By Ian Hore-Lacy - posted Friday, January 28, 2005
When The West Australian newspaper editorial on January 7, 2005 suggested that not only should the WA Government get real regarding uranium mining in the state, but also that nuclear power for which Australian uranium is used "deserved wide public debate", there was a sharp intake of breath in some quarters.
Nuclear power cleanly producing electricity is totally foreign to Australia in more ways than one. In fact Australia is virtually the only developed country not using electricity from nuclear power. Even Italy, which aborted its own nuclear program years ago, is now the world's largest net importer of electricity - most of it nuclear-generated from France. No wonder they want to revive the nuclear option there.
Australia's civil nuclear experience is limited to a couple of small research reactors near Sydney, the new one acquiring its name last week: Open Pool Australian Light water reactor (OPAL). In the next twelve months or so it will replace the geriatric High Flux Australian Reactor (HIFAR), which has been doing a sterling job producing medical and industrial radioisotopes since Australia Day in 1958. A bit like finding an FJ Holden in use as a taxi today.
But HIFAR was installed originally to support Australian development of nuclear electricity generating capability - a policy which was scuttled in 1972.
Meanwhile in the rest of the world nuclear power has been producing electricity for almost 50 years, and the technology is mature and proven, with almost 12,000 reactor-years of civil operational experience (and slightly more than that in naval experience).
Nuclear power plants are operated in 30 countries to produce 16 per cent of the world's electricity and more are being built or about to be built in 15 countries, because right now they make economic sense. In addition, in many parts of the world energy security is best served by nuclear power for electricity. India and China are planning to quadruple nuclear capacity by 2020 because this is an important way of meeting their rapidly escalating electricity demand.
Advanced 3rd generation reactors are now on the market and being built. These have greater standardisation, simpler engineering, expedited approvals in several countries, longer operating lives, and are one or two orders of magnitude safer than the well-proven 2nd generation units.
It is clear that there will be increasing pressure to limit carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. In the context of Kyoto, we need to factor in about one US cent per kWh for carbon cost with coal generation, and half that for gas (on basis of various proposals and EU Emissions Trading Scheme transactions). Nuclear has zero cost for carbon emissions.
Even without carbon value, nuclear is competitive in many areas. Finland's recent decision to build a large new reactor was basically an economic one. Wind power is the main no-carbon alternative, it typically costs about twice as much per kWh generated and needs government coercion to succeed - both because of cost and its intermittent unpredictability, hence further cost of back-up capacity which is eventually passed on to consumers.
Energy security is a major factor. There is no problem and relatively little cost in holding a few years' supply of nuclear fuel, either as mined uranium or as fabricated fuel. Being - like the UK - at the end of gas pipelines from Siberia or Middle East, through a variety of interesting countries, or subject to long distance sea transport, can cause great unease - both civic and economic. Japan and France are two countries which got that message in the 1970s and responded with vigour. France today gets 75 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power and is the world's largest net exporter of electricity. Japan normally gets about one third of its power from nuclear.
The industry safety record is excellent, with only one accident causing public harm, and that was of very little relevance to any reactor licensable in the west - or anywhere today. There has never been any public harm from any such reactor and as with most technologies, operations today have generally much enhanced safety margins compared with decades ago.
There have been no significant problems from storage, handling and transport of civil nuclear wastes in 50 years, and none are likely. Cost is internalised at about one fortieth of generation cost. Technically, storage and disposal are straightforward. Decommissioning costs are also met from current production. Political problems regarding sites for geological disposal do hamper the industry though - the NIMBY syndrome (not in my back yard). That is a challenge for people of principle and integrity in the political process.
Opportunity costs represent an ethical dimension where I would expect to see more vocal debate. Uranium has no other uses than concentrated energy production. Natural gas is touted as a CO2-reduction strategy relative to coal, but it is most unlikely that our grandchildren will thank us for profligate use of it in large-scale power generation. It is also a valuable chemical feedstock.
External costs (those actually incurred in relation to health and the environment and quantifiable but not built into the cost of the electricity to the consumer and therefore which are borne by society at large) are a major consideration. The European ExternE report shows that in clear cash terms nuclear energy incurs about one tenth of the costs of coal. Nuclear energy averages under 0.4 euro cents/kWh (0.2-0.7), less than hydro, coal is over 4.0 cents (2-10 cent averages in different countries), and gas ranges 1-4 cents. The EU cost of electricity generation without these external costs averages about 4 cents/kWh. If these external costs were in fact included, the EU price of electricity from coal would double and that from gas would increase around 30 per cent.
Further out nuclear power is very likely to be used to make hydrogen for transport fuel, initially by high-temperature electrolysis, then thermochemical processes using high-temperature (950ºC) reactors.
The resource base for long-term use of nuclear power is good. With one well-proven - but currently uneconomic - technological step one can get about 60 times as much energy out of the raw uranium as we do today. Only Russia is now operating a commercial-scale reactor of this kind.
For base-load power - continuous, reliable supply on a large scale, there are generally no carbon-free alternatives to nuclear power. Renewables have a place at the margin, and in Australia we certainly need to find ways to use our magnificent coal resources with less greenhouse impact than now. However, the costs of full carbon capture will be very much greater than using nuclear power.
For meeting a major part of the world's rapidly increasing demand for electricity, nuclear power is clearly a well-proven, environmentally clean and timely option.
Mr Hore-Lacy joined the mining industry as an environmental scientist in 1974. He spent 20 years with CRA (now Rio Tinto), finishing in Corporate Relations. He took a particular interest in the Ranger Inquiry in the 1970s. He has written several books on mining and related issues and is author of Nuclear Electricity, the seventh edition of which went up on the web in 2003. It is a widely used school text in Australia dealing with nuclear power. He was closely involved with the production of Out of the Fiery Furnace, a TV documentary series shown in over twenty countries on how through history people have progressively developed technology in the service of humankind. He also worked with the Australian Conservation Foundation on education projects in the early 1970s.
He is a Fellow of the Australian College of Education and a Member of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy. His particular interests range from the technical to the ethical and theological aspects of mineral resources and their use, especially nuclear power. Since 2001 he has also been Head of Communications for the World Nuclear Association in London.
Author's website: The Uranium Information Centre