04/03/2010 - 00:00

Hidden costs hurt the nuclear argument

04/03/2010 - 00:00


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The pro-nuclear lobby isn’t telling us the whole story about this ‘clean’ energy supply.

IT has been suggested that Western Australia seriously considers its future with regard to nuclear power.

Unlimited clean energy from fuel mined in our own state sounds ideal. Compared to coal, nuclear energy produces only a tiny fraction of the CO2 emissions, mostly from trucks used to extract and transport the uranium.

Whereas burning coal disperses a significant amount and variety of radioactive elements into the atmosphere, nuclear power generators operate in a way that keeps it all safely contained. Nuclear energy also does not introduce chemicals into the air (such as sulfur compounds) that can produce acid rain.

And since just one kilogram of uranium can generate as much energy as 2,200 tonnes of coal, the electricity should be dirt cheap, right? We’ll get to the cost of nuclear power later.

First I’d like you to take this quiz to see if nuclear energy is right for you in this state. Place a tick next to each statement that accurately describes WA, or an ‘X’ over those items that do not describe this state.

1. Nuclear energy is the most highly concentrated form of energy known. That is important for places that don’t have a lot of space, and where one or two massive power generators must do for a highly concentrated population. Is your State’s population density among the highest in the world?

2. Nuclear power stations function as base load suppliers of electricity. Does your state have a 24-hour economy that never sleeps? Do you have factories and shops that never close? Does your government allow individuals to purchase fruity rings, milk and tomato soup at 3am, should they feel so inclined? (Hey, everyone in America does it.)

3. Nuclear power stations are best left running, even when local demand for electricity is light (such as cooler weather, weekends and holidays). Does your state have any close neighbours to whom it can sell excess electricity?

4. Nuclear power stations work best when connected to a large, highly interconnected electricity grid more than capable of handling the highest peak loads, and for which outages are rare events. Every cell of customers is connected to the grid via at least two routes, and reliability is high. Is this the case in WA?

5. Nuclear energy is particularly attractive for places that have an acute shortage of cheaper forms of energy, such as gas and sunshine. Does WA have supplies of either of these resources?

I don’t know about you, but my copy of the WA Business News now has five big ‘Xs’ on it. Is WA the least likely spot on earth for a nuclear power plant? No, I wouldn’t say that, because that distinction belongs to Antarctica. WA is second.

Some of you may be saying, “If it’s good enough for France, why can’t we have it, too?” And others may be saying, “The imperative of eliminating greenhouse emissions overrides all of the above considerations.”

That’s ok by me. Really, I don’t mind. If you want nuclear energy that much, I won’t try to change your mind.

I think you should know, however, how much this is going to cost you. Sure, customers in France allegedly pay the lowest electricity rates in the world, but what about their taxes? There are some hidden costs that you need to know about.

Experts believe that building a nuclear power generator costs between three and six times more per kilowatt capacity than a conventional power plant. Even worse, it can take 20 years to complete, before even one cent of revenue is generated.

Some say that interest payments alone can contribute 70 per cent of the cost of building a nuclear power plant. That means that someone is paying a lot of interest on a lot of money for a long time. That someone is the future electricity ratepayer, the current taxpayer, or both.

Then there’s the distribution network. Will electricity customers pay to have it upgraded to properly handle all this ‘cheap’ electricity, or will taxpayers be left holding the baby again?

When you build a nuclear power station and start processing fuel for it, someone needs to look over your shoulder to make sure you aren’t doing anything naughty, like making plutonium for bombs. Also, someone needs to inspect the plant to make sure it’s safe and built according to regulations. And someone needs to write down a big swag of regulations, too.

Finally, someone needs to provide security, intelligence, and defence against terrorism. Who is going to do all that extra work? The government. Who pays for it? We all do.

Nuclear energy is costing taxpayers a lot of money that will never show up on any energy company’s financial statement.

Once it gets up and running it will begin paying for itself, right? Maybe, maybe not. Nuclear power plants are also far more expensive to maintain than conventional installations because of the many additional precautions against contamination that must be taken.

If so much as a spanner is used in a ‘hot’ or radioactive area, it must be left there and never, ever used again for anything. It becomes nuclear waste.

Which brings us to yet another hidden, deferred or off-book expense. How much does it cost to store spent fuel and other high level nuclear waste? Let’s just ring up the long-term nuclear storage facility and get a price quote. Oh, wait. We can’t, because there aren’t any ... anywhere. We haven’t yet found a universally acceptable solution to that problem. Until further notice, I estimate the cost of waste storage at ... infinity. You’d be writing a blank cheque in perpetuity. The cost and the solution are unknown.

Completing the full nuclear life cycle is the question as to what happens to the power station itself after its service life is over (30 to 40 years at best) and it can no longer be safely refurbished? It will have to be decommissioned. How do you decommission a nuclear power plant? It’s simple, really. You switch off the lights, lock the doors, and then nobody ever, ever goes there – ever again.

Somebody is going to be left holding a piece of property that cannot be sold, farmed, or developed for a period of time which, for all practical purposes, is eternity. How much is that going to cost? My calculator doesn’t go that high. And who pays for it? I think we all know the answer by now.

Nuclear energy is very, very clean and environmentally beneficial, no-one can deny it. It is also technologically feasible, if you’re happy writing a blank cheque and allowing the government to fill in the amount later. But does WA actually need it?

n John Jacob is a research engineer with more than 25 years’ experience in commercial R&D. He is active as a research consultant, writer, blogger and public speaker and can be found at www.p-r-o-system.com.


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