QUARTERLY ESSAY 27 Reaction Time



Robert Merkel

Ian Lowe and the organisation he heads have done Australia a great service in their persistent, loud calls for action on climate change. It is a tragedy, and a stain on our entire body politic, that their calls have been largely ignored. I believe history will judge John Howard and George W. Bush even more harshly for this gross misjudgment than their disastrous follies in the Middle East.

However, Lowe’s own judgment has deserted him on the topic of nuclear energy. He has underestimated the magnitude of the task we collectively face in reducing our greenhouse-gas emissions, systematically overstated the risks of nuclear power and ignored those of the alternatives, and constructed a fantasyland of voluntarily curtailed economic growth in developing countries. Nuclear power may well be our only feasible option to avoid catastrophic climate change, while also delivering a politically and morally acceptable level of material comfort to the several billion people in the developing world.

It is virtually inconceivable that global energy demand will reduce over the next few decades. Aside from continued population growth, the two most populous countries on earth are likely to continue developing their economies rapidly for decades; their citizens are not going to accept a lifestyle radically different from our own. Even making the most generous assumptions about energy efficiency, it seems highly unlikely that total energy demand will decrease over this period, even if Australia and other high-emitting countries voluntarily return to a “1960s standard of living.” 

Given that, we will need to replace at least our current energy usage with something that doesn’t dump CO2 into the atmosphere. Essentially, that means capturing and storing the carbon released from burning fossil fuels, adopting renewable energy or using nuclear power. Lowe summarily dismisses geo-sequestration. So we are left with only one option – renewable energy.

Australia, at least, could undoubtedly obtain its entire stationary energy needs from renewable energy. But at what cost? Wind energy, even in its present scale of deployment where its irregularity is largely irrelevant to the grid, is considerably more costly than fossil-fuel electricity – as the 4.25 cent per kilowatt-hour premium I pay for green power indicates. But that’s not the real problem. The existing renewable-energy technologies which are not resource-limited are all intermittent – and they are not particularly well correlated with demand. So, if they are to make up the majority of our energy consumption, we will need some way to make up the difference when demand is high and availability is low. In large part, this will mean either the deployment of some kind of energy storage system or the retention of alternative sources of back-up power – biopower, for instance. But energy storage technologies are even more embryonic than most renewable-energy technologies, and the requirements for back-ups upon back-ups will increase by multiples the total cost of energy. 

What of the nuclear option? According to Lowe, it is too slow to deploy, has high ancillary carbon emissions – particularly if reportedly scarce high-grade uranium resources are used up – is too costly, poses unacceptable safety and environmental risks, and, in encouraging nuclear proliferation or even terrorism, is too dangerous to expand.

The claim that nuclear power’s ancillary emissions are unacceptably high is simply nonsensical; there are many studies which show that the life-cycle emissions are roughly comparable to most of the renewable options, and lower than solar.1 And the idea that we are in any way at risk of running out of efficiently minable ore any time soon is ludicrous. Claims of limited levels of “assured resource” ignore the fact that miners only go looking for more metal when the market demands it. Over the period 2003–05, exploration saw the assured reserve level increase by 50 per cent, and it hasn’t stopped there. BHP’s recently announced resource upgrade for Olympic Dam saw another half-million tonnes of uranium added – enough to meet almost a decade of present demand on its own. If it’s in such short supply, why has it been such an easy process to find a whole lot more of it?

It is indeed true that nuclear power plants take a long time to approve and construct. But renewables can’t be popped up overnight either. Wind-power projects take years for site assessments for wind speeds, planning approvals (which are often delayed by public opposition) and financing, and finally constructing the turbines. Photovoltaic solar power doesn’t suffer from this problem. But the supply of solar panels – the total global installations of which produce less than half the electricity of one of the six generating units at Victoria’s Loy Yang B – has been constrained for years because of a shortage of purifed silicon. The time it will take to expand production of any renewable technology to the necessary scale is at least as long as it will take to establish nuclear power in Australia.

We have ample evidence to show that nuclear energy is extremely safe by any rational measure. Even if we accept some of the high-end estimates by anti-nuclear organisations of the premature deaths caused by Chernobyl, the death toll is minuscule compared to the tens of thousands of people killed annually across the developed world by coal-fired power stations in normal operation. The comparison is even more stark when one considers the developing world. Air pollution, much of it from coal-fired power stations, kills around 300,000 Chinese people every year according to suppressed official estimates.2 

In the West, commercial operators have been running nuclear reactors for fifty years, with a grand total of two casualties from an accident in that time (at the Tokiamura reprocessing plant, not at a reactor). Public exposure to radiation has been negligible, and health impacts undetectable. Nuclear reactors have coped with hurricanes, floods and massive earthquakes. Such different and technologically advanced countries as the United States, Japan, Sweden, France, Taiwan and Spain successfully run reactors. I find the idea that Australia is uniquely incapable of doing so odd.

What about waste disposal? While fresh spent fuel rods are indeed extremely lethal in close quarters, the simple fact is that tiny quantities – a couple of truckloads of fuel, per reactor, per year – have been safely stored for decades around the world, and there is no particular impediment to continued storage in dry casks, for centuries if needs be. All the while, it will become far less radioactive – in 1000 years’ time, it will only be roughly ten times as radioactive as the ore from which it came – unlike, for example, heavy metals, which remain toxic forever. Our nuclear waste, unlike climate change, will not imperil our distant descendants.

But if a permanent solution is desired, there is a successful natural precedent to suggest that nuclear waste can be safely contained for millennia – indeed, for geological timescales. In the Oklo region of Gabon, Africa, a combination of circumstances led to a natural fission reaction occurring roughly 1.5 billion years ago. The waste products, including the remnants of several tonnes of plutonium, haven’t moved since. This is despite the reaction occurring in a waterlogged sandstone geological structure that would never be considered for toxic waste disposal of any kind today. Are we to believe that our scientists and engineers are incapable of selecting a site at least as good as one chosen by chance?

In any case, Ian Lowe’s contention is that – even if what he regards as the technical problems of nuclear power could be solved – that the “social and political problems do not appear to have solutions.” Nuclear proliferation and the risk of terrorism are in his view both so serious, and so insoluble, as to rule out its use.

Let us first deal with the risks of terrorism. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists – no friend of the nuclear power industry – examined one common terrorist scenario, that of a “dirty bomb,” constructed from a spent fuel rod. It concluded that such a scenario was essentially impossible – even assuming the would-be terrorists were able to evade the very extensive security protecting nuclear plants, the radiation would very promptly kill them, but virtually no one else. As to direct attacks on nuclear power plants, the extensive security and containment barriers make them a very tough target. Terrorists have already succeeded in causing murder and mayhem by focusing on existing highly vulnerable targets, most of which have far less protection than nuclear plants. 

As to nuclear proliferation, let us merely note that the overwhelming majority of the world’s greenhouse emissions come either from existing nuclear powers – most of whom have ample highly enriched uranium and bomb-grade plutonium stockpiled to manufacture far more weapons than they actually have at present – or from de facto ones, like Japan, Brazil and the various non-nuclear members of the EU. Indeed, Australia has, on two separate occasions, developed uranium-enrichment technology that could easily have been used to make a bomb, but we chose not to do so. The question of whether an industrialised nation-state decides to construct a nuclear weapon or not is almost entirely a question of politics, not of technical capability. Constructing a nuclear weapon out of spent power reactor fuel, by contrast, is extremely challenging, far beyond the capabilities of any conceivable terrorist group. The main risk of a terrorist-constructed nuclear weapon is from highly enriched uranium, a product not used in power reactors.

Finally, we come to the issue of cost. I do not know – and nor does anyone else – how the relative costs of renewables, geosequestration and nuclear will play out in the decades ahead. We can, and should, insist that nuclear power plants provision appropriately for their waste disposal and ultimate dismantlement. We already use compound interest to do this for any number of purposes, including our own retirements. If it turns out that renewables are cheaper than nuclear under these rules, the nuclear industry can go the way of buggy whips. But it is totally irrelevant to the question of whether nuclear power should be permitted or not. We don’t ban BMWs – or organic food, for that matter – because they’re too expensive.

In re-reading the above, I am surprised to realise how little of the essay is actually devoted to the argument I have attempted to rebut. Lowe seems to be unenthused about his own technical arguments; much of the essay is taken up with a largely irrelevant critique of some of the supporters of nuclear energy, and a political analysis that essentially discounts the possibility of rational decision-making on complex issues where competing priorities need to be considered.

I am disappointed, and saddened, that a respected scientist such as Lowe would resort to such nihilism. Global warming is indeed a complex problem, perhaps the most difficult and complex challenge humanity as a whole has ever faced. Throwing up one’s hands and saying that we can’t have a rational discussion about the best solutions is tantamount to giving up entirely, which is something I cannot accept. 

Nothing is risk-free. However, the risks we face from climate change are so serious, and the risk that other energy alternatives are unsatisfactory is high enough, that the case for ruling nuclear power out entirely would have to be utterly compelling. The collection of ifs, buts and maybes in this Quarterly Essay does not meet that high bar, and Lowe arguing that it’s all too hard to make up our minds is unworthy of his profession. 


Robert Merkel is a post-doctoral research fellow in software engineering at Swinburne University of Technology. He holds a small number of shares in Compass Resources, a mining company with interests in uranium. 

1. See for instance Life-Cycle Energy Balance and Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Nuclear Energy in Australia, Integrated Sustainability Analysis, University of Sydney, 2006, www.dpmc.gov.au/publications/umpner/docs/commissioned/ISA_report.pdf.

2. See for instance Richard McGregor, “750,000 a year killed by Chinese pollution, Financial Times, 2 July 2007, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/8f40e248-28c7-11dc-af78-000b5df10621.html.


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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