Will nuclear power deliver a climate dividend?

November 17, 1993

Anne Goddard

Shadow minister for resources Martin Ferguson has joined the "nuclear push". This is despite the fact that the ALP's policy recognises that uranium mining presents "unprecedented hazards and risks", including threats to human health and the environment, the production of radioactive waste and the potential for nuclear weapons manufacture.

Ferguson's views are also at odds with public opinion. A Roy Morgan poll in October 2005 found that 70% oppose an expansion of the Australian uranium mining industry.

In an October 13 article for Labor Herald, the ALP's online magazine, Ferguson wrote: "Coupled with concern about climate change, the thirst for energy means that interest in nuclear power and uranium mining and exploration are at levels never seen before".

However, using nuclear power to mitigate climate change would require a doubling of nuclear power output by the middle of the century. This would require the construction of about 1000 reactors with a capital cost of several thousand billion dollars. The reactors would produce 1.5 million tonnes of high-level nuclear waste over a 50-year lifespan, and they would produce enough plutonium to build 1.5 million nuclear weapons.

The climate dividend? A 5% reduction in greenhouse emissions, and that is only about one-tenth of the reduction needed.

That meagre dividend assumes that the comparison is with fossil fuels. If the comparison is with renewable energy sources and energy efficiency measures, nuclear power would result in increased greenhouse emissions in addition to the legacy of nuclear waste and plutonium. A US study found that, per dollar invested, energy efficiency measures yield greenhouse emission reductions seven times greater than nuclear power.

In other words, the nuclear "cure" would be as bad as the disease. An expansion of nuclear power would inevitably lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Four or five countries have used their "peaceful" nuclear programs to develop arsenals of nuclear weapons - India, Israel, Pakistan, South Africa and possibly North Korea.

In the five declared nuclear weapons' states - the US, Britain, France, China and Russia - nuclear power programs provide a large pool of nuclear expertise from which WMD programs draw. It is no coincidence that all the five declared nuclear weapons states have nuclear power programs, which account for almost 60% of global nuclear power output.

There are many, viable clean-energy alternatives. Renewable energy, mostly hydroelectricity, already supplies 19% of world electricity, compared to nuclear at 16%.

Alternatives, such as geo-thermal and tidal power generation, are clean and sustainable, and these two areas are where new investment should be heading. Wind and solar power are growing by 20-30% every year.

The share of renewables is increasing, while nuclear's share is decreasing. In 2004, renewable energy added nearly three times as much net generating capacity as nuclear power.

The biggest gains are to be made in the field of energy efficiency.

Government reports show that reductions in energy consumption of up to 70% are cost effective. Energy experts have projected that adopting a national energy efficiency target could reduce the need for investment in new power stations by 2500-5000 megawatts by 2017 (equal to two to five large nuclear power stations). The energy efficiency investments would pay for themselves in reduced bills before a nuclear power station could generate a single unit of electricity.

The Australian Ministerial Council on Energy identified that energy consumption in the manufacturing, commercial and residential sectors could be reduced by 20-30% if commercially available technologies, with an average payback of four years, were adopted.

For a clean energy future, we need to choose renewables and energy efficiencies. As former US and UN environment adviser Professor Frank Muller noted: "Nuclear power and sustainable energy involve future paths for electricity systems that diverge. Nuclear power reinforces conventional grids dominated by central power stations and powerful supply side institutions - a pattern that we have inherited from an era of more centralised economic decision-making.

"The sustainable energy vision is for these grids to evolve into more decentralised consumer-oriented networks. Investment would be directed to the lowest-cost options for meeting customer needs, on either the supply or demand sides, rather than into an inexorable expansion of supply."

[For more information see the report Nuclear Power: No Solution to Climate Change, by Friends of the Earth and others at ..]

From Green Left Weekly, March 1, 2006.
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