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7 Sept 2007 - No nukes article: Professor Ian Lowe, President Australian Conservation Foundation

ACF President Ian Lowe

ACF President Professor Ian Lowe, AO

Heeding the warning signs - National - 

[Full article text follows here]

September 7, 2007

Most of the world has turned its back on nuclear energy and now Australia should too, writes Ian Lowe.

As energy markets have liberalised around the world, investors have turned their backs on nuclear energy. The number of reactors in Western Europe and the United States peaked 15 to 20 years ago and has been declining ever since.

By contrast, the amount of wind power and solar energy is increasing rapidly. In the decade up to 2003, the average annual rates of increase of the different forms of electricity supply were as follows: wind increased by almost 30 per cent, solar by more than 20 per cent, gas 2 per cent, oil and coal 1 per cent, nuclear 0.6 per cent.

The figures tell the real story. Despite the recent pro-nuclear hype, most of the world has rejected nuclear energy in favour of alternatives that are cheaper, cleaner and more flexible. These figures also refute one of the oft-repeated lies about the Kyoto agreement. Most European countries have the same amount of nuclear power now as they had in the Kyoto base year, 1990 (the year against which future emissions are measured). Some have less. Finland is the only European country I am aware of that has commissioned a nuclear reactor this century.

So any carbon benefit flowing from use of nuclear power was already there in the European baseline and does absolutely nothing to make these countries' targets any easier to reach. In fact, it is easier for Australia to reduce its emissions precisely because so much of our energy now comes from coal-fired electricity. We could produce the same amount of energy while releasing less carbon, just by moving from coal to gas.

Second, nuclear power is far too slow a response to the urgent problem of climate change. Even if there were political agreement today to build nuclear reactors, it would be at least 10 years before the first such reactor could deliver electricity, while some have suggested that between 15 and 25 years is a more realistic estimate. We can't afford to wait decades for a response given the heavy social, environmental and economic costs that global warming is already imposing. If we were to start today expanding the use of solar hot water in Queensland to cover half the households in that state - a similar level to the Northern Territory - we could save about as much electricity as a nuclear power station would provide, and do it years before any reactor would be up and running.

The third problem is that nuclear power is too dangerous. Not only is there the risk of accidents such as at Chernobyl, there is also an elevated risk of nuclear weapons proliferation or nuclear terrorism. As far back as 1976, the Fox report - the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry - warned that exporting uranium would inevitably increase the risk of nuclear weapons being developed. Since then the situation has steadily worsened, with nuclear weapons having been developed by a range of countries. The experience of Iraq, being invaded by the US and its coalition of the willing, is clearly spurring on Iran and North Korea to develop their own nuclear deterrents. Dr Mohamed ElBaradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the 2005 review conference on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty that "fears of a deadly nuclear detonation … have been reawakened".

Nuclear power necessarily produces radioactive waste that has to be stored safely for hundreds of thousands of years. After nearly 50 years of nuclear power, the world has produced more than 250 million tonnes of radioactive waste - 10,000 tonnes of it highly radioactive - yet nobody has found a permanent solution to the storage problem. In the absence of such a solution, expanding the rate of waste production is irresponsible.

Fourth, nuclear power is not carbon-free. Significant amounts of fossil-fuel energy are used to mine and process uranium ores, enrich the fuel and build nuclear power stations. Over their operating lifetime, nuclear power stations release much less carbon dioxide than does the burning of coal, but in the short term they would make the situation worse; building nuclear power stations would actually increase greenhouse pollution.

A fifth, and related, problem is that high-grade uranium ores are limited. On best estimates, known high-grade ores could supply present demand for about 50 years. If we expanded the nuclear contribution to global electricity supply from the present level - about 15 per cent - to replace all coal-fired power stations, the high-grade resources would last only about a decade. There are large deposits of lower-grade ores, but these require much more conventional energy for extraction and processing. Total life-cycle analysis has concluded that fuelling nuclear power stations from lower-grade ores actually releases more carbon dioxide per unit of delivered energy than burning gas. These calculations are disputed by pro-nuclear activists, but there is no doubt that the fuel energy, consequent greenhouse emissions and the dollars needed to produce uranium all increase as the ore grade declines.

Appropriate comparison is critical. It is sometimes claimed that exporting more Australian uranium will slow the rate of global climate change. It would have that short-term benefit if the only result were to cut the number of coal-fired power stations. On the other hand, I believe that it is now clear to any responsible decision-maker that we should not be worsening the problem by burning coal. So the real choice is between nuclear power and a mix of renewable energy technologies combined with efficiency measures. If that is the choice, it would take creative arithmetic to make a case that our uranium is doing anything at all to save the world from climate change. I would be more impressed by the integrity of those arguing for us to export uranium to slow global warming if they were also calling for us to reduce our coal exports. Australia could do much more to help the global atmosphere by cutting our coal exports than we could by the most fanciful estimate of the potential benefits from our uranium. Of course, many of those urging uranium exports are also in the vanguard of calls to export even more coal than we do today. This shows that they are actually more interested in the short-term economic benefits of mineral exports than in any effect on the global environment.

A few technocrats have steadfastly advocated that Australia should mine and export uranium, enrich it for export, build nuclear power stations and (in some cases) even offer to take in the world's radioactive waste. These people had their day in the sun when John Howard assembled his taskforce in June last year. While the Switkowski report, Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy - Opportunities for Australia?, was hailed by some as a green light for the nuclear industry, a detailed reading shows that it is a very lame endorsement of the nuclear option.

The whole exercise was of doubtful merit. The taskforce was picked by the Prime Minister, certainly giving the appearance that the members had been chosen to give the result he wanted, while the terms of reference limited the study by excluding consideration of emerging renewable energy alternatives and limiting environmental considerations to the possible reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. But the facts, even if carefully chosen, still speak for themselves. Despite the brave show made by Howard on releasing the report and some of the media commentary, the fine print shows that nuclear power is an expensive, slow and dirty way of making very little impact on the problem of global climate change.

A crucial political consideration is the public hostility to reactors. In Europe and the US, this has caused protracted delays in construction. Since there is similar hostility in Australia, it is naive or dishonest to base economic assessment on the assumption that reactors could be built in three years.

At a recent Adelaide conference, the editor of the industry journal Nucleonics Weekly gave a paper warning on excessive optimism about construction times and costs. Mark Hibbs said Westinghouse had lost "several hundred million dollars" on a new reactor project in Finland, while the design for two proposed reactors in Taiwan is only about 65 per cent complete, 11 years after the signing of contracts with two US firms.

Some of the delays can be attributed to political divisions and consequent legal battles, but the costs of some components have increased by as much as a factor of six. Hibbs warned that the designs for new reactors are still on the drawing board, so there is real uncertainty about the actual costs.

He also said it is unclear whether manufacturers would even be interested in building one or two reactors in a country with no infrastructure or past experience of nuclear power. In other words, it may not even be possible to interest the commercial nuclear industry in building an Australian reactor; even if a reactor were feasible, no one can really say how expensive it would be. By contrast, we have experience of building wind turbines and installing solar hot water systems, so we have both the necessary skills and confidence in the economics.

The Switkowski report says at least 10 and possibly 15 years would be a realistic time scale for building one nuclear power station in Australia. It would take more time still to "pay back" the energy used in construction and fuelling, so it would take 15 to 20 years for any such station to make any contribution to cutting greenhouse pollution.

Fifteen to 20 months is a more realistic time scale for large-scale renewables. Global warming is an urgent problem that demands a concerted response now, not a half-baked response after 2020.

Besides, the scale of the potential effect on our greenhouse pollution is not impressive. The most aggressive pro-nuclear scenario analysed by the report projected 25 nuclear reactors dotted around the nation, but this would only have the potential to reduce the growth in our greenhouse pollution by between 8 and 18 per cent.

Even the higher figure would be a miserable attempt to meet our greenhouse responsibilities. The science shows we need to cut greenhouse pollution by at least 60 per cent, and probably by more like 80 to 90 per cent. Also, the nuclear option would involve a massive release of carbon dioxide in the next few decades, building and fuelling reactors, just at the time we should be cutting back. It doesn't make sense as a response to climate change.

The Switkowski report accurately concludes that disposal of high-level waste is "an issue" in most countries using nuclear power. Until the problem is resolved, it is irresponsible to produce more waste. It is contributing to a problem that currently does not have a solution, dumping it on future generations to resolve. On these grounds, it fails one of the tests of sustainability: inter-generational equity. Such an approach would not be morally defensible, even if we did not have alternatives; but we do.

We should also worry about the possible effect of our choices on proliferation of nuclear weapons. The report claims that "increased Australian involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle would not change the risks", but this seems naive. Iran's neighbours are nervous about an energy-rich country that clearly does not need nuclear power embracing this technology, suspecting its real motives.

It would be equally understandable if our neighbours drew the same conclusion. Any agitators wishing to spread the idea that Australia was planning to build nuclear weapons would find enough historical urgings from nuclear technocrats to make their case appear credible.

The former head of the then Australian Atomic Energy Commission, the late Sir Philip Baxter, was an unashamed advocate of developing a nuclear weapons capacity. If our Government were so foolish as to go down this path, it would dramatically increase the risk of proliferation in our region. Visiting Australia recently, the former US vice-president Al Gore observed that every problem of weapons proliferation during his eight years in the White House arose from a civilian nuclear program.

In our area China, India and Pakistan all developed nuclear weapons in association with nuclear energy. The same could be said of Israel, while in Britain the nuclear energy industry began as a smokescreen to conceal the real agenda of building bombs. The more countries have nuclear weapons, the more certain it becomes that one will become deluded enough or desperate enough to use them.

This is an edited extract of Quarterly Essay 27, Reaction Time (Black Inc, $14.95) by Ian Lowe, the president of the Australian Conservation Foundation. It will be published on Monday. Ian Lowe will talk with Phillip Adams at Gleebooks on Thursday.


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