The debate surrounding nuclear (to neatly encapsulate what is realistically a kaleidascope of sceince, technology, economics and opportunity) in South Australia is not going to go away. Apart from the undeniable economic development potential, expansion of uranium mining and export, as well as the eventual construction of nuclear energy capacity, there is the (till recent years) unspoken response to climate change.
Energy: Recommendations 5.3
Discussion about the potential for a nuclear industry in South Australia has been going on for some time, but there has never been the political will to seriously consider the opportunities publically, largely due to contention about nuclear power following high profile incidents at Chernobyl and more recently Fukushima. This is despite nuclear power operating across 31 countries and providing 11% of the world’s electricity. The generation of nuclear power is also greenhouse friendly given that it does not produce any carbon dioxide, notwithstanding greenhouse gas emissions to convert uranium into nuclear fuel rods are relatively minor and still result in nuclear being second only to renewable energy in terms of environmental impact.
Institutional environmentalists have yet to abandon their motivated reasoning and reconsider what nuclear offers us today, although, anecdotally, a proportion of their supporters have done so and now support it privately. Their political leaders, in contrast, are more than willing to use it as a semiotic non-sequitur, despite previously demonstrating an obvious lack of knowledge.
In the lead up to South Australia’s election Mark Parnell, another guy who I really believe is doing what he thinks is right, reacted to the mere notion of formally debating the quantifiable pros and cons of establishing nuclear in the state:
“There is adequate evidence that further involving SA in the nuclear cycle is a bad move economically, socially and environmentally… Renewable energy is the future for SA, not nuclear.”
To be blunt, there is not so much adequate evidence as there is lazy cultural aversion and a lack of public knowledge of the science and industry involved (past the morbid fascination with nuclear accidents). This is precisely what sober debate will dispell. So, allow me:
1. A bad move, economically? The UK Department of Energy and Climate Change has forecast a rather competitive LCOE for nuclear capacity (that’s including decommissioning costs). This may or may not be applicable in any way to our own situation, but would at least seem to indicate favourable results were regulation amended such that a comprehensive, inclusive analysis of modern energy sources can be undertaken.
2. “Socially”? How to address this without really being sure what was meant: I suspect it’s pretty much padding for the sentence. If we’re worried about the “society” which will be affected, ideally we are swapping out fossil fuel baseload electricity (with its risks and benefits) for nuclear baseload electricity (with its demonised risks and dramatic benefits), but your washine machine doesn’t care what turned the turbine it gets its wattage from. Are there really any social impacts there? Maybe people will be offended by this nuclear business happening so close by? In the latest survey of 1216 South Australians, which revealed roughly half support nuclear energy, only 20% recorded strong opposition, so I’m satisfied so far that a clear majority will not be terribly socially impacted.
3. Environmentally, well, nuclear is relatively environmentally benign. At this point in proceedings, I’d suggest that mitigating CO2 emissions is the absolute priority, and the best analysis puts nuclear between concentrating solar thermal and wind energy (both intermittent generators) in this regard. The only other significant environmental impact is mining the fuel, but damned if mining isn’t involved for the materials required for renewable technologies and the vast majority of our current energy.
Moreover, these technologies are largely imported, so the burden of mining, refining and manufacturing those PV panels from China and Siemens turbines is tidily externalised out of Australia. Geothermal and biomass is a whole ‘nother story.
Still prefer no mining? The IFR will, of course, consume recycled LWR fuel. There’s decades worth of that for the whole world. It, or reactor-recycling facilities very similar will be built in the near future. Why not in Australia? We’ll need the CO2-free electricity. It will be dispatchable, reliable, ground-breaking and fueled by prepackaged nuclear material which dozens of countries just want to find a solution to.
4. Renewable energy will certainly contribute to SA’s future, and be quite welcome. But the analysis demonstrates that nuclear would contribute more. And the fact is, our electricity infrastructure is part of a vast interstate grid, the NEM, and renewable energy’s share has been inexorably declining since 1960.
If the Greens want to seriously be the third major in Australia, and brand themselves as the party of solid science, then at least listening to the consensus of experts regarding the safety and efficacy of modern nuclear power – just as they rightly accept the consensus of scientists with regard to the causes and probable ramifications of climate change – will achieve this. Their support for rapid carbon mitigation through modern nuclear would mean that the arbitrary regulatory blocks could be removed without further delay, and sensible, evidence-based environmental considerations could be built in to the required regulatory framework to follow. It would be met only with relief and excitement from myself, (I’d expect) all my fellow advocates and – I suspect – a majority of Australians when all the verifiable benefits are clearly laid out. We could really, finally start to get somewhere… Or we could keep slowly doing what we’re doing.