Despite PM John Howard's call for a "full-blooded debate" about energy, greenhouse and uranium mining, there has been little discussion about renewable energy sources such as wind power.
Wind power is the fastest-growing energy generation industry in the world. Notwithstanding a lack of government support, across the world the industry has grown at an average rate of 29% over the past 10 years, concentrated in California in the US, Spain, Germany, Denmark and several other European countries. During that time, the amount of wind energy production has risen from 5000 megawatts (MW) to more than 60,000 MW. By 2010, the amount is expected to double to 120,000 MW.
Wind power has become more technologically advanced and reliable since it emerged commercially around 25 years ago. One of the most important advancements has been the evolution of larger turbines, which has had a couple of advantages. First, the most consistent and strongest airflow is found higher above the ground; lower-altitude breezes are generally weaker and more erratic. Whereas wind farms used to be viable only in special areas with excellent year-round breezes, newer large turbines are suited to a far wider range of locations.
The second advantage of large turbines is that they generate more electricity. The latest generation of mass produced wind turbines has a blade diameter of 90 metres, with the generator, a nacelle, sitting on top of an 80 or 105 metre-high tower. Such turbines consistently produce about 3 million MW of electricity per unit, and cost about $3.6 million each (or about $1200 per kilowatt).
A South Australian wind farm recently placed an order for 53 V90 3 MW turbines. Vestas, of Denmark, now has a factory in Tasmania that is equipped to produce several types of large turbines. Next generation turbines are larger again, with 5 MW turbines with a 126-metre blade diameter.
While the reliability of wind power has improved, problems remain with consistent supply. One of these is overloading the grid with electricity in times of high wind and, to a lesser extent, under-powering the grid in low wind.
A South Australian consortium is investigating using "burst power" by running electricity-hungry seawater desalination plants during peak wind power periods as a way of "soaking up" excess power.
The concern that wind power inadvertently kills birds can be minimised by ensuring that the turbines are not built in known flight paths, or near nesting areas and waterholes. Wildlife groups are generally well aware of the benefits of wind power, and are happy to let authorities know about these critical locations. Some birds and bats will still be killed, but only a tiny fraction compared to those killed each year by vehicles.
Solutions to community concerns might include building wind farms on private land, where farmers can still graze livestock and grow crops beneath the turbines while earning lease payments for hosting the turbines, and by placing the turbines along roadways and the edges of large public reserves. Turbines do emit some blade noise, but modern models are much quieter due to improved blade aerodynamics.
Some argue that turbines are "unsightly", but these anti-wind groups, often supported by the nuclear industry, should consider how aesthetically pleasing deformed babies and cancer victims are.
The electricity grid in Australia, like most around the world, is based around a few centralised power plants that feed high voltages out to a progressively lighter network of transmission lines.
Wind farms built around the perimeter of existing power networks would need to be properly linked back into the grid, requiring the construction of new cable infrastructure. Any nuclear power plant would require a similar investment in transmission lines to link them back into the grid. For wind power to be the dominant source of power, it would require a substantial restructure of the grid, and technological advances to further refine the reliability of wind power.
However Ben Carmichael of Vestas Australia told Green Left Weekly that, in the immediate future, Australia could derive up to 20% of its national electricity needs from wind without a massive overhaul of the transmission network and without compromising the reliability of supply. According to Carmichael, 20% wind power nationally would require the construction of about 2500 V90 turbines, or equivalent, at a cost of around $9 billion.
Compare this to the financial costs of nuclear energy. To achieve a situation where 20% of current national electricity production was nuclear power would require the construction of at least five typical nuclear power plants, each with a capacity of around 1000-1500 MW (a typical reactor size).
Based on several recently commissioned third-generation reactors in Japan and South Korea, these reactors would cost between $1500 and $2000 per kilowatt to commission, and therefore between $11.25-$15 billion in total.
Clearly, nuclear power is more expensive. Once built, the plants require fuel rods, an additional cost, and these must be enriched at a separate facility, which would cost upwards of $500 million.
Nuclear power has higher operational and maintenance costs compared to wind power, and nuclear power stations take longer to commission (seven to 10 years) than wind turbines (three to six months once delivered). More carbon dioxide is emitted in the construction of a nuclear power plant, and in the enrichment of fuel rods, than in the construction of wind towers.
Once a wind turbine is up and running it will have generated as much clean energy after six months as "dirty" energy used in its manufacture. It takes about seven years for a nuclear power station to generate more carbon dioxide-free electricity than was spent building the plant and getting it operational.
Over the lifetime of a wind turbine, it will generate 17-39 times the amount of energy as was used to build it. Nuclear power plants produce only about 16 times the energy used to build them.
Each 1000 MW nuclear power generator would produce about 33 tonnes of highly radioactive waste per year, which would then need to be stored at additional cost, reprocessed at an even greater cost, or dumped — the cheapest and most likely option for dollar-saving corporations.
If Australia has its own nuclear power plants, nuclear waste dumps and enrichment facilities, it will be easier to argue for it to become a world dumping ground for nuclear waste. If Australia leases enriched fuel rods to other nations and takes the waste back, a stockpile of dangerous nuclear waste will accrue.
The US is partway through constructing a US$28 billion dump in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, due to open in 2017. But the US will still have another 30,000 tonnes of nuclear waste and 22,000 barrels of high-level waste to get rid of within 30 years.
Australia might be a cheaper option than hollowing out another Yucca Mountain. But unlike wind turbines, nuclear power plants cannot be disassembled once their operational life is over. A nuclear plant must be properly decommissioned and decontaminated, a multi-billion dollar process usually paid for by taxpayers rather than the corporations that have profited.
Although modern nuclear reactors are safer than Cold War-era ones, the ever-present risk with nuclear power is a meltdown that spreads toxic vapour and fragments of nuclear waste and particles. This happens when the ultra-hot fuel rods, through human, mechanical or technical faults, overheat and melt through the core, then floor of the reactor, and come into contact with moisture, causing an explosion. This is what happened in 1986 in the Chernobyl reactor in the Ukraine.
A more likely scenario is the overheating, and resultant over-pressurising of the reactor core, which can lead to radioactive steam being vented into the atmosphere. This happened at the Three Mile Island reactor in Pennsylvania in 1979. Then, the hot fuel rods in the core of the reactor caused a "meltdown" when they overheated and started burning through the steel and concrete reactor casing. This destroyed the reactor core and toxic gases leaked into the atmosphere, but did not cause an explosion like at Chernobyl.
No new nuclear power plants have been built in the US since the Three Mile Island meltdown. The global nuclear power industry has grown at a rate of 1.7% over the last 10 years, compared to 29% for wind and 28% for solar.
The other danger associated with nuclear power is weapons proliferation. Each 1000 MW reactor produces about 200kg of plutonium per year, of which only 5kg is required to make a rudimentary bomb. Even the nuclear industry acknowledges there are no guarantees that plutonium from "peaceful reactors" will not end up in weapons programs, legally or otherwise. Uranium for weapons and for power plants are component parts of the same dangerous nuclear fuel cycle.
[For more information, visit http://www.wwf.org.au/publications/clean_energy_future_report/, http://www.worldwatch.org/node/1646, http://www.uic.com.au/nip16.htm, and http://africameetsafrica.com/index.php?menuoption=article14.]