Kieran Lark and Armin Rosencranz
Australia’s rejection of nuclear energy originates from fear, a lack of understanding and a lack of vision. What was once a hazardous technology will soon be safer and more efficient than ever before. The economic, safety, and security concerns that once cast a pall over nuclear energy will cease to exist.
Australia’s political consensus is that nuclear energy is too capital and labour-intensive to implement. The public’s consensus is that nuclear energy is hazardous and harmful. These positions however, are largely uninformed, underpinned by history’s few nuclear tragedies and a lack of foresight.
Look towards the future, not the past
Nuclear energy discussions consistently refer to incidents such as Chernobyl, failing to consider how far technology has advanced in the past 30 years. While it’s true that the traditional nuclear reactors are priced out of Australia’s current energy economy, Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) have been designed to alleviate capital costs. However, more importantly, they have been designed by keeping two things chiefly in mind — efficiency and safety. While their final release will not be until 2019, the World Nuclear Association has already canvassed their enormous potential.
Small light-water modular reactors
By virtue of their small form factor, they’re a more affordable and marketable investment. The modularity of their design provides for in-factory construction and decreasing assembly time and cost, while increasing quality. They have passive cooling systems, removing electricity and mechanical maintenance from the equation – furthering economic viability as well as safety. They have the capacity to be situated underground or underwater, providing passive protection from both natural and man-made hazards – rendering tsunamis, earthquakes and terrorist attacks a non-issue. They have lower water requirements, widening geographic suitability and demand smaller emergency evacuation zones (300 m as opposed to the traditional 16 km). Accordingly, they may be located in closer proximity to population centers, such as military bases. They have significantly higher burn-up rates, reducing and reprocessing the quantity of waste produced. They are designed to run on non-weapons grade uranium and thorium.
Nuclear energy is superior energy
Nuclear energy is remarkably efficient per square kilometre. The United Kingdom’s Department of Energy and Climate Change estimates a 1.8 km² nuclear facility generates the equivalent energy of a 527 km² solar farm, or a 1012 km² wind farm. In a world confined by space, spatial efficiency is a key.
What forces drove history’s disasters?
Technological failure: Chernobyl, arguably the most significant nuclear disaster, was a no-longer-used fast breeder reactor with faulty cooling technology. However, SMRs, as mentioned before, are passively cool and are therefore at no risk of overheating from any mechanical fault.
Mother nature: Fukushima represents the most recent nuclear tragedy, which resulted from a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and seven 15 m tsunamis clocking speeds of 100 km/hr. This was an unprecedented, ‘once-in-a-million’ disaster, the components of which Australia is yet to experience.
Acceptable level of risk
Radiation is a scary thing to the uninformed. It’s energy on the move, and simply by existing we experience between 1.5 – 2.0 ‘milliseverts’ (mi) of radiation each year. Of course, this number fluctuates depending on one’s environment and activities; for example, a house tiled with granite would increase your annual exposure by 1.0 mi and a return flight from Sydney to Los Angeles would dose you with 0.16 mi. Don’t be alarmed however, the annual occupational limit is 30 mi – a large figure in context. With those values in mind, people situated on the boundary of a nuclear reactor would receive an annual exposure of 0.15 mi, while those working on the site would receive between 1.8 mi and 2.4 mi per year. Radiation is therefore of little concern.
Australia is the ideal nuclear home
Australia is an ideal candidate geologically, geographically and politically for nuclear energy. We have uninhabited geologically stable land to situate nuclear reactors, an abundance of uranium and thorium to fuel them, a stable democracy with established and effective legal and governmental infrastructures and an economy driven by high value products and innovation.
All talk and no walk
Over the past 70 years, Australia has seen four proposals for the implementation of nuclear energy; however, nothing eventuated. In 1969, the Commonwealth government submitted approval for the construction of a nuclear reactor in New South Wales’ Jervis Bay. While environmental studies and some site work took place, the project was deferred on the basis of being too capital-intensive, and was later abandoned with a change in government.
In 1967, the State Electricity Commission of Victoria sought to reserve Westernport’s French Island as a nuclear reactor site. However, public opposition saw the Victorian Government conduct a planning study, which declared it unsuitable for industrial purposes. In 1979, the Western Australian Government pushed for the construction of a reactor in Wilbinga, Perth. While the site was acquired in 1981 by the State Energy Commission of Western Australia, construction never commenced due to political and social opposition; which saw plans permanently shelved. Since 2007, Australia’s Upper Spencer Gulf region has been intermittently discussed as a prospective reactor site. However, to date, no formal propositions have been submitted.
Since SMRs largely alleviate the issues clouding the adoption of nuclear energy, isn’t it about time for Australia to establish an SMR – based nuclear power plant?
Armin Rosencranz is a lawyer and political scientist, he is the founder of Pacific Environment, an international environmental NGO. He is also the co-author of a series of ten books on climate change, environmental law and policy in India.