Nuclear energy and climate change


 Shouldn’t we support nuclear (uranium fission) energy as part of the solution to climate change for Australia?

Some people (even some eminent climate scientists like NASA’s James Hansen) have argued that climate change issues and risks are so serious that we need nuclear energy to get greenhouse emissions down.

Although Tony Abbott doesn’t seem to take climate change very seriously, he has said in the context of energy policy that we need to look again at nuclear power. He hasn’t said where any power stations or their waste might go … !

It’s true of course that nuclear energy doesn’t involve CO2 emissions in the same way burning fossil fuels does. But Labor doesn’t support nuclear energy as a viable option for Australia, on environmental, economic and practical grounds.

The Fukushima disaster in Japan has again highlighted the risks and costs of uranium fission power. The province of Fukushima itself (with almost 2 million people) has decided to aim for 100% renewables. Former Japanese Prime Minister Hosokawa has said:

The myth that nuclear power is clean and safe has collapsed. We don’t even have a place to store nuclear waste. Without that, restarting the plants would be a crime against future generations.

Building nuclear fission power stations in Australia would require truly huge government subsidies. The costs of nuclear power are only low if we disregard not only the capital costs of new power stations, but the costs of storing waste properly for thousands and thousands of years.

Fukushima has demonstrated beyond doubt that building uranium fission power stations in or near major population centres, and near the ocean, is not going to be acceptable. Building nuclear power stations in relatively remote locations instead, would incur big losses of power in transmission. And nuclear power would take substantially longer than other options, when we need solutions now.

What about thorium fission?

Australia does have some of the world’s largest reserves of thorium. But it’s not a “ready to use” technology, and it presents some similar economic issues as other nuclear energy. It has its own safety issues as a fuel, and thorium reactions do require plutonium and/or enriched uranium to kick-start them, since thorium by itself isn’t fissile (it won’t start a fission reaction unassisted that produces usable power).

There is a useful February 2014 article from David Suzuki on the possibilities, limits and risks of thorium power. His conclusions:

If the choice is between keeping nuclear power facilities running or shutting them down and replacing them with coal-fired power plants, the nuclear option is best for the climate. But, for now, investing in renewable energy and smart-grid technologies is a faster, more cost-effective and safer option than building new nuclear facilities, regardless of type.

That doesn’t mean we should curtail research into nuclear and other options, including thorium’s potential to improve the safety and efficiency of nuclear facilities. But we must also build on the momentum of renewable energy development, which has been spurred by its safety, declining costs and proven effectiveness.

What about fusion energy?

Fusion energy has many attractions. European governments in particular are devoting very large and continuing resources to research. But despite some recent announcements of progress (towards a fusion reaction that generates more energy than the large amount of energy needed to start it), this research still appears to be 40 or 50 years from producing results. We need climate change solutions now.

And of course, there is a big source of fusion energy we already have. It’s called the sun.

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