Like it or hate it, nuclear is cleaner
ELECTRICITY produced by a pressurised light water reactor, when all its carbon costs have been taken into account, emits around 16 tonnes of carbon dioxide a megawatt hour. Gas- fired generation, by comparison, produces 356 tonnes, and coal 891 tonnes.
These figures come from George Monbiot, internationally known environmental campaigner and lecturer ( at Oxford) in a recent column for The Guardian newspaper in London. He has campaigned for the poor against the rich nations, so Monbiot is no right- wing advocate. As he stated, ‘‘ I hate nuclear power, but do we need it to help prevent the planet from cooking?’’.
Well, considering that if Britain’s nuclear stations were replaced by thermal, the country’s yearly output of carbon dioxide would increase by 8 per cent, or 51 million tonnes, he seems to have answered his own question.
And it looks as if the British Government is starting to think the same way. Last month, on a nod from the Prime Minister- elect, Gordon Brown, work started on a plan to replace the country’s ageing nuclear reactors.
According to London press reports, this is a move motivated by concerns about emissions as well what is called ‘‘ security of supply’’, the latter reflecting concern about dependence on oil and gas — especially with Russia’s newfound ability to hold Western Europe to ransom with gas supplies.
China is reported to be planning to spend around $ US50 billion ($ A62 billion) by 2020 to build 30 nuclear reactors, lifting the generating nuclear capacity from the present 8000MW to 40,000MW.
The Tennessee Valley Authority has its unit one reactor at Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama back in action producing its first nuclear reaction in more than 22 years, the reactor having been shut down in 1985 at the height of the nuclear scare.
The symbolism of this reaffirmation of faith in nuclear, following some scares and the Three Mile Island incident, cannot be underestimated given that the US is the world’s single largest producer of electricity from nuclear stations, and has 28 per cent of global installed capacity.
Prime Minister John Howard now wants Australia to embrace a nuclear energy future. He sparked a controversy with his comment that the country could provide base load power for the future from either coal or uranium. But advocates of renewable energy would have none of this argument, saying we could ensure our electricity security from a range of environmental friendly technologies, including wind, bio- energy and solar.
The stage was set for the Howard Govern- ment’s nuclear strategy after the enquiry last year into uranium mining and nuclear power, led by Ziggy Switkowski, laid out a scenario of installing 25 nuclear reactors, starting in 2020 and with more spread over the following 30 years. By 2050, according to the Switkowski scenario, nuclear would be providing a third of Australia’s power needs.
However, this seemingly promising plan needed some qualification. The committee’s report added the rider that, under present economics, nuclear energy could be as much as 50 times more expensive than coal or gas — unless greenhouse emissions were factored into the costings. Moreover, there were high technological barriers to Australia getting into the uranium enrichment business, one of the key stages of producing nuclear fuel.
The debate about — and strong opposition to — nuclear power in Australia sits a little strangely with the acceptance in many other parts of the world. France gets 75 per cent of its electricity from nuclear ( and exports some of that to other European countries); Lithuania was not far behind in 1999 with 73 per cent, but the country needs new supply as it will close the last stage of the Soviet- era Ignalina plant next year. Earlier this year talks got under way between Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland on a plan to co- operate on building a new nuclear plant costing up to $ US4 billion.
Belgium gets more than half its power from nuclear plants, and those with over 40 per cent include Bulgaria, Slovakia, South Korea, Sweden and Ukraine.
Australia not only has enormous reserves of uranium, but possesses the world’s largest estimated resource of thorium. This contains about 40 times the amount of energy per unit mass than uranium.
The estimated resource here amounts to about 300,000 tonnes ( more than the US and Canada combined, although further exploration can be expected to add substantially to that). Thorium has come under the same ban as uranium in some states, notably Western Australia and NSW.
Campaigner: George Monbiot