Like it or hate it, nu­clear is cleaner

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Clean Energy - Robin Bromby

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

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