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Nuclear Debate

A brief update on the nuclear debate

The nuclear debate in Australia continues to rage on. Last week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released their 6th report on Climate Change with dire warnings about the rate of global warming and its impacts. The following day in the Australian parliament there was, again, the push for nuclear power. Senators McMahon, Hughes and Lambie all – instead of making constructive contributions in response the IPCC report began the tireless chant for nuclear power and lashing out at opponents. Northern Territory Senator Sam McMahon went as far as to put forward amendments to the already stalled and controversial Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill – seeking to lift the prohibition on nuclear power. Outside the Senate Matt Canavan reckoned Gladstone would be a good spot for a reactor.  

Senator Hanson-Young asked the question where will these reactors go? The next day in the Senate LNP Senator Gerard Rennick casually suggested a nuclear reactor for Chinchilla.

“If we could get a rail line up through there, we could open up new coal deposits. Also, if we didn’t want more coalmines, we could look at putting a nuclear power station in Barakula State Forest, which is just north of Chinchilla. It’s the biggest state forest in the Southern Hemisphere. If you had a big water source there, the Nathan Dam, you could open up a lot of possibilities.”

LNP Senator Gerard Rennick – Wednesday 11th August 2021 – pg 77

This is a spectacular display of the lack of vision of the National Party who don’t care if you dig up coal or uranium – they just want something dug up and burnt. One day nuclear is a solution to climate change on another day climate change is a hoax and we should dig up more coal. Of if you’re Gerard Rennick you can have both coal and nuclear in the same breath.

Weeks earlier Liberal MP Angus Taylor announced the signing of a letter of intent with the UK to form a partnership on low emissions solutions. Small Modular Nuclear Reactors (SMNRs) were among the technologies listed in the partnership to receive research funding. At the end of 2020 Minister Taylor released the Technology Investment Roadmap – in which SMNRs were listed as a technology to watch – within 9 months, without independent evidence or advice or public debate, the government’s position on nuclear has gone from watching brief to fund. Using the public purse to fund a prohibited technology in the absence of any public debate and without any mandate is a new, but unsurprising, low.

Outside of the strange debates in the Australian Parliament more and more voices are adding to the detailed and informed discussion on the realities of nuclear in a changing climate:

  • Dr Paul Dorfman wrote about the increased risks of operating nuclear in a changing climate.
  • David Vetter writing for Forbes asks experts about the need for nuclear – and then explores the hidden agenda of nuclear submarines in defence.
  • Ali Ahmad released research looking at the range of technical issues reactors are likely to face with global warming – adding to their unsuitability for addressing the climate crisis. Summary and some interesting technical debate can be seen here.
  • Allison Macfarlane, former US Nuclear Regulatory Chairperson wrote “Nuclear Energy Will Not Be the Solution to Climate Change – There Is Not Enough Time for Nuclear Innovation to Save the Planet”
  • And Market Insiders reported on more planned nuclear shut downs because of economic failure – reflecting nuclear may not have a role in energy transition…

No doubt the debate will continue to rage on in the lead up to COP26 and as the nuclear industry try to seal their fate. May the reality of the failures and risks of the sector be louder than the false promises of safe & cheap reactors that continue to ignore the feasibility, the increasing risks and the ever mounting stockpiles of nuclear waste and weapons.

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Advanced isn’t Always Better

Below is a summary of key findings from the research titled “Advanced isn’t Always Better” by Edwin Lyman from the Union of Concerned Scientists. The study considered non light-water reactors (NLWR) aka Advanced nuclear or Generation IV reactors. It concludes that NLWRs are a long way from commercialisation and in their current form do not reduce safety or weapons risks and in many cases these risks are increased.

Former US Nuclear Regulatory Chairperson – Allison Macfarlane has recently made similar findings “But when it comes to averting the imminent effects of climate change, even the cutting edge of nuclear technology will prove to be too little, too late. Put simply, given the economic trends in existing plants and those under construction, nuclear power cannot positively impact climate change in the next ten years or more. Given the long lead times to develop engineered, full-scale prototypes of new advanced designs and the time required to build a manufacturing base and a customer base to make nuclear power more economically competitive, it is unlikely that nuclear power will begin to significantly reduce our carbon energy footprint even in 20 years—in the United States and globally. No country has developed this technology to a point where it can and will be widely and successfully deployed.”

Lyman, Edwin. 2021. “Advanced” Isn’t Always Better: Assessing the Safety, Security, and Environmental Impacts of Non-Light-Water Nuclear Reactors. Cambridge, MA: Union of Concerned Scientists. https://doi.org/10.47923/2021.14000. Pg 6.

Little evidence supports claims that NLWRs will be significantly safer than today’s LWRs. While some NLWR designs offer some safety advantages, all have novel characteristics that could render them less safe.

The claim that any nuclear reactor system can “burn” or “consume” nuclear waste is a misleading oversimplification. Reactors can actually use only a fraction of spent nuclear fuel as new fuel, and separating that fraction increases the risks of nuclear proliferation and terrorism. 

“Most NLWR designs under consideration do not offer obvious improvements over LWRs significant enough to justify their many risks. “

Once-through, breed-and-burn reactors have the potential to use uranium more efficiently without reprocessing, but many technical challenges remain.

High-assay low enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel, which is needed for many NLWR designs, poses higher nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism risks than the lower-assay LEU used by the operating LWR fleet. 

The significant time and resources needed to safely commercialize any NLWR design should not be underestimated.

Lyman, Edwin. 2021. “Advanced” Isn’t Always Better: Assessing the Safety, Security, and Environmental Impacts of Non-Light-Water Nuclear Reactors. Cambridge, MA: Union of Concerned Scientists. https://doi.org/10.47923/2021.14000. Pg’s 9 – 11.
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Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty

Honduras has became the 50th country to ratify the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty, the treaty will now become international law making nuclear weapons illegal. An Australian NGO, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has been critical in building the case for a ban treaty with a focus on the humanitarian harm of nuclear weapons. You can track the development of the treaty coming into law through ICAN.

Nuclear weapons cause devastating humanitarian harm in so many different ways. Professor Tilman Ruff writes about the effects of nuclear weapons on climate demonstrating diverse and complex ways that nuclear weapons would impact life on earth:

less than 0.5% of the global nuclear arsenal,
targeted on cities in just one region of the world, would
ignite massive firestorms that would loft millions of tons
of smoke high into the atmosphere, beyond the reach of
rain and snow. This smoke would blanket the entire globe
within a few weeks, and cool, dry and darken the world
beneath for more than two decades. The dark smoke in
the stratosphere and above would be warmed by the sun,
heating the upper atmosphere by more than 50℃, and
rapidly depleting the ozone which protects us from the
Sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation.1

Professor Tilman Ruff, “Nuclear Weapons and our Climate”.

The link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons is inextricable. Al Gore, former US Vice President made an important connection between nuclear power and weapons in the context of addressing climate change:

“For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal … then we’d have to put them in so many places we’d run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale.”

Al Gore, former US Vice President

Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, in his final years became a strong advocate for the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty. Like many others he wrote about nuclear weapons and climate change being the greatest existential threat the world faces. In one essay he wrote:

Like preventing rampant climate change, abolishing nuclear weapons is a paramount challenge for people and leaders the world over; a precondition for survival, sustainability and health for our planet and future generations. Both in the scale of the indiscriminate devastation they cause, and in their uniquely persistent, spreading, genetically damaging radioactive fallout, nuclear weapons are unlike any other ‘weapons’. They cannot be used for any legitimate military purpose. Any use, or threat of use, should be a violation of international humanitarian law

Malcolm Fraser, former Prime Minister of Australia.

The Australian Labor Party, has released a statement in response to the 50th ratification of the nuclear weapons ban treaty. It says the ALP is committed to sign and ratify the treaty, pending a suite of pre-requisites. The Australian Greens have unequivocally supported the Treaty and are calling for the immediate signing and ratification of the Treaty. The Liberal Government has been as silent as they can be, but in UN forums the Australian Government have actively sought to derail the treaty.

Dr Mark Diesendorf and Richard Broinowski AO have written recently on the nuclear power push in Australia and make links to conversations and some public debate about Australia developing a nuclear weapons program under the guise of “nuclear deterrence.”

The two greatest threats to our survival on earth are climate change and nuclear weapons, reflected in the Doomsday Clock, set by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Proposing nuclear power as a solution to climate change is folly. You cannot address one by exacerbating the other.

This treaty sets, for the first time, a pathway to the elimination of nuclear weapons. Congratulations to ICAN and the countries who have ratified the treaty – thankyou.

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IEA World Energy Outlook

In September the International Energy Agency released the edition of the 2020 World Energy Outlook. For the first time it has pegged solar as the king of future electricity markets. Conversely, nuclear power looks set to continue its decline. Last year, according to the IEA nuclear power capacity fell by 3,900 megawatts (MW) or 1%. This year, nuclear is performing even worse. The World Energy Outlook reports that nuclear power declined by 3.5% in the first quarter of 2020 and anticipates a decline of 3% for 2020 (compared to 2019).

And it only gets worse from there. With an ageing fleet of reactors, many of them set to be shut down over the next 10-20 years, the World Energy Outlook notes that nuclear power could fall from 280,000 MW now to just 90,000 MW by 2040. One quarter of current nuclear capacity is set to shut down over the next five years.

The IEA notes that extending the lifespan of ageing reactors for 10 years ranges from US$500 million to US$1 billion per reactor.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has described the risk of nuclear reactors as a bathtub curve – new reactors have a high risk at the very beginning of their life-cycles where design and construction faults may emerge, then a period of relative safety, then risks begin to increase with the age of reactors. They document a number of examples in the US where utilities attempted to retrofit ageing reactors only to find intractable problems, prohibitive costs and in the end opted for permanent closure

Another recent report, the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2020, states that that 176 additional new reactors would have to be connected to the grid just to account for closures over the next decade – three times the rate achieved over the past decade (58 reactor startups between 2010 and 2019). The nuclear industry is running just to stand still. In future energy scenario’s nuclear is simply too expensive to matter.

World Energy Outlook meme, solar too cheap to meter.

John Quiggin, Professor of Economics at University of Queensland, said in response to the IEA WEO report: “Once a solar module has been installed, a zero rate of interest means that the electricity it generates is virtually free. Spread over the lifetime of the module, the cost is around 2c/kwh (assuming $1/watt cost, 2000 operating hours per year and a 25-year lifetime). That cost would be indexed to the rate of inflation, but would probably never exceed 3c/kwh. There is, then, a real possibility that solar PV and other renewable technologies could fulfil the promise made decades ago by the promoters of nuclear power: that it will deliver electricity “too cheap to meter”. (Even with access to cheap capital, nuclear power never delivered on that promise.)”

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Uranium mining

In Australia uranium mining has been plagued with leaks, spills, accidents and met with fierce opposition from First Nation communities and the public. There is a national review of Australia’s environment laws which threatens to defer powers to state and territory government and reduce the scope of environmental protections. Below are details about why we need stronger, not weaker, laws to protect the environment from uranium mining risks.

Associate Proffessor Gavin Mudd has written extensively on the failures of uranium mining in Australia in a recent article “Expensive, Dirty and Dangerous.” and calls for ongoing federal oversight.

On a regular day uranium ends up as nuclear waste on a bad day uranium ends up as nuclear fall out. Uranium mining in Australia accounts for 0.2% of national export revenue and accounts for less than 0.02% of jobs in Australia – less than a thousand jobs. This marginal sector puts workers, communities and the environment at risk here at home in Australia and the countries where it is exported to.What starts in a dump truck in the outback ends up as a radioactive legacy fuelling risks at nuclear power reactors and pilling up as nuclear waste and weapons grade material around the globe.

First Nations Opposition

First Nations communities have led the fight against uranium mining in Australia at Ranger on Mirrar country, Olympic Dam on Kokatha country, Beverley mines on Adnyamathanha country, Mulga Rock, Yeelirrie and Wiluna on Wongatha country and Kintyre on Martu country. Some communities have been fighting for over 40 years to stop mines others for over 40 years and been forced to live with mining. For more on the First Nations led resistance to uranium mine see the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance.

Uranium Tailings

One of the greatest risks of uranium mining is the tailings. Tailings are the waste from uranium processing, they sit in tailings ponds until mine closure when they are supposed to be rehabilitated. The best national standard for tailings is at the Ranger uranium mine – where there is a requirement to “the tailings are physically isolated from the environment for at least 10,000 years.”

However, during the operation of the Ranger mine ERA and Rio Tinto have failed to secure those tailings, with evidence showing that up to 100,000 litres of tailings leak from the site everyday. Ranger is preparing for rehabilitation to begin in 2021 it is expected to cost close to $1 billion dollars.

In 2019 the Australian National Committee on Large Dams (ANCOLD) gave BHPs Olympic Dam uranium mine tailings a ranking of “Extreme” consequences category, a ranking that is given for facilities that, if the dam fails, would cause the death of 100 or more people. Despite this extreme risk BHPs proposed additional tailings facility at Olympic Dam was granted approval in 2019 without an environmental assessment.

Uranium tailings threaten the environment, public and workers health and safety across generations. What make them even more dangerous is the push to weaken environmental regulations.

Uranium Mine Rehabilitation

There is no example of a uranium mine in Australia that has been successfully rehabilitated. Mary Kathleen (QLD) and Rum Jungle (NT) Narbalek (NT) have all undergone, to varying degrees, rehabilitation and are all sites with ongoing pollution. The NT and Commonwealth government are now preparing for a third attempt to rehabilitate Rum Jungle which is expected to cost well over $300 million dollars – and it is only expected to reduce, not eliminate, the pollution. For more details on the legacy of Australian uranium mining read the joint submission to the 2020 Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation review.

Australian Uranium Fuelled Fukushima

In October 2011 Dr Robert Floyd, director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirmed “that Australian obligated nuclear material was at the Fukushima Daiichi site and in each of the reactors.”

The UN Secretary-General called on Australia and all uranium producing countries to conduct “an in-depth assessment of the net cost impact of the impacts of mining fissionable material on local communities and ecosystems.”

Uranium Mining and Health

There is a dangerous trend in seeking to normalise uranium which has consequences for health and safety. Establishing a culture that seeks to normalise radioactive material and diminishing the risks puts workers at harm. This is evident in a paper written by consultant radiologist and ARPANSA Radiation Health and Safety Advisory Council member Dr Peter Karamoskos who identifies that it “is estimated that up to 50 per cent of underground uranium miners in Australia do not use their masks, and thus drastically increase their risk of lung cancer while underestimating their actual radiation dose (since this is calculated assuming PPEs are used).”

The most widely accepted model for understanding radiation exposure and health outcomes is the “linear no threshold” which suggests that the greater the radiation exposure the greater the risk of adverse health outcome. Richard Monson Professor of Epidemology at Harvard School of Public Health explains that “The health risks – particularly the development of solid cancers in organs – rise proportionally with exposure. At low doses of radiation, the risk of inducing solid cancers is very small. As the overall lifetime exposure increases, so does the risk.” Workers are exposed to low doses every year.

The BEIR VII report concluded that “there is a linear dose-response relationship between exposure to ionizing radiation and the development of solid cancers in humans. It is unlikely that there is a threshold below which cancers are not induced.”

Uranium Price

uranium price chart and quote on low uranium price

In March 2020 the uranium price began to increase the rise was short lived and has begun to come back down. Following decisions to closure two rectors 10 and 20 years earlier than expected was another blow to the uranium price. Arena reports that “the near-term outlook for the uranium market held by many traders, producers, and utilities immediately shifted from a cautiously optimistic outlook to a more bearish view.”

Cameco the worlds largest uranium producer has said “the decisions many producers, including the lowest-cost producers, have made to preserve long-term value by leaving uranium in the ground.”

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Energy Roadmap and Small Modular Reactors

Today the Federal Minister for Energy Angus Taylor released an energy roadmap. Not only does the roadmap include an unfortunate “watching brief” on Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) – it locks in no new emissions targets and doubles down on supporting and funding fossil fuels. Over 60 groups, representing millions of Australians, made a submission to the federal government calling for urgent action on climate change, supporting renewables and leaving nuclear at the door. The Minister has done the opposite.

Of deep concern is the signalling that the Government will review ‘impediments’ to their ‘stretch targets’ – which includes SMRs. The Ministers comments today about future regulatory changes to remove barriers signals an intent to remove the prohibition on nuclear power which is prudent and popular barrier to nuclear power and SMRs. See more about the risks to the nuclear power ban here Nuclear Ban.

Unsurprisingly the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) has welcomed the energy roadmap in a media release highlighting the mineral industries who will benefit from the energy roadmap. Including uranium, iron ore and bauxite, aluminium, copper, nickel, zinc, base metals, lithium, minerals sands, rare earths and others. The MCA commended the inclusion of SMRs suggesting they could be ready in the next decade for commercial deployment. The energy roadmap has diverted attention to SMRs which are expensive, would produce more nuclear waste per unit of energy, consume as much water per unit of energy as large nuclear reactors with many of the same problems and risks.

The truth about Small Modular Reactors

Adapted from Dr Jim Green.

SMRs would produce more nuclear waste per unit of energy produced compared to large reactors.

A 2016 European Commission document states: “Due to the loss of economies of scale, the decommissioning and waste management unit costs of SMR will probably be higher than those of a large reactor (some analyses state that between two and three times higher).”

The South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission report noted: “SMRs have lower thermal efficiency than large reactors, which generally translates to higher fuel consumption and spent fuel volumes over the life of a reactor.”

Every independent economic assessment finds that electricity from SMRs will be more expensive than that from large reactor.

SMRs will inevitably suffer from diseconomies of scale: a 250 MW SMR will generate 25% as much power as a 1,000 MW reactor  but it will require more than 25% of the material inputs and staffing, and a number of other costs including waste management and decommissioning will be proportionally higher.

A December 2019 report by CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator concluded that wind and solar power, including two to six hours of storage, is two to three times cheaper than power from small reactors per unit of energy produced. Nuclear lobbyists dispute the construction costs that underpin this estimate but, in fact, they are a neat fit with real-world construction costs (as opposed to self-serving industry speculation). Indeed the CSIRO/AEMO estimate is lower than the average cost of small-reactor projects in China, Russia and Argentina.

SMRs in China, Russia and Argentina are, respectively, 2, 4 and 23 times over-budget. None could be described as “very affordable”.

A handful of SMRs are under construction (half of them to power fossil fuel mining operations in the Arctic, the South China Sea and elsewhere).

Private sector investment has been pitiful and the main game is to find governments reckless enough to bet billions of taxpayer dollars on high-risk projects. SMRs under construction are all being built by government agencies.

In a 2017 Lloyd’s Register report based on the insights of almost 600 professionals and experts from utilities, distributors, operators and equipment manufacturers. They predict that SMRs have a “low likelihood of eventual take-up, and will have a minimal impact when they do arrive”.

A 2014 report produced by Nuclear Energy Insider, drawing on interviews with more than 50 “leading specialists and decision makers”, noted a “pervasive sense of pessimism” regarding SMRs.

SMRs will likely use as much water per unit of energy produced compared to large reactors ‒ possibly more due to lower thermal efficiencies. Nuclear power, large or small, is incredibly thirsty: a typical large reactor consumes 35‒65 million litres of water per day. Gas cooling creates its own set of problems and inefficiencies, leading to higher costs ‒ that is why a very large majority of reactors are water-cooled.

SMRs will be subject to the same risks as large reactors. Burying reactors below-grade would add a new set of problems for example:

“Potential fire and explosion hazards: below-grade facilities present unique challenges, such as smoke/fire behavior; life safety; design and operation of the HVAC [heating, ventilating, and air conditioning] system and removal of waste water. Potential flooding hazards: below-grade reactors and subsystems raise concerns with regard to hurricane storm surges, tsunami run-up and water infiltration into structures. Limited access for conducting inspections of pressure vessels and components that are crucial for containing radiation, such as welds, steam generators, bolted connections and valves.

identified by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

Rolls-Royce sharply reduced its small-reactor investment to “a handful of salaries” in 2018 and is threatening to abandon its R&D altogether unless the British government agrees to an outrageous set of demands and subsidies.

There are disturbing connections between small reactor projects and nuclear weapons proliferation. Rolls-Royce provides one example: part of the company’s sales pitch to the British government includes the argument that a civil small-reactor industry in the UK “would relieve the Ministry of Defence of the burden of developing and retaining skills and capability” for its weapons program.

No SMRs are being produced in an off-site factory. No such factories are being built. SMRs are at an early developmental stage. They are not a short-term proposition.

small modular reactors
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What is new nuclear technology really…

The Australian parliament’s ‘inquiry into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia’ in 2019 made the bizarre recommendation to retain the existing ban on nuclear power, but lift a ban on new nuclear technology. The premise of the inquiry was that “new technologies in the field are leading to cleaner, safer and more efficient energy production.” Below is a snapshot of new nuclear technologies – it is clear they are not cleaner, safer, affordable or ready for commercial development.

To the limited extent they have been deployed, these ‘advanced’ nuclear plants have been dangerous, expensive failures. We need urgent action to transition away from fossil fuels and nuclear simply does not meet our needs. Our energy future is renewable not radioactive.

Nuclear power for fossil fuel extraction

Russia, China and Canada are developing new types of reactors for the mining of fossil fuels. In Russia the first floating reactor was launched in 2019 to be used to access fossil fuels in the arctic. China are still developing floating reactors for offshore oil, gas and deep sea mining. And Canada is developing a roadmap for Small Modular Reactors – a key target is for mining tar ‘oil’ sands.

Small Modular Reactors?

Nuclear power proponents often push SMRs as solving many of the barriers to large scale nuclear – but here is why they are a bad idea:

  • they would produce more nuclear waste per unit of energy produced compared to large scale nuclear.
  • SMRs loose economies of scale – it’s been suggested that SMRs are between two and three times more expensive than large reactors.
  • they have lower thermal efficiency – this equated to higher fuel consumption and spent fuel volumes
  • The CSIRO and the Australian Energy Marker Operator reported in December 2019 that wind and solar power, including two to six hours of storage, is two to three times cheaper than power from small reactors per unit of energy produced.
  • SMRs in China, Russia and Argentina are, respectively, 2, 4 and 23 times over-budget. None could be described as “very affordable”

Fast Reactors/ Fast Breeder / Fast Nuetron

Fast breeder or fast neutron reactors and other ‘advanced’ concepts are sometimes called Generation IV concepts. But fast reactors have been around since the dawn of the nuclear age. They are best described as failed Generation I technology ‒ “demonstrably failed technology” in the words of Allison Macfarlane – former Chairman of the chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The number of operating fast reactors reached double figures in the 1980s but has steadily fallen and will remain in single figures for the foreseeable future.

More recently:

  • Terrapower abandoned plans for a prototype not prototypes prototypes fast reactor in China
  • France abandoned plans for a demonstration fast reactor
  • Russia clawed back $4 billion from Rosatom’s budget by postponing its fast neutron reactor program
  • Both the US and UK have rejected proposals for GE Htachi’s PRISM fast reactor technology
  • Currently, just five fast reactors are operating ‒ all of them described by the World Nuclear Association as experimental or demonstration reactors.

Fusion

At best Fusion reactors are decades away and most likely they will forever remain decades away. Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, fusion scientist Dr. Daniel Jassby explains that many of the same problems with fission would exist with fusion ‒ waste, weapons proliferation risks, high water consumption, etc.

Nuclear Waste as Nuclear Fuel?

Attempts to use nuclear waste as fuel have faced big hurdles and left an even bigger mess. The Union of Concerned Scientist report that “Department of Energy (DOE) has spent hundreds of millions of dollars only to magnify, rather than simplify, the waste problem.” Another report by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists says these reactor types “will actually exacerbate spent fuel storage and disposal issues.

Thorium

There are no fundamental differences between thorium and uranium so the idea of replacing the uranium fuel cycle with a thorium fuel cycle is absurd. India’s interest in thorium is clearly connected to its weapons program. Thorium R&D is minimal and the World Nuclear Association notes that there are “significant hurdles in terms of building an economic case to undertake the necessary development work.”

Nuclear Weapons

Proponents of nuclear power dismiss the link to nuclear weapons. Some claim new technology can solve the risk of making weapon grade material. New nuclear technology being trialled in India shows two types of reactors – one which produces weapons grade material, the other relies on weapons grade material to begin the reaction that makes energy. And so the link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons remains strong.

“For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal … then we’d have to put them in so many places we’d run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale.”

Al Gore – Former US Vice President

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Scott Morrisons new laws

Scott Morrison’s government has put forward the “Streamlining environmental approvals bill” which would weaken our national environment laws. The bill would transfer all project approvals to state and territory governments. This includes uranium mine projects.

Ignores its own committees advice

The “Streamlining environmental approvals bill” (August 2020) has been tabled in parliament before the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) review Committee have submitted their final report. The final report is due in October 2020. It also ignores advice from Committee in their Interim Report (July 2020).

The Committee called for ‘national environmental standards’. They called for accreditation systems for state and territory governments laws and processes for project assessments and approvals. Not even these small improvements are included in the bill. Find out more about the Committees proposal and risks for uranium projects.

We need new laws that are stronger not weaker.

And so the sad reality is that we are fighting to protect a system that is deeply flawed and deficient. We should be in progressive discussions about improving our national environmental laws.

Existing laws are failing & new laws are even worse

Existing environmental laws have failed to protect the environment from the threats of uranium mining. Uranium mining in Australia has been plagued with, leaks, spills, accidents and failed attempts to rehabilitate. What is proposed would further weaken this system.

The last four uranium mine approvals under the current system have seen substantial increase in conditions through federal approvals. This shows that state approvals and conditions have been weak. Federal conditions have been stronger – but not strong enough. New laws would remove this layer of federal oversight and ability for the federal government to strengthen approval conditions.

In short this means that there would be no checks and balances for environmental protection. If a state decision is weak there is no federal government role to strengthen conditions for environmental protection.

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No need for nuclear

Plans for renewable energy in Australia are becoming more possible. Firstly, new research shows a 20 year plan to reach between 70 -94% renewable energy by 2040. Secondly, Nuclear reactors take on average 20 years to construct. And so nuclear continues to be a dangerous distraction from real action on climate change.

In 2019 the Climate Energy Council wrote to the Government to argue against nuclear power. They argued that renewables, are cheaper, cleaner, faster and more popular. The CEC explained that nuclear continually fails to meet key criteria on social license and cost.

Climate Energy Council on nuclear power
Climate Energy Council 2019 – Parliamentary Inquiry into nuclear power.

There is overwhelming support for renewable energy in Australia. In 2019 over 60 organisations representing millions of Australians called for urgent transition to clean renewable energy. The statement there was a detailed description of why nuclear is not the solution to the climate crisis we face.

“The transition to clean, safe, renewable energy should also re-power the national economy. The development and commercialisation of manufacturing, infrastructure and new energy thinking is already generating employment and opportunity. This should be grown to provide skilled and sustainable jobs and economic activity, particularly in regional Australia.”

Joint Statement to the Parliamentary Inquiry on nuclear power.

Our energy future is renewable not radioactive. And we’re already doing it. Over the last 10 years renewable capacity in Australia has grown by 12% each year. Meanwhile this growth has been despite big road blocks and lack of leadership from government. Imagine what could happen with government support!

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nuclear power push & mining interests

The push to lift the ban on nuclear power in Australia has been driven by interests in uranium mining. This push is less about climate change and more about lifting the uranium price. The slump in uranium price since the Fukushima nuclear disaster has stopped a number of mines and forced others into suspension.

The Minerals Council of Australia has (as the AFR explain) waged a campaign to lift the ban on nuclear power. In the MCA Climate Change plan 2020 they promote advancing “nuclear solutions.” The MCA has released “untapped potential” promoting nuclear and uranium mining. They have promised to “advocate for the lifting of the nuclear energy ban in Australia.”

You don’t have to look far to see why the MCA has a sudden interest. They have at least 11 member groups who are uranium companies. Lifting the ban on nuclear power they believe would drive up the uranium price. The MCA also represent at least 14 coal companies. So is the MCA interested in climate change solutions. Or are they just looking out for a small number of marginal companies?

The uranium companies include: Boss Resources. BHP. Cameco Australia. Cauldron Energy. Deep Yellow. Heathgate Resources. Energy Resources Australia. Paladin Energy. Rio Tinto. Toro Energy and Vimy Resources.

Executives from BHP, Rio Tinto and Vimy Resources all hold board positions with the MCA. Previously executives from Toro Energy and Cameco were on the MCA board. And so it is not surprising the MCA has adopted a pro nuclear position.

nuclear power flyer