18/06/2009 - 00:00

World nuclear industry may be terminal

18/06/2009 - 00:00


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Are governments flogging a dead horse by supporting the nuclear power sector?

WITH active encouragement from the state and federal governments, and mining companies shifting from speculation to detailed feasibility work, Western Australia's uranium boom seems finally poised for lift-off after nearly 40 years of conflict and false starts.

At the same time, the World Nuclear Association lists 45 nuclear power reactors under construction around the world, with a further 112 planned and 276 proposed.

The world uranium spot price, which collapsed in late 2007, is staging a tentative recovery and may soon be on the rise.

So why doesn't the anti-nuclear movement just pack it in and admit that we were wrong?

Take a closer look at this optimistic picture and something odd happens. It is something anyone considering uranium investment needs to know and something pro-nuclear commentators and political leaders seem strangely unaware of.

The nuclear power industry has begun its worldwide terminal decline. There is no recovery scenario on the horizon.

Data meticulously compiled for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reveals that 11 reactors, a quarter of the total listed, have been under construction for more than 20 years. A further 15 projects have no official start-up date. More than 20 have experienced significant construction delays.

More ominously, in May the New York Times broke the story that the flagship Olkiluoto project in Finland is now vastly over budget, years behind schedule and has no predicted start-up date. Its twin project at Flamanville, France, is similarly mired.

The nuclear power industry in the US is paralysed and has nothing under construction despite eight years of highly permissive deregulation and a dazzling offer of $18 billion in subsidies and loan guarantees. Expansion plans in Japan are on hold after a string of accidents and followed by a powerful earthquake, which shut down the world's largest reactor complex at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa for two years and counting.

Peter Strachan, in his optimistic Briefcase column (WA Business News, May 14 2009) gives the game away when he notes: "... in the longer term there are questions over what technology will be used and how many of those power plants currently on the order books will come into the picture, and over what time frame."

Exactly correct, except that these are not "longer term" questions; they are an uncomfortable acknowledgement that the foundations on which the industry rests are falling apart.

It is arguable of course that these are short-term factors that will be overcome with enough public subsidy and political interference in energy markets. In fact, the medium- and long-term picture for the nuclear energy sector makes these immediate problems look trivial.

The 2008 World Nuclear Industry Status Report by energy analyst Mycle Schneider, under the most generous assumptions for the industry, illustrates the nuclear endgame in black and white.

Hundreds of reactors built in the 1970s and 1980s are nearing the end of their operating life, despite industry attempts to patch up and re-license these old facilities.

This research shows that, by 2015, including the flourish of new reactors heralding the so-called nuclear renaissance, there will be 50 fewer reactors operating than today.

Between 2016 and 2025, the industry goes over a cliff, with a further 191 reactors slated to close. Out to 2056, a further 195 reactors will close.

Even under the most wildly optimistic projections of new build in China and India, the nuclear power industry has gone into the twilight. The peak year for nuclear energy was 2002, with 444 reactors; that's eight more than are operating today.

I stress that this study assumes an unrealistically benign dream-run for the uranium mining fraternity. It assumes no mishaps or catastrophes spanning the scale between Chernobyl and Three Mile Island despite the statistical inevitability of such horror the longer the industry runs antique technology or tries to fast-track untested designs.

It assumes that the power industry can maintain the fiction of no connection with nuclear weapons proliferation, despite examples such as North Korea, and it assumes that some survival instinct stays the hands of those who still deploy tens of thousands of these hideous weapons.

This failing, carbon-intensive industry, wholly dependent on public subsidy, is already cornering resources that would be far better spent on the kind of fast-moving renewable and energy-efficiency technologies that are taking off overseas and show so much potential for Australia.

We are used to Premier Colin Barnett pouring scorn on anti-nuclear sentiment, but the cold facts demonstrate that he and his colleagues have backed a terminal horse.

In avoiding the environmental argument he seems to have also lost sight of the business case.

If the government is able to fast track the creation of one or more eternal radioactive hotspots across regional WA, it will be against the wishes of the majority of the population. We will make sure that matters at the next election. Many, many people will step up to prevent this unnecessary gamble with public health and environmental protection. In the interests of a prosperous, solar state, it is time the government dug deeper into the claims of one particular threatened species - the uranium mining corporation.

n Scott Ludlam is an Australian Greens Senator for WA.


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