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Nuclear power just doesn’t make sense for Australia
Since my article for the Journal of Australian Political Economy in 2007 on the costs of introducing nuclear power in Australia, the argument has not got any better. However politicians and commentators on all sides have renewed calls for building nuclear power plants in Australia as a way to reduce Australia’s greenhouse emissions. Tony Abbott has called for nuclear power in Australia. The Labor Party proposes to discuss the issue at its national conference.
There are a number of reasons why introducing nuclear power in Australia would be reckless, not the least of which revolves around cost and competitiveness. Nuclear costs are prohibitively expensive, which would be manageable if these costs were actually coming down over time, like other energy technologies.
But contrary to every energy technology available (gas, geothermal, wind, solar, etc.), nuclear power electricity costs have been increasing dramatically over the last few decades. Jonathan Koomey and Nathan Hultman conducted a thorough review of nearly 100 nuclear reactors installed in the US between 1970 and 2005, published in a peer-reviewed article in the respected Energy Policy journal. They found that nuclear power costs more than doubled over that time, with some projects having extraordinary cost blowouts.
Why would nuclear power costs increase? In simple terms, the risk of catastrophe, no matter how small, results in local, state and federal governments having to warrant safeguards, protocols and inspections, which have ultimately contributed to the increase in costs. The risk of catastrophic accident has not diminished.
Furthermore, the two current reactors being built in Finland and France have been subject to billion dollar blow-outs and years of delays. This is very familiar, having occurred with virtually every reactor built over the past 20 years, despite the enormous money invested into nuclear power by countries like Japan, France, USA and Russia. It makes you wonder how our energy today would be sourced if we invested the money that went into nuclear over the past decades in other cleaner, low carbon forms of energy.
For Australia to develop a nuclear industry, we would also have to import all of the workforce needed to plan, build, design, engineer and run the things – not to mention that the reactors themselves and the waste management facilities would have to come from France, US or Japan.
When Australia has enormous high-potential low carbon baseload options like solar thermal, geothermal, wave, tidal and advanced biomass, it would be reckless to become a nuclear power. The opportunity cost in wasting our precious investment on nuclear power is enormous, for it would mean forgoing the global leadership in these new low carbon energy technologies.
Dr Ben McNeil is a climate scientist and economist from the University of NSW and author of The Clean Industrial Revolution:Growing Australian Prosperity in a Greenhouse Age.