Time to go nuclear ?

My column in yesterday’s Fin was about the option of nuclear energy as a solution to the problem of climate change, an issue that’s been discussed a few times here already. One point I didn’t make is that the availability of nuclear-generated electricity as a ‘backstop’ technology puts an upper bound on the costs of a strategy that would reduce CO2 emissions enough to stabilise atmospheric concentrations (this is much more than Kyoto which aims only to stabilise emissions from developed countries, as a first step to a solution).

There’s lots more on global warming over at Troppo Armadillo, with a lengthy comments thread raising some interesting points.

Nuclear option premature

With the Kyoto protocol in force, and evidence of rapid climate change mounting up day by day, it’s not surprising that there has been renewed interest in nuclear energy as a source of electricity, free of emissions of greenhouse gases. What’s surprising is that so many of the participants in the debate seem to be restating positions that have been frozen in time for twenty years or more.

The debate over uranium mining provides an example. Labor’s ‘three mines’ policy was a grubby internal compromise reached in the early 1980s. It owed a lot to the interaction between geographical and factional alignments and almost nothing to a rational evaluation of the issues. It made no sense even at the time, yet it is still defended by some as an appropriate policy for the future.

The central reasoning underlying the anti-uranium campaign was rendered obsolete by the late 1970s. It was assumed that nuclear power was set for rapid growth, and that restricting the supply of uranium was the best way of constraining that growth. Meanwhile, nuclear proponents were looking at ‘fast-breeder’ reactors that would generate their own plutonium and thereby avoid the uranium shortage.

But the stagnation of nuclear power after the Three Mile Island accident meant that the shortage of uranium never developed. Releases from military stockpiles after the end of the Cold War have ensured a continuing supply. The availability of uranium is not a constraint on nuclear power and is unlikely to become one. Restrictive Australian policy might raise the world price, but that would merely benefit other suppliers at our expense. Similarly, the fast breeder reactor is commercially dead. France pulled the plug on its Superphenix reactor in the late 1990s, and Japan’s Monju has been mothballed for a decade.

If the opponents of nuclear power seem stuck in the 1980s, many of the supporters seem to back in the 1950s, still selling a dream of limitless clean power, ‘too cheap to meter’, and obstructed only by baseless fears. If the experience of the past thirty years has taught us anything, it’s that this dream is illusory.

Nuclear power can be clean (at least compared to the main alternatives), it can be safe and it can be cheap, but it apparently can’t be all three at once. In the aftermath of the Three Mile Island meltdown, it was pointed out by some that no-one had died, and it was suggested that nuclear power was being held to excessively tight safety standards, compared to those prevailing in the Soviet Union, which was forging ahead while nuclear energy stalled in the West. The Chernobyl disaster put paid to that claim.

In the ensuing decades, there have been repeated claims that the problems have been solved and that the stage is set for a renaissance of nuclear power. There has been much less in the way of concrete achievement.

It is hard to assess the costs of nuclear power because of its long stagnation. Large-scale construction has mostly been undertaken in countries where nuclear power attracts government subsidies, usually linked to military objectives, as in France. The main issue relates to capital costs. With the low interest rates prevailing currently, nuclear power looks marginally competitive with fossil fuels, but a complete analysis, including a proper allowance for waste disposal, would almost certainly yield substantially higher costs.

It would be foolish to foreclose any options, but a return to nuclear power looks premature at this stage. There are lots of conservation options, and alternative strategies such as tree planting, that could yield savings in emissions at significantly lower cost. Only when these options are exhausted would an expansion of nuclear power make sense.

In the meantime, it would be helpful if advocates of nuclear power could clarify their own position regarding climate change. While many are happy to score points against environmentalists by pointing to nuclear power as a solution to climate change, a surprisingly large number simultaneously push the claims of the handful of scientists (mostly not experts in the field, and many with glaring conflicts of interest) who deny the reality of human-caused climate change.

Not only does this undermine the case for re-examining the nuclear option, it undermines the credibility of its advocates. If an individual or lobby group disregards the massive body of evidence on climate change, often on the basis of a predetermined political or interest-group agenda, what reliance can be based on their claims about the safety and cost-efficiency of nuclear power?

John Quiggin is an ARC Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.

39 thoughts on “Time to go nuclear ?

  1. “including a proper allowance for waste disposal”

    (I am assuming that you include decommissioning of the reactor in “waste disposal”.)

    This is the key issue commonly ignored by nuclear proponents when talking about costs. It always has to be asked if they have included this expense in their cost-benefit analysis. Any nuclear option requires a birth to burial plan that is agreed to before turning the first sod.

    Talking of nuclear waste: I thought the Pangea (?) waste storage proposal (some years ago now) was a sensible one but it got shot down, apparently.

  2. Nuclear power is not the right option for many many reasons. Disposal of waste is the main one for me. Keeping highly radioactive waste seperate from the environment for 1000 to 10000 years is an insurmountable problem that we gloss over. While nuclear power is in the mix, the temptation to build nuclear weapons is not far behind. Finally while the newer reactors are much safer having thousands of them, built by the lowest bidder, introduces the almost certainty of an major accident sometime.

    Nuclear power is the unsustainable option. It would allow us to continue with ‘no regrets’ on our merry way without change. It does not address the fundamental problem of our society being unsustainable.

    Renewables on the other hand would force us to change the electricity grid to a more flexible, less vunerable distributed, local model. It would also force us to use less energy.

  3. Quoth Quiggers “In the aftermath of the Three Mile Island meltdown, it was pointed out by some that no-one had died, ” This seems false as the only responsible epidemiology done on Three Mile Island seems to indicate otherwise .http://www.thebulletin.org/article.php?art_ofn=so04mangano
    It’s particularly annoying that standard plume physics wasn’t employed to asses where the shit

  4. David’s point about decomissioning costs is particularly relevant to the debate on a replacement reactor at Lucas Heights – where decomissioning costs have not been put on the table

  5. My understanding is that when you factor in the amount of energy required to build a plant, mine the uranium, dispose of the waste and then dismantle the plants that they are actually a negative energy producer.

    It’s also quite noteworthy that, at least in the US, the nuclear power lobby groups are pretty active at the moment. I’d say it is a safe bet that the same thing is going on in Australia as well. I’m pretty sure that this is the reason nuclear power is on the agenda again.

  6. Oscar Wilde commented once that several excuses always sound less convincing than one. That’s how I feel about nuclear power. In my annoyance with:

    – the green puritans, for whom any consumption is sinful, and cheap energy provides the occasion of sin (Ender’s position);

    – the panic-mongers (how do we keep nuclear waste safe for 10k years? The same way we keep all those industrial toxins and heavy metals safe – the waste is not in principle any more dangerous and is rather less bulky. And the Maximum Conceivable Accident for most nuclear power plants is less than the MCA for most petrol refineries, pesticide plants and LNG terminals, as well as being much less likely to actually happen); and

    – the myth makers (the bit about negative energy balance is ridiculous – a 600MW plant with a life of thirty years produces around 10^18 joules, a truly stupendous amount of energy which I can’t see a bit of concrete manufacture and transport coming within many orders of magnitude of)

    I have to remind myself that one excuse is enough.

    In a world with a massive number of nuclear power plants spread in all countries of the world, I can’t see how you’d prevent illegal trade in fissile material and nuclear weapons programs. And that’s scary enough to make nuclear power a course of last resort.

  7. Derrida,
    I am just as sceptical as the next person on nuclear power, but your worry on fissle material does not hold up – a light water reactor (and some other designs) does not need, nor does it produce, the grade of material needed for a fission detonation.
    It does use a grade of material that could be used for a radiological bomb (add some radioactive material to some explosive to spread it widely) but then, so do most hospitals and universities in the developed world.

  8. Derrida Derida
    Agree with your assesment of proliferation risk.

    Wondering where you got that quote saying that I am a green puritan. Not quite my position but close enough on thinking about it. I am really getting sick of the religous type responses that nuclear power advocates and global warming skeptics are using to try and negate Green arguments. Apparently if you disagree with them and hold strong views that oppose theirs this is religous fanatism.

  9. “At present there are 442 nuclear reactors in operation around the world. If, as the nuclear industry suggests, nuclear power were to replace fossil fuels on a large scale, it would be necessary to build 2000 large, 1000-megawatt reactors.”

    Helen Caldicott in the Australian 15.Apr.05, reprinted at common dreams.

    Other annoyances, other excuses:
    The near-smirking refusal to consider a serious reduction in the profligate waste of artificially cheap power. Artificial in the sense that the costs were never factored in to the budgets as presented.
    Costs in the sense that even the most virulent anti-Luddites are scrambling to get away from greenhouse-gas-production, a direct but long-deferred price on the current production/rate-of-use constellation.
    Virulent anti-Luddites in the sense that the sensible and pragmatic suggestion that the aforementioned profligate waste could and should be reduced is reframed as “the green puritans, for whom any consumption is sinful”.
    Reframing in the sense the issue is presented as though the only choices available were bloated hedonism and humourless asceticism; thus herding the appetite-revering masses back into the fold of heedless, prodigal consumption. Not that they’re in danger of straying too far just yet. But soon.

  10. I think a reactor program should be drawn up now for public discussion when the panic sets in, say by the year 2010. By that time we will see more clearly what works and what doesn’t. Based on some first hand observations I predict that the broad middle class won’t accept the puritanical lifestyle limitations that follow from mandated emissions trading, carbon sinks, replacement biofuels and quotas of solar and wind power. I further predict that clean coal experiments will flop and the coal industry will be increasingly be used as a scapegoat for climate problems despite helping the trade balance. Conservative governments won’t implement a carbon tax but fuel prices will climb permanently over $2/L outpacing wage growth. China will surge ahead with its pebble bed reactor program and will be the envy of the West. Therefore I think the pain will be too great to say no to nuclear. The road ahead looks bumpy.

  11. Go for nuclear power immediately and then start thinking of renewables. Australia can store the world’s nuclear wastes in its geologically stable outback areas (for a price!) improving the world’d disposal problems, making money for itself and, enhancing demand for a resource it has huge monopoly power in exporting.

    There were lots of somewhat weasely evasions in your AFR article John. It ‘looks premature’ does it? The article not up to your normal high standards and not based on seeing what is in front of all our eyes. Peak oil production in 2008 and all downhill from there. Increased reliance on coal? Greenhouse targets? I’ll go back to my struggles with Finnigans Wake.

  12. Harry, as I said in the article, it’s very difficult to get reliable information on the costs of nuclear power. If you have an authoritative and independent source covering the full range of costs including waste disposal, please point me to it. I searched pretty extensively last year, with an appeal for help on the blog, crossposted on Crooked Timber, and got nowhere.

    IIRC, you commented in that thread, in terms broadly consistent with what I wrote in my article, but without any concrete figures or links.

  13. At the Troppo Armadillo site one source on comparative costs (given by Robert Merkel in a comment) is:


    Ignoring CO2 emission costs Coal is 2.2-3.2 pence per kWh while nuclear fission is 2.3. Attaching a cost to CO2 emissions of 30 pounds/ton (a hefty carbon tax indeed) nuclear is cheapest.

    It is some Royal Engineering group — I don’t know if it is biased. No it does not mention waste disposal costs but they would have to be high. Some will claim they are always too high for nuclear to be viable.

    I wonder if there is sense in supposing the disposal costs are the same order of magnitude as the raw material costs. If so the disposal costs are negligible.

  14. Cutting back on energy demand does not mean a puritan lifestyle. The trouble is that we waste almost as much energy as we use. Simply eliminating the waste will achieve most of the reductions in energy use needed.

    Why are there such things as 3 star fridges? From http://www.energyrating.gov.au/rfmenu.html you can list the most and least efficient fridges.
    Top of the efficiency list 400l 2 door fridge uses 410 KwHrs per year while the lease efficient uses 610. One brand fridge only uses only 200 KwHrs per year. Increasing efficiency is not rocket science. If this difference is applied to all industrial refridgeration with subsidies from carbon taxes and given incentives by taxes on heavy electricity users then massive savings can be made without touching our precious lifestyles.

    Air-conditioners are being installed in record numbers as our affluence increases. The range of efficiencies is staggering. Just enforcing 6 star energy rating or forcing people with air conditioners to install grid tie solar panels would drastically reduce energy demand. Applying this to business as well would further reduce demand.

    There is no need to go ‘puritan’ to save power just stop wasting it. Do we have to build hundreds of nuclear power plants producing tones of waste just so we can waste as much power as we like – I don’t think so.

  15. So Harry, given that you have no reliable full-cycle estimate of the costs of nuclear power, what’s the basis of your complaint about ‘weasel words”. The costs are unclear and I said so.

    Ender, I agree and tried to make this point.

  16. OK John my comment was a bit sharp and I apologise but what are you suggesting and what do you advocate? What does the following suggestion mean for energy policy:

    “It would be foolish to foreclose any options, but a return to nuclear power looks premature at this stage”.

    I read this as a negative given that, apart from disposal costs, nuclear seems a goer. And while data on the precise nature of these costs is unknown the main obstacle to using well-recognised deep underground disposal of wastes in geologically stable areas seems to be public hysteria not based on fact. See for example:


    How to estimate waste disposal costs? As I dont have data I suggested that as a rough guess the costs of extracting and processing nuclear fuels might be of the same order of magnitude as the costs of putting wastes back in the ground. Then these costs are overall irrelevant since non-capital costs are almost irrelevant in assessing nuclear power. There is no evasion here. My claim is clear and can be refuted with evidence or argument.

    Australia has 40% of the world’s uranium and the price of this resource is widely forecast to continue to rise beyond current record levels. Public subsidies or not, a lot of people are taking the view this will be an important future fuel and it is non-Greenhouse gas emitting.

    To repeat. Peak world oil production is due to occur in 2008. Many are coming to the view that Greenhouse issues are a substantive problem. Renewable energy sources seem to cost a multiple of nuclear costs and who can sensibly advocate a dramatic expansion ion the use of coal.?

  17. wind energy costs as low as $70/MWh. If nuclear could get that cheap in oz i would be very impressed. biomass generation would be cheaper than both wind and nuclear. so its not true to say that renewables are a multiple of nuclear.

    I’ll try and find it, though its a couple years old and might take me a while, but a report preapred for the british govt found that wind power was competitive with nuclear, and would be the cheapest form of electricity generation in the uk by 2020.

  18. Ender
    I’m walking the walk and I know that energy conservation is hard. I recently bought a 3 1/2 star chest freezer to store local produce. However it’s not turned on as I have nothing to spare from my $20,000 roof mounted solar panels which have grid backup. That’s after 90% microwave cooking, lukewarm showers and so on. If I think it’s tough then Mr&Mrs Suburbia will be mortified. Think the 1940s family on TV. I also dabble in biofuels and I know they are are only a partial fix. I’ll say it again: we need a few years to get real about a few things.

  19. Harry – this is from the link you mentioned
    “n some countries, geologic repositories are still so far off that no date can be predicted; in a few countries, not even the feasibility of geologic disposal has been accepted, thus making storage “indefinite.” Additional storage can be located at reactor sites, provided that licenses can be amended, or at new centralized storage facilities, provided that these can be sited. But, communities that currently host stores of SNF or HLW, or that are being proposed as hosts, understandably do not wish to become de facto final repositories. As the delays in disposal continue and requirements for storage are increased, this controversy grows.”

    Most waste is stored above ground in containers that might last 100 years or at a strech 500 years. This does not seem to be ‘hysteria’

    This is from http://books.nap.edu/books/0309073170/html/93.html#pagetop

    “Transport models seemed to confirm these initial predictions and further indicated that radionuclide transport through the unsaturated zone to the groundwater at these sites would not occur for hundreds or even thousands of years. Recent “surpriseâ€? discoveries of radionuclides in groundwater at two of these sites (Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory [INEEL] in east-central Idaho and the Hanford Site in eastern Washington), however, have prompted a reevaluation of this assumption. Now, similar data involving bomb-era radionuclides (chlorine-36) from the Yucca Mountain site provides further evidence that the observations at INEEL and Hanford may apply to a geological repository site (see Sidebar 6.2 ).”

    Even stable geological sites can have unexpected leaching so storing waste in Australia could in stable rock could still lead to contamination of the water supply in say 20 000 years when the radio radionuclides could still be dangerous.

    Finally this is from http://books.nap.edu/books/0309073170/html/97.html#pagetop
    However, a direct demonstration of the reliability of the performance assessment methodology, including a rigorous and complete proof that the models used are correct, is not possible. Accordingly, the acceptability of project decisions based, at least in part, upon the results of safety assessments will depend on the level of confidence placed in the methodology by the technical experts within the implementer and regulator organizations, political decision makers, and the public.

    This states that it is IMPOSSIBLE to totally verify the integrity of the repository for the life of the waste.

    As to the costs

    “Arguably the best and most current economic comparison of nuclear and fossil-fueled plants is by Professor Paul L. Joskow in a recent interdisciplinary MIT study, “The Future of Nuclear Power.”4 As seen from the following table from the MIT Study, in the United States today new nuclear plants are far from being competitive with new natural gas or coal-fueled power plants. The levelized cost of electricity generated by a new nuclear plant is estimated to be about 60 percent greater than the cost of electricity from a coal plant or a gas-fueled plant assuming moderate gas prices.
    ( I could not post the table)

    Source: Table 1.3, The Future of Nuclear Power: An Interdisciplinary MIT Study, MIT (2003).”

    Again no hysteria here.

    I am glad that you recognise Peak Oil however going the nuclear option will only leave a dangerous legacy for future generations and really only lead us to Peak Uranium one day.

    I am glad you are walking the walk because at the moment I am not – It is good to see someone doing it. If the subsidies were right you would get at least $15 000 back for your investment as you are doing the most good. Mr and Mrs Suburbia will have to rely on advanced power controls when the grid gets distributed. In the future your battery electric car or pluggable hybrid can power your house as well as being storage for the grid. Natural Gas could last long enough to get us over the hump without nuclear power.

  20. Ender, I was of course suggesting storage in geologically stable areas such as Australia. I did not claim that every part of the earth’s crust is stable.

    You make statements like it ‘is impossible to verify totally’ and ‘can have unexpected’. I am unsure these claims help much though you state on their basis that nuclear power ‘will leave a dangerous legacy’. Note the unconditional ‘will’ and the jump from possibilities to certainty of disaster. Possibilities of disaster can also be associated with continued reliance on fossil fuel technologies.

    I have not seen the Joskow study though coal seems not to be an option unless you can improve technologies to capture CO2 emissions. Does Joskow attach costs to CO2 emissions? Recent doubts about the size of gas reserves would suggest that the assumption of moderate gas prices is dubious and this is a technology where material input costs do matter. Gas, as a substitute for petroleum, will presumably face markedly higher future prices as oil depletes.

    Again I repeat my earlier claim. Australia does have 40% of the world’s uranium and has geologically stability. Can’t we sell this resource and sell storage options for disposing of this waste to our national advantage? BHP-Billiton’s $9 billion offer for Western Mining Resources based largely on the Olympic Dam project suggests a positive answer to the first part of the question. Of course that we have no commercial nuclear power plants suggests it is unlikely the public would opt to store wastes of other countries. But it makes sense in terms of fostering demand for the resource, selling a further useful resource and in terms of ensuring sensible disposal and in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Hence my comment re the major constraint being public opinion.

  21. For those interested the rebate on a 1500w roof mounted solar system is $4000. My gut feeling confirms the academic view that renewables might only cover 50% of the ‘aspiration level’ of energy use, even with a huge diversion of capital. Possibly the car of the future is a plug in hybrid using modest amounts of petro/bio fuel. While millions of cars are on overnight charge they won’t be getting electricity via straight solar. Remember that petro gas is also a finite resource. Somebody should do the exercise to see if a max multibillion dollar effort is physically capable of a full transition to renewables that meets aspiration levels. Secondly whether any government has the political will to implement it, being tantamount to declaring all out war. Realistically I think we’ll put it off til the nuclear option looks highly attractive.

  22. Harry – Nuclear power has the unique ability to leave materials behind that are dangerous for thousands of years. It is true that coal etc produce dangerous products however they tend to be materials that do not emit particles that can disrupt cellular functions. Nuclear waste can kill and deform for generations without direct contact or ingestion, by the emission of energetic particles that distrupt DNA and can be dangerous for thousands of years. With the widespread adoption of nuclear power this waste problem will only grow.

    What the study admitted is that our science cannot guarantee that in 1000 years a once stable geological body would not be subject to ground water contamination that could leach out the material buried there. What we tend to do is make sure that the waste is OK until I am dead. As long as we can keep it this long we tend not to care about 1000 years in the future however the waste is still potentially dangerous after this length of time. Imagine if the Romans had nuclear power and we built houses and schools on the sites of their waste dumps. Hundreds of thousands of people could be affected by undetected nuclear waste – this is what we risk for the future people. If we cannot imagine 1000 years how about 100 000 years.

    And yes we can sell our uranium and still not have nuclear power ourselves however the Howard government will be voted out at the next election and this sort of hypocritical political stance will hopefully not be a cornerstone of the next government. I would prefer to have a consistant stand and not benefit financially from something I oppose. Locking up 40% of the worlds uranium is the best way to put a damper on the spread of NP

  23. To come back to my original point, if we accept the Joskow estimates and add a bit more for investment in a permanent storage solution, we can reasonably estimate the cost of nuclear as double that of coal (or gas, which is currently cheaper in many contexts).

    Then any conservation option that is currently marginal is preferable to nuclear. In fact this is true as long as the option would be cost-effective with a cost reduction of up to 50 per cent.

    So “a return to nuclear power looks premature at this stageâ€?. We need to work through a lot of conservation options first

  24. John – you left out the Public Liability Insurance costs. If the Nuclear power plants are to be privately owned then our government would have to pass something similar to the American Price Anderson Act to limit liability in an accident. Otherwise the NP plants would be difficult to insure.

    I agree that conservation makes more sense that building nuclear power plants. Also in a country with abundant renewable potential it makes it easier to replace fossil fuels with renewables. A lot of the problems they have in the Netherlands would not happen here as we can have widely seperated renewable power plants as our country is so huge.

    A return to nuclear is not only premature but should be off the agenda for ever. We can become a leader rather than a follower. New Zealand has taken a stand – should we just always follow the US?

  25. I checked the Joskow study (which is available online) and their conclusions seem more cautious than those stated. The up to 60% figure describes costs in the absence of carbon emission costs. Quote “Carbon emission credits can give nuclear a cost advantage’ and this indeed is the main reason Joskow et al seek nuclear as an important option to retain. Important because it can meet electricity needs with CO2 costs.

    On waste disposal they are cautious but state “We concur with the many independent expert reviews that have concluded that geologic respositories will be capable of safely isolating the waste from the biosphere”.

    One interesting feature of the Joskow et al study is that it was completed in 2003 using data up to 2002. Since then uranium prices have more than doubled. Hard to reconcile the Jaskow et al study’s claims that ‘currently the nuclear industry faces stagnation and decline’ with current price trends and with the almost daily news reports of governments reexaming the nuclear option e.g. in Britain, Tony Blair sees this as a solution.

  26. Some brief responses:

    Conservation is great, but can we conserve as much as we need to quickly enough? I doubt it.

    A request for renewables advocates; if the nuclear power people have to factor in waste disposal, can they factor in the cost of having an alternative plant or energy storage sitting on standby when the wind ain’t blowing and the sun ain’t shining. This is not so bad when renewables make up only a small part of the grid, but it’s a showstopper when the grid is full. There are *no* energy storage technologies available that would allow us to use “non-firm” energy sources to replace existing generators.

    Regarding the cost of uranium, one thing that has to be kept in mind is that the cost of uranium is a very small percentage of the cost of running plants.

    As far as the Joskow study goes, the nuclear industry claims lower construction costs than the estimated 2000 USD per megawatt are feasible:


    Another interesting thing to keep in mind is that while high-level waste remains radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years, the level of radiation emitted decreases quite quickly. See the decay graph on this page (again, an industry advocacy site):


    According to the page, after about 40 years the level of emissions has been reduced by a factor of 1000 or so, and it keeps decreasing. After 1000 years, the level is not much higher than the original ore. This stuff gets much, much less dangerous as time goes on. The nuclear reactors of the Roman Empire wouldn’t be dangerous any more.

  27. Good point about a backup generator when the wind/sun ain’t blowin’/shinin’.
    Tas Hydro can turn off their Bass gas powerplant now the dams are filling up.

    Pronukes tend to be a bit more honest about life cycle costs and failure probabilities. The tree planting lobby tends to gloss over inconvenient facts such as the forest dying after 100 years, rotting back to CO2 and having to be replanted. No mention of the forest succumbing to drought or fire, running out of suitable soil or being guarded by future generations.

  28. Sorry to post so voluminously, but there are have been so many points raised and I’m hoping I’m being informative. Anyway, some more points to consider:

    Purely in terms of health effects, Chernobyl is simply not that bad – the real costs have been economic and social. 28 people died in the immediate aftermath. A lot of kids have gotten thyroid cancer; this is bad, but thyroid cancer is thankfully very treatable and very few people die from it. Beyond that, it’s hard to find a rise in any disease attributable to radiation release. See the UNSCEAR reports on the subject:


    Keep in perspective that some reasonable estimates have 20,000 Americans (sorry, but they’re the most readily available statistics) dying prematurely each year from coal pollution, about half as many as die from car accidents. Better pollution controls should knock this back to about 2000, still more people dying every month than Chernobyl has killed.

    As to the cost estimates, the key factor is that $2000 USD per kilowatt figure for construction costs. Read Appendix 5 of the MIT study, and you’ll note that the industry claims that new reactor designs should be well under that. If they’re true, nuclear starts to get much, much closer to fossil fuel costs. But until somebody starts actually talking real deals with Westinghouse or the other reactor makers, who knows how serious those estimates are…

  29. Nuclear debate at Troppo and in Age op-eds…

    Troppo has a discussion nuclear power for a future Brendan Nelson-led Liberal Party. The information content is pretty low; it seems that the general knowledge of nuclear

  30. Robert – “Conservation is great, but can we conserve as much as we need to quickly enough? I doubt it.”

    How long does it take to replace the incandescent lights in your house with compact flouros? This simple measure can save massive amounts of power. How long would you run your air-conditioner if the power it used was 50cents per kWhr? Again this would take long to implement. Solar panels on a house can be up and running in weeks. All it takes is political will and correct subsidies and taxes.

    There is storage available – batteries. We just need to make people buy them for the utilities by disguising them as personal transport. Modern electric AC drives convert the DC battery supply into AC current to drive the vastly more efficient AC electric motors that all advanced electric cars use. THe power demands of a car (40 or 50 Kw) dwarf the peak requirements of a house (about 4 or 5 Kw) so the cars inverter can supply a house without even getting hot. As the cars are plugged into the grid then they can communicate with it and supply power when needed and store power when there is a surplus. The other huge advantage of this is that we solve 2 problems with one solution. With huge amounts of hybrid and electric cars we are finished with oil imports. Base load can always be generated by renewably produced and locally stored natural gas or hydrogen.

    What people do not realise is that we already have the massive backup generator effect already in operation. We pay tarrifs based on maintaining generating capacity to the peak value. This peak value is only achieved on rare occasions so most of the time the generators are idling. It has been found that renewable power’s peaks and troughs follow peak power demand very closely. Also as it is unlikely to be rainy and still in Brisbane at the same time as Mildura or Melbourne or Geraldton or Perth then the problem of storage becomes less of a problem when the generating sites are dispersed.

    Finally if you really believe that the nuclear power lobby’s claims about waste then there will be no problems. I am sure then we can have a nuclear waste dump in Turramurra, Sydney (the middle of Brendan Nelson’s electorate). If the waste is safe in 40 years the you will have no problem with having it in your backyard instead of some remote site that does not have enough influential voters in it to scream blue murder. Again the nuclear lobby is telling a few porkies here. It is true that some of the waste has short half lives and would be safe in a few years however there are elements like plutonium and Uranium 235 that make up a small but significant pertion of spent fuel especially when it it bred to increase the uranium supply.

    Here is link to a chemical text book. As it is not sponsored by either the pro or anti nuclear lobby then you can regard it as accurate.


    “All isotopes of plutonium are radioactive, but they have widely varying half-lives. The half-life is the time it takes for half the atoms of an element to decay. For instance, plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24, 110 years while plutonium-241 has a half-life of 14.4 years. The various isotopes also have different principal decay modes. The isotopes present in commercial or military plutonium-239 are plutonium-240, -241, and -242. Table 2 shows a summary of the radiological properties of five plutonium isotopes.

    The isotopes of plutonium that are relevant to the nuclear and commercial industries decay by the emission of alpha particles, beta particles, or spontaneous fission. Gamma radiation, which is penetrating electromagnetic radiation, is often associated with alpha and beta decays. ”

    So you can see that it can be dangerous for many many years – far longer than we can store it for.

  31. Ender:

    If you are worried about peak oil, you should also be worried about peak gas…which means that gas power will likely get more and more expensive as time goes on.

    Where the hell are you going to build your wind generators? Wind generation is only cost-competitive in windy places. However, wind farms in windy places (cliffs along the coastline) tend to be highly unpopular with the locals, for good reason. I don’t like your odds of building enough actually meet energy demands.

    Solar cells are not cost-competitive even with carbon taxes, unless they get much cheaper. Maybe the solar tower in Mildura will be.

    Yes, you need backup generators for fossil fuel plants, but you need a lot more for solar or wind. If you look at the UK report, they factor in a 25% overhead for standby generation. You will also note that it’s completely irrelevant at the moment what the weather’s doing in Geraldton as far as the eastern grid is concerned, as there’s no interconnect. Sending power that far is highly inefficient anyway.

    I think your vision of pluggable hybrids providing energy storage is in theory very interesting; it would make electricity much cheaper, regardless of what generation method was used, but would be particularly advantageous for renewables. I have some concerns; peak availability would be during the day when everybody’s car is at work (so unless employers make charging available during the day there’s nowhere to store all that surplus energy), and peak electricity demand is generally immediately after everyone drives home from work; I am curious as to how much surplus capacity would be available. My biggest objection, however, is the timeline for such a system.

    Finally, you’re quite correct that nuclear waste *does* contain long-lived radioactive products. However, long-lived radioisotopes are long-lived because the rate of decay is very slow. They may still be around thousands of years from now, but that doesn’t make them particularly dangerous.

  32. Robert – coal mines are pretty ugly places too however they tend to be in areas that people do not live in so they do not know how bad they really are. Cliffs along coastlines are not the only place wind generators can be installed. There are many inland windy sites. Also people who object to wind generators can be given a choice. Either they have the wind turbine or they get no power. It is amazing to me that people can just use inefficient and power hungy appliances without taking any responsibility for the environmental cost of generating that power. A wind turbine where you live places this stark relief. Up until now people have been able to pollute far away places where the ugliness of power generation is hidden from view.

    We now have the possibilty of placing power generation in peoples faces and force them to accept compromise instead of just hiding the problem. I personally do not find wind generators ugly. If a developer want to build a huge ugly building in a pristine location then as long as local jobs are created and someone influential in the town benefits this usually goes ahead. For some reason when wind turbines get mentioned usually non-environmental people suddenly develop a keen interest in the environment and become passionate about bird survival. The fact that the house they built was stridently objected to by the ‘real’ locals for exactly the same reason seems to pass them by. And in case you think I do not know what I am talking about I grew up in Byron Bay where it went from a tiny sleepy country town to what it is today – a yuppie mecca. I would never live there now. Some of the ‘locals’ that you speak of are only weekend locals.

    I would include subsidies so that all cars are plugged in at work or at home. It would not be a huge task to outfit parking bays with power points. Nothing else is needed as the required communication would be over the power lines.

    Low level irradiation over a long time is just as damaging as high level for a short time. If you do not know the material is there then you will not take any precautions. Just look up radon gas in houses for more information about this.

  33. If energy use has to be cut severely in the future then people who remember current lifestyles will be highly discontented. It’s one thing to take the bus knowing you have a car at home to taking the bus when that’s all you can do. If you accept that renewables can only partially replace fossil fuels in coming decades this means that people will be practicing reluctant conservation or effective rationing such as rationing via wealth. I think people know that energy sources are not problem free eg they don’t turn off the TV powered by the coal grid because there is a news item on melting glaciers. That’s why when energy belt tightening becomes unprecedented since WW2 they will soften on nuclear plants, so long as they are not built in the next suburb. This is only the start of the debate.

  34. I agree with JQ in the sense that Australia has very little motivation to consider nuclear energy for a long time. That motivation would probably come only from future Kyoto-type arrangements that Australia decided to agree to.

    It will be interesting to see how Australia and the rest of the world react when it becomes clear that big reductions in carbon emissions will be required to avoid major environmental effects. If it starts costing people a lot of money, there will be a big incentive to find excuses to avoid it. e.g. why should some average emitting country agree to costly emission reductions while countries like the USA and Australia are still emitting far more than average to support their high consumption lifestyles? Humanity will be in a classic Tragedy of the Commons situation that affects the entire world. This could be one of humanity’s greatest challenges.

    One point about the nuclear waste issue, I haven’t noticed anyone mention any industry website that answers the usual questions about the hazards of storing nuclear waste. I’m not in charge of what anyone believes apart from myself but you can see what they say about the Yucca mountain project at http://www.nei.org/index.asp?catnum=2&catid=197. The planned construction start date is 2008/9.

  35. Hermit: “If energy use has to be cut severely in the future then people who remember current lifestyles will be highly discontented.”

    The Japanese currently use about one quarter as much energy per capita as do the average American. The average western European uses about half as much and even Australians and Canadians use about 10% less.

    I don’t see much evidence that the inhabitants of those countries are “highly discontented” as a result.

  36. Totally agree Ian. There is a persistant idea that for the US to reduce energy use is somehow against the American way of life and a restriction of their civil liberties. We can drastically cut power use without a reduction in lifestyle.

    If we are prepared to go a bit further smaller houses, smaller cars etc can reduce energy use even more

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