As Australian electricity costs increase and reliability of supply declines, the failure to use the country’s natural resources is increasingly irrational, based on ideology rather than practicality. If we ignore the cataclysmic predictions of the global warming brigade, then using coal and nuclear power is sensible; if there is concern about increasing carbon dioxide levels, then nuclear power is even more the logical solution. Whenever this suggestion is made, ignorant scare-mongering—along the lines of “we will all glow in the dark”—is used, as few understand the different types of radiation or their effects. As a result Australia is the only G20 country with a ban on nuclear energy.
To put nuclear power in perspective it is necessary to review the history of its development. Albert Einstein was the first to consider nuclear fission as an option to release energy. His famous equation E = MC2 suggested that splitting the atom and reducing its mass (M) could release massive amounts of energy (E) (the C in the equation is the speed of light). Einstein was born in Germany but left to study in Switzerland. With Hitler’s ascent to power and his own Jewish origins, Einstein never returned to Germany but instead emigrated to the US and became a citizen. With his revolutionary theories and background he was able to warn the American authorities of the wartime potential of nuclear fission research by Germany. He supported the construction of the first nuclear reactor, built in 1940, using uranium as fuel. As well as Americans, scientists from the UK and Canada were also involved in the development.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe
Subsequently, under the hugely expensive Manhattan Project, the program was expanded to produce weapons-grade uranium for production of a bomb. Initial testing was carried out in July 1945 in New Mexico, where the Trinity test site is now a major tourist attraction. Subsequently, with Japan’s refusal to surrender and the potential for huge loss of life in an invasion (estimated at a million Americans), the decision was made to drop atom bombs on Japanese cities. The first bomb, dropped on Hiroshima from a B29 bomber on August 6, 1945, resulted in an estimated 80,000 deaths. President Truman called on Japan to surrender the next day. When there was no response, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, with an estimated 40,000 deaths. When the bombs exploded, 50 per cent of the energy was released as a blast effect and 40 per cent as heat, which destroyed 90 per cent of the buildings as well as causing mass deaths; 5 per cent of the energy was released as radiation, resulting in another 40,000 delayed deaths. A third bomb was due to be dropped a week later, as Japan still had a formidable military with over 5 million soldiers and 2 million navy personnel, but Japan offered a formal surrender on August 15. Despite the death and destruction, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are now thriving, with no increase in background radiation. Long-term follow-up since 1975 by the joint US and Japanese Radiation Effects Research Foundation has suggested less than a 0.5 per cent increase in tumour development over 550,000 patient-years of observation.
Missile-delivered bombs are now infinitely more powerful, but there has never been a further nuclear attack, as the potential for retaliation is too awful to consider. Misguided activists in the US and UK (funded by communist sympathisers) in the past campaigned for unilateral disarmament. Even at the height of the Cold War, the possession of weapons by East and West had the predicted deterrent effect and prevented a Third World War. Whether deterrence will continue as rogue states acquire these weapons remains to be seen (there are still over 4000 operational weapons worldwide, North Korea having at least ten) but what is beyond doubt is the consequence of a nuclear strike.
Natural levels of radiation are not associated with disease, but natural background levels do increase with altitude. Studies of airline staff have revealed a possible association with breast cancer and melanoma. Other natural sources include granite, which emits radon gas, which can increase the risk of lung cancer. Repeated x-rays can also increase risk. Apart from nuclear bombs and missiles, the main health concern has now focused on accidents in nuclear reactors and the problem of safe disposal of nuclear waste.
The first known radiation accident occurred in a remote part of Russia in 1957 in Kyshtyn, a closed city and a site of nuclear weapons manufacture. Information is limited but it is known that 10,000 people were evacuated and the exclusion zone turned into a “wildlife reserve”, which it remains to this day.
Several nuclear accidents were known to have occurred with planes carrying bombs in the Cold War era, the best-documented being the crash of an American B52 bomber in Palomares, Spain, in 1966. The plane carried four nuclear bombs, two of which leaked radiation on crashing and caused a small area of local contamination.
My own experience was as a radiation safety officer in the Royal Air Force. Fortunately no accidents occurred on my watch, and the UK’s Blue Steel stand-off bomb has now been superseded by Polaris submarine-launched missiles.
The first significant reactor accident was at Three Mile Island in the US in 1979, when a mechanical failure complicated by human error resulted in a partial meltdown and the release of radioactive gas. This led to a three-week evacuation of 150,000 people, but there were no noted adverse health effects. The clean-up took until 1993.
In 1986 in Chernobyl, Ukraine, human error in a testing procedure resulted in a reactor core meltdown and a major radiation release. This caused around fifty deaths and a (preventable) increase in thyroid cancer in children; 500,000 people were evacuated. A cloud of radioactivity spread across Western Europe but, apart from children being advised not to drink milk, there were no complications. At the time I was close by in Berlin, but subsequently failed to “glow in the dark”. A thirty-kilometre exclusion zone persists around the site and the reactor has recently been entombed in a concrete sarcophagus to prevent further radiation leaks. Without human habitation, wildlife has returned and bears and wolves have recolonised the area. There is still increased background radiation but adverse effects have not been noted in the wildlife, and tourists now visit the site.
The only other significant event has been at Fukushima in Japan, where reactors were carelessly built near a fault line in the earth’s crust. When an earthquake in 2011 triggered a tsunami which flooded the area and knocked out power, three of the six reactors went into meltdown and released radiation. Half a million people were evacuated, 150,000 long-term. There were no radiation deaths, but the tsunami wave penetrated up to six miles inland with an estimated 20,000 deaths. Again there has been a (preventable) subsequent increase in thyroid cancer in children. The exclusion zone is smaller than Chernobyl’s, but leaks of radiation into the sea have caused concern with fish contamination. It is estimated the clean-up will take forty years.
New developments in reactor design have dramatically improved safety. Small modular reactors (SMR) producing 50 to 300 megawatts are now being designed for use in isolated areas, manufactured at a plant and pre-assembled. Their design means less likelihood of radioactive waste contamination. Historically uranium has been used as fuel as its properties have been established in weapons research; thorium is an alternative fuel which has significant advantages in risk of meltdown and waste production.
The early nuclear power stations were established in the 1950s. The first in the US produced electricity in 1951. There are now 450 worldwide with around sixty under construction and another 150 planned, mostly in the US, France, China and Japan (which still has forty-two). They provide 11 per cent of the world’s electricity and are the second most productive source of low carbon power after hydro-electric at 30 per cent. China has twenty-one reactors under construction and thirty-eight more planned, India has six under construction with nineteen more planned, Russia has seven under construction and twenty-six more planned. Even the global warming stalwart, the United Kingdom, has plans for eleven more nuclear reactors (see World Nuclear Association, Nuclear Fuel Report, 2016).
Despite global warming activism there is no sign of reduction in the construction of coal-fired power stations. Currently there are an estimated 6000 worldwide with over 600 under construction. China is building 300, India 130, and there are over 100 in various Asian countries. Japan, after its Fukushima scares, is building ten more. Apart from increasing our electricity costs, what global purpose does it serve to shut down one or two older coal-powered stations in Australia?
Worldwide total electricity supply is still primarily from “polluting” coal (40 per cent) and gas (25 per cent), with 15 per cent hydro, 11 per cent nuclear, 5 per cent renewable and 5 per cent oil-generated. Other countries with nuclear reactors include Bangladesh, Pakistan, South Africa and Iran. Thirty countries in the Middle East, Africa, South America and Asia have plans for their development. It would seem that in many countries the economic advantages for electricity production outweigh concerns about pollution.
In this country there is no planned nuclear development, but there are again moves afoot to store radioactive waste from other countries—with the inevitable NIMBY (not in my back yard) response. So far twenty-five years of planning has failed to produce a permanent facility for even our own radioactive waste. Nuclear waste can remain radioactive for up to 20,000 years, and many countries have temporary storage facilities but these are filling up. A major permanent storage site is being developed in Onkalo, Finland, a stable country both geologically and politically. The waste will be stored in forty-five kilometres of tunnels. The site of seven nuclear tests carried out between 1956 and 1983, Maralinga in South Australia is considered the best option for a permanent storage facility. It has been cleaned up twice, in 1957 and 2000, and access is now allowed but not residence. There are legal proceedings about the contentious issue of compensation, but there has been no confirmation of disease caused by the tests in service personnel.
Five British tests were also carried out in the Montebello Islands off the Pilbara coast, and there is residual radioactivity there. The French conducted many tests (different references give a number between twenty-seven and 181) on Mururoa atoll in French Polynesia between 1966 and 1996. These underground tests undermined much of the island, with minimal subsequent rectification and continuing leakage of radioactive material into the ocean.
The first American test was in New Mexico, but subsequent US tests were carried out between 1946 and 1962 on Bikini atoll in the Marshall Islands, where high levels of radiation remain and the islands are uninhabited (although wildlife is apparently thriving). Three tests were also carried out on the Amchitka islands in Alaska, uninhabited islands where there is no residual radiation. Over a thousand US tests were carried out at Yucca flats, Nevada, around 100 of them above ground, the rest underground, the last being in 1992, just before the test ban treaty. The Baneberry test in 1970 produced an accidental release of radiation which contaminated eighty workers, and a small increase in thyroid cancer has since been noted in the surrounding area.
Over 450 Soviet tests were carried out underground between 1949 and 1989 at Sempalatinsk in Kazakhstan. At the end of the Cold War the tunnels were sealed to prevent removal of material. Information is scanty but an estimated 200,000 living in the vicinity may have been affected by radiation, with increases of various cancers and genetic defects.
Overall the 2000 or so nuclear tests have produced only small and localised effects on the environment. The question for Australia is, with half the world’s known reserves of uranium and plentiful thorium, why has nuclear power been repeatedly rejected as an option? This moratorium has also meant that nuclear power is unavailable for our military, limiting its application to ships and submarines. With concerns about carbon dioxide levels, the nuclear question should again be put to the government.
Numerous surveys have been carried out to compare the price of production of electricity, including the costs of manufacture and running. In 2011 a French study of the levelised cost of electricity suggested costs per megawatt hour (MWh) at 20 euros for hydro, 50 for nuclear, 70 for onshore wind and 290 for solar power. The International Renewable Energy Agency in 2018 suggested the cost of solar and wind power had fallen significantly and had become comparable with coal, with gas still more expensive, but nuclear power was for some reason not included. The many studies now available have produced inconsistent results, partially due to lack of local availability of the various alternatives and partially by not including subsidies or the cost of back-up. For example, in the US, natural gas produced by fracking is now cheap and plentiful, making the nuclear option less attractive. There is no doubt however that, until battery storage becomes much cheaper and more efficient, renewable energy cannot provide reliable power and the cost of back-up base load needs to be included in pricing.
The problem this country has, as it shuts down supposedly polluting base-load coal-generated power, is that electricity costs have exploded (more than doubled in ten years, despite $60 billion in subsidies for renewables) and reliability of supply has fallen. This is having a deleterious effect on what is left of manufacturing in this country and making it increasingly uncompetitive, with jobs going offshore to those countries with cheap coal-based electricity. In 2015 the Australian Power Generation Technology CO2CRC report compared estimates of electricity production costs and showed coal from pre-existing power stations was still the cheapest energy source, with natural gas as an alternative (compiled from information from forty independent organisations). The latest government report, the Finkel report in 2017, again failing to list the nuclear option, suggests that by 2020 coal will still be cheaper (around $80 per MWh) when compared with solar plus storage (around $140 per MWh).
With wind and solar power it is also necessary to include the cost of back-up generation for when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. We have jumped the gun in going renewable and, if we continue to close down old coal power stations, we will have a twenty-year power-generation gap for base-load power. Currently, with no new coal-fuelled power stations likely, the only option seems to be gas-powered generation with its lesser carbon dioxide production. Is there still a place for nuclear power, particularly the use of local SMR’s, to power more isolated areas of Australia? These modern reactors are safer and more flexible in usage, their estimated costs are comparable, and they are easily transportable.
The exaggerated concerns about environmental pollution are exposed by the safety record of nuclear power plants, with minimal loss of life and health. Environmental pollution and destruction from wood burning for fuel causes far greater health issues. The Fukushima event was caused by a natural disaster, not a nuclear accident, and the last accidental radiation was more than thirty years ago at Chernobyl.
Ultimately the question should be one of cost rather than ideology. The fact that new reactors are being built worldwide suggest there is still a cost advantage. Twenty years ago Australia had one of the cheapest electricity prices in the developed world, but current policies have have increased prices dramatically, with the worst-performing state, South Australia, being the leader in renewables. The US energy administration in 2017 estimated Denmark, with its high reliance on wind power generation, to have the world’s most expensive electricity price at 45 US cents/kWh. South Australia’s costs were 47 cents/kWh, New South Wales 39 cents, Queensland 35 cents, Victoria 34 cents, UK 31 cents, France (mainly nuclear power) 24 cents, US 16 cents.
In South Australia, highly polluting diesel power generation, consuming 80,000 litres per hour and costing $110 million, is back-up for less-polluting coal-fired production! The headline-producing battery alternative would power the state for an estimated nine minutes. As suggested by Ziggy Switkowski in his report as long ago as 2006, South Australia could be the place for both a storage facility and the first Australian nuclear reactor. He suggested nuclear power could deliver a third of Australia’s electricity, with a resulting 18 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. Worldwide energy consumption is estimated to increase by 50 per cent over the next twenty-five years, but politics has intervened in Australia and even nuclear research facilities have now closed down.
Down the track the Holy Grail of power generation, nuclear fusion, may well make the wind turbines and solar panels redundant. Einstein’s famous theory described not only the splitting of the atom (fission) to release energy but also the concept of nuclear fusion, when atoms are combined. This process, which powers the sun, releases many times more energy than fission and with little radioactivity. Particle physics researchers from many countries (including Australia) are involved in building the first prototype reactor in France, the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). Work started in 2013 and is expected to be completed by 2025. Should this prove a viable option, then limitless, non-polluting electricity generation will become available. The ITER project was a product of the last days of the Cold War, when Reagan and Gorbachev decided to work together. Nuclear physics research was accelerated by the threat of war, but it may yet become the world’s salvation rather than its destruction.
Graham Pinn worked in the Royal Air Force, before taking part in overseas aid projects in several countries where an unreliable electricity supply had life-threatening significance. He is not a physicist but a physician with an interest in radiation-related illness