By Mia Pepper, CCWA Nuclear Free Campaigner
You may have seen in the news that the new leader of the Nationals David Littleproud and new Shadow Minister for Climate and Energy Ted O’Brien are stoking the fires of a nuclear power debate. This is not a new debate - it’s one we’ve had across Australia for decades, as a delaying tactic for acting on climate change. And the answers haven’t changed.
Nuclear power is not the solution to addressing the climate crisis. It’s too expensive, too slow, too dangerous and too socially unacceptable.
There are mounting issues with nuclear waste globally, there is an inextricable link to nuclear weapons with catastrophic humanitarian consequences, and nuclear energy production is increasingly dangerous in an uncertain climate future. And if these weren’t reasons enough, nuclear power also relies on the mining of uranium - a toxic industrial process which threatens ecosystems, water, worker and public health, and leaves behind toxic radioactive mine waste which remains volatile in our environment for thousands of years.
These critical issues make nuclear power an unsuitable option for addressing the very urgent need to stop burning fossil fuels.
And we have a much better alternative: renewables.
Want to know more? We’ve pulled together some of the key facts about nuclear power, summarised in this Q&A with Dr Jim Green.
- Nuclear power is far more expensive than other currently available options. The 2020-21 annual CSIRO report on generation costs of energy in Australia reviewed the costs by technology this graph looking at the costs of energy production. In this review they have not even included conventional nuclear reactors which in Europe and the US tend to cost between A$17.6 billion to A$30.6 billion per reactor. It is widely accepted even among pro nuclear proponents that existing technology is not suitable and too expensive.
- As highlighted in the CSIRO graph below, the most expensive energy options for Australia are nuclear, followed by coal, gas and biomass. The draft 2021-22 report also confirms renewables are the cheapest energy option for Australia.
- The nuclear reactor type included in this review is Small Modular Reactors. The report notes that these cost scenarios are reliant on the mass production of SMRs globally, which are currently not commercially viable. And might never be!
CSIRO Graph (2021-22) showing the levelized cost of electricity calculated by technology and category for 2030 (Levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) is an electricity generation technology comparison metric. It is the total unit costs a generator must recover to meet all its costs – including a return on investment).
- Many say the nuclear industry is running just to stand still. Renewable energy production has doubled over the past decade and now accounts for 29% of global electricity generation while nuclear power’s contribution is 10%, and continues to fall.
- Taking into account planning and approvals, construction, and the energy payback time, it would be a quarter of a century or more before nuclear power could even begin to reduce greenhouse emissions in Australia … and then only assuming that nuclear power replaced fossil fuels. Nuclear power clearly isn't a short-term option or a 'bridging' technology to ease the shift from fossil fuels to renewables.
- On the contrary, nuclear power would slow the shift away from fossil fuels, which is why fossil-fuel funded political parties and politicians support nuclear power (e.g. the Nationals) and why organisations such as the Minerals Council of Australia support nuclear power. Corporations with vested interests in nuclear power and uranium routinely promote dishonest arguments in support of nuclear power and they routinely support fossil fuels. For example, the Minerals Council of Australia promotes 'clean nuclear' and 'clean coal'. As Australian economist Prof. John Quiggin notes:
Support for nuclear power in Australia is, in practice, support for coal."
Too dangerous (and in a changing climate will be even more so)
- You'll have heard of Chernobyl and Fukushima. But did you know there have been over 200 nuclear power accidents worldwide - and they are increasing in severity.
- Nuclear theft and smuggling are serious, unresolved problems. As of 31 December 2018, an International Atomic Energy Agency database contained a total of 3,497 confirmed incidents reported by participating States since 1993, of which 285 incidents involved a confirmed or likely act of trafficking or malicious use, and for an additional 965 incidents there was insufficient information to determine if it was related to trafficking or malicious use.
- There have been an alarming number of deliberate attacks on nuclear plants. Examples include Israel's destruction of a research reactor in Iraq in 1981; the United States' destruction of two smaller research reactors in Iraq in 1991; attempted military strikes by Iraq and Iran on each other's nuclear facilities during the 1980‒88 war; Iraq's attempted missile strikes on Israel's nuclear facilities in 1991; and Israel's bombing of a suspected nuclear plant in Syria in 2007. In 2022 we witnessed Russia taking control of nuclear reactors in Ukraine, holding staff hostage who continue to work under immense pressure. Even in June 2022 there have been reports of a missile that has flown very close to a reactor in Ukraine.
- Nuclear is also not reliable. And it is becoming less reliable in a changing climate. Nuclear reactors are subject to “tripping out” for safety reasons and technical faults. It is regularly reported that during heat waves in France and Germany reactors are shut down because of limitations in the use of river water to cool reactors. Shut downs in California and Texas have also been reported.
- Nuclear power plants are vulnerable to threats which are being exacerbated by climate change. These include dwindling and warming water sources, sea-level rise, storm damage, drought, and jelly-fish swarms. Retired nuclear engineer David Lochbaum states:
You need to solve global warming for nuclear plants to survive."
No social license
- Opposition to nuclear power is widespread and mainstream within Australia. This was most recently demonstrated in 2021 in the lead up to COP26, when over 300 organisations in 40 countries wrote a joint statement opposing nuclear power. 49 of those organisations were from Australia and included unions, health, faith, indigenous and environment organisations representing millions of Australians.
- In 2019 the Climate Council of Australia, Australia’s leading climate scientists, reviewed nuclear power and found that “nuclear power stations are not suitable for Australia and probably never will be”.
- There are popular prohibitions on nuclear power nationally and in most states and territories. On the politics of nuclear power there remains broad opposition, however as shown by recent events, there are a few vocal supporters of nuclear power within the Liberal and Nationals parties. These have been criticised by Liberal leaders including Malcolm Turnbull and the SA, NSW, Tasmanian and QLD Liberal governments who state that nuclear is not viable for a variety of reasons.
Renewable energy is real, affordable, low risk and clean. Nuclear simply cannot meet our future energy needs."