With 2010 shaping up as the hottest year on record, politicians on both sides are turning to nuclear energy as a way of reducing carbon emissions and energy prices. Opponents, however, are turning to renewable sources, saying nuclear power is too expensive, citing decades-old concerns about waste disposal and nuclear weapons.
The Australian Labor Party (ALP) has long had a policy of caution about the nuclear industry, stating in its National Platform that uranium and the nuclear fuel cycle “present unique and unprecedented hazards and risks”.
Their nuclear policy lists threats to human health, nuclear weapons manufacture and dangerous nuclear waste as major concerns. The policy will “prohibit the establishment in Australia of nuclear power plants and all other stages of the nuclear fuel cycle”.
Energy Minister Martin Ferguson, however, has declared that Labor’s policy on uranium is now up for debate.
With growing support within the party, Mr Ferguson has put it on the agenda for the ALP national conference next year, declaring in The Daily Telegraph: “They have as much right to discuss nuclear at the 2011 conference as other people have to debate the issue of gay and lesbian marriage.”
Pro-nuclear lobbyists around the world argue that new generation reactors are safer, smaller and more productive, and that renewables alone cannot meet the world’s energy requirements.
Supporters are already suggesting that Australia should develop its own nuclear reactor, pointing to a study by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) that says nuclear reactors will be cheaper than solar, thermal or coal-fired power plants in around 20 years.
“Nuclear will certainly take its place in Australia’s generation portfolio, probably from around 2025,” says Martin Thomas from Sydney University in a paper for the ATSE.
While it remains to be seen who in Australia will have the reactor in their backyard, Dr Mark Diesendorf, from the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of New South Wales, says there are many concerns with the nuclear push. Building a nuclear reactor is “a huge construction project” that could take up to 15 years to build, he told The Epoch Times. The costs involved are already prohibitive and going up.
Concerns about the impact on public health, waste disposal and the risk of nuclear weapons remain after decades of debate, while talk about the benefits and cost effectiveness of future generation nuclear reactors is still just talk, Dr Diesendorf says.
While nuclear energy has been “massively subsidised” by governments around the world, it is still costly compared to renewable sources. Dr Diesendorf says that if that money had been directed towards renewables, the world would be far more advanced in sustainable energy supplies.
Despite concerns that renewables cannot provide enough consistent energy to meet Australia’s and the world’s needs, Dr Diesendorf said he was confident an energy system built on renewables would not only be sufficient, but would also offer a safer, more reliable energy source.
Renewables will need to be a mix of technology and scales, he explained, combining small and medium solar-powered stations with a mix of wind power, biomass and, in the future, geothermal and wave power.
While nuclear would simply transfer centralised energy production and ownership from coal-powered to nuclear-powered stations, the renewable mix would distribute power production across of range of sources and suppliers.
“It is a different kind of system and I think it is a system that is more robust and more resilient,” Dr Diesendorf said. “If one large conventional station fails, which it does from time to time, it is quite difficult to back it up and avoid blackouts.
“If you have lots of smaller stations all connected together, in principle, you could have quite a reliable system.”
Similarly, Prime Minister Julia Gillard believes that renewable energy sources will be more efficient than nuclear power in the long term.
Unlike fellow Labor party member Mr Ferguson, Ms Gillard says that in Australia, “nuclear power doesn’t stack up as an economically efficient source of power”.
Australia is in a different situation to other nations that needed nuclear power, Ms Gillard says.
“We’ve got abundant sources of renewable energy. We are very focused on our record investment in solar and renewable technologies. We’ve got abundant energy from those sources,” she said on Melbourne radio 3AW.