I must declare my bias when writing on this subject as during the 1980s I was heavily involved in local peace politics and the People for Nuclear Disarmament. In 1984 I was the candidate for the Nuclear Disarmament Party in Gippsland and concerned with the association between weaponry and the waste generated by nuclear power stations (locally though I campaigned on the threat of a ‘nuclear winter’). Whilst there are many issues associated with nuclear power (including major accidents at Chernobyl and Fukishima) from the perspective of climate change there are two main questions to be asked. Can it be done quickly and is the process carbon neutral?
The answer to the first question is definitely no. Any nuclear power plant started today would still be at least 25 years away from producing electricity. The Nimby movement (not in my back yard) in this instance is incredibly powerful. When nuclear power options were briefly considered by the Howard government it soon became apparent that the opposition would be immense to any nuclear power station located in the preferred localities – on French Island or in Gippsland. By comparison the whole gamut of renewable energy options, even pumped hydro, can be done relatively quickly.
The other aspect, that nuclear power is carbon neutral and therefore the ‘green’ power of the future also does not hold water. Many aspects of the nuclear energy cycle are carbon intensive including the various mining, concentration, processing and transport processes. The building of these plants requires huge amounts of concrete with large amounts of emissions embodied in their construction. It has been estimated that even with a high grade of Uranium ore the nuclear energy process in terms of emissions is still two to three times that of the various renewable energy options. This, however, does not apply to apply to operating nuclear power plants which in terms of emissions are far better than fossil fuels.
But nuclear energy has already lost the battle with wind and solar. Like coal it is yesterday’s energy source. The ‘nuclear fusion’ pipe dream where energy is so abundant it is free is sometimes raised in the social media but no such commercial generator exists on earth. Solar energy – produced by nuclear fusion in a safely remote source – is already approaching the free energy dream. Solar panels can be erected now whilst nuclear, and even coal plants, are many years down track. With the climate emergency rapidly approaching we need to get to zero emissions as quickly as possible. Thus we need technology that is readily available, can be installed now and producing tomorrow. Nuclear is not the answer.