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Nuclear Dawn

 
Cover: May 2010
May 2010Medium length read
 

On 7 April at the National Press Club, Greens leader Bob Brown debated Ziggy Switkowski on Australia’s nuclear energy future. The debate had an odd feel, as Brown is categorical about Australia having no nuclear energy future and Switkowski contends that there is not enough national debate on the subject. Yet the issue of nuclear energy is full of anomalies. Centre-left politicians, such as Barack Obama and Gordon Brown, are revitalising nuclear programs in their respective countries. Leading scientists of climate change are advocating nuclear energy, and the nuclear industry has become evangelical about the dangers of global warming.

The one constant is the belief of nuclear proponents – as durable as a radioactive isotope – in their technology. Even though the political momentum for introducing nuclear energy in Australia has been lost, advocates are supremely confident that the ‘nuclear renaissance’, touted for years and firmly underway elsewhere in the world, is less than a decade from reaching the last advanced economy to resist it.

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As a budding scientist 40 years ago, Switkowski chose a field that was unlike any other for its world-changing potential. “Nuclear physics was definitely the place to be,” he says. “The Australian Atomic Energy Commission had started in 1953, and we were a senior participant in global discussions on nuclear energy. We were going to build a reactor at Jervis Bay. There was nothing more challenging than a career in nuclear physics.”

From another quarter of the scientific world, a young Tim Flannery viewed the same set of opportunities from a different perspective. “My parents were of that generation that had an incredibly positive idea of nuclear power,” he recalls. “E = mc² made all other energy sources look weak, and to them it looked like an opening to almost unlimited power – the dream of the alchemists achieved. But I was thinking, what was the first thing mankind did with it? Build a bomb.”

Nuclear power was the twentieth century’s incarnation of the myth of Prometheus, and for the past 40 years nuclear energy has faced its time of Promethean punishment in Australia: the abandonment of the Jervis Bay reactor in 1970; the psychological impacts of the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986; the ALP’s three mines policy in 1984; the shadow of the Cold War for many years; and nuclear weapons testing in the South Pacific in the 1990s. “University programs were shut down, and all that interest went away,” says Switkowski, who also went away, to a corporate career that led him to the top of Telstra. But now he has returned to his roots, and is currently chairman of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO). He authored the Howard government’s 2006 review of nuclear options in this country, and asserts: “Certain factors will converge in a few years. Once the brilliance of our engineering ideas overcomes politics and ideology, yes, I think nuclear will become inevitable.”

 

Currently, there are 438 nuclear reactors providing electricity to 32 countries. Nuclear energy provides around 20% of the electricity used by OECD countries. Another 54 reactors are under construction, mostly in Asia and the Middle East. In February, President Obama announced loan guarantees worth US$8.3 billion for what will be the first new nuclear plants to be built in the US since Three ?Mile Island. The US has 104 decades-old nuclear plants in operation. “We’ll have to build a new generation of safe, clean nuclear plants in America,” Obama said. “On an issue which affects our economy, our security and the future of our planet, we cannot continue to be mired in the same old debates between Left and Right.”

In the UK, there are 19 reactors fuelling about 17% of the electricity supply. The government has begun a licensing process to decommission and replace all of its old reactors. China currently has 11 operating reactors and 21 under construction. However, none of this growth is the result of traditional business-based nuclear advocacy. Instead, the industry has been making the most of an unusual opportunity. The environmental movement’s two most successful campaigns – raising awareness of climate change and opposing nuclear power – have been set against each other, resulting in a revival for the nuclear industry.

Two of the ‘fathers’ of the science of climate change have given previously unthinkable support to nuclear energy. NASA atmospheric physicist James Hansen said during a lecture tour of Australia in March: “We should undertake urgent focused research and development programs in next generation nuclear power.” Hansen said that renewable energy sources such as wind and solar were only generating 7% of the electricity needs of the countries that had invested in them most heavily. When compared to coal, he argued, nuclear energy had to be seen as the lesser of two evils.

British scientist James Lovelock has spurred a U-turn in the UK’s energy strategy by supporting nuclear. “Nuclear energy from its start in 1952 has proved to be the safest of all energy sources,” Lovelock has written:

 

We must stop fretting over the minute statistical risks of cancer from chemicals or radiation … If we fail to concentrate our minds on the real danger, which is global warming, we may die even sooner … I am a Green and I entreat my friends in the movement to drop their wrongheaded objection to nuclear energy.

 

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Australia, alone among the world’s top 15 economies, does not plan to go nuclear. Following the Obama announcement, Kevin Rudd restated the federal government’s opposition to the introduction of nuclear energy.

Of the 597 pages in the 2008 Garnaut Climate Change Review, only one mentioned nuclear energy. While political factors make it “imprudent, indeed romantic, to rely on a change in community attitudes as a premise of future electricity supply for the foreseeable future”, Garnaut wrote, he did issue this qualification:

 

However, it would be wise to reconsider the constraints if:

• future nuclear costs come in at the low end of current estimates

• developments in technologies reduce the need for long-term storage of high-level radioactive waste

• there is disappointment with technical and commercial progress with low-emissions fossil fuel technologies.

 

Garnaut concluded that in such circumstances, the government would have good reason to confront community opposition to nuclear energy, and change current policy.

Garnaut’s “however” clause may come along sooner than expected.

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When the Howard government tried to wedge the Left on nuclear power in 2006–07, it was applying the logic voiced by Lovelock: “We have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources; civilisation is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear – the one safe, available energy source – now, or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet.” The political paradox is that Ian Hore-Lacy, an Australian uranium industry advocate who now heads communications for the London-based World Nuclear Association, agrees: “Nuclear energy is inevitable if we are serious about diminishing carbon emissions,” Hore-Lacy says. “It’s a test of how serious we are on achieving emissions targets.”

The political impetus from Howard has gone, but the debate remains just as divisive. Some, however, such as Tim Flannery, have had their views challenged, and changed, by the debate on nuclear energy. “I was influenced by James Hansen and James Lovelock, who are both obviously people with great credibility, who have said that the problem of climate change is so urgent that all low-emissions sources, including nuclear, have to be considered.”

Flannery remains of the view that “Australia has such fabulous renewable energy sources that we should play to our strength,” and he advocates greater funding for wind, solar, geothermal and concentrated photovoltaic than for nuclear energy. “We could be powering this continent with renewable energy in 30 years if we put our mind to it,” he says, but, like Garnaut, he is keeping an open mind in case renewables fail to deliver all that is currently hoped of them.

Another from the Left who “has no in-principle objection to nuclear power” is Clive Hamilton, whose most recent publication, Requiem for a Species, argues that climate change is occurring more quickly and more radically than was previously anticipated. Hamilton says he “raised the hackles of a lot of people” on the Left by considering nuclear energy. “I was strongly anti-nuclear until I realised what an extraordinary threat climate change was and that we should do almost anything to head it off. That gave me clearer eyes on the pros and cons of nuclear power.” He examined the Chernobyl disaster and decided it was “an exceptional case”, concluding that such disasters were even less likely in the context of the future’s more advanced reactors. He also took into account the improved regulation and technology to enhance safety and waste disposal.

Ultimately, though, he was unconvinced nuclear energy is a viable option. “You can’t just decide to build a nuclear power plant and have it up and running in a few years … If you want to spend money on displacing the most carbon as soon as possible, investing in renewables is going to be a more economical and quicker response than nuclear.” Hamilton also cites the political issues with nuclear energy as a major impediment to its development. As director of the Australia Institute four years ago, Hamilton responded to the Howard government’s nuclear push by naming possible reactor sites. “We flushed out all the coalition MPs who would not have one in their electorate.” This strategy demonstrated the widespread opposition to nuclear energy and showed that the portrayal of Australia’s antipathy to nuclear energy as a fetish of a divided Left is inaccurate. The opposition is mainstream; it is the result, says Hamilton, “of the most successful campaign the environment movement has ever carried out”.

A recent document that cogently outlines the basis of this opposition is Professor Ian Lowe’s 2007 Quarterly Essay 27, ‘Reaction Time’. Lowe, the chairman of the Australian Conservation Foundation, outlined five main reasons to oppose nuclear energy: it is not economical for private enterprise and will always be government-subsidised; it won’t arrest climate change quickly enough (as it merely reduces electricity emissions, which account for only one third of total CO2 emissions); it is dangerous (the risk of accidents, weapons development and nuclear terrorism remains, while the storage of waste is expensive and unresolved); it is not carbon-free due to the carbon costs embedded in construction, mining and other infrastructure around the power stations; and it relies on ores that are scarce and non-renewable. Lowe concludes that promoting nuclear as a solution to climate change “is like promoting smoking as a cure for obesity”.

Like Switkowski, Lowe was pro-nuclear as a young scientist in the 1960s. As an electrical engineer and then a scientist, he regularly read reports about workers being killed in the coal mines. “Playing cricket, growing up in Newcastle, I was also very aware of the air pollution hanging over the city. Nuclear energy was seen as a cheap, clean and safe alternative to coal, so obviously I was attracted to it.”

Lowe was sponsored by the British Atomic Energy Agency to go to England to complete a doctorate in physics in 1968. “My first doubts came when I was lecturing in the UK, when colleagues were telling me about the economic problems of some nuclear reactors. I was still cautiously pro-nuclear, but the turning point came with the Australian Fox commission into uranium mining [1975–76], which formed my belief that the technical problems of managing radioactive waste and the social–political problem of preventing weapons proliferation were nowhere near being addressed sufficiently.” Thirty-odd years on, Lowe remains anti-nuclear, believing these issues still have not been adequately addressed.

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In a newly published ‘flip-book’ on the nuclear debate, Why vs Why: Nuclear Power (Pantera Press, 128pp; $19.99), Lowe’s opponent is Professor Barry Brook from the University of Adelaide. Brook argues, “If you want to get rid of all the coal-fired power stations in Australia you will have to build about 50 nuclear power stations.” He estimates that for us to reach our target of cutting emissions by 80% by 2050, we would need about 100 nuclear power stations. Asked if that sounds like a lot, he says: “The largest wind farm in the world is in South Australia. To generate the same base load of electricity as one nuclear station, you would need 5000 of those wind farms. The largest solar–thermal power station in the world is the Andasol 1 facility in Spain. For one nuclear power station, you would need 50 of those.” Only coal and nuclear, he says, can provide enough base-load electricity to cover Australia’s needs in 2050; only nuclear can do so without a catastrophic cost in carbon emissions.

Lowe argues that, while the generation of nuclear power is free from emissions, emissions from the mining, construction, maintenance and transport associated with nuclear power significantly offset the benefits. Brook disagrees: “Per megawatt of energy, you will need ten times more steel and concrete for renewable sources such as wind and solar. To me that’s an argument that smacks of desperation.” Switkowski, whose review of Australia’s nuclear future calculated embedded carbon in the nuclear process, says the “greenhouse gas footprint of nuclear is one-tenth that of coal. Carbon emitted in building a nuclear power station is trivial compared with the energy benefits.”

The World Nuclear Authority says the emissions cost of building a nuclear power station pays for itself within four months of operation. “To say the cost in emissions of building a nuclear power station negates the emissions savings is absolute nonsense,” says Hore-Lacy. He dismisses Green opposition broadly, arguing that what really stops Australia from adopting nuclear power is its abundance of cheap, high-quality coal. “Nuclear can’t compete with coal, it’s as simple as that, until you take the carbon cost into account. Once you do, nuclear becomes the only alternative to coal.”

Brook believes nuclear stations can be built quickly enough to assist 2020 and 2050 emission-reduction targets. He gives the recent example of the United Arab Emirates, which announced it will replace natural gas power generation with four Korean APR 1400 reactors. The UAE has no nuclear industry of its own, so it’s importing the expertise, as well as the materials, from overseas. “Even with those disadvantages, it is looking at having nuclear power by 2017. That’s a six-to-eight-year timeframe from the start to having electrons going down the pipe.”

The decision to proceed with nuclear does mean committing to a complex, long-term infrastructure project, but Brook argues that a well-managed program delivers great benefits to countries willing to take the initiative. “France decided in the 1970s to go nuclear, and built ten reactors at once. They didn’t build one, then take a breath, and then build another. Now they produce enough electricity to export it to Italy, which pulled back from nuclear.” He also explains that the UK, in replacing its current nuclear fleet, has cut down the approvals process from seven years to one and taken power to object away from local authorities. “It can be done if a country is serious about cutting emissions.”

Recent environmental innovations will have an impact on our future energy needs. Electricity generation accounts for 35% of Australia’s CO2 emissions, but electric cars will shift the weighting from gasoline emissions to power generation. Hore-Lacy says electric cars will change the game for the power-supply industry. “Electricity use peaks at certain times during the day and then has a trough at night. But as more electrical cars come onto the road, that trough will be filled in, because people will be recharging their car batteries at night. So you’ll need electricity that has no problems with continuity. This is the weakness of wind and solar – intermittency. If your electricity is going to power your car and the demand on electricity is going to be more 24/7, nuclear is going to be the only economic, reliable, non-carbon source.”

The argument against an increase in the risk of weapons proliferation, Brook says, “assumes that a decision Australia makes will have an impact on what happens in other nations. The safety of nuclear technology is developing independently of what a late adopter such as Australia does.”

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On the matter of waste, recent events have shown that even a small, relatively non-controversial process can become fraught. For several years ANSTO has been seeking a site to store low-level radioactive waste. “It reflects poorly on Australians that we haven’t found a solution for waste from nuclear medicine, from decayed material used for universities and industry, and spent fuel from the Lucas Heights reactor,” says Switkowski. “Many Australians have benefited from that, and it’s our responsibility to store waste that really occupies no more than a square kilometre with security around it.”

But it’s been far from simple. Lowe was a scientific adviser charged with assessing one proposal to send the waste to the South Australian desert. “There was no proper risk assessment, either on the storage or the transport. The absence of risk was asserted rather than backed up. My view was that the risk of transporting it all to a central repository more than cancelled out the risk of keeping it stored at different sites.” The South Australian government, which, Lowe says, “was happy to have the biggest uranium mine in the world”, stopped the plan “because of concerns about transporting waste through residential areas”.

The federal government subsequently did a $12 million deal to store the waste near Tennant Creek, at Muckaty Station, which is owned by the Ngapa Aboriginal people. The Greens oppose the plan, which has been referred to a Senate committee. The issue, says Lowe, shows how nuclear energy “cannot be separated from politics, because there are always going to be human rights issues involved with how and where you store the waste. I felt that in this case the Indigenous people were in a poor bargaining position … and were bullied into accepting something that was unacceptable to the people of South Australia.” Switkowski argues that opposition to the storage was “nothing more than a scare campaign, and it’s to the credit of the current federal government that they took the steps they did”.

Nuclear waste storage will always be an issue, says Dr Helen Caldicott, as long as the federal government does not repudiate the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership signed by John Howard and George Bush. “My fear is that the waste from Lucas Heights is just the beginning,” says the veteran anti-nuclear activist. “The US has 64,000 tonnes of civilian nuclear waste, and as long as the agreement is in place there is nothing stopping an arrangement where they can ship it to Darwin and truck it to Muckaty Station, which is in a high rainfall area over an aquifer that supplies bores throughout the area.”

Dr Caldicott, who has just returned from addressing the legislature in Vermont on the issue of whether to renew the licence for the 38-year-old Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, says the health dangers of nuclear energy trump all other arguments. “There is evidence of underground pipes leaking large amounts of [carcinogenic] tritium and caesium-137 into water that drains towards the Connecticut River. There is a primary school opposite the reactor. Children are 10 to 20% more sensitive than adults to radioactive substances. Farms in the area are growing milk and corn, with potent carcinogens going from the reactor into the water and soil. When I talked to doctors they knew exactly what I was talking about because they’d seen the effects in patients.”

The nuclear industry’s answer is that outdated facilities are not representative of what is being built now. Hore-Lacy says the best evidence of nuclear energy’s safety is “14,000 reactor years of safe operation” since Chernobyl. And the industry has even more faith in the so-called Generation IV nuclear reactors, a new dimension of the alchemists’ dream.

In Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer (2006), Caldicott discusses Generation IV, which attempts to close the nuclear fuel cycle. Most reactors extract about 1% of uranium’s energy for fuel. The waste from a typical light water reactor is 94% uranium, 1% plutonium and 5% other products. Generation IV reactors would reprocess this waste into fuel. Dr Caldicott argues that Generation IV reactors are decades from realisation, involve unconscionably high risk (due to the higher usage of weapons-grade plutonium), and “are a tool for the nuclear industry to improve its image while continuing to build earlier-generation reactors”. According to the World Nuclear Association, in 2005 the US, Japan and France committed to spending US$4.8 billion on the research and development of Generation IV.

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Every advocate I have spoken to in researching this article was able to marshal a mass of evidence for or against nuclear energy; seldom did the numbers agree. Reactors may take 15 years to build, or they may take eight. They may be able to reduce emissions by as much as 30%, or as little as 3%. The possibility of an accident, or act of terrorism, ranges from negligible to inevitable. So much is still irresolvable. Ian Lowe says he observed 40 years ago that “both sides can present a good case, economic and scientific, because they’re working off different sets of assumptions and the problem is that you can’t know which assumptions are going to be closer to the truth”.

A process for bipartisan discussion is what Australia urgently needs, according to the CSIRO’s former head of atmospheric research, Graeme Pearman. Pearman is neither for nor against nuclear energy, but thinks the issue must be considered “because the management of risk requires you to take the worst-case scenario. So far, it hasn’t dawned on people how serious the climate-change problem is and they are waiting as if an answer will suddenly materialise. It won’t. What you need is to be in a state of readiness, which Australia is not.”

“When you consider any options for fuel into the future you have to take a holistic view, accounting for climate change, peak oil, energy security, and look at all the options critically. There are five essential guidelines: What are the economic costs as the future unfolds? How quickly can the option meet energy demands? How quickly can it reduce emissions? How environmentally sound is it (and that goes for CO2, waste, the full array of impacts)? And finally, as we live in a democracy, are people going to accept it?”

Switkowski’s frustration simmers. “Why is it that we in Australia are the only developed country not engaging in the debate? I sincerely hope that renewable energy sources over-deliver on every level. But we have to be ready for the possibility that they won’t.” For Helen Caldicott, the debate is over. “Nuclear is the biggest public health risk anywhere, and no amount of propaganda can convince informed people that they should jump from the frying pan of coal into the fire of nuclear.”

If, as Tim Flannery says, Australia has no medium-term energy policy “beyond hoping for the best”, formulating such a policy would require a discussion of nuclear energy as an option, even if it is then discarded. But a forum must be found, or built, in which to conduct that debate.

About the author Malcolm Knox
Malcolm Knox is a former literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and has won a Walkley Award for journalism. His books include Jamaica and The Life.