by Bruce McKern
The recent visit to Australia by James Hansen, Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies in New York, was an extraordinary event. Hansen is well known as a climate scientist and was one of the early proponents of action against emissions. So it was no surprise that in his Sydney talks he was evangelistic about the urgency of action on climate change.
What, then, was remarkable about Dr Hansen’s Australian pronouncements? Simply that Hansen sees nuclear power as the only feasible solution to reducing emissions. While he expects renewable options to have a place among the alternatives to carbon, he is firm that they cannot replace fossil fuels within any reasonable period. The problem with renewables and carbon capture is that they are just too costly for the foreseeable future: 50 to 100 per cent more than coal-based electricity. Switching to natural gas, which emits half as much CO2 as coal, would not eliminate emissions. The great attraction of nuclear power is that it is nearly emission-free, well tried and economically more viable than any alternative.
The biggest obstacle to building new nuclear plants is not technical. Nuclear technology has evolved steadily over decades of operating experience and the ‘Generation III’ plants planned in the US, and already under construction in China, are not radical innovations, but improvements on tried and tested designs.
Rather, the obstacles are political and regulatory. Contractors and operators in the US, with past experience of long delays in approvals, holdups during construction and legal wrangles, have been wary of committing large amounts of capital under such uncertainty. But the political climate has changed and governments outside Australia are now simplifying regulations and providing financial guarantees, which they see as a reasonable cost of reducing carbon dependence.
This approach has been embraced by the Obama administration, which faces an expected growth in electricity demand of 21 per cent over the next 20 years. Twenty per cent of the United States’ electricity load is currently generated by nuclear power and a renaissance of interest in nuclear energy is well under way. The US is already providing guarantees for loans of $8.3 billion to finance two nuclear plants at one utility and has talked about guarantees of up to $54 billion for others being planned. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing applications from 18 companies to build 28 nuclear units. It has instituted a faster approval process, the ‘COL’, which combines approvals for construction and site operating licences. And it is funding the development of small modular reactors for remote communities — a potential boon to Australia’s outback population.
In Australia, 75 per cent of electricity is generated from coal and demand is expected to double by 2050. There is no way this growth could be met by renewables or by carbon capture. To combat global warming, emissions-free nuclear energy must be an essential part of the plan.
The good news is that support for nuclear power is growing among Australians. A Nielsen poll published last October reported that 48 per cent of Australians believe nuclear power should be considered as an alternative to fossil fuels. In 2002 only 38 per cent were in favour. Australians are feeling more comfortable with nuclear power because half a century of experience has demonstrated that it is the only safe and economically viable option to deliver emissions-free electricity. Consider the evidence on the four issues that influence public views: safety, proliferation, waste disposal and cost.
The operational safety record of nuclear power plants has been extraordinary, although not widely appreciated. Worldwide, during almost 50 years of operations, there have been only four major power reactor accidents involving a core melt. The terrible disaster of Chernobyl was due to serious design and operating flaws of its Soviet-era RBMK reactor, which would be quite unthinkable today. In the other three accidents, including Three Mile Island, not one injury resulted. Western reactor designs include inherent fail-safe features, comprehensive monitoring and testing, and containment of potential leakage. By contrast, as the tragic events last week in West Virginia remind us, fuel for coal-fired and oil-fired power plants costs thousands of lives worldwide. Even in Australia, which has the safest coal mining industry in the world, accidents have killed 281 coal miners since 1902.
Are reactors easy targets for terrorists? Contrary to last week’s alarmism from Senator Bob Brown, the answer is no. Reactors are ‘hardened’ sites which are difficult to damage. Access is protected and fissile material is stored safely in the plant and later at secure sites. Theft of radioactive material from a power reactor is virtually impossible and would in any case involve mortal risk. An Australian reactor could be made impregnable.
Worries about proliferation focus on spent fuel, which can be processed to extract fissile material such as plutonium or uranium, but also to make weapons-grade fissile material. However, Australia has signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and has no plans for reprocessing spent fuel for the production of weapons. Proliferation concerns are no reason for Australia to forego nuclear power for peaceful purposes.
Waste disposal of spent fuel is an important concern. However, existing technology can dispose of waste safely in stable geological formations well below ground. Australia has suitable unpopulated areas and a solution is in principle available.
Nuclear power costs anywhere from 20 per cent to 50 per cent more than coal-generated power, before any credit for emissions reduction. According to the 2006 report of a review chaired by Dr Ziggy Switkowski, nuclear energy would be competitive with coal-based energy at a carbon emissions price of around A$15-40 per tonne of CO2 equivalent, and more competitive than renewables and carbon capture. While the alternatives may become less costly over time, this cannot happen fast enough to halt the growth of emissions.
Senator Brown is wrong in claiming that nuclear power would be ‘too slow, too expensive and too dangerous’. As neither an ETS nor a carbon tax will be enacted here in the near future, it is clear that if Australia is serious about moving away from carbon-based power, it must subsidise the alternatives. So our political masters face a clear choice: give up on reducing Australia’s emissions, or embrace the only option that can do it. How could it be done?
The Coalition’s proposed Direct Action emissions reduction fund offers a possible way forward. The plan envisages incentives to reduce emissions from old coal-fired plants, many of which face replacement by 2050. If the next federal election sees a change of government, Australia’s first nuclear plant would be a fine candidate for the Direct Action Plan. The plan’s implicit carbon price is A$25-35 per tonne, which would be a sufficient incentive. What better place to build a nuclear plant than on the site of an obsolete, decommissioned coal-fired station, with infrastructure and cooling water available and with access to energy-efficient high voltage transmission lines?
In taking this path, Australia would have the support of Hansen, one of the strongest proponents of global climate action. Will our leaders have the vision to do the same? Bruce McKern, an engineer and economist, is Professor of International Business & Director of the Business Leadership and Merck Innovation programs at the US Studies Centre and a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.