Behind Howard's dangerous nuclear push

Issue 

Mark Diesendorf

With growing international concern about global climate change from human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, the nuclear power industry has attempted to change the image of its product into that of an energy source that is "clean, green and cheap". In reality, all the problems that worried us about the nuclear industry in the 1970s and 1980s are either unchanged or have become worse.

In the latter case:

  • The risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons is worse because the US and Australian governments are undermining the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by selling uranium to non-signatories, India and Taiwan. While the NPT is far from adequate, it is better than nothing or unilateral US control under its Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP — see <http://www.gnep.gov>).

  • Since September 11, 2001, the risk of terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities has increased. The fewer the facilities, the safer everyone is.

  • Now that several countries have created competitive markets for electricity, it is clear that the cost of nuclear electricity is even higher than previously projected (see below).

  • Detailed recent calculations of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle reveal that nuclear energy, based on existing technology, cannot be a long-term solution to global climate change from the human-induced greenhouse effect.

This article addresses the last two of these points and also discusses the possible reasons why the Australian government is promoting the nuclear industry at this time.

CO2 emissions

The nuclear industry has widely disseminated the false notion that nuclear energy emits no greenhouse gases. The truth is that every step (except reactor operation) in the long chain of processes that makes up the nuclear fuel "cycle" burns fossil fuels and hence emits CO2. The emitting steps are uranium mining, milling fuel fabrication, uranium enrichment, construction and decommissioning of the reactor and waste management.

Over the past 20 years there have been several calculations of CO2 emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle. The most detailed come from Van Leeuwen and Smith, 2005 (see <http://www.stormsmith.nl>. Van Leeuwen and Smith find that the CO2 emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle are relatively small when high-grade uranium ore (comprising 0.1% or more yellowcake) is used. But there are very limited reserves of high-grade uranium in the world — most are in Australia and Canada. As these are used up over the next several decades, low-grade uranium ore (comprising 0.01% or less yellowcake) will have to be used. This means that to obtain 1 kilogram of yellowcake, at least 10 tonnes of ore will have to be mined and milled, using fossil fuels and emitting substantial quantities of CO2. Contrary to the claims of the nuclear industry, Van Leeuwen and Smith find that total CO2 emissions from the nuclear fuel chain based on low-grade uranium ore are comparable in magnitude with emissions from a gas-fired power station.

In response, the nuclear industry cites a report by Swedish utility, Vattenfall, which only considers a single power station and obtains lower emissions than Van Leeuwen and Smith in the case of high-grade uranium ore and apparently doesn't address low-grade uranium ore at all. This report has not been published and only a summary is available on the internet (see <www.environdec.com/reg/e_epd21.pdf>) that does not reveal most of the assumptions or results. It is very poor science to cite a report that is unavailable to the public.

Very recently Sevior presented data from a few specific uranium mines suggesting that the energy inputs to uranium mining may be lower nowadays than calculated by Van Leeuwen and Smith. It will take some time to compare the assumptions and data in the two studies.

Meanwhile, Van Leeuwen and Smith's qualitative result stands: that if you have to mine and mill 10 times as much ore to obtain 1 kg of uranium, you will have to use at least 10 times as much energy and (in Australia) will emit at least 10 times as much CO2.

In summary, nuclear power, based on existing technologies, is a dead-end side-alley on the pathway to reducing CO2 emissions.

In most countries where there is a competitive electricity industry, it is clear that nuclear electricity is much more expensive than fossil electricity. In Britain and the US nuclear energy is even more expensive than wind power. More specifically, the pro-nuclear MIT (2003) report (see <http://web.mit.edu/nuclearpower>) estimates that the cost of electricity generated by a hypothetical new nuclear power station in the US would be US$0.067 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), or about A$0.09 per kWh. For comparison, coal power in eastern Australia costs under $0.04 per kWh. Wind power in the US costs about $0.05 per kWh and in Australia $0.075 to $0.08 per kWh, depending upon the site.

When the British electricity industry was privatised, the government had to impose a fossil fuel levy to subsidise nuclear electricity. By 1998, the annual subsidy had reached £1.2 billion per year, equivalent to a subsidy of about £0.03 per kWh or A$0.06 per kWh on each unit of nuclear electricity generated. The subsidy to nuclear power is almost as much as the full cost of wind power in Britain, about £0.04 per kWh. In addition, it has recently been estimated by the British Nuclear Decommissioning Authority that dismantling Britain's existing nuclear power stations will cost £70 billion. Since a full-size nuclear power station (1000 megawatts or more) has never been decommissioned anywhere in the world, costs could turn out to be even higher.

The only new "commercial" nuclear power station under construction in a Western country is currently taking shape in Finland. The nuclear industry claims that this demonstrates that nuclear energy is competitive under market conditions. But the power station is being built by a consortium that includes a 40% share by the government of Finland, which will sell its electricity to its own members. Thus the consortium avoids conditions of a competitive market and so has obtained finance at interest rates far below market rates. The European Commission is currently considering a complaint about this anti-competitive practice.

Uneconomic

On the global scene, consider the following frank summary of the 1998 electricity generating cost study that was published jointly by the International Energy Agency and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency. The raw data were supplied by the nuclear industries in the countries surveyed, so they are hardly likely to be biased against nuclear energy. The summary was presented by Dr Fatih Birol, the chief economist and head of the Economic Analysis Division, International Energy Agency (IEA) at an Annual International Forum of the Uranium Institute (see ):

"The results confirm the current cost advantage of fossil-fuelled power generation ... Clearly, under BAU [business-as-usual] assumptions the contribution of nuclear power over the next two decades will be limited."

The harsh reality is that, at market discount rates of 10% real or more, nuclear electricity is uneconomic almost everywhere in the world. It is at least double the cost of coal power in the US and UK, and would be nearly three times the cost of coal power in eastern Australia.

The nuclear industry's solution to these harsh economic realities has been to produce a series of reports on the economics of a "new generation" of nuclear power stations that at present only exists on paper. In theory such reactors would be slightly cheaper and possibly slightly safer than existing models. The latest estimate of "new generation" economics is the report to Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation by leading nuclear industry figure, John Gittus, claiming that a non-existent nuclear power station, AP1000, would be competitive with coal power in eastern Australia under certain conditions (seeA HREF="<.

The Gittus report's conditions are indicated in two alternative scenarios. One involves substantial government subsidies on the capital and operating costs of the proposed power station. The other involves "no subsidy", according to Gittus, just a massive government guaranteed, unsecured "insured loan, which would be repaid to Government, together with a retrospective premium, out of revenues from the station once it began to generate electricity".

But, what if the untried nuclear power station proves to be more expensive to build and operate than the paper study estimates? That has always been the case with nuclear power in the past. What if the earnings from electricity sales prove to be insufficient to repay the additional costs and the loans? The Gittus report is vague on such details, suggesting that the government (i.e., the taxpayer) would share the risk. If so, this is a subsidy dressed up as a loan and neither of Gittus's scenarios is anywhere near being economically competitive with conventional coal power.

If this proposal is a good deal for the lender, why is it necessary for the government to lend anything? Surely, private financial institutions would be queuing up? It's strange that no private investors have funded a new nuclear power station in the US for more than a quarter century, despite massive subsidies to the industry estimated at US$90 billion in total.

False choice

The nuclear industry is offering a false choice between coal and nuclear power, which are both dirty and dangerous technologies. But the real choice is between clean power — comprising a mix of efficient energy use, natural gas and renewable sources of energy — and dirty power — comprising coal and nuclear power.

Both coal and nuclear power have severe adverse environmental, health and social impacts. Both offer big financial risks to investors. That's why the Gittus report requests that the government either pay a direct subsidy or take on much of the financial risk, which is an indirect subsidy. It is essential that the Australian community does not permit the government (i.e., the taxpayer) to take on the financial risk of building new coal-fired or nuclear power stations.

Even countries that do not have electricity markets have reservations about nuclear power. China's target is for renewable energy (mostly wind power) to contribute 12% of electricity and nuclear only 4% by 2020.

So why is the Australian government promoting the nuclear industry?

The cost of nuclear electricity is so high in a competitive market that we are unlikely to see any of the present generation of nuclear power stations built in Australia. The current "debate" about nuclear power stations is really designed to distract attention from the government's plan to establish or expand three of the other stages of the nuclear fuel chain.

With uranium prices at a high level, there are big profits to be made in uranium mining. From these the government can expect significant company tax revenue and political donations. Hence the moves to expand uranium mining.

There is also rhetoric about "value adding" by going into uranium enrichment. The main brake on this is the present global over-capacity for enrichment. It is difficult to imagine enrichment based on existing technology being driven by the market in the near future. However, we have to keep a close watch to ensure that the government doesn't fund all or part of a new kind of enrichment plant. The government has been involved for years in some kind of partnership with a private company, Silex, to develop laser enrichment. This technology would use much less energy and may turn out to be less expensive than the principal existing methods. Laser enrichment would be highly suitable for secretly making weapons-grade uranium as well as fuel for nuclear power stations. (See the expose at <http://www.greenpeace.org.au/frontpage/pdf/silex_report.pdf>).

In addition, the Australian government may attempt to establish a high-level nuclear waste dump for overseas nuclear power under Bush's GNEP. Keep in mind that Prime Minister John Howard announced the nuclear "debate" immediately after visiting US President George Bush.

The world's richest country has messed up the development of its proposed long-term waste management site at Yucca Mountain, while spending billions, and it's not obvious that this dump will ever open. Even if it does, its capacity is inadequate for storing US wastes. So Bush is no doubt looking for a "patsy" to take over this environmentally and economically horrific problem. In return, the US government may look the other way if the Australian government moves closer to nuclear weapons' capability. Reprocessing spent fuel is another route to nuclear weapons.

As Richard Broinowski's book Fact or Fission points out, since WWII there has been a strong behind-the-scenes lobby for Australia to develop nuclear weapons. In the past, the main impediment was US policy. Now there are indications that US policy may have changed. It appears that the current US government wants to replace international nuclear weapons control (such as it is) under the NPT and the International Atomic Energy Agency by the US-controlled GNEP.

An expansion of uranium mining and the establishment of uranium enrichment, long-term waste management and nuclear weapons are all on the Australian government's agenda, even if nuclear power stations may be a decade further down the track. Meanwhile, the government is making every effort to kill off the renewable energy industries in Australia, especially the most successful, wind power.

[Abridged from a June 23 discussion paper. Dr Mark Diesendorf teaches at the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of New South Wales. See <http://www.ies.unsw.edu.au>.]


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