Counterpoint – nuclear power and the low carbon economy

Recently, I was interviewed by Paul Comrie-Thomson for Counterpoint, a current affairs radio programme broadcast on ABC Radio National. The topic was the potential role of nuclear power in Australia. Below is the transcript of the interview, broadcast on 13 July, and a link to the original .MP3 audio of the broadcast. abcrnI’d be interested in any feedback you, as BNC readers, have — not only on the content of the interview (remember, this was done off the top of my head, so there may be a few minor misstatements), but also on the effectiveness (or not) of this sort of communication strategy.


When it comes to climate change and reducing carbon emissions Barry Brook challenges many in the environmental movement to think again about nuclear power. He says in the future we’ll need more energy, not less, and the only way to meet increased demands for power is an inconvenient solution — nuclear.

Download audio (ABC Radio National, Counterpoint, 13 July 2009)


Paul Comrie-Thomson: First to nuclear power, the old bete noire of the environmental movement. Is it time for rehabilitation? Could nuclear power in fact be the technological answer to climate change? Three Mile Island and Chernobyl still linger in the minds of many, but Barry Brook, director of the Research Institute for Climate Change and Sustainability at the University of Adelaide, says it’s time to move past old prejudices. So, Barry Brook, just how safe are current nuclear reactors?

Barry Brook: Modern reactors are designed on the principle of being inherently safe, and what that means is they have a number of design principles that are based on the laws of physics. So in order for them to melt down or explode there would have to be an extraordinary set of circumstances where you would have multiple systems failing, and in the new reactors that are being proposed, even more than that, you would have to have the laws of physics being violated, which of course is not particularly likely.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: It’s not likely. So Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, given the new reactors, are now a thing of the past?

Barry Brook: Chernobyl was a special type of reactor built by the Russians to breed plutonium for bombs, so it had a graphite core and it meant that if you had problems in the reactor where the water flow would stop, it would actually run out of control. No American reactor can actually do that. And Chernobyl also lacked a containment building, which was another problem because when it started a graphite fire all of the radioactive material was dispersed into the air, another disaster. That also can’t happen in an American reactor.

Three Mile Island was a lesson where there was poor training of staff and a failed system for notifying the staff of actually what was happening. And so they made mistakes such as opening valves when they should have been shutting them and letting water in when they shouldn’t have. But Three Mile Island didn’t hurt anyone. There were no fatalities, there was no radioactivity of any note released into the environment. So even in that worst-case scenario for an American reactor there were essentially no problems. But of course the reactor was destroyed, it cost millions of dollars, and it set back the American nuclear program by decades really because of the effect on public opinion. That’s gradually changed.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: And also it happened 12 days after the release of the movie The China Syndrome.

Barry Brook: But of course what was speculated in The China Syndrome was that the reactor would melt completely through the floor of the building into the Earth and cause a steam explosion, it would spread radioactivity everywhere. It didn’t eventuate because of course that was a completely unrealistic scenario.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: Yes, very convincing but unrealistic…convincing in terms of entertainment. Let’s explore a little more costs and build times. You say that we now have standardised modular passive safety designs which can be factory built and shipped to site. You say they’re game changes for the industry. How does it change the game?

Barry Brook: One of the biggest problems with the American reactor program and why it stalled in the ’70s and ’80s, Three Mile Island notwithstanding, was that the costs were escalating. When it cost $300 million to build a reactor in 1972 and it cost $6 billion in the early ’80s, something has gone terribly wrong. Part of that was the legal suits that extended the reactor certification time over to a period of decades. So part of it was the anti-nuclear movement that did that, but also a part of it was each design was different. So everything was built anew, new features were tried out, every design needed a special certificate to actually be built and then another certificate to be run. So the whole system ultimately was set up to fail and things became more and more expensive.

If you can have a system where you have a standardised design with components that are built to a particular specification, if you can have components that are built in a factory and shipped to site rather than everything needed to be constructed on site, if you have modules where they’re smaller such as they can be put on a rail car or on a large truck and taken to site and the many of these units put together to constitute a plant, then you can start to see that there’s huge benefits in terms of efficiency, the fact that you don’t need a standardised certificate for each and every new reactor, that there are economic benefits in building multiple units at a given factory. The places where this is happening is China and India right now. So although these have often been blamed as some of the worst carbon polluters, ultimately and ironically they could be the nations that lead us out of the carbon economy and into a low carbon economy based on nuclear power.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: The 2006 Switkowski Report on nuclear power in Australia, it hardly mentioned fast reactors. How do you see their potential?

Barry Brook: Fast reactors are an old type of reactor design. The first reactor, the Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 built in the US to work out many of the glitches in nuclear power production was a fast reactor, but almost every reactor that’s been built since and all of the currently commercial reactors in the US, in Japan and in France are what’s known as light water reactors. They’re basically two designs; a pressurised water reactor and a boiling water reactor. They use water to slow down neutrons in a nuclear reaction to make the fission of uranium 235 more likely…it’s a bit of a technical topic, I know, but basically it makes it a lot easier to generate power from uranium 235.

Fast reactors use a different technology where instead of using water to cool the fuel and transfer heat to a steam turbine they use a liquid metal. Sodium is often used, lead is another possibility. It’s hard to imagine that you could have a molten metal as the coolant in a reactor but that’s exactly what it does. And it has a number of advantages because you can not only burn all of the uranium 235 but you can burn the uranium 238 which people may have heard of as depleted uranium, the uranium that’s left over after you’ve tried to enrich it to increase the concentration of uranium 235. It’s the stuff they use in bullets and tank armour, it’s very common. If you can get the energy out of that, which is what fast reactors can do, then potentially you can unlock 100 to 300 times the energy we’re currently using out of uranium. And even better than that, we can take all of the spent fuel that’s been generated by all the world’s nuclear reactors to date and generate power from that, and change it from a 100,000-year management problem to about a 300-year management problem.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: Which is why you say nuclear power is the world’s primary source of sustainable carbon free energy. It’s a big claim.

Barry Brook: Well, every source of energy currently requires carbon to construct it, but then there are a range of technologies that don’t actually emit any carbon once they’re generating power, and nuclear power is one of those. The great advantage of nuclear power is rather than relying on a diffuse and variable power source, which is what most renewable energies rely upon, it’s relying on an extremely concentrated power source. A kilogram of uranium contains about as much energy as two million kilograms of coal, and coal is already a concentrated form of energy. So it’s an incredibly concentrated form of energy if you can harness it to its full advantage.

I probably didn’t answer your earlier question completely in that you asked why there weren’t any fast reactors right now. The main reason is a simple matter of economics, that fast reactors require a special type of reprocessing of the fuel known as pyroprocessing which doesn’t separate plutonium, so you can’t use it to make a bomb, but it requires a little bit of extra money to close the fuel cycle. And in an era when uranium is very cheap, it’s not worth paying that. Once uranium gets above about $150 a kilogram or so, these become highly economical. So to date it’s been the abundance of uranium and the relative lack of concern about storing nuclear waste over the long-term that has I think stopped the commercial development of these reactors.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: Many will say that this is all very well but renewables are the answer. But what role do you see wind and solar playing over the next decade?

Barry Brook: I think in Australia they’re going to play the primary role in trying to reduce our dependence on carbon based energy for the simple fact that it’s going to take ten years to get nuclear power here, and that process will involve getting public support, discussions on the merits of nuclear power and the potential problems (I don’t think we’re having that educated debate in Australia right now), right through to setting up an organisation that can certify reactors and getting the first ones built, which might take four or so years. So that’s a ten-year process, in which case we can give our attention to wind and solar and see what they can achieve.

My pessimism of wind and solar is not that they won’t have a role in our future energy supply but that they are not able to supply sufficient energy to power an industrial economy or indeed to allow the economy to continue to grow in that way. There are many problems with back-up, with storage of energy, with the sort of grid connections you’re going to require to remote areas to harness energy from these areas, because of course because of the diffuse and variable nature of these technologies they require a continental scale deployment to provide enough power for all of society. We’ve only done them on a very small scale so far. If you look at all of the power generated in Australia, it’s only just over 1% now that’s generated by the sort of renewables that we’re talking about which are wind and solar, what is often termed techno-solar, as opposed to other forms of renewable energy that we do rely on quite a lot which is hydro power and biomass burnings, burning wood and other forms of animal and plant generated produce.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: And of course looking at what people call the new economy or moving away from a carbon economy, people talk of desalination and electric vehicles, but you make the point that they’re energy-hungry enterprises, and so if we’re going in that direction we will need more energy, not less.

Barry Brook: Yes, that’s exactly right. Right now we have a convenient energy carrier that’s available for us to mine, which is oil and, to a lesser degree, gas. When we are depleted in that energy carrier, which we use for almost all of our vehicular transport and heating needs, we’re going to have to create one, and the way we’re going to create it is through electricity. So ultimately we’re going to become a 100% electrified society, notwithstanding the contribution that may be made from biofuels, things such as the aviation industry. So if we’re going to move from being about a 30% electrical society through to a 100% electrical society, it’s pretty easy to do the maths and find that at the very least power demand is going to triple.

I can’t see any way around that if we’re going to decarbonise the economy which in my view is going to be required for multiple reasons. Whether or not you’re concerned with climate change, there are issues of pollution involved with coal such as particulates and mercury and heavy metals and sulphates that cause acid rain. We’d rather get rid of that if we can. There are certainly sharp limitations on the supply of oil and ultimately gas. So at some point we’re going to have to move our society away from fossil fuel dependence to other energy sources. I think that nuclear power is a sufficiently sustainable source of power to provide all of the growth in our energy demands that are going to come in the next million years or so.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: This requires a radical rethink and you said it’s time for green groups to become rational, promethean environmentalists. Is this call falling on deaf ears at the moment?

Barry Brook: I think it’s not. I’ve talked to many environmentalists who are greatly concerned about climate change and concerned about energy supply in the future and having a low carbon economy. Most of them are locked into the thinking that renewable energy can do it. I’m a supporter of renewable energy, I think we need to be pushing this, but I am not deluding myself into imagining that this is going to provide all or even the predominance of our energy supply.

And when I actually talk to most environmentalists about the benefits of nuclear power and the fact that many of the old myths and half-truths that hang around the nuclear power industry have either been…were never true in the first place or have been superseded by technological developments, they’re willing to listen. I would suggest there’s maybe 10% to 20% of people who are so ardently anti-nuclear that they’re immune to any such argument and they’ll never change their mind, but I think the vast majority of people who are concerned about the environment and, let’s face it, everyone is concerned about having a planet that’s fit to live on and fit to pass to our children, anyone who listened sensibly to those arguments is willing to consider the arguments for nuclear power. So I think it would be quite reasonable to get 80% of the population on board with this idea.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: And yet in Canberra we hear the cry ‘Do you want a nuclear power plant in your backyard?’ This is sort of thrown up…during the last election campaign it was said ‘Where are the nuclear power plants going to be placed?’ and so on. There’s a bit of work to be done there in terms of public debate, isn’t there?

Barry Brook: There is. Of course you could ask the similar question ‘Would you like a 30-metre wind turbine put in your backyard?’ or ‘Would you like a coal-fired power station next to you?’ and I think the answer would be no in those two cases as well. There’s always this NIMBY factor to overcome. With nuclear power plants the best place to put them is along the coastline so they can use cooling water from the ocean rather than using it from drinking supplies, although if you’ve got a large enough body of water even that’s not necessarily a problem. But I think ultimately the first reactors will probably be built in places where there are not a lot of people but where there are transmission lines.

One ideal place I can imagine is in places in WA or South Australia where there’s large mining developments, a huge demand for desalinated water which nuclear plants are very good at supplying, and a huge demand for power for mine expansion. If you can expand the mining industry on the basis of low carbon or zero carbon energy and supply those water needs as well, it just seems like a win-win scenario. It will prove to people the benefits of nuclear power in Australia, whereas people in Europe, in France and Belgium, are living cheek by jowl with nuclear power plants and have done so for decades and are extremely happy with them. I just think it takes a bit of time for people to demonstrate to people the advantages of having these reactors, which are very safe.

If you live next door to a nuclear reactor, there are a number of radiological studies done on a hypothetical person called Fencepost Man who’s supposed to have his house on the fencepost on the boundary of a nuclear power site. He would get approximately one millirem of radiation more than the general public, and that might sound like a lot but in fact the general public gets over 300 millirems of radiation each year just from natural sources. So essentially there’s no difference between living next door to a nuclear power plant and living in most other places in the world. And indeed, if you live on top of a granite intrusion you’d get about twice that. So people tend to be a bit irrational about radiation and we need to have a bit of an education campaign about that too.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: Barry Brook, summing up your position, you’re painting a picture that we have nuclear power plants in coastal regions next to desalination plants in mining regions. It all sounds very agreeable. What main public problems and political problems do you see in this becoming accepted as the way to go?

Barry Brook: One of the problems people are concerned about is cost, that there are heavy costs involved in setting up any sort of new industry. In places like America there’s been a lot of speculation about how much their new nuclear plants are going to cost. I think we will know a lot more about costs in the next few years because China in particular are building a lot of reactors. They’re currently constructing 12 of them with plans for another 160 gigawatts of nuclear reactors within the next decade or so after that. We’re talking big numbers here. If the economics are favourable in China as a result of this build-out of nuclear power, then I think the arguments for replacing our current coal-fired power stations as they are retired or indeed retiring them early with nuclear power plants rather than renewable energy may become very relevant, because in this next ten years we’re going to find out the true costs of building a substantial amount of renewable energy to power Australia.

We’ve got ten years essentially to build 20% of our power supply, according to the expanded renewable energy target. We’ll know a lot about costs by then and I think that may well reframe the argument substantially and have people talking very seriously about nuclear power. But my warning is that if you haven’t started the process now, if you haven’t started the public discussions, the ideas for how you might get certification of these reactors here, where the suitable sites may be, having the public meetings, getting public support, it will take another ten years after we’ve found out that renewable energy can’t do it, and that’s just too late.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: Barry Brook, thanks very much for talking to Counterpoint.

Barry Brook: It was a pleasure.

Paul Comrie-Thomson: Barry Brook holds the Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change and is the director of the Research Institute for Climate Change and Sustainability at the University of Adelaide.

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By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

42 replies on “Counterpoint – nuclear power and the low carbon economy”

It seems to me that it wasn’t so much Three Mile Island that set back nuclear energy in the USA as a change in American governments’ attitude that had begun several years earlier.

In 1968 the US nuclear power industry made electricity that otherwise would have required 3 million tonnes of oil, says BP. In 1973, 19.9 million tonnes; in 2006, 187 million tonnes. Oil was beginning to be a big tax revenue winner in the early 70s, and that, I think not coincidentally, is when nuclear energy began to have political trouble, and many reactors were cancelled.

As those troubles continued, any plant-wrecking accident, no matter how harmless, would be seized upon by petrodollar-crazed governments, and so Three Mile Island was. Because of that seizure it is better remembered than a much more serious wind turbine accident in Oregon, even though the latter accident occurred in August of 2007.

(How fire can be domesticated)


One cannot vote specifically for the IFR here, but if it is true that when you put an advocate of a particular reactor type on a spit, you cannot persuade any advocate of any other type to turn it, perhaps we could take the opportunity to vote for the liquid-fluoride thorium reactor. And I’ll gladly accept such votes as votes-in-principle for my giant vapour-cascade reactors. These are the big tame fires that I envision providing the energy for many small ones.

If they were sensible and allowed ordered first-‘n’-choices voting, where ‘n’ is an integer on the order of two, I would vote for solar thermal as second choice.

— G.R.L. Cowan, (‘How fire can be domesticated’)


Unfortunately I doubt that Australia will undertake massive increased investment in renewables in the next decade, RET/ETS or not. All the evidence points to making excuses for undiminished coal use and export. I expect most new generation to come from natural gas so that Australia will repeat the mistake of the UK and squander its gas endowment.

After a decade of dithering and denial Australia may at last get serious about very low carbon energy. Whether the economy still has sufficient strength to find the necessary capital remains to be seen. I’m not confident.

Barry I await your TV appearance perhaps in a panel format with Big Coal on the other side.


I do always recommend continuing to check what we think we know.

Compare this (1998):
[Begins by noting that the very long term data on Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors had begun to show effects, results that took several decades to be detected, and this resulted in downward revision of estimated safety levels for low dose exposure. The article was reporting on the news to date on the TMI studies in the light of those other studies]

“… • Continued acquisition of mortality followup for the population past the current end date of 31 December 1998. This continued follow-up would be valuable for cancers of longer latency such as lung, thyroid, and possibly cancers of the CNS.
In conclusion, the mortality surveillance of this cohort, with a total of almost 20 years of follow-up, provides no consistent evidence …”

To this (2006):

International Journal of Health Services
Volume 36, Number 1 / 2006, 113 – 135

Joseph J. Mangano
Previous reports document a short latency of cancer onset in young children exposed to low doses of radioactivity. The standard mortality ratio (SMR) for cancer in children dying before age ten rose in the period 6-10 years after the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents in populations most exposed to fallout. SMRs near most nuclear power plants were elevated 6-10 years after startup, particularly for leukemia. Cancer incidence in children under age ten living near New York and New Jersey nuclear plants increased 4-5 years after increases in average strontium-90 in baby teeth, and declined 4-5 years after Sr-90 averages dropped. The assumption that Sr-90 and childhood cancer are correlated is best supported for a supralinear dose-response, meaning the greatest per-dose risks are at the lowest doses. Findings document that the very young are especially susceptible to adverse effects of radiation exposure, even at relatively low doses. …”

Point being — even the Hiroshima/Nagasaki studies are still generating new data over time.

It’s not appropriate to declare that there are no problems.
This is an opportunity to explain that these are very small trends — that’s what epidemiology does — and thus require very long time series and many data points to emerge.

The result though points to, as the latter paper says, a finding that very low level exposures are significant.

A side note — one observation I’ve seen before is that it’s possible that normal background radiation is itself something we could benefit by avoiding — the suggestion that the smart use of fossil fuels is to carefully collect the carbon after burning it, then use it as the basis for much less nonradioactive food chain, building proteins without any C-14, to make food and eventually people with very low levels of C-14 in their DNA.


Hank, you really need to read this

Radiation exposure of close-proximity Japanese bomb survivors (within 1-2 km of the epicentre) was 100,000 to 1,000,000 millirems. Radiation exposure of those living around Three Mile Island was an average of 1.2 millirem, with a theoretical maximum of 5 to 10 millirems in a few cases. Background radiation in Pennsylvania, where TMI is located, is about 600 millirem (higher than the US average of about 300, due to local granites).

So Japanese bomb victims received between an 80,000 to 800,000 greater radiation dose than TMI ‘victims’. The theoretical maximum (not average) exposure amounted to 1.6% of the annual dose these residents received from natural background and human-induced (e.g. medical x-rays) sources. Even using a linear dose response model, one might expect the TMI incident to result in 0.0001 fatalities from later cancer (that is, 1:10,000th of a single person, ever). If you assume some hormesis, you’d expect none.

So forgive me for saying so, but in blunt terms, the above study you cite is absolute nonsense.


Barry, did you look at the first link? I’m not giving you all the most current work. I gave you two examples, from different points in time.

That first paper cites the _same_ BEIR study as Chapter 5 that you point to, for the opposite conclusion.

The chapter is froman advocacy piece. It emphasizes the uncertainty, and argues that means there’s no problem.

Why does that sound familiar?
This kind of argument doesn’t teach science well.

Hormesis is an advocacy position. A little poison won’t hurt you and may make you healthier — beloved position. It hasn’t worked out well as a policy.

There may be a small problem showing up in the more recent studies, in a particular age range.


It takes a long time for a small signal to emerge from a large data set with many variables.

This is the science that needs to be taught. If people don’t understand how we detect small effects in large background noise, they won’t accept that CO2 is causing a problem.

The 1998 paper cites exactly the same BEIR study:

… [TMI] gamma doses were 0.09 mSv or 9 mrem and
0.25 mSv or 25 mrem, respectively. The range
of likely gamma exposure was estimated to be
1–170 mrem. The average annual effective
dose from natural background radiation in
the United States is estimated to be approxi-
mately 3 mSv (300 mrem) [Committee on
the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation
(BEIRV) 1990]. These exposures were there-
fore considered minimal.
However, in the late 1970s and 1980s,
several investigators reported an increased
cancer risk, primarily leukemia, among per-
sons exposed to fallout from nuclear weapons
testing (BEIR V 1990). Estimates of the
doses were reported to be sufficiently low so
that “no detectable increase in risks would
have been predicted on the basis of cancer
risk estimates from high dose studies” …

So they recommended extending the study beyond 1998.
That was done. Results are still coming in.

I pointed to just an example. You should read this and keep current on this literature — same reason climate science looks very hard at the statistics used to detect small effects in large noisy data sets.

Because this matters. Blowing it off is the wrong lesson.

I don’t know if Australia has any exposure like the Idaho ‘downwinders’ or the people east of Hanford. These are large longterm studies, finding small effects at exposures below the straight line estimate, particularly in rapidly dividing cells.

You have to consider these things and show people the reason for going to Gen4 _includes_greater_safety_, not blow them off with outdated cites to the old BEIR.
Chapter 5 you cite doesn’t look beyond BEIR.

The ‘hormesis’ argument is often an argument for not worrying. People don’t trust it because the people arguing that there can’t be a problem can be sloppy based on that belief.

Look at today’s news out of Germany, the old Gen3 plant problems just got really embarrassing there.

Precautionary principle. Not a bad idea.
Statistics. They show us what we can’t see otherwise.

We argue from those bases to teach people why CO2 is important. We need to be consistent in arguing for Gen4 — because it can be done.


My pessimism of wind and solar is not that they won’t have a role in our future energy supply but that they are not able to supply sufficient energy to power an industrial economy or indeed to allow the economy to continue to grow in that way

This study”An assessment of the environmental and economics constrains” released a few weeks ago estimates that Europe has 30,000TWh/year economical wind power potential( about 10-20 times expected demand in 2030). It seems likely that Australia would have similar potential.

Arguments on economics of wind and nuclear are going to be the deciding factors in replacing coal, not safety. We will only know the economics after the first reactor is built, a good reason for starting now.


Neil, you are right that the correct phraseology should be ‘sufficient reliable energy at a cost competitive basis’ (when accounting for backup, storage and geographically distributed overbuilds required to support large % contributions).


Hi Barry,

You present well on radio and the points you make are the basis of the debate that Australia has to have. Given Peter Garrett’s bombshell yesterday I would say your timing in impecible. Get out there and put yourself up as a spokesperson, the media will be looking for comment – particularly for someone to counter Ziggy Switkowski’s argument (out today).


Thanks — have you got a link to Ziggy’s statement?

I noted some wit pointed out the similarity of the new Four Mile mine and a certain reactor incident (TMI). But it’s a strong decision to allow leach mining at that new part of Beverley. One can only hope it’s a prelude to a change of policy on our domestic use of this incredibly Uranium resource.


The interview was referred to in Alan Kohler’s article “A Monumental Failing” on Climate Change and basically said Nuclear had been ruled out. Here is a copy of the relevant part of the interview (unfortunately you have to subscribe to get access to the original – but subscribing is free):

AK: In 2006 and 07 you conducted an enquiry into uranium mining and processing and nuclear energy, but nothing happened and in fact I can’t even find your report on any government website. It seems to have disappeared. So, how do you reflect on that work you did and the consequences of it?

ZS: I have a much more positive commentary than that. Firstly, the report is now on a government website where such reports are archived, so you can find it if you want to. The purpose of the study at the time was to recognise that for probably 20 years the country hadn’t had a national debate about the validity of nuclear power and that any debate would have to be based upon current information and awareness of what was happening around the world and so the study was intended to update the Australian community’s understanding of what was happening with nuclear energy around the world and provide the facts.

So, I think the report succeeded in doing that and I know prior to 2006 you couldn’t get an intelligent discussion of nuclear power in the community because the topic had been demonised and people were poorly informed and surveys suggested that the overwhelming majority of Australians at the time did not support nuclear power. Today those surveys suggest that a majority of Australians support nuclear power and wherever I go people are now talking about the subject and are talking with much more relevant and accurate facts than was possible a couple of years ago, so I think we’ve made progress.

AK: Do you think it’s on the national agenda? It doesn’t seem to be a part of the climate change discussions?

ZS: No, because the government is clearly not supporting nuclear power having the condition of Australia has many other more attractive options, nuclear power is not part of the national agenda and probably won’t be for some time to come. However, whenever any of us or any of our political leaders travel, they usually land in a country that uses nuclear power and increasingly they’re in environments – given that two-thirds of the world’s population gets some form of their electricity from nuclear reactors – we are seeing around the world the deployment of more and more nuclear energy. So, I think it’s inevitable that nuclear power will be part of the national energy and climate change debate, but the present government doesn’t see it as being part of their approach and so we don’t have a national debate.

SB: When you released that report you’ve said that there’d be at least 15 years before we saw a plant in Australia. Is it now 13 years or is it still at least 15 years?

ZS: Oh look, it’s got to be 15 years from the point at which you get a national policy supporting the nuclear energy and we’re not there yet. This is an industry where you cannot take shortcuts and so once we get agreement that we’ll go nuclear and that agreement has to be a bipartisan agreement, because you’re making a commitment that’ll extend over decades. Once we get that in place then you’ve got to add another 15 years, but in the larger climate change challenge I think the decisions the country has to take are decisions that will make a difference over decades, that are well thought through and relevant. I don’t think making decisions in order to meet election timetables are relevant to the larger climate change challenge.


Thanks Gordon, I agree with what Ziggy is saying here, though believe a 10 year time-frame is still possible if the urgency of the energy situation is recognised at some point in the near future, and bipartisan support is so garnered.


Barry Brook – “One ideal place I can imagine is in places in WA or South Australia where there’s large mining developments, a huge demand for desalinated water which nuclear plants are very good at supplying, and a huge demand for power for mine expansion.”

Of they could give jobs to South Australians and construct some of these:

“In Brief: Solar ponds are salt lakes which are managed to act as large, low cost, solar heat collectors.

Solar pond technology produces hot water at very low cost. This cheap energy can be used directly to warm farm buildings, aquaculture systems, glasshouses and other rural, industrial or municipal processes (eg heating public swimming pools). The heat energy can be also be used to desalinate water or produce electrical power for remote areas”

“Southern and Western Australia has thousands of salt lakes like this. Many are a result of worsening dryland salinity”

In my opinion putting a nuclear reactor in places where both land and sun are abundant does not make any sense.


I propose we build an HVDC cable across the Nullarbor with say 2 GW capacity. Create several feed in nodes for anything that works; wind, wave, solar, geothermal and nuclear. Proposed new mines (zircon, copper-gold, iron) in the area need both water and electricity as well as Olympic Dam.


Noted. The article probably planted the idea of an East-West grid link. Today’s TOD suggests there won’t be enough money for new US transmission.


Stephen Gloor quotes Barry on the potential for siting nuclear plants adjacent to big mining operations and BB made a good case for this in the interview. He also stated the ideal of putting them close to transmission lines and I would have liked him to suggest incorporation within existing power generators as some have advocated on this post. The NIMBY issue is so potent but if you could point to new generation nuclear plants attaching to existing coal fired generators maybe it cold take some of the ‘steam’ from this objection. A great interview nevertheless but lets not get ahead of ourselves on the size of the RN audience.


The “China Syndrome” did happen in Southern California at the Santa Susana Field Site. I copied the following from Wikipedia. Be careful what you claim to be so sure about. There have been many nuclear meltdowns that have not been made public.

The Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) is a once prolific rocket and nuclear reactor test facility located 30 miles (48 km) north of downtown Los Angeles, California. SSFL continues to operate today, serving as a research facility for The Boeing Company. The first commercial nuclear-power producing reactor (the Sodium Reactor Experiment) inside the United States was built at SSFL. The SRE came online in April 1957, and began feeding electricity to the grid on July 12, 1957. The reactor powered over 1,100 homes in the Moorpark area of California for a short period of time. Today, all nuclear research and most rocket testing has been halted.

The Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) was an experimental nuclear reactor which operated from 1957 to 1964. On July 12, 1957, its electrical generating system produced the first electricity generated from a nuclear power system to supply a commercial power grid by powering homes in the nearby city of Moorpark. In July 1959, internal cooling channels within the reactor became obstructed by a contaminant causing 13 of 43 reactor fuel elements to partially melt.[2] The reactor was repaired and returned to operation in September, 1960 and completed operations in February 1964.[3] The reactor and support systems were removed in 1981 and the building torn down in 1999.

The 1959 incident caused the release of radioactive gasses from the fuel elements. Reports and other documentation prepared by the reactor operators (Atomics International) shortly after the incident indicate the gasses were collected, monitored, contained, allowed to decay to acceptable limits then released to the atmosphere over a period of about two months all in compliance with the requirements in effect at the time.[4] In 2004, an analysis of the 1959 incident was prepared to support a lawsuit against the Boeing Company. The analysis concludes the SRE incident may have released up to 260 times more radioactive iodine-131 than the 1979 Three Mile Island accident. Boeing maintains that only a much smaller amount of only xenon-133 and krypton-85 were released. The contradictory analysis of the 1959 incident has been a source of controversy in the neighboring community, however, environmental contamination resulting from the July 1959 incident has not been yet found.[5] In April, 2009, The Department of Energy announced the dedication of $39.9 million dollars to provide for additional environmental sampling of the 260-acre Area IV, including the former SRE site.

This example has only hit the public domain in the past few years. There were many more meltdowns at this site that never were made it known to the local communities until long after the initial damage was done. I am all for nuclear as long as their is complete transparency, and unfortunately most governments are not well practiced.


I found out about that accident, although I did not found out about any of the many hidden ones, when I was looking for information on the volatility of uranium triiodide and tetraiodide.

It turns out to be quite implausible that metallic uranium fuel, which is what the SRE reactor had, would release any iodine ever. Also, of course, if it did, the sodium around it would take it and hold it even tighter. NaI would dust out at the bottom of the sodium.

More here. If we are to build sodium-cooled reactors again, the like might happen again — after all, no-one planned for the junk that jammed the thing to do so, the first time — but if I lived next door, it wouldn’t worry me.

(Imagine if there were as few as three sodium reactors, shut down due to secret accidents, per person! Repairing ten percent of them could give us millions of watts per person.)

(How fire can be domesticated)


Barry, this is exactly the sort of communication thats required. Anything that reaches a broad audience is valuable, especially where the situation allows the opportunity to explain these ideas without “crossfire” (that’ll come soon enough). Have you considered The Science Show? That would obviously play to your strengths and allow you to give a good account.

A couple of points of feedback:

I think a lot of people will misunderstand “burning” nuclear fuel, as meaning literally chemical combustion. I’ve had people react in horror to this at thought of urania and plutonia etc going up smokestacks – which is obviously what those big concrete hyperboloids must be.

Being told that modern reactors are safe because the “Laws of Physics” so decree sounds like argument from authority or arrogance or otherwise dodging the question. It needs at least some attempt at explanation to be credible. I’ve been trying to come up with a good analogy or metaphor for a negative coefficient of thermal reactivity but haven’t really found one. Its a bit like a dead man’s switch on a train, in that you need to be making a continuous conscious choice to keep the train going, or like a fire you have to keep fanning to keep alive – if you walk away, they stop. But there must be better analogies.


Thanks for the ideas John. I’m ahead of you on The Science show — it might be on next week, so watch out!

Point taken about burning and ‘laws of physics’. As you say, it’s a matter of walking the line between technical and explicable for the general audience. Analogies can be good, if they are sufficiently reflective of reality. I’ll have a think.


‘Would you like a coal-fired power station next to you?’

I’ve taken to calling these horrors coal reactors. Thats what they are. If people don’t like reactors let them think about that. Same applies to natural gas reactors. Or even the small diesel reactors used for remote power applications.


Instead of burning fuel, transformation may be a better theme. The idea of “spent” is causing a lot of confusion regarding the nuclear fuel cycle among folks who cannot differentiate. The group on this website knows the difference, but the general public and politicians do not have the educational background. The whole point of this website is the idea that nuclear waste is actually a valuable fuel that can sustain us into the distant future, and be the solution to our climate problems. The crossroads that we find ourselves is agencies trying to treat fuel as a waste product like what is happening with the depleted uranium stores in the US (Utah). We have to turn the tide on what is now considered a waste product whose only perceived beneficial use is to lob at enemies for military superiority. Depleted Uranium and other transuranic waste products exist and there is no turning back. We can’t stick our heads in the sand and try to ignore it like putting it in Yucca Mountain. We have to be mature in our approach and take it head on and help the public and government evolve in their understanding of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle. I don’t believe this can happen within the DOE, universities, or corporations. It will take grassroots pressure like this website.

In my opinion, I would be careful in moving forward with IFR arguments by relying too heavily on the climate change theories for reasons to use nuclear. No matter what anybody tries to say, there are many legitimate scientists on both sides for whether climate change is man-made or caused by the normal cycles of the sun or both. We shouldn’t alienate half the audience that we are trying to reach. Just because climate change has tremendous amounts of funding and money to keep it alive, doesn’t necessarily make it the truth. It would be safer to explain how our continued reliance on oil and gas is unsustainable and take the moral high ground. Just look at the life lost in the middle east alone for reasons to move away from oil-based economies.

Another argument that has not been used for IFR or nuclear is that it is not dependent on the sun. There is increasing concern for how the sun is going to react during the galactic alignment of 2012.


If we are going to have a nuclear power reactor built it looks like the Federal Government is going to have to take on all financial risks of cost overruns. See this article about the Ontario Nuclear bid:

These costs(>$8,000/kWh) are higher than the EIA article you posted on BNC a few weeks ago, and much higher than Chinese estimates. I would note that China seems to have very low estimates for wind(<$1000/kWh) and for solar.
Perhaps it would be better to go for a smaller(100-200MW) molten salt/thorium reactor even if the costs per kWh are high the overall headline cost would be much smaller. If we have a 5 Billion cost over-run of the first reactor(1000MW) it may be the last.


Generally China is cheaper for everything. Boeing and Airbus are glad the PRC is not “into aerospace” or they’d be totally screwed.

Neil left out what the Chinese price is for new nuclear: $1400/kW…I think it’s “kW” not “kWh” as prices as given in over night costs not per per watt per hour.

Unfortunately while the Chinese do have fast reactors on their mind, only French, to my knowledge, are actually putting *money* into a uranium driven MSR.



You are correct I meant kW not kWh, too bad we can’t build things here at Chinese prices and still paying Australian wages. It’s difficult to know if these Chinese prices are even correct with Chinese labor, when so many industries are government owned.


I would never want to force Chinese wages on Aussie workers. Shy of fascism, I hope that never happens.
We actually used, about a year ago, on some nuclear blog, the actual cost of wages as a % of a new build based, I think it was, on the AP1000 (again :) Westinghouse “10 million man-hours” to build the unit. We figured an average US wage/benefit package of $60/hr (wages, sick time, medical benefits, etc). That came out to $600 million. If we use the “20 million man-hours” it’s double that or $1.2 billion.

So…we are trying figure out…where the rest of the 4 to 9 billion goes to? Fun, huh?


I see, so Joe Romm is happy to argue for first-of-a-kind cost overruns and the plausibility of major cost reductions as part of the expansion and learning-by-doing approach for solar thermal (his pet preference), but these considerations are dismissed when it comes to EPRs (European Pressurised Reactors, e.g. Okiluko) or (ACRs) Advanced CANDUs? Doesn’t make sense to me.

By the time Australia builds its first reactor, costs of Gen III+ (and, I’d hope, the first fleet of Gen IVs — and indeed the costs of large-scale deployment of wind and solar thermal) will be well-established (assuming a 10 to 15 year time frame for Oz for nuclear, which seems on the cards).


I see that Ontario has balked at CANDU reactors at $11 a watt. They will probably go for gas fired generation instead. Maybe uranium rich Australia and Canada are taking the gas route because they can whereas other countries don’t have that option. That is, save now pay more later.

The case for providing Olympic Dam with 690 MWe and 120 ML/day desal via nuclear seems overwhelming to me. As one of the world’s wealthiest corporations BHP Billiton should pay for much of it.


I haven’t heard the interview but will download it and listen.

I just thought I’d mention some thoughts on the other half of the Counterpoint team, Michael Duffy, by Clive Hamilton, author of “Scorcher – The dirty politics of climate change” and currently Professor of Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University. Please see page 8 of his September ’07 presentation to the Brisbane Writers Festival at the following web address:

Click to access The_Scary_Politics_of_Climate_Change.pdf


Barry, you state that “there was no radioactivity of any note released into the environment”

The American Nuclear Society, whose stated vision is to “be the recognized credible advocate for advancing and promoting nuclear science and technology”, NOTE on their website the following:

“A very small amount of radiation was released from the plant. The releases were not serious and were not health hazards.”


French experts said this morning that we have 48 hours to get the power plant stabilized. Obviously, the site will never be cleaned up and will become the disposal site.[Unsubstantiated personal opinion deleted. Please cite source and re-submit] I have heard from my studies that nuclear materials can be stored in glass. If glass beads were blown into the reactor/spent fuel pools that are getting hotter, the glass should melt and entomb the hot fuel. The radiation should stop immediately. The US has to seize the site and take over if Japan can’t act.


I found this technical quote which better describes the process:

The key issue is maintaining the geometry of the fuel rods and keeping them cool stops a partial or full meltdown, however it is essential that the geometry is maintained to avoid any criticality and injection of absorber material is essential to protect against loss of Geometry. A solution maybe to use Boron Dust or Small Boron glass beads which are the ultimate protection for Gas Reactors.

It may be necessary for the US to seize the site and take over control. The IAEA has never had any teeth really. The learning curve may be too steep for the Japanese to be able to react in time.


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