October 14, 2009

Nuclear Energy Key To Future

More than 50 years ago, Australia was set to become the first nation south of the equator to build and operate a nuclear power plant to generate electricity.

About 60 countries are preparing for the Copenhagen climate conference next December equipped with a unique measure of economic assurance and environmental confidence. These are the developed and developing nations that have embraced greenhouse friendly nuclear power as a significant part of their present and future energy policies. By so doing, they will have ensured low-cost and reliable energy security for their industries and private consumers. As well, they will be operating cost-effective emissions trading schemes and laughing all the way to a potential international "carbon bank". The world is bemused that Australia is not in this group.

More than 50 years ago, Australia was set to become the first nation south of the equator to build and operate a nuclear power plant to generate electricity. Sadly, this project and many other planned ventures connected with the technology and commercialisation of the global nuclear industry have not gone ahead. This incredible neglect has been largely due to poor education, the pressures of Australia's hydrocarbon lobby, the pseudo-science of the "renewables" special interest groups and the politics of fear and risk beloved by Australia's "radical greens".

On April 18, 1958, prime minister Robert Menzies opened the Australian Atomic Energy Commission's (AAEC) Research Laboratories at Lucas Heights near Sydney. He challenged the nation to "enter the nuclear age". His vision was shared by Sir Philip Baxter, the first vice-chancellor of the University of NSW and the first chairman of the AAEC. In 1964, Australia's first and only school of nuclear engineering was established at the University of NSW.

For three decades the staff of the school at Kensington and the nuclear engineering division of the AAEC at Lucas Heights were in the forefront of global nuclear research. The university group taught hundreds of Australian and overseas students and published peer-reviewed and internationally acclaimed technical papers, books and theses. In 1982 these included the role of nuclear power in averting global warming and its great importance to Australia to produce electrical energy, potable water and hydrogen.

In 1988, the mandate for civilian nuclear power development was withdrawn from the AAEC and the school of nuclear engineering was closed. This happened even though its staff had played a key role in developing Australia's superb uranium mining industry from the Ranger Uranium Inquiry (1976,) through to development of Olympic Dam and the Northern Territory and Queensland uranium resources.

A secure, clean and cheap energy future for Australia in which nuclear power plays a pivotal role is a categorical imperative. Uranium should be recognised in the Rudd Government's carbon pollution reduction scheme bill as the most valuable and cost-effective form of "carbon offset". And a national energy policy embracing the nuclear fuel cycle deserves bipartisan support. However, locking into a national emissions trading scheme before the international cap- and-trade insights that might be gained at Copenhagen is foolish. It could become a non-productive exercise irrespective of the econometric models used.

Professor Ross Garnaut's final report - released at the end of September 2008 - concedes that nuclear power could supply more than one-quarter of Australia's electricity needs by 2020 if a proposed policy based on "clean coal" and "renewables" fails. But he questions the technology on economic grounds and restates his earlier convictions that Australia is "not the logical first home of a new nuclear capacity". This is one of the many areas in which he and the Rudd Government are at odds with expert world opinion.

Recent data from the US Department of Energy underlines the huge advantages of uranium. The carbon production from coal-fired plants in the US was cited as 0.86 tonnes for one megawatt-hour of electricity production. The figure for gas-fired plants was 0.36 tonnes while that for nuclear plants was 0.005 tonnes. And the outstanding performance of the 104 nuclear power stations in the US during 2008 included a 98 per cent capacity factor and an unmatchable generating cost of 1.68 cents per kilowatt hour. No wonder regulatory processes are well in place for another 25 nuclear plants.

In April this year, Sydney hosted the World Nuclear Fuel Cycle Conference. The Chinese delegation was led by the president of China Nuclear Energy Industry, Dr Chen Xinyang. China has an amazing energy and carbon reduction policy based largely on nuclear power. Eleven nuclear plants are already in operation. It is planned to have possibly 100 plants by 2030. China is developing an energy policy based on gradual replacement of its immensely polluting coal-fired plants with nuclear. At the same time it is ensuring its energy security with Australian uranium.

The Australian Government should heed the advice given at the December 2007 Bali climate conference.

Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN framework convention on climate change, said: ''I have never seen a credible scenario for reducing emissions that did not include nuclear energy."

Australia's 15 uranium trading partners - including the world's "greatest polluters" China and the US - have already embraced nuclear energy and should be an example to follow for all Copenhagen delegates.

Professor Leslie Kemeny is Australian foundation member of the International Nuclear Energy Academy.

Source: The Age

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