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Food for Thought 3

Reaction Time and the Nuclear Option

Arctic IceOnly a few years ago Arctic Ice survey scientists were predicting that all the Arctic ice shelf would disappear by the year 2100. The vast majority of us will not live to see that so it is not hard to understand how we may feel disconnected from the direness of such warnings. In recent weeks however that prediction has been revised by the scientists to the year 2030. What is happening in the arctic and in the world’s glaciers (where much of the earth’s fresh water is stored) is known as the albedo effect, whereby as things warm up – even incrementally – the ice melts leaving less ice to reflect the sun’s rays. This means more heat absorption by the oceans and so more melting more quickly and so on … in a dangerous feedback loop.

Significant global challenges will flow from that – devastation to biodiversity and ecosystems (so long, farewell to the now iconic polar bears and friends) and devastation also for human communities from rises in sea levels that would inundate low level lands across the globe. This in turn would lead to millions needing to find elsewhere to live. Cause, effect, cause, effect … ad infinitum. And yet this is but one signal among many that tells us time is running out to turn around global warming.

Nuclear PlantOne of the energy options being put forward as a response to the need to move to a low or zero carbon world, one that has gained support from some power elites in government and the mining sector in recent times, is nuclear energy. Ian Lowe, physicist, thinker, educator and Emeritus Professor of science technology and society at Griffith University, is someone who knows his science and engineering and who has travelled a journey from initial support of nuclear power in the 1970s to advocating for the whole nuclear industry to be shut down for the sake of us all.

Ian Lowe’s Quarterly Essay, Reaction Time – Climate Change and the Nuclear Option, lays out the case against a nuclear future and in doing so decimates the arguments for a nuclear future as a response to climate change. The case he puts is not emotive at all but based in clear, critical analysis of the science, the economics and the geopolitics.

Reaction Time book coverHe points out that the nuclear option is:

  • not viable economically – the economics just don’t stack up. It would require massive taxpayer subsidies and its true costs include decommissioning plants in the future (while the plants may have a 50 year lifespan, the decommissioning costs are never factored into the equation, nor is the actual cost of setting up infrastructure to store the waste safely for ¾ of a million years). Even the Howard Government’s Finance Minister, Nick Minchin, claimed that nuclear power would not be viable for at least 100 years!

  • too slow. Even if we decided tomorrow to go ahead with building plants it is accepted that it would take in the order of 10 to 25 years to get one up and running. Even in the most aggressive nuclear scenario of 25 reactors mooted by the Prime Minister’s pro nuclear report the nuclear option would only have the potential to reduce the growth of our greenhouse pollution by 8-18%. We need to reduce total emissions not just reduce the growth in emissions. Compare this with the readily available technologies of wind and some solar (a large wind turbine takes a year to build and solar hot water systems can be installed next week).

  • too dangerous. Wherever civil nuclear industries have been set up, weapons programs have not been far behind. Weapons proliferation is a real and present danger especially in times where security issues with non state actors have come to the fore. Nuclear accidents occur. Chernobyl today is still a vast wasteland and will be for many millennia to come.

  • not carbon free. There is significantly large carbon expenditure in getting plants built in the first place, not to mention the carbon resources required to mine and process the uranium. Water is also a precious resource required for the whole nuclear lifecycle from mines to decommissioning of mines and reactors.

  • limited by limited uranium. Best estimates show high grade ore could supply present needs for only 50 years.

Given the case set out in Reaction Time we have to ask: why is nuclear really being put forward as an important answer to the energy needs of Australia and the world? In the tried and tested way of social analysis we need to ask … Who wins in the nuclear scenario? Who and what loses in the nuclear scenario? Given that uranium exports bring in less than our cheese industry, is it really worth putting the world at further risk of devastation when there are truly clean green options available and ready to be upscaled in 1 to 5 years rather than 15 to 25 years? In this election year we must take the time to critically think about what is put to us in simplistic terms by politicians who seem prepared to sacrifice God’s creation for own short-term political gain and the economic gain of the few over the rights of all creation to a sustainable planet.

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