Clean energy in Australia’s national interest

By Leslie Kemeny

Whilst in Australia, at present, neither major political party formally backs nuclear power as opposed to uranium mining and export, this attitude is ready for change. Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson, wisely keeps the debate alive and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Bob Carr has said that it must remain an option. A recent study by the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics has underscored the economic advantages of nuclear energy and its potential attractions as a base-load and secure energy source. Meanwhile, our giant Asian neighbours and trading partners, who increasingly rely on Australian uranium for energy, productivity and global competitiveness, are astounded at Australia’s hesitation to endorse this clean, cheap and secure technology.

Recently, the OECD’s International Energy Agency (IEA) released a major report, which commended the role of nuclear power in combating climate change and providing global energy security at the end of the hydrocarbon fuel age. In summary, it stated: “nuclear power is the technology which must be accelerated, promoted and relied upon if the world is to stabilize carbon dioxide emissions at an acceptable level”.

Australia’s Energy Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson has often endorsed this view. Recently he chaired a meeting of the IEA where he stated – “The only proven form of clean energy of a baseload and a reliable nature is actually nuclear from a global point of view.”

The Australian Federal Government’s expensive “educational advertising” relating to the “clean energy pathway” for Australia, is both technically deceptive and environmentally naïve. It contains all the seductive and soothing semantics of green pseudo-science but avoids any reference to the severe technical limitations and enormous costs associated with dilute and discontinuous energy sources. Little “investment certainty” can arise from this exercise. It is indeed certain that energy prices will surge. It is also obvious that a new service industry based on environmental lawyers and regulators will flourish as they seek to drive Australia’s energy and manufacturing industry into politically approved channels and call for a misallocation of taxpayer funded capital.

In a carbon-constrained world, and especially in a nation which is more than 80 per cent reliant on fossil fuels, the clean energy needs and 2020 and 2050 emissions reduction target can only be meet by nuclear power. Nearly 50 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions arise from the operation of 35 ageing and poorly maintained hydrocarbon fuelled power stations. These emit around 250 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum. The only effective mechanism to combat their pollution is the huge “carbon offset” which can be produced by gradually replacing chemical combustion with nuclear fission.

Australia’s emission reduction targets will not be achieved either with Prime Minister Gillard’s “clean coal” and “renewable” policy or with the Coalition’s “carbon storage in the soil” plus “20 million trees” planting scheme. A 5 per cent to 20 per cent emissions reduction together with energy security for the nation is certainly possible with the commissioning and operation of five 1GW (e) nuclear power stations by 2020 and 25GW (e) by 2050. As well, embracing nuclear power will ensure lowest cost energy supply to Australian industry and domestic customers. And it will save Australia’s remaining manufacturing, value adding and agricultural industries and prevent the nation from becoming a mere “quarry to planet earth.”

Recently in Barcelona, the European Union’s electricity executives held a major conference on the “De-carbonising Europe Trading Scheme”. Of the delegates, 49 per cent chose nuclear power as the key technology to lower carbon emissions, 24 per cent chose Carbon Capture and the Sequestration (CCS) and 6 per cent chose renewables. And the CCS advocates recognised that this technology still does not exist and must not be mandated for new or existing plants. Such matters are never reported in Australia. Nor the fact that at present the Carbon Tax in Europe is under $7 per tonne as opposed to Australia’s $23.

Consider the immense contribution to greenhouse gas emission minimisation made by nuclear energy in 2009. In that year the global electricity produced by the world’s 435 nuclear power stations was 2.398TWh or 16 per cent of total electricity generation or over 5 per cent of total primary energy production.

The amount of avoided carbon dioxide emission because of the use of nuclear energy in 2009 was 2.6 billion tonnes. This is 10 per cent of total emissions. And only nuclear can provide Australia with electricity at a generating cost of under $2 per MW hour and potable water under $2 per cubic metres!

The European environmental group E3G published its economic analysis G20 Low Carbon Competitiveness. It placed Australia as the “lowest ranked” major industrialised country in terms of its ability to generate wealth for its community in a carbon-constrained world. It placed France at the top of the list for its competiveness in a clean energy world and showed that this nuclear powered nation gets three times as much GDP for each tonne of its carbon emissions than Australia. The Gillard Government must resist the naïve Green concept of replacing Australia’s hydrocarbon fuelled electricity industry with “renewables”. This could lead to an enormous energy cost and the destruction of the nation’s productivity.

Recently, I spoke to Dr. Chen Xinyang, President of China Nuclear Energy Industry. He confirmed China has an amazing energy and carbon reduction policy based largely on nuclear power. Eleven nuclear power plants are already in operation. It is planned to have 70GW (e) of nuclear electricity by 2020 and possibly 190GW (e) of nuclear electricity by 2030. China is developing an energy policy based on the gradual replacement of its immensely polluting coal-fired plant with nuclear. At the same time, it is ensuring its security with Australian uranium. When will the Australian Government and Opposition learn this lesson?

Professor Leslie G Kemeny was a Senior Design Engineer with the State Electricity Commission of New South Wales. In the United Kingdom he was in the design team of Europe’s first nuclear power station and Britain’s first nuclear marine propulsion unit. Currently he is the Australian Foundation member of the International Nuclear Energy Academy, a Senior Academic Research Fellow and an internationally acknowledged consulting nuclear scientist and engineer.