Warming to nuclear option
Nuclear power could be the best way to a clean energy future and to mitigate climate change. Photo: Ralph Orlowski
Australia's 12th and most recent Nobel prize winner, Professor Brian Schmidt of the Australian National University, has recently emphasised the vital role that science and technology must play in shaping public policy. He declared that ''I think that science should inform public policy which should then accept it as a most important input''. He then went on to state that ''I would like politicians to reflect on the consensus of what scientists are saying … I think it is very easy for policy makers to start debating scientific issues which they are ill-equipped to deal with''.
To international energy experts that shaping of Australia's climate-change policy appears to be the product of political pragmatism and green pseudo-science. Readers of The Canberra Times may well be impressed by an article such as ''ACT to get Australia's biggest solar power plant'' (September 6, p2). But are they aware that the cost of their energy could escalate by a factor of eight? And would they be advised that their supply would be unreliable and insecure unless their 10 megawatt solar plant was permanently connected to the NSW baseload grid?
Amazingly more than 50 years ago, Australia was set to become the first country south of the equator to build and operate a nuclear power station. And global climate change was unambiguously identified by researchers at the School of Nuclear Engineering at the University of NSW as early as 1982. Working with an international network of both universities and national laboratories, this group helped to establish the validity of the causal relationship between chemical combustion and global mean temperature rise.
They also clearly demonstrated that uranium, thorium and plutonium would emerge by the end of the 1990s as the new clean energy paradigms. A host of peer reviewed and internationally published and acclaimed scientific papers followed. ''A review of the Global Environment Impact of Fossil and Nuclear Fuel'' was published in Mathematics and Computers in Simulation XXIV (1982) by this author and received critical international acclaim. Despite references to the work in Canberra, it proved to be politically inconvenient and was generally ignored in Australia. Also ignored were pioneering publications on desalination and nuclear heat sources for industry.
In particular, it was established that Australia lacks a sensible clean energy policy with a vision for the needs of a nation with a population in excess of 35,000,000 by 2050. A ''big'' Australia needs to rely on clean nuclear power for cost-effective carbon pollution reduction and energy security. Only this energy source can provide industry and domestic users with electricity at a generating cost below $3 per megawatt hour and potable water production at under $2 per cubic metre. This is why China is only too willing to export cheap solar photovoltaic panels and wind turbines to Australia, while building cost-effective clean and secure nuclear plant domestically.
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 100 gigawatts. Of this at least one quarter should be nuclear to meet the United Nations 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 estimates that during 2010 some 30.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide poured into the Earth's atmosphere as a result of burning fossil fuels. This represents an increase of around 1.6 gigatonnes over the 2009 levels despite the economic impacts 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 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change goals of a mean global maximum temperature rise of not more than two degrees with a carbon concentration below 450 parts per million. These targets cannot be attained without nuclear power.
In 2012 it is just as foolish to be a ''nuclear denier'' as ''climate sceptic''. Recently, the IEA released a major report, which confirmed 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 stated: ''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 Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson, has often endorsed this view. Recently he chaired a meeting of the IEA where he stated: ''The only proven form of clean energy of a baseload and a reliable nature is actually nuclear from a global point of view.''
Calculations by the IEA 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 carbon price to hundreds of dollars without any significant carbon abatement but with a concomitant loss in energy security. The recent Australian Productivity Commission Report on Carbon Pricing has confirmed these issues.
Consider the immense contribution to greenhouse gas emission minimisation made by nuclear energy in 2010. In that year the global electricity produced by the world's 435 nuclear power stations was 2.398 terawatt hours or 16 per cent of total electricity generation or more than 5 per cent of the total primary energy production. The amount of avoided carbon dioxide emission because of the use of nuclear energy in 2009 was 2.6 billion tonnes. This is 10 per cent of total emissions. Almost one quarter of this emission came from China, a country which now has the technology for optimal carbon reduction and is marketing nuclear power stations the world over.
The European group E3G published its economic analysis, ''G20 Low Carbon Competitiveness''. It placed Australia as the ''lowest ranked'' major industrialised country in terms of its ability to generate wealth for its community in a carbon-constrained world. It placed France at the top of the list for its competitiveness in a clean-energy world and showed that this nuclear-powered nation gets three times as much GDP for each tonne of its carbon emissions than Australia. The Gillard government must resist the naive Green concept of replacing Australia's hydrocarbon-fuelled electricity industry with ''renewables''. This could lead to an enormous energy cost and the destruction of the nation's productivity.
Recently, I spoke to Dr Chen Xinyang, president of China Nuclear Energy Industry. He confirmed that China has an amazing energy and carbon reduction policy based largely on nuclear power. Eleven nuclear power plants are already in operation. It is planned to have 70 gigawatts of nuclear electricity by 2030. China is developing an energy policy based on the gradual replacement of its immensely polluting coal-fired plant with nuclear. At the same time, it is ensuring its security with Australian uranium.
When will the Australian government and opposition learn this lesson?
Professor Leslie G Kemeny is the Australian Foundation member of the International Nuclear Energy Academy, a Senior Academic Research Fellow and an internationally acknowledged consulting nuclear scientist and engineer.