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The New Nuclear

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Nuclear energy is a contentious issue.

By Ian Lowe

Will new technology make nuclear energy viable?

Nuclear energy is a contentious issue. In fact, there is probably no technical issue on which the community is as sharply divided. I know that a majority of Fellows of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering think that Australia should develop nuclear power stations, but the question is certainly not a clear-cut one. So I was startled to hear a reputable business figure say recently that he thinks opposition to the idea is “purely ideological”.

Sydney publisher Pantera Press recently invited me to contribute to a small book, Why vs Why: Nuclear Power. Prof Barry Brook of Adelaide University wrote the case for an Australian nuclear industry and I wrote the case against.

Comparing the two arguments, it is clear that our values influence how we perceive a complex question. We both started from an acceptance of the science showing that climate change is an urgent problem, and agreed that it demands a comprehensive revision of our energy supply system by replacing coal-fired electricity with cleaner alternatives and improving the efficiency of electrical power. From that common starting point, our paths diverged radically.

Brook accepts many of the criticisms of the nuclear power industry as it presently stands, but believes that a new generation of nuclear reactors offers the prospect of better operating performance, waste that is more tractable and reduced risk of weapons proliferation. He is not convinced that a mix of renewable energy supply technologies can meet our need for a reliable energy supply.

By contrast, I was convinced by the argument in the report Renewable Electricity for Australia published by the Department of Resources and Energy in 1992. It concluded that we could get all our power from a mix of renewables, with storage to cover periods when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, by 2030. Despite nearly 20 years of inaction, I think we could still get close to that target with political will.

Unlike Brook, I am not convinced that the long-cherished dream of breeder reactors is likely to become reality in the foreseeable future. Even if the technical problems could be solved and the economics proved to be as good as some supporters claim, the outcome could be a greatly increased risk of weapons proliferation.

Deciding whether a new generation technology – solar or nuclear – will work effectively is a matter of judgement on which competent professionals can legitimately disagree. Our values are even more obviously involved in assessing the political risk of fissile material being used for weapons.

So there is no “right” answer – just different judgements and assessments. I welcome the vigorous debate about alternatives, as clean and reliable energy is the key to a civilised future. I don’t welcome attempts to demonise rational opposition as being driven by ideology.

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Governments tend to load the dice when they want projects to go ahead.

The South Australian government has been behaving as if the environmental assessment of BHP Billiton’s proposal for a massive expansion of the Roxby Downs mine is a formality, talking up what they see as the economic importance of the project. Given the scale of radioactive tailings that would be produced, there needs to be a serious assessment of the environmental risks.

Now the NSW government is looking to provide a fast-track process for biofuel plants. I have argued for more than 30 years that we could be making more use of ethanol and biodiesel, especially when produced from waste. And we would probably be healthier if we ate less sugar than the present 1 kg/person/week, so I am quite happy to see sugar cane used to produce ethanol rather than to sweeten fizzy drinks.

But I still think that the assessment process needs to be rigorous. The European demand for biofuels has led to massive clearing of tropical rainforests to plant palm oil monocultures. That change would not pass any serious environmental impact assessment.

Even wind power, the most economically attractive of the alternative energy technologies, has its critics. A poor site choice can threaten bird species, for example.

So the bottom line should be that any new proposal requires proper assessment, not fast-tracking for political convenience.