"“If we insist on reducing our use of fossil fuels and cannot assume reliable water flows into the future, the only option open to us (and most economies around the world) is nuclear power,” says Ziggy Switkowski."
Most electricity demand is for continuous reliable supply around the clock. This is met by what we call baseload supply.
The options available for the production of baseload electricity include the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil, or through hydroelectricity and nuclear power.
As we have little tolerance for brownouts and blackouts and require that 80 per cent of our electricity capacity be always available – to power appliances, buildings and homes, hospitals, public transport, traffic lights etc – only the options noted above work.
If we insist upon reducing our use of fossil fuels and cannot assume reliable water flows into the future, the only option open to us (and most economies around the world) is nuclear power.
Many countries have already reached this conclusion, which is why there is a strong revival of the nuclear industry globally.
Ranger Mine, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory. Australia has enough uranium to run one in five of the world’s nuclear reactors. Photo by Alberto Otero Garcia.
The case for nuclear power:
Much has been made of the fact that Australia is blessed with abundant sunshine and wind as if this might be a source of comparative advantage. The opposite may be the case. Sunshine and wind are more democratically distributed than fuel resources such as oil, coal, gas and uranium. Most countries have plenty.
That we appear to have proportionately more is a statement of our low population density – something that translates into a small economy and fewer intellectual and commercial resources to exploit the technologies.
As we move to a low carbon economy, our traditional sources of competitive advantage such as abundant and inexpensive fossil fuels will be overtaken by new generation technologies such as nuclear power where we have no presence.
And our competitive advantage will disappear.
More than 80 per cent of the world’s energy is produced from fossil fuels. To presume this global level of dependence will change quickly fails to appreciate the huge growth in oil, coal and gas demand that will be driven by the emerging economies of China and India, or the challenge inherent in displacing technologies such as the internal combustion petrol engine with cleaner alternatives.
In allowing coal to be demonised as a dirty fuel and barring any consideration of nuclear energy as an option, our policy makers may be shaping an energy future disproportionately dependent upon technologies that may compromise the reliability, productivity and low cost of our current world-class electricity system.
"Australia now stands alone among the world’s top 25 economies in excluding consideration of nuclear power in our long-term energy and climate change strategy. ZIGGY SWITKOWSKI puts the case for nuclear power and Greenpeace’s STEPHEN CAMPBELL puts the case against it."
During the ’50s and ’60s, Australia was a senior member of the global community of countries with substantial nuclear expertise. The Australian Atomic Energy Commission (now ANSTO) was established in 1953 and conducted world leading research into the nuclear fuel cycle.
In 1970, the conservative government halted development of the country’s first power reactor planned for Jervis Bay. In 1983, the Labour government limited further development of Australia’s uranium resources leading to the three mines policy, which ultimately was reversed in 2007.
The Three Mile Island nuclear core meltdown in 1979 and the tragic Chernobyl reactor (chemical) explosion and fire in 1986 brought the industry to a
Discussion of nuclear energy basically stopped in Australia during the ’80s and ’90s and returned to our national conversation only in 2006 following the UMPNER Task Force Report.
But two decades of policy development were lost. The UMPNER study of 2006 described a scenario where Australia installed its first reactor in 15 years time, during the 2020s, and built a fleet of 25 reactors by 2050 that could then provide one-third of our electricity needs.
This outlook is now too conservative.
"Claims of the ability of nuclear power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are vastly overstated, argues Greenpeace campaigns director STEPHEN CAMPBELL."
Australia could and should plan for its first nuclear reactor by 2020 aiming for a fleet size of 50 large reactors producing 75GWe by 2050.
With a moderate amount of hydroelectricity, renewable and residual coal/gas generation, this could meet all of Australia’s electricity needs reliably, safely, cleanly and cost effectively.
A new generation of reactors is being developed at the lower end of power output.
Instead of 1000 MWe that is becoming typical of modern fission systems, compact reactors producing
50-200MWe are expected on the market around 2015.
These have the appealing features of being gas cooled (and therefore do not require access to water), are modular and can be incrementally extended as more power is needed, have a small footprint (perhaps the size of two shipping containers), could be built underground and are much less intimidating than a full-scale installation.
Reactors of such dimension have been used on nuclear submarines for decades – albeit with a different cooling and fuel configuration. Applications for such systems could extend to providing the electricity for Australian towns of up to100k population remote from the grid, powering industrial sites (mines and smelters etc), and partnering desalination plants.
The introduction of nuclear power via these smaller installations may be the path that wins Australian community and political support earliest.
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has determined that used nuclear fuel can be stored safely and with no environmental impact indefinitely and certainly for at least 30 years beyond the licensed operating period of a nuclear power plant.
Accordingly, most spent fuel is kept on site either in pools of water that cool and shield it, or in dry storage – ventilated concrete casks about 5 metres high alongside the plant.
This can continue beyond the reactor’s 40-60 year operating life until the spent fuel is transported by road or rail to national repositories for long-term storage.
A single large reactor serving 1 million people produces a volume of nuclear “waste” equivalent to that of the size of a passenger car per year. This is judged to be very small.
Nuclear power must be in the mix and we should be prepared for it to be most of the answer within a few decades.
"Greenpeace argues that renewable energy is the future and Australia’s geography and climate gives us an almost unparalleled opportunity."
Bolstered by the climate change debate and an
Australia poll that shows one in two people believe the federal govern-ment should consider nuclear power as a means of reducing carbon pollution, the debate over nuclear power continues to rear
But current trends and common sense should mean that Australia remains nuclear-free. In the Western world there are only two reactors being built and both have a distinctly Gallic flavour. The first is being constructed in France, while the second – located in Finland – is being built by the French state-owned company AREVA.
In the case of the latter, four years into the construction it is suffering a delay of more than three years, with costs doubling from €2.5 billion to €5.5 billion. Not only that but the country’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority has found the reactor’s concrete base to be too porous and prone to corrosion. This was compounded by reports from the US last week that 27 of 104 plants are leaking radioactive tritium, a carcinogen.
For those of us who want a genuine solution to climate change, safe, clean, renewable energy is the only option.
And back on French turf, the reactor under construction is also behind schedule and over budget.
The economics of nuclear power have always been bad and little has changed. The fact that the US nuclear industry required $US8.3 billion in loan guarantees from the government in February only serves to reinforce this reality.
But faced with the very real threat of climate change, could we forget the cost, the deadly long-lived radioactive waste, the threat of accident, terrorist attack and so on, if nuclear power was indeed the low-emissions panacea?
Unlikely. And unfortunately for its proponents, even the case for nuclear power as a solution to climate change is drastically overstated.
In 2006, the Switkowski report found that even a major nuclear power program in Australia – 25 reactors by mid-century – would reduce emissions by a modest 17 per cent compared with business as usual (assuming nuclear replaces black coal). A more realistic program of six nuclear power reactors would reduce Australia’s overall emissions by 4 per cent.
Six nuclear reactors in our backyard for a measly 4 per cent emissions reduction? It would be interesting to see how many Australians would vote for that. Rather less than 50 per cent I’d venture.
But support will no doubt continue from the likes of Rio Tinto. With a majority stake in one of Australia’s biggest uranium producers, it once again pressed its case in a submission to the government white paper on energy this year.
Greenpeace argues the economics of nuclear power are ‘bad’.
The mining giant also reportedly told the government there are questions over the viability of renewable energy due to high costs. There are start-up costs for both renewables and nuclear power. And given the risks, no government in its right mind would opt to go nuclear.
Moreover, the polluters’ own modelling shows that switching to clean energy will be cheaper for the consumer. The National Generators’ Forum, for instance, commissioned modelling in June 2008 into the effect of having 20 per cent of renewable energy in the mix. The conclusion was that this would reduce the wholesale price of electricity by at least 5 per cent.
The result was supported by the Business Council of Australia’s 2008 report on energy pricing. Based on its figures, meeting the expanded renewable energy target would reduce the overall cost of wholesale electricity by $10 billion in 2015.
Renewable energy is much cheaper to run compared with conventional, fuel-intensive energy sources, which is why more renewable energy in the mix puts downward pressure on wholesale prices. This is exactly why the coal industry opposes a large expansion of clean energy: lower wholesale prices mean less profit for them.
This is the heart of the matter. It’s their profit versus our right to cheaper and cleaner electricity. Needless to say, the big polluters are keeping this information very quiet.
The nuclear debate needs to stay in the past where it belongs. Renewable energy is the future and Australia’s geography and climate gives us an almost unparalleled opportunity. All we need is the political will to deliver.