Barry Brook

By Lynne Blundell

11 March 2011 –
The nuclear power debate was an interesting and provocative inclusion at the Green Cities conference this year. Australia has remained staunchly anti-nuclear for decades while other countries such as France, Germany and China have gone down the nuclear track. Two scientists went head to head with the arguments for and against.

Arguing for nuclear power as an energy solution was Barry Brook, Director of Climate Science, University of Adelaide Environment Institute. Arguing against was Ian Lowe, President, Australian Conservation Foundation and Emiritus Professor of Science, Technology and Society at Griffith University.

Barry Brook’s support of nuclear power generation was based on the premise that if we are going to achieve carbon reduction targets and prevent a global temperature rise of more than 2 degrees, it has to be part of the solution.

“We should not dismiss energy sources purely on philosophical arguments. Australia gets almost all its energy from coal but we are unusual and one of the few countries with no commercial nuclear generators,” said Brook.

While disposing of nuclear waste has been an issue, advances in technology meant much of it could be re-used. For every 100 tonnes of waste 90 tonnes could be re-used, said Brook.

“Nuclear material the size of a golfball would source all your energy requirements for a lifetime and you’d only have to manage waste the size of a coke can”

Brook argued that Australia could get three quarters of its energy needs from nuclear power and most of the remainder from renewable energy sources, with just a small amount coming from coal. To do this would require a 20 fold increase in Australia’s current nuclear capacity and a 40-fold increase in renewable energy capacity if that sector was to generate just 15 per cent of Australia’s power needs.

France had shown it is possible to replace fossil fuels with 80 per cent of its energy now coming from nuclear generation.

“Within two or three decades we could replace fossil fuels with nuclear,” said Brook.

Ian Lowe countered these arguments, pointing out that he too once thought nuclear power was the answer.

“In 1968 as a young physicist I did three years research on nuclear. I thought nuclear power was the clean, efficient fuel of the future. But I changed my mind – waste and nuclear weapons are my main concern,” said Lowe.

“The only reason anyone would seriously consider nuclear energy is to address climate change and if it was the only way to address climate change I would support it

“But it is not fast enough – it would take 10 to 15 years to build one nuclear plant. It is also very expensive – the cost curve for nuclear is still going up while the renewable cost curve is going down and is much more affordable.”

Lowe insisted the risk of nuclear accident would always be there. The technical problem of waste was possible to solve in principle but there was no realistic way to stop nuclear weapon proliferation.

“There are better alternatives. We must reduce demand dramatically and get energy from a mix of renewables. The renewable energy alternative is cleaner, faster and cheaper and there is no chance of terrorists stealing solar panels or wind turbines.”

Barry Brook came back with the counter argument that nuclear is three times cheaper than baseload solar thermal technology. “Nuclear is clearly cost effective which is why China is building nuclear power stations,” said Brook.

Ian Lowe replied that the answer is already there with renewables if anyone cared to look.

“The scandal is that we could reduce our emissions by 30 per cent using technologies with payback of less than four years. A report found this eight years ago but nothing has been done.”

And so the final result? At the end of the debate the audience was asked to vote  on whether nuclear power should be a significant part of Australia’s low carbon future. The result: Yes – 53.1 per cent, No – 46.9 per cent.

Postscript: A report in  Climate Spectator 8 March provides an interesting postscript to this debate, throwing some light onto the battle renewables face in this country, not the least of which is scare mongering by politicians about the effect a carbon tax would have on electricity prices (see  the full story)

Note:  The Japanese earthquake and damage to several nuclear reactors will likely add to negative sentiment to the nuclear argument – ed


lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au