With the Glasgow climate summit approaching and the government’s announcement that Australia would buy nuclear-powered submarines instead of diesel, the nuclear industry and News Corp have predictably renewed their campaign for nuclear power stations in Australia.
This is of concern, because every dollar invested in nuclear power makes the climate crisis worse by diverting investment from renewable energy technologies. Having recently participated in a nuclear debate, I report here on the pro-nuclear arguments and expose their weaknesses.
The old baseload myth
Nuclear proponents still claim that electricity grids need baseload power stations, such as coal or nuclear, that can run 24/7 at full rated power, except when they break down or undergo maintenance and refuelling.
But, as readers of RenewEconomy know, the variability of wind and solar can be balanced with storage, new transmission links, demand response, and/or flexible power stations that can start up in seconds to minutes and can vary their output rapidly.
The latter include hydroelectricity with a single dam, pumped hydro (with two dams), other forms of gravitational energy storage, batteries, concentrated solar thermal with storage, and open-cycle gas turbines that can burn biofuels and green hydrogen and ammonia.
Despite the claims of proponents, modern nuclear reactors cannot compete in flexibility with the above technologies and measures. Furthermore, operating in a slightly flexible mode carries economic penalties for nuclear, whose electricity already costs 3–5 times that of wind and solar PV––see Lazard and CSIRO.
Dark doldrums (Dunkelflaute in German) are extended periods of low wind and solar. In the debate, a pro-nuclear speaker modified the baseload myth by claiming falsely that a recent report on dark doldrums by the leading German solar energy research organisation, the Fraunhofer Institute, admits that solar energy has failed.
However, the only report on dark doldrums by that institute identifies the issues and then sets out the solutions to maintaining generation reliability, namely the flexible technologies and methods listed above.
Health impacts of nuclear accidents
Another misleading pro-nuclear statement revived following the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in 2011 is that no excess cancer incidence has been observed around Fukushima, implying that no cancers will be induced. The logical error is to assume that the absence of evidence implies no impact.
It is still too early for most types of cancer, which have latent periods of 20–60 years, to appear around Fukushima. The only cancers likely to appear within a decade after exposure are thyroid cancer and leukemia.
A large increase in thyroid cancers has been observed in the region, but their cause is debated by some on the grounds that the increase could be the result of better screening. Leukemia is an uncommon disease and so even a large percentage increase would be impossible to verify statistically with high confidence (see UNSCEAR 2020).
Fortunately for the citizens of Tokyo, the wind was mostly blowing offshore during the meltdowns of three of the six Fukushima reactors, sending about 80 per cent of the emitted radioactive material out over the Pacific.
Soon after the disaster an exclusion zone was established around the power station and more than 100,000 people evacuated. For these reasons, Fukushima tells us very little about radiation-induced cancers.
The Chernobyl Forum, a group dominated by the International Atomic Energy Agency, estimated that the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 could be responsible for “up to 4000 cancer deaths” in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. However, the disaster also sprayed radionuclides over large areas of Europe outside those countries.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (Cardis et al. 2006) estimated that the disaster would be responsible for 16,000 cancer deaths in Europe by 2065.
Another estimate, by a team of medical researchers and practitioners in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia (Yablokov et al. 2006), found that the total number of deaths in their countries could be an order of magnitude higher, but a quantitative estimate was probably impossible due to uncertainties in the total quantities of radionuclides emitted, geographic distribution of radioactivity, and limitations in medical diagnosis and monitoring.
Most of the evidence that low-level radiation is carcinogenic comes from detailed studies of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, medical professionals who worked with radiation, uranium miners, children who received CT scans, children living near nuclear power stations, and children who were exposed in utero in the bad old days when pregnant women were routinely x-rayed.
This is the basis of the linear-no-threshold model, the scientific understanding that the number of cancers induced by ionising radiation is proportional to the dose received and that there’s no threshold.
Was the Fukushima disaster “natural”?
Pro-nuclear campaigners claim that the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi was entirely the fault of the tsunami, that it was all just “a natural event”.
Yet the choice of technology cannot be exonerated, because it resulted in mass evacuation, compensation payments (huge in total but inadequate for individuals), destruction of the local agriculture and fishing industries, temporary loss of national tourism, temporary collapse of the electricity grid, massive removal of radioactive soil and vegetation, a multi-decades-long continuing process to decommission the reactors, and the need to import vast quantities of fossil fuels. (The latter would have been greatly reduced if the government’s prior commitment to nuclear energy hadn’t resulted in its neglect of renewables.)
Total costs have been estimated at over US$500 billion, while the nuclear power station was insured for only US$1.5 billion.
The scale of the disaster resulted from the choice of nuclear technology. Yet at Kamisu, on the coast to the south of Fukushima, a wind farm located in the surf survived the tsunami and continued to generate electricity until the grid went down.
Furthermore, the UK supplemented its military-produced weapons-grade plutonium with plutonium reprocessed from its first generation of nuclear power stations. In France, the military and civil nuclear industries are entwined.
In addition, the following countries used “peaceful” nuclear energy to commence the development of nuclear weapons, but fortunately discontinued their programs: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, South Korea, Sweden and Taiwan, and probably Algeria and Libya. For Australia’s attempt in the 1960s, see the books by Richard Broinowski and Wayne Reynolds.
Nuclear submarines built by the USA and UK use highly enriched uranium that could be used directly in nuclear weapons. The AUKUS alliance could lead to increased pressure from members of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the Lowy Institute and others for Australia to develop nuclear weapons.
Even if the Australian government rejects that scenario, the perception exists and AUKUS could lead to a regional nuclear arms race.
The standard pro-nuclear line is that the sum total of all the world’s nuclear wastes occupies a very small volume and therefore, by implication, is not a major problem. But nowhere in the world is there an operating, long-term, underground repository for high-level wastes.
Furthermore, the pro-nuclear line ignores the vast volumes of low-level wastes at uranium mines that are uncovered allowing radioactive dust to blow in the wind. The waste mountain at the Olympic Dam uranium-copper mine is already over 150 million tonnes.
Although the number of cancers caused annually will be very small, the total summed over thousands of years will be large.
High-level nuclear power wastes are stored temporarily in pools of water at nuclear power stations. The USA spent US$13.5 billion preparing an underground repository at an unsuitable site, Yucca Mountain, and then had to abandon it.
Retired nuclear power stations have highly radioactive sections and are a major nuclear waste problem. The cost of decommissioning them and managing their wastes is comparable with their construction cost, but the nuclear industry only pays a fraction.
Small Modular Reactors
The nuclear industry is nowadays creating the false impression that new reactors exist that could solve the above major problems of existing reactors while contributing to climate mitigation.
The main hypotheticals are the so-called “small modular reactors” (SMRs), small enough to be distributed around a country and modular in the sense that they could be mass-produced by the thousand in factories and erected rapidly.
However, the actual situation is that SMRs don’t exist — they are paper reactors fuelled on hot air. They could not be installed in Australia for at least 15 years, if ever. By that time, given the political will, we could have an electricity system that’s entirely powered by renewable energy, mainly solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind, supplemented by hydro.
The reason why past and current generations of commercial nuclear power reactors are very big is to obtain economies of scale. Nuclear costs have been increasing while wind and especially solar costs continue to fall.
SMRs would have to be mass-produced in hundreds, possibly thousands, to overcome the loss of economy of scale and, even then, their electricity would at best cost much the same as from existing big nuclear power reactors.
There are no orders for multiple SMRs and that’s fortunate because the risk of proliferation would be greatly increased by distributing SMRs around the countryside. Reducing proliferation risk or increasing safety or improving waste management would all increase cost.
Another tactic used by nuclear supporters in recent years is based on “energy density”, the claim that 100 per cent renewable electricity scenarios would occupy vast areas of land, compete with food production and reduce biodiversity.
Yet the reality is that most wind and solar farms are erected on agricultural or marginal land. Although wind farms can span large areas, the land area actually occupied by the turbines, access roads and substation typically amounts to 1 to 2 per cent of the land spanned.
Wind farms are compatible with agriculture. Although the presence of solar farms excludes some forms of agriculture, they can be erected sufficiently high above ground for sheep to shelter beneath them. Both wind and solar farms contribute valuable rent to farmers. And, of course, rooftop solar occupies no land.
Too slow for climate mitigation
If national governments commit to net zero emissions by 2050 (which is likely to be too late for keeping global heating below 1.5 degrees), then they must achieve zero emissions from all energy (electricity, transport and heat) by about 2040. This is because energy is the least difficult sector to transition to zero emissions.
Agriculture and non-energy industrial processes will need more time to reduce emissions and, if possible, to capture carbon dioxide in order to offset emissions they cannot reduce.
Achieving zero energy emissions by 2040 entails achieving zero emissions from electricity by 2035, because electrifying transport and heat will take longer than transitioning electricity to renewables. Wind and solar farms can be planned and built in just three years.
Introducing nuclear power to Australia — including convincing the electorate, local governments and local populations, and building the infrastructure — would take at least 15 years, while taking financial resources away from renewables.
So new nuclear power stations could not contribute in time to assist the rapid electricity transition needed for climate mitigation. And once 100 per cent renewable electricity is established with the bulk of energy generation by cheap solar and wind, nuclear power could not compete economically. It’s a technology whose time has passed.