Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Nuclear Option.

There’s been talk recently about the potential closure of Hazelwood Power Station, one of the country’s oldest power stations and its worst polluting relative to the amount of energy generated. The Greens have said that they want it simply shut down, as soon as possible, and with the way things are looking they may win the balance of power in the Victorian legislature next month. Labor has paid lip service to the idea, suggesting reducing Hazelwood’s load. Right-wing commentators have suggested that if the Greens do manage to shut it down, the electorates that voted for them should have their power supply cut off in order to absorb the loss of power. This is no more than I’d expect from them, but their rhetoric does raise the question of where we’d get our power from; Hazelwood provides a quarter of the state’s power. My house has solar panels on the roof, but not everyone can afford to install them, even with the government’s rebates, even given the fact that they pay for themselves both in savings and in revenue from power sold back into the grid.

Frustratingly, though, the one party that is actually taking a stand on global warming by demanding that Hazelwood be shut down, is also flat-out terrified of the only plausible way of doing so without adversely affecting our supply of power in the short- to medium-term: nuclear power. While nuclear fuel is not technically a renewable resource, Australia’s uranium supplies would last a lot longer than coal, and more importantly nuclear power doesn’t release colossal amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere the way coal (especially brown coal, which is mined and burned at Hazelwood) does. Solar power, even in this sunburnt country, is too capricious to use without enormous storage batteries, which we don’t have and which have never been tried on anything like the scale required. Wind power has many of the same problems. Ultimately, of course, a migration to renewables must take place, but nuclear can give us a lot of the breathing room we need to make this possible.

Nuclear power is far safer than coal. While nuclear accidents have the potential to be dramatic and catastrophic, coal power kills far more people — not just in absolute terms, but per unit of energy produced. There are ways of producing nuclear power that do not produce waste that must be managed for millions of years. There are ways of producing nuclear power without any risk of weapons-grade material going “missing”, because no such material is involved in their use. There are ways of producing nuclear power that actually produce more nuclear fuel as a byproduct. There are ways of producing nuclear power that use thorium as a fuel, which is safer, more easily obtained and handled and more plentiful than uranium.

Of course great care must be taken. But why are we so terrified of something that could replace all the coal-fired stations in the country in a matter of not decades but years?


  1. I beg to differ. Being a physicist, of course, I am not afraid of nuclear power. Most people are, and that's unlikely to change in the near future. There's also the issue of us lacking skilled nuclear technicians (not only in Aus, but around the world), since few have been trained up since the cold war. This is a major issue with existing plants around the world.

    I've become a proponent of geothermal power (admittedly thanks in part to my supervisor leading the charge here in Victoria). People aren't scared of it like they are of the word "nuclear" and it has the added benefit of (hopefully) stopping coal mining in its tracks. Why? Well because the optimal place to drill the holes for geothermal power is in the LaTrobe Valley. With the coal left on top to insulate it.

  2. You're both barking up the wrong tree! I vote pixie power.
    (Because I am a moron.)

  3. 1) Also, as I understand it, nuclear power stations release less radioactive material into the atmosphere than coal ones do.

    2) Solar panels pay for themselves? Not last I checked... Besides, if they did pay for themselves, everybody would be building solar farms — without the massive government subsidies.

    3) The problem with batteries is not scale, but efficiency — all existing batteries and similar systems (pumped water, flywheels) lose far too much of the energy.