Can nuclear solve Australia's energy woes?

Is nuclear the answer to Australia's energy woes? Probably not, says ACF's Dave Sweeney.

Article by
James Shackell
A nuclear power station in Antwerp, Belgium.

Around five years ago, the Australian nuclear industry undertook a dramatic and cynically genius PR pivot. Until that point, the industry’s standard line was that renewable technology was nice, a brilliant idea in theory, but not feasible as a worldwide energy solution.

“The nuclear industry basically said, if you’re fair dinkum about energy, you’ve got two choices, us and coal – and we’re better than coal. That was the line,” says anti-nuclear campaigner Dave Sweeney from the Australian Conservation Foundation. “Then about half a dozen years ago there was a significant pivot. Now the DNA of the nuclear industry isn’t to ridicule renewables, but to market themselves as part of the renewable suite.”

In other words, the industry could see which way the wind farms were blowing. This messaging flip was remarkably successful, which is why you’ll hear many ordinary people, including high profile Australian columnists from News Corp, trumpet nuclear power as the “answer to net zero”. A clean, glowing green source of guilt-free energy. But how sustainable is nuclear power, really?

Short answer: not very. Long answer: it’s complicated.

As COP26 looms, over 450 organisations from 40 countries have signed a COP26 Civil Society Statement, rejecting nuclear energy and urging world leaders to focus their attention on renewables instead. The nuclear industry is gearing up to influence the next few decades of Australia’s (and the world’s) energy investment, and at times like this, it’s worth sitting down and analysing the arguments in favour of nuclear power.

“You cannot call an industry 'clean' if its daily generation means the creation of intergenerational waste."

The first, and the loudest, is that nuclear energy is free from greenhouse gas emissions. And this is true – for the reaction itself. Nuclear fission produces zero carbon. The heat from the reactor core turns water into steam, which spins the turbine, and out comes electricity. But as physics Professor Manfred Lenzen pointed out in The Conversation (six years ago), that’s not the whole story.  

Wrote Lenzen: “Here is a list of all the stages of the nuclear power cycle at which greenhouse gases are emitted: Uranium mining, uranium milling, conversion of uranium ore to uranium hexafluoride, uranium enrichment, fuel fabrication, reactor construction, reactor decommissioning, fuel reprocessing, nuclear waste disposal, mine site rehabilitation, and transport throughout all stages.”

Arguing that nuclear power produces zero emissions is like arguing that sugar-free soft drinks are good for your health. They contain no sugar, sure, but that’s only one metric of nutrition. In the same way, Sweeney says the nuclear industry has cleverly shifted the sustainability debate to emissions, because they know that’s a narrative they can sell.

“The industry is using the lens of carbon, which is fine. It’s an important lens that every environmentalist in the world prioritises,” he says, “so against that lens they are lower carbon. Not more than a bunch of renewables, but less than fossil fuels, for sure. Now let’s look at some other boxes.”

The most significant ‘box’ is waste. “You cannot call an industry clean if its daily generation means the creation of intergenerational waste,” Sweeney says, flatly.

The nuclear industry is quick to point out that nuclear power produces comparatively little actual waste (due to the density of fissionable materials), but Sweeney says this is a little like a cigarette burn on the right eye of the Mona Lisa: the footprint might be small, but the impact is enormous.

According to some experts, high level nuclear waste, which accounts for the majority of radioactivity, needs to be stored safely for one million years. That’s how long it takes to ensure radioactive decay. The industry’s own standard is much lower: isolation from people and environment for 100,000 years (“And that figure doesn’t come from Greenpeace,” says Sweeney, “that’s the current industry guideline. That comes from a room full of people, one third of whom are being paid to water things down.”)

"Let’s not roll the dice on the planet’s future on a hope that hasn’t delivered in seven decades."

How can you guarantee safe storage for 100,000 years? You can’t. The majority of Australia’s nuclear waste is both created and stored at Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) in Lucas Heights, just south of Sydney. Low level nuclear waste (regarded as the ‘safest’ grade, taking a mere 300 years to break down) is shipped from ANSTO to facilities in remote or regional Australia, wrapped in heat-resistant glass, thrown in tin or copper drums, then buried in the earth. That’s the most sophisticated disposal method we’ve been able to come up with in seven decades of nuclear research. (Finland is breaking ground on a deep geological nuclear waste repository, but it’s far from a complete or global solution.)

“No one – not in 70 years and after hundreds of millions of dollars of expenditure – not one nation on earth has a high-level radioactive waste disposal site,” Sweeney says. “There’s hope for new technological solutions, but they’re always just around the corner. I’ve been having that discussion for 20 years, and nothing ever changes.”

Sweeney says the challenge now is to convince governments to view nuclear waste as an intergenerational responsibility, our stewardship for posterity, and not to gamble the future of the planet on technological advances (which may or may not materialise) when we already have access to cheap, reliable, safe and – best of all – proven renewable power.

“It’s that old story: when you’ve got a dollar, you only get to spend it once,” he says. “The opportunity cost that would come from channeling money into an emergent but highly unproven technology is enormous. Let’s not roll the dice on the planet’s future on a hope that hasn’t delivered in seven decades.”

Image credit: Mick Truyts, Unsplash

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