Periodically, as with the changing of the seasons, various individuals appear in the media extolling the virtues of nuclear energy, promising a panacea of clean and reliable electricity to solve Australia’s energy crisis. But the truth is far less rosy.
What is a nuclear power station?
Nuclear power stations run on uranium. When the nucleus of a uranium molecule is split inside a reactor, heat is produced. This process is called nuclear fission. The heat produced from this process is used to create steam from water. The steam drives a turbine that powers a generator. The generator creates electricity.
Unlike coal and gas, no greenhouse gas pollution is created in the operation of the nuclear reactor. However, all other steps involved in producing nuclear power (from mining, to construction, decommissioning and waste management) result in greenhouse gas pollution. Greenhouse gas pollution associated with nuclear power could be similar to a gas power station, with estimates ranging from 80 – 437 kg/MWh.
But nuclear energy is not “renewable”. Uranium is a finite resource just like coal or gas.
Nuclear Power Plant Isar II, Bavaria, Germany. Photo by Flickr user Brewbooks licensed under (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Nuclear energy doesn’t make sense in Australia
Australia exports very large amounts of uranium to other countries – we are the third largest uranium producer in the world.
However, there are a number of reasons why nuclear power is not appropriate for Australia.
- 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.
- Nuclear power stations also present significant community, health, environmental, and cost risks associated with potential impacts from extreme weather events and natural disasters, such as occurred in Fukushima, Japan in 2011. Nuclear power stations leave a long-term and prohibitively expensive legacy of site remediation, fuel reprocessing and radioactive waste storage.
- Australia is one of the sunniest and windiest countries in the world, with enough renewable energy resources to power our country 500 times over. When compared with low risk, clean, reliable and affordable renewable energy and storage technology in Australia, nuclear power makes no sense.
Nuclear power stations are expensive
Nuclear power stations are extremely expensive to build. For example, the Hinkley nuclear power station under construction in the UK will cost 20 billion pounds (AU$36 billion). Nuclear cannot compete on a cost basis with wind and solar, which are the cheapest forms of new generation. The cost of energy from the Hinkley Power station is significantly higher than large-scale solar, wind and offshore wind energy in the UK.
On average, nuclear power stations take a decade to build
The Hinkley power station will take nine years to build. The global average is 9.4 years. This would be even longer in Australia given there is currently no nuclear industry here. It is not unusual for nuclear power stations to take over a decade between the start of approvals and coming online. For comparison, wind and solar farms take just one to three years.
Australia cannot wait this long to replace our ageing fleet of coal power stations, which are already struggling to cope with extreme heat.
Nuclear power stations are inflexible and ill-suited to a modern grid
Nuclear power stations are inflexible – that is, they cannot quickly increase or decrease the amount of electricity they produce.
Nuclear power generation is not well suited to modern, fast and flexible electricity grids with large amounts of wind and solar generation. Unlike inflexible nuclear, fast response technologies such as batteries, pumped hydro and solar thermal can be turned on and off, or ramped up and down to balance electricity supply and demand.
In California, where wind and solar provides more than 30% of the state’s power needs, the last nuclear power plant will shut by 2026.
Nuclear power stations need a lot of water
Nuclear power stations require massive quantities of water to operate. In a dry continent like Australia, prone to hot summers and drought conditions which are only likely to get more severe as climate change worsens, it would be reckless to rely on a water-hungry power source like nuclear.
The bottom line is this: it makes no sense to build nuclear power stations in Australia.
For more information on what Australia needs to build a modern electricity grid, read the Climate Council’s report ‘Powering a 21st Century Economy: Secure, Clean, Affordable Electricity’.