Nuclear power is no silver bullet

It was good to read RR Dewar’s response (‘The N Word’ Herald letters 19 June 2010) to my last piece on peak oil where, RR advocates Nuclear Power as a source of “..clean, cheap and sustainable electricity  “.  For as long as I can remember debate on Nuclear Power has been driven by emotion and rhetoric, so now is a good time to look at the facts:

Is Nuclear Power Clean?  Supporters say Nuclear has a much smaller whole of life-cycle carbon footprint than coal power, true, Nuclear Power’s footprint is only 8% of coal, however Nuclear’s footprint is also 600% larger than Wind Power (Kleiner 2008).  This is due to the carbon intensity of mining and milling Uranium which will escalate as high-grade ore runs out.  Any debate on cleanliness must also include radiation risks which are unique to Nuclear.  A well run Nuclear Power plant should not impact on background radiation levels, the problem arises in the management of waste, and risks associated with mining and transporting Uranium.  Applying a Risk Matrix to Nuclear Power reveals it poses an Extreme risk, as the impact of an accident would be large and the probability high.  The high probability is because of Nuclear waste’s long life of up to 300,000 years.  The USA solves the Nuclear waste problem by turning it into depleted Uranium war-heads, which carries its own ethical problems.  Even after a power plant is decommissioned the costs continue, Cleanup of Sellafield Nuclear Power plant in the UK is costing taxpayers £1.5 billion annually for the next 10 Years.

Is Nuclear Energy Cheap?  All Nuclear power plants are underwritten by Governments as private sector business is not prepared to carry the financial risk.  Construction and operational cost blowouts are the norm.  Let’s look at Shoreham power station in New York.  In 1966 estimates to build the plant were US$65 Million to US$70 Million, by 1987 it ended up costing US$5.8 Billion and was eventually closed without generating any electricity.  Today a 1,000 MW plant would cost between US$6 & US$10 billion and requires a 6 to 12 year lead-time before producing power.

Is Nuclear Sustainable?  The one compelling argument against Nuclear power in Australia is water.  The US Department of Energy state a 1,000MW Nuclear Power plants uses between 780 & 1,340 Gigalitres of water a year, Sydney’s annual water consumption is 650 Gigalitres, Bind Freddy can see Australia simply does not have that quantity of water available to generate electricity.  In 2003 lack of water at French reactors resulted in major blackouts across Europe.  Current old Nuclear Power plants are not been replaced, 75% of all operating Nuclear power plants are past their mid-life at over 20 years old, with lead times for new reactors being 10 years, Nuclear is on the wane.  Doubling Nuclear generating capacity by 2035 would require approximately 600 new plants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by only 6.5% on 1990 levels.  At current consumption there is less than 70 years worth of high-grade uranium available, if those 600 new plants were to be built that would reduce to approximately 35 years.  Long term Nuclear Power could only be achieved by changing from ‘Light Water Reactors’ to ‘Breeder Reactors’, of which only a very small number exist, as processing the required Uranium 238 is prohibitively expensive.

Will Nuclear Provide A Silver Bullet For Low Carbon Power?  Current generation Nuclear Power does not provide that silver bullet, maybe Nuclear Fusion will in the future.  This uses commonly available isotopes of Hydrogen and produces low-level, short life waste, but there is a lot of work to be done before even a test plant can be built.  There is also an irony to using uranium for Nuclear Power, the Cooper Basin’s Geothermal capacity is huge, because of the heat produced by uranium deep in the ground, take away the uranium and you lose that Geothermal potential.

For me, Nuclear Power does not stack up.  Nuclear Power isn’t clean, isn’t cheap and isn’t sustainable.  For those interested in this debate I can recommend Why vs Why on Nuclear Energy (Pantera Press), where Barry Brook puts the case for Nuclear Power and Ian Lowe puts the case against, and quips “solving greenhouse gasses emissions with Nuclear is like advocating smoking as a cure for obesity.

 Published in Fremantle Herald on 3rd July 2010

Kleiner 2008 “Nuclear Energy: Assessing the Emissions.”  Nature 24 September 2008.

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