Climate change

July 17, 2009

Counterpoint – nuclear power and the low carbon economy

Recently, I was interviewed by Paul Comrie-Thomson for Counterpoint, a current affairs radio programme broadcast on ABC Radio National. The topic was the potential role of nuclear power in Australia. Below is the transcript of the interview, broadcast on 13 July, and a link to the original .MP3 audio of the broadcast. abcrnI’d be interested in any feedback you, as readers, have — not only on the content of the interview (remember, this was done off the top of my head, so there may be a few minor misstatements), but also on the effectiveness (or not) of this sort of communication strategy.


When it comes to climate change and reducing carbon emissions Barry Brook challenges many in the environmental movement to think again about nuclear power. He says in the future we’ll need more energy, not less, and the only way to meet increased demands for power is an inconvenient solution — nuclear.

Download audio (ABC Radio National, Counterpoint, 13 July 2009)


Paul Comrie-Thomson: First to nuclear power, the old bete noire of the environmental movement. Is it time for rehabilitation? Could nuclear power in fact be the technological answer to climate change? Three Mile Island and Chernobyl still linger in the minds of many, but Barry Brook, director of the Research Institute for Climate Change and Sustainability at the University of Adelaide, says it’s time to move past old prejudices. So, Barry Brook, just how safe are current nuclear reactors?

Barry Brook: Modern reactors are designed on the principle of being inherently safe, and what that means is they have a number of design principles that are based on the laws of physics. So in order for them to melt down or explode there would have to be an extraordinary set of circumstances where you would have multiple systems failing, and in the new reactors that are being proposed, even more than that, you would have to have the laws of physics being violated, which of course is not particularly likely.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: It’s not likely. So Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, given the new reactors, are now a thing of the past?

Barry Brook: Chernobyl was a special type of reactor built by the Russians to breed plutonium for bombs, so it had a graphite core and it meant that if you had problems in the reactor where the water flow would stop, it would actually run out of control. No American reactor can actually do that. And Chernobyl also lacked a containment building, which was another problem because when it started a graphite fire all of the radioactive material was dispersed into the air, another disaster. That also can’t happen in an American reactor.

Three Mile Island was a lesson where there was poor training of staff and a failed system for notifying the staff of actually what was happening. And so they made mistakes such as opening valves when they should have been shutting them and letting water in when they shouldn’t have. But Three Mile Island didn’t hurt anyone. There were no fatalities, there was no radioactivity of any note released into the environment. So even in that worst-case scenario for an American reactor there were essentially no problems. But of course the reactor was destroyed, it cost millions of dollars, and it set back the American nuclear program by decades really because of the effect on public opinion. That’s gradually changed.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: And also it happened 12 days after the release of the movie The China Syndrome.

Barry Brook: But of course what was speculated in The China Syndrome was that the reactor would melt completely through the floor of the building into the Earth and cause a steam explosion, it would spread radioactivity everywhere. It didn’t eventuate because of course that was a completely unrealistic scenario.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: Yes, very convincing but unrealistic…convincing in terms of entertainment. Let’s explore a little more costs and build times. You say that we now have standardised modular passive safety designs which can be factory built and shipped to site. You say they’re game changes for the industry. How does it change the game?

Barry Brook: One of the biggest problems with the American reactor program and why it stalled in the ’70s and ’80s, Three Mile Island notwithstanding, was that the costs were escalating. When it cost $300 million to build a reactor in 1972 and it cost $6 billion in the early ’80s, something has gone terribly wrong. Part of that was the legal suits that extended the reactor certification time over to a period of decades. So part of it was the anti-nuclear movement that did that, but also a part of it was each design was different. So everything was built anew, new features were tried out, every design needed a special certificate to actually be built and then another certificate to be run. So the whole system ultimately was set up to fail and things became more and more expensive.

If you can have a system where you have a standardised design with components that are built to a particular specification, if you can have components that are built in a factory and shipped to site rather than everything needed to be constructed on site, if you have modules where they’re smaller such as they can be put on a rail car or on a large truck and taken to site and the many of these units put together to constitute a plant, then you can start to see that there’s huge benefits in terms of efficiency, the fact that you don’t need a standardised certificate for each and every new reactor, that there are economic benefits in building multiple units at a given factory. The places where this is happening is China and India right now. So although these have often been blamed as some of the worst carbon polluters, ultimately and ironically they could be the nations that lead us out of the carbon economy and into a low carbon economy based on nuclear power.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: The 2006 Switkowski Report on nuclear power in Australia, it hardly mentioned fast reactors. How do you see their potential?

Barry Brook: Fast reactors are an old type of reactor design. The first reactor, the Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 built in the US to work out many of the glitches in nuclear power production was a fast reactor, but almost every reactor that’s been built since and all of the currently commercial reactors in the US, in Japan and in France are what’s known as light water reactors. They’re basically two designs; a pressurised water reactor and a boiling water reactor. They use water to slow down neutrons in a nuclear reaction to make the fission of uranium 235 more likely…it’s a bit of a technical topic, I know, but basically it makes it a lot easier to generate power from uranium 235.

Fast reactors use a different technology where instead of using water to cool the fuel and transfer heat to a steam turbine they use a liquid metal. Sodium is often used, lead is another possibility. It’s hard to imagine that you could have a molten metal as the coolant in a reactor but that’s exactly what it does. And it has a number of advantages because you can not only burn all of the uranium 235 but you can burn the uranium 238 which people may have heard of as depleted uranium, the uranium that’s left over after you’ve tried to enrich it to increase the concentration of uranium 235. It’s the stuff they use in bullets and tank armour, it’s very common. If you can get the energy out of that, which is what fast reactors can do, then potentially you can unlock 100 to 300 times the energy we’re currently using out of uranium. And even better than that, we can take all of the spent fuel that’s been generated by all the world’s nuclear reactors to date and generate power from that, and change it from a 100,000-year management problem to about a 300-year management problem.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: Which is why you say nuclear power is the world’s primary source of sustainable carbon free energy. It’s a big claim.

Barry Brook: Well, every source of energy currently requires carbon to construct it, but then there are a range of technologies that don’t actually emit any carbon once they’re generating power, and nuclear power is one of those. The great advantage of nuclear power is rather than relying on a diffuse and variable power source, which is what most renewable energies rely upon, it’s relying on an extremely concentrated power source. A kilogram of uranium contains about as much energy as two million kilograms of coal, and coal is already a concentrated form of energy. So it’s an incredibly concentrated form of energy if you can harness it to its full advantage.

I probably didn’t answer your earlier question completely in that you asked why there weren’t any fast reactors right now. The main reason is a simple matter of economics, that fast reactors require a special type of reprocessing of the fuel known as pyroprocessing which doesn’t separate plutonium, so you can’t use it to make a bomb, but it requires a little bit of extra money to close the fuel cycle. And in an era when uranium is very cheap, it’s not worth paying that. Once uranium gets above about $150 a kilogram or so, these become highly economical. So to date it’s been the abundance of uranium and the relative lack of concern about storing nuclear waste over the long-term that has I think stopped the commercial development of these reactors.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: Many will say that this is all very well but renewables are the answer. But what role do you see wind and solar playing over the next decade?

Barry Brook: I think in Australia they’re going to play the primary role in trying to reduce our dependence on carbon based energy for the simple fact that it’s going to take ten years to get nuclear power here, and that process will involve getting public support, discussions on the merits of nuclear power and the potential problems (I don’t think we’re having that educated debate in Australia right now), right through to setting up an organisation that can certify reactors and getting the first ones built, which might take four or so years. So that’s a ten-year process, in which case we can give our attention to wind and solar and see what they can achieve.

My pessimism of wind and solar is not that they won’t have a role in our future energy supply but that they are not able to supply sufficient energy to power an industrial economy or indeed to allow the economy to continue to grow in that way. There are many problems with back-up, with storage of energy, with the sort of grid connections you’re going to require to remote areas to harness energy from these areas, because of course because of the diffuse and variable nature of these technologies they require a continental scale deployment to provide enough power for all of society. We’ve only done them on a very small scale so far. If you look at all of the power generated in Australia, it’s only just over 1% now that’s generated by the sort of renewables that we’re talking about which are wind and solar, what is often termed techno-solar, as opposed to other forms of renewable energy that we do rely on quite a lot which is hydro power and biomass burnings, burning wood and other forms of animal and plant generated produce.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: And of course looking at what people call the new economy or moving away from a carbon economy, people talk of desalination and electric vehicles, but you make the point that they’re energy-hungry enterprises, and so if we’re going in that direction we will need more energy, not less.

Barry Brook: Yes, that’s exactly right. Right now we have a convenient energy carrier that’s available for us to mine, which is oil and, to a lesser degree, gas. When we are depleted in that energy carrier, which we use for almost all of our vehicular transport and heating needs, we’re going to have to create one, and the way we’re going to create it is through electricity. So ultimately we’re going to become a 100% electrified society, notwithstanding the contribution that may be made from biofuels, things such as the aviation industry. So if we’re going to move from being about a 30% electrical society through to a 100% electrical society, it’s pretty easy to do the maths and find that at the very least power demand is going to triple.

I can’t see any way around that if we’re going to decarbonise the economy which in my view is going to be required for multiple reasons. Whether or not you’re concerned with climate change, there are issues of pollution involved with coal such as particulates and mercury and heavy metals and sulphates that cause acid rain. We’d rather get rid of that if we can. There are certainly sharp limitations on the supply of oil and ultimately gas. So at some point we’re going to have to move our society away from fossil fuel dependence to other energy sources. I think that nuclear power is a sufficiently sustainable source of power to provide all of the growth in our energy demands that are going to come in the next million years or so.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: This requires a radical rethink and you said it’s time for green groups to become rational, promethean environmentalists. Is this call falling on deaf ears at the moment?

Barry Brook: I think it’s not. I’ve talked to many environmentalists who are greatly concerned about climate change and concerned about energy supply in the future and having a low carbon economy. Most of them are locked into the thinking that renewable energy can do it. I’m a supporter of renewable energy, I think we need to be pushing this, but I am not deluding myself into imagining that this is going to provide all or even the predominance of our energy supply.

And when I actually talk to most environmentalists about the benefits of nuclear power and the fact that many of the old myths and half-truths that hang around the nuclear power industry have either been…were never true in the first place or have been superseded by technological developments, they’re willing to listen. I would suggest there’s maybe 10% to 20% of people who are so ardently anti-nuclear that they’re immune to any such argument and they’ll never change their mind, but I think the vast majority of people who are concerned about the environment and, let’s face it, everyone is concerned about having a planet that’s fit to live on and fit to pass to our children, anyone who listened sensibly to those arguments is willing to consider the arguments for nuclear power. So I think it would be quite reasonable to get 80% of the population on board with this idea.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: And yet in Canberra we hear the cry ‘Do you want a nuclear power plant in your backyard?’ This is sort of thrown up…during the last election campaign it was said ‘Where are the nuclear power plants going to be placed?’ and so on. There’s a bit of work to be done there in terms of public debate, isn’t there?

Barry Brook: There is. Of course you could ask the similar question ‘Would you like a 30-metre wind turbine put in your backyard?’ or ‘Would you like a coal-fired power station next to you?’ and I think the answer would be no in those two cases as well. There’s always this NIMBY factor to overcome. With nuclear power plants the best place to put them is along the coastline so they can use cooling water from the ocean rather than using it from drinking supplies, although if you’ve got a large enough body of water even that’s not necessarily a problem. But I think ultimately the first reactors will probably be built in places where there are not a lot of people but where there are transmission lines.

One ideal place I can imagine is in places in WA or South Australia where there’s large mining developments, a huge demand for desalinated water which nuclear plants are very good at supplying, and a huge demand for power for mine expansion. If you can expand the mining industry on the basis of low carbon or zero carbon energy and supply those water needs as well, it just seems like a win-win scenario. It will prove to people the benefits of nuclear power in Australia, whereas people in Europe, in France and Belgium, are living cheek by jowl with nuclear power plants and have done so for decades and are extremely happy with them. I just think it takes a bit of time for people to demonstrate to people the advantages of having these reactors, which are very safe.

If you live next door to a nuclear reactor, there are a number of radiological studies done on a hypothetical person called Fencepost Man who’s supposed to have his house on the fencepost on the boundary of a nuclear power site. He would get approximately one millirem of radiation more than the general public, and that might sound like a lot but in fact the general public gets over 300 millirems of radiation each year just from natural sources. So essentially there’s no difference between living next door to a nuclear power plant and living in most other places in the world. And indeed, if you live on top of a granite intrusion you’d get about twice that. So people tend to be a bit irrational about radiation and we need to have a bit of an education campaign about that too.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: Barry Brook, summing up your position, you’re painting a picture that we have nuclear power plants in coastal regions next to desalination plants in mining regions. It all sounds very agreeable. What main public problems and political problems do you see in this becoming accepted as the way to go?

Barry Brook: One of the problems people are concerned about is cost, that there are heavy costs involved in setting up any sort of new industry. In places like America there’s been a lot of speculation about how much their new nuclear plants are going to cost. I think we will know a lot more about costs in the next few years because China in particular are building a lot of reactors. They’re currently constructing 12 of them with plans for another 160 gigawatts of nuclear reactors within the next decade or so after that. We’re talking big numbers here. If the economics are favourable in China as a result of this build-out of nuclear power, then I think the arguments for replacing our current coal-fired power stations as they are retired or indeed retiring them early with nuclear power plants rather than renewable energy may become very relevant, because in this next ten years we’re going to find out the true costs of building a substantial amount of renewable energy to power Australia.

We’ve got ten years essentially to build 20% of our power supply, according to the expanded renewable energy target. We’ll know a lot about costs by then and I think that may well reframe the argument substantially and have people talking very seriously about nuclear power. But my warning is that if you haven’t started the process now, if you haven’t started the public discussions, the ideas for how you might get certification of these reactors here, where the suitable sites may be, having the public meetings, getting public support, it will take another ten years after we’ve found out that renewable energy can’t do it, and that’s just too late.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: Barry Brook, thanks very much for talking to Counterpoint.

Barry Brook: It was a pleasure.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: Barry Brook holds the Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change and is the director of the Research Institute for Climate Change and Sustainability at the University of Adelaide.


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