26/02/2021 - 14:00

Nuclear part of a complete energy mix

26/02/2021 - 14:00


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Getting serious about climate change means shifting positions on the role of nuclear power.

Nuclear part of a complete energy mix
Germany has invested heavily in renewable power, having decided to phase out nuclear energy after the Fukushima accident. Photo: Stockphoto

The McGowan government’s 2017 ban on additional uranium mining leases was mostly harmless, as it had little impact on Australia remaining the world’s third largest supplier.

However, with increasing evidence that the 2016 Paris Accord climate warming targets will not be achieved, it is time for WA Labor to unshackle itself from its anti-nuclear ideology.

Climate change is the defining issue of the century, with extreme weather events increasing and global food production under threat.

The World Health Organization believes about 7 million people die prematurely each year because of air pollution.

The burning of fossil fuels for electricity and heat is the prime reason for this accelerating disaster, not nuclear energy.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that coal-fired generation without carbon capture, utilisation and storage needs to decrease 5.3 per cent a year to 2030 if global warming is be limited to a 1.5º Celsius increase.

That will require 70 per cent of the world’s existing coalfired plants to shut down in the next 10 years.

To keep warming to 2ºC by 2030 will require 50 per cent of these facilities to be shut down. Neither of these outcomes appears likely.

Although coal-fired power generation is plummeting in most developed countries, growth in China and other parts of Asia has kept coal firmly in place as the largest source of global power generation (36 per cent) and carbon dioxide emissions (30 per cent).

The economic lifespan of coal-fired plants in Asia is 40 years, with a current average age of just 12 years.

According to Greenpeace, the overall global generation capacity of coal-fired plants grew by 34.1 gigawatts in 2019.

Most of that new capacity was primarily due to an increase in plants going into operation in China.

There is a growing recognition that nuclear power must be in the mix if there is any hope of slowing climate change.

The 2019 IEA report, ‘Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System’, concluded that a failure to invest in existing and new nuclear plants in advanced economies would make global efforts to transition to a cleaner energy system drastically harder and more costly.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has also weighed in on nuclear power’s key role in trying to keep global warming below 1.5ºC.

Nuclear energy’s future seems aligned to the successful development of small modular reactors (SMR) that generate less than 300 megawatts.

The SMR technologies being pursued aim to overcome many of the environmental and safety issues that plague existing reactors.

They are also small, allowing the use of modular factory fabrication, which should substantially reduce construction times and costs.

SMRs are not expected to be cost competitive against renewables, which can provide cheaper power under optimal weather conditions.

The intermittency of wind and solar generation, however, requires a reliable power generation backstop to support renewables over days, not simply a few hours.

In many countries, including Australia, this backstop is provided by coal-fired power stations.

Encouragingly, however, SMRs are being designed so they require a minimal exclusion zone, allowing them to slot into brownfield sites in place of decommissioned coal-fired plants.

The 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster led to a wave of anti-nuclear hysteria in several European countries.

Some, like Germany, decided to totally phase out nuclear power generation.

Politics, rather than climate science or safety, drove those decisions, which ignored the many international organisations that have recognised the indispensable role of nuclear energy in counteracting climate change.

In contrast, Japan intends to raise its share of nuclear power to 22 per cent by 2030, only slightly lower than it was pre-Fukushima.

It is working through the process to restarting some of the 54 operational reactors that were shut down after the disaster.

As of January 2020, nine reactors had returned to operation, with 15 others in the process of gaining restart approval.

Other countries, including the US, are upgrading existing reactor capacities and extending their operational life.

• David Kobelke spent 15 years managing CCIWA’s Australian industry participation unit.


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