Is Our Future Nuclear?

Transcript: Is Our Future Nuclear?

Broadcast: 28/08/2009 [YouTube video here], Reporter: Mike Sexton

IAN HENSCHKE, PRESENTER: At this week’s AGM, the State Liberals voted to debate nuclear power’s potential the cut carbon emissions. But with Labor demanding debate be shut down and the Liberal leader saying the vote wasn’t binding, discussion seems doomed. But while the politicians won’t debate, others will, with some senior academics saying the future depends on nuclear power. Mike Sexton reports.

MIKE SEXTON, REPORTER: Australians are using more and more electricity, most of it created by coal generators that emit carbon. In simple terms, most scientists believe the more air conditioners in use, the hotter the planet gets.

BARRY BROOK, UNI. OF ADELAIDE: That obviously leads you to consider well, what are the possible solutions? We can look at adaption to climate change, but ultimately we’ve got to stop the process from running out of control.

MIKE SEXTON: Professor Barry Brook is director of the Research Institute for Climate Change and Sustainability at the University of Adelaide. He’s running his slide rule over the options Australia has for generating electricity while reducing emissions, and believes despite the abundance of wind, sunshine and hot rocks, renewable energy will not power us through the 21st Century.

BARRY BROOK: Looking hard at renewable energy, there are a lot of limitations, especially in terms of energy storage and energy back up that make it extraordinarily implausible, according to my view and that of many others, that it could supply most of our power needs in the future, which, for someone who’s really concerned about climate change impacts is a pretty disappointing conclusion.

MIKE SEXTON: Which is why Professor Brook believes the answer lies in that other abundant South Australian resource: uranium.

BARRY BROOK: We need to find a technology that has the characteristics of coal but is cheaper than coal. Nuclear power, especially fourth generation nuclear power, offers that prospect. Now if we can’t find, develop, commercialise and deploy on a large scale that sort of technology, I think we have a very slim chance of avoiding major climate change impacts.

DAVID NOONAN, AUST. CONSERVATION FOUNDATION: Nuclear is first far too slow and far too expensive. It would be the least effective option for Australia to look to in terms of addressing climate change and greenhouse gas emission issues. We are now on the path toward a renewable energy future.

MIKE SEXTON: Barry Brook isn’t alone in his view. Others such as Tim Flannery agree with him. But the opinion has opened a divide among the environmental movement comparable to the one among scientists who are climate change believers or sceptics. David Noonan from the Australian Conservation Foundation has long campaigned against nuclear power and uranium mining and believes he represents the views of most environmentalists.

Have you seen a shift in this debate?

DAVID NOONAN: No I haven’t, in the sense that there is no group environment group, state, national or international, that’s supporting nuclear power. Some individuals have expressed a view, but that’s not reflected by the environment movement.

MIKE SEXTON: Opponents of nuclear power point to the catastrophes at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl as reasons why the technology shouldn’t be used. But proponents argue those plants were so called first and second generation reactors and that new technologies make repeats unlikely.

BARRY BROOK: It’s a bit like, to take an analogy, comparing the A 380 aircraft to the Hindenburg and saying well, Hindenburg blew up in 1933, therefore aviation is an inherently unsafe technology and we shouldn’t pursue it. I mean, technologies move on; people learn from their mistakes.

MIKE SEXTON: While Australia has no plans for nuclear power, according to Australian Uranium Association, 50 other countries do, and that’s on top of the 31 countries that already have reactors.

MICHAEL ANGWIN, AUST. URANIUM ASSOC: We had some economic research done for us a year or so ago and that showed that an increase in the demand for nuclear power using some fairly conservative assumptions would increase demand for Australia’s uranium to somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 tonnes a year. And that’s three to four times what we currently export. And you put that together with the expansion of South Australia’s uranium industry and there’s a very significant opportunity there for South Australia.

MIKE SEXTON: At the moment, nuclear power station don’t just use what is mined in South Australia. Unlike coal, which is mined and used in a power plant, unprocessed uranium known as yellowcake, has to be enriched overseas, with only about three per cent of it ending up as fuel rods. Some in business believe Australia should build an enrichment plant to value add to the uranium export. But the industry itself says for a number of reasons including security that’s unlikely.

MICHAEL ANGWIN: Most of the world’s thinking these days about enrichment in fact is not to spread it round further, but to concentrate it.

MIKE SEXTON: Many planned new reactors are so-called third generation models which last longer and are more efficient. But Barry Brook says the revolution he hopes will cool the planet will come from so called fourth generation nuclear power plants, which are still a theory, as one is yet to be built.

BARRY BROOK: This is the technology of the future. And it solves a lot of other problems that are currently associated with nuclear power. One of the biggest is, we’ve generated all of this nuclear waste in the form of spent fuel that we have to manage for 100,000 years. Well the rather neat thing about the new technology, which is called generation four nuclear power is that it takes that waste and uses that as fuel.

MIKE SEXTON: Generation four reactors would also run on mined rather than enriched uranium of which there’s a global stockpile. So if they would come online, the need for yellowcake would diminish dramatically.

MICHAEL ANGWIN: At first as we have to go through generation three technology, and as far as we can see at the moment, the demand for uranium consequent upon the demand for nuclear power makes the outlook for our industry very good.

MIKE SEXTON: David Noonan believes there are security concerns about generation four reactors because they produce and use plutonium, which is also the principal ingredient in nuclear weapons.

DAVID NOONAN: These are breeder reactors; they produce plutonium and that maximises the risks of weapons and of nuclear proliferation. And we can’t be proposing to address the hazards of climate change by introducing and relying on the risks in nuclear weaponry.

MIKE SEXTON: Whether Australia ever embraces nuclear power remains to be seen, but the debate at least is generating plenty of heat.

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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.

122 replies on “Is Our Future Nuclear?”

I don’t have to answer a thing here. It makes no difference what I think. You’re the ones proposing nuclear power is the answer, so you’re the ones with the burden of proof in debunking these papers to the general public.

You can rant all you want about Caldicott’s writing, but the papers she quotes will seem more solid to the court of public opinion. And after the wonderfully *sensitive* comments about childhood cancer above, as they say, good luck with that.

Barry’s in the media a fair bit, and if this Munchausen’s retort gets out in the context of a public interview, it’s game over.



On nuclear power PR, I absolutely agree with you, there is a huge image problem to overcome, certainly in Australia, and I presume elsewhere. There’s a lot of work to do to counter a lot of misinformation out there, which is one reason I try to engage these discussions. Hopefully the fact that a lot of the discussion is now being driven by environmentalists unconnected to the nuclear industry will at least get some information past the ‘its all an evil capitalist corporate conspiracy to poison us for profits’ types.

On the reactor epidemiology study, this reminds me of studies on cancers from living near high tension power lines, or using cell phones. The pattern is similar, an invisible miasma orders of magnitude smaller than the environmental background that sometimes shows up in a population study, but not always, and has no physiological mechanism for causing the purported effects. Reports of a measured effect must be treated with a high level of skepticism, and in the epidemiological literature, rightly are.

On Moore’s Law and batteries, I did have a quick look for historical trends in battery power densities and energy densities but came up short, though the information is out there. My expectation is that advances will be depressingly linear, not exponential. But even just googling ‘Moore’s law for batteries’ throws up as the first result an explanation from a battery manufacturer as to why Moore’s law doesn’t work for batteries:

“.. Battery technology can not keep up with Moore’s Law in the same way semiconductors can. Batteries are miniature chemical engineering plants, producing electrons at the expense of electrochemical reactions with their own behavior and as such, these active systems do not scale in the same manner as passive semiconductors. This is because battery technology is a prisoner of physics, the periodic table, manufacturing technology and economics. ..”

This is very close to what I wrote earlier on this topic. That line about being a prisoner of physics and the periodic table, thats real.

If Agassi did indeed predicate his business model on the operation of Moore’s law on battery technology, I would regard that as a reason for being very skeptical of his plans, since it would display a failure to grasp critical factors in technology evolution.


SOUTH Australia would need to rely on nuclear power to meet its green energy targets if predicted problems with solar, wind and geothermal alternatives come to pass.

The Government released its 33 per cent green power target in the State Budget.

However, an independent report by consultants McLennan Magasanik Associates, commissioned to set the target, shows nuclear power would be “likely” if geothermal could not deliver its promises, wind reached its limits, and solar stations proved too remote to be cost effective.

“The adoption of nuclear power as a solution seems a low-probability scenario that is only likely if geothermal power does not live up to its promise, wind power reaches its limits and solar thermal power is constrained,” the report states.

Geothermal Energy Association chief executive Susan Jeanes said the public should be aware that nuclear power was an option for future electricity if the development of geothermal continued to be disadvantaged in Federal Government development funding.

The State Government has rejected nuclear power as not economically viable.

However, the Liberal Party’s annual convention last month voted in support of a debate on the topic.

And without increased interstate electricity connectors driven by geothermal or nuclear power, a renewable target of only 30 per cent would be reachable, the McLennan Magasanik report has found.

University of Adelaide climate change expert Professor Barry Brook said the report, given to the Department of Premier and Cabinet, made it clear nuclear power would be necessary because wind, solar and geothermal energy would not live up to expectations in future decades.

“The opinion is significant because it reveals a high degree of uncertainty about energy planning and unless we look critically at that we don’t know what are the best options,” he said.

He said his research suggested that the predicted problems with wind, solar and geothermal were “more likely than not to occur”.

“It is a dangerous and short-sighted strategy to plan ahead without having in mind nuclear power as an alternative ,” he said.


Hi John,
On the reactor epidemiology study, this reminds me of studies on cancers from living near high tension power lines, or using cell phones.
Harry’s specialist, a world leader in childhood Leukaemia research, assured us that power lines etc were completely within the bounds of normal probability EG: The normal rate of Leukaemia might be something like 14 per 100 thousand people and then families living under powerlines might be 15 or 16 per 100 thousand people. Not “statistically significant”. But imagine if it were 30 or 32 per 100 thousand, consistently, within 5km around nuclear power plants? The report indicates double the rates of childhood cancers under 5 years within 5 km. According to those reports, it IS a “statistically significant” issue, and laden with emotional baggage people just don’t want to go near.

Hi Barry,
The State Government has rejected nuclear power as not economically viable.

Do you know what this is based on?



Uranium-mining champion Premier Mike Rann is almost as adamant. “Neither National ALP policy, nor the State Government would embrace Rio’s reported position,” he says.

“I’ve spent a great deal of time with resources and energy industries, including uranium mining companies. No one has ever proposed nuclear power for SA. We do not have the population to sustain that level of baseload power.

“In any case, it would massively force up the price of electricity in South Australia.”

So Rann’s view is that it would produce too much baseload power. Hmmmm, gets me thinking about this thing call the National Electricity Market, another thing call mine expansions, another thing called desalination, and finally, small reactors. One can but work at overturning misconceptions.


Interestingly barry, one of the people writing his opinion stated that he’d only support nukes if they weren’t those old outdated ones but 5th generation …

Why settle for 3rd or even 4th?

he’s a slacker. give me 10th gen or give me nothing …



10th gen… that’s Bussard’s Polywell Fusion running anything from super-jumbo’s to mega-tankers? ;-)

Sign me up for that! I’ll even throw in a few 4th gen just to eat the old waste and nuclear warheads in a productive manner. In fact, I’d be happy for America, France & Russia to go ahead and get on with the 3rd gen mox reactors as a matter of dealing with the waste they’ve already created. Better than letting the stuff just sit there till kingdom come.

But I’m still agnostic as to how economical nuclear power will be as renewables are refined into the super-sized-smart-systems grids of the future. “Better Place” subsidising gigawatts of grid smoothing as part of the car market is just one example. Who knows what some kid in a laboratory is cooking up with new super-cap materials? Who knows how geothermal, CETO, OTEC, and solar-updraft towers (rain, hail, or shine, summer or winter) will scale economically? Maybe a *bit* more expensive than nuclear but no waste issues, no proliferation, no terrorism issues, etc. In other words, politically viable.


Rann seems to like being half pregnant. He supports the mining front end of the nuclear fuel cycle but not the important part, electrical generation. He may be confusing SA’s nameplate windpower (800 MW?) with average output. That power is conspicuously lacking in the height of summer when ETSA plans to turn off air conditioners by remote control. It was thought necessary to create a second gas pipeline to Victoria to back up the dwindling Cooper Basin. That gas feeds the 1280 MW steam cycle plant in Adelaide. Leigh Creek coal (780 MW at Pt Augusta) has another 30 years but is very poor quality. Sunny SA I believe has 2,000 rooftop PV systems; you’d think it would have 200,000. Geothermal (Petratherm and Geodynamics) isn’t working out.

Then there’s the problem of finding 690 MW for Olympic Dam. That’s presumably the average power requirement that can’t be postponed to when the wind is blowing. I suggest Mr Rann you won’t last long as the premier of a very dry and energy starved State.


I was confused by Eclipsenow, on leukemia. Maybe others were too.
He argues two propositions:
1. This is an image problem. (true)
2. This is a real problem. (false)

(admittedly “image problem” is also real, in a sense. And admittedly statistics can never give us a strict upper bound. Early cancers MAY CONCEIVABLY be a real problem. But, applying the same standard as we apply to everything else, we should be happy to live with this rather remote possibility.)

He also misleadingly insisted that we “debunk” the papers. Impossible and unnecessary. All we need, explore what the papers really say.

Then compare to what Caldicott says (referred to by Eclipsenow’s #69). “Strong” effect – yes, in percentage terms, “strong”; but it’s 77 early cancer cases where statistically 48 were expected! Over whole of Germany, 400+ reactor-years! (under 0.1 per reactor-year.) That’s the study she cherry-picked as her Exhibit A (she calls it “KiKK”) Then she quotes other studies, no longer saying “strong” – presumably because she can’t – but mentioning “statistical significance”. Yes, but statistical significance of what? Of, I guess, something between 0.01 and 0.03 cases per reactor-year?

And we don’t have a clue where the cases came from! KiKK checked for “known carcinogens”. How far did they go with their minuscule sample, 29 cases against 48 as background? Did they check for “being in the social category of people living within 5 km from nuclear plant”? “Living not far from heavy industry”? Etc etc.

PS: note the insinuation in #114. “Imagine … were consistently…” Implying, that it is indeed consistent. It isn’t. How I am sure? Because Caldicott would’ve told us.


Sorry, a blunder in #119. Second-last paragraph.
“Check for known carcinogens” they could just fine. Smallness of the sample is no problem.

That shot misfires, and I didn’t need it in the first place. They checked, in effect, that nuclear plants are “clean”, at least as far as known carcinogens go. This bit is on our side.


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