Thursday, October 29, 2009
Climate change: nuclear no answer-Green Left Weekly EDITORIAL
The big nuclear push is on. The nuclear industry is trying to re-brand yellowcake as “green”.
Most people see global warming as the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced. But nuclear industry executives see a business opportunity to arrest their declining fortunes.
Supporters of a radioactive response to climate change tend to run two false arguments at the same time.
First, they say a new generation of nuclear reactors is clean, safe and climate friendly. Second, they say renewable energy can’t do the job.
Doubters are cast as technophobes and luddites. Nuclear power is the new “ecological” response we can’t put off any longer because our planet depends on it — or so we’re told.
Mainstream coverage of the controversy does not place enough attention on the businesses that stand to benefit the most. Some of the giant corporations with the biggest ties to the climate-destroying coal industry — such as BHP Billiton — also have big stakes in uranium.
But the arguments for nuclear energy don’t stack up for a safe climate future.
Nuclear energy is far from being an emissions-free technology. Except for the power generation itself, every stage in the nuclear-power cycle — uranium mining, ore processing, refining, transport, construction and maintenance — is highly emission-intensive.
That aside, nuclear energy still produces three times more carbon pollution than wind power.
Supporters tend to exaggerate the potential emissions cuts that nuclear could deliver. A 2006 government-commissioned report by Ziggy Switkowski admitted that were Australia to build six nuclear reactors, it would cut emissions by only 4% (if it replaced coal-fired power) or just 2% (if it replaced gas).
Uranium is not renewable. Reserves are finite. Friends of the Earth Australia has estimated that, to cut global emissions by 20%, the number of nuclear power stations would need to be increased tenfold. But this would exhaust all known uranium reserves within decades.
The industry claims the devastating Chernobyl accident in 1986 could never happen again. But whatever safeguards are in place, unforeseen accidents can still happen.
If wind, wave or solar power technology malfunctions, it simply needs to be repaired. But if something serious goes wrong with a nuclear reactor, the dangers are horrific.
There is no safe way to mine uranium and no safe way to deal with radioactive mine tailings.
Uranium mining and nuclear power plants are also very water-intensive. Expansion of nuclear power would divert ever-scarcer water resources from other uses.
Nor is there any safe way to deal with the highly radioactive waste produced by nuclear power stations. No one has devised a way to store waste that will remain a danger for thousands of years.
The waste also remains a serious nuclear weapons proliferation threat. Existing nuclear power plants have produced enough plutonium to make about 160,000 nuclear weapons. Expanding nuclear power would dramatically increase the proliferation risk.
The threat to life on the planet posed by climate change is matched only by the threat of nuclear holocaust.
This week, Green Left Weekly hosts a debate between Dr Jim Green and Dr Barry Brook on the potential for a new kind of nuclear technology, the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), to be a safe, clean alternative to fossil fuels.
Backers of IFR promise it could provide big amounts of clean power, using only existing stockpiles of nuclear waste, instead of newly-mined uranium.
The catch: IFR is unproven and untested. Also, it still produces waste that can be used in nuclear weapons.
Research into IFR would take resources away from the most important task — the rapid rollout of proven renewable energy technology. The nearness of climate tipping points means we can’t afford any delay.
Beyond Zero Emissions is producing a comprehensive plan to fully power Australia on renewable energy within a decade. The plan is based on tested and commercially available technologies, an energy efficiency drive and a big shift to public transport.
A big part of its plan is to harness the energy of a vast “fusion reactor”, the sun, which is conveniently located at a safe distance (150 million kilometres) from the Earth.
The total energy from the sun that hits the Earth is about 5900 times the energy humanity now uses — the challenge is to harness it.
Solar, wind and other renewable power sources are the real solutions we need. The task of the climate action movement is to force governments to make the switch to renewables as fast as possible. Nuclear power remains no solution to climate change.
From: Comment & Analysis, Green Left Weekly issue #815 28 October 2009.