No need for nuclear, even in the face of climate change

An accident in a nuclear station is much more worrying than an accident at a wind turbine. Flickr/Jaako

Before the Fukushima reactor was swamped by a tsunami, there had been a wave of enthusiasm for nuclear power. The problems in Japan have probably ended the risk of Australia going down the nuclear path for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, we have much better options to combat emissions from energy generation.

While enthusiasts claim new reactors would not have the technical limitations of Chernobyl or be sited as dangerously as Fukushima, there will always be some risk of accidents.

I was calmly sitting in a Christchurch coffee shop at lunch-time on 22 February, not realising I was in a very dangerous spot. As I emerged from the wreckage of the coffee shop and saw the cathedral spire in ruins, I was glad New Zealand did not have nuclear reactors.

We simply don’t know enough about the Earth to be totally confident that any specific location is safe. An accident in a nuclear power station is a much more serious risk than a problem with any form of renewable energy supply.

If we wanted to build power reactors in Australia, the need for cooling water would demand a coastal location, where there will always be a risk of storm surges or tsunamis.

When I was a young physicist, we were promised that nuclear power would be cheap, clean and safe. I went to the UK and accepted support from their Atomic Energy Authority for research on a problem affecting the useful life of fuel elements in power reactors.

But nuclear power has remained expensive, so it needs public subsidies wherever it operates. With insurance companies unwilling to back nuclear energy, taxpayers foot the bill when things go wrong.

The peak of installed nuclear power happened last century. Despite some claims, there hasn’t been a renaissance of nuclear energy, only a resurgence of pro-nuclear talk.

In the years 2008 and 2009, the world retired 3000 Megawatts of old nuclear capacity and only 1000 MW was brought on line. In the same two years, about 60,000 MW of new wind power was commissioned.

The only reason anyone would consider nuclear power in Australia is because climate change is a serious threat. If nuclear power were the only effective way of slowing climate change, we would have to think about it.

But we don’t face that terrible dilemma. There are much better ways of cutting our greenhouse pollution. As well as the risk, there are many more reasons why we should not go down the nuclear path.

Nuclear is certainly not a timely response to climate change. The fervently pro-nuclear Switkowski committee concluded it would take 10 to 15 years to build one nuclear reactor.

Their hypothetical crash program of 25 reactors by 2050 would only slow the growth in our greenhouse pollution, not achieve the reduction that is needed.

It is too expensive. Again, even Switkowski’s group conceded there would need to be both a carbon price and other government subsidies to make nuclear look competitive.

Optimists keep telling us to wait for a promised new generation of reactors that they believe could be cheaper. They have been saying that for decades and we are still waiting for the touted wonder-reactors.

Even if we believed those assurances that have been consistently wrong for decades, we can’t afford to delay tackling climate change. It is now an urgent problem demanding a rapid and concerted response.

The problem of waste remains unsolved. Accidents are not the only risk to society from nuclear power. Nobody has yet demonstrated safe permanent management of radioactive waste, 55 years after the nuclear experiment began.

The fundamental point is that there are better alternatives. A Commonwealth report 20 years ago found that we could get all our electricity from a mix of renewables by 2030. A study released last year concluded that we could achieve that goal by 2020 if we were serious about it. That would be a responsible approach to slow down global warming.

The clean energy response is quicker, less expensive and less dangerous than nuclear reactors. There is no risk to the community from terrorists stealing wind turbine blades or earthquakes shattering solar panels.

A mix of renewable supply systems would also decentralise energy production, so it would be good for regional Australia. It would not require new regulatory systems, local development of a whole new set of technical skills or an unwise level of dependence on foreign expertise.

We know how to de-commission wind turbines and solar panels at the end of their life, at little cost and with no risk to the community.

So, why should taxpayers fund a slow and expensive energy option when alternatives are significantly cheaper and pose less risk? Finally, after Fukushima, which elected politician would support a reactor in their electorate?