So, you want a nuclear power station?

Every so often, somebody talks up the nuclear option as being something that we need to do to ensure the future economic prosperity of the State. Such pronouncements are never accompanied by any detail on how nuclear power will ensure that future. There is never any projected data, or proposals on what could be done to support the statement. Does making such statements make them real because they are simply uttered? Frequently, these statements cite similar pronouncements from other, like-minded, proponents as evidence of the correctness of their own comments. Words like “inevitable” and “no alternative” or “only viable course” are included and a seemingly “sound argument” is made. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The argument for nuclear power is economically, technically, environmentally and politically unsound. What politician is going to commit to nuclear power then have something like Fukushima happen again? And it will; that is the only thing inevitable about the nuclear option – something will go wrong. What’s more, financial and political risks have been clearly demonstrated by the 1.6GW Olkiluoto Plant, Stations 1 and 2, in Finland. At a cost of about (AUS)$12b so far, four times its original budget, the project has severely damaged the credibility of nuclear power. “Unforeseen technical issues” in a known and existing design keep holding things up. But why? It is a known design. Building a third plant, a well known Gen3 type, has run into similar problems and, at this stage, it is questionable if it will ever generate a single volt of its design capacity of 880MW. This surely reflects poorly on the potentialities of a Gen4 plant meeting all its stated goals; and increases the political risks enormously.

Economically, the cost of construction of a nuclear power plant pales when compared to the decommissioning costs. Only construction is discussed, decommissioning costs are never mentioned, as each plant is different. The French Brennilis Plant, a 75 MW power plant closed in 1985, had cost  €480 million ($(Au)700m and 20 times the estimated costs) in decommissioning by 2005 and is still being “dismantled”. That is close to $(Au)10m per MW capacity so, if relative, at 1.5GW, the decommissioning cost could reach $(Au)15B. There can be no way that a $(Au)27B cost can be translated into “cheap power”. Realistically though, few nuclear plants last for their projected life span, so we have no way of knowing what costs or risks would be incurred in the last decade of operations. This is important as our need to make a nuclear power plant viable means it is desirable that it have an operating life-span of no less than sixty years.

Accidents have closed far too many plants, but some plants, like Canada’s Gentilly-1 had a service life of only 180 days because of construction and commissioning flaws. Economic circumstances change and a number of constructions have been halted, considered impracticable for the longer life required. We just cannot be sure that the same will not happen to any nuclear plant we may commit to.

Planning for a sixty year life span is, demonstrably, not practicable. Again, another issue never been discussed by proponents. It is not the nuclear pile that is an issue; it is gauges to view operating conditions, pumps to keep it cool, valves to regulate cooling flows and pipes operating under pressure. Valves freeze open, or shut, pumps stop, or do not stop pumping, gauges do not always reveal true states and pipes can split, or burst. A poor systems design, cheap valve and non-stop pumping is why Three Mile Island leaked with a partial melt-down just five years after opening. Faulty valves and gauges contributed to the Chernobyl disaster. Human error, coupled with unforeseen design flaws produced disastrous results. Many other nuclear plants have had accidents with far less spectacular outcomes, but have had similar causes. Those events have still managed to close plants for long periods or even permanently. So what economic or technical advantage does a nuclear power plant offer?

The discussion on construction is always about jobs and technical skills, but who talks about a dollar cost? At around $(AUS)12B to replace the 1.3GW Torrens Island Power station, can we afford to take such a gamble? With careful planning, the same money could be invested in solar thermal stations. We will need more than just one plant, rather a number of smaller power plants spread out in planned placements and supportive of each other. If one is out of commission, the others can alleviate any problems. If a single nuclear plant is out of commission, that will affect everyone. Obviously, there are large questions about the economic advantage or benefit of a nuclear power plant, but failure can be economically devastating.

In the late 1990’s, the Howard government commissioned a “Review of Uranium Mining Processing and Nuclear Energy in Australia”. The unstated idea was to justify expansion of uranium mining and introducing nuclear power to Australia. The report dutifully recommended constructing nuclear power plants to meet the projected power needs of Australia after 2050. The report recognized that not one of those plants will run without “substantial” public subsidies. What “substantial” amounts to is unknown, but it means that nuclear power plants are not self-sustaining, profitable ventures. In short, the return on investment in the Australian market was too small for a private company to sustain, when compared to the size of that investment. At around $8B per GW, that is $560B to build the 70GW of power estimated as the national requirement by 2050. Clearly that is unreasonable in a single project. The matter was subsequently dropped, only to have the lunatic fringe pick it up.

Solar thermal is currently the most viable renewable alternative, but will be of a similar construction cost. To offset that, there are much larger, more immediate, technical and economic benefits for SA. A solar thermal plant can be operating within five years, the most obvious advantage. We should work towards ensuring that as much of such a plant as we can get is built here in our own State. The only limitation should be the availability of required raw materials. (That said, the local manufacturing of solar panels for household sales would provide a tangible economic benefit as well as reduce demand on any power station.) As well, there are no decommissioning costs to a plant that can be renewed, or refurbished every six or seven decades to be equally, or more productive. Solar technologies will continue to improve, thereby reducing costs. By contrast, nuclear technology is not likely to improve without enormous cost, so capacity in a solar thermal plant is likely to grow relatively cheaply. Added to that, there is no refueling costs, only conversion and distribution costs. While the initial investment is similar to nuclear power, actual generation costs per MW of energy will decline as the conversion technology improves.  (I once read that research for solar technologies has had less than 1% of the money spent on nuclear research – how true or accurate that is is anyone’s guess, but it sounds good.)

Technically, a Gen4 plant using thorium, not uranium, may be much better than anything gone before; a more useful design, but the concept will not be proven for decades. At best, it will be thirty plus years for such a plant to be producing energy. This is something the pro-nuclear experts agree on.

Environmentally, the fast breeder reactors produce much less waste. But they produce weapons grade plutonium as a by-product. Plutonium,  Pu-238 has a half life of 88 years, Pu-239 lasts for 24,000 years, and Pu-240 is 6,500 years. Do we really want such dangerous materials in SA for 24,000 years?

While Professor Barry Brooke, formerly UniSA, assures us that the Gen4 plants will not produce a catastrophe like Chernobyl or Fukushima, he makes no comment about another tragedy, Bophal. Recently, it was announced that planned Gen4 plants would likely be using highly toxic coolants. There may be no radiation leaks, but what would happen if coolant escapes? What long term impact could that have on soils, or water tables? Solar thermal plants can only leak salt and water, and in the places where such plants will need to be located, the water may actually have a small benefit. The salt would have insignificant effect in comparison and be easily retrieved.

Obviously, a power generating plant will produce the amount of energy it is designed to produce, but what if need increases? Coal and oil plants, like Torrens Island can be scaled up, as can solar thermal plants, easily, and relatively quickly. Nuclear power plants cannot. There is no real technical advantage to a nuclear power plant here either.

One issue we have ignored is that the nuclear debate is hopelessly mired in half-truths, prejudice, emotive position taking and a lack of genuine or consistent technical advance or otherwise to support one side or the other. This is stalling our forward progress, we do need to be making decisions, taking action, now. We cannot wait for a nuclear plant that we are unlikely to afford. We can afford a small solar thermal station of 300-400MW, and when that is finished and in production, we can look at the situation again. We do not need to concentrate so much investment into one generating station that will damage the State if it fails. We can gradually replace current generating capacity over the same period we would be waiting for a nuclear power station, if we chose to. If the nuclear option does become viable, with Gen4 plants, we may decide to invest in a smaller nuclear plant to offer a mix of technologies that will ensure sufficient energy for future use.

This strategy clearly provides significant financial, employment, technical advantages in the short term while offering much more flexible options in the longer term. It is a more definite direction to move forward than we have now.



About colinfraser

I claim the title of educator, because I want to be more than "just" a teacher.
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