Monday, March 14, 2011

Why now is not the time to oppose nuclear technology

With Fukushima No 1, 2 and now 3 plant on the verge of meltdown now might not seem to be a good time to be advocating nuclear power. Yet I am coming to the conclusion that environmentalists like Lovelock are right. If we don’t go nuclear, we are toast. When scientists have good data that says the planet’s temperatures are heading into unknown territory and we don’t seem to want to change our ways, then at the very least we should have a bloody good Plan B. Despite the longer-term potential of solar and wind power, nuclear power is the best proven Plan B we currently have. (picture NTV Japan)

As Japan is proving, nuclear fission is a flawed technology. Yet Chernobyl aside, it has killed only a handful of people since the 1950s despite providing now 15 percent of the world’s electricity and 6 percent of the world's energy. Ever since the CND and Greenham Common, nuclear power has been an emotional talisman for the green movement. Opposition to it is one of its fundamentals and an almost taboo subject of discussion. The Greens, who in Australia are the most steadfast voices for recognising the problem of climate change, refuse to acknowledge the single most advanced technology we have for solving it in the short term.

Unassailable reams of climate data tells us that severe consequences are coming in the next 50 years if we don't do anything about our emissions. Green technologies are not quite ready to step up to the plate to fix the problem. Protectionism of fossil fuel technologies hasn’t helped but the best evidence is that we are 50 years away from renewable sources providing base load electricity that supports our current lifestyle. Renewable power stations will also be just as expensive and will face the same NIMBY issues as nuclear ones do.

Rebellion against that lifestyle motivates many Greens. But most humans, a majority of Greens included, are not yet prepared to give away improvements in technologies such as cheap international travel, internet access, or private transport. Short of some sort of human catastrophe we can all agree is attributable to global warming, the history of climate change international negotiation shows that change will be painfully slow.

Nuclear power is a way of confronting this problem, now. As Crikey editorialised today, the expense of setting up nuclear power is the biggest issue the industry has (though nuclear waste is not far behind as illegal dumping of radioactive waste by mafia groups such as the 'Ndrangheta is a huge law enforcement issue). Nuclear power has nothing to do with morality. What is moral or ought to be, is consistency with uranium and waste policy.

Both problems of creating nuclear power and disposing of its after effects could be resolved with the proceeds of a carbon tax though as yet no one is advocating this. The Libs would be the obvious candidate to suggest this possibility, but their implacable opposition to the tax means no one dares suggest that publicly.

Labor is just as equivocal as the liberals and their party website studiously avoids policy discussion on the subject. Only party extremists on either end such as Martin Ferguson and Peter Garrett could claim to have a coherent policy on nuclear power. Those in the middle equivocate according to the arguments du jour.

Regardless of what The Australian newspaper thinks, the Greens have been a very positive force in politics with their positions on climate change. It’s never a popular position to stand up as a Cassandra and warn of the problem if we don’t change our ways. For this reason, the Greens will never be popular enough to form Government in their own right without significantly ditching many core parts of their agenda.

Their ideological purity allows them to carry most ideas through to logical conclusions without the need for compromise. It’s no surprise to find they are the most inherently coherent party on most aspects of the conversion to a green economy. Yet there is one blind spot to their argument.

The near religious hold “no nuclear power” has on the green movement and many in the Australian Labor Party means we are considerably weakening our options to deal with the problems when they will inevitably arise. The Opposition is no better. The Australian right only seriously considers nuclear power as a wedge to taunt Labor. Together the three major parties perpetuate the fiction Australian is not a nuclear power despite its uranium exports, Lucas Heights facility and the likelihood of nukes at Pine Gap and visiting American warships. The Australian Greens policy remains a monument to pious thinking and not a solution to real world problems.

The Greens have five principals that deal with nuclear power worth exploring in more detail.

1. "There is a strong link between the mining and export of uranium and nuclear weapons proliferation."
This is true enough but is a weak first principle. It seeks to show that people can’t be trusted with nuclear power which is a fault of the people and not of the tool. Mutually assured destruction is not much fun for anymore, but it remains an important tactic for smaller powers to threaten larger ones. Take away nuclear power and they will find other weapons to achieve the same result. As alcohol prohibitionists found out, banning something is not the way to stop it.

2. "The consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, or of catastrophic accidents at, or terrorist attacks on, nuclear power stations, are so great that the risks are unacceptably high."
Much of this is a repeat of the first principle. The rest is hyperbole despite the current crisis. Nuclear weapons haven’t been used in war since 1945 though many times as exercises (see Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto’s astonishing 14 minute timelapse of all 2053 nuclear explosion between 1945 and 1998). There have been a few catastrophic accidents. But no deaths or serious injuries have ever been attributed to radiation from a Western civil nuclear power plant. Three Mile Island is one of only two meltdowns in the US (Fermi 1 was the other) and neither suffered loss of life.

The IAEA’s International Nuclear Event Scale goes from 0 (no safety issues) to 7 (major accident). The 1986 failure of Reactor 4 at Prypiat, Ukraine, better known as the Chernobyl Disaster is the only INES 7 accident yet recorded with a possible 4,000 deaths recorded caused directly or indirectly by the incident. This was a tragedy of the first rank but it says more about Soviet industry standards than it does about nuclear power. Other power sources in Russia are just as vulnerable. In the 1999 disaster at the largest hydroelectric power station in the country Sayano-Shuskensky in southern Russia seven people died. If the 240m dam had collapsed, hundreds of thousands in the cities below the dam would also have been in jeopardy. Yet there is no talk of The Greens wanting to ban hydroelectrical power because of the possibility of accidents.

The third part of that second policy principal deals with terrorist actions, which remains a potential threat. But again, banning something simply because terrorists use it, is not a problem limited to nuclear power.

3. "Future generations must not be burdened with high level radioactive waste.” This is a noble gesture but it begs the question: what is the extent of the burden? Waste comes from both the front and back end of the nuclear process. The front end waste depleted uranium is used in highly destructive weapons that are morally repulsive but it also has practical applications such as in the keel of yachts. The back end waste, spent fuel rods, is the heavy hitting stuff. The amount of High Level Waste worldwide is increasing by 12,000 metric tons a year, which says nuclear power company Marathon Resourcing is the equivalent to about 100 double-decker buses 100 double-decker buses. As an industry body, it is no surprise to hear them say it is “modest compared with other industrial wastes.” But they might be right. London currently has the largest of double decker buses with about 1200 buses which if put together would amount to 12 years of high level nuclear waste. The burden seems small on this evidence.

4. "Nuclear power is not a safe, clean, timely, economic or practical solution to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions".
The fear factor of safety returns to the ideas in the first three principles. How safe is not addressing global emissions by use of nuclear power? The word “clean” is a platitude presented without any evidence. “Timely” is questionable but has some merit. A nuclear power plant would take 12-15 years to commission and build, a small period of time given the consequences of inaction. They are expensive to build but so will be any solution that envisages humans keep up their energy usage-intensive lifestyles. As for nuclear being not a “practical solution”, go ask any of the world’s 440 commercial nuclear power stations in 30 countries, even those ones that are built on geological faultlines.

5. "Australia's reliance on the US nuclear weapons 'umbrella' lends our bases, ports and infrastructure to the US nuclear war fighting apparatus."
This final argument has nothing to do with nuclear power. Australia’s ANZUS agreement lends our bases to US nuclear war fighting apparatus regardless of our policy on nuclear power. The agreement needs to be understood in what it purports to be protecting Australia from and not what it protecting Australia with. Fight the agreement if this is wrong and not a tool used to enforce it.

These five principals are not wrong individually. It’s just that they are weak arguments given the current deck of cards we’ve been dealt with. Longer term, renewable energy is easily the most sensible solution. But we’ve got to get to that longer term first. Until we overcome the variability of solar and wind power production, land area required, and the NIMBY fights to get there, nuclear power is far and away the best proven technology to achieve base and peak load in an emission-free way. Nuclear reactors will never kill as many people as a nature’s earthquakes or tsunami, they just need to be a bit better built on the Pacific Rim.

1 comment:

calyptorhynchus said...

Actually, every moment since 1945 has been the moment to oppose nuclear.