In the wake of Prime Minister Howard's trip to the US and Canada, you might get the impression the silver bullet to save us all from climate change would be made of uranium. Australian uranium.
Yet the cold hard fact remains that nuclear power is uneconomic and impractical on its own terms. And even if uranium supplies were infinite and zero cost, nuclear power could not stop climate change. Only a portion of greenhouse pollution is carbon dioxide, a small portion of which is generated by electricity production.
What’s more, uranium will eventually run out. According to the global nuclear watchdog IAEA, there are 3.5 million tonnes of recoverable uranium reserves, enough for just over 50 years at current use rates. So if world nuclear energy use doubled, these reserves would run out after 25 years.
On the economics front, nuclear power dramatically increases electricity cost. In fact, high energy costs and massive debt are hallmarks of nuclear power in every free market country where it exists. Nuclear power plants only get built if propped up by unaffordable public subsidies.
Nuclear plants are also subsidised by radically limiting their liability in the face of possible accidents. Take Canada, with 22 nuclear reactors, where the Nuclear Liability Act restricts liability to a paltry CDN $75 million - barely enough to cover costs of lawyers’ fees for lawsuits that would follow a serious accident. In the event of a nuclear accident the costs are usually borne by others, often individuals who lose their livelihood and or their health.
But the biggest subsidy of all, probably most relevant to Australia, is the cost of containing nuclear waste - which can easily endure 10,000 years or more. No power utility comes even close to adequately providing for waste containment; they’d be out of business if they did.
Those arguing for a permanent nuclear waste dump in Australia haven’t said how it will be paid for. What is the net present cost of safe storage of thousands of barrels of nuclear waste for unknown thousands of years? Not only are the costs unimaginable, future generations would be the ones to pay for a few years of electricity for us.
Quite apart from its bad economics, nuclear power also fails the climate change test. More nuclear power will mean we also pay the price of an elevated threat of nuclear war or nuclear terrorism. Four of the nine nuclear weapons states got their weapons from power reactors in India, Pakistan, South Africa and Israel. Five if you believe North Korea has nuclear weapons.
The true tragedy of more investment in dirty and dangerous nuclear technology would be the diversion of capital away from clean, green renewable energy just when we need these technologies most. By 2020 the wind industry alone can supply 12 per cent of the world’s electricity needs, and Denmark expects to obtain 29 per cent of its power from wind by 2010. Sweden is shutting down its reactors, going oil-free and switching to renewables. After visiting the US and Canada, which are still stuck in the nuclear rut, Mr Howard should visit these European countries who show true vision on energy production.
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