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Issue #1433      28 October 2009

Nuclear power, a new environmental threat

Last week former Queensland premier Peter Beattie, union leader Paul Howes and the International Nuclear Academy’s Professor Leslie Kemeny followed former NSW Premier Bob Carr in advocating nuclear power as a supposed remedy for climate change.

Beattie and others are more cautious than Carr and Kemeny in expressing their support. Aware of the likelihood of a political backlash, they argue that “there is an argument for nuclear”, as one of a number of new energy options.

The cost of building, running and insuring nuclear plants is so astronomical that the US government has had to provide enormous subsidies and underwrite the insurance of the US plants. (After the Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl reactor disasters, insurance firms became unwilling to insure these facilities against accidents.)

The description of nuclear power generation as involving zero emissions is totally misleading. The critical figure for any power generation system involves the emissions given off during the system’s full cycle, not just during the plant’s operation. On this basis, nuclear power is surely one of the worst performers.

The nuclear energy cycle involves a huge level of carbon dioxide emissions in building the plant, mining and milling the uranium ore, remediation of the tailings, enriching the uranium, fabricating the reactor elements, cooling and disposing of the reactor water, storing, cooling and guarding the waste for 60 years and then transporting it to a safe storage site and guarding it - for 250,000 years!

Uranium enrichment also produces some chlorofluorocarbon gas emissions, which are subject to international bans (except for use in nuclear power stations), because they destroy the ozone layer and are also 10,000 to 20,000 times more damaging as greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide.

The battle of the carpetbaggers

The coal industry is struggling to maintain its future as Australia’s leading energy provider, against a determined attack by other mining interests, including uranium mining corporation Rio Tinto.

The Rudd government backs “clean coal” technology, which involves capturing and liquefying carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power stations and pumping the liquid into deep subterranean chasms. Coal corporations are lukewarm about the process, because it would affect their profit levels.

The Australian Coal Association’s current TV advertising campaign maintains that the industry is concerned about the environment, but that the government’s emissions trading scheme is pointless, because if we don’t supply the world with coal others will.

This dishonest argument ignores our national responsibilities to help mitigate climate change, and our potential to do so. A reduction of Australia’s coal exports, the biggest in the world, could not readily be compensated by other imports, and would accelerate the global trend towards alternative energy sources.

The coal industry is also studying other technologies, such as underground coal gasification (UCG) in which coal seams are ignited to provide a combustible gas for power generation. Although much cheaper than traditional coal mining and combustion, this process produces emissions and may lead to the flooding of underground aquifers with polluted coal seam water, the collapse of ground levels and the ruin of soils and natural watercourses over the coal seams. Coal corporations are currently investigating UCG mining beneath some of Australia’s best agricultural land.

Other corporations are promoting the use of natural gas, which at least has the advantage of emitting only 40 percent of the level of carbon dioxide produced by coal, per equivalent amount of energy produced.

As an alternative to petrol and aviation fuel, Beattie enthusiastically advocates the use of algae biofuel, an oil produced by combining algae with carbon dioxide. The oil can be used in existing internal combustion engines, but it must be ignited to produce energy, thereby releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It therefore has little if any chance of mitigating climate change.

During the next decade the world must reduce emissions as fast as possible, in order to avoid climate change “tipping points”. Australia is the world’s worst per-capita emitter of greenhouse gases. Our coal-fired power stations emit almost 50 percent of our emissions, so it is crucial that we minimise their emissions as fast as possible.

Of all the energy sources, renewables produce the least emissions, but the Rudd government consistently promotes “clean coal”, at the expense of renewables. Nevertheless, it still wants to retain the “green” vote, and last week, in an unguarded moment, Energy Minister Martin Ferguson implicitly acknowledged the feasibility of renewables as base load energy sources, when he claimed that the government’s “solar flagships” program would enable renewables to provide 20 percent of our energy needs by 2020.

So why doesn’t the government phase out its support for mineral-based energy and support development of renewables, perhaps with the temporary use of natural gas as a back-up energy source, so that our energy needs are met and our emissions are minimised as fast as possible?

The answer lies in the government’s overriding political commitment to the minerals corporations, expressed vividly last week when Ferguson spoke with breathless enthusiasm about Australia’s mineral reserves as “160 years of natural gas and coal-seam methane, 150 years of uranium, more than 100 years of black coal, and more than 500 years of brown coal resources”!

The mining corporations’ competing claims to be Australia’s environmental saviours are phoney and disturbing. But the uranium industry’s promotion of nuclear power for Australia is particularly dangerous.

Apart from the financial penalties that would be imposed on the taxpayer, the adoption of nuclear power would introduce the likelihood of nuclear accidents and the storage of waste uranium within Australia (probably on a global basis, as suggested by former PM Bob Hawke). Nuclear power would also increase the livelihood of a terrorist attack and move Australia closer to the possiblitity of adopting nuclear weapons.

We should not compound the massive problems we already face in dealing with climate change by replacing one terribly polluting activity with another. The promoters of nuclear power were right to be cautious of a political backlash. We should make sure they get a mighty big one.

For further reading on this subject, readers are directed to “Global warming, nuclear power, double trouble”, The Australian Marxist Review, No.46, March 2007  

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