Australia is a treasure trove, a vast Aladdin’s cave of energy resources, virtually unique in the world. We have huge deposits of petroleum and coal and the world’s largest uranium resources. With production of about 7000 tonnes last year, Australia ranks third among uranium producers, behind Kazakhstan and Canada.
But something’s amiss. We can never agree on how the blessing can be enjoyed. On the contrary, subversive voices constantly rail against it. Uranium used to be the devil; now it’s coal’s turn. Even natural gas has one foot in hell. Wind and solar are the new saints but, alas, they’re asleep in heaven too much of the time.
This essay appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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Contradictions abound. We export uranium all over the world but have legislation prohibiting nuclear power at home. Is it really a virtue to send fuel to the rest of the world for power plants we’re too pure to have ourselves? For a nation dedicated to the rule of reason, or so we think, it’s time to repeal that absurd legislation.
The opposition to nuclear power, and its domestic proxy, uranium, reaches back a long way, to the 1970s when the great Alligator River ore bodies were discovered. It started in the United States, arising from the aftermath of the Vietnam War, although its roots were in the British “Ban the bomb” protests of the 1950s. Ralph Nader declared 1975 as the inaugural year of the nuclear debate.
The debate in Australia, which took the form of whether uranium should be mined, shook the nation for several years. The anti-uranium lobby didn’t stop mine development entirely but it did lead to government policies that prevented Australia from being the world’s number one uranium producer, which it could have been.
The delays it caused enabled Namibia and Canada to develop deposits that took our place. Rossing in Namibia had a grade of 0.7 of a pound, less than a tenth of the grade of Jabiluka, which was then the largest uranium ore body in the world. Saskatchewan’s Key Lake was discovered four years after Jabiluka.
Some of the policies were bizarre, even in the Coalition, which supported uranium. Here’s one. Under the Fraser government, Pancontinental’s Jabiluka ore body had achieved all the domestic approvals required for development, including an agreement with the Aboriginal people. But we needed export approval under the Atomic Energy Act. I approached the Minister for Natural Resources, Doug Anthony, who was empowered to grant approvals. At the time, we had marketing arrangements with Japanese, Korean, American and various European utilities—enough to finance the mine. We thought it politic to present the British contract first, which we did.
The minister said basically it was fine but that government policy required three price re-openers. Uranium contracts were usually for a term of five years with a pricing formula that gave some security to both buyer and seller. Doug Anthony disagreed, insisting there must be at least three times in the contract when the price had to be re-negotiated.
When I told the British that, they erupted, aghast at the uncommerciality of it. Nevertheless they agreed under sufferance to one price re-opener. When I took it to Doug Anthony he said, “Tony, I told you we need three.” So I had to go back to the British. They were apoplectic, using epithets to describe the Australian government’s understanding of how business is done that would astonish even a foul-mouthed comedian. But they agreed to a second re-opener.
I remember well the day when I went to a phone booth in Canberra, put my coin in the slot and dialled Doug Anthony. He picked up the phone and listened to me saying, “Doug, I can get you two price re-openers but no more. The British say if our government does not accept they will complain to their Foreign Affairs Department about how uncommercial we are.”
After a pause he said, “OK, we can accept that. I’ll instruct my departmental officers to prepare the approval papers for my signature.”
Hooray, I thought; we have it. No Australian government would dishonour an international contract, not even a Labor one that opposes uranium.
However, before Doug Anthony had a chance to sign the approval, Malcolm Fraser called the March 1983 election and lost. The incoming Hawke government imposed the infamous Three Mines policy and Jabiluka was stymied.
Later, at a dinner with Doug Anthony at his apartment in Canberra, he told me the reason for the price policy. His government was afraid that if the uranium price soared, as it had done in the past, Labor would accuse it of flogging off the nation’s resources at bargain basement prices.
I went to Paris to tell Electricite de France that the new Labor government would not let Jabiluka go ahead. They were our biggest potential customers, willing to sign a contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars. I told my friend Jean Feron, the number two at EDF, of the news. After a brief silence, he shook his head sadly and said, “Vous etes trop riches”—you are too rich.
That was a long time ago. Uranium is not so contentious now. Both sides of politics support it, more or less, at least at the federal level. It’s ironic that the new Satan is coal, for the American coal industry was a major funder of the early anti-nuclear movement.
The world is shunning fossil fuels in preference for clean energy forms. Nuclear power is one of these. It has the potential to be the world’s largest base-load power supply that has zero carbon dioxide emissions.
After the public acceptance setback of Fukushima, nuclear is powering ahead. It generates 11 per cent of the world’s energy from about 450 reactors in thirty countries. And thirteen other countries are building new capacity. Nuclear is growing remarkably fast in China, with generation increasing by 25 per cent in 2016 and 15 per cent in 2017. An additional forty-seven reactors are under construction or planned. Throughout the world more than 400 new nuclear power plants are in that category or proposed.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, felt it necessary to promise in his election campaign to reduce France’s reliance on nuclear from 75 per cent to 50 per cent by 2025. However, he has since announced a ten-year delay in its implementation. That’s effectively a reversal. Pressure is building on Germany to reconsider the phase-out policy it imposed after Fukushima.
The arguments against nuclear power haven’t changed over the years. However, much has changed in the industry itself, and that has lessened their force. Old fears that civil use could lead to nuclear weapons proliferation have proved baseless. Proliferation has occurred, but through technology transfers from existing weapons states at government level.
Progress is being made in high-level waste storage. The technology has long since been proven but it’s the NIMBY politics of selecting sites that’s the problem. Finland appears to have solved this—the first in the world to do so. It has a site on its west coast and a construction licence, and is building away.
Australia is well endowed with stable geological formations that would be eminently suitable. In 2015, South Australia’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission released a report with the opinion that nuclear waste could be safely and profitably stored in that state.
Despite Chernobyl and Fukushima, nuclear’s safety record compares unmistakably well against other industries, particularly coal and gas. And significant improvements have emerged over the years—for example, passive cooling systems that cut in if the cooling circuit fails. That was the proximate cause of the damage at Fukushima.
Misunderstandings about radiation need to be corrected, however. For instance, of the 2000 deaths at Fukushima, only one was attributed to radiation exposure. The rest were due to panic during evacuation. And nuclear plants emit no more radiation than the granite at New York’s Grand Central Station.
Capital costs however are a concern. They account for 60 per cent of the levelised cost of electricity. But operating costs are low. And uranium, as fuel, contributes only about 8 per cent.
In the 1970s, nuclear was cheaper than coal, except where coalmines were near the power stations they fed. That changed when activists began attacking nuclear’s economic advantage. Legal actions, regulatory over-reach, and interruptions of construction schedules were successful in driving costs up.
Currently, steps are being taken to drive them down. Since, in the West, plant designs tend to be customised, the normal learning curve in technology has not applied to its fullest extent. Standardised designs could remedy this, as is happening in China, where levelised costs are less than half of what they are in the West.
The efforts to reduce costs are achieving success. The World Nuclear Association in its update of nuclear economics says, “Nuclear power is cost competitive with other forms of electricity generation, except where there is direct access to low-cost fossil fuels.” And the recent report of the International Atomic Energy Association says nuclear’s cost is competitive with solar and wind.
An exciting area of innovation and one where meaningful potential for cost reduction exists is in small modular reactors (SMRs). They’re defined as reactors of less than 300 megawatts. Their technology arose from nuclear installations in ships.
Because the modules are made in factories to standard designs, economies of scale apply, design improvements are facilitated and the regulatory process is simplified. Passive safety systems requiring less redundancy further reduce costs. And shorter on-site construction times offer fewer opportunities for obstruction by activists, one of the major cost issues in the West. Also, their small size makes them less scary to the public.
Since they have lower requirements for access to cooling water and are deliverable on trucks they can be used in remote areas. They’re more easily financed than large plants, and can be readily placed in brown-field sites where coal-fired plants are decommissioned.
The Americans are taking SMRs seriously. Research is being generously funded by the Department of Energy, and Silicon Valley is abuzz with entrepreneurs starting up companies to commercialise the technology. Eight companies forecast targets of nearly half the cost of conventional nuclear plants, on a proportionate basis.
Late in 2018, public acceptance of nuclear power received a dramatic boost from an unexpected quarter—endorsement in the special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This could be a game changer.
Contrary to expectations from this spicy broth of green politics and allied science, the report gives a resoundingly supportive view of nuclear’s role in mitigating global warming. It’s particularly refreshing because the Green lobby, so influential in the IPCC, has been such an ostrich in the presence of nuclear.
In calling for a heroic reduction in global warming of 1.5 degrees, the IPCC outlines pathways that could lead to it. It states, “Nuclear power increases its share in most 1.5 degree pathways to 2050.” The growth is based on an estimated two-and-a-half-times expansion in nuclear generation.
The inescapable conclusion from the report is that without nuclear’s contribution there would be no possibility of achieving the IPCC’s objective. The authors must have decided the arguments against nuclear are overwhelmed by the urgency of its need. Otherwise they would have condemned it as they condemned coal.
The report states that nuclear’s “health risks are low per unit of electricity production and land requirement is lower than that of other power sources”. Land requirement is noteworthy because both wind and solar take up huge amounts of acreage. To match the electricity output of a 1000 megawatt nuclear station, which needs one square mile, solar would require seventy-five square miles and wind 360 square miles.
Today, much publicity is being given to the devastating effect on electricity prices and availability caused by the rush to renewables due to the intermittence of their energy supply. With its steady, reliable and clean base-load, nuclear offers the ideal solution. The two sources are natural allies.
Uranium is a cyclical commodity with high price volatility. In the early 1970s, uranium producers were so despondent they banded together to form “The Club” in London, which was accused of being a cartel, although such a cartel would have been legal at the time in its member countries.
Its purpose was to manage production in order to encourage economic uranium prices. It led to the Uranium Institute, now the World Nuclear Association. Since the Uranium Institute was established there has been no suggestion of anti-trust activities. Lawyers present at meetings ensure that.
In 1978, when Westinghouse was caught in a short squeeze, the price skyrocketed. They had foolishly sold short 65 million pounds at $12 and the price went to several times that, forcing them to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Ultimately the price collapsed, reaching an all-time low of $7 in 2001. It rose again in 2007 (helped by the flooding at Saskatchewan’s Cigar Lake) to $138 and then fell into an abyss where it’s currently languishing. At a spot price of $25 per pound it’s well below the $60 needed to develop most new mines. And mines throughout the world are being forced to cut production.
While I’m mindful of the adage, “Predictions are hazardous, especially about the future”, I’m confident that if nuclear power grows as reasonably expected, especially in China, future uranium prices are likely to enter positive territory again. Given the inhibiting effect of low prices on supply, which has been dramatically curtailed, the market will be mainly demand-dependent. A turn in the cycle would send a long-sought signal to the Australian uranium industry and its patient investors.
Nevertheless, the big challenge of improving public acceptance is still before us. Arduous though the task is to win hearts and minds, it must be undertaken. If not, a rollback we see threatened in some parts of the world, notably in Europe, will stall nuclear progress. In the USA, as many people oppose nuclear as support it—not a situation for complacency. Because the polls show that women in the aggregate tend to be less supportive of nuclear than men, it would be wise to encourage more female advocacy.
The IPCC’s endorsement should be central to nuclear’s case. It has the potential to recast the entire energy debate. If the world’s premier organisation on climate change says its target cannot be met without nuclear, how could anyone concerned about global warming oppose it?
Those who disapprove of nuclear will have to rethink their position. They may not like nuclear but at the very least they would have to see it as the lesser of two evils.
The task then is to spread awareness of the report. Acceptance of its nuclear conclusions could even reduce somewhat the toxic polarity in the climate change debate.
Already the report is having an effect. Last May a group of about 100 Polish environmentalists and scientists, relying on the climate-change basis of the findings, wrote an open letter to Germany asking it, as a neighbour, to reconsider its nuclear phase-out policy. And, more recently, 80,000 international scientists joined in a declaration stressing the need for nuclear to combat climate change, citing the IPCC report.
All this exciting progress in the nuclear industry—in safety improvements, waste disposal, cost reduction, small modular reactors—is passing us by in Australia. Technology doesn’t stop just because a government doesn’t like it. At the very least, the Luddite prohibition that has denied us the torch of progress for twenty years should be repealed.
We should no longer allow our government to say to us about a science that most of the world has embraced, “Thou shall not benefit from it, ever.”
Let science dispel ill-placed fears and wild imaginings, and let our politicians give us the freedom to advance, along with the rest of the world.
This is an edited version of the keynote presentation Tony Grey made to the Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy International Uranium Conference in Adelaide