It’s no surprise really that the federal government is exhuming the idea of nuclear power for Australia from the grave the technology dug itself.
The signs have been there – pressure on NSW to overturn its ban on uranium mining, WA’s ban ending, and the eve-of-election fast-tracked approval for the Yeelirrie uranium mine by former environment minister Melissa Price.
We’ve also had abundant evidence the government will steadfastly ignore market signals, science and other rational evidence – including advice from leading economists – when it suits a policy agenda. The steadfast refusal to raise Newstart is a case in point.
So, this week, we get the announcement from minister for energy and emissions reduction Angus Taylor that there will be a federal inquiry into the feasibility of nuclear power for Australia. It will be chaired by the LNP member for Fairfax on the Sunshine Coast, Ted O’Brien.
O’Brien made the expected motherhood statements about investigating the potential for nuclear to provide secure, clean and affordable energy.
Cue deep sighs. Maybe a few frustrated groans too.
Public feedback is now open, with comments open until 16 September 2019. You all know what to do – read the rhetoric and have your say here.
Quick facts you need to know about nuclear
Just to first recap the facts the government is probably ignoring. Firstly, the market for uranium from mines like the new WA megamine has flatlined. That’s because world-wide nations are mothballing their reactors and putting a halt on new projects.
Not only did Fukushima make it clear that nuclear comes with the highest and longest-lasting risks of any energy technology, the cost-per-watt and emissions footprint of nuclear does not stack up.
It’s a claim cited frequently by advocates for the toxic tech that it’s low emissions, but the proof of that claim is flimsy.
Research published recently by Sanford University engineering, emissions and climate change expert Professor Mark Jacobson stated that new nuclear power plants “cost 2.3 to 7.4 times those of onshore wind or utility solar PV per kWh, take 5 to 17 years longer between planning and operation, and produce 9 to 37 times the emissions per kWh as wind.”
“There is no such thing as a zero- or close to zero-emissions nuclear power plant.”
There’s emissions due to extraction and processing of the uranium, there’s emissions due to operation, and there’s emissions in managing the waste. There’s also the transport emissions associated with the supply chain itself. And the waste does not make a friendly neighbour.
The wait time for plants coming online also means more emissions are consumed due to use of existing grid power for a decade or more that could have been abated if wind or solar had been installed instead. Jacobson saw this occur in China, with national CO2 emissions rising 1.3 per cent in 2016-2017 because a choice was made to invest in nuclear plants rather than rapidly deploy more wind and solar.
So, it’s no quick fix for lowering emissions and mitigating the climate catastrophe. It just adds another potential catastrophe to the mix, including the downstream risks associated with having the ideal material for bomb-making as a waste stream.
Another thing to think about is we know what happens when a builder or developer goes into liquidation – owners and occupants are left with little redress in event of a major building defect. And there often are defects.
Imagine this happening with a nuclear reactor development. It’s enough to cause nightmares. It’s already been seen with cowboy solar PV installations, where ongoing maintenance falls down when the installation company goes bust or vanishes.
Yale 360 reported in 2017 that three of the world’s largest nuclear technology operators all hit the wall financially – casting a cloud on the future of assets and their safe operation and upkeep. Just another risk to consider.
Meanwhile, somewhere at a wind farm, there’s a bovine ground crew busily contributing to maintenance by keeping the grass down. No hazmat suits required.