Delusions of Power: Levelling the Playing Field for Nuclear Energy

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Melting glaciers, the dissolving Russian tundra, Hurricane Katrina… climate scientists, and politicians like Tony Blair, agree that global carbon emissions must be cut by 60% from 1990 levels by 2050 if we are to avert the worst impacts of accelerating climate change. But how?

John Morris suggests that nuclear power should be part of the debate about our energy future and his recent contribution in the Centre for Policy Development rightly says that efficiency, availability of uranium, and the economic viability and environmental impact of nuclear facilities and the nuclear cycle, should be part of such a review.

But Morris himself fails to consider fully these and other issues relating to nuclear power – and as a result he is able to conclude that fossil fuels and nuclear power are likely to be more economically attractive than renewable energy sources for at least the next 10 to 20 years.

Positive assessments of the economics of nuclear power invariably underestimate, or exclude, a range of major costs. They usually overlook the extraordinary public subsidy the industry has received for mine rehabilitation, for the construction and operation of nuclear plants, and for waste storage. For example, Goldberg and Oosterhuis suggest direct public subsidies amount to $115 billion and indirect subsidies to $145 billion in the US alone, while annual subsidies in the UK equal US$543 million, and in Germany some US$845 million.

The costs of fully insuring against severe accidents or terrorist attack is rarely incorporated – and in the US, liability insurance has been capped at unrealistically low levels, in effect offering another massive state subsidy should anything go awry. The costs of maintaining and then decommissioning non-functioning reactors have usually been ignored – yet decommissioning the UK's plants alone has been estimated to cost GBP 85 billion. Meanwhile the economic costs of the effectively indefinite storage of radioactive waste have not been calculated.

If these estimates were incorporated into any comparison of the cost of power (per Kw) of different energy technologies, nuclear would fail to compete on economic grounds alone. Put another way, if the renewables sector (wind, solar, wave, hydrogen, etc.) received the same level of public subsidy, and if the environmental costs of nuclear and fossil fuels were fully factored into the equation, renewables would be much further advanced technologically and vastly cheaper than their competitors.

Even if we set these economic concerns aside, nuclear power would still fail to contribute significantly to solving the climate problem. Globally, electricity generation contributes some 40% of total emissions, and nuclear power only 17% of this 40%. A doubling of global nuclear capacity would only reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by some 5%.

Furthermore, with only 17% of global electricity being produced by nuclear power, the total global supply of high grade uranium will last only 50 years. Increasing nuclear power's stake to 50% of total electricity supply would mean uranium reserves would be depleted in two decades or so. (While Morris writes warmly of breeder reactors, none have been commercially viable to date.)

We urgently need to begin the transition to alternative energy sources now. However a new 1,000 megawatt nuclear plant has, on average, a 10 year lead time before it produces electricity. This is greater than for all other sources of power, including coal and gas. The delays involved in planning and construction in part result from significant public opposition to reactor siting. Overcoming such objections to the siting of a large number of new nuclear reactors and waste dumps would certainly depend on authoritarian breaches of planning codes in Western countries, or their absence in other places.

Then there are the core arguments of environmentalists worldwide. Nuclear technology is exceptionally risky and dangerous. Morris approvingly cites the 1976 Fox (Ranger Inquiry) Report's comments about 'wildly exaggerated statements about the risks and dangers of nuclear energy'. Yet he fails to mention that the reactor meltdowns at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl occurred in the decade after the Fox Report's release. Significant accidents, while likely to be infrequent, would have widespread and horrific impacts. Estimates of human deaths and illness after Chernobyl range from several hundred to hundreds of thousands of individuals. Large areas of the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were contaminated, some 200,000 people resettled, and over 3000 square kilometers of productive land 'lost' for generations to come. And the risks of terrorist assaults on nuclear facilities, of 'dirty bombs' and nuclear proliferation, have all increased significantly.

Indeed, the anxieties associated with reactors, waste dumps, and the impacts of uranium mining on Indigenous peoples, have led Australians to conclusively reject uranium mining and nuclear power. Civilian nuclear power is banned by law in Victoria and NSW, and disposal of nuclear waste is illegal in New South Wales, Victoria, West Australia and South Australia. It has only been made possible in the NT through Commonwealth intervention.

Morris talks glowingly of plans to dispose of vitrified nuclear waste. In reality, for 50 years, and with billions of dollars spent on research and temporary storage, no safe, permanent and economically feasible solution for disposing of radioactive waste has emerged. Over 250,000 tonnes of nuclear waste exist in unsafe stockpiles around the world.

In all, the nuclear solution is a delusion. Investment in it would be a massive and potentially dangerous waste of money and resources. Its 'climate effects' would come too late, would be slight and very temporary at best, and would leave a legacy of radioactive waste which will remain environmentally hazardous and unmanageable long into the future. All this while draining private and public funds from more viable alternatives.

The debate over nuclear power has been part of an important shift towards recognition that we must deal with global warming. But, equally, its selective inclusion of facts about nukes has been biased against renewable energy technologies, which could be available sooner, and would be cheaper, safer, and more socially acceptable, than the nuclear alternative. There is no economic or environmental case for Australia – or other countries – to build nuclear power plants, or to boost uranium exports from Australia.

The real alternative is for Australia, with its lavish endowment of sun, wind and waves – and for the rest of the planet – to 'go renewable' and start reaping the benefits: more jobs, clean air, reduced emissions, safe technologies and an enduring supply of energy.

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