Professor Leslie Kemeny’s nuclear spruiking regularly appears in Australian newspapers. Readers might take note of the acronym UDDELI, which stands for Unnecessary, Dirty, Dangerous, Expensive, Late and Insufficient. This can provide some balance to the very narrow view offered by Professor Kemeny, whose undoubted expertise on the technicalities of nuclear power is offset by an apparent near-total ignorance of other options.
“Unnecessary” is the most widely overlooked argument against nuclear power. The quickest and cheapest way to start reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is to use energy much more efficiently then we do at present. This is so cost-effective that many actions can save money and emissions simultaneously. A study byMcKinsey Australia last year concluded that those savings would pay for next-level actions of modest cost, so that Australia could reduce its emissions by 20% by 2020 at no net cost to the economy.
McKinsey constultants are not the only prominent experts pointing this out. Their conclusions give the lie not only to Professor Kemeny’s unstated assumption that we must generate lots of new power, but also to the Rudd Government’s feeble target of a 5-15% reduction of greenhouse emissions. Of course the energy efficiency path implies that we actually burn less fossil fuel, something the Rudd Government is evidently unwilling to contemplate. Curiously, this has left the running on this option to Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull.
The potential energy efficiencies do not require rocket science. They can be as simple as using larger pipes, air ducts and electrical wiring. Present practices are determined by safety requirements and up-front costs, rather by than lifetime costs. Also we have known for decades how to build houses that require very little heating and cooling, we just need to do it. The constraint is not cost, which is small, it is design, which is hampered by old, wasteful practises and regulations.
Professor Kemeny is happy to recite the “Dirty” drawbacks of coal burning, but neglects to mention the problems that accompany his “4.8 cubic meters” of spent nuclear fuel. That material is both highly radioactive and chemically highly toxic. No-one knows how to safely sequester it for 100,000 years until its radioactivity declines. Any system of storage is unverifiable. We simply pass the problem to our descendants, and who can know if the required knowledge will be preserved for such a vast span of time?
“Dangerous” is commonly taken to refer to meltdowns like Chernobyl, but more immediate dangers would be involved with the transport of large amounts of nuclear material around the world. In a global nuclear industry the probability of accidents during transit becomes significant, if not likely. Terrorists would be perennially tempted by nuclear shipments. The proliferation of nuclear weapons would become a far greater concern, as Western agitation over Iran’s nuclear developments illustrates.
Most energy experts agree nuclear power will be “Expensive”. Professor Kemeny’s claim that the cost of nuclear power would be only half that of coal power certainly needs to be substantiated. It is unlikely to include the full costs of safe decommissioning and cannot include the unknowable cost of waste storage. Professor Kemeny dismisses renewable energy sources in the most superficial and ignorant terms. Serious studies demonstrate the large contribution they can make even with the present challenges of storage.
An efficiency-plus-renewables strategy has one great advantage over other strategies. It is the only approach that can limit household energy bills. If renewable energy costs twice as much but you only need half as much energy, then your bills are no larger. You’d think politicians would be all over that one.
Nuclear power will be much too “Late”. This is in spite of Professor Kemeny’s provocative implication that the Commonwealth override objections of Canberrans and place a nuclear power station on Commonwealth land in the ACT. That would be the airport planning fiasco times one hundred.
The latest global warming science indicates that its effects are developing much sooner than anticipated. The possibility that is alarming many scientists is of a series of climate dominos that tip us into uncontrollable and irreversible warming that could reach six degrees, with catastrophic consequences. Thus the loss of Arctic summer sea ice, which is happening now, could trigger the melting of Arctic tundra and release of vast amounts of greenhouse gases trapped there, which in turn could trigger other warming mechanisms. The great fear is that the climate is tipping now. We may have only a few years in which to get our emissions heading rapidly down.
Nuclear power would be “Insufficient” because it only generates electricity, which accounts for around a third of energy use, transport and space heating being other large categories. Why build a nuclear plant to heat your house when the sun will do it for you? The technology for making new liquid fuels for transport is not well developed, and as it develops it could be as well used in the renewables option as in the nuclear option.
Nuclear advocates are fond of urging us to debate the option calmly and rationally. They would serve Australia better if they took their own advice.