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QUARTERLY ESSAY 27 Reaction Time

 

Correspondence

Michael Angwin

Ian Lowe’s essay outlines the traditional anti-nuclear critique. This is also the argument against uranium mining, which is my interest. It is an argument that has been espoused by the anti-nuclear and the anti-uranium cause in Australia for a generation. But how relevant today is the traditional anti-nuclear, anti-uranium case? Not very, in my view. 

The relevancy problem Lowe faces is that the world has already embraced nuclear power on a significant scale and shows no signs that it will disengage from that embrace. On the contrary: from its beginnings fifty years ago, the world’s nuclear power industry has grown to the point where thirty-one countries now use nuclear power. And have done so for 12,700 safe-operating reactor years. About thirty countries in Europe, Africa and Asia are also thinking, with varying degrees of commitment, about embracing nuclear power. 

There are about 440 nuclear power reactors in the world. Some thirty-four are currently under construction. Another 100 are planned to come into operation by 2020. And about another 200 are being proposed. Not all of those countries considering nuclear power will embrace it and not all those reactors being proposed will finally leap the economic and other hurdles to construction. But the figures do show the significance of nuclear power in the world today. Existing nuclear power reactors supply 16 per cent of the world’s electricity, 23 per cent of the OECD’s electricity and, on average, about 25 per cent of the electricity in the countries in which they operate.

Australia has an important place in the global nuclear energy industry, with about 38 per cent of the world’s known low-cost uranium resources and about 23 per cent of world uranium production. It has been exporting uranium for nuclear power reactors over thirty years, with the prospect of doubling production and possibly tripling export value by 2015. There is bipartisan political consensus and public support – 59 per cent in favour – for expanding Australia’s uranium exports.1 

In short, on a global scale, the anti-nuclear, anti-uranium argument is not very relevant these days. The argument against nuclear power has been rejected in thirty-one countries and is likely to be rejected in others. Australia’s bipart-isan uranium export policy repudiates the anti-uranium argument. Every time a nuclear power reactor begins operation, Lowe’s argument is rejected again. 

Professor Lowe has five particular arguments against nuclear power, each of which is ultimately also an argument against uranium mining. His first argument is that “the economics of nuclear power don’t stack up.” If nuclear power were not economical, there would not be a global nuclear power industry of the dimensions outlined above. Nor would there be plans for the expansion of the industry. Sometimes you just have to concede that the strong presence of an activity in the marketplace is evidence that the market thinks it’s economic.

The largely static growth of nuclear power globally over the last twenty years is due at least in part to the comparatively favourable economics of fossil fuels, at least in some countries. But times have changed. Managing the climate in the context of population and economic growth will alter the economics of energy supply in favour of non-fossil fuels. 

Whether or not nuclear power is economical in Australia will depend, at least in part, on the climate-change policies Australia adopts. It seems clear that Australia will have a carbon-trading system and clean-energy targets, which will make all non-carbon energy sources more economical than they are currently. 

However, the specifics of climate-change policy have not been sufficiently articulated by policy-makers to encourage any business in the electricity industry to develop a nuclear proposal worthy of serious consideration. For example, it is not clear what the pathway to Australian emissions reduction is to be, which means the economics of nuclear power are still debatable. 

Nuclear power may not turn out to be economical in Australia. But this issue cannot be resolved until we know the full policy context. Lowe’s preparedness to draw any conclusion about the economics of an Australian nuclear power industry in the absence of some of the most important information needed to inform economic consideration is not surprising. It is fully consistent with the strategy of the anti-nuclear lobby to put the worst possible construction on an issue wherever there is uncertainty.

Of course, economics isn’t everything. An Australian nuclear power industry would require greater political consensus nationally and between the Commonwealth and the states, and greater public acceptance and support. The new debate about nuclear power has only recently begun in Australia and seems to be in a relatively early stage, with major political differences and changeable public opinion. I suspect this means that the debate will continue for some time yet, and that its current political drivers will give way to more reasoned consideration of the issues.

Lowe’s second argument is that “nuclear power is too slow a response to the urgent problem of climate change.” The climate task during the next twenty years – effectively, that is, now – is to put in place measures that will alter the course of the climate over the next twenty to one hundred years. 

Nuclear power is already part of the response and, globally, is becoming a bigger part. It might take five years to build one of the nuclear power reactors that China has planned – and for which Australia will provide uranium – but it will then have an impact for the sixty years during which it provides clean electricity. So, Lowe can’t mean “too slow” from a global point of view.

If his argument is about Australia, then he needs to explain why nuclear power, as one element of an overall Australian response that will take up to twenty years to realise, is inconsistent with a solution that is intended to have an impact over twenty to one hundred years. 

His third argument is that “nuclear power is too dangerous.” The world’s civil nuclear power industry has an excellent track record of 12,700 operating reactor years and is subject to the highest standards of regulation and scrutiny around the world. Lowe asserts that “there is the risk of accidents such as at Chernobyl.” This argument is an attempt to generalise from the particular case to cast doubt on nuclear power reactors whose operating records are impeccable. The disaster at Chernobyl was caused largely by a faulty reactor design. An accident twenty years ago involving a design that should never have been built even in the former Soviet Union, and that was never used in the West, tells us nothing about the state of nuclear technology today or in the future. Chernobyl is as irrelevant to the nuclear debate today as the Hindenburg disaster is to modern air travel. 

Lowe also claims that there is an “elevated risk of nuclear weapons proliferation.” This is typical of the anti-nuclear position, which never quantifies risk. What, precisely, is the “elevated risk”? And what is it elevated above? It’s usually better to get some facts on the table than to be as vague as Lowe: all but three countries are signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; there is near 100 per cent certainty that any of the 190 NPT signatories who cheated on their treaty obligations would be caught out and brought back to those obligations (North Korea is a recent example); all Australian uranium exported over the last thirty years can be accounted for and none has contributed to expanding a nuclear weapons program.

Lowe raises this furphy: “nobody has found a permanent solution to the (waste) storage problem.” There is general scientific consensus in favour of final disposal in deep geological repositories, replicating the conditions in which uranium is found in the first place. The know-how exists to build such repositories. There are storage facilities in operation using technology not much different from disposal technology. I think that counts as a solution. 

A recent survey of thirty-nine countries with substantial engagement with the nuclear fuel cycle indicated that twenty-nine of those countries had either decided in favour of deep geological disposal or had expressed a preference for it.2 That seems to point to confidence in the existence of a solution.

There is a short-term requirement – lasting about fifty years – to manage used fuel or waste by on-site cooling and storage while most of the radioactivity decays. The disposal technology solution will come online when it is needed. It will not be needed before then. 

As for progress, in regard to Yucca Mountain in the United States, for example, the US Senate has approved the site and there is a timetable for its licence approval and construction. In Sweden, feasibility studies have been completed, site investigations are continuing and community consultation is occurring at Osthammar and Oskarshamn, the two places competing – yes, competing – for the repository. 

Lowe’s fourth argument is that nuclear power is “not carbon-free.” Nuclear power has very low emissions, like solar and wind. According to a study by the University of Sydney, the nuclear fuel cycle (including mining, decommissioning and waste disposal) stands between solar, which produces more carbon dioxide, and wind and hydro, which produce less. All produce very much less than gas and coal. The Sydney study is consistent with the empirical data from many other studies.3 

Lowe argues that the initial energy input involved in the construction of a nuclear power plant would increase greenhouse gases in the short term and make the climate problem worse. You could equally use this argument against, say, wind, which consumes energy in producing the cement that is needed to construct a foundation for a wind turbine before the turbine produces power. In any case, this argument looks very weak in light of the fact that the energy pay-back period from a nuclear power reactor is four to five months.

Finally, Lowe argues that “high-grade uranium ores are limited.” The known reserves of any mineral are a function of the amount invested in exploration for that mineral. There has been comparatively little uranium exploration in the world during the past twenty years, but the rising price of uranium is driving greater exploration investment today. In Australia, for example, investment in uranium exploration has increased eleven-fold since 2003–04.4 Increasing exploration increases the prospects of finding more high-grade uranium. Lowe’s argument also ignores the prospect of greater efficiency in the use of uranium fuel, including in the recycling of used fuel.

On the question of renewables, Lowe has some valuable things to say. It is a pity, however, that he feels the need to verbal the nuclear and uranium industries by suggesting that their position is to argue for a choice between nuclear and renewables. One wonders why Lowe has done that. Is it to disadvantage the nuclear and uranium industries in debate by making them appear opposed to what is generally perceived as a “good thing”? For the record, the Australian uranium industry acknowledges that renewables have a role in Australia’s energy portfolio.

To summarise, Lowe’s anti-nuclear, anti-uranium case has been largely rejected in practice. He is at odds with both Australia’s national political parties and the Australian public on the question of uranium export expansion. He would have Australia forego the economic benefits of that. His conclusion that there is no economic case for nuclear power in Australia is untested and premature. His arguments against nuclear power on safety grounds are outdated, unquantifiable or at odds with the facts. There is compelling scientific and economic evidence to contradict his arguments on climate grounds. 

 

Michael Angwin is the executive director of the Australian Uranium Association.


1. 2007 Australian Attitudes to Uranium, ANOP, May 2007.

2. The Role of Nuclear Power in a Low Carbon Economy, Paper 5: Waste and Decommissioning, UK Sustainable Development Commission, March 2006. 

3. Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy: Opportunities for Australia?, Australian Government, November 2006, p. 95. 

4. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Mineral and Petroleum Exploration, 8412.0. 

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This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 27, Reaction Time. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 28, Exit Right.


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