A paper prepared for Friends of the Earth (Australia), the Australian Conservation Foundation, Greenpeace Australia Pacific, the Medical Association for the




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nuclear power

no solution to climate change


September, 2005


A paper prepared for Friends of the Earth (Australia), the Australian Conservation Foundation, Greenpeace Australia Pacific, the Medical Association for the Prevention of War, the Public Health Association of Australia and the Climate Action Network of Australia.


Written by Dr. Jim Green (national nuclear campaigner, Friends of the Earth). Friends of the Earth would like to acknowledge financial support provided for this project by Australian Ethical Investment, the Australian Conservation Foundation and Greenpeace Australia Pacific.



table of contents


Foreword by Professor Ian Lowe


1. Executive Summary


2. Nuclear Power: A Limited and Problematic Response

2.1. A limited response

2.2. A temporary response

2.3. Energy assessment

2.4. Greenhouse gas emissions assessment


3. Nuclear Weapons Proliferation: The Myth of the Peaceful Atom

3.1. Military use of ‘peaceful’ nuclear facilities

3.2. Fissile materials – highly enriched uranium

3.3. Fissile materials – plutonium

3.4. Reprocessing

3.5. Safeguards

3.6. Strengthening safeguards

3.7. Alternative fuel cycles – fusion, thorium, plutonium breeders

3.8. Nuclear smuggling and terrorism

3.9. Debunking the myths of the peaceful atom


4. Radioactive Waste

4.1. Introduction

4.2. Spent nuclear fuel

4.3. Reprocessing

4.4. Repositories

4.5. Transmutation


5. Hazards of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle

5.1. Introduction

5.2. Comparing alternative energy sources

5.3. Chernobyl

5.4. Current safety issues: social and technical factors

5.5. Evolutionary and revolutionary reactor designs


6. Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions Without Nuclear Power

6.1. Renewable energy

6.2. Energy efficiency

6.3. ‘Deep cuts’ studies


Appendices

Appendix 1: Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reductions Studies

Appendix 2: Environmentalists Do Not Support Nuclear Power

Appendix 3: The Use of Reactor-Grade Plutonium in Nuclear Weapons

Appendix 4: Australian Uranium and Weapons Proliferation

Appendix 5: Australia’s Historical Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons

Appendix 6: Status of Nuclear Power Worldwide


Further Reading

References


foreword


By Professor Ian Lowe


The debate about nuclear energy is a welcome recognition of the urgent need to respond to climate change. I welcome that awareness and the resulting debate, but the nuclear option is not a wise response. It is too costly, too dangerous, too slow and makes too little impact on greenhouse pollution. That is why most of the developed world is rejecting the nuclear option in favour of renewable energy and improved efficiency.


There is no serious doubt that climate change is real; it is happening now and its effects are accelerating. It is already causing serious economic impact such as reduced agricultural production, increased costs of severe events such as fires and storms, and the need to consider radical water-supply measures such as desalination plants. So we should set a serious target for reducing our rate of releasing carbon dioxide, like Britain’s goal of 60 per cent by 2050. The Australian policy vacuum is a failure of moral leadership and also an uncertain investment framework.


The economics of nuclear power just don’t stack up. The real cost of nuclear electricity is certainly more than for wind power, energy from bio-wastes and some forms of solar energy. Geothermal energy from hot dry rocks also promises to be less costly than nuclear. That is without including the huge costs of decommissioning power reactors and storing the radioactive waste. So there is no economic case for nuclear power. As energy markets have liberalised around the world, investors have turned their backs on nuclear energy. The number of reactors in western Europe and the United States peaked 15 years ago and has been declining since. By contrast, the amount of wind power and solar energy is rising at rates of 20 to 30 per cent a year.


Reducing energy waste is the cheapest way to reduce greenhouse pollution. For instance, more than 10 per cent of household electricity is used by keeping appliances such as TVs and videos on standby.


Nuclear power is too dangerous – not just the risk of accidents such as Chernobyl, but the increased risk of nuclear weapons or nuclear terrorism. The recent United Nations conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty ended in disarray. Most countries holding weapons and some others aspiring to join the nuclear “club” are in breach of the treaty.


It’s possible this debate will do little more than provide a smokescreen for proponents of increased uranium mining in Australia. Uranium mining should not be expanded. It remains the case, as the Ranger Inquiry found nearly 30 years ago, that increased export of Australian uranium would contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.


Nuclear power also inevitably produces radioactive waste that will have to be stored safely for hundreds of thousands of years. After nearly 50 years of the nuclear power experiment, nobody has yet demonstrated a solution to this problem. In the absence of a viable solution, expanding the rate of waste production is just irresponsible.


Nuclear power is too slow and too limited in its capacity to make a difference. Even if all government approvals were granted, it would still take about 10 more years and several billion dollars to construct a power station and deliver the first electricity.


Nuclear power won’t stop climate change. The argument that it would reduce greenhouse pollution presumes high-grade uranium ores are available. Even with such high-grade ores, there is a massive increase in greenhouse pollution from mining, processing and reactor construction before any electricity is generated. The known resources of high-grade uranium ores only amount to a few decades’ use at the present rate, so an expansion of nuclear power would see those resources rapidly depleted.


To avoid dangerous further changes to our climate, we need to act now. We should make a commitment to the sensible alternatives that produce sustainable cost-effective reductions in greenhouse pollution: wind power, solar water-heating, energy efficiency, gas and energy from organic matter such as sewage and waste.


Nuclear power is expensive, slow and dangerous, and it won’t stop climate change. If nuclear power is the answer, it must have been a pretty stupid question.


Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of Science, Technology and Society at Griffith University, Brisbane. One of Australias best-known environmental scientists, he is president of the Australian Conservation Foundation.



1. executive summary



Over the past year the nuclear power industry has once again tried to exploit concern about climate change to reverse its ongoing decline.


One positive aspect of this debate is that it has highlighted the need for action to avert the adverse social and environmental impacts associated with climate change. The debate has shifted – the science has been accepted and we are now debating solutions.


It is widely accepted that global greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by at least 60% by the middle of the century to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. We urgently need to change the way we produce and consume energy, and it is now clear that Australia and other countries cannot continue to rely on coal for electricity generation without major climate impacts.


Key environmental and medical groups reject nuclear power as a method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Nuclear power poses unacceptable proliferation and security risks, it is not clean, it is not cheap, and there is no solution to the intractible problem of nuclear waste.


The true climate-friendly solutions to Australia’s energy and greenhouse problems lie in the fields of renewable energy – such as wind and solar power – and stopping energy wastage. This report shows that nuclear power is a dangerous and inefficient way to address climate change. It also shows why policy-makers should focus on the practical benefits provided by renewable energy and energy efficiency – safe, proven technologies available now.


the false nuclear ‘debate’

a front for expanding uranium mining


The nuclear industry, long in decline in Europe and the US, has seized on climate change to promote nuclear power as a ‘climate friendly’ energy source. However, there is little political support for the introduction of nuclear power in Australia.


Nuclear power is currently unlawful under the 1998 Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act, while Victoria and New South Wales also have legislation banning nuclear power and nuclear waste storage and disposal. Three other states – South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory – have legal prohibitions against various forms of radioactive waste transportation and dumping.


In Australia, nuclear interests are far more concerned to expand uranium mining rather than to promote the introduction of nuclear power reactors.


The adverse environmental impacts of uranium mining in Australia have been significant. This year’s prosecution of ERA over its operations at the Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory highlights the risks. The Olympic Dam uranium/copper mine in South Australia illustrates the scale of the environmental impacts associated with uranium mining. The Olympic Dam mine has produced a radioactive tailings dump of 60 million tonnes, growing at 10 million tonnes annually with no plans for its long-term management. The mine’s daily extraction of over 30 million litres of water from the Great Artesian Basin has adversely impacted on the fragile Mound Springs, and the mine is a large consumer of electricity and a major contributor to South Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. (ACF, 2005C.)


A further concern is that the current regulatory environment for uranium mining is inadequate. For example, the Olympic Dam mine enjoys a range of exemptions from the South Australian Environmental Protection Act, the Water Resources Act, the Aboriginal Heritage Act and the Freedom of Information Act. (ACF, 2005C.)


A 2003 Senate inquiry into the regulation of uranium mining in Australia reported “a pattern of under-performance and non-compliance”, it identified “many gaps in knowledge and found an absence of reliable data on which to measure the extent of contamination or its impact on the environment”, and it concluded that changes were necessary “in order to protect the environment and its inhabitants from serious or irreversible damage”. (Senate References and Legislation Committee, 2003.)


Attempts to establish new uranium mines would likely result in further examples of mining companies exerting unwanted pressure on Indigenous communities, as with the attempt to override the Mirarr traditional owners’ unanimous opposition to the Jabiluka mine.


Australia’s uranium mining industry may expand with proposed exports to China and India. Both China and India have nuclear weapons programs. India is not even a signatory to the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). China is not an open society and faces serious, unresolved human rights issues. It is difficult to imagine a nuclear industry worker in China publicly raising safety, security or proliferation concerns without reprisal.


Australia’s uranium exports are already a cause for concern. Why do we allow uranium sales to Japan given the grossly inadequate safety culture in the nuclear industry there, as demonstrated by a number of serious and fatal accidents over the past decade and by revelations of systematic falsification of safety data? Why do we turn a blind eye to the regional tensions arising from Japan’s plutonium program and its status as a ‘threshold’ or ‘breakout’ state capable of producing nuclear weapons in a short space of time? (Burnie and Smith, 2001; Burnie, 2005.)


Why do we allow uranium sales to South Korea when only last year it was revealed that numerous nuclear weapons research projects were secretly carried out there from the 1980s until 2000, in violation of the country’s NPT obligations? (Kang et al., 2005; Burnie, 2005.)


Why do we allow uranium sales to the US, the UK and France – nuclear weapons states which are failing to fulfil their NPT disarmament obligations? As retired Australian diplomat Richard Butler (2005) notes: “[The NPT] is a two-way – not one-way – street. It provides that states which do not have nuclear weapons must never acquire them and that those which do have them must progressively get rid of them.”


Nuclear power: a limited and problematic response to climate change


There are significant constraints on the growth of nuclear power, such as its high capital cost and, in many countries, lack of public acceptability. As a method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear power is further limited because it is used almost exclusively for electricity generation, which is responsible for less than one third of global greenhouse gas emissions.


Because of these problems, the potential for nuclear power to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by replacing fossil fuels is limited. Few predict a doubling of nuclear power output by 2050, but even if it did eventuate it would still only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 5% – less than one tenth of the reductions required to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.


Nuclear power is being promoted as the solution to climate change, as a technical fix or magic bullet. Clearly it is no such thing. As a senior analyst from the International Atomic Energy Agency, Alan McDonald (2004), said: “Saying that nuclear power can solve global warming by itself is way over the top”.


Nuclear power is not a ‘renewable’ energy source. High-grade, low-cost uranium ores are limited and will be exhausted in about 50 years at the current rate of consumption. The estimated total of all conventional uranium reserves is estimated to be sufficient for about 200 years at the current rate of consumption. (Nuclear Energy Agency and International Atomic Energy Agency, 2004.) But in a scenario of nuclear expansion, these reserves will be depleted more rapidly.


Claims that nuclear power is ‘greenhouse free’ are incorrect as substantial greenhouse gas emissions are generated across the nuclear fuel cycle. Fossil-fuel generated electricity is more greenhouse intensive than nuclear power, but this comparative benefit will be eroded as higher-grade uranium ores are depleted. Most of the earth’s uranium is found in very poor grade ores, and recovery of uranium from these ores is likely to be considerably more greenhouse intensive. (van Leeuwen and Smith, 2004.) Nuclear power emits more greenhouse gases per unit energy than most renewable energy sources, and that comparative deficit will widen as uranium ore grades decline.

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