Say 'no' to nuclear – but not for the usual reasons


Say 'no' to nuclear – but not for the usual reasonsOpponents of a nuclear power industry in Australia usually justify their position on environmental and economic grounds. Although their conclusion is correct, the argument is fallacious. Let us first consider the wrong reasons to oppose nuclear power then the right one.

The economic anti-nuclear argument says that the huge costs of nuclear plants make them uneconomic. Absent government subsidies—which political expediency should counter—hard-nosed engineers and investors will decide if nuclear is a better source of new energy than coal, gas and a variety of less certain technologies. There is no more reason to intervene in this economic decision than any other.

The environmental argument typically cites the dangers of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. This threat is real, but not much more so than that of the uranium deposits which originally spawned the waste precursors. Quite simply geologists discover most uranium deposits using radiation detectors: this is because the deposits emit radiation and have done so for millennia, and some are so radioactive that they belch superheated steam. Removing radioactive uranium from beneath Australia’s deserts, processing and using it in a reactor, then burying radioactive waste in a stable geological structure under the desert looks like going full circle. Nuclear waste is a concern, but not qualitatively more so than the damaging externalities of many industries.

The real argument against establishing a nuclear power industry is that it is a hugely complex and dangerous technology, and Australia has a poor record in safely managing even relatively simple technologies. Australia’s institutional framework is not sufficiently robust to safely support a nuclear power industry.

The dangers from operation of nuclear power plants are made clear on the Uranium Information Centre’s website. It reports that there have been ten "serious reactor accidents" at nuclear power plants since they began commercial operations in 1952, giving a frequency of one per 1,200 reactor years (although the rate has been lower in the last decade).

Nuclear power is one of the modern technologies that were described in Charles Perrow’s seminal 1984 book Normal Accidents as so dangerous that accidents would routinely occur: nuclear plants could expect to be plagued by 'normal accidents'. The statistics suggest Perrow was right, but they led to the emergence of a new management discipline built around 'high reliability organisations'. Typical examples are nuclear powered aircraft carriers such as the USS Ronald Reagan, which is 333 metres long and displaces over 100,000 tonnes, and holds a crew of 6,000, 90 fighter aircraft and two nuclear reactors that can power a medium sized city. America’s largest naval vessel is hugely complex but operates incident-free.

Say 'no' to nuclear – but not for the usual reasonsAustralia, by contrast, has an unenviable record of poor management of technologies. Consider the Royal Australian Navy which lurches from one technology disaster to another. The worst include the fatal 1998 fire aboard HMAS Westralia; a decade of defects in the Collins Class submarines including noise levels that simplify detection by an enemy and a combat system that cannot then defend the vessel; and Sea Sprite helicopters that could not be introduced into service due to computer problems.

Other complex industries and technologies are managed little better. In 1998 alone, Melbourne lost gas for weeks after Esso’s Longford plant blew up and Sydney was forced to boil its contaminated water for months. Australia’s uranium mines have been plagued by leaks from their tailings dams and the country’s only reactor at Lucas Heights has experienced several radiation leaks in recent years.

The lesson of high reliability organisations is that it is possible to achieve safe operation of complex technologies, but only with difficulty. If employees are skilled and trained, a culture of safety is deeply ingrained, and there is effective governance and oversight.

Quite simply Australia meets none of these requirements. There are few technologically complex sectors that can incubate suitable skills in workers, managers, boards and regulators. Thus there are inadequate human resources to staff and safely manage a nuclear plant.

This is not to point fingers or belittle Australian skills. The competencies of Australian workers, managers and boards have built enviable reputations in many modern industries from agribusiness and commercial aviation to software design and tourism. But a country of 20 million people simply cannot develop skills in every activity. For many reasons Australia has avoided nuclear power and most high risk modern technologies whilst other nations have decades of experience. We have no expertise in these fields. To say that Australians have a skill disadvantage in risky technologies such as nuclear power generation is a fact, not a criticism. To say that redressing this gap is impractical should be obvious, not an expression of national inferiority.

Australia has demonstrated an inability to safely operate even simple parts of the nuclear supply chain such as uranium mines and an experimental nuclear rector. When this experience is combined with other evidence, the strongest argument against building a nuclear power plant in Australia is that safe operation is unlikely without a huge effort which probably cannot be justified. Where does this leave Australia’s energy supply industry?

Obviously coal and gas fired plants are operational and running reliably, so new electricity generating capacity can employ these proven technologies. If greenhouse gas reduction is required, natural gas should be preferred as a fuel over coal (particularly brown coal) because it produces electricity at similar cost but with less carbon dioxide emissions. In the absence of a compelling case, nuclear power remains a poor choice for Australia.



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Existing comments

Its a bit like the old clique` ,only experienced people need how do you get experience? Someone has to train one,I believe. Why not use the learning resourses of nulear powered countries? I really dont see any other feasable way of saving our planet.And it looks like we are running out of time,quickly!
Les Forshaw | 03 May 2007

Does Australia, per capita, really have a worse record for non-nuclear safety than other industrially developed countries, including ones with electricity generation using nuclear reactors? Without careful comparative analysis, this argument is essentially anecdotal and is quatitatively untested.
George Emeleus | 03 May 2007

We would be mad to introduce nuclear power on a large scale into this country...excellent article les.
charles raymond | 03 May 2007

Why don't we sell our coal reserves and use them to fund the development of the nuclear industry? And surely it is not too hard to import trained workers?
G.B,Ellis | 03 May 2007

Great article, and my comment; I cannot help notice how strongly the advocates for nuclear power stations express their concern about global warming and climate change. I suggest that their sudden interest in these issues has been stimulated by a realization that they have a convenient platform from which to launch their argument for an expansion of the nuclear industry. How can we consider leaving future generations (not just our grandchildren) the problem of nuclear waste? How can we consider abusing our caretaker role by storing waste in the unique and ancient land of remote SA; a land that has evolved over thousands of years. Does our present greed, a speck of dust in geological time, give us the right to pollute this land forever? Is Australia likely to have stable government for the next 1000 years? Rather than enrich ourselves further by exloiting the privilege of nuclear knowledge and leaving insurmountable problems for future generations can we spend every available cent (and more) on researching renewable energies and leave this planet [relatively] free from nuclear waste. Bernadette S
Bernadette Saunders | 04 May 2007

Bernadette, I liked your 'a speck of dust in geological time'. Pardon me if I misuse it, and change it to 'a speck of dust in geographical space', referring to a nuclear waste repository somewhere in Australia. I am not particularly in favour of nuclear power, but willing to consider it if it seems to be the best way. I am certainly against exporting uranium, because I wouldn't trust governments to not misuse it. I have no objection to storing nuclear waste, for whoever wants to pay us to. I believe in Synroc.
Gavan Breen | 04 May 2007

The high technical & scientific skills we have in Australia have been imported,learned then often exported.It is nonsense to suggest that nuclear is different.
Brian Martin | 05 May 2007

This article is negative in the extreme. In fact Australian technologists have a world reputation for top quality work. Despite the hype in this article, the telephone system is a far more technologically advanced and complex system than nuclear. Australia is known as the best in the world at operating the telephone system. Australia is not known for aviation safety excellence without good reason - we are the best.
Should the need arise I have no doubt that Australian technologists will be as excellent in that field as all others - so long as short sighted management and penny-pinching are prevented from interfering!
Noel Matthews | 27 May 2007

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