Friday 24 Sep 2021 | 22:17 | SYDNEY
Friday 24 Sep 2021 | 22:17 | SYDNEY

Geoff Gallop is wrong about N power


Martine Letts

13 September 2011 08:22

According to Geoff Gallop's recent opinion piece, all the questions about nuclear power have been answered — it's too dangerous, too expensive, too unpopular, and would be best left to die. We don't need it to tackle climate change and we can't afford it. 

That's a pretty big call, especially in the context of a bipartisan target in Australia to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. And the way we are apparently going to do it is by using renewable technologies, many requiring subsidies, and many of which are not yet proven providers of base-load power.

Here are some brief observations and further reading on some of the detailed claims made in Geoff's piece:

About 65 nuclear plants will be under construction by the end of 2010, all including cost overruns and delays. Importantly though, none of these are being built as a result of market-based decision-making.

Some reactor projects, like other major infrastructure projects, experience cost overruns and delays. This is particularly the case with first-of-a-kind reactors such as the EPR in Finland. However, the experience in East Asia (China, Japan, ROK) is different – reactor projects there consistently come in on time and on or under budget.

The new reactors in Finland (one under construction and one or two in planning) are owned by industry consortia who see nuclear's capacity to supply large amounts of base-load power with low carbon emissions as essential to the country's industrial base. New reactor proposals in the US are being made in a deregulated market, and must stack up financially. The slower than expected 'renaissance' in US nuclear build is being primarily driven by low gas prices.

Indeed the market hasn't been all that keen on nuclear power – and no wonder, with the high costs, technical complexities and local politics. It's not exactly a stock-market friendly business — just ask the owners of the Tokyo Electric and Power Company!

Most operators of nuclear plants – particularly in Western countries — are listed companies. To date, Fukushima doesn't seem to be having much impact on their investment decisions, although stricter regulatory standards may eventually have some impact.

The general public have never been all that keen on nuclear power. They have weighed up the risks and have almost always concluded that it is not for them – when asked that is.

Public support for nuclear is reasonably strong in countries which have a long history of it. Generally, the closer a person lives to a nuclear facility, the more supportive they are. While Fukushima has affected public support in the short term, it is too soon to conclude what long-term effect it will have; it could be less than that of Three Mile Island or Chernobyl. Recent successful siting exercises in Sweden and Finland for waste management facilities (which are less popular than reactors) have been based on community support, involving public consultation exercises stretching over years.

Firstly, there is the question of accidents. We know that all modern industrial processes carry dangers, some more than others. However, when human error or natural disaster causes nuclear accidents, the consequences are significant, and not just for those living in the vicinity of the plant.

This study by the OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) suggests nuclear power generation is much safer than alternative forms of energy generation.

Secondly, there is the difficulty of transporting and disposing of nuclear waste. Again, there are similar issues in other industries, but they are not in the same league as those related to the highly radioactive material from a nuclear plant.

The challenges of managing radioactive waste are much smaller than those of managing other hazardous wastes (see OECD NEA study entitled Radioactive Waste in Perspective). In particular, the hazard from radioactive wastes diminishes over time with decay, while other problematic wastes remain hazardous forever.

Thirdly, there is the potential for nuclear weapons proliferation. Civil nuclear weapons programs can be a cover for making nuclear weapons and there is the potentiality for terrorist organisations (or extremist governments) to turn stolen plutonium into bombs.

'Civil nuclear weapons programs' should presumably be 'Civil nuclear power programs'. You can't deny this – Iran is the perfect example of a country using its energy program, in particular the sensitive nuclear technology of enrichment, to do just that. But you don't need to use such technologies to generate power and you could buy fuel from an internationally controlled source. This may well be the future of nuclear supply. 

Also, weapons programs have historically been a precursor to energy programs, rather than the other way around. And if Saudi Arabia wants to counter Iran's weapons plans, it is more likely to buy nuclear weapons off the shelf than via a power program. As to terrorists stealing plutonium, Steve McIntosh noted on The Interpreter a few weeks ago that civil plutonium is no good for making weapons.

Nuclear power can't compete when it comes to both economics and the economics of environmental reform. Even with the enormous subsidies it receives nuclear power can't compete with its low or no carbon competition – renewables, cogeneration and efficiency. In 2008-2009 renewables provided half of the world's new generating capacity.

Not all energy economists agree, and with a high price on carbon, the economics of nuclear power looks more promising. Extensive work from the OECD NEA leads this agency to conclude that nuclear is more than competitive with renewables.

We don't need it to tackle climate change and we can't afford it.

Many reputable studies regarding controls on CO2 emissions show that nuclear is an essential component of the solution.

According to Geoff, nuclear power advocates fail 'to do anything about their stated preferences' which 'leads one to conclude that it has been used more as a wedge to divide the left rather than as a serious basis for energy policy'. If, as is the case in Australia, both sides of politics has declared the subject out of bounds, whom should the advocates be engaging with?

We need to understand the risks to Australia's energy future by excluding peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and the risk to Australia of declining nuclear expertise while Asia embraces nuclear energy. This question is part of the larger picture of how Australia will deal with dynamic Asia, and how we will be able to hold our own economically. The question that needs to be debated is: what are the implications for Australian energy security and future competitiveness in rapidly growing Asia if we forswear nuclear energy?

For the moment, it looks as if Australia is out of step with history and our regional circumstances. This is why it is so important for us to invest in an extended, informed, unemotional debate on this matter and not declare the science and the economics settled.

Photo by Flickr user Ivanhoe057.