Over the fold, an opinion piece I wrote for today’s Australian Financial Review. Non-Oz readers may need to Google some names. Also, although it refers mainly to US experience, the piece is written with an eye to influencing Australian policy debates, so some of the angles may seem a little counter-intuitive to those outside Oz.
No nuclear renaissance
As the crisis in Japan continues to worsen, advocates of nuclear power have hastened to offer reassurance that their preferred power source is still a viable option in the race to replace carbon-based sources of energy. The earthquake and tsunami represent an extreme worst case, unlike to be observed in less seismically active areas than Japan.
So far at least, the worst case outcomes of a core meltdown and Chernobyl-style release of radioactivity have been avoided. Although some radioactive steam has been omitted, the total health risks remain far below those of coal-fired power, even disregarding CO2 emissions.
As Ziggy Switkowski observed yesterday, “We will learn from the tragic Japanese experience how to build more robust reactors, how to ensure multiple layers of protection work properly, how to better contain radioactive gases,”
All these points are valid, but, unfortunately, irrelevant. The attempt to restart the nuclear industry, sometimes optimistically called the ‘nuclear renaissance’ was already on the edge of failure before this crisis. Even with the best possible outcomes from the current crisis, nuclear power is off the agenda for a decade or more, at least in the developed world.
The nuclear renaissance was launched in the United States by George W Bush with the Nuclear Power 2010 program, unveiled in 2002. This was followed by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 which authorized $18.5 billion in loan guarantees. All of these initiatives were carried on and extended by the Obama Administration, which proposing to triple federal loan guarantees.
The initial reaction was highly positive, with dozens of proposals being announced. By the end of 2008, 26 proposals had been received by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But by the end of 2010, more than half of these had been abandoned, and ground had been broken on only two sites, with a total of four reactors. In October 2010, Constellation Energy pulled out of a joint venture with French firm EDF, saying that more loan guarantees, with less stringent conditions, were needed. Similar problems have emerged in France, Finland and other developed countries, where construction projects have encountered delays and massive cost over-runs, with the result that plans for expansion have been scaled back sharply.
Even assuming the best possible outcome from the Japanese crisis, the economic case for nuclear power, already fragile, has been severely, and probably fatally, damaged. At least eleven reactors have been taken off line. Three of the reactors at the Fukushima site have already been rendered permanently inoperable by the pumping of seawater into the storage pools and three others may follow. The evacuation of 200 000 people, at a time when the earthquake and tsunami have already stretched resources to the limit, will have massive costs, running into the billions unless the situation is resolved rapidly.
Doubtless, as Switkowski has argued, the failures in cooling and containment systems that gave rise to the present crisis can be overcome and reactor designs modified to improve safety. But safety doesn’t come cheap, and redesigns mean delay. With no prospect of any further increases in subsidies and loan guarantees, it seems likely that most of the proposals for new nuclear power plants in the US will be abandoned. And, if only for reasons of diversification and speed of construction, the lost Japanese reactors will probably be replaced by gas-fired plants, with some renewables.
But why are the economics of nuclear so bad? In part, it is simply a matter of technology. Nuclear power has turned out to be more expensive than its advocates have expected, while alternative sources of energy, particularly gas, have become cheaper. Even solar photovoltaics, long seen as impractical, are now cost competitive with nuclear on some calculations.
But the crucial problem for nuclear power has been fear. Fears about safety have meant that nuclear power plants have been held to much higher safety standards than alternatives like coal, which routinely spew pollutants of all kinds into the atmosphere.
More important than these fears, however, is the fear and ignorance displayed by those who have obstructed the most important single factor needed for nuclear power to become viable – a price on emissions of carbon dioxide. Some claim, like Lord Monckton, that climate science is a plot to restore the fortunes of global communism. Others like Cardinal Pell, who apparently believes that nitrogen is a greenhouse gas, say that, having ‘studied this stuff a lot’, they are qualified to overrule the experts.
Ironically, many opponents of climate science pose as defenders of nuclear power. In reality, they are its deadliest enemies.