Jim Green's recent OnLine Opinion piece about Australia's export of uranium to India reports on concerns about "safeguards" by the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ANSO). This Government office is concerned with nuclear safety. We have plenty of Government agencies with narrow responsibilities and we expect them to stick to them.
So ANSO, unlike the Indian Government, isn't responsible for the tens of thousands of Indian children under the age of 5 who die every year from respiratory illnesses because their mums cook with wood. We don't expect ANSO to think about such matters. It's not their job.
If any ANSO staff happen to know about such matters, then they may even think, like me, that, on balance, sending uranium to India is bloody terrific. But voicing such judgements isn't their job. Their job is to think about potential problems. Similarly, nobody expects Jim Green to think about providing electricity to Indian families, and you'll notice it didn't get a mention in his article. It's his job to make people as afraid of nuclear power as he possibly can.
But if you want to judge whether an action is good or bad you need to look at the whole picture. Any possible risks must be compared with the impact on the rock hard daily realities of children dying because of the pollution caused be being stuck with a deadly renewable energy source ... wood, cattle dung and the like.
Whle Australians use about 10.5 mega watt hours of electricity annually, the average in India is 0.75 mega watt hours per person per year ... and that's triple what it was in 1990. But that's an average. Many people have none at all and most of that pitiful amount is generated by coal. But India doesn't have enough coal, so in 2013, she imported 159 million tonnes of the stuff. We should of course, be grateful for any non-fossil fuel technologies she can roll out to avoid having children inhaling the toxic waste of wood fires. This waste, wood smoke, unlike nuclear waste, actually kills people for real. Burning wood releases most of the same carcinogens that kill and sicken smokers. And then some!
But I've never seen anybody marching in the streets with banners saying: What about the waste!
Note, this isn't risk, but certainty. Painfull, gut wrenching actual deaths. Children coughing, wheezing, choking and dying before being cremated or put in the ground in boxes. Daily.
Of course we have plenty of coal, so why don't we just sell more coal to India? Would Jim and the Greens be happy with that? If not, then the alternative is less electricity expansion and an ongoing toll of dead and sick children. Not to mention sick adults with shortended lifespans. It's that simple. But am I forgetting renewables? No. They can make a contribution but are far too expensive to roll out at the scale required in a poor country. And I'm not just talking about money. Renewables use more of many things which are in short supply in India.
Let's consider solar. Once you think about the nuts and bolts, it becomes blindingly obvious how it uses more of everthing. The $18 billion Jaitapur nuclear project in Maharashtra will occupy 968 hectares and displace 2,335 villagers with 6 large 1.6 gigawatt reactors which will pump out electricity for 60-80 years. If they wanted to use solar instead then lets consider scaling up the biggest solar plant in the US. The Desert Sunlight solar farm is expected to be the largest on the planet when it begins operation in 2015 in California. It'll have taken four years to build and occupy 1600 hectares and generate about one terawatt hour of energy per year, but only during the day time. To generate as much electrical energy as the Jaitapur project you'd need to build 77 Desert Sunlights plants and cover 123,200 hectares in concrete, steel and panels displacing god knows how many villagers. How do you get stuff to those 123,200 hectares? In big trucks. In small trucks. In every kind of bloody truck.
The EIS for Desert Sunlight lays it all out in great detail. It will take a quarter of a million vehicle trips in each of the first two years of construction with about 11,000 large vehicle trips each year. But that's the US with an average heavy truck trip of just 230 km. How long will the trips be in India? Who knows, but whatever the distance we can still multipy the number of trips by 77 to match Jaitapur. That's 847,000 heavy truck trips carrying stuff to the site in each of the first two years plus another 18 million smaller vehicle trips. Once you understand numbers like this, you realise why people want to build solar farms close to the sources of the stuff used to build them. Very close. They'd far prefer to build on farms or pastures already occupied because they are almost always close to stuff. Nobody wants to build solar farms out in the middle of nowhere. Nuclear power is large engineering also, but you need far less of everything: less land, less trucks, less steel, less glass, less concrete. And bucket loads less money. I don't have a cost on Desert Sunlight, but the Ivanpah plant generates a similar amount of electricity annually and cost $2.2 billion to build. So $2.2 x 77 is around $170 billion. Of course, labour will be cheaper, but don't forget you'll have to build them all twice because they only last half as long as the nukes.
So much for resources. Let's consider the debit and credit side of carbon emissions in the anti-nuclear position.
Had the anti-nuclear movement succeeded in stopping the French nuclear rollout of the 1970s and 80s then the French might have had a fossil fuel energy system like ours. In which case, a basic calculation shows they would have produced roughly 8,437 million additional tonnes of CO2 since 1990 in addition to many mining illnesses and deaths in addition to coal pollution illnesses and deaths. A recent global study put the lives saved by nuclear power over the past few decades at about 1.8 million and that didn't count many of the tough things to measure like respiratory illness that doesn't actually kill but merely makes your life miserable.