What future for nuclear?

Judging from the extraordinary outpouring of editorial anguish over the Australian Greens’ cautionary uranium mining policies, it seems we might have hit a nerve. Ranging from simple name calling to paranoid hysteria, one thing missing has been any analysis – any at all – of why we believe the nuclear industry should be phased out.
In an age of climate change it seems reasonable to ask whether nuclear energy should have a bigger place in the energy mix. And if it does, perhaps that does justify overlooking the eternal contamination legacy at uranium mine sites and profiting handsomely from supplying an energy hungry world with a low emissions fuel.

This worldview has been described in recent days as pragmatic, practical, responsible even. It should be the job of the news media to test these assumptions to see if they have any basis in reality, rather than uncritically regurgitating mining industry press releases.

Here’s what even a cursory examination of the facts will reveal.

All nuclear power stations, everywhere, are based on 1940s-era technology to build nuclear weapons. They are essentially plutonium factories, producing small quantities of plutonium while shedding vast amounts of heat.  In the 1950s, Soviet and US engineers realised they could adapt these plants for power generation, hooking them up to steam turbines and promising electricity ‘too cheap to meter’.

Now we have more than 400 of these hybridised weapons plants generating a shrinking fraction of electricity around the world. Since the beginning, the potential has existed for the diversion of a few dozen kilograms of refined plutonium or highly enriched uranium through the porous and often imaginary boundary between ‘civil’ and ‘military’ facilities.

It takes between four and sixteen kilograms of refined plutonium or highly enriched uranium to reduce a city to a field of irradiated debris in one flash of light.

This has led to the establishment of a sprawling acronym soup of multilateral agreements and treaties designed to keep nuclear weapons in the hands of ‘responsible’ countries and out of the hands of everyone else, even as the industry tries to push the enabling technology into as many countries as possible.

Nuclear flashpoints in Iran and North Korea are the only examples we should need. In North Korea, ‘peaceful’ facilities were turned to more lethal purposes on nothing more than a quiet change of policy, just as has been happening elsewhere for 65 years. Iran is pursuing a more deliberately ambiguous path, building a massive uranium enrichment plant while pursuing an increasingly suspect argument that the intention is benign. The technology for bombs or fuel is the same, it all depends on changing government policy.

An apparent institutional blindness in the boardrooms and editorial desks of Australia is preventing the acceptance of this basic fact: the nuclear industry, at heart, is a military industry holding up a battered and rather uncomfortably grafted commercial façade.

Nowhere is this more true than in the new markets of China, Russia and India – nuclear weapons states all – which the Australian mining industry is desperate to access.  The proposed ramping up of uranium sales to these countries under the cover of highly fictionalised ‘safeguards agreements’ needs to be the subject of open-minded and well informed debate in Australia.

It is hard to identify where in the mainstream media this debate will be given a chance to develop beyond the juvenile anti-Greens spitting contest we’ve witnessed over the last 48 hours.

To the great dismay of those who genuinely thought nuclear fission would be a cheap way of spinning a turbine, attaching plutonium plants to steam engines turned out to be a potent force for mass bankruptcy. In no deregulated energy market, anywhere in the world, is the private sector putting up its own money to build nuclear power stations. The industry remains on subsidised life support everywhere and is only making headway in a tiny handful of countries with state ownership of generators and command and control energy networks.

The net effect, as researcher Mycle Schneider has graphed in stark terms, is that the nuclear industry flatlined in the 1980s, began to decline in 2002, and is headed for steeper decline, or in the best case stagnation, for the foreseeable future. The reasons are a complex mix of ageing reactors, formidable project costs, the unwillingness of insurance companies to cover the astronomical liabilities of reactor accidents, and the 65-year unanswered question of what to do with radioactive spent fuel for the next quarter million years.

This is reflected in part, in the recent world uranium price slump and the 24% drop in Australian uranium export earnings in the last 12 months. We still earn more from our cheese exports than uranium.

If there is a more risky, expensive, slow moving and downright ridiculous way of tackling climate change, I haven’t come across it yet.

Is it really the view of the Australian media and business ‘establishment’ that people who ask these difficult questions are extremists or economic illiterates? Or is just that the uranium mining industry would rather not expose the unpleasant reality of their business model to the harsh light of a genuine debate?