Nuclear power: the case heats up

Nuclear energy

By Paul Grad, engineering writer

Several recent meetings have investigated all aspects of nuclear science and engineering and the possibility of developing nuclear power in Australia.

“Nuclear power is a viable option to replace ageing coal-fired power stations for Australia. Exhaustive discussion found no supportable reason to omit consideration of nuclear power from the generation mix.”

This is part of a communiqué of the recent national conference titled Nuclear Energy for Australia?, hosted by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE).

“To ensure Australia is prepared if the need arises, action is needed now to plan and put in place the necessary legal and regulatory instruments as well as adequate educational and training facilities,” the communiqué continues.

“Social acceptance and bi-partisan long-term energy policies are essential prerequisites for large scale nuclear investment. Wide reaching consultation is critical. The keys to success are transparent policy development, widespread community consultation and a robust regulatory system, capitalising on Australia’s strong regulatory history.”

During the Australian Nuclear Association’s (ANA’s) 10th Conference on Nuclear Science and Engineering in Australia (ANA2013), which was held on October 11 in Sydney, leading experts covered topics such as the medical uses of radioactivity, world nuclear energy developments, uranium mining in Australia and nuclear energy for Australia.

On September 25, in an ANA meeting, Robert Pritchard – ResourcesLaw International managing director and first chairman of the section on energy law of the International Bar Association – spoke on the social, legal and regulatory issues for nuclear power development in Australia. He asked, “Why have Australians been denied the opportunity of considering the option of nuclear power?”

According to Mr Pritchard, the question existed because of a number of reasons: a restrictive legal and regulatory regime that is itself a consequence of inadequate information, a lack of any real consultation with the community and an absence of any guarantee of community participation in regulatory decision-making. Mr Pritchard is chairman of the board of SMR Nuclear Technology, a firm specialising in the development of nuclear power generation. SMR are small modular reactors with electricity generating capacity of 50MW to 200MW. SMRs do not require external electricity supplies or pumps to cool the reactor.

The debate on whether Australia should develop nuclear power is long running. The arguments for nuclear power are well known: increasing fossil fuel prices, insecurity of supply due to political instability, concern with carbon emissions.

A strong case for nuclear power is the fact Australia has 31 per cent of the world’s uranium deposits and is the world’s third largest producer of uranium after Kazakhstan and Canada. However, the country’s huge, low-cost coal and natural gas reserves have been used as a strong case against nuclear power.

Back in 2006, prime minister John Howard commissioned the Switkowski report – an investigation into the merits of nuclear power in Australia. The report stated nuclear power would be competitive with coal-fired power plants, if carbon credit sanctions were implemented. According to the report, nuclear power could eventually supply a third of Australia’s base load power.

What’s more, opinion polls suggest support for nuclear power has steadily increased throughout the years, while opposition has steadily declined. In 1979, 34 per cent were in favour of nuclear power. In 2007 this increased to 41 per cent, going up further to 49 per cent in 2009.

One of the speakers at ANA2013, Martin Thomas, makes a strong case for nuclear power. Now with the Academy of Technical Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) – and the past president of the Institution of Engineers Australia (now Engineers Australia) and a former principal of Sinclair Knight Merz – Mr Thomas has had a long career in energy science and policy.

“Australia was nuclear power ready in the early 1980s, with the Jervis Bay power station committed and the Australian Atomic Energy Commission among world leaders in technology development, including Synroc, and boasting a graduate school of nuclear engineering at the University of New South Wales,” Mr Thomas said.

“Today all that has gone. Did Australia miss an opportunity then? I believe we certainly did.”

He also said nuclear power has unwarrantedly gained a reputation for dangerous radiation and resulting deaths. However, the truth is nuclear power is by a huge margin less dangerous than all fossil fuel generation and also less than hydro and all renewables.

“For Australia to ignore the potential of nuclear power may one day be shown to have been the height of foolishness. Our grandchildren and their children, will wonder how we could possibly have been so blind,” he said.

Lately, however, the case for nuclear power has received a powerful setback as a consequence of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. That accident has sent shivers around the world but, according to many people involved in nuclear power, its effects have been wildly exaggerated.

The accident happened as a consequence of a major tsunami accompanying the Tohoku earthquake on March 11, 2011. The tsunami itself took 18,500 lives, whereas we can speculate the nuclear accident did not, so far, cause a single fatality. There are, of course, the long-term effects of the nuclear accident to consider. However, according to several leading experts on the health effects of radioactivity, those will be relatively minor and fairly easy to control.

Prof Geraldine Thomas, who holds the chair in molecular pathology at the Faculty of Medicine, Imperial College, London, said: “It is important to understand that the risk to health from radiation from Fukushima is negligible, and that undue concern over any possible health effects could be much worse than the radiation itself.”

Furthermore, she said experience has shown the lowest dose of radiation that show health effects is 100 milliSieverts (mSv). On the other hand, the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) expects no resident of Fukushima Prefecture will be exposed to more than 10mSv in their entire lifetime.

Prof Mikhail Balonov of the Institute of Radiation Hygiene in St Petersburg, Russia – and a member of the International Commission of Radiological Protection – participated in efforts at mitigating of the consequences of the 1986 Chernobyl accident in the Ukraine. He said the Chernobyl accident resulted mostly in a higher incidence of thyroid cancer in children who drank locally produced milk containing radioiodine. In Fukushima, this kind of exposure to radiation has been very minor because children did not drink contaminated milk. Therefore, no increase in the incidence of thyroid cancer is expected now or in the future, he said.

It is also important to note the accident at Fukushima was completely avoidable. In a scathing indictment of people involved in operating the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, Health and Global Policy Institute chairman Dr Kiyoshi Kurokawa said the disaster was wholly man-made. Dr Kurokawa, who directed an independent commission appointed by the Japanese Parliament, said the disaster could and should have been foreseen and prevented. What’s more, he suggested its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response.

In spite of accidents such as those of Three Mile Island in the US, Chernobyl in the Ukraine and Fukushima in Japan, nuclear power has become very important, and will almost certainly become even more so.

Nuclear power plants produce 11 per cent of the world’s electricity. There are worldwide more than 400 nuclear reactors in about 50 countries, producing about 370GWe. About 70 reactors are under construction, about 175 are on order or planned and more than 310 are proposed.

During the World Nuclear Association’s Annual Symposium in London, which was held from September 11-13, Exxon Mobil’s triggered a lively debate when it said electricity demand is likely to grow by more than 80 per cent by 2040 and nuclear energy capacity will need to double to help meet it. The company’s 2013 Outlook for Energy is based on data from 100 countries, looking at 15 demand centres and 20 fuel types.

Australia’s nuclear science has been centred at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization (ANSTO) at Lucas Heights, Sydney. In 1958, Australia was one of the first countries to build a research reactor called Hifar. Hifar produced most of the country’s radioisotopes for medicine and industry until 2007.

A late model reactor, Opal, took over in 2007 with much expanded capabilities. A third-generation radiation synchrotron has been operating in Melbourne since 2007.

This statement made by the president of Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE), Dr Alan Finkel, during the National Conference Nuclear Energy for Australia sums up the issue well: “Australia has economic, environmental, social and public health responsibilities to broaden the public and political debate on nuclear energy. Issues for debate include technology evaluation, system economics, attraction of capital, reduction of carbon emissions and management of radiation safety and waste disposal. Australia has pressing climate change reasons to consider a transformational opportunity to achieve its declared clean energy targets.”