Is nuclear energy an essential weapon in the fight against climate change or a toxic white elephant?
Mike Young sometimes wonders why nuclear energy has become such an accepted part of life in his native Canada when it is still so deeply controversial in his adopted country, Australia.
- Calls are being made to reverse Australia’s longstanding ban on nuclear power, which produces zero emissions
- Nuclear energy provides around 10% of the world’s energy needs, but none in Australia
- Critics say sky-high construction costs and delays make nuclear energy unprofitable
After all, he notes, Canada and Australia are remarkably similar in size, heritage and political sensitivities, and both have the largest reserves of nuclear fuel uranium in the developed world.
Yet for all the similarities between the two countries, entrenched views on nuclear power could hardly be more different, and Mr Young thinks one of the answers could be simple.
“The British didn’t test nuclear weapons in Canada,” the former uranium mine executive said in reference to the testing regime in Australia in the 1950s.
Renewed interest in nuclear
Fueled by the winds of change sweeping the global energy system in the transition to a carbon-neutral future, interest in the potential of nuclear power has grown in some quarters.
Attention is focused on the emission-free nature of nuclear power which, unlike renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, can produce around the clock, regardless of the weather.
For Mr Young, this is an attribute that should put the nuclear option firmly on the table as the world tries to wean itself off fossil fuels such as coal, diesel and gas.
“It has to be part of the mix,” Mr. Young said.
“You have to remember that by 2050 the forecast is that we will double the demand for electricity.
Around the world, nuclear energy satisfies about 10% of energy demand, a figure that has remained relatively stable for decades.
As countries that were once major producers of nuclear power, such as Japan and Germany, have scaled back or shut down their industry, others have vigorously pursued the technology.
Among them are a host of developing countries like China, the United Arab Emirates and India, where dozens of factories worth tens of billions of dollars are in the works.
Nuclear power costs ‘crippling’
But developed countries are conspicuous by their absence and are rushing to build new nuclear power plants.
And that’s no coincidence, according to financial analyst Tim Buckley, who says nuclear can’t compete with renewables in the race for investor cash.
Mr. Buckley is Director of Energy Finance Studies for Australia at the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), a think tank funded by environmental philanthropists.
He said the high capital cost of nuclear power plants and their tendency to suffer from budget and time constraints made them unprofitable.
“The cost of nuclear is almost always double, whatever the estimate,” Buckley said.
” Why ? Because a company can’t collect $20 billion.
“And we’re not talking about Australian dollars; we’re talking about euros, pounds or US dollars – serious money.
“No company can afford it, especially if there is a 10-year delay.”
Long construction delays meant interest costs often became crippling for nuclear plants, Buckley said.
He pointed to the litany of high-profile bankruptcies and exits from companies such as GE, Toshiba and French giant Areva to argue that the nuclear industry was a “graveyard” for corporations.
“Keep existing factories running”
Despite this, Mr Buckley said existing nuclear power plants should be allowed to operate for as long as possible, as they would help efforts to limit global emissions.
Citing an article by clean energy guru Michael Liebreich, he said it was ‘criminal’ that Germany was set to shut down its nuclear power industry – a move that has increased the country’s dependence on coal power and nuclear power imports from France.
And Mr Buckley, a former investment banker, said that despite all the publicity they generated, nuclear disasters such as Japan’s Fukushima meltdown in 2011 were exceptionally rare.
“Where you have a well-run, properly supervised and independently regulated nuclear that has already invested heavily in its construction, let it operate as long as it can,” he said.
“At the end of the day, having a liveable planet is probably more important than the risk of a Fukushima, so let’s go for a liveable planet and stop lignite (lignite) first, stop coal second and do nuclear third .”
Tania Constable, who heads the industry lobby for the Minerals Council of Australia, said she doubts the world can meet its net zero goals in the next 30 years without an increase in nuclear power.
Ms Constable said Australia was well placed to benefit from any increase in demand for nuclear energy, given its large reserves of yellow cake.
To that end, she noted that several uranium mining projects in Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland were waiting in the wings.
Opportunity for Australian minors
She said the key would be a sustained rise in prices, which have been depressed since 2011 but have soared in recent months.
“Because we have seen the price of uranium increase, companies whose projects have been mothballed … are now almost at the point where they can make decisions to bring projects back into service,” she said. .
“I think that’s a good thing for states, a good thing for industry, and it’s necessary if we’re going to see reliable, clean energy globally.”
While nuclear power is characterized by giant plants that can produce up to 12 gigawatts at a time – enough to meet a third of demand in the national electricity market – Ms Constable said the industry was changing.
She said significant work was underway to develop so-called small modular reactors that could replace coal-fired power plants and even power remote towns and mining sites.
It’s a view shared by Mr Young, who until this year ran the WA Vimy uranium mining hope.
He thinks small reactors are likely to have a much brighter future than the mega-power plants of the past, saying modular versions would be cheaper and easier to build and install.
And he suggested that modular power plants could help engender a more nuclear-friendly view in Australia, which differs from many developed countries by not having nuclear power.
Mr Young said public hostility to nuclear appeared to be easing, pointing to the Morrison government’s decision to buy nuclear-powered submarines and Labor’s support for the proposal as evidence.
“The problem is that building big reactors in a country like Australia just won’t happen,” he said.
“But what’s happening is the development of small modular reactors.
“And if you do it where the coal plants are, you already have all your (poles and wires) and you don’t have to build a whole new transmission system.”
Future ‘renewable, not nuclear’
Mr. Buckley remains unconvinced by the arguments in favor of small nuclear reactors.
He said the technology has yet to be proven at a pilot stage let alone at a commercial level.
Mr Buckley said the costs of renewables would continue to fall, making other options, including nuclear power, unviable.
“It’s not a single operational plant in the world, and chances are there won’t even be a small-scale nuclear demonstration plant this decade,” Buckley said.
Faced with claims that nuclear was needed to replace baseload coal and gas generation, Mr Buckley was equally blunt.
He said a combination of technologies and strategies would support the network’s move to net zero.
These included more high-voltage poles and cables to accommodate ever-increasing amounts of renewable energy, storage services such as batteries and “hydraulic pumped” systems, and a well-designed electric vehicle policy.
He acknowledged that peaking gas-fired power plants would also be needed for some time to come.
However, he argued that nuclear would not be necessary.
“If we use the imagination, if we use the engineers, if we use the network, if we use technology, if we use artificial intelligence, the reality is that the network will be much more resilient in 10 years than it is today,” he said. noted.
“I’m not saying the system can work tomorrow at 100% renewable but…it has to be ready for it because it happens whether you like it or not.”