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The low-tech, no-tech solution

By Eric Claus - posted Friday, 30 June 2006

Dr Ziggy Switkowski was interviewed on the ABC show Lateline on June 7, following the announcement he would be the chairman of the Federal Government inquiry into nuclear energy.

The host, Tony Jones, made the point that Australia has enough coal to provide its electricity generation needs into the foreseeable future, so it really does not need to use nuclear energy. He also noted that Australia produces relatively little greenhouse gas (1.2 per cent of the world's total) compared to the rest of the world, so building a few nuclear power plants (which would reduce our greenhouse gas production by less than 3 percent) will not save the world. With these considerations in mind, Tony Jones commented that Australia was inquiring into nuclear energy, “presumably as a lesson to the rest of the world, not in fact, to save the world”.

Dr Switkowski responded that Tony Jones’ comment was “a fair conclusion”.


Giving the rest of the world a lesson on greenhouse seems like a very high-minded ambition for a government that has not signed the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change. Perhaps the government has another agenda.

One issue that is not on the government’s agenda is reducing immigration to reduce greenhouse emissions. Reducing immigration would be a far more effective way to provide “a lesson to the rest of the world,” but reducing immigration is not under consideration by the government or any major party.

How does reducing immigration reduce greenhouse? Let’s look at a few numbers - just for fun.

Australians use about 10,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per person each year (International Energy Agency). A 1,000 megawatt (MW) nuclear power plant running at 70 per cent efficiency would produce about 6 billion kilowatt-hours a year. That means it would serve the needs of about 600,000 Australians. Two 1,000 MW nuclear power plants would serve the needs of 1.2 million Australians.

If Australia reduced net immigration from 120,000 to 20,000 over the next 12 years that would mean 1.2 million less people living in Australia. Without the additional demand for electricity, presumably we would not need those two nuclear power plants. Global warming is a long-term problem and we’ve been told it will take about 12 years to have the nuclear debate and then get the new nuclear plants up and running, so this seems a sensible option to consider.

Another thing to consider is that using nuclear power would not reduce Australia’s other sources of greenhouse gases. Electrical-power generation produces less than half of Australia’s greenhouse gases. The rest is produced by transportation, industry, agriculture, land clearing and waste.


Australians produce about 28 tonnes of greenhouse gas per person every year. That means 1.2 million new Australians would produce about 34 million tonnes a year. The two new 1,000 MW nuclear power plants would save about 14 million tonnes of greenhouse gases if they replaced coal-fired power plants. The other 20 million tonnes of non-electricity generated greenhouse gases per year would still be produced.

Reducing immigration by 1.2 million people would save the full 34 million tonnes of greenhouse gases every year, not just the 14 million tonnes produced in making electricity.

Even so, saving 14 million tonnes of greenhouse gases a year is nothing to sneeze at. Nuclear power might be an option that will help. We need to be sure we have a safe method for storing and disposing of the hundreds (or thousands?) of tonnes of nuclear waste produced every year. We also need to find a location that is suitable and where the local people are willing have the waste stored safely for thousands of years. That won’t be easy. Currently most of the nuclear waste around the world is just held on the power plant site until it is time to decommission the plant.

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About the Author

Eric Claus has worked in civil and environmental engineering for over 20 years.

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