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Nuclear Promises, by Tilman Ruff

Back on the political agenda in Australia, but for what benefit?

Published: 17 Oct 2019

In 2006 the Howard government commissioned nuclear enthusiast and former chair of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Ziggy Switkowski to undertake a review of nuclear power for Australia. On 1 June 2010 Switkowski made an extraordinary statement about matters nuclear on the ABC’s World Today:

I think the association with asbestos is deliberately provocative and reckless. A couple of the best-studied consequences of excessive nuclear-radiation exposure followed the Second World War and the communities in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We now have 65 years of data and there’s no suggestion there that there are continuing or enduring consequences.

Insult to the hibakusha notwithstanding, a starker untruth would be hard to find. A similar whitewash of the overwhelming evidence of health harm from any exposure to ionising radiation underpins the Japanese government’s ongoing willingness to expose people affected by the Fukushima disaster to twenty times the usual maximum permissible level of radiation.

Switkowski’s review recommended twenty nuclear power stations up and down the east coast of Australia. Perhaps mostly intended as a political wedge for Labor and a distraction, proposed postcodes were not forthcoming from the government. At the first shadow cabinet meeting just weeks after its 2007 loss to Labor, the Coalition quickly and quietly dropped the nuclear-power dalliance that had proved distinctly unpopular.

So why are there currently four inquiries under way federally, in New South Wales and Victoria, looking for prospects to resurrect a decomposing corpse? If there were a level playing field, nuclear power would have been cremated a long time ago. The findings of recent inquiries and decisions in Australia and internationally underline this point.

A July 2019 report by the German Institute for Economic Research found no role for nuclear power in battling the climate catastrophe, given nuclear power’s innate connection with nuclear weapons: ‘…nuclear energy can by no means be called “clean” due to radioactive emissions, which will endanger humans and the natural environment for over one million years’. All nuclear energy production, it went on to say, ‘harbors the high risk of proliferation’. Its survey of the 674 nuclear power plants built between 1951 and 2017 showed that,

private economic motives never played a role. Instead military interests have always been the driving force behind their construction… In countries such as China and Russia, where nuclear power plants are still being built, private investment does not play a role either.

The study found that, even ignoring the expense of dismantling nuclear power plants and the long-term storage of nuclear waste, private investment in nuclear power plants would result in significant losses: ‘investing in a new nuclear power plant leads to average losses of around five billion euros’. It concluded that ‘nuclear energy is not a relevant option for supplying economical, climate-friendly, and sustainable energy in the future’.1

A December 2018 report by CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) found that the cost of power from small modular nuclear reactors would be more than twice as expensive as power from wind and solar PV with some storage costs included (two hours of battery storage or six hours of pumped hydro storage).2 In testimony on 29 August 2019 to the House of Representatives inquiry into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia, Alex Wonhas, AEMO’s chief system design and engineering officer, said:

What we find today at current technology cost is that unfirmed renewables in the form of wind and solar are effectively the cheapest form of energy production. If we look at firmed renewables, for example wind and solar firmed with pumped hydro energy storage, that cost, at current cost, is roughly comparable to new build gas or new build coal-fired generation. Given the learning rate effect…our expectation is that renewables will further decrease in their cost, and therefore firmed renewables will well and truly become the lowest cost of generation for the NEM.3

In 2016 the highly pro-nuclear South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission found that nuclear power was not economically viable.4 While most recently, in January 2019, the Climate Council, comprising Australia’s leading climate scientists and other policy experts, issued a statement arguing that nuclear power reactors ‘are not appropriate for Australia and probably never will be’:

Nuclear power stations are highly controversial, can’t be built under existing law in any Australian state or territory, are a more expensive source of power than renewable energy, and present significant challenges in terms of the storage and transport of nuclear waste, and use of water.5

So what’s going on? Objectively, nuclear power is uniquely associated with a litany of profound dangers. Now that it is already at least twice as expensive as solar and wind power plus storage, each with negligible downsides, a natural death should have occurred long ago.

The current flurry of promotion of nuclear power in Australia seems to have several drivers. It is a convenient distraction for a government beholden to vested fossil-fuel interests, with no serious energy policy, overseeing still-ballooning Australian greenhouse-gas emissions. It is a sop to ideologues claiming credit for bringing the Coalition unexpectedly back to power. And it is a little nod to the goblins that keep alive the potential need for Australia to acquire its own nuclear weapons, recently given a fillip by Hugh White and a large amount of airplay.

So it is necessary to remind ourselves of some of the reasons that the most hazardous way to boil water to make electricity has no place here, or anywhere.

Nuclear power fuels nuclear proliferation

It was recognised way back in 1977 by the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry, which preceded the expansion of commercial uranium mining in Australia, that nuclear power contributes to an increased risk of nuclear war, and that ‘this is the most serious hazard associated with the industry’.6 Any uranium-enrichment plant can be used to produce not only reactor-grade uranium but weapons-grade uranium. Currently, fourteen nations have such plants.7 Laser-enrichment technology, initially developed in Australia, could make enriching uranium more compact and concealable.8 Highly enriched uranium (HEU, containing more than 20 per cent U-235) is one of the two fissile materials used to build nuclear weapons. The other is plutonium, inevitably produced inside nuclear reactors as uranium atoms absorb neutrons. Plutonium contained in spent nuclear fuel can then be chemically extracted at some future time.

South Africa, Pakistan and North Korea have primarily used the HEU route to build nuclear weapons, India and Israel primarily a plutonium route. All have used facilities and fuel that were ostensibly for peaceful purposes. Both France and the United Kingdom have used reactors that also produced electricity to produce plutonium and tritium for nuclear weapons.9

Australian history underscores the inseparable ‘Trojan horse’ consequences. The government of Prime Minister John Gorton commenced construction of Australia’s first nuclear power reactor at Jervis Bay in New South Wales in the late 1960s, largely to accelerate Australia’s capacity to build its own nuclear weapons. Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC) chair J. P. Baxter spoke of ‘the indissoluble connection between the peaceful and military uses of nuclear materials’. A briefing to the minister for the interior in 1969 stated: ‘From discussions with the AAEC officers it is understood that in establishing the Australian nuclear power industry it is desired to provide for the possibility of producing nuclear weapons…’.10 Gorton later admitted: ‘We were interested in this thing because it could provide electricity to everybody and it could, if you decided later on, it could make an atomic bomb’.11

Nuclear weapons, depending on their size and technical sophistication, contain several kilograms of plutonium, and/or about three times as much HEU. US nuclear weapons on average contain 4 kilograms of plutonium and 12 kilograms of HEU.12 Current global stockpiles of fissile materials—1340 tons of HEU and 520 tons of separated plutonium13—are sufficient to build around 200,000 nuclear weapons. Thus ending production of fissile materials, keeping current stocks extremely securely, preferably under international control, and eliminating these materials wherever possible will be crucial to achieving and sustaining a world free of nuclear weapons.

As the costs of nuclear power have risen to become more than twice as expensive as either wind or solar power with storage, it has become increasingly obvious that some governments maintain civilian nuclear infrastructure and workforce expertise principally to support their nuclear-weapons programs and naval propulsion, including nuclear missile–carrying nuclear-powered submarines. Such governments include those of France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.14

Nuclear reactors create enormous radiological hazards over geological time

Every phase of the nuclear fuel chain from the mining of uranium to radioactive waste disposal emits radiation and involves risks to health and the biosphere. In seventy years, no deep geological repository or other final disposal solution for highly radioactive waste from nuclear reactors is operating. The capacity of any repository to effectively and reliably isolate waste from the biosphere for a million years and keep it secure from use in radiological weapons over periods orders of magnitude longer than the longevity of any previous human institution cannot be sure. And this is a significant impost on future generations.

In addition to many near-misses, at least fifteen accidents have occurred involving fuel or core damage, with substantial risk of uncontrolled radioactive release, in a variety of reactor types in Canada, Germany, Japan, Slovakia, the United Kingdom, Ukraine and the United States. The historical frequency of such accidents overall is one in 1300 years of reactor operation. For boiling-water reactors similar to those at the damaged Fukushima plant, the frequency is twice that. Where there is a high density of reactors, such as in the northeastern United States, much of Western Europe and Japan, the risk of a reactor accident resulting in cesium-137 contamination is over 2 per cent each year.15

Nuclear reactors and their spent fuel pools contain large amounts of radioactivity that is more long-lived than that produced by nuclear weapons. Both require continuous cooling. Unlike the several layers of engineered containment around nuclear reactors, spent fuel pools have no containment other than a simple roof over them. At the Fukushima Daiichi plant severely damaged in the 2011 nuclear disaster, 70 per cent of the total radioactivity at the site was in the spent fuel pools.

What happened in Fukushima because of poor design, governance failure and a large earthquake and tsunami could equally happen because of commandos or terrorists, especially with insider help, disrupting the power or cooling water supply for reactors and/or spent fuel pools for long enough—only a matter of minutes—to cause meltdown and/or explosions. Such an event could also occur because of cyberattack, or as a result of electricity-supply and electronic-equipment failure caused by the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) generated by a single high-altitude nuclear explosion, which could simultaneously disrupt nuclear reactors across a whole continent.

Nuclear attack on nuclear reactors or spent fuel storages would massively increase the resulting radioactive fallout.16 While radioactive releases from nuclear reactors subject to attack have not been documented, this is largely fortuitous. A number of attacks on nuclear reactors have taken place: between Iran and Iraq during their 1980–88 war, Israel’s destruction through airstrikes of nuclear reactors under construction in Iraq (in 1981) and Syria (in 2007), the South African ANC attack on the Koeberg nuclear power plant with mines while it was under construction, the 1991 US attacks on various Iraqi nuclear facilities, and Iraq’s firing of Scud missiles at Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor.

Each of the 417 operating nuclear power reactors in thirty-one countries, spent fuel storage facilities, reprocessing plants, and other large nuclear facilities are effectively massive pre-positioned radiological weapons (or ‘dirty bombs’). Many are located in or near large population centres. Attacks on or other disruption of these could cause severe and extensive radioactive contamination requiring the long-term evacuation of large areas.

*       *         *

The web of links between nuclear weapons, nuclear reactors, and the materials that power both are deep and inextricable. Nuclear power cannot solve our climate crisis, and it aggravates the existential danger posed by nuclear weapons. Jumping out of the climate-crisis frying pan and into the fire of radioactive incineration, nuclear ice age and famine is a lose-lose dalliance with extinction. Promotion of nuclear power as a claimed climate-friendly energy source is a lose-lose proposition. As noted in 2010 by the board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, ‘Nuclear war is a terrible trade for slowing the pace of climate change’.17 Nuclear power is pushed along because of powerful vested interests and a desire to keep powder dry for nuclear weapons. The twin concurrent existential threats of climate disruption and nuclear war demand win-win solutions. A healthy and sustainable future for life on earth requires that we rapidly transition to renewable energy systems and net zero carbon emissions, and that we prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons, with the utmost urgency.

1 <www.diw.de/documents/publikationen/73/diw_01.c.670581.de/dwr-19-30-1.pdf>.

2 <www.csiro.au/~/media/News-releases/2018/renewables-cheapest-new-power/GenCost2018.pdf>

3<www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/House/Environment_and_Energy/Nuclearenergy/Public_Hearings>.

4 South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission Report, May 2016, <http://yoursay.sa.gov.au/system/NFCRC>.

5 <www.climatecouncil.org.au/nuclear-power-stations-are-not-appropriate-for-australia-and-probably-never-will-be/>

6 Commonwealth of Australia, Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry: First Report, Canberra, AGPS, 1977, p. 185.

7 International Panel on Fissile Materials, ‘Facilities: Enrichment plants’, updated 12 February 2018, <http://fissilematerials.org/facilities/enrichment_plants.html>.

8 <www.silex.com.au/SILEX-Laser-Uranium-Enrichment-Technology>; Ryan Snyder, ‘A Proliferation Assessment of Third Generation Laser Enrichment Technology’, Science & Global Security, vol. 24, no. 2, 2016, pp. 68–91.

9 Harold Feiveson, Alexander Glaser, Zia Mian and Frank von Hippel, Unmaking the Bomb, Boston, MIT Press, 2014.

10 Lachlan Clohesy and Phillip Deery, ‘The Prime Minister and the Bomb: John Gorton, W.C. Wentworth and the Quest for an Atomic Australia’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 2015, vol. 61, no. 2, pp. 217–32.

11 Pilita Clark, ‘PM’s Story: Very Much Alive…and Unfazed’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 January 1999.

12 International Panel on Fissile Materials, ‘Appendix 1: Fissile Materials and Nuclear Weapons’, Global Fissile Material Report 2015.

13 International Panel on Fissile Materials, Fissile Material Stocks, January 2017, 12 February 2018, <http://fissilematerials.org>

14 Andy Stirling and Phil Johnstone, A Global Picture of Industrial Interdependencies between Civil and Military Nuclear Infrastructures, <www.sussex.ac.uk/webteam/gateway/file.php?name=2018-13-swps-stirling-and-johnstone.pdf&site=25>.

15 J. Lelieveld, D. Kunkel and M. G. Lawrence, ‘Global Risk of Radioactive Fallout after Major Nuclear Reactor Accidents’, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, no. 12, 2012, pp. 4245–58.

16 Joseph Rotblat, Nuclear Radiation in Warfare, SIPRI, Taylor and Francis, London, 1981, pp. 125–30.

17 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, ‘It is 6 Minutes to Midnight’, 14 January 2010.

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