% but it would also result in the production of over one million tonnes of high-level nuclear waste and enough plutonium to build over one million nuclear weapons.

David writes: "You can see why, in the 70s and 80s in the midst of crises such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and in the middle of an arms race against the Soviet Union, that the whole issue was a total no-go. My own views for many years were framed by growing up through that period, sitting at school in 1983 watching movies like The Day After, or thinking in 1986 when Chernobyl happened and when the US bombed Libya that maybe the entire world was actually about to end. These are now redundant arguments, the world has changed ..."

Yes, the world has changed.

Our fears of a deadly nuclear detonation – whatever the cause – have been reawakened. In part, these fears are driven by new realities. The rise in terrorism. The discovery of clandestine nuclear programmes. The emergence of a nuclear black market. But these realities have also heightened our awareness of vulnerabilities in the NPT regime. The acquisition by more and more countries of sensitive nuclear know-how and capabilities. The uneven degree of physical protection of nuclear materials from country to country. The limitations in the IAEA's verification authority – particularly in countries without additional protocols in force. The continuing reliance on nuclear deterrence. The ongoing perception of imbalance between the nuclear haves and have-nots. And the sense of insecurity that persists, unaddressed, in a number of regions, most worryingly in the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula.

That paragraph might sound like it was lifted from a Friends of the Earth flyer but in fact it was lifted verbatim from a 2005 speech by then IAEA Director General Mohamed El Baradei. In the four years since that speech, we could add alarming developments such as North Korea's emergence as the tenth state to have built nuclear weapons (half of them under cover of 'peaceful' nuclear programs), and Russia's threats to attack some of its neighbours with nuclear weapons as US 'missile defence' facilities move closer to its borders.

Former US Vice President Al Gore has neatly summarised the problem: "For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal ... then we'd have to put them in so many places we'd run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale."

Running the proliferation risk off the reasonability scale brings us neatly back to climate change as Alan Robock explained in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists last year: "The greatest danger that humans pose to Earth isn't geoengineering, ozone depletion, or even global warming. Rather, it's the climatic consequences of nuclear war. As recent work (<http://climate.envsci.rutgers.edu/nuclear>) ... has shown, we now understand that the atmospheric effects of a nuclear war would last for at least a decade − more than proving the nuclear winter theory of the 1980s correct. By our calculations, a regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan using less than 0.3 percent of the current global arsenal would produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history and global ozone depletion equal in size to the current hole in the ozone, only spread out globally."

Clean energy scenarios

David and Clive raise many other issues, but I'll conclude with a few words on an essential aspect of a renewed energy debate − the viability of non-nuclear, clean energy scenarios. A starting point is the study by the Clean Energy Future Group (wwf.org.au/ourwork/climatechange/cleanenergyfuture). It is conservative in that it makes virtually no allowance for technological advancement, even over a timeframe of several decades (note the contrast with the inflated claims made about non-existent 'next generation' nuclear power).

The Clean Energy Future Group proposes an electricity supply scenario which reduces greenhouse emissions from the electricity sector by 78% by 2040, comprising solar (5%); hydro (7%); coal/petroleum (10%); wind (20%); bioenergy − mostly from crop residues so it is not competing with other land uses (28%); and gas (30%). That is a worst-case scenario in that it makes little allowance for developments in important areas like solar-with-storage or geothermal power. But even as a worst-case scenario it strikes me as preferable to a nuclear future.

Lastly, it is a myth that all renewable energy sources are incapable of providing reliable 'baseload' electricity. Geothermal hot rocks and bioenergy can provide baseload power, as can hydro (depending on the water source). Dispersed wind power, with a small amount of back-up (e.g. from a gas-fired plant) can also replace conventional baseload plant. Solar with storage can provide baseload electricity (a 2006 report by a government-funded Cooperative Research Centre argues that solar thermal technology "is poised to play a significant role in baseload generation for Australia"). Energy efficiency and conservation measures can reduce the demand for baseload, intermediate-load and peak-load electricity.

References:

David Penberthy, 24/7/09, 'SA should stop worrying and learn to love yellowcake',

http://www.thepunch.com.au/articles/sa-should-stop-worrying-and-learn-to...

Clive Mathieson, 23/7/09, '... And Labor should nuke its hypocrisy on uranium',

http://www.thepunch.com.au/articles/...and-labor-should-nuke-its-hypocri...