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Nuclear power: time for a reasoned debate

By Dennis Jensen - posted Tuesday, 28 June 2005

A crisis point is approaching in oil production and consumption. There will come a time where demand will outstrip supply and the most viable alternative energy source is nuclear energy.

There is a culture of fear surrounding revisiting the nuclear debate. The images of Chernobyl still permeate the minds of many, and while this was a tragic event in the world’s history, the type of technology used at that plant has been abandoned.

The media consistently reminds us that an alternative energy source must not come from nuclear, but from so-called “green” sources - wind, tidal or solar power options - but which are economically unviable and unsustainable for the amount of energy we need to produce. We need to explore the reasons why these options can no longer be at the forefront of public policy on energy and why, in their place, there should be an action plan for nuclear energy.


Tidal power has been mentioned as a method of generating power, particularly in Derby in the northwest of Western Australia where there are 12-metre tides. The amount of power that would be generated by such a proposal is only about 48 megawatts, or 48 million watts, of tidal power. The problem is to generate enough power to meet Australia’s current needs you would need 900 tidal power stations like the one proposed for Derby.

Another method is wind power. Using state-of-the-art wind turbines - and anyone who has been down to Albany or Esperance would know that they are huge structures - we would need 22,500 to generate Australia’s current electricity needs.

There have been proposals for ocean current power, particularly with the Leeuwin River, but they are at the embryonic stage.

Solar power is often touted as a solution to Australia’s energy needs, but research and analysis shows this method of energy production to be just as unviable as tidal and wind power. To generate Australia’s power needs using solar cells - and let us assume that we are using space grade solar cells that are 30 per cent efficient - we would need a solar cell array of approximately 50 kilometres by 50 kilometres of solar cells - not very practical.

There are literally hundreds of nuclear power stations around the world and only 31 fatalities for each terawatt of energy produced a year. These fatalities are those of workers and are related to unsafe procedures. In comparison to other forms of energy production, such fatalities and accidents are very rare in the nuclear industry.

For coal fired power stations, there are 342 fatalities for each terawatt year. They are predominantly related to the coal workers actually extracting the coal. This number would be far worse if these figures included where there were fewer than five fatalities per incident.


With oil, the number is 418. With natural gas, it is somewhat lower with 85 fatalities for each terawatt year, and this includes both workers and the public. Incidentally, LPG related fatalities are extremely high - 3,280 for each terawatt year of electricity generated; with hydroelectricity - a method that some in the green movement like and some hate - there are 883 fatalities per terawatt year. This predominantly involves the public due to collapsing dams.

We have seen some of the bad methods of attempting to dispose of nuclear waste, such as dropping drums overboard from ships or putting it in concrete and then having to wet down the concrete continually to prevent excessive heat build-up so the concrete doesn’t turn to dust. However, now there is a marvellous Australian invention that can be used to dispose of waste - a product called Synroc.

This material was the result of the discovery of naturally occurring plutonium in West Africa, which hitherto was unknown. Being a highly radioactive material there was a lot of interest in how this material could be stored stably within the structure of the rock. The Australian National University had a look at the structure of the rock and, together with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, came up with a synthetic analogue. They then developed the material, Synroc, (which stands for synthetic rock). This is a material that allows you to store high grade nuclear waste for geological time periods, and the nuclear material will not leach in water.

The current methods of generating power release more pollutants in the air to generate the hydrogen that we require. Nuclear power is something we must consider. There needs to be a reasoned debate on nuclear energy - one conducted without emotion, based on evidence.

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First published in The Party Room, Issue 1, winter edition 2005.

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About the Author

Dr Dennis Jensen is the Liberal federal member for Tangney in Western Australia. A former air traffic controller, CSIRO and later Defence research scientist, and defence analyst, he was widely recognised as one of the rising stars on John Howard’s backbench. He’s played an important part in Australia’s air capability debate.

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