Australia’s nuclear agency has just revealed that it brokered a short term deal for our radioactive waste problem: the US has agreed to accept shipments of nuclear waste. This decision removes a major barrier to the approval of a replacement for the Lucas Heights reactor and reopens the debate on Australia’s involvement in the international nuclear industry more broadly.
This is significant because a dangerous myth that nuclear power is a cheap, environmentally friendly solution to our future electricity needs has been circulating again. With some strategic PR from the uranium lobby and conservative think tanks, a range of credible media outlets have recently broached this debate as a response to the Kyoto Protocol’s imminent entry into force. It is about time the breathtaking deceit of attempting to repackage nuclear electricity as a “green energy solution” was exposed once and for all.
The government’s energy policy statement in June 2004 claimed that nuclear technology “can deliver electricity with virtually zero emissions”. This is a distortion.
No electricity is currently being produced from nuclear power in Australia. In fact the industry substantially contributes to our greenhouse gas emissions due to its massive electricity requirements to extract, process and transport uranium ore. And where does this electricity come from? From burning fossil fuels. The electricity used to just process ore at Roxby Downs copper and uranium mine contributes over one million tonnes of greenhouse gases every year, enough to earn it the title of the largest single emission source, other than for domestic power needs, in South Australia.
The corporate spin produced by the industry glosses over the fact that the Australian public currently provides multi-million dollar subsidies to uranium mining. These subsidies include direct tax breaks and exploration credits as well as indirect subsidies through its free rein to use and pollute our publicly owned natural resources. Roxby Downs has free access to its daily use of over 30 million litres of water from the Great Artesian Basin. Meanwhile, Ranger uranium mine has yet to be prosecuted for over 120 spills and leaks of radioactive waste that may jeopardise the World Heritage listing of the neighbouring Kakadu National Park.
When these aforementioned subsidies are removed, and the costs to decommission nuclear reactors and to manage its long-lived radioactive wastes are factored in, electricity generated from nuclear power is more expensive than coal, natural gas or wind power. However, unlike decentralised natural gas plants or wind farms, which can be built to a small, specified size and be in operation within one or two years, nuclear reactors take up to a decade to build and are highly constrained in their installation capacity. Nuclear power stations have to be built on a massive scale, a factor that could exacerbate an oversupply of electricity in Australia.
Moreover, the costs of developing the nuclear industry in Australia would escalate wildly due to the appeal to terrorists of targeting nuclear-related infrastructure. The appeal would be directed towards the sites of uranium extraction, refining and transportation as well as nuclear reactors themselves. This concern compounds the problems associated with the increased risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. Another uncertain cost relates to the radioactive waste produced given that Australia has no recognised long-term storage capacity for the wastes that remain highly toxic for hundreds of years.
The most economical way of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is to remove the perverse economic incentives that currently encourage us to waste energy in the first place. Energy efficiency activities cost a fraction of additional electricity generation, immediately reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and could be implemented without an impact on our overall level of energy service. Through energy efficiency measures, in combination with the use of renewable energy sources and switching from coal-fired power stations to less polluting natural gas and cogeneration installations, we can begin to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in an environmentally friendly manner.
The recent public backlash against the location of a radioactive waste dump in Australia indicates the public’s rightful scepticism about the real costs of encouraging any activities relating to the nuclear industry in Australia. Nuclear power was not, and never will be, an acceptable technological fix for our energy crisis.
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