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Nov 8, 2012

Nuclear denied? Why the energy white paper should start a debate

Soon we'll be mining uranium in Queensland, and selling it to India. Isn't it about time we used it ourselves? Tony Wood from the Grattan Institute makes the case ahead of the energy white paper.

Nuclear waste

The federal government will seek to chart the country’s energy future in its white paper out today — and there are reports that nuclear power will be left out of the mix. Fairfax’s Lenore Taylor writes that the Coalition will accept the verdict that nuclear is out, leaving Australia with no political nuclear champion.

This approach, affected by Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, is problematic when there could be an important national conversation about the need for nuclear power in Australia — if we are serious about addressing climate change.

Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson, who will launch the white paper in a speech in Melbourne at 1pm, has recently commented that the cost of nuclear energy might reduce in the future (Crikey’s Bernard Keane did not agree). Ferguson’s view merits attention.

The nuclear debate has two elements: the global role of nuclear energy and Australia’s position as a supplier of the raw material; and the role of nuclear power in our energy future.

Recent decisions to mine uranium in Queensland and supply uranium to India seem to have as much to do with a new state government’s commitment to resource development — and the Commonwealth’s commitment to bilateral relationships — as with the global future of nuclear energy.

Yet that future is very much in the spotlight. In a special report on nuclear power last year, The Economist argued the incident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant would dampen the long-term growth of nuclear energy in several countries, notably Japan and Germany. Yet it expected global growth to continue, driven largely by developments in China, Russia and South Korea. There is little to suggest the picture has changed since that report. A number of countries remain either sceptical of or fully against nuclear energy. Others see it as an integral part of their energy mix into the future.

The political issues are at least equalled by the economic challenges, particularly in Western countries. The cost of current projects is forbidding, and the financing of future nuclear power plants even more difficult. The latter issue drove Citigroup to conclude in 2009 that the economics of nuclear say “not in the West”, unless governments take control or assume responsibility, at least by giving plant developers a guaranteed purchaser for their supply.

In this environment, the UK government is going against the grain by chasing private investment for the replacement of its ageing plants, coupled with significant extra capacity by 2025.

As the costs of nuclear energy remain high, the cost of at least one of its low-emissions competitors, namely solar PV, has dropped rapidly over the last decade. Finally, the dominance of financial crises over environment crises, at least for the time being, has tempered the extent to which many countries have looked to nuclear energy as part of a solution to climate change.

Many countries are faced with a narrow set of primary energy supply choices, whether they be fossil fuels or others. Many also worry about security of supply in a volatile world. Australia, by contrast, is blessed with a multitude of choices and little concern for security of supply. We have coal and gas reserves that have allowed us to use fossil fuels at low cost for domestic energy supply, whilst exporting these and uranium to an increasingly energy-hungry world.

Yet this happy state is increasingly threatened. The Grattan Institute’s 2012 report, No easy choices: which way to Australia’s energy future, examined how Australia could substantially and relatively quickly transform the nature of its electricity supply to meet the challenge of climate change. While there is bipartisan support for the need to address climate change, our low-cost energy supply, built over many decades, has left us at the top of the league table in terms of greenhouse gas emissions per head.

Our report concluded that all seven of the major low-emission technologies that could materially contribute to the necessary transformation of Australia’s energy supply faced major challenges to produce power quickly and cheaply. Furthermore, the technology mix as projected by published economic modelling for the government seems to challenge plausibility in regard to the scale of the challenge. Specifically, the projections include a major contribution from geothermal energy, and from carbon capture and storage of emissions produced from coal and gas. Neither technology makes anything like a significant contribution today. Neither has been proven on a commercial scale in Australia.

Modelling of future energy scenarios is important, and can inform robust policy decisions. But it would be naïve at best, dangerous at worst, to base policy primarily on modelled projections. The environmental, social and economic consequences are just too important. Until Australia knows what mix of technologies will best supply sufficient low-emissions power at low cost, energy policy choices today should keep open the widest set of options.

This brings us back to nuclear power. Perhaps the current policy environment — which makes nuclear illegal in Australia and which envisages an electricity mix composed of renewable energy and CCS — will deliver the most affordable, secure and sustainable outcome. Perhaps not.

Similarly, all renewable sources — solar, wind, geothermal and bioenergy — face significant barriers of financing and scaling-up, among others. There are no easy or obvious solutions. The decisions of the past, the constraints of the future, and our enduring hunger for energy have taken them all away.

Nuclear energy faces many hurdles. As yet there is no long-term waste storage solution. Safety and security concerns are acute since Fukushima, and the industry’s skilled workforce is ageing. Finally, the demand signals that should come from climate change policy remain weak, mainly because of popular opposition, weak political commitment or more immediate financial problems.

Yet nuclear energy can provide a major source of energy at competitive costs and with near-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Countries such as China and Korea have the capability to aggressively drive down the cost, particularly as they standardise their reactors. Countries want reliable and secure low-emissions power that is cheap over the long term. Nuclear could tick all these boxes.

Over time, a fully renewable energy future may be achievable. Yet without employing either fossil fuel power with CCS, or nuclear power, it is hard to see how we can make the transition whilst maintaining secure, reliable energy at affordable prices. We need to have an adult conversation about our future energy needs in a time of climate change. Excluding nuclear power from that conversation may be a decision we come to regret.

*Tony Wood is the program director of energy at the Grattan Institute

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34 comments

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34 thoughts on “Nuclear denied? Why the energy white paper should start a debate

  1. Geoff Russell

    Nuclear power would be an easy sell if we had a cancer literate media … people who could compare risks. What is the risk of living in the exclusion zone of Fukushima compared to eating red and processed meat more than once per week? It’s a lay down misere, the radiation levels in the exclusion zone make it a much safer alternative. The increase in red and processed meat in Japan in the 60s saw the bowel cancer incidence go from 20,000 people per annum to over 100,000. Read it again … that’s 80,000 extra cancers every single year … with a relatively small number being due to the small population increase.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17059355

    The survivors of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings didn’t experience anything like that big a change in cancer risk … even the highest irradiated group with a massive 2 Sievert dose.

    http://www.rerf.jp/radefx/late_e/cancrisk.html

    The nuclear industry has been bludgeoned into setting bizarre safety levels, levels that don’t apply elsewhere and which help to promote fear. It’s not hard to understand the history when you see the kind of absolute fiction written by Guy Rundle on Crikey about the Chernobyl accident. This kind of misleading uninformed fear mongering began 4 days after Chernobyl and has continued relentlessly ever since.

    A bipartisan acceptance of nuclear energy coupled with a serious public education campaign could reverse things, but its hard to see where this kind of pro-active leadership would come from.

    Consider last nights story on melioidosis on Catalyst. It’s pretty clear that the top end of Australia has natural bugs in the soil that make it far more dangerous than the exclusion zone around Fukushima.

    http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/3623445.htm

    Are there any calls for evacuation? Likewise diesel fumes cause cancer, but do you see blind panic in the streets when a bus or truck goes past? But our media are so gullible that they buy the panic stories of the anti-nuclear movement without any serious investigation and just regurgitate without anything like the scrutiny they’d give a claim from a politician.

  2. paddy

    (sigh) Perhaps the endless spruikers for the wonders of nuclear power, might do us all a favour and tell us the total cost (lifetime) of producing a KWh of electricity with a Nuclear power plant.

  3. michael crook

    Will the nuclear neanderthals ever go away? We have unlimited power from the sun and wind, other countries are using it, why not us. The answer, because sun and wind are free, and our society is predicated on some bast.rd making a dollar. Hang the environment, ignore the cancer rates among Australian urnaium mineworkers, its about money.

  4. Geoff Russell

    Nuclear is cost competitive

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S036054421000602X

    Consider 1973 and the Arab oil embargo. By 1981, just 7 years later, France, with 50 million people was generating 100 terawatt hours of energy per year from nuclear electricity. The US was generating 300 TWh/yr from nuclear. Has anybody come even close to this speed of build using renewables? NO.

    If you think climate change is worth rebuilding our energy infrastructure quickly to avoid, then it’s clear that nuclear is the fastest as well as the cheapest and most environmentally benign. You might like to calculate the solar thermal area required to replace the Fukushima Daichii reactors … its about the size of the evacuation area. The sun and wind are not free. Climate change cannot be solved with slogans like this and arguments aren’t won by name-calling.

  5. John Bennetts

    @Paddy:

    Don’t take my word for it. Check it out for yourself, but please stop whingeing that nuclear power costs are somehow secret. They are no more secret than your phone number and can be looked up just as easily.

    Google “LCOE” and “Nuclear Power” or any other combination of search terms for the electricity source of interest and you will find a wealth of data, including comparison costs.

    Prepare yourself for a shock, though. Nuclear power is the cheapest option with a low carbon footprint except for existing hydro.

  6. paddy

    JB
    I looked up “LOCE” and immediately hit the Wikipedia page. Thanks. But this para caught my eye.

    [This calculation does not include wider system costs associated with each type of plant, such as long distance transmission connections to grids, balancing and reserve costs, and does not include externalities such as health damage by coal plants, nor the effect of CO2 emissions on the whole biosphere (climate change, ocean acidification and eutrophication, ocean current shifts), nor decommissioning costs of nuclear plant, is therefore not full cost accounting:]

    I suspect it’s those pesky “decommissioning costs” that spell disaster for nuclear.

  7. John Bennetts

    Keep looking.

    LCOE should, by definition, include decommissioning costs. Wiki sometimes is a good place to start, but can also be a bit one-eyed and/or poorly researched.

    Incidentally, transmission costs are not included in LCOE for a reason. Distribution and metering and many other services, including frequency control are “system” costs. The primary energy cost as assessed by LCOE relates to that which happens at the nodes where electricity is generated and injected into the system.

    PV and other renewables enthusiasts rarely, if ever, include in their public costings for such things as decommissioning and site restoration. Again, Google “abandoned wind farm” or “derilect solar” and a whole raft of photos of abandoned wind and solar projects pop out of the intertubes.

    On a domestic scale, rooftop solar installations are expected to last 15 to 20 years. The house which supports the panels will probably last 50-100 years. Where can I find the cost of removing and replacing the old solar panels and repairing the tiles and steel roof sheeting?

    Comparing apples with apples is not as simple as just asking the salesperson what the price is.

    Again, I will not direct anybody to my preferred sites, because that inevitably results in accusations that I have cherry-picked my data. Please, if you are interested, search and question until your curiosity is satisfied. Hint: Look for Australian sites in order to remove some of the variations due geography, eg arguments based on different regulatory regimes, tax systems and environmental laws.

  8. wilful

    Actually john bennetts, transmission costs for nuclear power would have to be far cheaper than any alternative. They can be placed exactly where current thermal coal stations are placed, if allowed, using existing infrastructure, unlike wind power which must be widely distributed and sometimes a long way away from town.

  9. CHRISTOPHER DUNNE

    @Geoff Russell

    When the likes of Helen Caldicott can pull numbers out of her posterior, like 900,000 deaths from Chernobyl, and the media don’t call her credibility into question, educating the public on radiation risk seems well nigh impossible. That some human populations live healthy lives in areas of naturally occurring ionising radiation that are very much higher than around Fukushima is not the kind of fact that the media will present.

    The post-war Linear No Threshold model has been discredited but the public believe it like it’s some type of reverse homeopathy: even the tiniest trace of radiation will KILL! Ignorance about risk is fed by the media to a gullible and ill-informed public but hey, if the science of climate change can prevail, then maybe, there’s some hope.

  10. michael crook

    Almost unbelievable that there are still nuclear apologists out there, with Germany giving it away, and employing 300,000 on solar installation you still haven’t got the message. I suppose it is all a bit right wing really, deny reality, and keep denying it, then the lie in the end becomes a truth.

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