Nuclear Power and Australia's Energy 'Debate'> by Jim Green

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By Jim Green Nuclear campaigner -Friends of the Earth, Australia.


Over the past year the nuclear industry has once again tried to exploit concern about climate change to reverse its ongoing decline. Nuclear power is being promoted not only as the solution to climate change, but also to water shortages (by desalination), the drought (by John Anderson), and world poverty (too cheap to meter --- or too expensive to matter?). You begin to wonder if there's anything nuclear power can't solve.

One positive aspect of this debate is that it has highlighted the need for action to avert the social and environmental impacts associated with climate change. But it's been a limited debate. Only the nuclear 'solution' solution to climate change is being debated. Never mind that nuclear power simply can't do the job. Never mind that the adverse impacts of nuclear power are every bit as alarming as those of climate change. Thus the 'debate' has diverted attention from the range of renewable energy sources and energy efficiency measures that, combined, can avert climate catastrophe.

The 'debate' has been based on several premises - all of them demonstrably false:

It is not true that nuclear power is enjoying a resurgence - the global picture is one of stagnation and decline. If there is a resurgence of interest in nuclear power, it is only because the manufactured nuclear 'debate' in Australia is being played out elsewhere.

The media have also made play of alleged divisions within the environment movement over nuclear power - but you could name the pro-nuclear 'environmentalists' on one hand. The loudest of these, Professor James Lovelock, talks absolute nonsense but is still a media star. Lovelock wants high-level nuclear waste in his basement for home heating and food irradiation, and he wants high-level waste to be used to guard fragile ecosystems against human intrusion!

A third false premise of the debate is the claim that nuclear power is 'greenhouse-free'. Significant emissions arise across the nuclear fuel 'cycle'. Nuclear power can only reduce greenhouse gas emissions if the comparison is with fossil fuels. In comparison with renewables and energy efficiency, nuclear power increases greenhouse gas emissions, in addition to its proliferation, environmental and public health and safety problems. As Professor Ian Lowe says, if nuclear power is the answer, it must have been a pretty stupid question.

The 'debate' has also been almost entirely one-sided, with critics of nuclear power excluded. Even while excluding critical voices, the corporate media have had the gall to frame the nuclear 'debate' in 'free speech' terms. Why can't we at least debate nuclear power, they bleat. The same ploy is used by the corporate politicians who try to score points against environmentalists, and divert attention from their policies, by calling for a debate without lining up directly in support of nuclear power.

If anyone is stopping anyone debating anything, it is the Howard government, which made nuclear power illegal in Australia in the 1998 Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act. And it's the corporate media, who have excluded critics from the debate.

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Nuclear is no solution to climate change

There are significant constraints on the growth of nuclear power, such as its high capital cost and, in many countries, lack of public acceptability. As a method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear power is further limited because it is used almost exclusively for electricity generation, which is responsible for less than one third of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Because of these problems, the potential for nuclear power to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by replacing fossil fuels is limited. Few predict a doubling of nuclear power output by 2050, but even if it did eventuate it would still only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 5% ---less than one tenth of the reductions required to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. And that assumes that nuclear power displaces fossil fuels rather than renewables and energy efficiency measures.

Nuclear power is not a 'renewable' energy source. High-grade, low-cost uranium ores are limited and will be exhausted in about 50 years at the current rate of consumption. The estimated total of all conventional uranium reserves is estimated to be sufficient for about 200 years at the current rate of consumption. But in a scenario of nuclear expansion, these reserves will be depleted more rapidly.

Claims that nuclear power is 'greenhouse free' are incorrect as substantial greenhouse gas emissions are generated across the nuclear fuel cycle. Fossil-fuel generated electricity is more greenhouse intensive than nuclear power, but this comparative benefit will be eroded as higher-grade uranium ores are depleted. Most of the earth's uranium is found in very poor grade ores, and recovery of uranium from these ores is likely to be considerably more greenhouse intensive. Nuclear power emits more greenhouse gases per unit energy than most renewable energy sources, and that comparative deficit will widen as uranium ore grades decline.

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The hazards of nuclear power

Nuclear hazards include the risk of accidents, routine releases of radioactive gases and liquids from nuclear plants, the intractible problem of nuclear waste, and the risks of terrorism and sabotage. But there is another hazard which is unique to nuclear power and which is of such concern that alone it must lead to a clear rejection of a nuclear 'solution' to climate change ... even if such a solution were possible. This is the repeated pattern of 'peaceful' nuclear facilities being used for nuclear weapons research and production.

The proliferation problem is profound:

Of the 60 countries which have built nuclear power or research reactors, over 20 are known to have used their 'peaceful' nuclear facilities for covert weapons research and/or production.

Four or five countries have produced nuclear arsenals under cover of a 'peaceful' nuclear program --- Israel, India, South Africa, Pakistan, and possibly North Korea. Others have come close --- most notably Iraq from the 1970s until the 1991 Gulf War.

Nuclear power programs also provide pools of expertise for weapons programs in the five major nuclear weapons states --- the US, Russia, the UK, France, and China. These five countries account for almost 60% of global nuclear power output.

The 'peaceful' nuclear power industry has produced sufficient plutonium to produce about 160,000 nuclear weapons, each with a yield similar to the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If 99% of this plutonium is indefinitely safeguarded against military use - a monumental challenge - the remaining plutonium would suffice to produce 1,600 nuclear weapons. Australian uranium has resulted in the production of over 78 tonnes of plutonium - sufficient for about 7,800 nuclear weapons.

The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has considered a scenario involving a ten-fold increase in nuclear power over this century, and calculated that this could produce 50-100 thousand tonnes of plutonium. The IPCC concluded that the security threat "would be colossal."

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The International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) safeguards system still suffers from flaws and limitations despite improvements over the past decade. Recent statements from the IAEA and US President George W. Bush about the need to limit the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technology, and to establish multinational control over sensitive nuclear facilities, are an effective acknowledgement of the fundamental flaws and limitations of the international non-proliferation system. The NPT enshrines an 'inalienable right' of member states to all 'civil' nuclear technologies, including dual-use technologies with both peaceful and military capabilities. In other words, the NPT enshrines the 'right' to develop a nuclear weapons threshold or breakout capability.

Nuclear smuggling --- much of it from civil nuclear programs --- presents a significant challenge. The IAEA's Illicit Trafficking Database records over 650 confirmed incidents of trafficking in nuclear or other radioactive materials since 1993. In 2004 alone, almost 100 such incidents occurred. Smuggling can potentially provide fissile material for nuclear weapons or a wider range of radioactive materials for use in 'dirty bombs'.

Civil nuclear plants are potentially "attractive" targets for terrorist attacks because of the importance of the electricity supply system in many societies, because of the large radioactive inventories in many facilities, and because of the potential or actual use of 'civil' nuclear facilities for weapons research or production.

The problem of radioactive waste management is nowhere near resolution. Not a single repository exists anywhere in the world for the disposal of high-level waste from nuclear power. Only a few countries --- such as Finland, Sweden, and the US --- have identified potential sites for a high-level waste repository.

The legal limit for the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain in the US is less then the projected output of high-level waste from the reactors currently operating in the US. If global nuclear output was increased three-fold, new repository storage capacity equal to the legal limit for Yucca Mountain would have to be created somewhere in the world every 3-4 years. With a ten-fold increase in nuclear power, new repository storage capacity equal to the legal limit for Yucca Mountain would have to be created somewhere in the world every single year.

Attempts to establish international repositories are likely to be as unpopular and unsuccessful as was the attempt by Pangea Resources to win support for such a repository in Australia.

Synroc --- the ceramic waste immobilisation technology developed in Australia --- seems destined to be a permanently 'promising' technology. As nuclear apologist Leslie Kemeny concedes, Synroc "... showed great early promise but so far its international marketing and commercialisation agendas have failed".

In addition to the hazards posed by catastrophic accidents such as Chernobyl, radioactive emissions are routinely generated across the nuclear fuel cycle. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation has estimated the collective effective dose to the world population over a 50-year period of operation of nuclear power reactors and associated nuclear facilities to be two million person-Sieverts. Applying the standard risk estimate to that level of radiation exposure gives an alarming total of 80,000 fatal cancers.

Safety concerns are not limited to the ex-Soviet states. For example, the Japanese nuclear power industry has been in turmoil since the August 2002 revelations of 29 cases of false reporting on the inspections of cracks in numerous reactors. There have also been a number of serious accidents, including fatal accidents, at nuclear reactors and other nuclear facilities in Japan in the past decade.

Commercial pressures and inadequate regulation have clearly played some part in the flawed safety standards in Japan. Such pressures are by no means unique to Japan, and they will intensify if privatisation and liberalisation of electricity markets proceeds.

Calculations indicate that the probability of an accident involving damage to the reactor core is about one in 10,000 per reactor per year for current nuclear power reactors. In a world with 1,000 such reactors, accidents resulting in core damage would occur once per decade on average. With a ten-fold nuclear expansion, a reactor core damage accident would occur every 2-3 years on average.

The hype about future reactor designs with supposedly 'passive' safety systems has attracted scepticism and cynicism even from within the nuclear industry, with one industry representative quipping that "the paper-moderated, ink-cooled reactor is the safest of all."

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Energy efficiency and renewables

Renewable energy, mostly hydroelectricity, already supplies 19% of world electricity, compared to nuclear's 16%. The share of renewables is increasing, while nuclear's share is decreasing. Wind power and solar power are growing by 20-30% every year. In 2004, renewable energy added nearly three times as much net generating capacity as nuclear power.

But in Australia, only 8% of electricity is from renewable energy --- down from 10% in 1999.

The biggest gains are to be made in the field of energy efficiency. Government reports have shown that reductions in energy consumption of up to 70% are cost effective in some sectors of the economy. Energy experts have projected that adopting a national energy efficiency target could reduce the need for investment in new power stations by between 2,500 --- 5,000 MW by 2017 in Australia (equal to about 2-5 large nuclear power stations). The energy efficiency investments would pay for themselves in reduced bills before a nuclear power station could generate a single unit of electricity.

The Australian Ministerial Council on Energy has identified that energy consumption in the manufacturing, commercial and residential sectors could be reduced by 20-30% with the adoption of current commercially available technologies with an average payback of four years.

A number of studies have considered the relative cost of various means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Replacing fossil fuels with nuclear power does not fare well in these studies. Energy efficiency measures are shown in an American study to deliver almost seven times the greenhouse gas emissions reductions as nuclear power per dollar invested.

The argument that nuclear power could be a "bridging" energy source while renewables are further developed is erroneous. Nuclear expansion would require such vast expenditure that renewables would fall by the wayside. Of the funds spent by 26 OECD member states between 1991 and 2001 on energy R&D, 50% was spent on nuclear power and only 8% on renewable energy.

A July 2002 study by The Australia Institute maps out a plan to achieve a 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in Australia by 2050. The study envisages widespread energy efficiency measures, a major expansion of wind power, modest growth of hydroelectricity, significant use of biomass, and niche applications for solar photovoltaic electricity. ()

In 2004, the Clean Energy Future Group --- which comprises renewable energy companies and the Worldwide Fund for Nature --- produced a report which details how major greenhouse gas emissions reductions can be achieved. It finds that Australia can meet our energy needs and halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 using a range of commercially-proven fuels and technologies. The study envisages the following energy mix by 2040: natural gas provides 30%; biomass from agriculture and plantation forestry residues provides 26%; wind provides 20%; photovoltaic and solar thermal systems provide 5%; hydroelectricity provides 7%; and coal and petroleum continue to play a minor role in electricity generation. ()

There are many other studies detailing how major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved through a combination of energy efficiency and renewable energy sources. See chapter 13 of the Clean Energy Future Group report for a survey of a number of these studies.

The extent to which renewable energy sources and energy efficiency measures can replace fossil fuels and nuclear power depends to a significant extent on investment in research and development programs. The Howard government provides fossil fuel industries with $9 billion of subsidies annually, according to a 2003 report from the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures. By contrast, the Howard government:

* Closed the Energy Research and Development Corporation in 1997-98

* Withdrew funding from the Co-operative Research Centre for Renewable Energy in December, 2002

* Introduced the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target but set the target at a measly 2%

* Appointed a Rio Tinto employee as the government's Chief Scientist; and

* Allowed fossil fuel companies to buy their way onto the Australian Bureau of Agricultural Resource Economics panel dealing with climate change issues

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The false nuclear 'debate': a front for expanded uranium mining

The talk about nuclear power in Australia is not much more than a diversion, and a kite-flying exercise, but proposals to expand uranium mining are real and immediate and must be fought tooth and nail.

In addition to the uranium operating mines at Olympic Dam (a.k.a. Roxby Downs) and Beverley in SA, and Ranger in the NT, a wave of uranium exploration is underway. Most of the exploration will lead to nothing, but plans are likely to be developed to mine at least one or two new deposits. Such was the pattern with the waves of exploration in the 1950s and late 60's. Plans are underway to make Roxby the biggest uranium mine in the world. General Atomics wants to expand the Beverley mine. The Canadian company Southern Cross Resources may make another push to mine the uranium at Honeymoon in SA.

An expansion of uranium mining will entail the ongoing use of racist divide-and-rule tactics against Indigenous communities, as well as bribery, thuggery, and bureaucratic humbuggery. There is a long and outrageous history of this radioactive racism in Australia.

Labor and Coalition politicians have initiated a parliamentary inquiry into uranium mining, with a clear view to facilitating its expansion. Likewise, the federal government is establishing a steering committee, including 'stakeholder' groups, with a view to framing recommendations on how to expand uranium mining.

The parliamentary uranium 'inquiry' and the steering committee will do their best to ignore the single greatest threat posed by uranium mining and export - the use of 'peaceful' nuclear materials and facilities in covert nuclear weapons programs. In fact that issue is specifically precluded from the terms of reference.

The federal government wants to sell uranium to China and at least two ministers want to sell to India. Both China and India have nuclear weapons programs. India is not even a signatory to the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). China is not an open society and faces serious, unresolved human rights issues. It is difficult to imagine a nuclear industry worker in China publicly raising safety, security or proliferation concerns without reprisal.

Existing uranium exports are also cause for concern. Why does the government allow uranium sales to Japan given the grossly inadequate safety culture in the nuclear industry there, as demonstrated by a number of serious and fatal accidents over the past decade and by revelations of systematic falsification of safety data? Why does the government turn a blind eye to the regional tensions and proliferation risks arising from Japan's plutonium program and its status as a 'threshold' or 'breakout' state capable of producing nuclear weapons in a short space of time?

Why does the government allow uranium sales to South Korea when only last year it was revealed that numerous nuclear weapons research projects were secretly carried out there from the 1980s until 2000, in violation of the country's NPT obligations?

And why does the government allow uranium sales to the US, the UK and France - nuclear weapons states which are failing to fulfil their NPT disarmament obligations?

The adverse environmental impacts of uranium mining in Australia have been significant. This year's prosecution of ERA over its operations at Ranger highlights the risks. The Olympic Dam uranium/copper mine illustrates the scale of the environmental impacts associated with uranium mining. The Olympic Dam mine has produced a radioactive tailings dump of 60 million tonnes, growing at 10 million tonnes annually with no plans for its long-term management. The mine's daily extraction of over 30 million litres of water from the Great Artesian Basin has adversely impacted on the fragile Mound Springs, and the mine is a large consumer of electricity and a major contributor to South Australia's greenhouse gas emissions.

A further concern is that the current regulatory environment for uranium mining is inadequate. For example, the Olympic Dam mine enjoys a range of exemptions from the South Australian Environmental Protection Act, the Water Resources Act, the Aboriginal Heritage Act and the Freedom of Information Act. A 2003 Senate Inquiry into the regulation of uranium mining in Australia reported "a pattern of under-performance and non-compliance", it identified "many gaps in knowledge and found an absence of reliable data on which to measure the extent of contamination or its impact on the environment", and it concluded that changes were necessary "in order to protect the environment and its inhabitants from serious or irreversible damage".

Further reading

Friends of the Earth (UK), November 2004, Why nuclear power is not an achievable and safe answer to climate change.

Friends of the Earth (UK), September 2002 Tackling climate change without nuclear power: A report detailing how climate targets in the power sector can be met without replacing existing nuclear capacity.

WISE/NIRS --- World Information Service on Energy and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, February 2005A back door comeback: Nuclear energy as a solution for climate change?, Nuclear Monitor #621 & #622.

Mycle Schneider (WISE Paris), April 2000 Climate Change and Nuclear Power", published by World Wide Fund for Nature.

Greenpeace, n.d. Nuclear Energy: No Solution to Climate Change.

Climate Change and Nuclear PowerWorld Information Service on Energy, Climate Change and Nuclear Power.

Climate Action Network of Australia, n.d., Australia's Climate Change Strategy: The Real Way Forward.