As published on the ABC Environment website
The environmental, scientific, economic, philosophical and moral arguments stack up: it’s time for South Australia to embrace nuclear power.
Nowadays anti-nuclear activists are among the greatest obstacles to the planet’s environmental healing.
Try as they might, they can’t meaningfully oppose nuclear power on environmental grounds. That’s because nuclear reactors produce no emissions that contribute to global warming, acid rain or smog. In fact, the life-cycle emissions of nuclear energy rank alongside those of renewables but unlike renewables, nuclear energy can actually provide base load power.
When prominent climate scientist Dr James Hansen says nuclear power is responsible for saving 1.8 million lives from reduced air pollution and that it may save 7 million more in the next four decades, the ethical argument against the nuclear industry really has been lost. When he and three of his leading colleagues implore anti-nuclear environmental organisations to revise their position, it’s clear that environmental science has diverged sharply from anti-nuclear activism.
So the anti-nuclear campaigners’ argument moves swiftly onto safety. But assessed against the historical record, nuclear energy is as safe as wind power and far safer than coal.
“But what about Fukushima?” they plead, where, to this day, radiation release has not resulted in a single death. That means even a nuclear plant struck by a tsunami and an earthquake, compounded by human error, failed to kill a single person. In other words, even when everything is going wrong nuclear struggles to do physical harm, while coal kills thousands when everything’s going right.
In fact, there have been just three major incidents at commercial reactors in the entire history of civil nuclear power — that’s 15,000 cumulative years of operations in 33 countries. Only one led to radiation related deaths and that was Chernobyl, a former-USSR run reactor without containment and, it’s fair to say, an example of world’s worst practice. Suffice to say, the former USSR will never be an example to Australian regulatory authorities.
That brings us to the question of managing waste, which is where nuclear opponents reliably go next.
In his book Prescription for the Planet, environmentalist Tom Blees writes about the potential of Integral Fast Reactors (IFRs). These are nuclear power stations capable of running on what old nuclear plants have left behind. Conventional nuclear power can use around 0.6 per cent of the energy contained in mined uranium, wasting more than 99 per cent of the resource. IFRs can use almost all of the remainder.
There is already enough nuclear “waste” on earth to meet the world’s energy needs for many hundreds of years. IFRs are so efficient they can be supplied with a lifetime inventory of fissile (fuel) and raw material at commissioning. From then on, they progressively make their own new fuel from what was once regarded as waste, producing plentiful electricity all the while. The recycling process removes the tiny amount of true waste for disposal, and that waste has a half-life of tens rather than tens of thousands of years. Getting baseload electricity for a year from a 1,000 megawatt IFR produces around just one tonne of shorter lived waste. To get that much energy from Victorian brown coal produces around 8.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, with an atmospheric life of around a thousand years.
By providing a pathway for permanent disposal of used fuel, IFRs also reduce the risk of weapons proliferation.
There are also strong economic factors at play. Global demand for the management of spent fuel is high with 240,000 tonnes awaiting processing and very few jurisdictions offering any solutions.
I’ve seen the latest science, I’ve questioned numerous experts and I’ve consulted with other countries. This industry has a very strong future and I firmly believe South Australia should be a part of it. Therefore I will be proposing via the South Australian Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle that we pursue IFR technology.
In developing this proposal I have been in talks with potential foreign partners who have raised the possibility of meeting our capital costs if we meet their recycling needs. Read: no start-up costs. Those talks continue.
The recycling of spent fuel is a substantial commercial opportunity. Then there’s the wider economic benefit of power almost too cheap to meter.
This is the economic game changer South Australia needs.
Meanwhile, anti-nuclear campaigners are crowdsourcing funds to hire a full time campaigner to derail the prospect of a nuclear South Australia. But the science is against them, the economics are against them and polling says the people are against them too.
However, elsewhere they’ve had successes. Germany not so long ago succumbed to political pressure and began the closure of its seventeen operating nuclear reactors. It will close all of them by 2022 and that move alone will produce 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide before the shutdown is complete.
Environmentalists, more than anyone are morally and philosophically compelled to support a nuclear powered future. This year more than any before, Australian environmentalists need to look anti-nuclear activists squarely in the eye and ask some testing questions. Kick-starting an effective technological response to climate change may depend on it.