The campaign for nuclear power stations in Australia defies the unstoppable rise of renewables and should be rejected by governments and the electorate — it’s a technology whose time has passed.
With the Glasgow climate summit approaching and the government’s announcement that Australia would buy nuclear-powered submarines instead of diesel, the nuclear industry is campaigning more vocally for nuclear power stations in Australia. Their revised songsheets include both resuscitated old lines that have been rejected many times and several relatively new songs of a pernicious nature.
Revival of old songs
It is claimed that electricity grids need baseload power stations, such as coal or nuclear, that can run 24/7 at full rated power, except when they break down or undergo maintenance and refuelling. But nowadays energy experts who are not committed to the nuclear industry recognise that the variability of wind and solar must be balanced with storage, new transmission links, demand response, and/or flexible power stations that can start up in seconds to minutes and can vary their output rapidly. These include hydroelectricity with a dam, pumped hydro (with two dams at different elevations), batteries, concentrated solar thermal with storage, and open-cycle gas turbines that can burn biofuels and green hydrogen and ammonia.
Even modern nuclear reactors cannot compete in flexibility of operation with these technologies and measures. Furthermore, operating in a more flexible mode carries economic penalties for nuclear, which is already exorbitantly expensive.
Another misleading pro-nuclear statement revived following the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in 2011 is that no excess cancer incidence has been observed around Fukushima, implying that no cancers will be induced. The logical error is to assume that the absence of evidence implies no impact.
For a start, it is still too early for most types of cancer, which have latent periods of 20–60 years, to appear around Fukushima. The only cancers likely to appear within a decade after exposure are thyroid cancer and leukemia. A large increase in thyroid cancers has been observed in the region, but their cause is debated by some on the grounds that the increase could be the result of better screening. Leukemia is an uncommon disease and so even a large percentage increase would be impossible to verify statistically with high confidence. (See UNSCEAR 2020b)
Fortunately for the citizens of Tokyo, the wind was mostly blowing offshore during the meltdowns of three Fukushima reactors, sending about 80 per cent of the emitted radioactive material out over the Pacific. Soon after the disaster an exclusion zone was established around the power station and more than 100,000 people evacuated. For these reasons, Fukushima tells us very little about radiation-induced cancers.
Most of the evidence that low-level radiation is carcinogenic comes from detailed studies of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, medical professionals who worked with radiation, uranium miners, children living near nuclear power stations, and children who were exposed in utero in the bad old days when pregnant women were routinely x-rayed. This is the basis of the linear-no-threshold model, the scientific understanding that the number of cancers induced by ionising radiation is proportional to the dose received and that there’s no threshold. Therefore, even natural background radiation, to which we are all exposed, and medical x-rays contribute very small fractions of cancer prevalence.
Misleading new nuclear songs
Many people understand that existing nuclear reactors are dangerous, very expensive, produce dangerous wastes that must be managed for thousands of years, and can assist governments to develop nuclear weapons. To deflect attention, the nuclear industry is nowadays creating the false impression that new reactors exist that could solve these major problems while contributing to climate mitigation. These hypotheticals are the so-called “small modular reactors” (SMRs), small enough to be distributed around a country and modular in the sense that they could be mass-produced by the thousand in factories and erected rapidly.
However, the actual situation is that SMRs don’t exist — they are paper reactors fuelled on ink and hot air. They could not be installed in Australia for at least 15 years, if ever. By that time, given the political will, we could have an electricity system that’s entirely powered by renewable energy, mainly solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind, supplemented by hydro.
The reason why past and current generations of commercial nuclear power reactors are very big is to obtain economies of scale. Even so, nuclear electricity costs three to five times that of large-scale wind and solar PV (see Lazard and CSIRO). After adding storage to smooth the variability of wind and solar, renewables are still cheaper than nuclear. Nuclear costs have been increasing while wind and especially solar costs continue to fall. SMRs would have to be mass-produced in hundreds, possibly thousands, to overcome the loss of economy of scale and, even then, their electricity would still cost much the same as from existing big nuclear power stations.
Fortunately, there are no orders for multiple SMRs, because the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons would be greatly increased by distributing SMRs around the countryside. Reducing proliferation risk or increasing safety or improving waste management would all increase cost. SMRs that simultaneously solve proliferation, safety and waste management, while reducing costs, are a dangerous fantasy.
Another item on the revised nuclear songsheet is the claim that the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi was entirely the fault of the tsunami, that it was all just “a natural event”. Yet the choice of technology cannot be exonerated, because it resulted in mass evacuation, compensation payments (huge in total but inadequate for individuals), destruction of the local agriculture and fishing industries, temporary loss of national tourism, temporary collapse of the electricity grid, massive removal of radioactive soil and plants, a multi-decades-long continuing process to decommission the reactors, and the need to import vast quantities of fossil fuels. (The latter would have been greatly reduced if the government’s prior commitment to nuclear hadn’t resulted in its neglect of renewable energy.) Total costs have been estimated at over US$500 billion, while the nuclear power station was insured for only US$1.5 billion.
The scale of the disaster resulted from the choice of nuclear technology. Yet at Kamisu, on the coast to the south of Fukushima, a wind farm located in the surf survived the tsunami and continued to generate electricity until the grid went down.
Another new pro-nuclear song identifies a spike in the wholesale electricity price and blames it on renewables and the absence of nuclear. Yet wholesale prices in electricity markets fluctuate up and down according to supply and demand. With increasing penetration of wind and solar PV into the grid, these fluctuations are superposed on a declining trend in wholesale electricity price. This decline results from the fact that the costs of operating a wind or solar farm are almost zero, and so these technologies have the top priority to operate (see Merit Order Effect). In the UK, electricity prices are higher than necessary because the government has overruled market principles and given priority in operation to nuclear power, despite the fact that it has much higher operating costs than wind and solar PV.
Another tactic used by nuclear supporters in recent years is to claim that 100 per cent renewable electricity scenarios would occupy vast areas of land, compete with food production and reduce biodiversity. Yet the reality is that most wind and solar farms are erected on agricultural or marginal land. Although wind farms can span large areas, the land area actually occupied by the turbine, access roads and substation typically amounts to 1 to 2 per cent of the land spanned. Wind farms are compatible with almost all forms of agriculture. Although the presence of solar farms excludes some agriculture, they can be erected sufficiently high above ground for sheep to shelter beneath them. Both wind and solar farms contribute valuable rent to farmers. Rooftop solar occupies no land.
A rather desperate tactic used by a few pro-nuclear debaters is to claim falsely that a recent report by a leading solar research organisation has admitted that solar energy has failed. Without seeing the actual report, it is difficult to refute the claim in the heat of debate and so the lie may score a debating point. However, when it is checked and exposed after the debate, it can backfire on the perpetrator and their case.
Too slow for climate mitigation
If a national government commits to net zero emissions by 2050 (which may be too late for keeping global heating below 1.5 degrees), then it must achieve zero emissions from all energy (electricity, transport and heat) by about 2040. This is because energy is the least difficult sector to transition to zero emissions. Agriculture and non-energy industrial processes will need more time to reduce emissions and, if possible, to remove carbon dioxide to offset emissions they cannot reduce. Achieving zero energy emissions by 2040 entails achieving zero emissions from electricity by 2035 or preferably 2030, because electrifying transport and heat will take longer than transitioning electricity to renewables. Wind and solar farms can be planned and built in just three years.
Introducing nuclear power to Australia — including convincing the electorate, local governments and local populations, and building the infrastructure — would take at least 15 years, while taking financial resources away from renewables. But new nuclear power stations could not contribute in time to assist the rapid electricity transition needed for climate mitigation. And once 100 per cent renewable electricity is established with the bulk of energy generation by cheap solar and wind, nuclear power could not compete economically. It’s a technology whose time has passed.