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giving nuclear energy a chance, please

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Compared with nuclear power, natural gas kills 38 times as many people per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated, biomass 63 times as many, petroleum 243 times as many and coal 387 times as many – perhaps a million deaths a year.

Steven Pinker, ‘The Environment’,  Chapter 10 of Enlightenment now. 

an unfortunate slow-down

I’ve written about nuclear energy before, here and here. It comes to mind again due to my reading of Pinker’s new book, so I’ve decided to venture into the field again, despite not having improved my paltry readership over the years.

Clearly the spectre of radiation hangs over the nuclear industry, and many green polemicists have done their best to darken that spectre, but if facts count for what I wish they would count for, Australia could solve all its considerable energy woes with a few nuclear power plants.

Take the case of France, a nation with almost three times our population. Thanks largely to its nuclear power program, which was boosted after the seventies oil crisis in order to deliver national energy security, it’s the world’s largest net exporter of electricity, because once the plants are built and paid for, electricity generation is cheap. In fact, some 17% of this electricity comes from recycled nuclear fuel. It currently earns 3 billion euros annually from exported electricity, and that’s not factoring in its exports from reactor technology and fuel products and services.

Australia has far more land than France, and given its small population, it would stand to gain substantially from exporting nuclear-derived electricity to the world, after finally putting an end to its frankly ridiculous domestic energy woes. I recognise though, that such a far-reaching project is beyond the imaginations, let alone the negotiating skills of today’s adversarial pollies. We need more entrepreneurs and non-partisan public intellectuals to get behind such projects, accompanied by realistic schemes and hard data.

There’s also the problem of winning over the public. The facts on nuclear energy should speak for themselves, but the largely human tragedies of Fukushima and Chernobyl, together with the perceived and perhaps actual connection between nuclear energy and weapons, and also the general fear of radiation and its relation to storage, leakage and accidents, have created polarised outlooks that impede progress in the field. This is well illustrated by a three-part set of videos on the subject, including an intro and two others, ‘nuclear energy is awesome’ and ‘nuclear energy is terrible’, suggesting that its authors have found little common ground.

As the negative part of the videos points out, weapons technology has been developed in five countries – India, Pakistan, Israel, South Africa and North Korea – through reactor technology. As the current debate over Iran illustrates, it’s hard to distinguish between nuclear energy technology and covert weapons technology. There’s also the waste problem. Radioactive and toxic chemical materials such as plutonium remain a problem for tens of thousands of years. A stable and remote underground environment, such as exists right here in South Australia’s north, would be one of the safest bets for burial, but beware of apoplectic rage when anyone suggests such an idea, even though, as one of the world’s largest exporters of uranium, we’re deeply involved in the industry and would likely get plenty of help from nations grateful for our raw material.

Of course, there have been accidents.

To put the nuclear energy scare in perspective, it’s worth noting that if you mention the word Tohoku outside of Japan you’re likely to get little back but an unknowing shrug. Mention Fukushima and you’ll likely get a more animated response. The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami killed approximately 16,000, with over 6,000 injured and 2,500 still missing. Almost 250,000 were left homeless. The Fukushima meltdowns resulting from this disaster killed nobody – though there are ongoing tests regarding radiation and cancer incidence, which suggest that increased risks are small.

I’ve written in one of my earlier posts about the obvious inappropriateness of building nuclear plants in earthquake-prone areas, and about the boys’ club mentality of Japan’s nuclear oversight system, but what about the accident itself and the associated radiation spill? As the most recent serious nuclear incident, and therefore the most relevant to the future of a developing industry, it’s worth taking a close look at it.

The Fukushima facility, one of the world’s largest, was made up of six boiling water reactors, of which three were in use at the time of the earthquake. The oldest of these was built in 1967, the other two in the early seventies. The seawall protecting the plant was ten metres high. The largest tsunami wave to hit the plant was 13 metres (a 2008 in-house study suggesting that the plant was unprotected from waves above 10.2 metres was dismissed, as purveying ‘unrealistic’ concerns). There were failures of the emergency cooling system, including piping and valve problems that hadn’t been monitored sufficiently. A number of hydrogen-air explosions occurred in the days after the tsunami, further damaging the plant. Clearly, there were maintenance problems in the lead-up to the failure, communication problems during the crisis, and a general culture of complacency throughout, deadly to such high-risk geographical locations. However, none of this should necessarily act as a complete brake on the industry. The lessons to learn would seem to be obvious. More openness, more active monitoring, sensible placement of nuclear plants, and ongoing research towards improved and safer facilities.

As far as I can see, there’s much more to be said about the positives of nuclear energy. In spite of the recent massive pause, or reversal, in our reliance on it, nuclear is by a huge distance the safest – and greenest – form of energy in terms of lives lost, health problems and any other indicator we can think of. There is plenty of data to back this up, but it involves far more than workplace safety. The damage from global carbon emissions is, of course difficult to calculate and the subject of endless debate, but there’s no doubt that nuclear has the smallest carbon footprint of any current energy technology. More importantly, it’s the only non-fossil fuel technology capable of providing reliable electricity on a global scale, at a time when the battle against global warming is very far from being won. The Trump debacle won’t last of course, but there is a greater threat from increased industrialisation in China, India, and the developing countries of the world – though any casting of blame would be unfair term considering the carbon being pumped out by the fully industrialised west.

The critics of nuclear point to the past, and to the radiation hazards of storage. They’re not interested in acknowledging modern developments which have made nuclear power increasingly safe and cheap, due to streamlining and standardisation of design, the plausibility of cheaper thorium reactors, and a host of innovations that have led to gen-III and gen-IV systems waiting to be brought online. Sadly, we may have to wait a while to see them. France, Germany, Japan and the USA are reducing their reliance on nuclear, and turning back to dirty energy, due only to its largely undeserved public reputation. It’s likely we’ll have to wait until the climate crisis deepens before we return to seeing the sense of nuclear energy. It will be interesting to see just how long it takes.

Written by stewart henderson

June 27, 2018 at 8:48 pm