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Say 'no' to nuclear - but not for the usual reasons

By Les Coleman - posted Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Opponents of a nuclear power industry in Australia usually justify their position on environmental and economic grounds. Although their conclusion is correct, the argument is fallacious. Let us first consider the wrong reasons to oppose nuclear power then the right one.

The economic anti-nuclear argument says that the huge costs of nuclear plants make them uneconomic. Absent government subsidies - which political expediency should counter - hard-nosed engineers and investors will decide if nuclear is a better source of new energy than coal, gas and a variety of less certain technologies. There is no more reason to intervene in this economic decision than any other.

The environmental argument typically cites the dangers of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. This threat is real, but not much more so than that of the uranium deposits which originally spawned the waste precursors. Quite simply geologists discover most uranium deposits using radiation detectors: this is because the deposits emit radiation and have done so for millennia, and some are so radioactive that they belch superheated steam.


Removing radioactive uranium from beneath Australia’s deserts, processing and using it in a reactor, then burying radioactive waste in a stable geological structure under the desert looks like going full circle. Nuclear waste is a concern, but not qualitatively more so than the damaging externalities of many industries.

The real argument against establishing a nuclear power industry is that it is a hugely complex and dangerous technology, and Australia has a poor record in safely managing even relatively simple technologies. Australia’s institutional framework is not sufficiently robust to safely support a nuclear power industry.

The dangers from operation of nuclear power plants are made clear on the Uranium Information Centre’s website. It reports that there have been ten "serious reactor accidents" at nuclear power plants since they began commercial operations in 1952, giving a frequency of one per 1,200 reactor years (although the rate has been lower in the last decade).

Nuclear power is one of the modern technologies that were described in Charles Perrow’s seminal 1984 book Normal Accidents as so dangerous that accidents would routinely occur: nuclear plants could expect to be plagued by “normal accidents”. The statistics suggest Perrow was right, but they led to the emergence of a new management discipline built around “high reliability organisations”.

Typical examples are nuclear powered aircraft carriers such as the USS Ronald Reagan, which is 333 metres long and displaces over 100,000 tonnes, and holds a crew of 6,000, 90 fighter aircraft and two nuclear reactors that can power a medium sized city. America’s largest naval vessel is hugely complex but operates incident-free.

Australia, by contrast, has an unenviable record of poor management of technologies. Consider the Royal Australian Navy which lurches from one technology disaster to another. The worst include the fatal 1998 fire aboard HMAS Westralia; a decade of defects in the Collins Class submarines including noise levels that simplify detection by an enemy and a combat system that cannot then defend the vessel; and Sea Sprite helicopters that could not be introduced into service due to computer problems.


Other complex industries and technologies are managed little better. In 1998 alone, Melbourne lost gas for weeks after Esso’s Longford plant blew up and Sydney was forced to boil its contaminated water for months. Australia’s uranium mines have been plagued by leaks from their tailings dams and the country’s only reactor at Lucas Heights has experienced several radiation leaks in recent years.

The lesson of high reliability organisations is that it is possible to achieve safe operation of complex technologies, but only with difficulty. If employees are skilled and trained, a culture of safety is deeply ingrained, and there is effective governance and oversight.

Quite simply Australia meets none of these requirements. There are few technologically complex sectors that can incubate suitable skills in workers, managers, boards and regulators. Thus there are inadequate human resources to staff and safely manage a nuclear plant.

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First published in Eureka Street on May 2, 2007.

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About the Author

Dr Les Coleman lectures in finance at the University of Melbourne. His principal research focus is on the nature and consequences of firm risks.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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