Australia needs more than an ideological fear-driven “politically correct” debate on Nuclear Energy.
Australians need to consider:
- the seriousness of climate change, and the ultimate 97% target;
the excellent safety record of civil nuclear energy (see below);
the fact that nuclear power works in practice, as evidenced by France’s trouble-free 78% reliance on nuclear energy;
the greater potential of nuclear energy for greenhouse abatement by 2030 than any other energy source;
the fact that moving to nuclear power does not necessarily rely on an effective ETS. It just requires a suitable regulatory regime, and a phase-out of coal-fired power;
the positive contribution Australia can make by participating in the nuclear fuel cycle, from mining through to spent fuel storage.
How safe is nuclear energy ?
Nuclear power is very safe and getting safer. There have been two major reactor accidents in the 55 year history of civil nuclear power – Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. One was contained without harm to anyone and the other involved an intense fire without provision for containment. For Chernobyl, the UN has identified up to 47 worker fatalities, and 4,000 cases of cancer in the general population.
Compare this with risks we routinely accept such as road transport, with a world road toll of 1.2 million deaths per year. Even if nuclear power supplied 100% of the world’s power (now 16%) with an unlikely corresponding increase in annual fatalities (and all cancers fatal), nuclear power would still be 2,500 times safer than road transport !
What about nuclear waste ?
Nuclear waste is fully manageable. It is produced in relatively small amounts and is almost totally confined. It is easy to provide protection from identified sources of radiation. Unlike with other highly toxic stable chemical waste matter, the toxicity of reprocessed radioactive waste decreases very rapidly with time, returning to the natural level of radioactivity of the original ore after only 5,000 years. Safe and efficient solutions exist to make nuclear waste inert by vitrification, isolating it until it is no longer toxic. The natural nuclear reactors of Oklo in Gabon, which self-ignited two billion years ago, show the absence of migration by the waste – three metres at most even after two billion years without confinement.
More from Bruno Comby’s 2005 paper in the International Journal of Environmental Studies.
Isn’t uranium going to run out in 50 years ?
No, uranium reserves will last “a few hundred years at current rate of consumption” with the present ‘once-through’ fuel cycle, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Fourth Assessment Report, Working Group III, Section 126.96.36.199 and Table 4.10 www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg3/ar4-wg3-chapter4.pdf page 271 (p21 of pdf).
Furthermore fast spectrum reactors (a number of which have beed built and grid connected) can utilise depleted uranium so that the uranium-resource efficiency is increased by a factor of 30, so “even if the nuclear industry expands significantly, sufficient fuel is available for centuries.” (and this does not include thorium fuel or fusion !)
Thorium for the future ?
The prospective next generation is the thorium fuel cycle with some considerable advantages:
Thorium reserves are more than double those of uranium, and Australia has the biggest share.
Thorium breeds to fissile U-233 with slow neutrons, allowing it to achieve the resource efficiency of a fast spectrum uranium reactor (30x the standard once-through cycle) with simplicity akin to a once-through reactor.
Significant improvement in proliferation resistance is claimed for the thorium cycle due to the difficulty of handling the highly radioactive U-232 and U-233 that must be separated, and also due to the possibility of introducing U-238 into the fuel making chemically separated uranium unusable in atomic weapons.
Thorium reactors can “burn” the long-lived heavy elements such as plutonium, meaning that their waste stream needs storage only for a few hundred years and not thousands.
Thorium reactors can also be used to “burn” long-lived heavy elements from existing style reactors.
India, with large thorium reserves and little uranium is the main driver of development in this cycle, but why should Australia, with the largest reserves not also be taking up the challenge ?
Cosmos Magazine’s New Age Nuclear Article – A good popular read
Our knowledge-base on nuclear energy and the environment (hosted by EFN-International):