What's really wrong with nuclear?

As we approach the 12 month anniversary of the Fukushima disaster, it’s worth reflecting on the potential future role of nuclear power in this country. In spite of this disaster the Australian Government was brave enough to suggest nuclear power as a back-up plan in the Energy White Paper. While I’m very optimistic about renewables in combination with energy efficiency, I’m also keen on a back-up plan given the threat of global warming.

The kind of temperature changes expected as a result of global warming have occurred in the past due to natural causes. The problem is they involved very nasty things called mass extinctions.

That’s why I like anything that has a demonstrated track record of significantly reducing emissions. It’s why I like compact flourescent light bulbs, solar hot water, wind turbines and solar photovoltaic panels. Heck I even like pink batts. After all pink batts don't spontaneously combust, they were put alight by highly inefficient, poorly installed halogen downlights.

All of these things definitely work, and I can see first-hand evidence of them delivering rather than promising to deliver.

It’s also why I like nuclear power. Nuclear power generated a little over 13 per cent of the world's electricity in 2010. It has a horrible track record of meeting construction timetables and budgets, but it can definitely supply large quantities of electricity with low emissions. It has achieved this while resulting in significantly less deaths than coal use, a major plus in my book in spite of Fukushima. I worry that Japan and Germany, with their nuclear phase-outs, will instead revert to fossil-fuels rather than renewables, which is exactly what Japan is doing right now.

For a geologically and politically stable country like Australia, nuclear power could be a good option for us to reduce carbon emissions while meeting the essential need for large quantities of electricity.

The one problem with nuclear power is its advocates.

Why?

Nuclear supporters push the deluded idea that nuclear will be viable without the need for a strong carbon price.

Many of those who back nuclear power are often the same people suggesting that Australia should not be imposing a price on carbon emissions. They seem to suggest that nuclear is a costless fix.

When you dig into the assumptions behind these claims of a costless fix you quickly find a range of clever accounting tricks as well as plain nonsense.

Advocates who try to use nuclear as an excuse to not price carbon will often adopt an incredibly unrealistic interest rate on financing, such as 5 per cent. No company can raise debt or equity finance to build a power station at 5 per cent return, unless perhaps they’re a state-owned enterprise in China or France.

Their second trick is to assume short construction times for nuclear plants that bear no relationship to experience. The World Nuclear Association, for example, will uncritically print claims by power plant vendors of construction taking 36 months. Yet most of the plants built in the western world took over 90 months to build according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

They will then claim that these construction delay problems have been fixed with new ‘Generation 3’ designs. Finland was the first Western country to order a generation 3 reactor, the Olkiluoto-3 unit. The project, which began in early 2005, was reported in 2010 as running €1.7 billion over budget and up to four years late. The other example is the Flamanville-3 project in France, which began in 2007 and was planned to be complete in 2012 at a cost of €3.55 billion. Since then the completion date has slipped to 2016 and the capital cost has been revised up three times. It is now expected to cost about €6 billion.

If you adopt realistic assumptions in accordance with past experience (as opposed to nuclear vendor promises they won’t put in a contract), nuclear could potentially be competitive against wind power in this country. But it will need a very strong carbon price of $60tCO2 or more to be competitive with fossil fuels.

Nuclear advocates argue against efforts to deploy renewable energy based on an excessively simplistic view of how we maintain electricity reliability.

If you were to believe nuclear advocates, if a power plant’s output were to drop-off then the lights would go out. Apparently each individual power plant must produce 100 per cent of the time.

But variability is an inherent feature of electricity systems that means we are already well-equipped to manage wind and solar power. Demand is not constant and can vary quite substantially from day-to-day and hour-to-hour, requiring flexibility from our power plants. Power stations and power lines can also fail unexpectedly. As a result, electricity systems already have a large amount of power generating capacity laying idle for much of the year which can be rapidly ramped-up and down to help accommodate wind and solar power. The idea that we need one new fossil fuel plant to back-up each renewable power plant is nonsense.

Nuclear advocates, rather than acknowledging problems with nuclear power, explain them away with reference to technologies that aren’t commercially available

On the fact that the plants come in one size – bloody big and hard to swallow – they invoke such things as pebble-bed modular reactors or generation IV designs that will come in nice modular small-scale plants. But the only place these things exist is engineers’ drawing pad and experimental test plants. Not a single reputable nuclear power plant vendor could even quote you a price on such a plant.

In relation to the issues of uranium supplies being limited and the problem of long-term radioactive waste, they cite that this will be fixed through breeder reactors or the use of thorium. One problem – efforts to develop breeder reactors have been beset with problems and none are operating commercially.

Most importantly many nuclear advocates just don’t believe global warming is a problem.

Several nuclear advocates in Australia have regularly called into question whether global warming is real or even a problem. This makes me nervous that they aren’t advocating for nuclear because they see it as a viable and necessary option for reducing Australia’s carbon emissions. Rather they may be using it as a smokescreen to undermine other more readily implemented means of cutting emissions.

The majority of Australians are opposed to the use of nuclear power in this country. We might like to assume this away but it’s a political reality that makes nuclear power impractical for reducing Australia’s emissions for at least the next two decades. We can’t just twiddle our thumbs while we hope for public opinion to change.