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 be a good time to be advocating nuclear power. Yet I am coming to the conclusion 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 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 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.
Reams of climate data tell us severe consequences are coming in the next 50 years if we don’t lower emissions. Green technologies are not quite ready to fix the problem. Protectionism of fossil fuel technologies hasn’t helped but the best evidence is 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 like cheap international travel, internet access, or private transport. Short of human catastrophe directly attributable to global warming, change will be slow as the history of climate change international negotiation shows.

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. Nuclear power has nothing to do with morality. What is moral or ought to be, is consistency in uranium and waste policy.

Issues creating nuclear power and disposing after effects could be resolved with the proceeds of a carbon tax. The Liberals 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 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 thinks, the Greens have been a positive force in politics. 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 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 means we are considerably weakening our options to deal with the problems. The Australian right only seriously considers nuclear power as a wedge to taunt Labor. The three major parties perpetuate the fiction Australian is not a nuclear power despite its uranium exports, Lucas Heights and the likelihood of nukes at Pine Gap and visiting American warships. The Australian Greens’ policy is a monument to pious thinking and not a solution to real world problems.

The Greens have five principals that deal with nuclear power.

1. “There is a strong link between the mining and export of uranium and nuclear weapons proliferation.”
This is a weak first principle. It seeks to show people can’t be trusted with nuclear power. 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. Nuclear weapons haven’t been used in war since 1945 though many times as exercises (see Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto’s 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 4,000 deaths 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 the Greens don’t want to ban hydroelectrical power because of possible accidents.

The third part of that second policy principal deals with terrorist actions, which remains a 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 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 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 nuclear power company Marathon Resourcing says is the equivalent to 100 double-decker buses.

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 again. 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. They are expensive but so will be any solution that envisages humans keeping 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 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 nuclear power policy.

These five principals are not wrong individually. But they are weak arguments given the cards we’ve been dealt with. Longer term, renewable energy is easily the most sensible solution. But until we overcome the variability of solar and wind power production, land area required, and the NIMBY fights to get there, nuclear power is 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 built better on the Pacific Rim.


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