We need abundant, reliable power. Why not nuclear?

Dr Alan Finkel

Dr Alan Finkel

by Dr Alan Finkel

There is little debate in Australia about nuclear electricity in our future energy mix, but with the UK government having approved the construction of a major new nuclear electricity power station this week, it is now timely to think about what role nuclear electricity might have for us.

The newly-approved Hinckley C power station is mammoth, capable of generating 3200 megawatts of zero-emissions electricity, contributing up to 7 per cent of Britain's electrical energy needs, slightly more than the country's existing offshore and onshore wind electricity.

The reputation of the British nuclear industry was somewhat tainted by the 1957 fire and release of radioactive material that occurred at its early nuclear reactor at Sellafield (previously called Windscale) and a nearby leak in 2005 of radioactive waste from a reprocessing plant into a containment chamber.

But the reputational damage exceeds the actual harm. In the case of the fire, a long-term follow-up study in 2010 of the workers involved in the clean-up found that they suffered no significant health effects from their involvement. In the case of the leak, no radiation was released to the environment.

What choice does Britain have? Gas is increasingly expensive as domestic North Sea production dwindles and imports increase. Coal is being phased out to meet European Union directives. Wind electricity is substantial and growing, but it remains an intermittent source. Many of the UK's existing nuclear generators are ageing and will be shut down over the next 10 years.

In Australia, we have avoided debate on the nuclear power option despite our determination to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But we should be asking ourselves, if nuclear is not included as part of the mix, will we be able to achieve the abundant, reliable supply of low-emissions electricity needed to meet our goals?

In France, 78 per cent of their electricity comes from nuclear and 12 per cent from hydro. There, the average emissions due to electricity generation are a mere 85 grams per kilowatt hour - 10 times lower than the 850 grams per kilowatt hour we emit in Australia.

Nuclear electricity is not the only solution to our needs, but like nuclear itself, every alternative comes with its own issues.

Solar and wind are truly zero emission in operation and can scale up to provide very significant amounts of electricity. However, they are intermittent and large-scale storage is not yet viable.

None of the less proven options, such as coal with carbon capture and storage, or wave, tide and geothermal, have been shown to operate at a commercial scale.

Natural gas from conventional, shale and coal-seam sources is abundant, modest in cost and flexible. But although it has a much better emissions profile than coal, it does not come close to the zero emissions of solar, wind and nuclear.

Hydroelectricity is ideal, but there isn't enough of it and local environmental objections will prevent any large scale new construction.

Given that no one source of electricity can meet all of our needs, we need a mixture of supply sources, of which nuclear could be one.

Consideration cannot be given to only scalability and emissions. We also have to look at safety and economics. At the top of the list is the requirement that any future nuclear industry in Australia must be extremely safe, with generators that produce little by way of long-lasting or weapons-grade waste, with durable management of the waste that is produced, as well as protected transportation of materials.

Australia has a proud record for regulatory oversight and would without doubt be able to manage a future nuclear electricity system at very high safety levels.

The economic viability of the nuclear option is country dependent. At an Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering conference in June this year, an analysis of two recent Australian studies of the energy mix out to 2050 concluded that adoption of the nuclear option in Australia would lower the generating cost of electricity by 20 per cent.

The problem of global carbon dioxide emissions is an increasing one. Despite the deployment of wind and solar, carbon emissions continue to soar. From 2000 to 2009, the combined world solar and wind annual generation rose by 260 terawatt hours, but total annual world electricity generation increased by 4700 terawatt hours, mostly from coal and gas.

That is, the combined new solar and new wind generation was less than one tenth of the total increase.

That is why global carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise by almost 1 per cent every year.

We need to do something. So far, solar and wind have failed to meet the growth in global electricity demand. Nuclear electricity should be considered as a zero-emissions contributor to the energy mix. 

Dr Alan Finkel is an engineer, entrepreneur and philanthropist and has served as Chancellor of Monash University since January 2008 and as President of the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering since January 2013.

This article originally appeared in the Herald Sun.