This article by Michael Bachelard appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on October 9, 2011:
For Australia, nuclear is the power of last resort
The Climate Agenda was a partnership between The Sunday Age and website Oursay.org, which let readers vote for the 10 questions they wanted the paper to answer. The full agenda and previous answers are at theage.com.au/national/climate-agenda/
QUESTION: ”If the government is so serious about reducing CO2 emissions, why do they keep ignoring the single most effective method for doing so: nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is far cheaper than ‘renewables’ and kills less people per unit of energy produced than even solar or wind. New generation reactors improve safety significantly and render the long-term waste storage issue moot, and thorium fast-breeder reactors cannot melt down accidentally at all. France has shown how easy and effective nuclear is at reducing greenhouse emissions. Why doesn’t the government spend some of it’s enormous ‘clean energy future’ research and advertising budget to help educate Australians about the facts around new forms of clean atomic energy?”
PRO-NUCLEAR and anti-nuclear advocates agree on one thing and one thing only – that politics in Australia would need to change before we see atomic energy as part of our power mix.
In 2006, the Howard government opened a nuclear debate by appointing former Telstra CEO and nuclear physicist Ziggy Switkowski to conduct a review of its viability as a significant power source in Australia. He found in favour of a nuclear industry, saying it was ”a practical option for part of Australia’s electricity production” – a finding which prompted both the Queensland and Tasmanian governments to pass legislation banning its development. Siting a nuclear power station in Australia would clearly be a problem.
A 2009 poll showed 49 per cent of Australians would consider the introduction of nuclear power in Australia. But after the tsunami in Japan earlier this year caused a meltdown crisis at the Fukushima power station and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, opposition in Australia jumped to 61 per cent.
Labor’s policy is opposed to nuclear power, even though Energy and Resources Minister Martin Ferguson has expressed support for it. Before Fukushima, there was talk of a nuclear debate at the party’s upcoming December conference. But when The Sunday Age approached Climate Change Minister Greg Combet, he declined to even respond to requests for comments on Russell Hamstead’s question.
Opposition spokesman Greg Hunt said the Coalition was ”not opposed to a debate on nuclear energy” but that, ”given the potential for community division”, it could only ever be viable with bipartisan support. This position effectively gives Labor and its anti-nuclear majority a veto.
As a result, when Treasury modelled the energy options for Australia in 2050, it bluntly stated: ”Nuclear is assumed to remain unavailable.”
But is this a rational position? There is fierce disagreement on almost every point of Russell Hamstead’s Climate Agenda question – the cost of nuclear power, its safety, its ability to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and the viability of new nuclear technology.
COST. George Dracoulis, an emeritus professor of nuclear physics at the Australian National University, agrees that nuclear power is expensive. A conventional reactor of a standard design producing 1000 megawatts of power – less than Victoria’s Hazelwood power station, which supplies up to 25 per cent of the state’s energy – would cost up to $5 billion, he said.
He said that if the public and bankers believed there were significant risks to the investment, the banks may charge higher interest rates, significantly increasing the price. Even so, says Dracoulis, with a carbon price of between $20 and $40 a tonne, a nuclear power station would become viable over its operating life.
And if the world agreed on a standard design, refined by mass production in China, where up to 100 new reactors are planned, the cost should come down.
His conclusions are largely backed up by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which examined the costs of nuclear power as part of its 2007 report on mitigating climate change and found that, despite wide variations between different kinds of reactors, over their lifetime, the costs were similar to those of renewable energy sources.
Not so, says Associate Professor Mark Diesendorf, a sustainable energy expert based at the University of New South Wales. He says that, where they operate, nuclear power stations benefit from large hidden subsidies, including taxpayers taking on the burden of insuring and decommissioning power stations and of liability for their breakdowns.
”There would never have been a nuclear power station built in the world without limited liability on accidents, so the public and taxpayers suffer the risks of rare but devastating accidents,” Diesendorf said.
Take Fukushima: the value of land made unusable plus the cost of evacuating 80,000 people from around the stricken plant was between $US70 billion ($A72 billion) and $US250 billion, according to the Japan Centre for Economic Research, and that was only a small portion of what the ultimate costs would be.
Diesendorf also disputed whether the construction costs were coming down. In Finland, the Olkiluoto 3 nuclear power station has been under construction since 2005 and is now four years behind schedule and at least $3.6 billion over budget.
SAFETY. Russell Hamstead’s contention that nuclear energy ”kills less people per unit of energy produced than even solar or wind” is backed up by a number of reports which look at health effects of construction, maintenance and power production of electricity facilities of all kinds.
According to a recent report by European Union research group ExternE, coal, oil and biomass were the least safe technologies, with oil, for example, causing 37 deaths per thousand gigawatts of energy produced. The death rate from nuclear, wind and hydro power could, ”within the accuracy of the calculations … very well be given a value of zero”, the report found.
The figures did not include deaths from pollution (which would significantly increase coal-related deaths) or greenhouse gas emissions.
Richard McNeall, from Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy, said that the only serious nuclear accidents had been Three Mile Island in the US, with no known deaths, Fukushima, whose health effects were still unknown, and Chernobyl, the 1986 nuclear catastrophe at a reactor in the USSR.
The death rate from Chernobyl is contested. Fewer than 100 people were directly killed in the accident and the high doses of radiation it released. Many thousands in the area at the time, particularly children, got thyroid cancer, but most were successfully treated.
There is no agreement, however, on how many additional cancers in the surrounding region and throughout Europe will result from Chernobyl. Some estimates are as high as a million, others as low as 9000, with people who are anti-nuclear and pro-nuclear likely to believe the figure that best supports their position.
According to McNeall, ”it’s no good by any stretch, but given that this is the only really widespread accident that’s happened, and certainly it’s far worse than Fukushima, if you look at it in terms of the death toll, it’s not that bad”.
By comparison, there were 6027 deaths of coalminers in China in 2004 alone, and some environmental groups claim that deaths from coal pollution are 170,000 worldwide each year. But it’s the insidious and invisible nature of atomic radiation, as well as the fear of the nuclear mushroom cloud, that heighten the public’s anxiety about potential nuclear accidents.
Diesendorf says that, by its nature, nuclear energy is unacceptably dangerous.
”The Japanese were incredibly lucky that during most of the big radiation emissions from Fukushima, the winds were blowing offshore. If the winds had been blowing towards Tokyo, people couldn’t have escaped,” he said.
”The probability of a major accident is low, but the consequences are enormous … it would be dishonest and incompetent to ignore that kind of event.”
Conventional nuclear reactors use uranium, but leave behind waste, elements of which remain radioactive for thousands of years. In addition, the known reserves of high-grade uranium ore are running out. Only 80 years’ supply remains at current rates of use, and 40 years if the world doubles the number of reactors.
Various nuclear technologies are being explored to provide a new generation of reactors using much more abundant materials to generate power. The kind referred to by questioner Russell Hamstead, thorium fast-breeder reactors, will use thorium, an element that is three times more abundant than uranium. In its natural state, thorium will not produce energy because it is not ”fissile”, so it needs a trigger such as plutonium to kick off a reaction. In effect, this ”breeds” fissile material (hence the term ”breeder”).
According to Dracoulis, these reactors have the potential to be 100 per cent efficient. That is, they generate little or none of the highly radioactive waste produced by current reactors, removing another key objection to nuclear power: the problem of disposing of radioactive waste.
But thorium is not the only material that could be used in a breeder reactor: depleted uranium can also be kicked back into energy production under the right conditions. The downside is that they are very expensive and have ”never been commercial”. Superphoenix, a breeder reactor in France, took seven years from 1974 to build, but produced a small fraction of the electricity it promised to produce and was eventually closed in 1998.
Diesendorf is unconvinced about thorium particularly: ”The new technology doesn’t exist. It’s all talk, it’s all plans. India has been trying to build an incredibly complicated three-part system for thorium and if it ever works it will be much more expensive than existing reactors and even more dangerous.”
It’s clear that, once they are up and running, nuclear power stations do not create carbon dioxide or any other greenhouse gas emissions.
But opponents of nuclear power say that is not the full story. In their response to the 2006 Switkowski report, a group of scientists called the EnergyScience Coalition said the carbon dioxide emissions from mining and milling uranium ore would substantially increase in coming decades as the quality of the ore decreased ”from high-grade to low-grade”.
Diesendorf said that as we ran out of high-grade ore, mining companies would be forced to mine and mill 10 tonnes of rock to yield one kilogram of ”yellowcake” – an unrefined stage in the production of uranium.
”Once that happens, the nuclear fuel cycle will produce at least 10 times the greenhouse emissions of wind power,” Diesendorf said.
Dracoulis disagrees: BHP’s Olympic Dam uranium and copper mine at Roxby Downs in South Australia produces about 4000 tonnes of uranium per year, every year, he says, enough to produce 20,000 megawatts of electricity annually – almost enough to power all of Australia for a year. To do so, the mine uses just 160 megawatts of power. (Diesendorf argues that this calculation ignores the diesel used to mine the ore.)
Russell Hamstead asks why the government does not spend ”some of it’s enormous ‘clean energy future’ research and advertising budget to help educate Australians about the facts around new forms of clean atomic energy”.
The short answer is that it’s too politically hot. France relies on nuclear energy for most of its electricity, and the protest movement there is tiny. In China, where political opposition is hard to express, the government plans to build 100 new reactors as it harnesses all available sources to meet the power challenge.
But everywhere else, nuclear power is controversial. Finland’s anti-nuclear protesters are agitating for an end to the industry; South Korea doubled the height of tsunami barriers around its oldest plant; in India, where nuclear power is expanding fast, opposition is said to run deep; and Germany legislated after Fukushima to close all its 17 reactors by 2022.
Australia is the world’s second-largest producer of uranium, but our politicians have very little interest in using it to produce our own power.
”Nothing can or will happen until it’s shown (as it might be) that … carbon capture, geothermal, solar thermal, wind etc fail to deliver fully,” says Dracoulis. ”The question is then, how long do you give them?”
Sydney Morning Herald 9 October 2011