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Issue 574, 5 October 2007 - All unions should back the Greens

Climate change expert: Nuclear not an option

One of Australia’s foremost scientific authorities on energy and the environment and President of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Professor Ian Lowe, has entered the debate on nuclear energy with his feature article in the latest Quarterly Essay. He spoke to Sarah Thorne.

Climate change expert: Nuclear not an optionIf climate change continues at its present rate, the prognosis is for a hotter and drier Australian landmass. Can you outline in general terms what this will mean for human settlement in Australia?

There is going to be an increase in average temperature, but the most obvious thing people will notice are very hot days and fewer cold nights. Fewer cold nights are not really a problem for urban Australians but it will be a problem for some agriculture.

More hot days will mean more people subject to heat stress. We can look at what happened in France in 2003 to see a preview of what this might mean: about 15,000 people died in Paris in the heat wave of August 2003.

The other issue that the joint report done by the Australian Conservation Foundation and Australian Medical Association a few years ago illustrates is that as it gets hotter there will not only be problems with water supply, but there will be an increasing spread of vector borne diseases. We are likely to see diseases such as Dengue and Ross River fever spreading further south.

The final issue is that all the analysis of climate change suggests more frequent extreme events, such as more severe storms. For people living on coastal areas particularly in Queensland and Western Australia there will be a greater likelihood of storm surges, causing local flooding.

In your article, you address the argument that nuclear is a feasible alternative to coal. At one stage you had a belief in the merits of going nuclear-what do you think now?

When I was a young scientist growing up in rural NSW I kept hearing of people being killed and injured in the coal mining industry. I was also aware of quite significant environmental problems arising from the level of coal use and so I was attracted to the idea of there being a technically superior and potentially cleaner way of generating our electricity.

The thing that really opened my eyes was the Fox report at the inquiry on the proposed Ranger uranium mine conducted in 1976. It said the nuclear industry is associated with two unsolved problems: the need to store radioactive waste for hundreds of thousands of years and the difficulty of ensuring that fissile material isn't used to produce nuclear weapons.

Thirty years on, those two problems remain unsolved. In fact if anything the problem of nuclear weapons is more serious today because at least thirty years ago the nuclear non-proliferation treaty had recently been negotiated. The terms of the non-proliferation treaty were that existing nuclear weapon states agreed to steadily dismantle their arsenals of nuclear weapons and in return the other countries agreed that they wouldn't acquire nuclear weapons.

Thirty years down the track the non-proliferation treaty is in disarray because the weapon states have not dismantled their arsenal and as a result increasing numbers of other countries are acquiring nuclear weapons.

The different response of the US to Iraq and North Korea demonstrates how this occurs. In Iraq, the US was able to overrun the armed forces of the country very rapidly precisely because they had no weapons of mass destruction.

In North Korea where there is the presumption that the country does have nuclear weapons there isn't the same willingness to invade and overrun the country.

It is a lesson that any two-bit dictator would draw-you are much less likely to be pushed around by the US if you have nuclear weapons.

So all this says that while nuclear looked attractive 30 years ago and was possibly still credible thirty years ago, after Chernobyl most of the developed world decided that it was too dangerous in terms of the operating risk of reactors.

If you also look at the other issues such as the unsolved problem of waste storage and stopping fissile material being used for weapons, I think it is pretty clear that nuclear is just not a smart response.

What will be the implications for Australia if we go nuclear?

There are a range of implications. One is that we will spend a huge amount of money because nuclear power is a very expensive option.

The second is that we would significantly increase our greenhouse gas emissions because in the short term you need huge amounts of steel and concrete and fossil fuel energy to build and equip nuclear power stations.

The third consequence is that we would have an increase in environmental risk. Nuclear power stations would have to be on the coast for easy access to cooling water and close to major cities to be near centres of demand.

The people of our major cities would have to be persuaded that they should be comfortable living next to a nuclear power station.

The fourth implication is that it would almost certainty start a nuclear arms race in our region. If you reflect on why Iran's neighbours are nervous-they see an energy rich country that has oil and gas and plentiful renewable resources going down the difficult and expensive track of nuclear power, and they suspect that their real motive might be to acquire nuclear weapons.

Australia, which is an energy rich country with coal and gas and plentiful renewable resources, is talking about going down the difficult and expensive track of building nuclear power stations.

I think our neighbours are understandably sceptical of what our real motives are. It is possible we could see countries like Indonesia and perhaps Malaysia wanting their own nuclear weapons so that they won't be pushed around by Australia.

Why do you think the nuclear option is being pursued so vigorously by both mainstream parties?

In the case of John Howard my explanation is that he had been in denial about climate change and public polling showed that denial was no longer acceptable. Having spent ten years denigrating the obvious alternatives like renewable energies and improved efficiency it was very hard to do a complete back flip and suddenly embrace these alternatives.

Nuclear is also an issue which can be used to wedge the Labor Party. Within Labor there are people who accept the anti-uranium argument of the 1970s, who drove the change in policy that said no new uranium mines and who fought against Bob Hawke's watering down that allowed [the mine at] Roxby Downs in the 1980s.

And recently they fought against Kevin Rudd's change to embrace the Liberal Party's open slather policy of uranium mining and export.

Within the Labor Party there are people who are totally opposed to uranium export and the nuclear industry, and people who are entirely comfortable with the Liberal Party's open slather policy and have been pushing the Labor Party to embrace it.

What do you think of the decision of government to continue to plough more research and development money into "clean coal" research rather than renewables energies?

It is short-sighted in the extreme. It is an attempt to prolong the myth that clean coal is just over the horizon, and that we only need to throw a few research dollars at it and we will be able to keep burning coal.

Interestingly the World Energy Council, which represents the energy industry worldwide, has poured cold water on the notion of carbon capture and storage.

It pointed out that it would require processing a volume of liquid equivalent to the total current capacity of the entire oil and gas industry, with no infrastructure for handling that.

Even if the technique were proven at the laboratory scale, it would be a huge undertaking to scale it up to be able to process the waste from conventional power stations.

The most optimistic view of carbon capture and storage is it could be applied to new power stations by 2020. In contrast, even without doing new research and just using what we have today, we could have renewable energy generating at least 30 per cent of our electricity by 2020 and 50 per cent by 2030.

It is a huge misallocation of public funds. The expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars into carbon capture and storage research could be used to commission renewable energy capacity that would have a real impact on our carbon emissions in the next ten years.

You could say the same about the expenditure on nuclear. For 50 years we have been spending the equivalent of a hundred million dollars a year of public money on the nuclear enterprise of Lucas Heights.

If anything like that amount of money had been spent on renewable energies we wouldn't be having this debate, we would be entirely dependent on renewable energy now.

What are the main renewable energy sources you examine in your essay and what are the most viable for the Australian situation?

The most attractive options in terms of generating electricity with existing technology are turning crop residues like sugar cane waste into electricity, and wind energy.

But I think the area of most important promise in the next five years is hot dry rock geo-thermal.

The research company GeoDynamics have said that their pilot plant in South Australia should be operational by 2010, generating 40 megawatts of electricity. Geo-thermal looks like not just the most cost effective but has the advantage over wind or solar that it is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Ian Lowe also authored Living in the Hothouse: How Global Warming Affects Australia, published by Scribe. His article 'Reaction Time' appears in Quarterly Essay issue 27, September 2007.