Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Nuclear Energy Back On The Agenda

Just when you thought it was safe to lock up the fallout shelter, it seems that there are some who are determined to revive the nuclear energy debate. Despite the fact that the current government has firmly indicated that it has no interest in establishing a nuclear power generating industry in Australia, others have resumed pounding the drum. Last week former Howard government industry minister Ian McFarlane called for consideration for a nuclear industry to be put back on the table. Today, his National Party colleague John Cobb has made a similar call, suggesting that if we accept that the dangers of climate change are serious we would be foolish to ignore the nuclear option.

Mr. Cobb claims that if we accept the urgency of the climate change situation then it is obvious that we should stop burning coal which is one of the primary sources of carbon dioxide emissions, and replace it with uranium which produces no such emissions. It is a blunt argument which uses equally blunt logic. What it sidesteps is the number of unresolved issues which surround the safety of nuclear power and the disposal of the toxic waste that it produces. Nevertheless, Mr. Cobb and Mr. McFarlane are correct to suggest that the issue should be examined and debated.

In a world where the prevailing scientific opinion is that man made carbon dioxide emissions are damaging the climate, the sensible thing to do is to reduce those emissions as dramatically and as quickly as possible. That inevitably means finding a way to generate electricity without the carbon dioxide emissions, by whatever means is most effective, efficient, attainable and sustainable. The candidates are renewable power such as solar, wind, tidal and geothermal, along with consumable power such as clean coal and nuclear. Despite the obvious attraction of renewable energy, the technology is unlikely to be able to deliver sufficient output in the near term. Clean coal also sounds good, but it too remains a technology yet to be proven. That leaves nuclear energy, a technology already in use.

Nuclear energy has the added appeal that Australia possesses one of the best supplies of uranium in the world. Even though we have a massive coal industry, the uranium industry also has the potential to be a major contributor to the Australian economy. We are already one of the key suppliers of uranium to the world market, and many people feel that there is no reason why we should not exploit a resource that we have in such plentitude. And despite the protestations of the anti nuclear lobby, we also have the massive tracts of wide open spaces to deal with waste disposal.

Of course waste disposal is one of the major concerns that sustain the arguments against nuclear energy. The toxic waste produced by reactors is not only extremely hazardous, it remains so for thousands of years, leaving a toxic legacy for future generations who may one day curse our short sightedness. The other serious concern is that of an accident at a nuclear power facility. All it takes is one accident to create devastating consequences, which also leave a potentially tragic lasting legacy. These are concerns which should never be dismissed lightly.

The fact is that John Cobb and Ian McFarlane are right to suggest that the discussion of nuclear energy hasn’t been concluded. Just because the current government stands against it doesn’t mean that will be the case in ten years or twenty years or fifty years time. In the light of what we know about climate change there is every chance that Australia will one day embrace nuclear energy. At the same time that is why it is equally important to exhaustively study all the other alternatives.

That means fully exploring clean coal, to see if such a thing can be done sustainably. It means fully exploring all forms of renewable energy because the day will come when both coal and uranium will no longer be viable. And it also means committing to research new forms of energy such as fusion energy, quantum energy, and energy sources that have not yet even been discovered. It is possible that Australia may embrace nuclear energy in the years ahead, but it is not the true solution that would be delivered by a genuinely renewable energy supply.

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