18/03/2010 - 00:00

Folly to rule out nuclear power on price

18/03/2010 - 00:00


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Recent criticism of the nuclear power industry’s prospects called into question.

THE most compelling argument for nuclear energy has nothing to do with climate science. The most compelling argument for nuclear power has to be the economics of energy generation. I shall outline here the economic benefits, the renaissance of the nuclear energy industry, the safety issues and the progress in nuclear technology.

The price of electricity is increasing. In Western Australia, the average power bill will rise by $220 next year and gas will cost families about $35 dollars a year more. For nuclear energy to become a reality it has to be economically viable. With increasing power prices, the argument for nuclear becomes more compelling each day.

Consider this thought on the viability of nuclear energy; if the cost of nuclear were indeed prohibitive, there would be no need to outlaw nuclear energy by legislation. After all, what company would build an uncompetitive power station?

When you run the numbers, nuclear power is an economically competitive technology. It is significantly cheaper than wind or solar, though it is marginally more expensive than coal.

The capital costs associated with nuclear power are more than for coal and, more significantly, greater than for gas, but these are outweighed when it comes to the fuel cost.

A briefing by General Electric (which builds nuclear power stations, gas-fired power and wind and solar) indicated that, in the case of the US, nuclear power was the cheapest method of generating power. Similarly in South Africa, Eskom, the utility providing 95 per cent of the nation’s electricity, the data show nuclear being the cheapest method of power generation, despite abundant cheap coal.

The US has begun opening up new nuclear stations under US President Barack Obama, the UK is opening up new nuclear stations, and South Korea has recently opened up 10 new reactors. Nuclear power is the economically viable choice for base load power.

President Obama has committed the US to a significant expansion in its commercial nuclear power industry, a process that halted after the Three Mile Island partial meltdown in 1979 (no lives were lost and no injuries resulted from this accident). Interestingly, Kevin Rudd, in stark contrast, will not even countenance a detailed debate on the issue in the Australian context.

There are some inherent contradictions and breakdowns in logic in Mr Rudd’s attitude. There are no valid reasons for banning nuclear power in the Australian context, but he is blinkered by a 1970s anti-nuclear mindset.

If Mr Rudd genuinely believes that nuclear power presents a clear danger for Australia, then I believe that he is being grossly irresponsible, to say the least, not only to continue to export uranium, but open the first new mine in years.

While it is true that nuclear power has had a relative hiatus during the past couple of decades, it is a fact that there are massive expansions in the pipeline, in the US, Europe and Asia. Australia stands to lose by not being in the game, both in power generation and in the intellectual capacity to be able to compete in this rapidly advancing technological industry.

New nuclear power stations can be constructed and operational within five years of the first sod being turned, but approvals tend to slow the process down (regardless of the technology employed). It should be remembered that the first commercial nuclear power station began generating electricity a mere 12 years after the first atom bomb. There was no corporate memory on how to achieve nuclear power generation – they had to start from scratch. This was an amazing achievement.

The economic benefit of nuclear power is self-evident. The final decision on which technology to use should be made by the generators, and thus the market.

As such, the legislation should encompass issues relating to safety and emissions, but not prescribe what method may or may not be employed to generate electricity.

Despite the best attempts of Green groups, the question of safety is no longer an issue. New generation 4 reactors designs will be built to such a level of safety specification that the physics of a melt down are impossible. Advanced Generation III reactors, similarly, have an extremely high safety factor. Simply put, the safety of these reactors renders the safety arguments for not using nuclear power irrelevant.

I noted that in, in his opinion piece in WA Business News (March 4), John Jacob stated in terms of decommissioning of nuclear power stations: “…You switch off the lights, lock the doors, and then nobody ever, ever goes there – ever again”.

This is arrant nonsense. The fact is there are many nuclear power stations undergoing decommission worldwide. In the US alone, seven commercial nuclear power stations have been completely decommissioned and returned to Greenfield status, meaning that the site can be used for any purpose including, dare I say, construction of a school or playground.

The issue of waste disposal is a major consideration with nuclear energy. At present, there is a permanent repository under way in Sweden, but at present there are no others. The issue is one of a lack of political will.

For the past 50 years the spent fuel has been stored in cooling ponds. Technology is moving on, however, and the fact that no fuel has yet been permanently sequestered may be a blessing in disguise.

Some Generation IV reactor designs use a fast-neutron process, meaning all the uranium is used, rather than just the U235. Thus, the spent fuel rods will become a resource. When the fuel is depleted in these fast neutron reactors, the waste form has a much shorter storage period than that required for current waste.

Something to think about when shaping our future energy market.

Dr Dennis Jensen is the federal member for Tangney.


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