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Fix nuclear paradox
The Australian 6 June 2005 Leslie Kemeny: Fix the nuclear paradox June 06, 2005 A NUCLEAR power symposium on Wednesday, organised by the Australian Institute of Energy, could not have been better timed given recent calls by NSW Premier Bob Carr and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer for a debate on domestic nuclear power generation. Senior scientists and executives will speak on all nuclear issues, including safety, proliferation and potential terrorism risks, as well as the Generation Four nuclear power plant that has optimal technical characteristics for electricity generation and water and hydrogen production. In the early 1950s, Australia was set to become the first nation south of the equator to build and operate a nuclear power plant for electricity generation. That project and many other planned ventures connected with the technology and commercialisation of the global nuclear fuel cycle industry have not eventuated. For many countries the reliability, safety, economy and greenhouse gas-free operation of nuclear plants has made nuclear energy inevitable. Unfortunately for Australia, which supplies 13 countries with uranium fuel, the technology has not been properly considered. The paradox of a nation endowed with more than 40 per cent of the world's economically recoverable uranium fuel but which strenuously resists its use in its domestic energy policies bemuses the global community. This is especially true of countries such as France and Japan, who manage to minimise their own greenhouse emissions through the use of Australian uranium. This year may mark a defining moment in Australian attitudes towards nuclear energy and cause the federal Government and the Council of Australian Governments to sit up and take notice. A global resurgence in nuclear power station construction is driving uranium prices to new peaks and Australian uranium producers are the focus of the international market. In February, Don Argus, chairman of BHP Billiton, an important global producer of hydrocarbon fuel, confirmed at its annual meeting that it was interested in nuclear fuel. Within one month, this interest emerged as a $9 billion takeover bid for WMC, the owner of the world's largest uranium resource, the Olympic Dam project in South Australia. Even Australia's anti-nuclear activists are beginning to change attitudes. They have little alternative, as one by one the leaders of the world's environmental movements speak out in favour of the nuclear option. Recently, Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace and subsequently its president, has berated those lobbying against clean nuclear energy. He said "activists have abandoned science in favour of sensationalism", observing that "nuclear energy is the only non-greenhouse emitting power source that can effectively replace fossil fuels and satisfy global demand". Despite popular misconceptions, nuclear power has an unmatched safety record relative to all base load fuels. Per megawatt hour generated it is far safer than hydrocarbon fuels and globally, in 2005 it has achieved 12,500 reactor years of operation. Consider the immense contribution to greenhouse gas emission minimisation made by nuclear power stations; 2398 TWh or 16 per cent of total electricity generation or 5 per cent of total primary energy production. The amount of avoided carbon dioxide emission because of the use of nuclear energy in 2001 was 2.4 billion tonnes. This is 10 per cent of total emission. Japan's 54 nuclear power stations alone save the equivalent of Australia's total greenhouse emissions. And the secret of this success is uranium fuel imported from Australia. Over a critical window of the next 20 years no other energy technology can achieve such results and satisfy the immense growth in energy demand by the world's developing nations. Fear of nuclear risks is usually focused on accidental releases of nuclear radiation. Potentially this can occur in incidents ranging from terrorist acts or geological instability to plant failure and human operator mistake. Nuclear plants are, however, incredibly robust. Japan's 54 nuclear power stations withstand earth tremors and will automatically shut down in the case of an earthquake. Reinforced concrete reactor containment domes are designed to withstand the impact of a crashing aircraft and nuclear submarine propulsion units have been recovered from deep ocean without any radiation release. Australia is a country thirsty for water and hungry for energy. The nation's sustainable development, its value-adding industries and its rural production are largely dependent on these two commodities. Among the world's leading scientists and engineers there is a growing consensus that a greenhouse gas-free and cost-effective supply of energy, water and even hydrogen can best be sourced from judiciously sited Generation Four nuclear power plants. Few countries have as much to gain from the introduction of nuclear power technology and the commercialisation of the nuclear fuel cycle as Australia. Ease of access to energy and water supplies will be the key to geopolitical stability in a potentially turbulent 21st century and nuclear power could help to ensure this. It is incumbent upon the federal Government to update its energy and water policies to include nuclear power. The full approval of the COAG and its expert advisers should be sought to facilitate the introduction of nuclear power plants for the co-generation of electricity and the production of fresh water and hydrogen. For at least the next 100 years Australia's sustainable economic development will depend substantially on its greenhouse friendly technology. Leslie Kemeny is the Australian foundation member of the International Nuclear Energy Academy.
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