At short notice, I was asked for a contribution to an industry magazine for the recent Australian Uranium and Rare Earths conference in Perth, WA. This is what they got: a good-natured call for this industry to get out and tell us why they should exist.
Many of you in Australia’s uranium industry may not like to think of yourselves as environmentalists, but that’s tough luck. It’s just a fact that this industry is essential to achieving sustainability in the 21st century. You might as well get used to it. Heck, you may even want to talk about it.
Your industry supplies the fuel for nuclear power plants. The Australian Government acknowledges that operating these plants avoids around two and a half billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions every single year. Since it began production of electricity, nuclear power has probably saved 1.8 million lives through the avoidance of particulate and other air pollution from the combustion of coal and other fossil fuels. Nuclear power has always been, and remains, the only scalable replacement for the use of coal, oil and gas, thanks to the extraordinary energy density of uranium. An esky full of your product, unrefined yellow cake, contains more energy than the 161 wagon loads of coal delivered to Northern and Playford power stations at Port Augusta every day. You may disturb the earth, but you deliver staggering quantities of greenhouse-free fuel in return. Actually, if you are using the ISL method, you don’t even remove overburden to get your product. What a bunch of bloody do-gooders.
Some of you will be thinking “No, you’ve got it wrong. The environmental technologies are solar and wind power”. Actually, that’s really not true, and we’ve done the analysis to prove it in an independent report (as in, your industry didn’t pay for it) called Zero Carbon Options.
If we tried to replace the power stations at Pt Augusta, that use the 161 wagons of coal daily, with wind and solar, we would need to blanket 16 km2 in solar mirrors, and erect 100 of the world’s largest wind turbines across a project area of 175 km2. It would need 375,000 tons of steel, 85,000 tons of glass and 590,000 tons of concrete, for assets that will only last around 25 years.
It would cost over $8 billion and produce a variable supply of up to 4,650 GWh electricity. A lot of this will come when it is not most wanted, so it would save us somewhere between 2 million and 5 million tCO2-e per year.
To achieve the same thing using your product as fuel, we would need a single unit of one of the smallest commercial nuclear power plants in the world today, an Enhanced CANDU 6 (EC6), costing around half as much to build. This would occupy around 2 km2, use 1/10th the steel, virtually none of the glass, and last for a minimum of 60 years, possibly 80 or even 100 with refurbishment. In that time it would produce, on demand, 1,000 GWh more greenhouse-free electricity than the renewable option every single year, saving comfortably more than 5 million tCO2-e. For the same money as the renewable option we could build two of them, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than double that figure. The electricity from the nuclear plant would cost about half as much as from the solar plant. This would pull public sentiment in behind strong climate action, rather than causing households and businesses the pain that works against climate action. Now that’s a green technology.
In easily remembered round numbers, it takes a million tonnes of stubble pulled off about a million hectares of crop land and transported in 40,000 x 25 tonne truck loads to produce 1.1 terawatt hours of electricity. The adverse consequences could spread far and wide with topsoil productivity losses adversely impacting food production capacity for decades. Alternatively, you can mine 21 tonnes of uranium to produce 2 tonnes of slightly enriched fuel transported in 1 rather small minivan.
The principle nuclear trade off, the storage of spent fuel, is barely a trade-off at all. It’s just pre-mined fuel for an Integral Fast Reactor (IFR). All this talk of long term geological storage is just a solution looking for a problem. The 6,250 t of spent fuel from 60 years of operating the EC6 can be recycled to release another ninety-nine times the energy. That’s zero-carbon fuel for 690 MW of generation for just shy of 6,000 years. Remember the old wisdom of considering the next seven generations? We would be providing fuel for the next two hundred.
Australian uranium may have been content to sit quietly on its green credentials, but that time is nearly up. In the US audiences are already watching the powerful documentary Pandora’s Promise from Academy-nominated film director Robert Stone.
In Pandora’s Promise audiences see the brutally honest journey of five prominent, respected environmentalists who, like me and many others in Australia, have taken the journey from staunchly anti-nuclear to vocally pro-nuclear, largely propelled by facing the awful realities of climate change. Audiences will be shown how nuclear power alone holds the key to both powering our world and winning back a stable climate. They will visit a beach that is more radioactive than Chernobyl and learn about the IFR from the very scientists who designed and tested the reactor that eats nuclear waste and won’t have a meltdown even when you try to cause one. It has been hailed by the Chicago Tribune as “the most important environmental film since An Inconvenient Truth”. Having seen both films I’d say they are nearly right… Pandora’s Promise holds a solution. It holds hope. Right now the fight against climate change needs the Stone’s hopeful message much or more than it ever needed Gore’s wake-up call.
So to Australia’s uranium industry, it’s time to come out from under your hard hats. Whether you meant it or not, you sit at the front end of probably the greenest industry in the world. Maybe it’s time to own that fact.
Ben Heard is Director of ThinkClimate Consulting, a knowledge-based advisory firm providing services in sustainability and climate change. He blog extensively on nuclear power at DecarboniseSA, and Tweets as BenThinkClimate. He is the lead author of Zero Carbon Options: An economic mix for an environmental outcome.
Pandora’s Promise recently opened in the US. Visit www.pandoraspromise.com to watch the trailer.
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