The Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) has now broadcast my debate with Ian Lowe over nuclear power, on Radio National’s Counterpoint program. The discussion lasts 50 minutes, and includes various questions and answers from the Why vs Why: Nuclear Power book, moderated by Paul Comrie-Thompson. We cover issues of waste management, weapons proliferation, adequacy of renewable energy alternatives, reactor safety, deployment rates and costs, cognitive dissonance. There is an audience Q&A session at the end, which includes some questions by BNC commenter Luke Weston. Details below — enjoy!
TRANSCRIPT IS NOW REPRODUCED AT THE END OF THIS POSTING
A substantial amount of the world’s known deposits of uranium are under the ground right here in Australia.So what are do we do with it all? Ian Lowe wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. He says ‘No’ to Nuclear Power. Barry Brook says ‘Yes’ to Nuclear Power. Two passionate environmentalists debate this vital issue.
Duration: 50 minutes (.MP3 audio file)
Ian Lowe — President of the Australian Conservation Foundation and Emeritus Professor of Science, Technology and Society at Griffith University. Adjunct Professor at Flinders and Sunshine Coast Universities.
Barry Brook — Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change: Environment Institute, University of Adelaide
Presenter: Paul Comrie-Thomson; Producer: Ian Coombe
Finally, on the climate change front, some interesting facts sent to me by Blair Trewin of the Bureau of Meteorology:
• NCDC have updated their global analysis to April 2010. For the year-to-date, the global combined land and ocean surface temperature of 13.3°C was the warmest January-April period. This value is 0.69°C (1.24°F) above the 20th century average.
• The combined global land and ocean average surface temperature for April 2010 was the warmest on record at 14.5°C (58.1°F), which is 0.76°C (1.37°F) above the 20th century average of 13.7°C (56.7°F).
• This was also the 34th consecutive April with global land and ocean temperatures above the 20th century average.
• The worldwide ocean surface temperature was 0.57°C (1.03°F) above the 20th century average of 16.0°C (60.9°F) and the warmest April on record. The warmth was most pronounced in the equatorial portions of the major oceans, especially the Atlantic.
• The April worldwide land surface temperature was 1.29°C (2.32°F) above the 20th century average of 8.1°C (46.5 °F)—the third warmest on record.
• Two of the last 6 months have had the warmest SH temperature anomaly by month (since 1880); the other 4 were second warmest on record.
• Ten of the past 11 months were warmest or second warmest on record.
• SH Mar 2009-Feb 2010, Apr 2009 to Mar 2010 and May 2009 to Apr 2010 were the warmest on the NCDC records for their respective Mar-Feb, Apr-Mar and May-Apr.
• Both Victoria and Tasmania have recorded their warmest 12 month period since records began. [Interestingly, many people felt that we did not get much of a summer- which goes to show that our perception and memory of climate is probably influenced by the presence of extreme events (such as 46 degree days)- rather than a string of warmer than average days, or an absence of cold days- such as was experienced.]
• Victoria’s mean temperature during the 12 months to the end of April was 15.36°C, passing the previous record of 15.25°C set between February 2007 and January 2008. Likewise, Tasmania recorded a mean temperature from May 2009 to April 2010 of 11.43°C, passing its previous record of 11.34°C set between May 1988 and April 1989.
Transcript – WHY VS WHY: NUCLEAR POWER
This transcript was typed from a recording of the program. The ABC cannot guarantee its complete accuracy because of the possibility of mishearing and occasional difficulty in identifying speakers.
Paul Comrie-Thomson: Welcome to a special edition of Counterpoint which examines in depth the question ‘Does being green mean going nuclear?’
Michael Duffy: Last week at Readings bookshop in Hawthorn, Victoria, Pantera Press launched the first of a series of what are literally two books in one that are about contemporary issues. The first volume contains two essays, ‘Why We Should Say No to Nuclear Power’, that’s by Ian Lowe, and ‘Why We Should Say Yes to Nuclear Power’ by Barry Brook. The two authors got together to debate one another at Readings bookshop. Radio National was there to record it and Paul was the moderator.
Paul Comrie-Thomson: Let’s start with a fact. A substantial amount of the world’s known deposits of uranium are under the ground right here in Australia. So what are we going to do with it all? Ian Lowe wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole. He says advocating nuclear power as a response to climate change is like promoting smoking as a cure for obesity. He says no to nuclear power.
Barry Brook says if climate change is the inconvenient truth facing our fossil fuel dependent society, then the inconvenient solution staring right back is advanced nuclear power and not renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. He says yes to nuclear power.
But both Ian and Barry are passionate environmentalists. Ian Lowe is president of the Australian Conservation Foundation and emeritus professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University, and he’s adjunct professor at Flinders and Sunshine Coast Universities. Barry Brook holds the Sir Hubert Wilkins chair of climate change at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute.
Both Ian and Barry have argued their case in print and online, and in Melbourne they were there to defend what they see as key propositions supporting the case for yes and no regarding nuclear power. To get the debate rolling I asked Barry Brook what made him such a passionate advocate of nuclear power.
Barry Brook: When I was initially looking at this problem of replacing fossils fuels, I looked very hard at renewable energies and was promoting them strongly, and I’m still a supporter of renewable energy, I should say. But I quickly came to the conclusion based on the systems analyses that it wasn’t going to be enough, and if we’re going to fundamentally solve the energy and the climate crisis we have to make sure that we have enough.
If I could characterise my argument as briefly as possible it would be that you don’t need to favour nuclear energy or renewable energy, you just need to ensure that they have a level playing field to compete against.
Paul Comrie-Thomson: Ian Lowe, one of the objections you’ve made to Barry’s position here, it centres around this thing called base load power. This is mentioned a lot when we talk about solar or wind or geothermal. You say the need for base load electricity is exaggerated. Why is that?
Ian Lowe: There are some applications that require electricity around the clock, like aluminium smelters that we regard as so important that we provide them with huge public subsidies since it otherwise would not be economic to use coal fired electricity to melt aluminium in competition with Icelandic geothermal or Canadian hydro. And there are some steel works, there are traffic lights that have to operate at 3am, and there are insomniac writers trying to meet Pantera Press’s unreasonable deadlines. But apart from that, there are relatively few applications that require power at four o’clock in the morning.
The need for base load electricity has actually been artificially inflated in the last 20 years because coal fired power stations are very difficult to ramp up and down to follow demand, so the electricity industry has encouraged us to use energy wastefully in the early hours of the morning, for example by heating water which then radiates heat slowly away before we need it during the day. And these off-peak tarrifs were brought in to encourage people to use electricity at night.
I remember when I was in Britain studying, the electricity industry actually marketed a space-heating technology called storage heaters, and the idea was basically that you had a pile of bricks in your living room with a heater in the middle of it and the heater ran between midnight and 7am and the bricks then slowly radiated for the rest of the day. It was a very inefficient means of heating but it was very good for the electricity industry because it evened out the load.
My view is that the current so-called base load has been artificially inflated and that the reduced real base load could easily be met by some renewables, and in particular geothermal and wave energy are basically available 24/7.
Paul Comrie-Thomson: Barry Brook, if you could just reply to that, because one of your principal positions is renewables won’t work because we’re going to need so much power and they just won’t deliver, but Ian Lowe is saying the amount of power we actually need has been exaggerated. How would you reply to that?
Barry Brook: The strict definition of base load is it’s the lowest amount of power that we would use during the middle of the night, and you could certainly get rid of some of those loads that Ian has talked about. Of course you still have to generate that energy at some time, so it’s like the impact on the amount of energy we’re going to have to generate during the day. But the hard fact is there will be times during the day when neither solar nor wind is generating any electricity either, and these problem periods, these minimum delivery periods, are what we’re going to have to cover if we’re going to stop the electricity grid collapsing.
And not only has it not been demonstrated anywhere worldwide that this is possible to do, even if you look at the problem theoretically, the way in which you’d have to do it by overbuilding capacity, having a huge number of additional solar power plants and wind power plants and a huge amount of additional storage to do that, means that very quickly renewables become grossly uneconomic, and so that even if technically you could do it, economically you never would.
But I would again revisit this point that if it’s an argument of economics, then that’s an argument that you can quite easily sort out in the real world by removing any particular impediments to one power source or another and allowing them to compete on an equal basis. One of the fundamental problems we have in Australia right now is we’re not allowing nuclear energy to compete on any sort of basis.
Paul Comrie-Thomson: Let’s explore that. We’re talking about whether renewables can or cannot do the job, and there’s a debate about how much power we actually need. So, Ian and Barry, let’s pitch it forward to a fundamental point of disagreement between you. Barry Brook says the renaissance is happening with generation III reactors. Ian Lowe says fast breeder reactors, can they really be made to work? Ian Lowe, let’s start with you; what’s your worry about generation III and fast breeder reactors? What’s your worry?
Ian Lowe: Paul, in 1968 I went to the UK to do a doctorate in physics and my research was funded by the group in the UK Atomic Energy Authority who were building the prototype fast breeder reactor at Dounreay on the north coast of Scotland. The UK Atomic Energy Authority spent 30 or 40 years working on the prototype fast breeder reactor before they gave up. The USA has also essentially given up on the liquid metal fast breeder reactor. And the technical problems are really quite intimidating.
Barry and I would agree, I think, that there are in principle other possible designs of breeder reactors that might avoid those technical issues, but the technical issues are so serious that quite a lot of rabidly pro-nuclear people who are very happy to support the building of nuclear power stations when I was in the UK and in the US were quietly terrified of the prospect of the fast breeder reactor and its inherent complexity.
The other issue about the breeder reactor which is currently occupying discussion in the US where the Obama administration is agonising about whether to approve research into the breeder reactor is concern about what it might do for weapons proliferation and the availability of plutonium in particular.
So I think there are two problems. One is that technically, despite more than 40 years of research, we don’t have a proven design for the breeder reactor. But even if the breeder reactor could be made to work (and the only way you could make the uranium resource appear adequate for the long distance future is by assuming that the breeder reactor will work), you would be putting into circulation about every three weeks about as much plutonium as the entire global weapons stockpile at the moment. So you would be dramatically increasing the amount of plutonium in circulation, and my view is that it really beggars belief to think that you could increase the amount of plutonium in circulation that dramatically without some of it being misused.
Paul Comrie-Thomson: We’ll address that safety issue in a minute but, Barry, I think I should give you the right of reply. Generation III reactors…Ian Lowe says, look, dream about it, they’re not happening.
Barry Brook: If Mark Twain was in my place he might say that rumours of the death of the breeder reactor have been greatly exaggerated. In fact it was killed in the US due to a political decision, not a technical one. The exemplar program for the liquid metal fast breeder reactor called the integral fast reactor was an astounding success. It was developed between 1984 and 1994 at the Argonne National Laboratories in the US and went to the point where it resulted in a blueprint that had been developed by General Electric Hitachi called the S-PRISM.
The step that is required now is to commercialise that. The technical problems have been solved, the problems that existed in the 1950s when this was a very new technology have been solved by that development program, so it’s time to build the things. But a political decision was made by the Clinton administration in 1994 to kill that technology, which was a bitter disappointment to almost everyone in the research aspect of the nuclear industry, and it’s led to the continued building of coal fired power stations that we see today.
There are some other nations which continue to deploy these fast reactors and continue to try and develop the technology, but the hard fact is the very best technology was developed in the US and is still awaiting commercialisation. We know how to do it, we know we can do it successfully, we are simply waiting, much like the renewable energy advocates are waiting, for a government with the guts to actually go ahead and do this.
Paul Comrie-Thomson: Ian Lowe, you alluded to the Obama administration and that Barack Obama, Gordon Brown, Mr Cameron in the UK were all pro-nuclear. The Obama administration is weighing up matters at the moment, but you say this weapons proliferation, it remains a problem. The more nuclear power, the more potential for weapons out there. But Barry Brooks says, surprisingly for some, ‘nuclear power is the safest energy option’. I’d like, Barry, for you to defend that, and then Ian I’m sure will have something to say. Nuclear power is the safest energy option; why do you say that?
Barry Brook: If you look back at the history of energy, then any form of energy we’ve developed has caused people to be killed, it has caused accidents. If you want to look at that on an apples and apples comparison, so on a fair basis, then you need to look at the number of people who have been killed per megawatt hour, which is a measure of energy generated. On that basis the safest energy sources are nuclear power and solar power. More people are killed falling off repairing wind turbines, for instance, than are killed or have ever been killed in the nuclear power industry.
But there’s a broader issue of safety as well which I think is important for people to appreciate. If you’re concerned with climate change or you’re concerned with peaking fossil fuel supplies such that our society that has developed today will run out of energy, then that’s a safety issue as well, because if we don’t deal with those in an adequate, comprehensive and immediate way then it doesn’t matter what else we do, it will all be swept away.
If you are deploying a solution which doesn’t fix that problem or which runs a high risk of not fixing that problem, that’s a very dangerous strategy to take if you put credence, as Ian and I both do, in the importance of climate change caused by anthropogenic carbon emissions.
Paul Comrie-Thomson: There is one issue that Ian addressed, it’s not just the safety of working with nuclear material, it’s the stuff getting into the wrong hands. That is, the more nuclear power stations you have, the more possibility for nuclear weapons perhaps in rogue hands. How do you address that?
Barry Brook: It’s very difficult to establish any link between commercial nuclear power and the development of nuclear weapons. Today we have about eight states that we either know or suspect has nuclear weapons, and we have well over 30 who have commercial nuclear power. Those 30-plus nations (and there’s more coming each year) who are embracing nuclear power for the first time are not going to abandon nuclear power under any circumstances, so I do wonder what the goal of people who oppose nuclear power on the basis of weapons proliferation is. Do they expect that countries like China and India will forgo nuclear power and therefore that the world can be entirely rid of nuclear technology? I don’t think that’s a practical ambition at all, and certainly not in the time frames we’re talking about to replace fossil fuels.
So I would say that if Australia was serious about weapons proliferation then we should go ahead with our nuclear power industry, we should take better responsibility for our fissile material, we should lead the way by showing how we can safely use nuclear power and we can be involved with weapons non-proliferation treaties in a more active way, be involved in the whole of the management of fissile materials. But be very clear that the development of commercial nuclear power is a decision that’s very different to one where a desperate nation state might decide to build nuclear weapons.
Paul Comrie-Thomson: Ian Lowe, a follow-up question to you. Barry Brook talked about Australia taking a lead, and let’s remind ourselves that we have a large proportion of the world’s uranium under our ground, a large proportion of the world’s thorium. What are we going to do with it? Nuclear waste…you and Barry have quite different ideas. Barry says technology can solve the waste problem, you say there are no credible strategies to prove waste is not or will not be a problem. Ian Lowe, tell me about the problem of nuclear waste.
Ian Lowe: The problem is that the current nuclear power stations produce waste which has a mix of highly radioactive materials which has to be isolated from the biosphere for hundreds of thousands of years. That’s not just a technical challenge, it’s also a social challenge because we’re talking about periods longer than any human civilisation that’s ever endured by orders of magnitude. So if we are to be confident that that waste isn’t a threat to future generations, we need to be confident that it is secured in ways that are both technically sound and also proof against whatever social changes might occur over what is geological time.
The current arrangements certainly don’t meet that goal. In most cases the radioactive waste is still sitting around in ponds of water at nuclear power stations, and most authorities say we are working on developing a final solution (dare I use that phrase) to the problem of radioactive waste.
Paul Comrie-Thomson: Just as an aside, your training was in physics; whatever happened to Synrock?
Ian Lowe: That’s a point I was going to make, that I think the old adage ‘nature knows best’ is correct, and as a material scientist I was horrified to see nuclear authorities in the northern hemisphere talking about putting radioactive waste in glass, because glass isn’t really a solid that’s stable over geological time, it’s actually a super-cool liquid and it’s not stable over geological time even in the absence of heat and radioactivity, so I think it’s pure fantasy to think that you can safely immobilise radioactive waste in blocks of glass for geological time.
The late professor Ted Ringwood had a bright idea that nature knows best, there are naturally occurring granites in which radioactive elements are locked up for geological time because they’re the ores that are mined to obtain uranium. He said if we could produce an artificial granite, a synthetic rock which he called Synrock (it sounds like music for a house of ill repute but it’s actually quite a nice concept), we could in principle immobilise the radioactive waste for geological time.
It’s an interesting comment on what I was saying about it being not just a technical issue but also a social issue that 30 years after that invention and more than 20 years after a group of scientists at Griffith University showed that Synrock is orders of magnitude better than glass at resisting leaching of elements by hot groundwater, we still don’t have one instance anywhere in the world of Synrock being adopted as a waste technology. My view is that the nuclear authorities, having argued to politicians for decades that glass is quite acceptable, are reluctant to admit that they’re wrong and embrace what’s clearly a better technology.
Paul Comrie-Thomson: Just to be clear here, you’re suggesting that Synrock could perhaps be a way of containing nuclear waste?
Ian Lowe: In principle you can immobilise radioactive isotopes in Synrock, and if the Synrock was then sealed in a responsible place you could immobilise the nuclear waste that we’ve produced up until now. My view is that it doesn’t make a lot of sense though to expand the amount of nuclear waste by factors of ten or factors of 100 by building still more nuclear power stations. I think we’ve got a big enough problem with the waste that’s here now.
Paul Comrie-Thomson: Barry Brook, Ian Lowe was talking about hundreds of thousands of years…I know you’re going to mention the figure of 300 years and, again, you’re talking about new technology solving the waste problem. Talk us through it.
Barry Brook: Yes, you can certainly have technology to reduce the lifetime of that waste, but let’s first consider the consequences of current waste. We’re actually talking about a miniscule amount of material here. If you appreciate that nuclear power is over a million times more concentrated than the chemical energy in coal, which is already a very concentrated form of energy compared to solar and wind energy, then you can probably logically work out the amount of waste is a million times less.
So if you took all of the waste that had been generated by all the nuclear power plants around the world, you’re covering a football field about a metre high, we’re talking about a tiny amount of waste, whereas one coal fired power station of about 1,000 megawatts is going to produce close to 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, as well as a whole bunch of fly ash. And it will release through its smokestack more uranium and thorium than a nuclear power plant would consume in one year. So we’re talking about a huge difference in the amount of waste.
So the waste that’s remaining, if you do nothing with it you can either dilute it such that it becomes more radioactive than uranium ore, or you can encapsulate it in glass or Synrock, or more sensibly you can reprocess the waste in a safe way so that it’s not available for building nuclear bombs and it is available for generating huge amounts of energy. We’ve mined enough uranium already that through fast reactors we could supply the whole world with electricity for about 700 hundred years and we could consume all of the spent fuel that’s been produced to date, and we could also then tap all the depleted uranium stockpiles that are sitting around just waiting to be used for energy.
So technically we know how to consume all of this waste so that we don’t have to manage it for 100,000 years, and I would argue that the reason we’re not building repositories today that could handle waste for 100,000 years is that anyone who knows a lot about nuclear power understands that this will always be a silly dream that no-one is going to pursue because there’s no point in ever doing it when we have better technical solutions available.
What’s holding it back right now? Almost certainly it’s economics. Right now uranium is cheap to mine, it’s cheap to run third generation reactors which only burn about six-tenths of 1% of the energy in uranium rather than over 99% like we know technically how to do. And so we’re essentially just sitting on the problem, and indeed if you talk to some people who have recently assessed this issue in the US, their recommendation is to just sit on the problem for another 20 or 30 years because there’s no hurry in solving it. I would argue that there is a hurry because one of the two biggest public perceptions against nuclear power is the misguided belief that we don’t know how to do anything about once used nuclear fuel, which is actually the proper definition of what people would consider nuclear waste.
Paul Comrie-Thomson: Ian, Barry is talking about people sitting on their hands in terms of thinking about nuclear waste. If you were the Australian prime minister, what would be the first policy you would initiate right now in terms of energy?
Ian Lowe: I’d be announcing in tonight’s budget a mix of measures that would produce a clean energy future for Australia. I would say in the absence of an emissions trading scheme that we’re starting with a modest carbon tax of $30 a tonne and give notice that we will increase it by $10 a tonne each year until there is an emissions trading scheme in place. I would increase the renewable energy target. I would pick up the report to the Howard government, the 2003 report ‘National Framework for Energy Efficiency’ that showed that we could reduce our emissions by 30% by measures that pay for themselves in less than four years, and I would adopt that commitment to a clean energy future for Australia.
I would take the $1.7 billion that we subsidise the mining industry by applying the diesel fuel rebate to them and the $5 billion or $6 billion dollars that we spend each year subsidising the coal fired smelting of aluminium, and I would use that as a fighting fund to build renewable energy in Australia. And I would take the money that’s now being used to develop export coal infrastructure so that we can contribute more globally to the problem than we do at home and use that money to develop public transport in Australia.
That would be my integrated package of measures, which I assume by now Wayne Swan would have announced.
Paul Comrie-Thomson: Barry Brook, how much of our hypothetical treasurer/prime minister’s agenda would you support? One thing of course, if we have a carbon tax, that makes nuclear more economically attractive.
Barry Brook: Except that it’s illegal in Australia right now, so it can’t compete on that levelised basis. So the fundamental argument, the underpinning behind a carbon price is that it will drive innovation and deployment of clean energy technologies. But if clean energy technologies turn out to be uneconomic then it’s inevitable it will also increase the cost of energy and therefore potentially slow the deployment rate.
No-one can know for sure, when you really start to have a decent carbon price, what technologies will be driven fastest and what will turn out to be cheapest. But I think if we’re taking nuclear power off the table, when almost any other developed nation that you could imagine, apart from New Zealand, and one would argue whether they’re a developed nation or not, have nuclear on the table. I’m joking about New Zealand, they’ve got enough renewable energy resources that they can depend largely on hydro, which is something that we can’t do, and they’ve probably got enough sheep that they could depend on methane from them as well. Whereas Australia hasn’t got that sort of option, and Australia has got an abundance of uranium.
There are countries around the world which are deploying nuclear power now, are choosing to do so from a purely economic reason, and China is the best example right now. The audience may not realise that China is currently building at this very moment 24 new nuclear power stations. Sure, they’re building wind turbines and they’re building hydro dams as well, but if you add up the amount of electricity that’s going to be generated in the next decade by those 24 nuclear power stations, they vastly outweigh the amount generated by any wind turbines being built in China. China is making an economic decision here.
Paul Comrie-Thomson: Ian, a lot of us talk about China, they’re spreading their bets, so why can’t Australia do that; invest in solar, invest in nuclear, what we used to call ‘two bob each way’ in the old days?
Ian Lowe: Well, I’d have two bob each way, I’d invest in solar and wind and geothermal, and I’d put significant research resources into wave energy. But most of all I would look at efficiency measures that could dramatically reduce demand for energy. I remember Amory Lovins famously said, ‘People don’t want energy, they want hot showers and cold beer.’ And if you think about it, energy is a means to an end, we want energy because it allows us to see in the dark, it allows us to process information, it allows us to fly interstate and so on.
There are quite respectable studies, like the book Factor Four, that suggest that we could reduce by a factor of four the amount of energy needed to accomplish the same task. I don’t know any serious analysis that has concluded that there’s less than a factor of two available in cost effective measures that exist today. The significance of that is that it makes any task easier if you reduce demand for energy. People aren’t going to reduce demand by turning off the lights and freezing in the dark, but if you give them technologies that allow them to keep the beer cold using half as much energy…
For example, a typical Swedish refrigerator of the same size uses half as much electricity as a typical Australian refrigerator. In fact a significant number of the refrigerators on sale in the high street here could not legally be sold in Western Europe because they don’t meet minimum efficiency standards, and that’s dissipating people’s money as well as heating the planet unnecessarily. So I think we should spread our bets. In fact if you’re serious about renewables I think you’d accept Al Gore’s idea that there isn’t a silver bullet but there is silver buckshot, there are lots of little things we can do that add up to solving the problem.
I think I’d also take Barry’s point that you probably shouldn’t, in the short term at least, look at achieving 100% self-sufficiency from renewables. Studies like Mark Diesendorf’s conclude that it makes sense to have 5% or 10% of your power from gas, and that it’s probably sensible to have gas turbines as a stand-by measure for those times when there are extended periods of unavailability of renewables, and that would dramatically reduce the cost.
Paul Comrie-Thomson: Barry Brook, a follow-up to you. We’ve discussed this before in terms of new technologies and new energies, but you’ve made a point that if we’re going to move to electric cars we’re going to need a lot of energy, and you see nuclear as being important there.
Barry Brook: We’re going to need energy in a different form. Right now cars are driven by oil, which is a convenient carrier of energy, but it’s also a source of energy, and if we’re going to have cars in the future that are powered by batteries or some form of synthetic fuel that we create, then we’re going to need to use electricity to create that because we’re no longer able to mine oil to the degree that we’ve had. And if we want to decarbonise our economy then we can’t use oil at all.
So the total amount of electricity demand is almost inevitably going to rise as a result of needing to replace transport fuels. And then if you look more broadly that beyond Australia the world electricity demands can go nowhere but up, and that’s because the vast majority of people on the planet use much less electricity than us, a huge amount less electricity than us, but aspire to use even a little bit more. Places like China, for instance, per capita they use about a tenth of the electricity we use. Even if we could reduce our electricity use by half, which I think would require extraordinarily heroic efforts, then China has got to increase five times to get up to that level. So we’re talking about worldwide supplying a lot more electricity. And I can only see that being delivered by a concentrated form of energy that’s cheap.
Ultimately if we’re looking to replace fossils fuels as quickly as possible, then I think the fastest route to that is to have electricity generated by clean energy sources that is cheaper than coal. If you can get that, then all these arguments about imposing an international carbon price and difficulties in getting multilateral agreements, they become less important because people will choose to do that anyway. I would argue we’re almost at that point with nuclear power already. It’s the reason places like China and India have got such grand deployment plans for nuclear power and are pursuing them vigorously because they can see that if you look at the environmental damage caused by burning coal, the limited supply and the fact that China, which is the world’s largest coal producer, is already a net importer of coal and that’s only going to increase, they’re looking for ways to reach clean energy independence. And, as you quite rightly pointed out, they’re looking at a range of energy sources to do that.
I find it philosophically difficult to understand how someone could be so concerned about climate change like Ian Lowe is and still be willing to rule out a viable energy source like nuclear power on the basis of what seems to me to be very minor arguments about miniscule amounts of waste that we know how to deal with technically anyway. It just seems like a crazy example of cognitive dissonance.
Paul Comrie-Thomson: We’ve got two passionate environmentalists here, two passionate greens, and they have diametrically opposed views on nuclear power. Questions from the audience…if anyone would like to pop up to the microphone and ask a question…I do stress, if you could ask a question rather than a speech because the gentlemen are here to answer questions. Anyone got a question?
Audience member 1: Both of you are environmentalists and I applaud you for that, but I feel that our present stand on mining uranium and not developing nuclear power is totally hypocritical. Would you like to comment on that?
Ian Lowe: I think we’d probably be in furious agreement that it’s hypocritical. My view is that we should neither mine uranium nor develop nuclear power, and Barry’s is that we should mine uranium and develop nuclear power. But I agree we have hypocrisy on stilts in the extreme example of the South Australian government which waxed indignant about the possibility of a low-level radioactive waste dump in that state which would have been used to store slightly radioactive gloves from hospitals and quite minor items that aren’t much more contaminated than the radioactive dial on a watch. But they’re delighted to be championing digging the biggest hole on the face of the Earth so that we can export more uranium than everyone else put together, and there’s clearly no logic in that position. I think both Barry’s position and mine are logically consistent. I think if you’re in favour of nuclear power, you have to be in favour of mining uranium. If you’re opposed to nuclear power, you have to be concerned that mining uranium is creating in other places problems that we wouldn’t be happy to have here, like the problems of radioactive waste and the potential for fissile material to be misused.
Audience member 1: As a second question, we are 22 million people. Really on a world scale we are fairly insignificant, to put it mildly. There are 1.3 billion Chinese and at least a billion Indians. Do you really think they’re not going to look at our uranium resources and thorium and not wish to have them?
Barry Brook: I think there’s almost no chance that Australia is going to pull back from uranium mining. We have too valuable a resource there. And it is indeed, ironically, by far Australia’s biggest contributor worldwide to releasing greenhouse gas emissions. If you add up the amount of emissions that are effectively mitigated by Australia’s uranium exports to date already, they add up to more than all of our carbon emissions put together. So they are already important, and if we pull the rug under from that then we’re already contributing…we’re actually increasing the burning of fossil fuels and the use of coal-fired power.
So I don’t think it’s a credible or realistic scenario for us to forgo uranium mining, especially in polymetallic mines like Olympic Dam where we’re going to mine the copper anyway, to try and leave the uranium in the ground just seems like crazy stuff to me and I just don’t think it’s going to happen. But Ian and I are in agreement that if you are going to go down the path of following a mining boom to boost our economy, and that includes uranium energy, then we need to ensure that we are a responsible global citizen and are willing to make use of that energy and manage it ourselves.
Ian Lowe: I think the argument isn’t really an economic one. My understanding of the economics of Roxby Downs is that it would reduce the profitability by about 1% if they regarded it as a copper and gold mine and didn’t extract the uranium. And in overall terms I think we earn less from exporting uranium than we do from exporting cheese, and my view is that since radioactive waste is more unsavoury than an old gorgonzola and the non-proliferation treaty has more holes than a Swiss cheese, I’d rather we expanded our cheese exports.
Paul Comrie-Thomson: Well, you get the extended metaphor award for the night Ian! Another question?
Audience member 2: Hi, I just have two question for Barry Brooks. One would be obviously with the waste issue, I don’t know if you’re aware there’s currently an issue in Australia about a national radioactive waste repository which has been planned for the Northern Territory, obviously politically vulnerable at the moment. And it’s quite contested against the Indigenous people that live there, they don’t actually want the waste but it seems like the Labor government with the help of Martin Ferguson want to push that waste on the Indigenous community. Are you proposing that the waste that’s created from nuclear power, we’ll just dump that on Indigenous communities throughout the world?
Barry Brook: I’m not making a decision as to where the waste would go, but of course the waste repository that you’re talking about here is one to make use of our medical waste. So if you want to forgo radiotherapeutics, that’s the only way we’re not going to have responsibility for that sort of waste, given that Australia doesn’t currently have a commercial nuclear power station. So we’re going to have to put it somewhere, and whether that be forcing it onto some Indigenous land that the people don’t want, that seems like a bad decision to me, or you can do what they did in Sweden which was provide financial incentives for communities to do this and they had a number of communities bidding vigorously to be the site of that nuclear waste repository, and in the end the Forsmark community, which is near one of Sweden’s nuclear power plants, won the contract. They were actually after it. And I’m sure if you’d had a similar situation in Australia then there would be people hungry to manage these sorts of issues.
Audience member 2: Yes, hungry for housing and medical help and schooling. The other question for you, that you dodged quite well, with the weapons…how are you going to protect yourself from a nuclear war? Was it in a glass container or Synrock?
Barry Brook: I think the issue of conflating nuclear power and nuclear weapons is completely wrong, and if you imagine that the only way you’re going to eliminate nuclear weapons is to eliminate commercial nuclear power then you first have to explain the way in which you’re going to eliminate commercial nuclear power worldwide. If your view is that Australia shouldn’t go into commercial nuclear power because of nuclear weapons proliferation then you have to mount an argument as to why that will make any difference whatsoever to nuclear weapons worldwide.
Ian Lowe: I’d be happy to make that argument. If you think about why Iran’s neighbours are nervous, they see a country that has plentiful resources of oil and gas and renewable resources like solar going down what I see as the difficult and expensive route of building nuclear power stations. And they’re understandably nervous that their real motivation might be to build nuclear weapons. So their neighbours are nervous and the world is a bit nervous.
Imagine if you lived in Indonesia or Malaysia and you saw Australia which appears to have so much gas that we’re desperate to export it, which has so much renewable resources we could power all of Australia from solar or wind three or four times over, in my view, if you saw us embracing nuclear power, wouldn’t you be worried that our motivation might be to get the bomb, and if you were inclined to paranoia you would find plenty of statements from nuclear technocrats like the late Sir Philip Baxter and the late Sir Ernest Titterton who actually championed the idea of nuclear energy because it would allow us to have nuclear weapons to fight off the Asian hoards. So I think it’s incredibly likely that if Australia developed nuclear energy, that would spark paranoia and the development of nuclear weapons in countries to our north, and give the nuclear arms race a real tweak in our region.
Barry Brook: I think the fact that it hasn’t happened worldwide and many countries are embracing nuclear energy for the first time mounts a strong argument that people in Indonesia and other countries surrounding us would look at Australia’s move into nuclear power and think, well, they’ve woken up to a form of cheap energy at last.
Audience member 3: I just have a couple of questions for Ian Lowe. You mentioned the Mark Diesendorf work and Mark Diesendorf saying we can use natural gas back-up for renewables. Isn’t that basically saying that we don’t need nuclear power because we can just burn fossil fuel natural gas instead?
Ian Lowe: It is true that if you have natural gas backup you’ve only reduced by 95% the amount of carbon dioxide you’re putting into the air. The current goal is for the world to reduce its emissions by 60% by 2050, for the developed countries like Australia to reduce by between 25% and 40% by 2020, and by between 80% and 90% by 2050. My view is that it’s quite reasonable to allow a transitional period in which we make limited use of natural gas, and if the aim is to ease the economic impact of the transition…because whether you embrace nuclear energy or renewable energy, what’s clear is that electricity is going to be significantly more expensive. We’re not getting an artificially low price because we’re not paying the cost of the carbon dioxide and the impacts it’s imposing on future generations. So I accept that easing the transition means making limited use of natural gas in the short-term where the short-term is the next 50 years.
Audience member 3: You mentioned that the advanced liquid metal reactors like the IFR are not really a good idea because we’re putting into circulation huge amounts of plutonium, but you can’t really just say plutonium without saying which plutonium, what nucleides of plutonium. What I have heard discussed from people like Barry Brook with regards to the initial start up of IFRs, we’re going to take light water reactor used fuel and just strip off all the transuranics, so we’re getting plutonium as well as reactor grade plutonium and americium, neptunium and the like. And that material is perfectly useable as the start-up for the IFR, and there’s no way you can weaponise that material. Would you comment on that please?
Ian Lowe: That’s true, but if you look at the study by the Oxford research group of how you could scale up nuclear so that it made a significant contribution to the global target of reducing carbon, that would involve reprocessing enormous amounts of nuclear fuel, and their calculation was that if you were reprocessing nuclear fuel on a scale that would allow you to have breeder reactors powering the ten terawatt future that Barry talks about, you would be reprocessing about every three weeks as much plutonium as the entire current weapons stockpile. Of course not all of that is in a form where you can easily make it into a bomb…
Barry Brook: None of it is, is it? None of it is in a form where you can make it into a bomb.
Ian Lowe: None of it is plutonium-239?
Barry Brook: It’s not separated from uranium or from americium or curium or from plutonium-240 or all of the other contaminants that would make it a weasponisable material. So you would have to have a completely different process for any of that plutonium to be useable as a weapon. You’d have to run these reactors on a short cycle, you’d have to have an aqueous form of reprocessing where you very carefully separated out those plutonium-239 isotopes and that action would certainly ring the proliferation alarm bells because you would have to invent a whole new infrastructure to try and reprocess that. So sure, there’s a lot of plutonium that would exist in the planet but it wouldn’t be in circulation but it would be bound up with all of this material that made it totally unsuitable for nuclear weapons.
Ian Lowe: But the current reprocessing plants…
Barry Brook: But we’re not talking about PUREX and aqueous plants, we’re talking a pyro-processing, a dry reprocessing method that cannot separate different isotopes of plutonium or indeed separate plutonium effectively from contaminants such as curium or americium and indeed uranium.
Barry Brook: The issue is what do other countries do if one country decides that it’s going to adopt a reprocessing technique that would allow them to produce weapons materials, and I would say the lesson of India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea is that other countries say ‘you naughty people, you’ve built nuclear weapons’ and that’s it. Because the fact that a country has nuclear weapons means that physical sanctions become impossible. In a sense Saddam Hussein was rolled in three weeks because he did not have weapons of mass destruction. No-one dares attack North Korea because it probably does have weapons of mass destruction. My concern is that even if other nations knew that Australia was separating plutonium with a view to making a bomb, what would be the sanctions? What effective sanctions can there be against that spread of nuclear weapons?
Audience member 4: I think the most effective sanction is the mutually assured destruction which I was very familiar with in my youth. In fact I would like to meet any sort of dictator who would put himself in a position where he would be wiped off the face of the Earth instead of sending hundreds of thousands of his subjects to be mown down in conventional war. The reason that we have not seen the use of a nuclear bomb since WWII is that it works, it acts as a deterrent. You can’t tell me that Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong-il is any less scared of being wiped off the face of the Earth. Mutually assured destruction works. Can you tell me there’s been another bomb set off since WWII?
Ian Lowe: One of my cynical colleagues said that since everyone now knows that no sane person can use nuclear weapons because of the inevitable consequences, the nuclear deterrent is only credible if your leader is palpably insane. He called this the Reagan effect…
Audience member 4: Reagan didn’t push the button.
Ian Lowe: He didn’t, he did joke about the bombing starts in 45 minutes…
Audience member 4: I don’t think you’d find someone who is really insane would end up in a position of power.
Ian Lowe: No, I was making a joke. But the point is that mutual assured destruction is a deterrent against the leaders of nation states, it’s not a deterrent against Osama Bin Laden…
Audience member 4: And how is he going to get hold of the material? Sure, it might be a dirty bomb, but that’s available everywhere. How is having more nuclear power going to make it easier for rogue states to get hold of the material to make a conventional weapon?
Audience member 5: It goes missing all the time. That material goes missing all the time and in fact the nuclear power industry, they have material unaccounted for which is factored in to the whole scenario with transport of uranium and using it for nuclear power. They can’t account for it. The safeguard system is tragically inadequate. So I think it’s disingenuous to purport that you can make this safe.
Barry Brook: Sorry, so what material has gone missing?
Audience member 5: There’s bits of plutonium…you only need a tiny amount of plutonium to make…
Barry Brook: But what sort of plutonium are you talking about? Are you talking about weaponisable plutonium, are you talking about..? [unclear comment from audience] So where has it gone missing?
Audience member 5: There are lots of different examples where it has gone missing but…
Barry Brook: I don’t know of any examples where weaponisable plutonium has gone missing. It’s many more times valuable than platinum.
Audience member 6: Also very hard to explode, you’ve got have a lens of explosive that crushes it onto a neutron source and it’s a very difficult thing to do…
Barry Brook: That’s right, the credibility of a terrorist building a bomb…
Audience member 6: …because you just have to fire two subcritical assemblies together.
Barry Brook: Well, even that is a more challenging task than many would believe. I’m not aware of any plutonium that has actually gone missing apart from the hyperbole of anti-nuclear groups claiming that it has. It’s an extremely valuable resource and if it had gone missing it’s not weaopnisable plutonium, it’s plutonium that comes out of reactors which is contaminated with different isotopes of plutonium which means that even if you had all of the facilities available to you that the Manhattan bomb designers had, you still wouldn’t be able to use it to create a nuclear bomb. So what are you going to do with it?
Ian Lowe: Could I refer to somebody who could not conceivably be described as an anti-nuclear zealot, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and I refer in this book (which I urge you to buy) to the fact that he recently noted that the agency had in the past decade recorded more than 650 attempts to smuggle nuclear materials. We know that people are attempting to smuggle nuclear materials, and I assume they’re not doing it because they want paperweights that glow in the dark. The obvious reason to smuggle nuclear materials is that people are intending to misuse them.
Paul Comrie-Thomson: Ladies and gentlemen, Barry and Ian will still be here for a little while longer signing books, but the formal proceedings have to end now for time reasons. So once again if you could tank Barry Brook and Ian Lowe. Thank you.
Barry Brook and Ian Lowe are co-authors of the book entitled WHY vs WHY: Nuclear Power, the first in a series of titles by a new Australian publisher Pantera Press.