Nuclear Spill

Nuclear Power

Nuclear power is one of the more controversial energy sources. Although there are some reductions in carbon emissions when compared to coal, there are still significant emissions attributed to the refining of uranium not to mention decommissioning and waste treatment. There has been some talk recently of less dangerous thorium reactors which are far safer than traditional nuclear reactors. In Australia we have virtually unlimited space and resource available to provide energy to the entire country many times over. Furthermore, our current systems could only benefit from small reactors, as traditional larger reactors of 600MW are not feasible as too much spinning reserve would be required in case the power plant tripped off line at full load. Therefore you would have to have 500MW of other coal fired plant as spinning reserve in order to carry the inertial impulse from a sudden load increase of 600MW. Nuclear works well in the UK and parts of Europe as they have such a dense network of generation and power generation that the size of a trip from a large unit is relatively small.

Can we guarantee risk free operation?

Unfortunately it is hard to be absolutely sure we wouldn't have a major environmental disaster on our hands should something go wrong with a nuclear plant. We have recently had one of the worst oil spills to date through big business taking shortcuts and a series of leadership breakdowns within the company. Whilst our oil spill will disperse gradually over the coming months and years, Plutonium has a half life of over 15,000 years. If we were to have a nuclear accident we could permanently contaminate our land and potentially lose many lives.

On the other hand, there have been very few incidents throughout the world because of the massive negative stigma associated with nuclear power plants, and security is often increased to reduce risks. Furthermore, with smaller reactors, risk is diminished somewhat. If we could have one up and running in a few years, and it was easy to decommission, it might be a viable source of energy for Australia, however we must also consider the lead time of 10-15 years before operation commences as well as the fossil fuel consumption of refining the uranium.

Nuclear Free World

I think until Australia has made some serious inroads into the sustainable energy field, nuclear energy can be put on the back burner. We really don't need it, the refining uses too much fuel and water (which then has to be countered for with desalinated water), and the commissioning times and decommissioning nightmare really make nuclear energy a second choice. I see that it has its place in some areas in the world, and I feel that research should continue into the field of nuclear energy, however the same amount of money if not more should be given to geothermal exploration, solar, wind and wave development.

One advantage for governments is that they keep energy production centralised and can therefore control price points more effectively. With decentralised power generation, especially from a string of private vendors, energy security becomes an issue, and this is something that puts nuclear up as a potential replacement to many of our coal fired power stations which are now nearing the end of their lives.


Carbon Emissions

One of the arguments for nuclear energy is the zero emission carbon dioxide output at the generation stage of the process. When graphed alongside the emissions associated with coal, it seems that nuclear energy is indeed a very emission friendly alternative.

When we look into the entire process however, a very different picture emerges. The refining process for uranium is a very energy intensive process and requires a lot of energy to remove a small amount of fuel from a lot of rock material. Granted, this small amount of fuel can then produce a large quantity of energy, however there is still a considerable input of energy to refine uranium which must be considered when talking about emissions from generation.

Furthermore, nuclear power stations take some 12-15 years to complete. The time lag before the offset of emissions takes place actually has a significant consequence. For example to have the same impact in 10 years as you do today, you would have to plant several times the number of trees to have the same carbon reduction impact. This is due to the fact that emissions in the atmosphere give rise to other processes which in turn create additional emissions.

Nuclear Power Station

When we compare the entire process, we see that nuclear energy process produces comparable emissions to gas energy generation. This has been well researched and documented and is often left out when arguing for nuclear energy, and I often hear nuclear energy referred to as a 100% emission free process, which it simply isn't.

We are not even considering the threat of nuclear detonation, decommissioning the deadly reactor and dealing with the nuclear waste which is currently sitting around at nuclear power stations all over the world. The reason this waste is left on the surface is that it reduces its radioactivity significantly over about 15 years. It still contains some nasty radioactive material like plutonium with a half life of 15,000 years, and so far no geological sites which are cost effective to dump waste have been identified where this material will be guaranteed undisturbed for this length of time. In the US several attempts have been made to dump nuclear waste in geologically unstable places however after public outcry, these decisions were revoked. Taking short cuts with nuclear waste has been attempted by governments and this will continue, therefore the best strategy, especially in Australia is to avoid nuclear all together. We don't need it, most of us don't want it, and it is not a clean alternative as many would have us believe.

Nuclear Industry Growing in Australia

Unfortunately with climate change putting pressure on coal fired energy as well as a growing thirst for energy in this country, politicians are looking for short term 'popular' solutions. Nuclear is seen by many as carbon free and safe technology, however the reality is actually far from this.

When you take into account the following facts about nuclear power it doesn't look quite so clean and green:

  • lag in energy production from plant commissioning to energy use,
  • waste management for the next 100 years,
  • security and transport risks,
  • carbon emissions when mining and other social impacts which are hard to quantify in $$.

Have a look at this talk by TED and then tell me that nuclear power is carbon free. I see this reported every couple of weeks in some newspaper and it is blatantly untrue.

As you can see there are a lot of people who don't want Nuclear power in Australia, and those that understand the facts about the energy source and can see so many amazing clean alternatives available are against it. Of course Nuclear has its place in medical facilities and smoke alarms etc, but this is a minute amount of radioactive material. Power generation should leave this form of energy generation and move to sustainable energy.

Finally it is worth mentioning that so many people who have actually worked inside nuclear power stations think that it is the wrong way to go. I have been told it is dangerous to work with radio active materials, there is inherent risk involved in the process and there are better technologies available.

Fukushima Nuclear Incident

Most people are aware of the Fukushima reactor incident which occurred when a large earthquake off the coast of Japan caused waves which disabled the cooling systems of Fukushima reactors. With no mechanism to cool reactors, hydrogen built up and caused explosions venting radiation into the atmosphere.

Perhaps as a knee jerk reaction, the Japanese government has decided no more nuclear facilities will be built in the country. Japan facilities however have had issues in the past.

Although nuclear power is a technology which can be used to provide enormous amounts of energy, there are too many disadvantages to exploiting this non renewable energy:

  • nuclear power stations are dangerous (Fukushima is a perfect example)
  • nuclear power stations are too expensive (cost blowouts to nuclear power stations around the world have greatly depreciated the number of new installations)
  • there is no long term plan for the nuclear waste. It often sits in containers reducing in radioactivity. Once the unit stops generating electricity, this waste must still be treated. As a result, nuclear power plants (such as Fukushima) are kept online past their decommissioning dates to bring in income.
  • nuclear fuel and waste can be used in weapons. The transporting of waste and fuel in a safe manner also poses issues.
  • refining uranium requires enormous amounts of energy which come from fossil fuels. Nuclear power is therefore not 100% emission free. Taking into account the commissioning time of nuclear power plants, nuclear power is perhaps a little better than the most efficient gas generators.
  • there are now much cheaper, safer and more sustainable alternatives.