Climate change

August 12, 2009

Power to the People – Nuclear energy in South Australia

Update: Listen to me on ABC Radio, talking about nuclear power, fast breeder reactors, renewables, and the inevitability of growing societal energy demand. This also features an interview with Dr Jim Green, and my response. It runs for about 16 minutes in total: http://tr.im/vXE2

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Published in the Adelaide Advertiser, 4 August 2009 (pg 18). This opinion editorial I wrote builds on the recent flurry of interest in the Australian media on introducing nuclear power.

BARRY BROOK IN MY VIEW

Imagine someone handed you a lump of silvery metal the size of a golf ball. They said you might wish to put on some plastic gloves to hold it, although that would not be necessary if you washed your hands afterwards.

You look down at the metal resting on your palm. It feels heavy, because it’s very dense.

You are then told that this metal golf ball can provide all the energy you will ever use in your life. That includes running your lights, computer, air conditioner, TV, electric car, synthetic jet fuel.

Everything. Using 1 kilogram of uranium (or thorium, take your pick).

That is what modern nuclear power offers. An incredibly concentrated source of energy, producing a tiny amount of waste.

Taken over its life cycle, when used in next-generation fast spectrum nuclear reactors, this energy generation will produce less carbon dioxide emissions than wind turbines. It gets better.

Your lifetime’s worth of energy waste, also weighing just under a kilogram, will be less radioactive than the natural rocks around Roxby Downs within 300 years. Not 100,000 years. Only 300 years.

South Australian rocks contain this metal in great abundance. We live in one of the most energy rich areas on the planet.

We are endowed with far more energy than all the oil and gas in the Middle East. We already export a few thousand tonnes of it each year, and are planning to ship much more overseas in the future. Yet, we don’t use it ourselves.

We recognise the fact that our natural gas supplies are limited. Worse, burning this fuel produces vast amounts of carbon dioxide, which is destabilising the climate system.

Coal, found in great abundance in Australia’s east coast states, is twice as bad as natural gas in terms of carbon emissions, and also dumps heavy metals, soot and chemicals causing acid rain into the air. Clearly, we must unhitch ourselves from the fossil fuel energy bandwagon, and quickly.

Right now, we are pushing for more and more wind and solar power. This is well and good, but these variable and diffuse renewable energy sources have severe limits that often go unacknowledged.

They cannot power a large fraction of the needs of future all-electric society without major breakthroughs in energy storage technology, and much cheaper backup options than now exist.

Energy found in hot rocks deep beneath our deserts holds great promise, but is shadowed by many unknowns. We’d be taking a great risk if we gambled our entire energy future on this one possibility.

My research has convinced me that nuclear power is by far the best prospect that we, as South Australians and as a global community, have of drastically cutting carbon emissions.

The world is experiencing a nuclear renaissance, with almost 50 new reactors now being built, and another 350 being planned, in places like China, India, Europe and North America.

Nuclear power station companies are now focusing on designing smaller sized reactors that are built to a standardised, ultra safe design, in a factory, and then shipped to site. This brings economies of scale to bear, which means cheaper electricity.

Also, because each individual reactor can be quite small, you can simply add more units as your energy needs grow, and as your retire old infrastructure. The age of huge plants, which can be difficult to finance and take many years to build, may soon be history.

It’s time for Australia to embrace nuclear power as a major enabler of a low carbon economy. Companies like Rio Tinto recognise this need. We all should.

After all, South Australia is perfectly positioned to be a leader in this new energy revolution.

Barry Brook is Sir Hubert Wilkins professor climate change at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute.

INSET BOX

  • Almost 90 per cent of the world’s — and Australia’s — electricity is powered by fossil fuels.
  • Despite conservation efforts, global demand for electricity is growing at about 2 per cent a year.
  • Australia’s use of electricity is expected to double from current levels in the next 30 to 40 years.
  • About 36 countries use nuclear power, which accounts for almost a quarter of electricity generated in OECD countries.
  • In France, 80 per cent of electricity is nuclear.
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