For decades there has been glib talk about uranium enrichment in Australia, but these schemes have always foundered – partly for lack of a social licence, partly because of the dubious economics. As Dr Alan Roberts of Monash University observed at a forum we both spoke at in the 1980s, wherever uranium is enriched, the tax-payers are impoverished. – Ian Lowe, The Conversation, 11 February 2015
Terry Lane: So let’s boldly go where no prudent broadcaster should ever go: right into the argument about nuclear power generation. Dr Alan Roberts, from the Monash University School of Environmental Sciences has an article in the current issue of ‘Arena’, which is entitled ‘The Phantom Solution: Climate change and nuclear power’. Alan Roberts’ argument is that nuclear power generation is not going to save the earth. And Dr Roberts is here with me right now. Alan, good afternoon.
Alan Roberts: Good afternoon, Terry.
Terry Lane: Now we’d better clear one thing up right at the start. You are a believer in global warming and its possible catastrophic effects?
Alan Roberts: A very unhappy, but fervent believer, Terry, yes.
Terry Lane: And so you don’t accept the lesser of two evils argument in defence of nuclear power?
Alan Roberts: In general I’d accept that argument. My objection to nuclear power is based on what it’s like, but on the other hand, the tragedies that are in store if climate change continues are probably worse than what we can envisage with nuclear power. But it won’t do the job, that’s basically my objection to it.
Terry Lane: Well let’s go through some of the reasons that you put in the article for it not doing the job. One is you say that the percentage of greenhouse gases emitted from power generation plants is 20% of the total, and therefore even if all coal-fired power plants were replaced with nuclear, we would only get an insignificant reduction in gas emissions, is that right?
Alan Roberts: That’s true. It varies, that proportion, from one country to another. It’s about 20% in the 15 European Union countries, it’s around about 16% in California, it is always, to my knowledge, everywhere except Victoria, a relatively small fraction of the pollution and the greenhouse gas emissions caused by transport.
Terry Lane: Twenty percent doesn’t sound like an insignificant proportion.
Alan Roberts: No, I’m thinking of it relative to the – for example,California has 16% emitted by electricity generation, 58% from transport, from cars and trucks, which is more than 3.5 times as much as the electricity generation. I agree with you, it’s not insignificant.
Terry Lane: And when we’re considering all sources, people talk seriously about the contribution made by farting sheep, so if we’re starting to talk seriously about those what I presume are fairly minor contributions of methane to the overall gas accumulation, then 20% for carbon dioxide is not a small amount.
Alan Roberts: No, I agree, it is something that is worth cutting out. My objections to the propaganda for nuclear power are twofold. First of all that the various dangers of nuclear power, including the failure to find a way to dispose of waste and so on, still apply in my opinion, but as I say, if this were the only way to get out of it, then we’d have to do it. The second thing, which I think is more important, is that it means the diversion of funds into a project which will mean that other projects that can in fact solve the problem, will not have the capital investment in them.
Terry Lane: Well now, one of your points of scepticism about nuclear power relates to the sheer volume of uranium on the planet, and you suggest that if,I think I’ve got your formula right, if all the coal-fired power stations were replaced by nuclear plants, there would only be enough uranium to power those plants for nine years.
Alan Roberts: That’s right.
Terry Lane: Is that right; how do you calculate that?
Alan Roberts: That was calculated in a paper by van Leeuwen and Smith, Phillip Smith, which went into all the energy that was used in manufacturing a nuclear power station, just how much energy do you have to put out in order to prepare a 1,000 megawatt station and so on, and the conclusion they reached was looking also at the rate at which the uranium and the fuel was burnt up, that what you just stated, Terry, that all the uranium that is at present known, not ones that exist in stockpiles, but the ones whose existence is postulated, and even including the speculative resources as they call them, wouldn’t last for more than about nine years.
Terry Lane: And if you added all of the uranium presently stored in the form of bombs, how much would that add?
Alan Roberts: That is a relatively small proportion. It contributes only a matter of a couple of percent towards this stockpile.
Terry Lane: When it comes to creating a new generating plant, which requires more energy to build – a nuclear plant or a coal-fired plant?
Alan Roberts: Oh, a nuclear plant, without a doubt.
Terry Lane: Why should that be so?
Alan Roberts: Because of the energy that’s needed. Well first of all, usually uranium is nowhere near as accessible as coal. You have to remove a large amount of over-burden, dig out, move a lot of rock in order to get at the uranium ore. Then you have to mill it and process it, which again takes quite a bit of energy, in order to get the uranium oxide out. After that it needs to be enriched, a rather energy-consuming process, even with centrifuges, and all of this is something that coal knows nothing about. It’s comparatively easy to get your coal, even though polluting brown coal like we have in Victoria, it’s comparatively easy to get that into the station energy-wise at least, compared to the work you have to do to get out uranium.
Terry Lane: So in the end, how many kilowatts of power do you have to put into get 1 kilowatt of nuclear power out?
Alan Roberts: That depends on the grade of the ore, just how rich it is in uranium, but to give you an idea of it, when the ore drops below about 0.01% and stocks are of poorer grade than that, are already listed in the resources, you have to put in more energy than you’ll ever get out. This is part of the –
Terry Lane: Well that’s pointless, isn’t it. I mean there’s no point in putting more energy in than you get out, so I can’t understand why would a country like France for instance, get so much of its power, I think 80% of its power, comes from nuclear generation, why would they do it if it was pointless?
Alan Roberts: Because they’re taking advantage of rich ores. The ores that are in mines that are presently in operation, the ore grade is considerably greater than the lowest ones, and because of that, for example, if you want to think of a low one, then Olympic Dam, there’s about .05%, .04% of uranium in the ore, which is pretty small. If you convert that into uranium in a nuclear power station, you’ll only get out something like 50% of the – you’ll have to put in something like 50% of the energy you’re ever going to get out of it.
Terry Lane: This is not how the industry talks about Olympic Dam, they talk about it as a huge bonanza of power.
Alan Roberts: Yes, the reason for that is that the only reason I think that the Olympic Dam is being mined for uranium is because they get copper and other metals out of it, so they can treat the uranium as a sort of bonus which is coming out at the same time as they’re carrying out their major endeavour which is for the other metals.
Terry Lane: You also raise concerns about the obvious connections between nuclear power generation and the construction of nuclear weapons, but to state the obvious, you know, you could have said the same thing to Alfred Nobel: Don’t go ahead with this stuff, Alfred, because it will have unfortunate military applications. But that’s true of any technology, isn’t it?
Alan Roberts: That’s so.
Terry Lane: Not unique for nuclear.
Alan Roberts: But I think we’re up qualitatively differently with nuclear. Nobel never had any chance; Nobel’s invention of dynamite never had any chance of wiping out a whole city in a matter of seconds. Now we’re unfortunately, we are faced with that and as far as the – I think the fear the world has now about Iran and North Korea is sufficient indication of the very close connection between nuclear power, so-called peaceful nuclear power and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Yes, I’m not saying that nuclear physics is entirely discredited by the existence of the nuclear bomb, I’m not saying that at all, and I don’t regard the engineers in nuclear physics as being devils, in fact I have more than a sneaking admiration for the job that they’ve done, butI do believe it’s a job that they shouldn’t be required to do, the building of nuclear power stations in cities.
Terry Lane: Well naturally and inevitably you raise the question of the disposal of radioactive waste. I see that ANSTO has just got a new contract to apply the synroc technology to the disposal of plutonium in the United Kingdom. It does look as though there is a technology for making radioactive waste safe.
Alan Roberts: Well if we look back to when was it, 15 years ago, something like that, to page 1 of all the major dailies in Australia, we would say that it’s not just a matter of that a technology is coming up which will do the job. It was proclaimed on the front pages as being the solution to the nuclear waste problem. Now at the time, reviewing the book that came out on it, I said that I thought that – I criticised them for this and said that it is not the solution, it is the beginning of a very promising research effort that is probably going to take at least 15 years. Well actually it’s taken a little bit longer than that. And I believe it should be continued because face it, we’ve got to get rid of that waste. At some stage, we do have to. And I would criticise the nuclear industry for chorusing so many times that it’s a non-problem. I first heard that from Alvin Weinberg touring here in Australia, what, nearly 40 years ago now. Then it was taken up by Sir Phillip Baxter when he was head of the Atomic Energy Commission, ‘it’s a non-problem’. This ‘non-problem’ has remained a difficult and unsolved problem for something like over 40 years now.
Terry Lane: Three things have made me less certain about the evil of nuclear power generation. One is the lesser of two evils argument. It just seems to me that the prospect of global warming and its consequences are so catastrophic that if nuclear power reduces greenhouse gases, then it has to be considered. There’s another consideration, and that is that there are – would I be right in saying millions of square kilometres, certainly hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of this continent which are uninhabitable, there is no water flowing through it, it’s remote, and geologically stable, I cannot see that the burying of radioactive waste in the middle of one of our vast deserts is going to pose a threat either to this generation or future generations. It seems to me that the problem of disposal of radioactive waste is soluble just simply because of the nature of our continent. I’ll let you answer that first before I tell you the other thing that’s made me think about it again.
Alan Roberts: Well actually I agree with you Terry. When I look at it, I can’t see what could be the catches in it either. But I’m not a hydro-geologist, and I would want to discuss it seriously with a hydro-geologist, that’s someone who does know something about the interaction between underground water and geological formations. Before I committed myself to that, because I do know from the little that I do know about the flow of water underground, I know it can be very tricky. For example, the very first solution to the ‘non-problem’ that I heard put up and which was a current one at the time, was the Kansas salt flats. And the argument there was a very simple one, it seemed quite convincing to me. You’ve got this enormous amount of salt, water can’t have been getting in there because otherwise the salt would have dissolved and gone away. Then what happened was, and it was taken as being the solution to the problem of disposing of waste. Then they belatedly realised, well the circumstance was that a company that was actually mining the salt by injecting water down, and having it come up very salty and then getting the salt out of it, lost a few million litres of water, and when they looked into that they had to admit that if the water could get away, as it had, water could get in. If water could get away from a salt mine, it could get in. Then they belatedly realised that even though that salt had accumulated there over hundreds of thousands of years, in the last couple of centuries, people had sunk wells, and this was the reason that they finally attributed the leakage of water to, and the Kansas salt mines had to be discarded as a solution for nuclear waste. But that would never have occurred to me, and as I say, I would like to ask a hydro-geologist who knows something about it just what are the requirements.
Terry Lane: But what – we’re a bit pressed for time, there’s one other thingI want to ask you. But supposing a hydro-geologist said to you, ‘Look, the middle of the Simpson Desert, there’s no subterranean water, it doesn’t go anywhere, there’s nothing to worry about, it would be safe to bury the stuff there. Let’s suppose that the waste disposal problem were a soluble problem, how would you feel then? Would a major objection to nuclear be removed?
Alan Roberts: Oh, obviously. The only thing is that I think you would then have to ask, you’d probably at an election, you’d have to ask the Australian people whether they agreed to it, and I might even, under the circumstances, I might even be out there arguing that they should.
Terry Lane: One last question, Alan, and this again is a personal reaction. When I read that China and India are installing big new reactors and that they have continuing reactor programs going on, I am mightily relieved, because the alternative would be for them to be building big coal-powered power stations and that I think would be catastrophic. So it’s a bit hypocritical of me to say, well you know, I’m terribly relieved that they’re going nuclear rather than fossil fuel, while at the same time saying, well, no nuclear for us.
Alan Roberts: Well don’t be relieved too quickly Terry, because the Chinese representative at the conference only a couple of months back made it clear that they will not go nuclear unless they can buy the plants with a subsidy, and the subsidy they expect is the one that would come from the so-called clean development mechanism, that the government will reimburse or subsidise the manufacturers and they in turn will subsidise the manufacturers, and they in turn will pass on the saving to the Chinese. The Chinese plans for doing something about their frightful polluted environment, and I’ve just read an interview with their Deputy Minister, do not include a great plunge into nuclear.
Terry Lane: Alan, that’s the start. Thank you very much for coming in.
Alan Roberts, who is from the Monash University School of Environmental Sciences. As a background, you were a physicist?
Alan Roberts: That’s right, yes.
Terry Lane: Alan, thanks very much for your time.
Alan Roberts: Thank you, Terry.