The Argument For Nuclear Energy In Australia

This is a piece written by me (Barry Brook) and my Ph.D. student, Ben Heard, as part of the “Nuclear Debate” series on the New Matilda news/opinion site. The original article can be read here.


By now, most of you would have heard that the Premier of South Australia, Labor’s Jay Weatherill, has announced a Royal Commission into an expanded future role for the state in nuclear energy. For people like us, who are both strongly focused on tackling climate change by eliminating Australia’s dependence on fossil fuels, and who consider nuclear to be an essential tool, this is real progress.

In a recent article on The Conversation, we explained the types of issues we think the Royal Commission might consider. These obviously only represent our opinions and perspectives, albeit well-informed and researched.

We cover most of the well-trodden ground on radioactive waste management and energy generation. We also explain a number of reasons, ranging from political to economic to geological, why we think South Australia is a particularly good place to kick-start any deeper foray by our nation into the nuclear fuel cycle.

One thing that particularly frustrated us was the immediate condemnation of the news by the SA Greens Party, and disappointingly, also by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.

The whole point of Royal Commissions is the rigorous uncovering of facts, based on solid research and deep consultation with experts, government and public representatives. So why the objection?

Well, the arguments are well rehearsed and endlessly debated. Nuclear is too costly, unsafe, produces dangerous and intractable waste, is connected with weapons proliferation, is unsustainable, and besides, is unneeded.

Such a ‘washing list’ of objections is superficially convincing, and the last one in particular appeals to most people’s sensibilities. Australia is large, sunny and sparsely populated country with long, windswept coastlines. Surely then, we can (and should) do it all with wind and solar, and forget about dirty and technically complex alternatives like nuclear fission?

The thing is, with an issue as serious and immediate as climate change, we can’t afford to be carried away by wishful thinking, nor get trapped into thinking that ‘hope’ is a plan. We owe it to the future to be ruthlessly pragmatic about solutions, and accept that trade-offs are inevitable.

So, in as brief a summary as we can put it, here is the state of play was we see it.

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Royal commission into nuclear will open a world of possibilities

This is an article by Ben Heard and me, published today in The Conversation. I’m republishing it here.


South Australian premier Jay Weatherill on Sunday announced a formal inquiry into the future role of the state in the nuclear fuel cycle, which will be tasked with considering options across the full gamut of mining, enrichment, energy and storage.

Currently, mining is its only involvement.

We have long supported calls for Australia to engage in transparent discussion around expanding participation in the nuclear industry.

Others have asked how this might possibly happen. Weatherill has given an answer in announcing a Royal Commission to investigate these issues. These independent, trusted processes and the findings are treated with respect. They are tasked with the rigorous uncovering of facts, based on solid research and deep consultation with experts, government and public representatives.

The premier’s decision to turn the powers and non-partisan process of a Royal Commission to a question of our shared future may prove to be inspired.

Maturing debate

Discussion of nuclear energy in Australia has matured in recent years with greater focus on factual arguments, the relativity of risks and the need for robust scientific sourcing of claims.

Yet it has also remained open to distortions, fabrications and fearmongering. Fortunately, such tactics will not withstand the scrutiny of a Royal Commission. As scientists, academics and evidence-based activists, concerned with facts and objective judgement, we welcome this process.

The stakes are high. Several of Australia’s regional trading partners such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China are bound to nuclear energy, with good reason. Their only pragmatic alternative lies with fossils fuels, at great economic and environmental cost.

This international need for nuclear energy is unlikely to diminish, and will likely grow as concerns about tackling climate change rise. It is for us, as Australians, to now decide whether and how we benefit from this, and whether we do or do not take responsibility to make our region and world safer, cleaner and more secure by trading on our competitive advantages.

Storage potential

South Australia’s potential to merge prosperity, clean energy and good global citizenship can barely be overstated. We have no wish to pre-empt the findings of this process. However we invite South Australians to consider these possibilities.

Globally, there are around 240,000 metric tons heavy metal (MtHM ) in spent nuclear fuel, much of which was dug from South Australian ores. By 2040 this will be around 700,000 MtHM.

Our preliminary work indicates that when existing, unspent national budgets allocated to managing this material are added up, we quickly reach a sum in excess of A$100 billion.

In a soon-to-be-published paper, we find simple, robust dry-cask storage is now a demonstrated, reliable and recognised solution for holding this material. It can be quickly, readily implemented by South Australia. Importantly, such a facility would mean the material is retrievable, to enable the extraction of further value through recycling.

A modest storage facility of, say, 40,000 MtHM, would be quickly subscribed by our trading partners for near-term revenues in the tens of billions of dollars for Australia. That’s just the beginning. Continue reading

South Australia announces Royal Commission into Nuclear Energy

We are, at last making real progress.

As Ben Heard explains on DecarboniseSA, the Premier of the state of South Australia has announced a Royal Commission into an expanded future role in nuclear energy. We, who are deeply concerned about making real progress towards eliminating Australia’s dependence on fossil fuels, should celebrate this advance. It is a triumph for common sense and evidence-based policy. We can make a difference, given sufficient time and effort.

Further information in The Advertiser newspaper. The terms of reference, commissioner etc. are yet to be released. As Tom Koutsantonis (State Treasurer and Energy Minister) said in a tweet:

Bold policy announced by @JayWeatherill establishing a Royal Commission into the #Nuclearfuelcycle. Now a mature debate can occur. #Adelaide

As expected, the news of even an investigation was immediately condemned by the SA Greens Party, and disappointingly, also by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. The whole point of Royal Commissions is the rigorous uncovering of facts, based on solid research and deep consultation with experts, government and public representatives. What, I must wonder, are they afraid of? Sad.

But, as this announcement today proved, they are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Those who can’t take the hard decisions in solving climate change, those who prefer ideology to evidence, should step aside.

Satnavs, biofuel and climate change

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff recently released the popular book “Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change“.

Even if they don’t own one, most readers will have seen a Satnav, those miracles of modern technology which will direct you across town to a suburb and street you’ve never been to before. After you enter your destination, there’s a little pause and perhaps the screen displays a message like: “Calculating…”, and then the instructions start.

Okay, so why the pause?

Once it’s located its required satellites and knows where you are, the Satnav runs some form of shortest path algorithm to work out how to get to the destination. If you are interested, here’s a walk through of one popular algorithm in action.

Really impatient people might be annoyed by the pause. For such people, there’s a much faster way of proceeding which would make that pause so short as to be imperceptible. Here’s the algorithm for a no-pause Satnav. First make a list of each road passing through your current location. After all, you have to travel down one of these. Then consider some point a small distance (say 30 meters) away on each of the roads. It’s high school maths to determine if this point is closer to your destination than your current location. If it is, then off you go. Then at the next intersection of any kind, do the same thing again. The algorithm would be lightning fast, the pause would vanish, and it always takes you in the direction of the destination.

At this point you should get out a piece of paper and start doodling. Might the algorithm use dead end roads? Ah … yes. If you go down one, can you ever get out? Ah … no. Consider roads slightly less than tangential to a circle around your destination. Might the algorithm take them? Ah … I guess so. Could you end up driving backwards and forwards along such a road forever? Ah … yes, theoretically.

Obviously, the algorithm sucks; even though at each point it always chooses a road that takes you toward the destination. But it can suck even it doesn’t make any of the mistakes I mentioned. It can suck by simply taking a hopelessly circuitous route.

If you think about it, this algorithm is pretty close to the current international approach to tackling climate change. Of course, a Satnav is just for one person, but the climate change mitigation process is highly parallel, so it’s like everybody involved is using this same sucky algorithm.

How often have you seen news stories about some so-called climate friendly project; they all have a prominent claim somewhere like: “This project will deliver clean energy to Y thousand homes!” or, “This project will save X tonnes of CO2″? All such claims tell you is that the project is taking you somewhere closer to zero-carbon nirvana. They tell you nothing about whether you will ever get there or how long it might take.

Consider as an example: the on-going global roll out of biofuels.

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What can we learn from Kerala?

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff recently released the popular book “Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change“.

Kerala is a state on the South Western coast of India; about a third the size of Tasmania or just slightly bigger than Hawaii. It’s been on my radar ever since it featured in an inspirational segment of David Attenborough’s 2009 “How many people can live on planet earth” documentary (35:16).

With 33 million people in an area half the size of Tasmania, you can imagine it’s rather crowded. Some official methods of forest counting nevertheless claim that 44 percent of Kerala is still covered in forest of some kind or another, but scientific studies put the figure much lower at about 21 percent of the country having forests with a crown density higher than 40 percent and another 5 percent with a crown density between 10 and 40 percent. The statistical discrepancy brings to mind Australia’s little Kyoto trick of defining a forest as an area with trees over 2 metres in height and a crown cover of 20 percent or more.

Kerala is experiencing many developing country problems; for example, it is heavily dependent on a couple of million of its population working in the Gulf states and sending back cash. This helps it to import food with its area dedicated to rice halving in recent times as cash crops like rubber and coconut take over. Kerala’s chicken consumption is also increasing and now triple the Indian average. While it’s still just 15 grams a day, chickens are net food consumers, not producers. The bottom line is that Kerala’s remaning forests are under threat from all manner of activities, both legal and illegal.

But the inspirational part is that Kerala has been educating its girls and reaping the rewards; families are now small and the population is stable. Kerala’s life expectancy at birth is 74; the highest of any state in India. It also has the highest literacy rate of 93 percent. Kerala’s Human Development Index of 0.854 is similar to that of Australia in 1980. This is a spectacular achievement considering that Kerala’s installed electrical capacity is about 2700 MW plus another 266 MW from the Kudankulam nuclear plant across the border in Tamil Nadu. So if it’s all running, she can generate about the same power as the South Australian peak demand, which services just 1.6 million people. In 2001, 77 percent of households cooked with wood, LPG was next with 18 percent. Down at the bottom is electricity at just 0.1 percent along with an assortment of kerosene, coal, biogas, crop residues and cow dung. Cooking smoke is a potent killer of young children in India. In 2010, Kerala had the lowest mortality rate for children under 5, but that still meant 16 deaths per 1000 births. More electricity would help, but there still needs to be a cultural shift. Rice is a staple in Kerala and the preferred method of preparation is parboiling, a fascinating ancient process which improves the nutrient profile but lengthens the cooking process. More cooking means more energy and wood fires have a cultural significance that will be tough to shift. I haven’t worked out where the firewood comes from but Kerala uses about 8 million tonnes of it for rice cooking alone. This is more than all the wood and paper products Australia produces from its 2 million hectares of plantations.

Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in neigbouring Tamil Nadu state, with first unit (1,000 MW) commissioned in the year 2013. With initial capacity of 2,000 MW, this station will be expanded to 6,800 MW capacity.

Kerala’s been on the radar of the World Health Organisation for over half a century ago and the reasons have nothing to do with population or rice or wood cooking fires or dodgy forest data. Kerala has a very high rate of background radiation due to sands containing thorium. The level ranges from about 70 percent above the global average to about 30 times the global average. For thousands of years, some of the population of Kerala have been living bathed in radiation at more than triple the level which will get you compulsorily thrown out of your home (evacuation) in Japan. The Japanese have set the maximum annual radiation level at 20 milli Sieverts per year around Fukushima while some parts of Kerala have had a level of 70 milliSieverts per year … for ever.

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