Is Nuclear Power Part Of Australia’s Global Warming Solutions ?  

Posted by Big Gav

Professor Ian Lowe explains why nuclear power isn't the answer to global warming, particularly in Australia, in an address to the National Press Club (via Pacem terra).

As Bernard notes, carbon taxes and ending subsidies to aging energy technologies is the way forward.

There is no serious doubt that climate change is real, it is happening now and its effects are accelerating.... The science is very clear. We need to reduce global greenhouse pollution by about 60 per cent, ideally by 2050. To achieve that global target, allowing for the legitimate material expectations of poorer countries, Australia's quota will need to be at least as strong as the UK goal of 60 per cent by 2050 and preferably stronger. Our eventual goal will probably be to reduce our greenhouse pollution by 80 or 90 per cent. How can we reach this ambitious target?"

"Coal-fired electricity is by far the worst offender, so the top priority should be to replace it with cleaner forms of electricity. Since there is increasing pressure to consider nuclear power as part of the mix, I want to spell out why I don't agree. The first point is that the economics of nuclear power just don't stack up. The real cost of nuclear electricity is certainly more than for wind power, energy from bio-wastes and some forms of solar energy. Geothermal energy from hot dry rocks - a resource of huge potential in Australia - also promises to be less costly than nuclear."

"We are 50 years into the best funded development of any energy technology, and yet nuclear energy is still beset with problems. Reactors go over budget by billions, decommissioning plants is so difficult and expensive that power stations are kept operating past their useful life, and there is still no solution for radioactive waste. So there is no economic case for nuclear power. As energy markets have liberalised around the world, investors have turned their backs on nuclear energy. The number of reactors in western Europe and the USA peaked about 15 years ago and has been declining since. By contrast, the amount of wind power and solar energy is increasing rapidly. The actual figures for the rate of increase in the level of different forms of electricity supply for the decade up to 2003 are striking: wind nearly 30 per cent, solar more than 20 per cent, gas 2 per cent, oil and coal 1 per cent, nuclear 0.6 per cent. Most of the world is rejecting nuclear in favour of alternatives that are cheaper, cleaner and more flexible. This is true even of countries that already have nuclear power. With billions already invested in this expensive technology, they have more reason to look favourably on it than we do.


How can we reduce our carbon emissions by at least 60 per cent by the middle of this century, given our dependence on energy for our comfortable lifestyle? There are now seven fully costed studies showing that nations can reduce their greenhouse pollution by 30 to 60 per cent by 2050 without building nuclear power plants and without economic damage. By far the most cost-effective way to reduce our emissions is to improve the efficiency of turning energy into the services that we want.... Reducing waste is by far the cheapest way to reduce greenhouse pollution.

We should set the sort of positive targets for renewable energy that progressive nations in the northern hemisphere are doing. We should aim at 10 per cent extra electricity from renewables by 2010, 20 per cent by 2015 and 30 per cent by 2020. These are realistic targets based on existing technology.... Be in no doubt: renewable energy works. Renewables now account for a quarter of the installed capacity of California, a third of Sweden's energy, half of Norway's and three-quarters of Iceland's. It is time we joined the clean energy revolution sweeping the progressive parts of the world.

Renewables can meet Australia's energy demands. Just 15 wind farms could supply enough power for half the homes in NSW. And that would only use less than half a percent of the pasture land in the state - without disrupting grazing.... Fitting solar panels to half the houses in Australia could supply seven per cent of all our electricity needs, including industry's needs, enough for the whole of Tasmania and the Northern Territory.


Needless to say, the nuclear industry disagrees. Many of the claims made in this article are based on the work of Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute, studies that David Bradish has been working very hard to debunk.

See the following:

RMI's Real-World Data Blunders

Revisiting RMI and Amory Lovins

Well, if you can dismiss Lovins, I think you will then have to deal with Helen Caldicott.

Big Gav, Do Aussies like her go down without a fight?

Eric - there is an old saying which goes something like "well they would, wouldn't they ?".

The issue is a little unclear as to how much uranium is left that can be usefully used for nuclear power, so I'd agree the 10 year figure is pretty suspect, but at the end of the day renewable sources are available and are obviously the way to go in future, so why waste time and large amounts of capital building infrastructure that produces hazardous waste while it is running that no one knows where to store and then costs a fortune to decommission ?

If BHP and RIO want to run their existing mines and send the stuff to places like Japan and France that have already gone the nuclear route then fine - I hope they make plenty of money doing it. But we have no need to go down this path ourselves.

WHT - no, Helen Caldicott is unlikely to go down without a fight (though she doesn't seem to spend much time in Oz these days).

For a good roundup on why we believe that uranium supplies are looking good for the future, click here.

As for Helen Caldicott, we've taken issue with a number of her claims before. But if you have problems with comments from Americans, why not read this missive from one of your fellow Aussies.

Eric - I'm happily responding to both you and WHT and you're both Americans (albeit with differing views).

I note you have continued to avoid discussing the waste disposal, weapons proliferation and immense construction and decommissioning costs).

Why not just bypass nuclear altogether and go straight to wind, solar and tidal power ?

It will work, is cost-comparable to nuclear and has none of the downside.

Seems to a better way to go to me.

On the issue of waste disposal, we continue to believe that a permanent waste disposal facility for used nuclear fuel is the way to go. In the U.S., we have two decades of science backing up the contention that Yucca Mountain is the best place for that repository.

In addition, I should note that the plan at Yucca has never been to just bury the used fuel in the ground and walk away. The site will be monitored for up to 300 years, and accomodations made to allow in-situ retrieval of the used fuel if/when reprocessing technologies mature to the point when it becomes economical to do so.

I say that because uranium prices have been depressed for a couple of decades because so much surplus weapon-grade material has been released onto global markets, so it's been cheaper to simply burn new uranium.

As to non-proliferation, I'm puzzled that you haven't mentioned two programs -- "Megatons to Megawatts" and the MOX Fuel program that have converted the equivalent of 20,000 warheads worth of weapons grade materials and used them in American reactors. Currently, half of all U.S. reactors use uranium from "Megatons to Megawatts".

Sounds like a great non-proliferation program to me.

As to the other question, we're not proposing to move nuclear energy to every last nation on earth without safeguads. However, many developing nations will have to rely on fossil fuels for the forseeable future to develop their economies.

If you want to keep the lights on, provide enough power to meet future increases in demand, and do it while not emitting particulate matter or additional CO2 into the atmosphere, you have to include nuclear in the equation.

I have to take issue with one of the ways that you're framing this debate, however. The question is not should we develop nuclear or renewables. The reality is that we're going to have to develop nuclear energy and renewables. Neither can meet future demand alone.

And finally, as to your point on construction and decommissioning: Our numbers we publish concerning new nuclear build take both of those into account, and new nuclear is still competitive.

Another reason that nuclear is a better option is capacity factor. Today, the average wind farm clocks in at about 30 percent, while the average American nuclear plant comes in at 90 percent. That makes nuclear energy baseload capacity that can run 24/7, while the renewables you list are intermittent at best, and have to be backed up with other generating capacity -- in most cases, fossil fuel capacity.

Indeed, up front capital costs are the most significant disadvantage of new nuclear build. However, because of the relatively low cost of uranium, nuclear plants provide tremendous forward price stability in electricity markets. The fact is, if America didn't have its 103 reactors today, we'd be far more vulnerable to the volatility we've seen in natural gas markets.

Eric - Please note I'm not talking about building nuclear reactors in the US (I know Americans can find it a bit difficult to remember the other 95% of the planet exists - but given that the title of the post is "Is Nuclear Power Part Of Australia’s Global Warming Solutions ?" I would have thought it was obvious what my point was).

I am framing the question as "nuclear or renewables" because I believe that is the choice that needs to be made everywhere for our future power needs.

Renewables can provide all of our needs as we move into the future (and I'm not suggesting all existing nuclear plants outside Australia be scrapped just yet either), so that seems to be clearly the correct course of action. There is a strong case that this is cleaner, better and cheaper.

And even if it turned out to be of equal cost, that doesn't make nuclear the right way to go.

Encouraging efficiency and conservation means that no new base load capacity needs to be created (in the West in particular), and making power storage (ie. various forms of batteries etc) a standard feature of transport and building infrastructure mitigates the intermittency factor for some renewable power sources as we move forward anyway.

So why bother going through the massive expense of building unnecessary nuclear plants ? Especially when you recognise that its not wise to spread this technology to all countries due to security concerns ?

I also think that assuming that uranium prices will stay low is just as unwise as the old assumption that natural gas prices will stay low - uranium will deplete over time just like gas has and the EROEI will sink ever lower - which is why I invest in some uranium miners in spite of my belief that nuclear isn't the way forward...

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