Nuclear Power: Australia Has More Than One Blind Spot On Tackling Climate Change


Two of the most powerful nations on earth have concluded an agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Included in that agreement is reference to nuclear power being used to limit those emissions. Yet in Australia even discussion of nuclear power is taboo.

We continue to frame the control measures through a very narrow and parochial lens defined by domestic politics. We luxuriate in a self-delusion that despite glaring evidence to the contrary, global warming can be addressed solely by renewable energy.

I was motivated to write this piece by the frequent errors and omissions I noted in the reporting of China's recent commitment to cap carbon dioxide emissions around the year 2030 or earlier if possible.

China also announced a target of expanding the share of non-fossil zero-emission sources in primary energy, namely renewables and nuclear, to 20 per cent by 2030.

In Australia, China's commitment has been widely and erroneously reported as a commitment to 20 per cent renewable energy by 2030, with all reference to nuclear being excluded from the reports.

Journalists fell into line with Jared Owens in the Australian, Tom Iggulden from the ABC's Lateline, the opinion piece from the Sydney Morning Herald and even Paul Bongiorno in the Saturday Paper, all reporting that China had committed to 20 per cent renewables.

Also excluded from comment is China's commitment to a reduction in "primary" energy as opposed to electricity generation.

Primary energy is an important concept and refers to the basic energy resources such as coal, gas, oil, wind, solar or uranium.

Electricity on the other hand is a transfer medium. It’s what we get after we use a primary energy source. This means that in addition to reductions in coal consumption, China may have to address its use of gas and petroleum products.

As reported by the Whitehouse in mid November, to meet their commitment will require an additional 800-1000 gigawatts of zero-emission generating capacity by 2030 – about the same as all their current coal-fired capacity.

It's also nearly as much as the current total installed capacity in the U.S. energy sector.

The commitment is so large that to meet their target, construction of clean energy would need to start immediately. Any criticism that the target is too modest fails to grasp the enormity of what is proposed.

Even if obtained exclusively from nuclear power it would mean the completion of one 1200 megawatt Westinghouse AP1000 reactor each week for the next 16 years.

Using wind or solar is more problematic. While the nuclear reactors work day and night – in good weather or foul – and only require 10 per cent down time for refuelling, wind and solar cannot be relied upon. Wind, in such a diverse environment, will generate less than 25 per cent of its rated capacity and solar not much more than 14 per cent.

Even then, solar fails to deliver for 16 hours of the day and at times wind fails almost completely. The fossil fuel backup required to support such a system, together with an extensive interlinked grid, all point to the clarity of a nuclear powered supply system.

As a precedent, France built an entire nuclear generating system of 58 reactor units over 22 years from 1977 to 1999. It produced fifty percent more power than Australia's output.

They produce electricity with only 75 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour, which is less than one tenth of our emissions.

In the laboratory of real life, the French example proves that nuclear power reduces emissions while across the border the German experiment with a massive roll out of wind, solar and biomass has resulted in more brown coal power stations being built, rising emissions and cost blowouts in power supply.

Another measure of the benefit of nuclear power versus wind and solar is the energy society invests in the system compared to the energy obtained. Known as the Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROI) the calculation of these numbers can be somewhat subjective however nuclear performs very well in most comparisons.

One well-documented German study by Weissbach and others found that nuclear power's EROI of 75 units shows a clear benefit over the lower returns for wind of only 16 for and four for solar for each unit invested.

Coal under the same study had an EROI of 30. So we see that society obtains more energy for an equal resource allocation from nuclear power than just about any other power system. The lower values for wind and solar reflect what we intuitively expect for diverse low energy intense sources of energy.

Returning to what the Chinese are actually doing to achieve their commitments, on the nuclear front they have the largest construction and development programme in the world, by far.

Mainland China has 22 operating nuclear power reactors, 27 under construction, and 60 more planned and 82 proposed. The capacity of these reactors totals 270 GWe compared to Australia's total generating capacity of about 60 GWe.

The Chinese ongoing commitment to nuclear power is clear. They are leaving no stone unturned in their investigation of all nuclear technologies including thorium fuels, molten salt and metal cooled fast reactors, high temperature reactors and even accelerator driven reactor systems.

Chinese reactor technology is already building Generation III reactors such as the Westinghouse AP1000, which offer increased safety.

In the future they plan to recycle nuclear waste products in a new fleet of Generation IV fast reactors which will become the dominant technology by 2050.

The payoff in all this low carbon electricity generation is the strategic advantage China gets by weaning itself off imports of petroleum products. In large population dense cities and towns, small electrified cars and bikes are an obvious alternative as are electrified public transit systems. Freight can increasingly be hauled by electrified rail and high-speed passenger services negate the use of oil hungry air travel.

And so we return to those two key words left out in the Australian media, "nuclear" and "primary".

The Chinese 20 per cent reduction of primary energy is a far greater per capita commitment than Australia's 20 per cent Renewable Energy Target. It affects the 90 per cent of their primary energy sector that uses fossil fuels, whereas our RET only impacts on 40 per cent of our sector, which is less than half China's commitment.

Nuclear will be the corner stone technology in achieving international success in the battle against global warming. Neither the United States nor China are fearful of its use. And, frankly, Australia's anxiety is self indulgent.

Like the Abbott government's refusal to take action on global warming Australia must face up to what works and what doesn't.

We must embrace nuclear power with all urgency and join with the major powers in using the right tool for the job.

* Robert Parker is the president of the Australian Nuclear Association.

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