The nuclear energy spectre

A topic of conversation that has recently come up in my social circle is nuclear energy, a debate largely inspired by the attempts by ghost of the Howard Government Nuclear energy lobby (led by Ziggy Switkowski).

A fear expressed to me was that the climate change committee that Labor and the Greens Party will set up will be pressured to suggest nuclear energy as “solution” to climate change.

I do not support nuclear energy as a “sustainable” energy source or an alternative to fossil fuels. It is as bad, if not worse, than fossil fuel. I also strongly support a “No New Mines” policy – and think Australia should not export uranium to countries that have not signed the Non-proliferation Treaty.

I have many reasons for opposing nuclear energy. Most of them boil down to pointing out that both coal/gas and nuclear energy are bad for the environment. Using an environmental argument for nuclear energy does not, in my opinion, stand up to scrutiny. The answer to our energy crisis (in terms of the environment) is not nuclear energy, but sustainable energy, such as solar, wind, hydro, etc.

  • Mining of uranium is enormously environmentally damaging, not only in terms of digging it up, but in processing it into a usable form.
  • Construction of, and maintenance of nuclear energy stations is grossly expensive, and would require enormous government subsidies to run at all. After 50 years of subsidies in Europe, America and Britain, the nuclear energy industry is still not profitable. The costs of constructions and then decomission of nuclear energy stations is also massive (many times higher than for coal, gas, solar or hydro power stations). No private firms have ever invested in nuclear without being underwritten by a Government.
  • Mining of uranium is extremely dangerous. The number of dangerous contamination leaks has dramatically increased since the 1980s when Australia’s mines were first opened, and have become increasingly dangerous, particularly to local indigenous communities, and to the workers at the mines.
  • Nuclear energy stations need to be located near populated areas and large water sources, as it needs a large number of specialist technicians (who probably wouldn’t want to live in the desert), support services, etc. It needs a lot of water (obviously), which then needs to be safely disposed of. It also produces dangerous greenhouse gasses (albeit fewer gasses than coal or other non-renewable energy sources).
  • Australia currently cannot safely dispose of its low-level radioactive waste (mainly from medical and research sources). Although we are a very geologically stable continent, we currently have no facilities to safely dispose of high level nuclear or radioactive waste. After 50 years of the nuclear energy industry, there is no global solution to radioactive waste – nuclear waste has a half-life of tens of thousands of years – tens of times longer than the longest continuous human society has survived (the oldest human institution in the world – the Papacy – is only 2000 years old). This raises the question of what will happen to the waste in 200 or 500 years time.
  • The nuclear energy industry is an integral part of the military industrial complex – its byproducts are required for the production of nuclear weapons. The decomissioning of large numbers of nuclear power stations in America and Europe means that the nuclear weapons industry is experiencing a resurgence, particularly to find fuel for their missiles.
  • Nuclear waste, if not safely disposed of, could fall into the hands of extremists or “rogue nations” or groups. Even if the material itself (in Australia) did not fall into the wrong hands, nuclear waste storage facilities could become targets for extremist groups. Al Gore is on record saying that almost every national security threat during his term as Vice President involved a nuclear facility.

All of this said, Australia (and the world) needs to find genuinly sustainable energy sources, as well as reduce our overall consumption.

Rather than pump money into an industry that is poisonous, dangerous and unsustainable, the Federal Government should invest in sustainable energy such as solar, wind, hydro, or any number of other sustainable energy technologies. Furthermore, there should be greater investment in energy efficient technologies – most of our industries and power consumption is hugely inefficient – both cost savings and energy/environmental saving could be made.

If nuclear energy is going to be pushed, then there are alternatives to uranium, most notably thorium, which is safer, more environmentally friendly (although still radioactive) and could not be used for the weapons industry. UPDATE (2014): I’m advised that thorium can be weaponised.

[box type=”info”]Helen Caldicott’s book Nuclear Energy Is Not The Answer is an excellent starting point to furnish yourself with some facts about nuclear.[/box]

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