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Energy Insights

Nuclear Power: The Dinosaur Competitor To Renewable Energy

Opinion: Bruce Macfarlane

Australia faces an energy dilemma, as the country transitions to a low-carbon economy. Creaking from old thermal generation, to new, low cost renewables the question is, how can we be certain the lights will stay on? Since the 70's nuclear power has been talked about as a baseload solution. Initially stopped by placard wielding greenies, today it's business fundamentals that stop nuclear from becoming part of Australia's generation mix. Simply put, nuclear power costs too much and takes too long to build.

Advanced nuclear reactors cost estimates are $7,850 for every kilowatt of capacity. That means a large 1-gigawatt reactor would cost around $7.9 billion to build. Compare that to a large utility wind turbine costing about $1,900 to $3,200 per kilowatt and the maths doesn't add up.

Timelines for nuclear power are longer than renewable energy alternatives. Estimates and experience of nuclear generation build times are between 6 to 10 years. But that doesn't include approval processes that can add another 10 years to a project's timeline. Renewable planning processes are around 4 years, and build times for solar and wind farms are 6 to 12 months. The result, renewable energy projects are quicker than nuclear to build.

Finally, environmental risk makes nuclear less attractive than renewable energy. Posing both catastrophic risk from accidents, and long term risk from the storage of nuclear waste.

Key Takeaways

  • Nuclear power is not a cost-effective solution compared to renewable energy sources.
  • The risks associated with nuclear power outweigh the benefits.
  • The future of energy lies in renewable energy sources, which are becoming cheaper and more accessible.

The Cost Factor

Nuclear power has long been touted as a viable option for low-carbon electricity generation, but the economics of it are not as straightforward as some proponents make them out to be. In Australia, the case for nuclear power doesn't add up, and one of the main reasons for this is the cost factor.

Comparing Costs of Nuclear and Renewable Energy

While nuclear power can be cost-competitive with other forms of electricity generation, such as coal and gas, it is not always cheaper than renewable energy sources. According to the World Nuclear Association, the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) for nuclear power plants ranges from US$112 to US$189 per megawatt hour (MWh), depending on the project. By comparison, the LCOE for wind and solar power is now below US$50 per MWh in many parts of the world, and these costs are continuing to fall.

Nuclear power cost is highly dependent on the specific project and location. For example, the cost of building a new nuclear plant in the UK is estimated at £20 billion, while the cost of building a new wind farm is around £2 billion. This means that the business case for nuclear power is often weaker than that of renewable energy sources.

The Hidden Costs

As well as nuclear power's direct build and operational costs, there are also hidden costs that must be taken into account. Nuclear power requires large amounts of water for cooling, which would be difficult in Australia's dry climate. And highly radioactive nuclear waste must be stored securely for thousands of years.

Nuclear power plant subsidies distort the true cost of nuclear energy. In the US, over US$100 billion has been spent on nuclear subsidies since the 1940s, according to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Subsidies that have propped up an otherwise uneconomic industry.

Renewable Energy: A Cheaper Solution

Renewable energy generation has been the project of choice for over a decade. With the local industry kick-started by green levies, their momentum has increased as costs have reduced.

Solar and Wind Energy

Solar and wind energy are the two primary renewable energy sources in Australia. With solar panel costs dramatically falling they've become accessible to homeowners and businesses. Meanwhile there has been a rush of wind farms connecting to the grid.

The impact, in 2022 total electricity generation in Australia was 273,265 gigawatt hours (GWh) , up 2% from 2021. Renewable sources contributed 88,208 GWh, making up 32% of Australia's total electricity generation, and up three percentage points on 2021. In 2012, renewable energy made up only 13 percent of Australia's electricity generation.

Renewable energy has increased generation uncertainty into the energy market. A portfolio approach needs to be taken to make sure that renewable energy can ramp up and down as sunshine and wind conditions change. This need for generation certainty has driven the need for offshore wind farms where windy conditions are more certain.

A report by the Blue Economy Cooperative Research Centre found that more than 2,000 GW of offshore wind turbines could be installed in areas in Australia that are within 100 km of existing electricity substations. The report said there were 10 offshore wind projects with a combined capacity of 25 GW in development in Australia, all at an early stage. The most advanced is the $10 billion Star of the South, a 2.2 GW wind farm planned for between 7 km and 25 km offshore.

Renewable energy's momentum continues as costs fall. Unlike nuclear power, renewable energy challenges are physical grid-connection rather than economics.

The Risk Factor

Nuclear power plants generate electricity by using nuclear reactors to produce heat, which then drives turbines to create electricity. While nuclear power has been touted as a clean and efficient energy source, it comes with significant environmental risks.

Accidents and Nuclear Waste

Headline grabbing nuclear accident risk is the primary issue for most people. Ukraine's 1986 Chernobyl disaster and the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan highlighted the catastrophic nature of nuclear accidents. The Chernobyl disaster resulted in the release of radioactive materials causing widespread environmental damage and health problems for people in the surrounding area. Similarly, the Fukushima disaster resulted in the release of radioactive materials that led to the evacuation of thousands of people and caused significant environmental damage.

That accident risk impacts nuclear waste storage. While the likelihood of disaster is low, the timelines for storage are vast, meaning that the law of truly large numbers applies. Thousand year waste storage lifetimes mean even highly unlikely events could happen. While a Mad Max scenario seems fantasy today, we can't know what the future holds.

Decommissioning and Regulation

When a nuclear power plant reaches the end of its life, it must be decommissioned and the site cleaned up. An expensive and time-consuming process that creates the risk of radioactive contamination.

Nuclear risks need regulation to make sure of safe operations. Because Australia does not have utility scale nuclear generation, legislation, regulation, and safety codes have gaps. Even with regulation and safety procedures, in the real world there remains the risk of human error or equipment failure.

- Generates electricity without producing greenhouse gas emissions
- Can produce large amounts of electricity
- Can operate continuously
- Potential for catastrophic accidents
- Produces highly radioactive nuclear waste
- Expensive and time-consuming decommissioning process
- Strict regulations can be difficult to enforce

The Global Perspective

Nuclear Power in Developed Countries

Countries such as France, South Korea, and the United States have long relied on nuclear plants to generate electricity. France generates over 70% of its electricity from nuclear power, making it the world's largest user of nuclear energy. South Korea generates around 30% of its electricity from nuclear power, while the United States generates around 20%.

Germany, on the other hand, has decided to phase out nuclear power by 2022, following the Fukushima disaster in Japan. The Biden administration in the United States has not ruled out nuclear plants, but has stated that it will focus on developing renewable energy sources.

Nuclear Power in Developing Countries

Developing countries such as India and China are investing heavily in nuclear plants as they seek to meet their growing energy demands. India aims to increase its nuclear power capacity from the current 6,000 MW to 63,000 MW by 2032. China, which currently generates around 5% of its electricity from nuclear power, plans to increase this to 10% by 2020.

However, there are concerns about the safety and cost of nuclear power in developing countries. The World Nuclear Industry Status Report has warned that nuclear power projects in developing countries are often plagued by delays, cost overruns, and safety issues.

In addition, some countries such as South Korea and Japan have faced public opposition to nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster. The recent decision by the state of Illinois in the United States to close its nuclear power plants due to economic concerns highlights the challenges facing the nuclear industry.

Overall, while nuclear power remains an important source of energy for many countries, the case for nuclear power is increasingly being questioned in the face of cheaper and safer renewable energy sources.

Environmental Impact

Nuclear power plants are often touted as a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels, but the reality is that they are far from environmentally friendly. This section will explore the environmental impact of nuclear power, including its carbon emissions, impact on public health, and air quality.

Carbon Emissions

While nuclear power plants do not emit carbon dioxide during operation, the process of mining, refining, and transporting uranium fuel generates significant emissions. In fact, the carbon footprint of nuclear power is comparable to that of natural gas power plants, and much higher than that of wind or solar power.

Further, nuclear power plant construction needs significant amounts of concrete and steel, both carbon-intensive materials. The entire life cycle of a nuclear power plant, from construction to decommissioning, generates a substantial amount of greenhouse gas emissions.

Impact on Public Health

Nuclear power plants pose a significant risk to public health, both in terms of accidents and routine operation. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster and the 2011 Fukushima disaster are two of the most well-known nuclear accidents, but there have been numerous other incidents that have resulted in radiation leaks and exposure.

Even routine operation of nuclear power plants can have negative health effects. The process of mining and refining uranium can release radioactive particles into the air and water, which can cause cancer and other diseases. Additionally, nuclear power plants generate radioactive waste that remains dangerous for thousands of years, and there is no safe way to dispose of it.

Air Quality

Nuclear power plants do not emit air pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, or particulate matter, which are major contributors to air pollution and respiratory diseases. However, the process of uranium mining and refining can release other harmful pollutants, including radon and other radioactive materials.

Nuclear power plants need significant amounts of water for cooling, which can have negative impacts on aquatic ecosystems and water quality. In areas where water is scarce, nuclear power plants can exacerbate water shortages and contribute to desertification.

So while nuclear power plants may appear to be a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels, they do impact the environment. From carbon emissions to public health risks, nuclear power presents significant challenges that must be addressed if we are to achieve decarbonization and mitigate the effects of global warming. As the world prepares for the COP26 climate summit, it is important to consider the full environmental impact of nuclear power and explore alternative solutions that are truly sustainable.

The Future of Energy

As the world moves towards a low-carbon future, the energy sector is undergoing significant changes to meet the increasing demand for zero-carbon electricity. The future of energy lies in innovation and technological advancements, government support and policy.

Innovation and Technological Advancements

Innovation and technological advancements are driving the energy sector towards a sustainable future. The development of battery technology, for instance, has revolutionised the energy storage industry, making it possible to store energy from renewable sources and use it when needed. The use of hydrogen as a fuel source is also gaining popularity, with many countries investing in research and development to make it a viable alternative to fossil fuels.

Government Support and Policy

Government support and policy play a crucial role in shaping the future of energy. The price on carbon emissions, for example, encourages the use of low-carbon power sources such as renewables and nuclear power. The Paris Agreement has set ambitious climate goals, which require significant changes in the way electricity is generated and consumed.

In deregulated markets, the business case for nuclear power doesn't add up. Cheap natural gas and the increasing capacity of renewables are making it difficult for nuclear power to compete. Moreover, the cost of nuclear waste disposal and the location of nuclear power plants pose significant challenges.

In Australia, the case for nuclear power doesn't add up. The country has abundant natural resources, including solar, wind, and uranium, which can be used to generate electricity. The government's focus on renewables and the lack of public support for nuclear power make it an unviable option.

In conclusion, the future of energy lies in innovation, technological advancements, and government support and policy. While nuclear power may have a role to play in some countries, it doesn't add up in Australia's energy mix. The energy sector must continue to evolve to meet the increasing demand for zero-carbon electricity and achieve the ambitious climate goals set by the international community.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Is nuclear power a viable option for Australia?

While nuclear power has been used successfully in other countries, it is not a viable option for Australia. The country has abundant renewable energy resources that are cheaper and safer than nuclear power. Australia is also prone to natural disasters, such as bushfires and earthquakes, which increase the risk of a nuclear accident.

2. What are the costs associated with building a nuclear power plant?

Building a nuclear power plant is a costly and time-consuming process. The construction of a single nuclear power plant can cost billions of dollars and take up to a decade to complete. The cost of decommissioning a nuclear power plant is also high, and the storage of nuclear waste is an ongoing expense.

3. What are the biggest arguments against nuclear energy?

The biggest arguments against nuclear energy are the risks associated with nuclear accidents, the high cost of building and maintaining nuclear power plants, and the storage of nuclear waste. Nuclear accidents can have catastrophic consequences, as seen in the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters. The cost of building and maintaining nuclear power plants is also high, and the storage of nuclear waste is a major environmental concern.

4. What are the potential risks associated with nuclear power?

The potential risks associated with nuclear power include nuclear accidents, nuclear waste storage, and nuclear proliferation. Nuclear accidents can have catastrophic consequences, as seen in the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters. The storage of nuclear waste is also a major environmental concern, as it remains radioactive for thousands of years. Nuclear proliferation is also a concern, as nuclear technology can be used to create weapons.

5. How does nuclear energy compare to other renewable energy sources?

Nuclear energy is not a renewable energy source, as it relies on the mining and processing of uranium. In terms of emissions, nuclear energy produces less carbon dioxide than fossil fuels but more than most renewable energy sources. Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are becoming increasingly cheaper and more efficient, making them a more viable option for Australia.

6. What are the findings of the CSIRO report on nuclear energy?

The CSIRO report on nuclear energy found that nuclear power is not a cost-effective or viable option for Australia. The report stated that renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are cheaper and more efficient than nuclear power. The report also highlighted the risks associated with nuclear accidents and the storage of nuclear waste.

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