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Where Do We Get the Energy? The Nuclear Debate

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The nuclear debate is at risk of overheating. It needs to cool off, argues Barry Turner.

‘Nuclear’ and ‘crisis’ go together. Any environmental setback catches the headlines but with the nuclear label attached it takes on mammoth proportions. It happened 25 years ago when the pride of Soviet nuclear technology at Chernobyl (now part of Ukraine) was ripped apart. It happened again when the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan knocked out the nuclear plant at Fukushima. Led by vocal public opinion, which instinctively associates anything nuclear with wipe-out weaponry, governments across the globe have hastened to reassure voters that their policy is safety first. Of the 400 new stations planned worldwide, many are now on hold with cancellations a real possibility. Among the leading economies, Germany has announced a nuclear phase-out.

An overreaction? Energy experts who take global warming seriously certainly think so. Nuclear is free of carbon emissions while producing vastly more energy per unit than fossil fuel, a multiple of up to 2 million according to one assessment.1 As clean options, solar and wind power have their cheerleaders but the wind comes and goes and the sun does not always shine.

Anyway, who is to say that nuclear power is inherently unsafe? In the first of the nuclear scares, at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, no lives were lost. There were 57 fatalities at Chernobyl and while the risk of cancer was increased for those closest to the radiation fallout, estimates for the number affected have fallen over the years from the high hundreds of thousands to the low tens. As for Fukushima, it is too early to be certain but so far there are no deaths or even serious health hazards directly attributable to the accident.

Contrast this with the human cost of exploiting fossil fuels, starting with the thousands who have died digging for coal or drilling for oil. The pollution caused by coal burning is a killer on a massive scale, not to mention the environmental problems it is building up for future generations. In 2009 alone, the world’s electricity generators spewed out 9 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Yet public concern at these hazards is muted or, at least, not evidenced in the marches, demonstrations and intense political lobbying associated with the nuclear industry.

Familiarisation is the key. We have grown up with coal and oil, forgetting, for example, that worldwide, there are over a million road deaths a year. But nuclear energy is new and, by definition, unpredictable. And while no energy fix is entirely without risks, one of those attached to nuclear is really scary.

The overlap with military technology was demonstrated as early as the mid-seventies when India tested a nuclear weapon design using plutonium separated out of its breeder reactor programme. The current worry is that the uranium enrichment plants in Iran will be used to produce nuclear weapon materials. Diplomatic nerves were stretched early in the year when it was reported that the Iranians were having problems in getting their first nuclear reactor to work. A shortage of home-produced expertise in operating a nuclear plant safely suggests that Iran may have a disaster in the making.

But a nuclear ban across Europe and America, even if it were feasible, will not call a halt to weapons proliferation or, for that matter, to the development of nuclear energy for entirely legitimate purposes. While the Fukushima accident created a backlash in some countries, notably Germany and in Japan itself, there was no move in China to hold back on the 77 reactors it has at various stages of construction or in Russia which has ten reactors in the making.

As might be expected from a country nuclear-dependent for 80% of its electricity, the reaction from France was measured, with commentators pointing out that the Japanese reactors survived the sixth most powerful earthquake ever recorded and that the crisis was caused by the loss of electric power from the grid and the failure of the backup diesel generators. No one doubts there are lessons to be learned. Strengthening the lines of defence will be a priority for the industry, which can expect to be more heavily regulated. Though this will add cost it will be a long way short of making nuclear energy prohibitively expensive.

Meanwhile, fears of contamination from nuclear waste (a big issue in the US where a US$20 billion-investment in storing spent nuclear fuel in the Nevada mountains recently succumbed to political pressure for alternatives to be explored) will fade in the wake of new technology. Already, most of the nuclear waste in France is processed for reuse.

But whatever reassurances the industry can provide it is likely that expansion will be slower than predicted before the Japanese earthquake. Many governments will pause before they agree to commission new reactors. Sensitivity to voters’ wishes—or prejudices—will be one factor. Of greater moment is the dawning realisation that alternative sources of energy are more readily accessible than was previously supposed. Far from running out, oil will soon be flowing more freely with vast reserves discovered off the coasts of Africa and Brazil. The latest oil sand projects in Canada now supply more oil to the United States than Saudi Arabia. Natural gas, cleaner and cheaper, looks set to take over from coal as a primary energy source. Supplies in the US are so plentiful as to hold out the prospect of a thriving export market. Other regions, including Europe, Asia and North Africa, are similarly favoured. Most significantly, the price of gas has fallen by half in the last 5 years, making the initial heavy investment in nuclear energy less appealing.

Nuclear energy will have its day but not yet. It could well turn out that Fukushima is less the reason than an excuse for applying the brakes.

Barry Turner, 2011

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    John Hofmeister, Why We Hate the Oil Companies. Palgrave, 2010

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