Global warming: Nuclear power no solution

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Jim Green

Have the nuclear industry and its supporters suddenly gained an environmental consciousness? While they're not planning to close their dangerous, polluting reactors nor begin dealing responsibly with their legacy of toxic radioactive wastes, they are now professing deep concern about climate change — and argue that nuclear power is the only solution.

Even environmentalists are turning to nuclear power, we're told. It's not true — you could count them on one hand — but the nuclear boosters and the mainstream media aren't letting the facts get in the way of a good story.

Proponents of nuclear power downplay or ignore altogether the problems that would be exacerbated by an expansion of nuclear power globally or the introduction of nuclear power into Australia — including nuclear weapons proliferation, radioactive waste, and the risk of catastrophic accidents.

Nuclear weapons proliferation.

The "peaceful" nuclear power and research sectors have produced enough fissile material to build over 110,000 nuclear weapons. Australian uranium has resulted in the production of more than 60 tonnes of plutonium, sufficient to produce about 6000 nuclear weapons.

Supposedly "peaceful" nuclear facilities can be — and have been — used in various ways for weapons research and production. Of the 60 countries which have built nuclear power or research reactors, about 25 are known to have used their "peaceful" nuclear facilities for covert weapons research and/or production — a strike rate of about 40%.

Israel, India, Pakistan, South Africa and possibly North Korea have succeeded in producing nuclear weapons under cover of a "peaceful" nuclear program (details at <http://www.mapw.org.au/nuclear-reactors/02green.html>).

Claims that the international safeguards system prevents misuse of "peaceful" nuclear facilities and materials are grossly overstated. Recent statements from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency and US President George Bush about the need to limit the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technology, and to establish multinational control over sensitive nuclear facilities, amount to an acknowledgement of the fundamental flaws of the international safeguards system.

Retired Australian diplomat Professor Richard Broinowski notes in his 2003 book Fact or Fission? The Truth About Australia's Nuclear Ambitions that accounting for Australian uranium exports is "tenuous, and subject to distortion or abuse".

Radioactive waste

Not a single repository exists for the disposal of high-level radioactive waste, which is produced at an annual rate of about 10,000 tonnes in nuclear power reactors worldwide. Technologies exist to encapsulate or immobilise radionuclides to a greater or lesser degree, but encapsulated radioactive waste still represents a potential public health and environmental threat that will last for millennia.

The prospects for transmutation — using neutrons or charged particle beams to convert longer-lived radionuclides into shorter-lived radionuclides or stable isotopes — are grim for a number of reasons.

Reprocessing spent reactor fuel is polluting, and most of the uranium and plutonium arising from reprocessing is simply stockpiled with no plans for its use. Separation of plutonium from spent fuel poses a major proliferation risk — many tonnes of plutonium are stockpiled, and a typical 1000 megawatt electric (MWe) reactor produces about 300 kilograms of plutonium each year, enough to produce about 30 nuclear weapons.

Accidents

The more reactors, the more accidents. The more accidents, the more likely significant off-site releases of radioactivity. The "new generation of passively safe reactors" face various obstacles, such as not being new or passively safe! For example, so-called pebble-bed reactor technology is a variation on the theme of high temperature reactors, which have been investigated by many countries, abandoned in most, and successful in none.

In addition to the perennial problems of plant malfunction and human error, terrorism looms large as a threat to nuclear plants and everyone working and living in their vicinity.

Nuclear power proponents deny the likelihood that the 1986 Chernobyl disaster has killed thousands and will kill thousands more. They do this by hiding behind the complexities of epidemiological studies and using those complexities to obfuscate. However, using the standard risk estimates applied the world over, the likely toll from Chernobyl will be some tens of thousands of deaths.

A non-solution

The world's 440 operating power reactors, with about 364,000 MWe of total capacity, produce about 16% of the world's electricity. Coal, gas and oil account for four times that amount — about 64%. So to replace fossil fuel generated electricity with nuclear power would require a five-fold increase in the number of reactors, from 440 to about 2200. The cost of the additional 1760 reactors would be several trillion dollars.

The 2200 reactors would produce enough plutonium each year to build roughly 60,000 nuclear weapons. The annual production of high-level radioactive waste in the form of spent fuel would increase to about 50,000 tonnes — to be safely and securely stored in those repositories that don't exist.

But what of the benefits of closing all those fossil fuel fired plants? Electricity generation is responsible for only a modest percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions — as low as 9% by some accounts. In broad terms the replacement of all fossil fuel fired electricity plants with nuclear power would be unlikely to reduce global greenhouse emissions by more than 5-10% — not even close to the 60% reduction required to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.

It is theoretically possible that nuclear power could be used not only for electricity production but also for other purposes such as producing hydrogen for transportation. However, that would just make the task all the more impractical and all the more alarming in terms of proliferation risks and radioactive waste production. According to John Busby, about 200 nuclear reactors would be required in Australia alone to produce both electricity and hydrogen for transportation (<http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=3039>).

In Australia, building nuclear reactors would not only be irresponsible and impractical as a means of addressing climate change, it would also be illegal because the Howard government outlawed the construction of nuclear power reactors in the 1998 Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act. Interestingly, the government made nuclear power illegal with little or no prompting from environmental and anti-nuclear groups.

Even if a future government attempted to push ahead with construction of nuclear power reactors, the public opposition would be immense. The only serious proposal to build a nuclear power plant in Australia — at Jervis Bay in NSW in the late 1960s — was defeated by public and political opposition.

The Jervis Bay project was driven by then-Coalition PM John Gorton, who later admitted that the intention was not only to produce electricity but also to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons.

Claims that nuclear power is "greenhouse free" are nonsense. Substantial greenhouse gas generation occurs across the nuclear fuel cycle. Nonetheless, fossil fuel derived electricity is considerably more greenhouse intensive — for the moment.

Emissions per unit energy from nuclear power are about one third of those from large gas-fired electricity plants. However, this comparative benefit of nuclear power is substantially eroded, and eventually negated altogether, as higher-grade uranium ores are depleted and lower-grade ores are mined. Most of the Earth's uranium is found in very poor grade ores. That trend would of course be hastened in a scenario in which nuclear power replaces large numbers of fossil fuel fired electricity plants. (For discussion on the economic and energy costs associated with declining ore grades, see the detailed study at <http://www.oprit.rug.nl/deenen>.)

Even at the current rate of consumption, low-cost uranium reserves will be exhausted in about 50 years according to John Carlson from the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office, the disgraceful nuclear regulatory agency which acts more like a pro-nuclear PR agency.

At this point in the argument, nuclear boosters such as Carlson pull out their trump card — the wondrous plutonium economy in which fast breeder reactors produce more plutonium fuel than they consume — and nuclear power may yet be too cheap to meter! However, most plutonium breeder R&D programs have been abandoned because of technical, economic and safety problems. In any case, the weapons proliferation risks of a plutonium economy are totally unacceptable. Nuclear fusion also poses proliferation risks, and faces seemingly insurmountable technical and economic problems.

Renewable energy

Renewable energy sources typically generate considerably less greenhouse emissions per unit energy than nuclear power and, of course, energy efficiency is a clear winner when comparing greenhouse gas abatement costs. According to the US Critical Mass Energy Project, every dollar invested in energy efficiency is up to seven times more effective in reducing carbon dioxide emissions than nuclear power.

Last year the Clean Energy Future Group — which comprises renewable energy companies and the Worldwide Fund for Nature — produced a comprehensive paper called "A Clean Energy Future for Australia" that details how major greenhouse gas emissions reductions can be achieved (<http://www.wwf.org.au/News_and_information/Features/feature10.php>).

The Clean Energy study found that Australia can meet its energy needs from various commercially proven fuels and technologies while cutting greenhouse emissions by 50% by 2040. Focussing on stationary energy sources, because of their large contribution to greenhouse emissions in Australia, the Clean Energy study envisages the following energy mix by 2040:

  • natural gas provides 30% (including cogeneration of electricity and heat) of Australia's electricity demand;

  • biomass from agriculture and plantation forestry residues provides 26%;

  • wind energy provides 20%;

  • photovoltaic and solar thermal systems provide 5%;

  • hydroelectricity provides 7%; and

  • coal (9%) and petroleum (1%) continue to play a minor role in electricity generation.

A range of other benefits would flow from the Clean Energy report's recommendations, including rural employment growth, growth in exports, reductions in household and business operating costs, and benefits to the environment and public health through the reduction not only of greenhouse gases but also other pollutants.

A report by the Australia Institute maps out a realistic plan to achieve a 60% cut in greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector (including transport) by 2050 (<http://www.tai.org.au/WhatsNew_Files/WhatsNew/DP48sum.pdf>). Many similar reports have been produced overseas.

The extent to which renewable energy sources can replace fossil fuels and nuclear power depends to a significant extent on investment in research and development programs. The Howard government provides fossil fuel industries with $9 billion in subsidies annually, according to a 2003 report from the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures. By contrast, the Howard government:

  • Closed the Energy Research and Development Corporation in 1997-98. The ERDC had invested almost $100 million in 350 energy innovation ventures since it was created in 1990. The government then reneged on a commitment to meet existing ERDC funding commitments.

  • Withdrew funding from the Co-operative Research Centre for Renewable Energy in December 2002.

  • Introduced the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target but set the target at a measly 2% (closer to 1% when non-renewable interlopers and creative accounting are factored in).

  • Appointed a Rio Tinto employee as the government's chief scientist.

  • Allowed fossil fuel companies to buy their way onto the Australian Bureau of Agricultural Resource Economics panel dealing with climate change issues.

Small wonder that the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported in 2004 that the proportion of Australia's overall energy consumption from renewable resources declined in the 10 years 1991-2001 from 6% to 5.7%.

Further reading on the greenhouse/nuclear debate:

  • WISE/NIRS, 2005, "A back door comeback: Nuclear energy as a solution for climate change?", Nuclear Monitor #621 & #622, <http://www.antenna.nl/wise>.

  • Mycle Schneider (WISE Paris), April 2000, "Climate Change and Nuclear Power", published by World Wide Fund for Nature, <change/fullnuclearreprotwwf.pdf>.)

From Green Left Weekly, April 13, 2005.

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