Goodbye for now

This post marks the end of this series on my blog. I hope you have enjoyed reading my analysis of the nuclear debate, and hopefully learned something you didn’t already know.

From what I have read and seen this semester, the nuclear debate is alive and well, even after 70-odd years. What seems to be happening is a move away from a logical debate, and a move towards a debate that is based purely on ideology and emotional arguments.

All is not lost however, there has been a shift in the last decade or so, that seems to be getting stronger, to re-frame the nuclear debate in terms of climate change. Instead of now just being a debate over whether we should use nuclear technology, it is now a debate over what is the better solution to the issue of fossil fuels, renewables or nuclear (or both?).

Hopefully in the future, some form of compromise can be reached, or at least maybe the debate will start to again have a more logical tone, with facts rational points becoming more common (and not doubt making the debate more productive).

Unfortunately, from what I have seen, while you have corporations like Greenpeace dominating the conversation we are not going to see any movement. Greenpeace takes a firm stand, and is not willing to compromise, as such, there is not going to be any valuable discussion, while one of the sides sticks its fingers in its ears.

So, this is where I leave the conversation. It’s not over forever, I will definitely be picking this blog up in the future once this semester’s work has been done. I think it will cover broader, more diverse topics, generally related to science or science communication. Hopefully it will continue to interest some people.

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Change in the air for Australia?

So yesterday I stumbled on this article from the SMH, which is talking about Australia’s new Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel. Recently annoucned, Dr. Finkel will be moving into the position in 2016. The main point of this article is a couple of statements made by Dr. Finkel regarding Australia’s use of coal, and the need to move towards a carbon-free energy system.

His position seems to be that that we should transition to entirely renewable energy, but that nuclear should ‘absolutely be considered’. Both parts of these comments are very good to hear, not only is there now a voice that will push seriously for renewable energy, it is also a pragmatic voice that is OK with using nuclear power as an interim, low-carbon, constant supply energy source.

At this point it is really quite shocking that Australia hasn’t moved towards using nuclear energy. Of all the countries in the world, we are perhaps one of the best suited for nuclear energy: we have an incredible amount of empty land, that is currently going unused, far away from any people and any risk of accidental health effects (which is also a good place to store any waste); we are right in the middle of a tectonic plate and as such do not suffer from frequent earthquakes that can damage nuclear reactors (I’m looking at you Japan); and we have 31% of the world’s uranium, an incredibly valuable resource that we currently make no use of.

It is becoming a little frustrating to live in Australia at the moment, around the world we see huge developments and steps forward towards combating climate change, from China’s push to build nuclear reactors, to the recent announcement of the world’s largest solar array being built in Morocco. Something has got to give soon, but we are already too late.

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The cost of nuclear power

So far in this blog, I have talked about a lot of the points that both sides use to ‘defeat’ those they campaign against. One point that I haven’t really touched on yet is point that comes up in a most, if not all, debates about the efficacy of nuclear power and that is the issue of cost. I want to preface this blog post by saying that I am really not a financial expert, and I am only drawing my opinion from what I have read, but I’m going to do my best to summarise the different points. Both sides claim to better understand the cost of nuclear power better than their opponents, and there is definitely a lot of hearsay involved.

On one side, you have the anti-nuclear movement, who all claim that the cost of building and running a safe nuclear power plant, as well as the associated waste management costs (there are many examples, here’s one) are far to high to justify the potential risks and are more unsustainable than getting the same energy from renewables.

On the other side, you have the pro-nuclear movement. This side is a bit harder to tease apart because, aside from the voices of a few loud eco-modernists, the majority of those who campaign for nuclear power have some form of vested interest (while this is true with the anti’s with renewables, it is less direct). But the substantive force of this side’s argument is that nuclear is more expensive than coal, but is competitive with renewables and able to perform at a high capacity in a shorter amount of time than other non-fossil fuels. However a fair point should be made that, unlike the anti’s, the pro’s acknowledge the difficulties of their technologies (most renewables-only campaigners seem to gloss over the shortcomings of current technologies)

As it says in this great article from The Conversation:

What is the economic cost of nuclear power? That turns out to be a very difficult question to answer.

The main problem seems to be that there is no good models on which to base an estimation of cost. The vast majority of in-service nuclear reactors at the moment were built in the heyday of nuclear power back around the 1960s. Add to that increasing delays for safety certification, as well as new projects with unexpected delays, like the (much safer) EPR design being built in Finland that is five years overdue, and you get investors with not much faith in projected ROIs and a general lack of faith in the affordability of nuclear power in general.

A point none of this addresses is the fact that we are going to have to make economic sacrifices in the long term (and probably in the short term as well) if we are going to have any hope of combating climate change. Can nuclear be part of the solution? Hopefully, one day we’ll figure it out.

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Introduction: History of nuclear power (Part 2)

So, I left off the last post with the start of commercial nuclear power testing, where did it go from there?

The first full-scale commercial nuclear power plant was called ‘Yankee Rowe’ and was opened in Rowe, Massachusetts in 1960 (it operated until 1992). This facility was able to produce 250MW of electricity, and its success spurred on the uptake of nuclear technology around the world(1).

By 1972, there were commercial nuclear reactors built in Canada, France, the UK, Russia and Kazakhstan, along with those already built in Iran, Pakistan and Israel(1).

Despite a drop off in orders for new reactors during the 1970s and 1980s, global electricity production from nuclear remained at around 16-17% (1).

Following this slump, nuclear energy began to take off again, mainly due to the development of the ‘third generation’ style of nuclear reactors. The first third generation reactor was built in Japan in the late 1990s, and boasted superior safety and affordability(1).

The attributes that signify a third generation reactor include:

  • Standard (often modular) design
    • This allows for cost savings and for some parts of the structure to be built off-site
  • Longer lifespan
    • Up to 60 years
  • Reduced possibility of meltdown
    • This is achieved by including many more redundant and ‘always on’ passive safety features
  • Resistance to external damage
  • Higher efficiency of the reactor itself by:
    • Using more of the stored energy in the fuel
    • Producing less waste
    • Extending the useful life of the fuel (2)

The realisation that the world is using every increasing amounts of electricity, along with concerns for energy security and carbon emissions has also seen a spike in the amount of nuclear power being accessed around the world (1).

However the areas traditionally associated with nuclear power, the US and Russia, are not where this new demand is coming from. There has been a huge increase in uptake of nuclear power in India and Eastern Asia, where energy demands and the environmental impacts of massive coal-burning power stations are being felt (3).

China currently has 26 active nuclear power stations, with 25 more currently under construction. There are also plans for many more to be built in the future (3).

On our home turf in Australia, we still only have one (experimental) nuclear reactor, despite having 31% of the world’s uranium supply (4). There are hints of change on the horizon, with South Australia’s royal commission and increasing calls from the public for investing in non-fossil fuel alternatives.

Hopefully we will see some change in the future, but that is unlikely to happen in the current nuclear climate in Australia, with a lingering resistance to this kind of technology. And who knows, if the Greens (who steadfastly refuse to use nuclear power) continue to gain more seats in the parliament, we may not see this change for a while.

You may have noticed three glaring omissions from this brief history of nuclear power, don’t worry I haven’t forgotten.

My next post will be one where we start to look a little bit more at the nuclear controversy itself, when I discuss three events that have probably had the biggest impact on the debate of nuclear power: the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima nuclear disasters.

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Introduction: Context for the blog

For my first real post on this blog, I thought I might outline the idea behind the blog and what you can expect in the future.

In a world where climate change is a topic almost constantly in the media, energy generation and fossil fuels are important topic in both civil and political spheres. Renewable energy solutions are important and there is much exciting science coming our way in the future. Then there is nuclear power. Nuclear power, specifically fission power, has been around for a while (a lot longer than you think, as I’ll explain in my next post) and boasts significant efficiency, cost and safety (yes, safety) benefits over other non-renewable energy sources (1).

Despite this, nuclear power remains a controversial topic worldwide, and especially in Australia. Disasters such as the infamous Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, as well as lesser known incidents, such as the Sellafield fire in the UK reinforce the negative associations of nuclear power. Atomic energy of any sort has this negative association, and this is probably due to the effects of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the above ground testing in the USA, and the Pacific in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and all the negative outcomes associated with these events.

But all is not bad with nuclear power. In fact, a recent study showed that nuclear fission is significantly safer than coal power, despite the three major nuclear incidents of the past 70 years. The paper published by NASA (2), showed that nuclear power was responsible for preventing an average 76,000 deaths between 2000-2009, and an estimated 1.8 million deaths before 2000, because less coal power was needed.

The controversy surrounding nuclear power is one fraught with emotion and complex discussions of risk vs. reward. In Australia we currently have no commercial power stations, and only one small research reactor at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO). However, we also have the majority of the world’s uranium ore, with current estimates at 31% of the world’s supply (we are the third largest producer of uranium after Canada and Kazakhstan) (3).

Having this valuable resource and not making use of it seems a bit counter intuitive, and there has been multiple attempts to allow nuclear power in Australia, all of which were unsuccessful. However, the nuclear landscape in Australia is still lively, with South Australia announcing a Royal Commission into nuclear power generation, in response to the current economic contraction.

Nuclear power remains contentious and I hope to delve deep into the controversy in Australia and around the world of the next 10 weeks. First I will start with a bit of history, of nuclear power itself, and the controversies and social movements that have grown up around it. After this, I hope to flesh out the controversy, identify the key players, their impacts and motviations, and really get to the core of the nuclear power issue. Thanks for reading, if you have any comments, queries or suggestions for the blog, please comment below.

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