Climate change

August 5, 2010

Nuclear Power – Yes Please! (why we need nuclear energy to beat climate change)

Here is my side of the ABC Environment ‘debate’ I’ve had with Ian Lowe, based around my book ‘Why vs Why: Nuclear Power“.

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The arguments against nuclear power are hackneyed and wrong

In part two of a two-part debate on the prospect of nuclear power in Australia, Barry Brook argues that the arguments against nuclear are hackneyed and wrong. Part 1, “Nuclear Power – No Thanks!” by Ian Lowe can be read here.

The world is caught between dwindling energy resources and increasing climate change.

As China and India expand their economies, with the very human aim of improving the prosperity and quality of life enjoyed by their citizens, the global demand for cheap, convenient energy grows rapidly. If this demand is met by fossil fuels, we are headed for both an energy supply bottleneck and, due to the massive carbon emissions from fossil fuels, a climate disaster.

Ironically, if climate change is the “inconvenient truth” facing our fossil fuel-dependent society, then the inconvenient solution staring right back is advanced nuclear power. Not, as many suppose, renewable energy sources such as solar and wind (although they will play some role).

There is a shopping list of ‘standard objections’ mounted by those who challenge the viability or desirability of nuclear power. None of these arguments stands up to scrutiny.

Opponents claim that if the world ran on nuclear energy, uranium supplies would run out in at most a few decades and nuclear power plants would then have to shut down. This is false. The nuclear fuels, uranium and thorium, are both more abundant than tin, and with the new generation of fast spectrum breeders and thorium reactors, we would have abundant nuclear energy for millions of years. Yet even if it lasted a mere 1000 years, we would have ample time to develop exotic new future energy sources.

Critics argue that past nuclear accidents mean the technology is inherently dangerous. However, this simply ignores the fact that it is already hundreds of times safer than the coal, gas and oil we currently rely upon. Moreover, passive safety features do not rely on engineered intervention and remove the chance of human error, making it impossible to have a repeat of serious accidents such as Chernobyl.

Some contend that expanding commercial nuclear power would increase the risk of spreading nuclear weapons. Firstly, this has not been true historically. Furthermore, the products of modern ‘dry’ fuel recycling in fast reactors cannot be used for bombs. Indeed, burning plutonium in fast reactors takes this material permanently out of circulation, and is the most practical disposal mechanism imaginable.

Is the sun enough? No way!

Those opposed to nuclear energy claim it would leave a legacy of nuclear waste which would have to be managed for tens of thousands of years. This is true only if we do not recycle the uranium and other heavy metals in the waste (called “transuranics”) to extract all their useful energy.

Right now, mined uranium is cheap. However, in the longer term, a once-through-and-throw-away use of nuclear fuel – which extracts less than 1 per cent of the energy – will make no economic sense. Feeding ‘nuclear waste’ into fast reactors will use all the energy in uranium, and liquid fluoride thorium reactors will access the energy stored in thorium.

After repeated recycling, the tiny quantity of fission products (shattered uranium atoms) that remain will become less radioactive than natural granites and monazite sands within 300 years.

To claim that large amounts of energy (generating greenhouse gases) would be required to mine, process and enrich uranium, and to construct and later decommission nuclear power stations simply ignores a wealth of real-world data. Authoritative and independently verified whole-of-life-cycle analyses have repeatedly shown that energy inputs to nuclear power are as low as, or lower than, wind, hydro and solar thermal, and less than half those of solar photovoltaic panels.

That is today’s reality. In a future all-electric society – which includes electric or synthetic-fuelled vehicles supplied by nuclear power plants – greenhouse gas emissions from the nuclear cycle would be zero.

Finally, when all other arguments have been refuted, critics fall back on the claim that nuclear power takes too long to build or is too expensive compared to renewable energy. These arguments are perhaps the most regularly and transparently false arguments thrown up by those trying to block nuclear power from competing on a fair and level playing field with other energy sources.

Is nuclear power enough? Sure is!

Indeed, the evidence on energy replacement I present in the ‘yes’ case of the new book ‘Why vs Why: Nuclear Power’ (Pantera Press, 2010) demonstrates that large-scale nuclear power actually offers the fastest, cheapest and the only complete solution to ending our dependence on coal, oil and gas.

Many environmentalists believe the best low-carbon solution is for governments to guide us back to simpler, less energy-consuming lives, a vastly less consumer-oriented world. Notions like that are unrealistic. The world will continue to need energy, and lots of it. But fossil fuels are not a viable future option. Nor are renewables the main answer. There is no single solution, or “silver bullet”, for solving the energy and climate crises, but there are bullets, and they’re made of uranium and thorium, the fuels needed for nuclear plants.

It is time we embrace nuclear energy as a cornerstone of the carbon-free revolution the world needs to address climate change and long-term energy security in a world beyond fossil fuels. Advanced nuclear power that provides the technological key to unlocking awesome potential of these energy metals for the benefit humankind and for the ultimate sustainability of our global society.

Professor Barry Brook is the Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute.

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