Explore key insights and uncover the truth behind common myths about nuclear energy, as we delve into frequently asked questions and expert analyses.
In January 2019, and again in 2022 the Climate Council, comprising Australia's leading climate scientists, issued a policy statement concluding that nuclear power plants "are not appropriate for Australia – and probably never will be". The Climate Council statement continued: "Nuclear power stations are highly controversial, can't be built under existing law in any Australian state or territory, are a more expensive source of power than renewable energy, and present significant challenges in terms of the storage and transport of nuclear waste, and use of water".
Nuclear supporters often claim scientific support even where none exists. For example the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is said to support nuclear power on the basis of a 2018 report, but in fact the report simply maps out multiple energy/climate scenarios without endorsing any particular energy sources. In the IPCC's low-carbon scenarios, nuclear power accounts for only a small fraction of electricity supply (even if nuclear output increases) whereas renewables do the heavy lifting. For example, in one 1.5°C scenario, nuclear power more than doubles by 2050 but only accounts for 4.2% of primary energy whereas renewables account for 60.8%. Moreover, the IPCC reports discusses serious problems with nuclear power, including its contribution to nuclear weapons proliferation, the connection between nuclear power and childhood leukemia, and nuclear power's high costs.
Nuclear power and fossil fuels aren't the only choices. Renewable power has doubled over the past decade and now accounts for 29% of global electricity generation while nuclear's contribution is 10% and continues to fall.
The federal Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources expects 69% renewable supply to the Australian National Electricity Market by 2030. South Australia has already reached 67% renewable supply and will comfortably meet the target of 100% net renewable supply by 2030.
Taking into account planning and approvals, construction, and the energy payback time, it would be a quarter of a century or more before nuclear power could even begin to reduce greenhouse emissions in Australia … and then only assuming that nuclear power replaced fossil fuels. So nuclear power clearly isn't a short-term option or a 'bridging' technology to ease the shift from fossil fuels to renewables.
- On the contrary, nuclear power would slow the shift away from fossil fuels, which is why fossil-fuel funded political parties and politicians support nuclear power (e.g. the Nationals) and why organisations such as the Minerals Council of Australia support nuclear power. As Australian economist Prof. John Quiggin notes, support for nuclear power in Australia is, in practice, support for coal.
Nuclear power plants are vulnerable to threats which are being exacerbated by climate change. These include dwindling and warming water sources, sea-level rise, storm damage, drought, and jelly-fish swarms. Retired nuclear engineer David Lochbaum states: "You need to solve global warming for nuclear plants to survive."
Nuclear power programs are also a military security threat as we continue to see at the Zaporizhzhia reactors in Ukraine which have been under occupation from the Russian military since the early days of the war. In that time many security issues, attacks, power cut offs have emerged alongside the intense pressure on reactor workers.
Nuclear power programs have provided cover for numerous covert weapons programs and an expansion of nuclear power would exacerbate the problems. Australian energy expert Dr. Mark Diesendorf states: "On top of the perennial challenges of global poverty and injustice, the two biggest threats facing human civilisation in the 21st century are climate change and nuclear war. It would be absurd to respond to one by increasing the risks of the other. Yet that is what nuclear power does."
Nuclear warfare is the quickest path to climate catastrophe. Earth and paleoclimate scientist Andrew Glikson writes: "When Turco et al. (1983) and Carl Sagan(1983) warned the world about the climatic effects of a nuclear war, they pointed out that the amount of carbon stored in a large city was sufficient to release enough aerosols, smoke, soot and dust to block sunlight over large regions, leading to a widespread failure of crops and extensive starvation. The current nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia could potentially inject 150 teragrams of soot from fires ignited by nuclear explosions into the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere, lasting for a period of 10 years or longer, followed by a period of intense radioactive radiation over large areas."
Nuclear power is far more expensive than other energy sources. Since 2010, the cost of wind and solar PV has decreased by 70‒90% while nuclear costs have increased 33%.
Lazard investment firm provides these figures in its October 2021 report on 'levelised costs of electricity':
Nuclear US$131‒204 (A$186‒289) Wind ‒ onshore US$26‒50
Solar PV ‒ utility scale US$28‒41
In its 2021 GenCost report, CSIRO provides these 2030 cost estimates:
Nuclear (small modular): A$128‒322 / MWh 90% wind and solar PV with storage and transmission costs: A$55‒80 / MWh
The latest estimates for all reactors under construction in western Europe and the U.S. range from A$17.6 billion to A$30.6 billion per reactor and have been subject to spectacular cost overruns amounting to A$10 billion or more. A twin-reactor project in South Carolina was abandoned after the expenditure of A$12 billion.
There are no fundamental differences between thorium and uranium: thorium reactors produce nuclear waste, and they are vulnerable to catastrophic accidents, and they can be (and have been) used to produce explosive material for nuclear weapons.
Thorium reactor technology is not commercially available or viable. Dr Peter Karamaskos states: "Without exception, [thorium reactors] have never been commercially viable, nor do any of the intended new designs even remotely seem to be viable. Like all nuclear power production they rely on extensive taxpayer subsidies; the only difference is that with thorium and other breeder reactors these are of an order of magnitude greater, which is why no government has ever continued their funding."
"Advanced" reactors are not advanced: they are not safer and in many cases are more dangerous and with even greater weapons potential.
Theoretically, these reactors would reduce nuclear waste streams but in practice, fancy concepts such as molten salt reactors and sodium-cooled fast reactors "will actually exacerbate spent fuel storage and disposal issues" according to Dr. Allison Macfarlane, a former chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Likewise, 'integral fast reactors' coupled with 'pyroprocessing' could reduce waste streams in theory … but in practice the opposite has occurred. Commenting on a R&D program in the U.S., Dr. Edwin Lyman notes that "Pyroprocessing has taken one potentially difficult form of nuclear waste and converted it into multiple challenging forms of nuclear waste. DOE [Department of Energy] has spent hundreds of millions of dollars only to magnify, rather than simplify, the waste problem." See also Dr. Lyman's important 2021 report, 'Advanced" Isn't Always Better: Assessing the Safety, Security, and Environmental Impacts of Non-Light-Water Nuclear Reactors'.
Finland and Sweden have been working on repositories for high-level nuclear waste for decades ‒ their plans are many years behind schedule and operation has yet to begin. They haven't demonstrated safe disposal of high-level nuclear waste for a year let alone the 300,000 years that it takes for high-level nuclear waste to decay to the level of radioactivity of the original uranium ore.
Other countries operating nuclear power plants ‒ including the US, the UK, Japan, South Korea, Germany, etc. ‒ have not even established a site for a high-level nuclear waste repository, let alone commenced construction or operation. To give one example of a protracted, expensive and failed attempt to establish a high-level nuclear waste repository, plans for a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada were abandoned in 2009. Over 20 years of work was put into the repository plan and A$12 billion was wasted on the failed project.
A January 2019 report details the difficulties with high-level nuclear waste management in seven countries (Belgium, France, Japan, Sweden, Finland, the UK and the US) and serves as a useful overview of the serious problems that Australia has avoided.
No operating deep underground repository for high-level nuclear waste exists, but there is one deep underground repository for long lived intermediate-level nuclear waste − the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in the US state of New Mexico. In 2014, a chemical explosion ruptured one of the barrels stored underground at WIPP. This was followed by a failure of the filtration system meant to ensure that radiation did not reach the outside environment. Twenty-two workers were exposed to low-level radiation. WIPP was closed for three years. A deeply troubling aspect of the WIPP problems is that complacency and cost-cutting set in within the first decade of operation of the repository.
Small modular reactors (SMRs), if they existed, would be just as accident-prone as large reactors. Proposals to situate SMRs underground pose unique safety threats from flooding and accessibility. They would still produce long-lived radioactive waste and be useful for weapons production.
Only two SMRs are said to exist ‒ one in Russia and one in China ‒ but neither meets the 'modular' part of the definition: serial factor production of reactor components (or 'modules').
Electricity from SMRs is expected to be more expensive than that from large, conventional nuclear reactors. There is no current market for SMRs and companies are refusing to make the huge investments required because of the high risks.
Most of the handful of SMRs under construction are over-budget and behind schedule; there are disturbing connections between SMRs, weapons proliferation and militarism more generally; and about half of the SMRs under construction are intended to be used to facilitate the exploitation of fossil fuel reserves (in the Arctic, the South China Sea and elsewhere).
A 2009 paper prepared for the Australian Uranium Association estimated that the nuclear power life cycle generates between 10‒103 grams of CO2 equivalent per kWh, which is far lower than fossil fuels ‒ but as uranium ore grades decline emissions would increase to as much as 248 gCO2e/kWh. As well as emissions from mining and milling uranium ore there are emissions associated with the transport and processing of fuel.
There have been over 200 nuclear power accidents.
Nuclear theft and smuggling are serious, unresolved problems. As of 31 December 2018, an International Atomic Energy Agency database contained a total of 3,497 confirmed incidents reported by participating States since 1993, of which 285 incidents involved a confirmed or likely act of trafficking or malicious use, and for an additional 965 incidents there was insufficient information to determine if it was related to trafficking or malicious use.
There have been an alarming number of deliberate attacks on nuclear plants. Examples include Israel's destruction of a research reactor in Iraq in 1981; the United States' destruction of two smaller research reactors in Iraq in 1991; attempted military strikes by Iraq and Iran on each other's nuclear facilities during the 1980‒88 war; Iraq's attempted missile strikes on Israel's nuclear facilities in 1991; and Israel's bombing of a suspected nuclear plant in Syria in 2007.
United Nations' reports in 2005/06 estimated around 9,000 deaths among those people most heavily exposed to radioactive fallout from Chernobyl and populations exposed to lower doses in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. The estimated death toll rises further when populations beyond those three countries are included. For example, a study published in the International Journal of Cancer estimated 16,000 deaths across Europe. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that there will be 27,000‒108,000 excess cancers and 12,000‒57,000 excess cancer deaths due to exposure of radiation from Chernobyl.
In a study of the health impacts of the March 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan (multiple nuclear reactor meltdowns, fires and explosions), the World Health Organisation stated that for people in the most contaminated areas in Fukushima Prefecture, the estimated increased risk for all solid cancers will be around 4% in females exposed as infants; a 6% increased risk of breast cancer for females exposed as infants; a 7% increased risk of leukaemia for males exposed as infants; and for thyroid cancer among females exposed as infants, an increased risk of up to 70% (from a 0.75% lifetime risk up to 1.25%).
Radiation biologist Dr. Ian Fairlie estimates around 5,000 fatal cancer deaths resulting from exposure to radioactive Fukushima fallout. In addition, there is no dispute that at least 2,000 people died due to the botched evacuation of Fukushima and the mistreatment of evacuees over the following years.
Nuclear requires water in the mining and production of uranium fuel, generation of electricity and cooling at nuclear reactors, and for the management of wastes.
Reactors are generally situated near lakes, rivers or the ocean to meet cooling water requirements. There are two types of cooling systems used for nuclear power ‒ either 'once-through' or recirculating. With once-through systems, warmer water is discharged back into the environment, often having a significant impact on the local ecology.
A single nuclear power reactor operating for a single day typically consumes 36‒65 million litres of water. A 2006 paper by the Commonwealth Department of Parliamentary Services states: "Per megawatt existing nuclear power stations use and consume more water than power stations using other fuel sources. Depending on the cooling technology utilised, the water requirements for a nuclear power station can vary between 20 to 83 per cent more than for other power stations."
By contrast, the REN21 'Renewables 2015: Global Status Report' states: "Although renewable energy systems are also vulnerable to climate change, they have unique qualities that make them suitable both for reinforcing the resilience of the wider energy infrastructure and for ensuring the provision of energy services under changing climatic conditions. System modularity, distributed deployment, and local availability and diversity of fuel sources − central components of energy system resilience − are key characteristics of most renewable energy systems."
At COP28, 22 states pledged to triple nuclear power capacity until 2050.
Currently, there are 374 GW of nuclear capacity worldwide acording to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Tripling this capacity to 1,122 GW in 2050 means an increase of 748 GW or 748,000 MW within 26 years.
Assuming a capacity of 1,500 MW per nuclear reactor, approximately 498 new nuclear power plants would have to be connected to the grid in the next 26 years, or 19 new nuclear reactors per year in every of the next 26 years. Assuming a lower capacity of 1,250 MW per reactor, around 598 new NPPs would have to be connected to the grid within the next 26 years, or 23 NPPs per year. In addition, phased out nuclear power plants will have to be replaced: within the past 30 years, an average of 5 nuclear power plants was phased out per year; thus, an additional 5 nuclear power plants would have to be built to replace phased out ones.
This results in 19 new + 5 replacement NPPs, i.e. 24 nuclear power plants have to be connected every year in the next 26 years according to the pledge. (at 1,250 MW capacity per plant, 23 new + 5 replacement. i.e. 28 reactors would have to be connected to the grid per year during the next 26 years.)
So far, this calculation is based on averages. In reality, things would look even a bit more difficult: For sure, within the next few years, it is impossible to connect 24 to 28 reactors PER YEAR to the grid given an average construction time of 9 years for nuclear power plants. Additional time (estimated at 2 - 5 years) will be needed for siting and licensing of a reactor.
Thus, many more reactors would have to be built and connectd to the grid since the effectively remaining time is less than 26 years when considering construction time and time for siting and licensing.
Reality check shows: Within the past 30 years, an average of 5 reactors has been connected to the grid every year.
The reality-check shows clearly that it is not feasible - based on the experience of the past 30 years - to complete 24 - 28 reactors every year.
The nuclear pledge is an attempt by the nuclear industry and some countries to get funds from the World Bank and other financial institutions to subsidize an industry which is incompetitive, high-risk and which will provide electricity at a price higher than renewable energies can - at the expense of the taxpayers and consumers of electric energy - while at the same time creating much more nuclear waste.
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