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Nuclear has left its run too late

Nuclear has left its run too late: a response to Ian Hore-Lacy, ETHOS, 14 August 2018  | Robert Farago “………… Nuclear as the solution?   There are a number of unresolved problems around nuclear power and questions of whether nuclear energy can grow quickly enough to solve our climate change problem. I will just list some of these problems with a sentence each:

  • Weapons proliferation – enriching Uranium for civilian nuclear energy programs can lead to fuel being diverted and further enriched for nuclear weapons programs.
  • Safety – although less deaths have been recorded from nuclear power than from coal mining, nuclear accidents such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima have shaken the confidence of citizens to have nuclear reactors near their homes and food sources.
  • Waste – although we have generated nuclear waste for 70+ years we still don’t have a solution. Nuclear waste needs to be stored safely for hundreds of thousands of years, longer than settled agricultural society has existed.
  • Decommissioning – cost estimates vary wildly and it’s particularly technically challenging and expensive after nuclear accidents.
  • Water use – like thermal coal generators, nuclear needs large quantities of water for cooling, making droughts and heatwaves a problem.
  • Capacity – if we moved to a large portion of our global electricity generation to nuclear power, will there be enough Uranium to fuel them?
  • Timeliness – can we move quickly enough to a majority nuclear electricity future and meet our global emission reductions?

Assuming the above problems can be quickly resolved, despite decades of not resolving them, and we can somehow scale nuclear by an order of magnitude from today, will it be cheap enough?

When I was a child in primary school (in the late 1970s), I read that in the future nuclear energy had the potential to generate electricity that would be ‘too cheap to meter’. That future never came and sadly never will.

Overseas examples are not encouraging. Recent nuclear reactor constructions in FinlandUSA and UK are taking much longer than expected, costing much more than expected and in some cases being abandoned.

Australian governments have on several occasions investigated the feasibility of nuclear energy being adopted in this country. Two recent reports were the Switkowski Report in 2006 and the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission’s Report in 2016.

The Switkowski Report had the cost of nuclear higher than new coal at the time. The more recent South Australian (SA) Royal Commission report looked at Uranium mining, nuclear fuel enrichment, electricity generation as well as nuclear waste disposal opportunities for SA. The SA government’s response to the royal commission concluded:

The government considers that nuclear power in the short to medium term is not a cost-effective source of low-carbon electricity for South Australia.

Even Ziggy Switkowski, a nuclear physicist and strong nuclear proponent, has recently said that ‘the window for GW scale nuclear has closed’ and:

With requirements for baseload capacity reducing, adding nuclear capacity one gigawatt at a time is hard to justify, especially as costs are now very high (in the range of $5 billion to $10 billion), development timelines are 15+ years, and solar with battery storage are winning the race.

Meanwhile many GW of wind farms, solar farms (a 35GW pipeline) and rooftop solar continue to be planned and built. Battery storage and pumped hydro projects to help balance the system are also being planned before our old coal power stations reach their end of life. Electricity prices are also stabilising and coming down slightly at the retail level, and more dramatically at the wholesale level, according the ASX electricity futures market.

Nuclear energy in Australia may have had a role to play if we had adopted the technology in the 1970s, when other countries were rapidly adopting the technology, and renewables like solar cost 100 times as much as today. While cheaper, safer and better nuclear designs have been proposed and been under development for some time overseas, their promise has not yet been proven. Nuclear energy also takes a very long time to adopt in countries like Australia that don’t have the required nuclear engineering and regulatory expertise, i.e. at least 15 years to build the first power station. Nuclear has simply left its run too late in Australia. The economics of renewable energy, being cheaper than all other forms of generation in Australia in 2018, has been the final straw in halting the possibility of nuclear energy being adopted here before it has even begun, except for that one fusion reactor in the sky, 150 million km away.
Robert Farago is an Engineer with 30 years’ experience. He has worked on writing software, building the internet and installing renewable energy, sometimes simultaneously.

August 20, 2018 - Posted by | general

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