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John Quiggin

Nuclear option premature

Australian Financial Review

28 April 2005

With the Kyoto protocol in force, and evidence of rapid climate change mounting up day by day, it’s not surprising that there has been renewed interest in nuclear energy as a source of electricity, free of emissions of greenhouse gases. What’s surprising is that so many of the participants in the debate seem to be restating positions that have been frozen in time for twenty years or more.

The debate over uranium mining provides an example. Labor’s ‘three mines’ policy was a grubby internal compromise reached in the early 1980s. It owed a lot to the interaction between geographical and factional alignments and almost nothing to a rational evaluation of the issues. It made no sense even at the time, yet it is still defended by some as an appropriate policy for the future.

The central reasoning underlying the anti-uranium campaign was rendered obsolete by the late 1970s. It was assumed that nuclear power was set for rapid growth, and that restricting the supply of uranium was the best way of constraining that growth. Meanwhile, nuclear proponents were looking at ‘fast-breeder’ reactors that would generate their own plutonium and thereby avoid the uranium shortage.

But the stagnation of nuclear power after the Three Mile Island accident meant that the shortage of uranium never developed. Releases from military stockpiles after the end of the Cold War have ensured a continuing supply. The availability of uranium is not a constraint on nuclear power and is unlikely to become one. Restrictive Australian policy might raise the world price, but that would merely benefit other suppliers at our expense.

Similarly, the fast breeder reactor is commercially dead. France pulled the plug on its Superphenix reactor in the late 1990s, and Japan’s Monju has been mothballed for a decade. If the opponents of nuclear power seem stuck in the 1980s, many of the supporters seem to back in the 1950s, still selling a dream of limitless clean power, ‘too cheap to meter’, and obstructed only by baseless fears.

If the experience of the past thirty years has taught us anything, it’s that this dream is illusory. Nuclear power can be clean (at least compared to the main alternatives), it can be safe and it can be cheap, but it apparently can’t be all three at once. In the aftermath of the Three Mile Island meltdown, it was pointed out by some that no-one had died, and it was suggested that nuclear power was being held to excessively tight safety standards, compared to those prevailing in the Soviet Union, which was forging ahead while nuclear energy stalled in the West. The Chernobyl disaster put paid to that claim.

In the ensuing decades, there have been repeated claims that the problems have been solved and that the stage is set for a renaissance of nuclear power. There has been much less in the way of concrete achievement. It is hard to assess the costs of nuclear power because of its long stagnation. Large-scale construction has mostly been undertaken in countries where nuclear power attracts government subsidies, usually linked to military objectives, as in France. The main issue relates to capital costs. With the low interest rates prevailing currently, nuclear power looks marginally competitive with fossil fuels, but a complete analysis, including a proper allowance for waste disposal, would almost certainly yield substantially higher costs.

It would be foolish to foreclose any options, but a return to nuclear power looks premature at this stage. There are lots of conservation options, and alternative strategies such as tree planting, that could yield savings in emissions at significantly lower cost. Only when these options are exhausted would an expansion of nuclear power make sense. In the meantime, it would be helpful if advocates of nuclear power could clarify their own position regarding climate change.

While many are happy to score points against environmentalists by pointing to nuclear power as a solution to climate change, a surprisingly large number simultaneously push the claims of the handful of scientists (mostly not experts in the field, and many with glaring conflicts of interest) who deny the reality of human-caused climate change.

Not only does this undermine the case for re-examining the nuclear option, it undermines the credibility of its advocates. If an individual or lobby group disregards the massive body of evidence on climate change, often on the basis of a predetermined political or interest-group agenda, what reliance can be based on their claims about the safety and cost-efficiency of nuclear power?

John Quiggin is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.

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