Nuclear power, together with nuclear research reactors, helped India, Pakistan and (probably soon) Iran develop nuclear weapons and provided Britain and France with extra plutonium for their nuclear weapons.
It also helped nuclear weapons programs, fortunately discontinued, in Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa and Libya. The proliferation of nuclear weapons states and the threat of nuclear war did not disappear at the end of the Cold War. One essential step in bringing the threat under control would be to reach an international agreement to bring the two sensitive stages of the nuclear fuel cycle – uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent fuel – under complete international control.
Nuclear power, based on existing technologies, still has all its original problems: proliferation of nuclear weapons, terrorism, lack of long-term waste management, rare but catastrophic accidents and huge economic costs. All except the risk of accidents are worse now than in the 1970s. In several decades, as high-grade uranium is used up, nuclear power will also become a substantial emitter of carbon dioxide from uranium mining and milling.
Only a few countries have a high dependence upon nuclear power, notably Belgium, France, Sweden, Japan and South Korea. It contributes only 2.5 per cent to China’s electricity. The global contribution is currently 14 per cent, not 19 per cent.
If our governments could muster the political will, Australia could replace all its dirty coal-fired power stations by 2030 with a mix of measures to reduce unnecessary electricity demand and to expand low-carbon energy supply. On the demand side, efficient energy use and solar hot water are economical now over much of Australia.
With a carbon dioxide price in the range of $40 to $50 per tonne, wind power could grow rapidly to supply 20 per cent and bioelectricity to supply 8 per cent of electricity by 2020. In Europe in 2008, wind power provided the largest contribution of all new generating capacity. In China, wind power capacity has doubled every year for the past five years. Such a rapid growth rate cannot be achieved by coal or nuclear.
Incidentally, the claim that in "Germany, Denmark and Spain, experience has made energy authorities reinforce wind energy with baseload coal or nuclear up to 90 per cent of their potential", is false. For instance, Denmark, with 20 per cent of its electricity generated by the wind, draws upon Norwegian hydro when wind speeds are occasionally low. In Australia, wind power can replace some baseload coal, provided some additional intermittent peakload capacity is provided.
The incorrect notion that renewable energy cannot provide baseload (24-hour) power derives from propaganda disseminated by the coal and nuclear industries and their supporters. A sustainable energy future would have less baseload, thanks to energy efficiency and solar hot water, and more peakload to balance fluctuations.
Baseload supply can be provided by a mix of wind, bioelectricity from combustion of residues of existing crops and plantation forests, solar thermal power with low-cost thermal storage and soon hot rock geothermal power.
Peakload power, that can respond rapidly to fluctuations in supply and demand, can be provided by hydro and gas turbines burning biofuels produced sustainably. With the forthcoming growth in electric vehicles, there will be ample electrical storage available in car batteries connected to the grid to smooth out the fluctuations in sunshine and make solar photovoltaic power a reliable source of daytime power.
By 2030 it will be technically possible to replace all conventional coal power with the following mixes: wind, bioelectricity and solar thermal each 20 to 30 per cent; solar photovoltaic 10 to 20 per cent; geothermal 10 to 20 per cent; and marine (wave, ocean current) 10 per cent.
Natural gas too, provided it hasn’t all been sold to China, could be fuelling cogeneration of electricity and heat, trigeneration (electricity, heating and cooling), combined-cycle power stations and back-up for solar hot water, solar thermal electricity and wind power. There is an embarrassment of riches in the non-nuclear alternatives to coal.
Furthermore, as the report by McKinsey and Company shows, the economic savings from energy efficiency could pay for a large part of the additional costs of renewable energy. The cost of new nuclear power has escalated rapidly since 2000 to the extent that it’s much dearer than wind. A recent study by CA Severance finds that it is now comparable in cost with solar photovoltaic.
What we need is effective policies from federal and state governments:
– a ban on new conventional coal power;
– gross feed-in tariffs for small-scale residential and commercial renewable energy generation;
– feed-in tariffs for large-scale wind, solar, geothermal and marine power, to replace the flawed Renewable Energy Target;
– upgraded transmission infrastructure; and
– a carbon tax with border exemptions to replace the ineffective CPRS (Carbon Pollution Reinforcement Scheme).
Dr Mark Diesendorf is deputy director of the Institute of Environmental Studies, UNSW, and author of Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy and Climate Action: A campaign manual for greenhouse solutions.