Saying Yes to Nuclear: Part II

An earlier post set out the climate change problem. This post sets the role of nuclear power, or nuclear energy, in addressing that problem. My argument is that nuclear power (with renewable energy) is an important option for achieving electricity production with a small carbon footprint – for reducing emissions.

2. The role of nuclear power in addressing the climate change problem

Climate change mitigation involves reducing emissions, reducing the rate and magnitude of global warming. Adaptation means coping with or adjusting to climate change. With mitigation, adaptation becomes easier. It has been said that the need to mitigate, to reduce emissions, to address the climate change problem has ‘given a whole new lease of life to – or at least one new argument for – nuclear power.’ James Hansen, perhaps the world’s pre-eminent climate scientist, has said that

“[t]he scientific method requires that we keep an open mind and change our conclusions when new evidence indicates that we should. The new evidence affecting the nuclear debate is climate change, specifically the urgency of moving beyond fossil fuels to carbon-free energy sources.”

Nuclear power, as the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies’ David Buchan notes, is the only major source of carbon-free electricity with a proven record of power generation on the scale required.

As of January 2011 there are 441 nuclear reactors in operation. Today there are 62 nuclear reactors under construction, mainly in Brazil, Russia, India and China, with 158 more on order or planned and another 324 proposed, according to World Nuclear Association data from just before Fukushima. China, with 13 reactors in operation, has 27 more under construction and was planning or proposing another 160. India was planning or proposing 58, and Russia 44 (see Muriel Boselli and Geert De Clerq, ‘Nuclear’s trillion dollar question,’ for these figures).

I don’t plan to revisit arguments for and against nuclear power, but I would like to make some brief observations regarding three of those arguments.

(a)        Expense and cost

It is claimed that producing nuclear power is too expensive compared with alternatives.  As Alex Coram and I have argued, however, this is correct only if the claim is taken to mean that it costs roughly the same as power produced by coal if the damage to the environment from coal is passed on as a hidden cost to society as a whole.  It’s incorrect if it is meant that it is more expensive when the social benefits are included.

It is also claimed that private investors are reluctant to build nuclear power stations because they are not commercially viable if only short run returns are considered.  This is correct. One reason is that most nuclear power stations have a life span in excess of 60 to perhaps 80 years. Although society can receive the benefit of this long production life, it’s difficult for private investors looking for a return on capital in 10 to 15 years to capture it.  Short run private returns from low capital cost alternatives like coal, oil and wind are better for profits. In this context a good deal of the so-called ‘subsidy’ for nuclear power is simply an attempt by governments to capture this long-term return.

(b)       Waste from nuclear reactors

As Professor David MacKay of Cambridge University notes,

“the volume of waste from nuclear reactors is relatively small.  Whereas the ash from ten coal-fired power stations would have a mass of four million tons per year (having a volume of roughly 40 litres per person per year), the nuclear waste from Britain’s ten nuclear power stations has a volume of just 0.84 litres per person per year – think of that as a bottle of wine per person per year …

Most of this waste is low-level waste.  7% is intermediate-level waste, and just 3% of it – 25 ml per year – is high-level waste.”

Professor MacKay calls this high-level waste ‘the really nasty stuff.’ 

High-level waste needs to be secured for about 1000 years. As Professor MacKay notes, however, “the volumes are so small … [that] nuclear waste is only a minor worry, compared with all the other forms of waste we are inflicting on future generations.  At 25 ml per year, a lifetime’s worth of high-level nuclear waste would amount to less than 2 litres.”

(c)        Civilian versus military exploitation

Another argument made is that it is impossible to distinguish between the civilian and military exploitation of nuclear energy and that, as a result, ‘any promotion of civilian nuclear power will inevitably promote its use for military purposes.’ As Griffith University’s Professor Andrew O’Neil argues, however,

“there are serious flaws in this argument. Since 1945, global nuclear proliferation dynamics have remained largely disconnected from the civilian nuclear industry. Every nuclear weapons program since … the US Manhattan Project has been the product of dedicated military reactors rather than an offshoot of civilian programs. Fissile materials for nuclear weapons development programs are the product of special-purpose reactors, not a corollary of civilian reactor programs, whose mix of nuclear fuel is specifically calibrated for generating electricity and other utility outputs … There is simply no historical evidence to support the proposition that civilian nuclear reactor programs fuel weapons proliferation.”

3.  Maximising our options

Nuclear energy is viewed as a means to power economic growth without carbon emissions. But there are costs and issues. These include effective and efficient legal and regulatory frameworks; financing; capacity to construct nuclear power plants; and management and disposal of radioactive waste.

Commonwealth Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson released a report late last year suggesting nuclear power would be cheaper than coal-fired power stations and renewable energy. Nonetheless, as John Daley and the University of Melbourne’s Professor David Jamieson have noted, it’s not certain how much nuclear will cost to set up in Australia, and whether – at some future point – it will be more or less expensive than renewables.  Daley and Jamieson argue that

“[t]he optimal response to uncertainty is usually to maximise your options (provided they are cheap to buy), and then try to delay exercising these options until the outcome is clearer …

Australia doesn’t have a nuclear option.  Basic institutions and regulations are not in place; planning has not been done.  Given the inevitably long lead times for setting up nuclear power regulation, planning and construction, it will take at least 15 years … before the first nuclear power plant comes into operation [in Australia].  And this start date will be delayed if we do not develop the institutions, legal and regulatory frameworks and skills base today, and start resolving concerns about safety, security and waste.

Getting these things in place does not commit Australia to nuclear power, but does enable us to start building more quickly if it emerges that nuclear power will indeed be substantially cheaper than the alternatives.

The concern is, if we do not prepare a nuclear option, then when the world gets serious about deep cuts to carbon emissions, Australia may be forced to use relatively expensive renewable technologies that can be deployed more quickly, resulting in significantly higher power prices than the rest of the world.”

4.  Conclusion

David Buchan argues that only the combined efforts of the nuclear and renewable energy sectors are going to take us to a low-carbon economy. He also makes a good case – as others do, of course – for natural gas, if only on a transitional basis. ‘Pragmatism,’ he says, ‘rather than dogmatism’ is necessary. ‘Remember, too,’ he says,

“that a properly workable energy policy for the future will be composed of a multiplicity of energy sources and efficiencies. It will be a policy of this … and this … and this …”

In the context of international climate change negotiations this bears some resemblance to what Keohane and Victor refer to as a climate change ‘regime complex’ – a loosely coupled set of specific regimes rather than a ‘single, central over-arching treaty’ such as the UNFCCC’s Kyoto Protocol. And perhaps momentum now favours a ‘bottom-up’ outcome; the Cancun climate change conference might suggest a shift away from a top-down, ‘Kyoto-style’ architecture for international climate action, to a more bottom-up approach in reducing emissions, to action by individual states.

Cambridge University’s Professor MacKay, to whom I referred earlier, writes that ‘getting off fossil fuels requires big, big changes’ and that, given the tendency of the public to say no to nuclear power and ‘anything other than fossil fuel power systems,’ he is worried

“that we won’t actually get off fossil fuels when we need to. Instead, we’ll settle for half-measures: … a fig-leaf of a carbon trading system; a sprinkling of wind turbines; an inadequate number of nuclear power stations … We need to stop saying no and start saying yes. We need to … get building.”

It’s a sentiment with which Professor James Hansen, a supporter of third and fourth generation nuclear power, would agree:

“If human beings follow a business-as-usual course, continuing to exploit fossil fuel resources without reducing carbon emissions  … the eventual effects on climate and life may be comparable to those at the time of mass extinctions.  Life will survive, but it will be a far more desolate world than the one in which civilization developed and flourished during the past several thousand years.”