Is nuclear energy an important weapon in the fight against climate change – or a toxic white elephant?

Mike Young sometimes wonders why nuclear power has become such an accepted part of life in his native Canada, when it is still so deeply controversial in his adopted home, Australia.

After all, he notes, Canada and Australia are remarkably similar in their size, heritage and political sensitivity, and both have the largest reserves of the nuclear fuel uranium in the developed world.

But despite all the similarities between the two countries, the entrenched attitudes towards nuclear power could hardly be more different, and Mr Young believes that one of the answers may be simple.

“The British did not test nuclear weapons in Canada,” says the former uranium mine leader, referring to the test regime carried out in Australia in the 1950s.

Renewed interest in nuclear power

Interest in the potential of nuclear power has grown in some circles as the winds of change shoot across the world’s energy system in the shift towards a carbon-neutral future.

aerial view of the Ranger uranium mine
The Northern Territory’s Ranger was Australia’s largest uranium mine until it stopped this year.(Delivered: ERA)

Attention is centered on the emission-free nature of nuclear power, which, in contrast to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, can produce around the clock regardless of the weather.

For Mr Young, it is a property that should put the nuclear option on the table as the world tries to get rid of fossil fuels such as coal, diesel and gas.

“It has to be part of the mix,” Mr. Young.

“You have to remember that in 2050 the forecast is that we will double the electricity demand.

Around the world, nuclear power covers about 10 percent of energy demand, a figure that has remained relatively stable for decades.

While countries that were once major producers of nuclear power, such as Japan and Germany, have reduced or closed their industry, others have eagerly pursued the technology.

Among them are a host of developing countries such as China, the United Arab Emirates and India, where dozens of plants worth ten billion dollars are in the pipeline.

Atomic energy costs ‘crippling’

But conspicuous by their absence are developed countries rushing to build new nuclear power plants.

And it’s no coincidence, according to financial analyst Tim Buckley, who says nuclear power cannot compete with renewable energy in the competition for investor cash.

A man in a suit is standing outside on a bright day.
Tim Buckley says nuclear power is not economically connected.(ABC News: Daniel Irvine)

Mr. Buckley is the Director of Energy Finance Studies for Australia at the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), a think tank funded by environmental philanthropists.

He said the high capital costs of nuclear power plants and their tendency to suffer from budget and time blows made them uneconomical.

“The cost of nuclear power is almost always double what anyone estimates,” Mr Buckley said.

“Why? Because a company can not take $ 20 billion.

“And we are not talking Australian dollars; we are talking euros, or pounds or US dollars – serious money.

“No business can afford it, especially if there is a 10-year delay.”

According to Mr Buckley, long delays in construction meant that interest costs often became crippling for nuclear power plants.

He pointed to the litany of bankruptcies and high-profile exits from companies such as GE, Toshiba and the French giant Areva to argue that the nuclear industry was a “cemetery” for companies.

‘Keep existing facilities running’

An electric pylon carries power from a nuclear power plant in the UK
Proponents say replacing coal with nuclear power will cover transmission costs.(Source: Unknown)

Despite this, Mr Buckley said existing nuclear power plants should be allowed to run as long as possible because they would help curb global emissions.

Referring to an article by guru for clean energy, Michael Liebreich, he said it was “criminal” for Germany to move to shut down its nuclear energy industry – a move that had increased the country’s dependence on coal-fired energy and imports of nuclear power from France.

And Mr Buckley, a former investment banker, said that despite all the publicity they generated, nuclear disasters like the 2011 Fukushima meltdown in Japan were unusually rare.

“Where you have well-managed, properly monitored, independently regulated nuclear power that has already had the massive investment in being built, let them run for as long as they can,” he said.

“Ultimately, it’s probably more important to have a planet that can be lived than the risk of a Fukushima, so let’s actually go for a lively planet and stop lignite (lignite) first, stop coal second and nuclear power third.”

Tania Constable, chair of the industry lobby Minerals Council of Australia, said she doubted the world could reach its net zero targets within the next 30 years without an increase in nuclear power.

Ms Constable said Australia was well equipped to take advantage of any increase in nuclear power demand given its significant reserves of yellow cake.

To that end, she noted that there were several uranium mining projects across Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland awaiting behind the scenes.

Opportunity for Australian miners

She said the key would be a sustained rise in prices, which has been under pressure since 2011 but has risen in recent months.

Nuclear power - Price graph
The prices of spot and contracturan have risen for the first time in years.(Delivered: Cameco)

“Because we’ve seen the price of uranium rise, the companies that have got projects in the mothballs … are now almost at the point where they can make decisions about moving projects back into operation,” she said.

“I think it’s a big thing for states, a big thing for industry, and it’s necessary if we want to see reliable, clean energy globally.”

While nuclear power has been characterized by gigantic plants capable of producing up to 12 gigawatts at a time – enough to meet a third of the demand in the national electricity market – Mrs Constable said the industry was changing.

She said there was significant work underway to develop so-called small modular reactors that could replace coal-fired power plants and even operate remote towns and mining sites.

That is a view repeated by Mr Young, who until this year was driving the WA uranium mine hopeful Vimy.

He believes that small reactors are likely to have a much brighter future than the mega-plants of the past, and says that modular versions would be cheaper and easier to build and install.

And he suggested that modular plants could help create a more sympathetic view of nuclear power in Australia, which differs from many developed countries by not having nuclear energy.

Young said public hostility to nuclear power seemed to be waning, pointing to the Morrison administration’s decision to buy nuclear-powered submarines and Labor’s support for the proposal as evidence.

Navy personnel stand on top of a U.S. Navy submarine sitting in a harbor
Australia has agreed to buy nuclear-powered submarines from the United States or Britain.(AP: US Navy / File)

“The problem is building big reactors in a country like Australia is just not going to happen,” he said.

“But what is happening is the development of small modular reactors.

“And if you do that where the coal mines are, you’ve already got all your (piles and wires) in, and you don’t have to build a whole new transmission system.”

Future ‘renewable, not nuclear power’

Sir. Buckley remains unconvinced by the arguments for small nuclear reactors.

He said the technology had not yet been proven at a pilot stage let alone a commercial level.

Sir. Buckley said the cost of renewable energy would continue to fall, making other options, including nuclear power, unsustainable.

“This is not a single plant in operation in the world, and there is a very good chance that there will not even be a small-scale nuclear reactor demonstration plant this decade,” Mr Buckley said.

Faced with claims that nuclear power was required to replace the base load production of coal and gas, Mr Buckley was just as straightforward.

He said a combination of technologies and strategies would support the network’s shift to net zero.

The cost of solar panels has fallen over the past decade, which has accelerated uptake.(Delivered by: APA Group)

Among these were several high-voltage rods and wires to accommodate ever-increasing amounts of renewable energy, storage services such as batteries and “pumped-hydro” schemes, and a properly designed electric car policy.

He acknowledged that gas-fired power plants would also be needed for some time to come.

However, he argued that nuclear power would not be necessary.

“If we use imagination, if we use engineers, if we use the web, if we use technology, if we use artificial intelligence, the reality is that the web will be far more resilient in 10 years than it is today,” he said. .

“I’m not saying the system can work 100 percent continuously tomorrow, but … it needs to be ready for it because it’s coming, whether you like it or not.”


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