Australian Nuclear Industry: Qualified Support
Posted by Dave Bath on 2006-11-07
While suspicious of John Howard’s real agenda for nuclear energy in Australia, I am very much in favor of it as part of a greening of our energy supplies, and as a contributor to the economy. This is a position I have held since the mid-1970s, and hasn’t changed with subsequent experience as an undergraduate dealing with a dangerous radionucleide (Cobalt-60), and later work (designing risk-management software) with Melbourne University’s Radiation Protection Officer, who had also been an expert witness to the Maralinga Royal Commission.
Furthermore, my "star" subjects at university were Pathology and Toxicology/Mutagenesis, which gives me a reasonable background to consider the risks to human (and non-human) health.
Nuclear waste is easier to manage than CO2
- The opponents of nuclear energy are concerned about the difficulty of containing nuclear waste, despite the greater difficulties of containing CO2 and the alarming increase of atmospheric concentrations. The use of synroc to "sequester" radioactive wastes seems much more reliable than attempts to sequester CO2. Even James Lovelock, who developed the Gaia hypothesis so beloved of "Greenies", has strongly recommended nuclear energy to avoid CO2 emissions on the respected ABC current affair program "Lateline" (2006 and 2004).
- The anti-nuclear groups cite the long half-life of radionucleides as a major concern, despite the fact that a long half-life necessarily means a low level of activity.
- Anti-nuclear activists are more than happy to wander through Kakadu National Park and wonder at it’s wildlife, despite it being on top of a major uranium deposit and containing the Ranger uranium mine. Indeed some of Kakadu is more radioactive than some of the dreaded Maralinga nuclear weapons testing site.
Nuclear energy is not the problem, but its governance and oversight
- If public-service engineers, who adhere to the precautionary principle, make decisions about the commissioning and operations of nuclear plants, there if much lower risk of nuclear accidents. The boring safety of Swedish well-governed (and more importantly, heavily-inspected) nuclear plants , and the willingness of Volvo-loving Swedes to swim just outside it, as compared to the poor safety record of the UK’s privatized Sellafield supports this position. While there have been incidents in Sweden, their safety systems have been managed to deal well enough with the problems. (After all, you do not castigate a car driver if they need to use the brakes. You are happy as long as they are used quickly enough and they are effective.)
The 1979 Three Mile Island disaster provides a good example of the dangers of a privatized nuclear industry. According to a senior member of the Australasian Radiation Protection Society, the real cause of Three Mile Island was cost-cutting by the private company involved.
- There was a significant financial bonus if the plant became operational by a certain date
- The plant was turned on with only 2 of the 3 required cooling systems.
- In the "Homer Simpson Room" (or Jack Lemmon in "The China Syndrome"), a flashing light indicating failure of one cooling system was found to be a false alarm.
- A "don’t worry about this" note on a piece of cardboard was hung by a string around the flashing lightbulb.
- The cardboard was hanging in front of warning light for the other cooling sysem, which started flashing (for good reason), but nobody was able to see it! Near-disaster ensued, with the root cause being the lure of financial gain from sloppy engineering
Pebble-Bed Reactors are safer
- A pebble-bed reactor is a recent German design (notably being developed in China) that avoids most of the safety problems of other designs, by using a low-efficiency but low-pressure approach, and once built, is almost simple enough for Homer Simpson to operate. It reminds me of the Volkswagon Beetle, which did not need a water-cooled radiator.
Significant economic benefit
- Apart from the sales of the raw yellowcake, there is great economic potential for Australia by “value-adding” at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, including uranium enrichment, reprocessing and waste storage, which also minimizes the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation, as long as we keep to the spirit of the non-proliferation treaty.
- This opportunity, unfortunately, is not advocated by John Howard, but then the current federal right-wing government has lost the plot as far as exports are concerned, unless it involves digging holes in the ground and shipping raw ores overseas.
- The various state centre-left governments are guilty of abrogating their duties to the long-term benefit of their people (and the world) in favor of short-term political advantage.
We need a critical mass of nuclear engineers
- The really clean benefits of investment in nuclear technology will come when we are able to develop nuclear fusion for power generation (rather than it’s only current practical use for political power). This will not happen until we have a surplus of technologists in the nuclear fission industry.
The natural fission reaction
- It is worth noting that Nature can produce a stable fission reactor, the relatively unknown natural reactor in Gabon which has been "operating" for approximately 2 billion years, and demonstrates that, at the very least, safe geologic sequestration of nuclear material should not be difficult, despite the Oklo deposits being in waterlogged sedimentary sedimentary rock, considered poorly suited to reliable geologic sequestration.
In summary, nuclear power is like all technologies since the invention of the flint axe, good or bad. Good if we have humane and safety-concious engineers in charge without operation of the profit motive, bad if the bean-counters and power-hungry politicians are in control.