Nuclear power isn’t dangerous, just expensive
A Nielson poll has reported that about half of Australians are open to nuclear energy being considered as part of the solution reducing carbon emissions, up from 38% in 2006. So the question remains as to why half of the population doesn’t even want nuclear on the table as an option.
Is the dislike or even fear of nuclear power a rational one? The threat of nuclear war or nuclear power station accidents such as Chernobyl or Long Island (the only two accidents of any significance) should not be taken lightly; nuclear energy is awesome in the true meaning of the world.
But does it actually deserve the bad reputation is carries?
Australia is one of the largest producers of uranium in the world, producing almost 20% of the global total in 2008 (World Nuclear Association).
Given that we (or at least our government) are happy to dig the stuff out of the ground and sell it to nations that have signed the anti-nuclear proliferation treaty, it is rather hypocritical to be anti-nuclear power in Australia.
There is no doubt that nuclear power stations, especially when improperly designed and/or managed, have the potential to be catastrophes.
But every large energy project has a risk profile, and history shows that nuclear power is safer than coal, oil, gas and even hydropower (Energy Technology Perspectives (ETP) 2008, International Energy Agency).
Hundreds of people are killed mining coal, gas and oil every year, and millions of people suffer from the direct negative effects of pollution from fossil fuel power plants.
And, the impacts of climate change are likely to put tens or hundreds of millions of people around the world in dire situations due to rising sea levels and increased frequencies of extreme events such as droughts and cyclones. The waste from nuclear power is nasty stuff, but at least we know how to contain it safely. The same cannot be said for carbon dioxide.
So, yes we should be cautious of nuclear energy, but one cannot say it is too dangerous and keep using coal.
The International Energy Agency in its ETP2008 study showed that globally, at least 24 large nuclear power stations will need to be built every year between now and 2050 as part of the effort to reduce carbon emissions to 50% of current levels.
The study also shows that vast increases in wind and solar energy are required. That being said, the chances that nuclear energy will be the solution to Australia’s carbon emission problem anytime soon are small.
In countries where nuclear energy is well established, it takes 10 years to build a station, from the start of the planning process to the plant coming online.
It could take 20 years for Australia to find the necessary expertise (already a global shortage of nuclear engineers looms), get plans approved, convince the general public it’s a good idea, raise the capital and built a multi-billion dollar plant. And, given our lack of experience, it is likely nuclear energy will be expensive, even compared to coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS).
Proponents of nuclear (and coal) claim that wind and solar cannot meet consumer needs as the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind always blow.
But new ideas such as the banks of electric vehicle batteries absorbing the variability from wind farms and solar farms with liquid salt heat storage, plus the introduction of a Smart Grid will allow a larger portion of wind and solar onto the grid without instability.
Gas turbines can provide peaking power (as they already do) and there are hopes that geothermal could also provide a steady and controllable electricity supply with carbon emissions.
The government should remove the ban from nuclear power (although given the enduring fear of “nukes” this might be politically unwise) and allow the markets to sort out if nuclear is a viable option for Australia.
But, given the financial barriers to nuclear, and the attractiveness of wind and solar as other low carbon alternatives, I doubt we’ll see nuclear power stations in Australia anytime soon.
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