Following the impressive level of media coverage of the ATSE Nuclear Power for Australia? conference last week, the ABC Environment blog got in touch looking for a fresh perspective on this topic (I have never written for them).
Eight hundred words on nuclear always presents a challenge.
I wanted to engage the ABC audience, and also carry through some of the challenging aspects of the nuclear conference. I saw a lot of what I would term unhelpful discourse from some of those who would , on the whole, agree with me. So I sought to address this dangerously false choice we are being sold, from many directions, between renewables and nuclear power. I have also directed this article, in part, to sustainability professionals like myself. It’s a direct plea for leadership. We have a responsibility to lift the standard of the discussion, and not deploy broad sustainability principles as an easy escape from tough decisions and realities.
I hope you like it. There is plenty of nuance to my position as outlined in this article, so please leave a comment here or at the ABC post if you need clarification, and I will happily respond.
IF YOU SUPPORT NUCLEAR power generation for Australia you are not alone. Nearly two fifths of Australians agree with you, while one fifth is not sure and the last two fifths report being not in favour. But we seem to approach discussion of nuclear power as though walking on egg shells, fearful of spiteful responses from a majority our friends, neighbours, stakeholders and constituents. The fear is misplaced.
When I changed my mind on nuclear power, I did it in the most public possible way: presenting my case and my reasoning to a roomful of sixty strangers. Since then I have addressed at least a couple of thousand Australians in a remarkable variety of forums, debates and discussions, on the radio and the TV. Never once in these encounters have I encountered the supposedly broad, vehement unpopularity of nuclear power.
This is an assumption of almost religious sanctity and almost no reality. I’ve met and answered questions from the opposed and the undecided. They are, by and large, interested. They want satisfactory responses to concerns before they would consider ticking the box of ‘supporter’. Nothing in the world could be more reasonable.
Perhaps the most pernicious discourse, the one that is holding us back from a truly visionary response to climate change, is the one pitting renewables in opposition to nuclear power. This fake dichotomy sends some activists and energy hobbyists in pursuit of 100 per cent renewable solutions, while others make a mission of poking holes in the case for renewables. In that fight, the only winners are coal, oil and gas. Approaching the challenge of decarbonisation with a default exclusion of nuclear power, or a single minded obsession with either limitations or virtues of renewables, is a fool’s errand.
If we believe climate change is an urgent problem, rather than simply a useful vehicle for pet technologies, then it is high time we got serious and put all solutions on the table.
There is no doubt that there is work to do before electricity can be generated from nuclear in Australia. That is only an argument for starting. We can continue to implement mature, market-ready renewables. We can turn the screws on our sometimes profligate use of energy while accommodating population growth and the gradual electrification of our transport sector.
Right now though, wind and solar provide a mere three per cent (pdf) of Australian electricity generation. To achieve our best possible climate outcome, we must pursue energy efficiency, renewables and nuclear at the same time. We need to start the nuclear pathway immediately, instead of waiting for some future point of total desperation.
Nuclear reactors closely resemble that which we must replace. They provide medium to large generation capacity with very high reliability from an amazingly dense fuel source. Using nuclear means minimal bets on technological uncertainty and minimal changes to the system itself. That’s why a handsome contribution from renewables and energy efficiency, in partnership with nuclear power, will likely be the fastest, cheapest pathway to a clean future when all technological, financial and social considerations are taken into account.
In contrast, to exclude nuclear will prove costly. It will bring high system costs to ensure reliability of supply from very high levels of intermittent generation. It places large bets on the success of technologies that are commercially nascent and very expensive (such as solar thermal with storage), encountering serious engineering challenges to bring to market at scale (such as hot dry rock geothermal or carbon-capture and storage) or simply a sustainability disaster when scaled up (like giant, brand new biomass industries). What we will probably be left with is a large coal and gas sector, and a large bill for carbon offsets if we want to do anything about it.
Those of us presuming to represent the sustainability voice must therefore ask ourselves: what is meritorious about excluding nuclear in favour of these high-stakes pathways? Why exclude a technology that is globally proven to provide reliable and competitively-priced electricity, with no emissions of greenhouse gas, particulate matter, sulphur dioxide or nitric oxides?
The commonly cited reason to keep saying no is the management of spent nuclear fuel for supposedly hundreds of thousands of years. This calls for a little bit of clear-thinking humility.
Before presuming to take responsibility for nuclear waste in such a far distant future, we must first remember this: we are en route to completely disrupt our climate system within this century. We are facing down a potential catastrophe that is relevant to us, our children and grandchildren. We are failing, badly, to head off this threat.
We also have technologically mature storage solutions for safely holding small quantities of spent nuclear fuel. We even have proven reactor designs that will consume 99 per cent of it as fuel. These reactors leave a tiny residue of waste that will decay to background levels in a little as 300 years.
From a sustainability perspective, inclusion of nuclear should be obvious. To cite intergenerational equity as grounds to reject nuclear power is to turn the very concept on its head. It is evidence of sustainability losing its way and lacking the sophistication to remain relevant in a complex world.
It’s time for Australia’s sustainability thinkers to come clean on this issue. We must lead our community in an open and honest national conversation about using all technologies to achieve both deep decarbonisation and a stable energy future.