Friday, October 28, 2005

Professor Ian Lowe: Is nuclear power part of Australia’s global warming solutions? An address by Prof Lowe to the National Press Club reiterates the points around which a consensus is emerging:

* the problem of global warming is real and accelerating

* global warming can be tackled by slashing emission of carbon dioxide by 60% by the middle of the century

* coal fired power stations are the main offenders

* nuclear power is not the answer

* uranium itself is a non-renewable resource, with high-grade uranium expected to deplete in 40 or 50 years or sooner.

* renewable energy in the form of solar, wind and geothermal etc is the answer

To this I would add, that a pro-rata carbon tax (with no exemptions) ought be imposed immediately with the twin goals of raising revenue and making renewable energy more competitive by attributing some of the true costs of fossil fuel burning on the industry.

Even if people insist on promoting nuclear energy, one can reply that if corporate welfare for the industry is terminated (with available funds going instead into genuinely clean and renewable sources) it could then be let to sink or swim on its merits, at which point it would almost certainly sink.

Some excerpts from the speech:

"There is no serious doubt that climate change is real, it is happening now and its effects are accelerating.... The science is very clear. We need to reduce global greenhouse pollution by about 60 per cent, ideally by 2050. To achieve that global target, allowing for the legitimate material expectations of poorer countries, Australia's quota will need to be at least as strong as the UK goal of 60 per cent by 2050 and preferably stronger. Our eventual goal will probably be to reduce our greenhouse pollution by 80 or 90 per cent. How can we reach this ambitious target?"

"Coal-fired electricity is by far the worst offender, so the top priority should be to replace it with cleaner forms of electricity. Since there is increasing pressure to consider nuclear power as part of the mix, I want to spell out why I don't agree. The first point is that the economics of nuclear power just don't stack up. The real cost of nuclear electricity is certainly more than for wind power, energy from bio-wastes and some forms of solar energy. Geothermal energy from hot dry rocks - a resource of huge potential in Australia - also promises to be less costly than nuclear."

"We are 50 years into the best funded development of any energy technology, and yet nuclear energy is still beset with problems. Reactors go over budget by billions, decommissioning plants is so difficult and expensive that power stations are kept operating past their useful life, and there is still no solution for radioactive waste. So there is no economic case for nuclear power. As energy markets have liberalised around the world, investors have turned their backs on nuclear energy. The number of reactors in western Europe and the USA peaked about 15 years ago and has been declining since. By contrast, the amount of wind power and solar energy is increasing rapidly. The actual figures for the rate of increase in the level of different forms of electricity supply for the decade up to 2003 are striking: wind nearly 30 per cent, solar more than 20 per cent, gas 2 per cent, oil and coal 1 per cent, nuclear 0.6 per cent. Most of the world is rejecting nuclear in favour of alternatives that are cheaper, cleaner and more flexible. This is true even of countries that already have nuclear power. With billions already invested in this expensive technology, they have more reason to look favourably on it than we do."

"High grade uranium ores are comparatively scarce. The best estimate is that the known high grade ores could supply the present demand for 40 or 50 years. So if we expanded the nuclear contribution to global electricity supply from the present level, about 15 per cent, to replace all the coal-fired power stations, the resources would only last about a decade or so. There are large deposits of lower grade ores, but these require much more conventional energy for extraction and processing, producing much more greenhouse pollution. Let's not forget, uranium, like oil, gas and coal, is a finite resource. Renewables are our only in-finite energy options."

"Nuclear power also inevitably produces radioactive waste that will have to be stored safely for hundreds of thousands of years. After nearly fifty years of the nuclear power experiment, nobody has yet demonstrated a solution to this problem."

"China is planning to get about twice as much energy from wind and solar as it is from nuclear. China has become a world leader in solar cell production: Shangde Solar Energy Power Company, the country's largest producer, has recently expanded to boost China's total production capacity from 200 to 320 megawatts by the end of this year. China is also a world leader in solar thermal production and use."

"How can we reduce our carbon emissions by at least 60 per cent by the middle of this century, given our dependence on energy for our comfortable lifestyle? There are now seven fully costed studies showing that nations can reduce their greenhouse pollution by 30 to 60 per cent by 2050 without building nuclear power plants and without economic damage. By far the most cost-effective way to reduce our emissions is to improve the efficiency of turning energy into the services that we want.... Reducing waste is by far the cheapest way to reduce greenhouse pollution."

"We should set the sort of positive targets for renewable energy that progressive nations in the northern hemisphere are doing. We should aim at 10 per cent extra electricity from renewables by 2010, 20 per cent by 2015 and 30 per cent by 2020. These are realistic targets based on existing technology.... Be in no doubt: renewable energy works. Renewables now account for a quarter of the installed capacity of California, a third of Sweden's energy, half of Norway's and three-quarters of Iceland's. It is time we joined the clean energy revolution sweeping the progressive parts of the world.

"Renewables can meet Australia's energy demands. Just 15 wind farms could supply enough power for half the homes in NSW. And that would only use less than half a percent of the pasture land in the state - without disrupting grazing.... Fitting solar panels to half the houses in Australia could supply seven per cent of all our electricity needs, including industry's needs, enough for the whole of Tasmania and the Northern Territory."

"We should set a target of at least five per cent for biofuels in the transport sector as well as requiring cars to be more efficient and investing properly in public transport. Governments at all levels should be modelling best practice in buildings, operations and transport. Above all else, we should set a long term target to cut our greenhouse pollution by 2050 to well below half the present level and take it seriously. Our present approach of demanding the world's most generous target and making no serious effort to cut emissions is an embarrassment to all thinking Australians."

"I suspect the real motive of many who have called for a debate about nuclear power is to soften up the Australian people to accept a possible expansion of uranium mining. This is a modern version of an old debating trick. When we were debating the Ranger report nearly 30 years ago, then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser claimed that "an energy-starved world" needed our uranium, conjuring up the picture of small children freezing in the dark if we didn't sell it. This was a transparent attempt to portray a crass commercial operation as a moral virtue, based on the untrue claim that the world needed nuclear power.

"I wonder how much the current debate about nuclear power has to do with BHP Billiton's planned expansion of the Roxby Downs uranium mine in South Australia.... I can't help being suspicious of the motives of those who claim that they want to see uranium being exported to slow down global warming. If we were serious about helping the rest of the world to reduce their greenhouse pollution, we would start by scaling back our coal exports. That would have much more impact that exporting more uranium. Of course, those urging increased uranium exports generally support the continuing export of more than 100 million tonnes a year of coal, making clear that their real concern is the economic return from mineral exports rather than slowing down climate change.

"In similar terms, if we were serious about helping the developing nations to have the energy services we take for granted, we would be promoting Australian solar technology, which is both much more appropriate to their needs and much more likely to provide jobs and economic benefits than expanding uranium exports. Australia could play a leading role in helping China - and other countries - make the transition to a clean energy future. This is not only a chance to offer regional assistance. It's a huge economic opportunity."

"Since every gram of uranium becomes radioactive waste and increases the amount of fissile material that could be diverted to weapons or "dirty bombs", we should be phasing out the industry, not looking to expand it. Legislation to phase out nuclear power has been introduced in Sweden (1980), Italy (1987), Belgium (1999) and Germany (2000), and several other European countries are discussing it. Austria, the Netherlands and Spain have enacted laws not to build new nuclear power stations. The concern about bombs fuelled with radioactive waste is not something being whipped up by fringe-dwelling extremists."

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