The cost of nuclear energy, the waste and its disposal, and environmental concerns

Dr Mark Ho, president of the Australian Nuclear Association, wrote a fantastic opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald last month in response to Australia’s devastating bushfires, which includes the following:

“We need an alternative, and the current ones aren’t great. Renewables are an obvious avenue but need to be backed by baseload power sources: with gas having become the default back up. This has problems of its own, the first of which is that gas combustion produces CO2.

Enter the potential nuclear answer to the climate change question. Nuclear power is used as a reliable and clean energy source in most OECD countries and many other parts of the world, and the reactors of today are improving, with current and future reactors being more sustainable, safer, more proliferation-resistant and cost-effective.

These new technologies are where the energy opportunity for Australia lies: specifically small modular reactors and six types of Generation IV reactors which are all technologies in either the production line or the pipeline.

Small modular reactors, or SMRs, are designed with modular technology on a production line, and can be located near mining sites or remote towns, eliminating both long-distance energy transmission costs and risks, and delivering cheaper, reliable power.

They have passive safety features, small fuel loadings, capacity to work in tandem with fluctuating renewable sources, and are already in the design and construction phase.

The Generation IV reactors being designed can be larger in scale — with capacity to replace both baseload coal-fired or nuclear power plants.

The six designs were chosen after 100 experts evaluated 130 concepts. Those selected would use fuel efficiently, reduce waste, and meet stringent safety and proliferation standards, and the first of these designs could be demonstrated within the next few years, and deployed from about 2030.”

I also came across the BWRX-300, which is a ~300 MWe water-cooled, natural circulation Small Modular Reactor (SMR) with passive safety systems. 26 BWRX-300s would occupy a land area of about three-quarters of a square mile. The capital cost is nearly a quarter of either wind or solar, and capital costs of technologies tell all that needs to be told about the amount of materials and resources a technology uses, before it generates a single unit of electricity. In this case, less capital costs means less use of precious materials and resources like steel, concrete and cobalt mined by children in underdeveloped nations. Which also means less mining/quarrying and shipping with all the use of polluting fossil fuels that entails. The BWRX-300 would be a great nuclear power plant for Australia, needing little of substance to ease through the regulatory pathways.

But despite the strong case for Australia to go nuclear, nuclear power is still banned in Australia. Indeed, “nuclear power has the best safety record but the worst PR record of all the energy options”. The strongest arguments I could find for supporting the ban today relates to the cost of nuclear energy, the waste and its disposal, and environmental concerns.

Recent nuclear power energy and associated projects in Europe and the US have been exponentially costly. But this isn’t because of the cost of safety measures, materials or fuel; the cost has been driven by expected market returns. Reduce the expectations and the costs themselves are reduced, especially via strong, consistent and vocal political support for nuclear energy. Meanwhile in Asia, over 100 new nuclear reactors are being built also under ISO safety standards, but cheaper than their European and US counterparts. Nuclear energy is designed to last for a very long time, producing at the same rate, using the same minuscule amount of fuel, for over double and sometimes triple the lifetime of other power generation methods. But there remains ways to shrink the costs even further.

Reactors have over 150 safety redundancies in place to stop a catastrophe from happening, many of them passive measures. Nuclear fuel is carefully managed at all stages of the process, and is the only source of energy where safety and waste disposal are factored into the cost. That’s because the waste is safely stored away and sealed in bunkers with no possibility of it ever leaving or contaminating its surrounds. Such waste is a very high priority for nuclear power plant owners. In contrast, the disposal of coal waste is often not factored in, and coal is more radioactive and toxic than a nuclear waste bunker’s immediate vicinity. Just like how the cost of disposing of spent solar panels isn’t factored in. Nuclear waste is 100% containable, and any form of combustion (coal, oil, gas etc) is not.

It’s no wonder that the argument that “no one wants a nuclear power plant or waste facility in their backyard” doesn’t hold water, as “there are about 30 countries currently operating 437 power reactors right now, with a further 72 under construction in 15 countries. And permanent repositories for safe management of the high-level waste generated from nuclear power production are being established with community consent in places like Finland, Sweden, Canada and France.” We’ve had nuclear power plants for over 50 years on this planet, with the early versions being positively primitive compared to modern ones, and still nuclear is the safest form of power we have, costing fewer lives per Terawatt-hour than any other source including solar, wind, and especially dams, one of the few other ‘zero carbon’ sources.

How is it in any way appropriate to try to justify a ban on a technology in environmental legislation, on the basis of perceived high costs, especially given that Australia has operated three separate research reactors on the outskirts of Sydney and they’ve not impacted the environment? Critics of nuclear energy are consistently guilty of failing to compare this dramatic lack of environmental harm to any of the severe impacts wrought by other industries, all of which are not outright banned to completely remove actual risks.

For example, wind actually isn’t cheaper than coal. Coal only seems more expensive by adding non-existent externalities and then increasing the ‘cost’ to cover these eventualities. Wind power seems cheaper at first until you factor in the cost of dismantling / disposing of wind turbines at end-of-life, which makes some sense because they usually don’t dispose of them. Go to California, and you’ll see thousands of abandoned wind turbines rusting and falling apart from the 70s and 80s.

Will the real renewables please stand up? Eating 9/10ths of a banana exposes humans to the same radiation levels as living within 80 kilometres of a nuclear plant for a whole year. To produce Australia’s annual electricity purely through wind energy, it would require the use of land the size of the Netherlands.

Pronouns: who/cares | Omnivert | TransCatholic Liberal Arts student @notredameaus | @AUMallard contributor | all opinions expressed here are my own