The draft nuclear taskforce report released recently presents an unbalanced assessment of nuclear power's prospects. Like many other such reviews, it is too optimistic about the price of nuclear power and too quick to dismiss the potential of alternatives. The United States has wasted a lot of money by relying on similarly euphoric assessments through the years. Australia has the chance to learn from that experience.
The safety of nuclear power plants depends on vigilance, careful engineering and construction. It can be seriously compromised if a country freights the technology - as the US did in the 1970s - with unrealistic expectations. What we are seeing from many nuclear proponents today is their old five P game plan: pushed power plants; postponed problems.
Nuclear power's asserted comeback in the US rests not on new-found competitiveness in power plant construction but on an old formula: subsidy, licencing shortcuts, risks borne by customers and taxpayers, political muscle, ballyhoo and pointing to other countries to indicate that the US is falling behind. Climate change has replaced oil dependence as the bogeyman from which only nuclear power can save us.
But nuclear power cannot be a magic bullet answer to climate change. Even if it is scaled up much faster than anything now in prospect, it cannot provide more than 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the greenhouse gas displacement that is likely to be needed by mid-century. Not only can nuclear power not stop global warming, it is probably not even an essential part of the solution to global warming.
Princeton University professors Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow introduce the useful concept of a wedge, defined as any measure that will lead, during the next 50 years, to a global reduction of 25 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions relative to business as usual. The number of wedges required to avoid dangerous climate change depends on many factors. Under optimistic assumptions, seven wedges will be needed; this number could increase significantly under less optimistic assumptions.
The study lists 15 measures from technologies to public policy initiatives that exist today and could be scaled up to become one or more wedges. Energy efficiency and conservation comprise three wedges; alternatives to business-as-usual, gasoline-powered transport accounts for another four; and increasing natural sinks, such as forests, provides two wedges. Generating electricity in less carbon-intensive ways contributes four wedges. Of these, at most one wedge would be contributed by a worldwide tripling of nuclear power.
Such a tripling would require other expenditures. There is also fuel enrichment (perhaps an additional 15 plants), waste repositories (perhaps the equivalent of 14 Yucca Mountains) and perhaps reprocessing plants. The only effort to model the cost of this undertaking that I have seen comes from the Natural Resources Defence Council in the US and puts the total bill at $2,000 billion and $3,000 billion.
Prime Minister John Howard recently said: “Nuclear power is potentially the cleanest and greenest of them all.” Such statements invite the nation into a la-la land in which nuclear power will be over-subsidised and under-scrutinised while other more promising and more rapid responses to climate change are neglected and the greenhouse gases that they could have averted continue to pollute the skies.
Nuclear power has never been viable. No nuclear plant has won an open competitive power supply auction. There is no reason to think this would be different in Australia, a country with abundant coal and no nuclear experience. So without a large carbon tax, this proposition is nonsense. But even with a large carbon tax, nuclear is not an assured winner against coal with sequestration, and it is an assured loser against energy efficiency and probably against combinations of fossil fuels with renewables.
A sensible approach to climate change would start with a trading regime or a carbon tax that would put a significant price on fuels according to their carbon content. It would offer non-discriminatory governmental support to technologies in accordance with their ability to achieve the needed reductions rapidly, inexpensively and in a manner acceptable to the public. It may well mimic the California approach to new electric facilities, in which all practical efficiency and renewable options are deployed before a new power plant is considered.
For Australia to seek instead to achieve a set number of nuclear plants by a particular time assumes that government is wiser than markets in picking the most promising technologies: surely an odd position for an economically conservative government to embrace.
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