18 February 2017

We need to talk... about nuclear power

I don't like nuclear power.

I like solar and wind and other clean green renewable options.

The problem with some pro-nuclear people is that they are pro-nuclear. Not that they see nuclear as an inevitable option, or the lesser of two evils, but that they seem to refuse to acknowledge the obvious downside.

And however you might privately think about retuning to pre-industrial times, as a society it is not even worth considering. You will never bring 50%+ of the people with you. Industrial-scale power is here to stay.

So to look at the politically realistic options then:

Renewables will either suffice or they will not.

If they do not, to make up the shortfall you essentially have to choose between coal and nuclear. Which is the lesser of two evils?

This brings us to our story, which could not have been scripted.

Australia, one of the sunniest and windiest places on earth, can survive on renewables alone. Great.

The problem is that the rest of the world cannot.

Given what we know about coal, the shortfall will have to be made up by nuclear.

Australia is the Saudi Arabia of uranium. (It also happens to be the Saudi Arabia of coal.)

So however cleanly and greenly we choose to power ourselves, we still need to power the world.

"But", I hear you say, "we could simply refuse to supply our uranium or coal to the world!"

Yes, we could.

But this is where one problem intersects with another. This is not an isolated technical problem with a technical solution.

Let us put aside the question of the megabucks we could (and currently do) make.

Let us also put aside the fact that coal pollution, nuclear radiation, and climate change do not respect our borders.

If there is going to be nuclear power, then Australia needs to control the radioactive material. This is not about making money by providing the dumping ground. This is about preventing other people from getting their hands on it.

Digging up dirt and selling it, the traditional Australian way, means you make a little bit of money and lose control.

A much better way would be to not sell uranium, but to sell nuclear power. This would mean building, operating, and supplying nuclear power stations for other countries around the world, and reprocessing and storing the waste, as well as decommissioning the power station at the end of its life.

We would also be happy to store the waste of other suppliers, such as Canada and Kazakhstan.

Again, the point of this is not energy, and not even money (although that is a happy side-benefit), but security. The point is to keep control of the world's supply of nuclear material and keep it out of the hands of others, including other governments, all while being the indispensible - perhaps monopoly? - supplier of energy.

This would of course involve a lot of know-how, something Australia lacks (although other countries have the better part of a century's experience).

The best way to build this know-how would be to build our own indigenous nuclear power industry.

I would like to see Australia as the cutting-edge supplier of the world's energy. I would like to see the export of nuclear material banned. I would like to see it shipped oversas, used (preferably in Australian-built and -run reactors), and shipped back home again.


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