Energy Sources for the Future

Author: Ian Hore-Lacy is General Manager of the Uranium Information Centre

First, let me say that I am not here to advocate nuclear power for Australia right now, but to talk about nuclear power in a world context and respond to the Shadow Minister's comments. And let me assure you I am very much in favour of energy conservation and use of renewables as far as reasonably possible.

Second, Anthony, I do have quite a lot to say about costs, safety, wastes, and proliferation on such occasions - those matters you say are not being talked about enough, and I do not share your negative appraisal of them at all! I want to say that the issues of safety, wastes and possible weapons proliferation from civil nuclear power are addressed very effectively.

Present situation : nuclear power produces 16 percent of the world's electricity - more than all world electricity from all sources when I was at university.

Doubling the world's nuclear contribution would eliminate one quarter to one third of today's CO2 emissions from power generation - a worthy thought.

This is not in fact diminished by the energy inputs to the nuclear fuel cycle - from mining to waste disposal - since these are very small - less than 2% of energy outputs. The figures are published and many are audited - there is no academic speculation involved. This means that CO2 implications are no more than about 2% of those for coal, which is trivial.

While capital costs are high (relative to gas, but not to wind), overall generation costs are competitive and nuclear power is comfortably economic in most countries now. If costs were imposed on fossil fuel sources due to carbon emissions it would be economic everywhere, even in eastern Australia.

Today we have some of the world's highest profile environmentalists speaking out very clearly for nuclear power, because they think it represents much less of a problem or threat than global warming.

In every country where it is measured, public support for nuclear power is strengthening. In the UK it has more than doubled in the last five years.

Let's consider the future . What are the criteria one would use to identify and asses the perfect energy source? Let me suggest five:

Criteria: Nuclear detractors

Abundant, sustainable yes, very no, Limits to Growth

Mature technology, economic 50 years, competitive unproven, expensive

Safety unrivalled uniquely dangerous -
Chernobyl

Wastes small amount unsolved problem
contained & managed threatening

Versatile yes - desalination, 
hydrogen production use wind?

On the first, nuclear power depends on uranium, a fairly common ingredient of the Earth's crust. Supplies of it are abundant. KNOWN economic resources are about seventy times annual usage, and that figure bears very little relationship to what is actually in the Earth's crust. Rather, it has a close relationship to the amount of money spent in finding and defining orebodies to a sufficient level of certainty to be able to publish the results without being thrown into prison for misleading the public. Some of you will remember the Limits to Growth nonsense of the 1970s, where some academics divided annual usage of a number of metals into known reserve figures and predicted we would be running out by the turn of century. But in fact the known reserve figures were higher then than in the 1970s - a surprise to some. Uranium is a typical metal in its occurrence in a wide variety of geological settings (unlike oil and gas).

On the second, nuclear power has been used for half a century, accumulating a total of over 12,000 reactor-years of operational experience (twice that if you count naval propulsion) and we are now into the third generation of nuclear reactor technology. It is a mature technology, well understood and widely used around the world. This means that it is economic - it would have been discarded otherwise. In most countries nuclear is competitive now, and it is not subsidised anywhere that I know of (though some limited subsidies are on offer for the first 6000 MWe of new capacity in USA). Normally all waste costs and decommissioning costs are included and funded as the plant operates.

On safety, the record speaks for itself. There has never been an accident resulting in loss of life due to failure of any nuclear power reactor licensable in the west. The Chernobyl disaster tragically underlined the reason such plants could never be built outside the Soviet Union. There certainly have been accidents and problems, one of them quite major in 1979, but the lessons from that have been very valuable and no-one was injured or received any greater dose of radiation than I got flying up from Melbourne today. Nuclear power is extremely safe, due to very conservative design criteria in the early days (and more fundamentally: the physics and chemistry of what is in them), and incidentally that also means very safe in relation to possible effects from terrorist attack.

Regarding wastes, what would be your ideal criteria for assessing any technology favourably? Perhaps: small amount of waste relative to the power generated, and retaining them all safely rather than just releasing them to the environment? Well that is the situation here. Virtually all wastes are contained and managed, and there isn’t very much involved. Looking at the main "waste" - spent fuel, which contains 95% of the total radioactivity in all wastes, generating the power for a city of a million people would produce only 36 tonnes of it per year - a couple of truckloads. The fact is that radioactive wastes from civil power generation have been managed virtually without incident for 50 years. There is nothing very complicated or hazardous about it. Compared with other toxic industrial wastes, of which they comprise less than one percent in nuclear-dependent parts of the world such as the EU, they actually become more benign with time. The radioactivity of spent fuel decreases to about one thousandth of its original level by about 40 years, which is why such wastes are stored for that kind of period before being packaged for disposal deep underground. They are much easier to handle then.

The fifth criterion I suggested was versatility. Nuclear power is typically used for base-load power generation, that is, meeting the demand for continuous, reliable supply on a large scale. In that respect it is like coal, and quite different from wind, which only supplies power when the wind happens to be blowing hard enough. But it is also used for desalination, and this is likely to become more important in the years ahead, as you well know in Sydney. And further out, when we get to the hydrogen economy, there will need to be some way to make hydrogen efficiently without causing greenhouse gas emission in the process. High temperature nuclear reactors are clearly the best prospect, though more development is still needed. So nuclear power could be the main means of enabling hydrogen to fill the role that oil now does.

Anthony pointed to a sixth criterion, regarding whether the technology can be used illicitly for making nuclear weapons in rogue states - the question of nuclear proliferation. That is certainly a major issue today, and if civil nuclear power made the risks greater that would be a black mark against it. But in fact I would contend that the opposite is true. The extent of the benefit is arguable. But we can confidently say that no uranium exported from countries like Australia and Canada has ever ended up in weapons - thanks to the international safeguards system which has been functioning since 1970. It has been possibly the most successful UN function ever, though with the wisdom of hindsight we might wish it has been more ambitious in focusing on more issues than the diversion of uranium and technology.

So what do the industry's detractors say about all these?

On the abundance of the resource you will hears some extraordinary claims, such as that uranium will run out in 50 years or less, and that so much energy is needed to mine it and build the reactors that there is little net gain. This is at one level the Limits to Growth fallacy, and at another it ignores much published data which these days is reported and audited for social responsibility reporting.

On the maturity of technology and associated safety issues you will hear plenty of fearmongering and invocation of Chernobyl, ignoring the fact that Chernobyl is only relevant insofar as it is an object lesson about why some kinds of nuclear technology should not be built. No reactor built in the west, or anywhere today, could turn into a similar disaster. The worst conceivable accident in a typical wester reactor would have no effect on its neighbours - as we found, despite a lot of adrenalin, in 1979 in the USA. I would much prefer to live next to a nuclear reactor than any major oil or gas installation, or half of the chemical industry plants in our major cities.

The other aspect of maturity is economic competitiveness. The fact is that power generating utilities do make multi-billion dollar investment decisions on the basis that they understand it to be not only competitive now, but it gives them comfort as they see escalating fossil fuel prices. If detractors think the figures are contrived, then they can take comfort that it is not their money! But investment in nuclear plant does proceed, and is increasing, which is the clearest indication of whose set of figures makes most sense.

On wastes we are assailed with the fact that they remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. So what? The granite benchtops in modern kitchens or the frontage of city buildings will be radioactive for longer, but more to the point the hazard of most of the other 99% of toxic industrial wastes will persist forever. And how many of those have safe final disposal plans, let alone being fully funded as they are generated? Nuclear wastes are not a threat to anyone and even moving them round by ship, rail or road is less of a hazard that any petrol tanker you may pass on the way home tonight.

On the versatility we are told that the future lies with renewables and that energy conservation is the cheapest source of energy anyway. Both true, but only to a very limited extent! Energy conservation has been widely recognised as important since the 1970s oil shocks, and much as been done. With escalating oil and gas prices, more is now cost effective, especially as buildings and plant are replaced. It is futile however to pit renewables such as wind against nuclear - they meet quite different needs and both have a place. Ask any electricity supply expert.

Finally, we are told that all uranium is likely end up in nuclear weapons. This is not supported by the evidence, and I make two observations: the first is that half of the uranium used in the USA today (providing 20% of their electricity) comes from Russian military stockpiles, essentially dismantled nuclear weapons - even in China there has been no uranium going into weapons for many years. Second, no country is without enough indigenous uranium to make a few nuclear weapons if it really wants to. You don’t need the relatively large amounts traded for nuclear power, and you could get enough from granites if cost was no object.

So there are a few comments on our five or six criteria!

What are the alternatives to nuclear power?

- Renewables I have already commented on.

- Clean coal is another possibility, and let me say that I strongly support the R&D efforts directed at developing such technology on a commercial scale. The idea of course is to bury the carbon and burn a clean gas arising from the front end processes. I do not doubt that it can be done, but I do doubt that it will end up giving us clean electricity at less than double today's prices. If this is anywhere near correct, nuclear power will be far cheaper.

- Natural gas is often put forward as a better way to go because it has only half of the CO2 emissions of burning coal. I agree that gas is a marvellous fuel, as well as an incredibly valuable chemical feedstock. For electricity its main appropriate use is in peak-load plant running relatively few hours each day. I don’t think our grandchildren will thank us for squandering it for base-load power where coal and uranium do the job just as well. And while uranium has no other uses, coal has potential for other things and gas has many other uses where its qualities make it more valuable.

So that is a quick trot through some aspects of nuclear power in the world today, and responding to some of Anthony's points.

To conclude: Broadly speaking, renewed world attention to nuclear power today is driven by three factors: improved basic economics, the prospect of carbon emission costs on fossil-fuelled alternatives, and energy security. In Australia we really only have to think about the middle one - possible carbon emission costs.

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