Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Nuclear power: no solution to climate change

2005 has seen the Federal Government reverse its position on climate change, accepting that its impact is severe and serious, and that fast action is imperative.

But the government has diverted attention away from real solutions and Australia?s poor performance on curbing emissions by insisting that Australia consider domestic nuclear power generation. In short, the government proposes something which is currently illegal, inordinately expensive, relying on government-subsidised capital investments and too slow to respond to the immediate challenge of climate change. Now Brendan Nelson and Ian Macfarlane (science and industry and resources ministers) want to waste more time and money on a high level inquiry into the feasibility of a nuclear power industry in Australia.

The nuclear debate has been based on a false claim: that nuclear power is ?greenhouse-free?. Significant emissions are produced at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle - nuclear power can only reduce greenhouse gas emissions in comparison with fossil fuels, rather than renewable energy sources and energy efficiency. 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. A doubling of nuclear power output by 2050 would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about five per cent - less than one tenth of the reductions required to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.

Nuclear power relies on an exhaustible 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 thought 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. 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.

And to this problem we must add the risk of accidents at nuclear plants; routine releases of radioactive gases and liquids, the intractable problem of nuclear waste and risks of terrorism and sabotage.

Safety concerns at reactors are not limited to the ex-Soviet states. For example, the Japanese nuclear power industry has been in turmoil since revelations in August 2002 of 29 cases of false reporting on the inspections of cracks in numerous reactors. There have also been a number of serious accidents, some of them fatal, 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; they will intensify if liberalisation of electricity markets proceeds.

Furthermore, there?s another hazard associated with nuclear power expansion on a global scale and it?s of such concern that alone it must lead to a rejection of the nuclear proposal. As the government plans to increase Australian uranium exports, it?s time we considered the established 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 per cent 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 per cent 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, and
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 50,000 - 100,000 tonnes of plutonium. The IPCC concluded that the security threat would be "colossal".
The International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) safeguards system still suffers from flaws and limitations despite improvements over the past decade. 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 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, the large radioactive inventories in many facilities and 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 than 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 three to four 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.

Whatever Bob Hawke might think on the matter, attempts to establish international repositories are likely to be as unpopular and unsuccessful as Pangea Resources? bid to win support for such a repository in Australia. Pangea abandoned its proposal in 2002.

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

Enough of the bad news: renewable energy, mostly hydroelectricity, already supplies 19 per cent of world electricity, compared to nuclear's 16 per cent. The share of renewables is increasing, while nuclear's share is decreasing. Wind power and solar power are growing by 20-30 per cent every year. In 2004, renewable energy added nearly three times as much net generating capacity as nuclear power. (In Australia, only 8 per cent of electricity is from renewable energy - down from 10 per cent in 1999.)

The biggest gains are to be made in the field of energy efficiency. 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 per cent with the adoption of current commercially available technologies with an average payback of four years.

A July 2002 study by The Australia Institute (pdf file 139KB) maps out a plan to achieve a 60 per cent 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.

And 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 providing 30 per cent; biomass from agriculture and plantation forestry residues, 26 per cent; wind, 20 per cent; photovoltaic and solar thermal systems, 5 per cent; hydroelectricity, 7 per cent; while coal and petroleum continue to play a minor role in electricity generation.


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