Opinion: Nuclear power

G Magazine

Should we go with nuclear power or stay well away?


G takes a look at both sides of the debate on a nuclear future for Australia.

Credit: iStockphoto

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It’s been a hotly debated topic in Australia for a while, given a push toward cleaner energy, and hit the headlines again on the back of the recent Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan. So we put it to two Aussie experts; should we consider nuclear for our country’s energy future?


Ben Heard is Director of ThinkClimate Consulting, and Founder of Decarbonise SA

"Prior to Fukushima, Australia had among the world’s highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions. We were doing what we had been doing for decades: casting about for a solution to our fossil fuel dependence, hoping a grab bag of efficiency measures, investments in renewables and pricing of greenhouse pollution would somehow shut down fossil fuel power stations. This was failing. Globally the march to climate catastrophe was continuing with a forecast doubling of energy demand by mid-century. The growth was needed to help the poor toward a more energy-rich existence, but was being delivered by coal, resulting in horrible air pollution and driving up greenhouse gas emissions.
The quake and tsunami have been and gone. Fukushima is past the crisis point but remains unresolved. Crucially though, nothing else has changed. The problems are no less urgent. The alternative solutions are no more adequate than previously. That gives Australians a choice between two fundamental pathways.
The first is to absorb the fear that Fukushima generated and maintain the Australian status quo, which is outright rejection of nuclear power. Make no mistake; whether intended or not, that means maintaining a greenhouse gas intensive energy sector. The fossil fuel giants will breathe a sigh of relief. They know the only credible risk to their dominance is nuclear power. While Australia has abundant renewable energy resources, abundance is only part of the puzzle. Even if abundant, when energy sources are diffuse, intermittent and location specific, like wind and solar, it is very difficult to catch, store, and move energy to where and when you need it. They work, but not to the scale we need.
The second pathway means discussing the missing ingredient for decarbonising our economy; nuclear power. This super-concentrated energy source generates no greenhouse gas or other air pollution. It provides 15 per cent of global electricity generation, in 29 countries, including the 16 largest economies (excluding Australia at number 13). Its fearful reputation bears practically no resemblance to its un-matched safety record. Australia has a clean slate for nuclear power, allowing us to move straight to Generation III+ reactors that benefit from 40 years of design improvements compared to Fukushima.
We can lead the introduction of Generation IV technology that consumes nuclear waste as fuel, spelling the end of fossil fuels forever. A strategy built around modern nuclear power, renewable energy and energy efficiency, each deployed as their advantages and disadvantages dictate, can deliver what has eluded us so far; a prosperous Australia with dramatically reduced greenhouse gas emissions."


David Noonan is a nuclear-free campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation

"Japan’s nuclear crisis is prompting many countries to reconsider their reliance on nuclear energy. Governments in Germany, South Korea, Switzerland, Russia, Italy and Poland have decided not to go ahead with new reactors or have ordered urgent reviews into their nuclear industries since Japan’s radioactive disaster began in March.
What about Australia? What lesson can we learn from the terrible events in Japan? Very simply, don’t go down the dangerous path of nuclear energy. Australia is in the enviable position of not having flirted with electricity generated from uranium. We are fortunate we do not have to urgently review our atomic electricity sector. Not only is nuclear energy hazardous, in every country where it operates the sector is substantially reliant on massive subsidies from the taxpayer.  
US President Obama’s announcement last year of A$9.1 billion worth of loan guarantees to underwrite 70 per cent of the costs for two proposed new reactors shows that after more than 50 years the nuclear sector still cannot stand on its own economics. And taxpayers pick up the insurance bill too when things go wrong, because private insurance companies consider nuclear reactors uninsurable. Investment in nuclear energy comes with massive capital costs and very low employment benefits. The two reactors proposed to be built in the US have estimated capital costs of around A$6.5 billion per reactor.  The proponents are talking about 3,500 construction jobs and 800 ongoing jobs for an investment of A$13 billion. That’s an average cost of
A$3.7 million dollars per construction job and A$16 million dollars per permanent job!
Nuclear reactors are hideously expensive to build, they produce plutonium that can fuel the world’s worst weapons, they are ready-made terrorist targets and they come with the potential for catastrophic accidents and uncontrolled radiation exposure.
Fortunately, Australia does not have to consider going nuclear. We are blessed with some of the world’s best renewable energy resources. More sun strikes our continent than any other. (Yet Germany generates about 200 times more solar power each year than Australia!) Australia’s sun, wind, waves and hot rocks are the envy of the world.  It’s high time to unleash our potential as a renewable energy superpower.  
It won’t happen overnight, but a price on pollution would be the best way to kick start the investment needed to make that happen. Australia can learn from the Fukushima disaster.  We should stop fuelling trouble overseas through our uranium sales and stop dicing with danger closer to home through ill-considered plans for domestic nuclear energy reactors. It’s time for our political leaders to get on with delivering a clean, renewable energy future."