Time to go nuclear ? (repost)

As nuclear energy is getting an extensive discussion in the comments thread, I thought I’d repost this piece I wrote this more than a year ago. The only change since then is that the evidence for human-caused climate change has become even more overwhelming, though there are still plenty of people who combine global warming denialism (or a long track record of denialism, with no admission of error) with the claim that “nuclear power is the only solution to climate change.”


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).

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?

281 thoughts on “Time to go nuclear ? (repost)

  1. “Hal, that was even less artful than predicted.” Majorajam, it’s a basic rule of the prediction game that people tend to take you more seriously if you let them know what you’re predicting before it happens. I’m sure you also predicted the Boxing Day tsunami, but sadly you told noone. I, however, correctly predicted you wouldn’t be able to resist responding. “You’d better have the last word, though – you ‘always right’ types just gotta.” You really should try being less, well, predictable.

    Civilised Debate 101. But since you skipped that course, here’s another prediction – your response will be in the form of personal abuse. Hope I’m wrong.

  2. . Majorajam yes the study was for 60% & yes that is a different study as I said I would have gone for a number of scenarios & %’s including best practice and other policies to decrease the need to change the total housing stock.

    The 60% looked quite feasible 100% could be made to work-don’t forget that was a 2050 target- with the right policy mix.

    Basically the overall point the author was making given the options and the make up of energy use it would be easier -given what he thought the costs of doing nothing- of targeting household energy use -than relying totally on nuclear (his figure 50 new plants + the huge cost included with decommissioning) or renewables by themselves.

    Technically its feasible, policy wise within the 2050 timeline that would be feasible esp with incremental targets, this sort of investment pays back positively for every $ invested.

    I would of course like the details of the costing but I would imagine the cost of new nuclear plants needed + the cost of decommissioning would be astronomical let alone concerns about having 50 new plants on your doorstep.

    As far as pirates I don’t think it has to be framed in those terms that ancient Greek said Might makes right I’d only change it to might enforces the rights it feels like. I don’t think the US as any better or worse than any other great power – or small fry like us-in history rather it like them were/are fair weather moralists playing power politics and framing it in moral language for their own national self interest.

    It doesn’t mean that don’t do what could truly be considered moral actions I would just say there is ethical bias/rationalizations to see your own national interest and actions in a positive light. Australia is currently no different as Howard is clearly showing with the Papuan asylum seekers.

    I don’t know about being patently wrong I think there would have been many policy alternatives including hard ball with Pakistan since it is them that supported the Taliban in the first place. After all the use of military force in Iraq can been seen as a total policy failure as far as eliminating terrorist/insurgents or their training. In fact you are beginning to see knowledge gained from Iraq turning up Afghanistan.

    Lastly with all sincerity I’m still open to any independent energy consultant or academic study that shows in the context of lowering emissions that our current and future energy needs can cost effectively be meet by nuclear power in comparison to a renewables mix and say interim gas. I truly have not come across someone independent of the nuc lobby who supports your case. I wouldn’t offer anything say from Green Peace of the WWF but think say Tyndall, Uni Sydney or say the Rocky Mountain Institute are respectable enough to be included.

    All options on the table let the facts speak for themselves.

  3. MOAT, the faux-reverse psychology isn’t fooling anyone. If there weren’t any bloggers out there willing to humor your frivolity you’d be one forlorn troll. Speaking of, the response to your latest sterling rebuttal requires a record minimum of effort. Have a read of this, then read that, and after, have a think about what you just excreted onto the thread. Perhaps you can deduce what’s amiss. Hurry though, I may lose interest in this parody yet.

  4. Ender,

    I’ll have a look for the next time the wheel goes round.


    I totally agree with this sentiment, “I would just say there is ethical bias/rationalizations to see your own national interest and actions in a positive light.”. More generally, if less insightful, I think it is fine and proper to be skeptical about any of the motives or actions of the US government or any organization for that matter. That is of course the problem with this damn place- you can’t trust people. And even if you could, you can’t trust them to be able to see through their own cultural bias/chauvinism, and certainly not their own self-interest (as in watching two different groups of fans interpret a referee’s call). You can’t even trust the data as Thomas Kuhn has demonstrated and Robert McNamara has lived. It’s a beguiling place for beings that prefer to have it sussed.

    All I am saying is that, knowing the extent to which the popular will matters in this country, and knowing how it gets articulated in the media and eventually into public policy, I know that the invasion of Afghanistan had nothing to do with securing fossil fuel deposits or regional stability toward the same end. If there were ways for the oil interested powerful to leverage or tilt that freight train of a policy toward their goals, I have no doubt they took the liberty. But attempting to explain the policy via those interests is foolhardy. In any case, this is a long digression.

    Getting back to nuclear, I would not lose sleep if it was to go the way of the Dodo. I just have a problem with people who evaluate it from an ideological viewpoint. My opinion at the moment is that all non-fossil fuel methods of generating power will have to play a part in a climate change friendly future, but that is based on less than definitive/comprehensive studies on the full range of issues, as certainly are the dissenting points of view (and worse). Nevertheless, I will be the first to defer when experts start building that to the extent the integrity of the work is reasonable.

  5. Going nuclear is a very problematic solution to the global warming phenomena. For starters it is quite possibly creating more problems than solutions and then there is also a significant cost involved in all stages of production and waste storage. If that isnt enough there is also the very major risks concerned with nuclear meltdown.

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