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.