Nuclear on the agenda

Bookmark and Share Energy | Mike Nahan
The Herald Sun 19th March, 2005

Nuclear energy is set for a come back as the world's 'green' energy source. It also likely to force many green groups to decide what they really stand for: protection of the environment or anti-economic growth.

Forty years ago nuclear was seen as the energy of the future. Its fuel source is plentiful, it is pollution-free, and the generation plant doesn't need to be close to the fuel source. For these reasons, nuclear power stations were planned in several Australian states in the 1970s.

Things changed in the mid-1970's. The anti-war movement focused on banning the extraction and export of uranium as means of limiting the spread of nuclear weapons. The anti-nuclear bomb stance of the political left mutated to a hatred of all things nuclear including nuclear power. The many environment groups born during this era, such as Greenpeace and Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), spearheaded this anti-nuclear stance.

While competition from other sources of power proved too strong for nuclear power in Australia, the protest movement did the job overseas. In the US, the construction of new plant came to a halt by the late 1980's, not because of faulty technology or competition from other fuels, but from costly protestor induced planning delays. With the exception of France the same process spread to Europe. Outside the West, where the protest movement has little support, construction of nuclear plant continued albeit at a limited pace.

Notwithstanding the backlash, over 440 nuclear power plants currently operate around the world. In truth, the industry has had a very good track record in terms of safety - better than other electricity generation if mining and pollution is taking into consideration. Yes, the reactor in Chernobyl failed resulting in the deaths of about 50 people. However, Chernobyl as a Soviet era Ukrainian plant is hardly a benchmark for the rest of the world.

Disposal of nuclear waste remains an issue, but there are a number of very safe options. Indeed the main impediment to effective storage is not the technology or possible sites, but the engrained fear and hatred of all things nuclear.

Enter the greenhouse effect. The environmental movement, many scientist and many governments are convinced that the world is facing human induced global warming with undesirable long term effects. They argue for sharp cuts in the prime source of greenhouse gases, the consumption of fossil fuel. Greenpeace and ACF for example argue for a phased-out fossil fuel use within 45 years.

The only alternative source of electricity available within this time frame is nuclear. Wind and solar are currently the technologies of choice for the green movement but these are costly and dependent on the weather. They can never provide energy to power the modern consumer's needs

The green groups are therefore in a bind. They are against nuclear, which is the only alternative to a back-to-the-cave policy that would result from huge cuts in fossil fuels.

Recognising this, some environmentalists and governments are now re-examining the nuclear option. Others cannot jettison thirty years of blind rhetoric.