Illustration: Andrew Dyson
At a conference in Melbourne last October, global energy expert Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, the director of energy research at Oxford University, urged Australia to embrace civilian nuclear power. He said it was the logical pathway to clean, secure and cost-effective energy.
He also reflected on the ''hard sell'' of a nuclear power policy in this country due to fear, pseudoscience, political pragmatism, poor education and the dominant hydrocarbon energy lobby. Risk-conscious Australians were urged to remember: ''The nuclear accident in Japan has not killed anybody. There may be one or two people who will die of cancer, but we are talking of very small numbers, if any.''
There is a ridiculous paradox in the energy policy of a nation which makes symbolic gestures to the United Nations about embracing ''clean renewable energy'' but continues to maintain its position as the planet's premier exporter of dirty coal. Delegate nations to last month's US Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in Doha were challenged by the growing dangers of, as yet, an uncontrolled increase in emissions from the burning of hydrocarbon fuels.
The International Energy Agency estimates that, during 2010, about 30.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide poured into the Earth's atmosphere as a result of burning fossil fuels. This represents an increase of about 1.6 gigatonnes over the 2009 levels, despite the economic effects globally of the most serious recession for the past 80 years.
This highest greenhouse gas emission in recorded human history will make it almost impossible to achieve the UN panel's goals of a mean global maximum temperature rise of not more than 2 degrees, with a carbon concentration below 350 parts per million.
These targets cannot be attained without nuclear power. In 2013, it is just as foolish to be a ''nuclear denier'' as a ''climate sceptic''.
A recent International Energy Agency report commended the role of nuclear power in combating climate change and providing global energy security at the end of the hydrocarbon-fuel age. In summary, it said, ''nuclear power is the technology which must be accelerated, promoted and relied upon if the world is to stabilise carbon dioxide emissions at an acceptable level''.
Australia's Energy and Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson, has often endorsed this view. He chaired a recent meeting of the international agency, where he said: ''The only proven form of clean energy of a baseload and a reliable nature is actually nuclear from a global point of view.''
Also at stake in Australia is the gradual elimination of more than 250 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year from hydrocarbon-fuelled power stations. This could more than double by the year 2050, when Australia's energy supply will need to exceed 100GW(e). Of this, at least one-quarter should be nuclear to meet the US' climate criteria. Without such a policy, Prime Minister Julia Gillard's ''clean energy pathway'', Climate Change Minister Greg Combet's ''clean coal'' and ''renewable'' mantra, and former prime minister Kevin Rudd's concern for ''the greatest ethical problem facing humanity'' are merely symbolic gestures and political spin.
The International Energy Agency's calculations indicate that to avoid climate change ''tipping points'' and to avert environmental disasters, annual energy-related greenhouse gas emissions must not exceed 32 gigatonnes by the year 2020. Our own calculations indicate for Australia, steadily decreasing a carbon price of $7 per tonne of coal will facilitate the introduction of nuclear power into the country and help achieve all the nation's carbon abatement goals. An energy policy based on clean coal and renewables will see only a steady rise in the carbon price to hundreds of dollars without any significant carbon abatement but with a concomitant loss in energy security. The recent Productivity Commission's report on carbon pricing has confirmed these issues.
The UN climate panel has proposed that the world should halve its carbon-dioxide emissions by the year 2050. At the request of the Group of Eight countries - Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, Britain and the US - the International Energy Agency produced a report detailing the optimal solution path to this objective. It is focused on nuclear power and plays down the effectiveness of clean coal and renewables.
Australia is a country hungry for energy and thirsty for water. The nation's sustainable development, its value-adding industries and its rural production are largely dependent on these two commodities. And now, among the world's leading scientists and engineers, there is a growing consensus that a greenhouse-gas-free and cost-effective supply of energy, water and even hydrogen can be best sourced from a ''generation four'' nuclear power plant. And the generation costs would be a fraction of that related to renewables or clean coal. Electricity could be produced at under 2¢ a kilowatt hour and typically potable water at under $2 per cubic metre.
In 2011, on the 25th anniversary of the nuclear accident in Chernobyl, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, summed up the present global civilian nuclear power situation as follows: ''Today, nuclear power is the only real alternative to fossil fuels as a source of sustainable and reliable supply.'' To this he added: ''Fukushima represents a potentially significant setback to nuclear power'' but stressed that ''confidence would be re-established in due course'', saying ''Chernobyl and Fukushima will be shown to be aberrations''.
>> Professor Leslie Kemeny is the Australian foundation member of the International Nuclear Energy Academy. He was the Australian observer and assessor at Chernobyl, which he visited in 1987.