Jim Green’s Straw Man Story: Of Course Nobody Wants A Nuclear Waste Dump


Earlier this week, we published a piece by anti-nuclear campaigner Jim Green, arguing agains Australia taking the world’s nuclear waste. Geoff Russell fires back a reply.

It was somewhat ironic that Jim Green’s latest attempt to talk down the nuclear industry and any expansion in Australia came just a few days after a major White House Summit on Nuclear Energy.

How long will it take Obama or his successor to reinvigorate the US nuclear industry? Time will tell.

It was interesting to see climate scientist Ken Caldeira do a bit of a mea culpa at the beginning of this summit over his youthful role in demonstrations to stop the Shoreham nuclear reactor near New York.

The mothballing of this $6 billion reactor spelt the end of decarbonisation in the US and allowed fossil fuels to soar without competition; and cemented the inevitability of our current climate emergency.

But back to Jim Green.

I regard it as a given that we have an urgent climate problem; but Green doesn’t mention it, so perhaps he really is, as it seems, more concerned about trivialities like that fire (only Green would call this an explosion) at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in the US; a fatality free screw-up.

If only fertiliser or wheat silo explosions were so benign.

The last major fertiliser explosion (one of a long list) flattened 80 houses and killed 15 people, leaving 160 injured. I didn’t see Jim or any other Greens calling for the closure of our fertiliser plants.

Preventing climate destabilisation will require clean electricity, among other things; the French achieved this in about 15 years with nuclear reactors. Build it and it works.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, built in geological salt beds deep underground in New Mexico. (IMAGE: Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Flickr).
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, built in geological salt beds deep underground in New Mexico. (IMAGE: Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Flickr).

Meanwhile, 15 years after the start of the German renewable energy experiment they don’t expect to match the French until 2050. Wind and solar didn’t work in the 70s as a response to the oil crisis and still doesn’t. If not for the fear mongering of the anti-nuclear movement, we could have largely decarbonised our electricity 25 years ago; just like France.

If wind and solar are really the blond-haired, blue-eyed wunderkind of the future, then what are the Germans doing wrong?

We’ve probably all had a Jim Green experience at some time in our lives. Frantically working to build, for example, a fence, and having somebody sniping from the sidelines about every thing from the nails to the type of timber, depth of the footings and how you hold the hammer.

After a while you really want to scream: “Okay smart arse, you build the bloody thing!”.

So if Jim Green cares about the planet and doesn’t like nuclear, then he should work out what the Germans are doing wrong and give them a hand. If it’s so damned easy, why are they taking so damned long?

But even worse than his constant negative nit-picking over trivialities are the irrelevance of each and every nit he picks.

What on earth is the relevance of the current nuclear flat line? The French nuclear expansion in the 70s was on the back of just such a flat line.

If you want something done, then you make a plan and do it. That’s what the Germans are doing.

At least they are having a go, they just managed to pick a raft of dud technologies; which isn’t really surprising to someone who drove a VW beetle for as long as I did. Great gearbox, but the rest was simply shite and they compounded a terrible design by making the buggers last!

How I survived those years of no brakes and terrible handling is a mystery. Don’t forget, the Germans lost the war.

And how could Green ignore China? Ignoring China when discussing nuclear power is like ignoring China when talking about mobile phone production. They are planning to start about 100 reactors during the next decade.

The number of additional proposed reactors is sitting at 170.

Let’s put this in perspective… consider the world’s largest solar power station: Ivanpah. There’s a couple of others now of similar size; but less than fingers on a hand.

Each of China’s new reactors will generate more energy than 7 Ivanpahs and many (CPR-1000) will cost about $1.6 billion and take just over 4 years to build.

Some people may have seen news about Westinghouse wanting to build dual AP1000s in South Australia for $17 billion. The Chinese are building them for $6.54 billion a pair and a derivative Chinese design, the CAP1400 for even less.

In contrast, Ivanpah cost $2.2 billion and took 4 years to build.

Do the maths, multiply 2.2 by 7 and see if the result is bigger than 1.6 or 3.3.

Three Mile Island nuclear facility, which in 1979 suffered a loss of coolant leading to a partial meltdown of the plant's second reactor, TMI 2. TMI 1 is still in operation, while the coolant stacks for TMI 2 will remain forever dormant. (IMAGE: JL Johnson, Flickr)
Three Mile Island nuclear facility, which in 1979 suffered a loss of coolant leading to a partial meltdown of the plant’s second reactor, TMI 2. TMI 1 is still in operation, while the coolant stacks for TMI 2 will remain forever dormant. (IMAGE: JL Johnson, Flickr)

Of course, Apple could launch an iNuke, build it in China and slap its magic logo on the side along with a $5 billion markup.

But the focus of Green’s piece, if there is one, is his criticism of proposals to turn Australia into a nuclear waste dump… with tonnes of high-level material needing storage for tens or hundreds of thousands of years.

Green’s confusion is understandable. When lots of people object to something, it’s hard to believe that it was never on the table.

So let’s be clear. Nobody with half a brain would ever consider dumping spent nuclear fuel. Not now, not ever.

That would be like digging up diamonds and then burying them again.

All around the planet, people have been zealously hanging onto their waste because it’s full of energy.

Most reactors only extract about 1 percent of the energy in the fuel. But if Green had been paying attention to China, he’d know that they just signed a deal with Bill Gates to commercialise “his” fast neutron travelling wave reactor, which can recycle nuclear waste and extract the other 99 percent.

Will that happen? Does anybody really think the Chinese want to pay top dollar for fresh uranium for the next 1,000 years or more? Of course not.

They are building a few different kinds of fast neutron reactors that can recycle waste. One is a Chinese design that they connected to the grid in 2010. They are also building a Russian design. Gates’s baby is just one of the designs on the table.

So if you want to understand the uranium industry’s problems, you need to understand the uncertainty they are operating in. Fast reactors will be a game changer and the Chinese are deadly serious about both them and dealing with climate change; for which we should all be very grateful, while hanging our heads in shame at our own inaction.

Also deadly serious is the proposal (18Mb download) before the South Australian Royal Commission to build fast reactors here, which can recycle waste and make it into cheap and clean electricity.

I’m certain the Royal Commission, and later the Government, will give both this proposal and Jim Green’s latest musings the consideration they both deserve.


Geoff Russell is a regular contributor to New Matilda. He has qualifications in mathematics and has written software all of his working life, but in the past decade has devoted increasing time to writing non-fiction with a simple goal... make the world a better place. A three-decade vegan and member of the Animal Justice Party, his first book in 2009 was 'CSIRO Perfidy', a critique of the high-red-meat CSIRO 'Total Wellbeing diet'; the most environmentally destructive diet on the planet. His concerns about climate change and the ineffectiveness of renewables led to a re-examination of his lifelong opposition to nuclear power. After considerable research he realised that the reasons people fear nuclear are built on obsolete knowledge about DNA and cancer. Geoff's second book 'GreenJacked! Derailing environmental action on climate change' is an e-book available on Amazon. He has been a regular contributor to BraveNewClimate.com since 2008 and has had pieces published in The Monthly, Australasian Science and a number of Australian newspapers.