The IPCC fifth climate change report lays out a carbon budget that we must follow if we’re to keep the world under a temperature rise of 2C over pre-industrial levels - the widely accepted level above which lies catastrophic climate change. According to the report, we can “spend” 1,000 gigatonnes (Gt) CO2 in total. We’ve already spent more than half, and at the current rates we are on track to blow the other half in 30 years.
Not only is human society at risk from this unprecedented rate of warming, the ecosystems on which all life is based are also seriously under threat.
So it’s a timely moment to look at how we could avoid burning through our carbon budget, including controversial options such as nuclear energy.
This week marks the beginning of the Australian tour of a new documentary, Pandora’s Promise. The film aims to dispel myths and spark a debate about whether you can be simultaneously “pro-nuclear” and an environmentalist.
Even with the best of intentions to reduce the magnitude of future climate disruption, decades of focus on carbon pricing and the promotion of renewable energy sources cannot hide our failure to provide scalable, large, reliable sources of clean (low or emissions-free) energy.
Today, wind turbines and solar panels combined deliver only around 3% of total electricity consumption in Australia, with coal providing 70%, and gas another 20% . The contribution of renewable energy has decreased over time - in 1960 renewable energy contributed 19% (largely thanks to hydropower) and coal 76%. Total renewable energy contribution today, including hydro, has shrunk to 9%.
This is thanks, in substantial part, to the mismatch between dispersed, intermittent wind and solar technologies and the large, continuous fossil fuels we need to replace.
These sobering statistics are in no way an argument to abandon renewables, but they are evidence of a serious failure to date and point to near-certain failure in future. Passing the blame to media, fossil fuel interests or other favoured scapegoats makes us feel good and is no doubt deserved. But we must also cease avoiding uncomfortable truths about the inadequacy of the solutions we have advocated to date.
Continued exclusion of nuclear will prove costly. It will bring high system costs to ensure reliability of supply from very high levels of intermittent generation. It places large bets on the success of technologies that are commercially nascent and very expensive (such as solar thermal with storage), encountering serious engineering challenges to bring to market at scale (such as hot dry rock geothermal or carbon-capture and storage) or simply a sustainability disaster when scaled up (like giant, brand new biomass industries).
Instead, we’ll probably be left with a large coal and gas sector, and a large bill for carbon offsets if we want to do anything about it.
In an earlier study, we compared the replacement of two small coal plants with a reference nuclear solution and a reference renewable solution (the latter as proposed by advocacy group Repower Pt Augusta). The nuclear solution exceeded the target delivery of electricity with full reliability for about half the capital cost, with electricity at around half the price, with a longer lifespan and far less consumption of materials. The renewable solution failed in the reliability criteria.
Those of us presuming to represent the sustainability voice must therefore ask ourselves: what is the benefit of excluding nuclear in favour of these high-stakes pathways?
What would a nuclear Australia look like?
Had Australia deployed a modest nuclear program starting in 1965, to build slowly to around 20% of electricity provided (as done in the USA), over 876 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) would have been avoided to this day. Had Australia been an early adopter, rapid nuclear deployment in partnership with renewables could have formed a comprehensive response to climate change in our energy sector.
In the OECD, three (yes, only three) countries have achieved success in all but eliminating fossil fuels from electricity supply. They are France, Sweden and Switzerland (Finland will soon join them). All did it by embracing nuclear power generation. These nations deliver reliable, large-scale electricity supply with less than 1/10th the emissions of Australia. France in particular delivers the cheapest electricity in Western Europe, and is the second-highest net exporter of electricity in the world. Eliminating fossil fuels did not cost the earth after all.
See the table below for a comparison. All data are from the International Energy Agency 2012 except the Australian price, which is from the Australian Energy Market Commission 2013. Prices have been adjusted for purchasing power parity based on OECD August 2013.
Emissions (g CO2-e/kWh)
Residential price (US$/MWh)
Industry price (US$/MWh)
Nuclear facts and fictions
So why haven’t more countries invested in nuclear power? Two of the main arguments against its large-scale deployment stop most governments in their tracks: perceptions of high risk for human safety and environmental degradation.
But many of these arguments against nuclear aren’t supported by facts.
An examination of human fatality records paints an entirely different picture to the one most antagonists have in mind.
Even the worst-ever unintended release of radiation from an archaic nuclear facility with no form of containment – Chernobyl – killed no more than 28 people immediately following the explosion and fire, and probably around 15 more from latent thyroid cancer.
In contrast, coal-fired power generation in particular is a relatively nasty killer. Indeed, outdoor air pollution is a major contributor to about 1.3 million deaths every year. Compared to nuclear then, coal alone accounts for about 1000 times the aggregate air-pollution damages worldwide. This means that nuclear power generation has saved an estimated 1.84 million lives by the reduction of air pollution and because it causes far fewer accidents and long-term health problems.
Of course, nuclear power generation isn’t without risk, as the infamous Chernobyl and Fukushima incidents clearly demonstrate. Such accidents have precipitated major and sustained exodus of humans from large areas. They can also result in some putative mutations in wildlife and kill forest patches.
But do the benefits of such incidents outweigh their damages? Worldwide, the single-most important driver of species extinctions is land “development” for agriculture, urbanisation and resource extraction. When people leave areas contaminated by nuclear accidents, there has also been a concomitant return of native fauna.
Indeed, the Chernobyl exclusion zone now hosts some of the only healthy populations of wolf, boar, endangered Eurasian horse, birds of prey, bear and other species in the region. Another little known fact is that Chernobyl also has a population of former residents of healthy humans who defied the exclusion and returned home.
Even the well-publicised contaminated water leaks at Fukushima appear to be over-hyped, and nearly all fail to mention recent test results demonstrating that marine life in the area is mostly unaffected and wholly safe for human consumption.
It’s also essential to recall that the above comparisons between nuclear and fossil fuel generation of electricity in terms of their main environmental and health impacts are not really justified. These comparisons and their associated statistics are made between catastrophically broken (relatively rare) nuclear plants and fossil-fuel plants in perfect working order. It’s hardly a fair comparison.
When viewed logically, the normal default position of preferring fossil fuels over nuclear in the name of environmental benefits and human health is therefore clearly unjustified. It survives on the high-stakes assumption that non-hydro renewables, not nuclear, will replace fossil fuels. This position is completely contradicted by real-world evidence both in Australia and globally. We are not cutting off our noses to spite our faces. We are cutting our throats.
The film Pandora’s Promise outlines these logical fallacies with stunning clarity and, most impressively, a profound sensitivity to the good intentions underpinning much opposition to nuclear energy.
The film’s director, Robert Stone, will be joining audiences for post-screening question and answer forums as the film tours Australia. He offers these thoughts to Australians contemplating the technology:
To avoid taking an open-minded, second look at nuclear could prove to be a tragic victory of ideology over common sense.
It’s time to look again at this technology, to unravel its potential, to face squarely its failures, and to chart a course towards a clean energy future that’s not obscured by the ideologies and dogma of a bygone era.
We contend that it is especially timely for Australia’s environmental experts to cut themselves loose of the anti-nuclear movement, much as have the protagonists and director of this documentary. We must instead lead an evidence-based defence of environmental and human health by supporting the inclusion of nuclear energy in the task of eliminating fossil fuels.
Evidence shows that renewable energy cannot solve our carbon problem on its own. We need a major contribution from nuclear energy if we’re to move away from fossil fuels.
The national tour of Pandora’s Promise kicks off at the Classic Cinema, Elsternwick, on Tuesday October 8, before continuing the national tour in Adelaide. Director Robert Stone will be attending for post-screening audience Q&A. See Cinema Ventures for more information.