Nuclear Power Not Acceptable

by Terence Jeyaretnam

“Climate change is real, humans cause it, and we must act” said Prime Minister Julia Gillard in a speech at the Don Dunstan Foundation in Adelaide on 16 March 2011.  “Today we must embrace another moment of decision for the future of our nation: a decision to cut carbon pollution and build a clean energy economy for the 21st century.”  Does ‘clean energy’ include nuclear power?

A price on carbon is back on the political agenda and has dominated the press over the past few weeks.  This will continue.

But, around the same time, there’s been a disaster unfolding in front of the world’s eyes. To give you a sense of the magnitude of the issue, farmers in Fukushima are destroying milk after the government restricted shipments after Japanese officials said over the weekend that higher-than-normal levels of radiation had been detected in milk, spinach and some water supplies from regions surrounding the nuclear plant.  The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex in Japan was crippled on March 11 by a huge earthquake and massive tsunami, and Japan is still trying to control a possible melt-down of the reactor, first with trying to dowse the plant with sea water (which permanently cripples the asset) and now with aerial water bombing.

We in Australia are facing another flood event in New South Wales as I write this column. This, after heart breaking flood events in Queensland and Victoria this year, and Cyclone Yasi that could have done a lot more damage than it did, despite being as severe as it still was.  Bushfires caused untold damage in Victoria not that long ago.  Quoting the CSIRO, the Australian Academy of Science, the Bureau of Meteorology, NASA, the US National Atmospheric Administration, the Prime Minister said in her speech that Australia is, and will continue to face “more extreme bushfire conditions and droughts…falling crop yields…loss of species…increased cyclone intensity…more days of extreme heat…coastal flooding as sea levels rise…bleaching of our coral reefs….and a substantial decline in alpine snow cover.

Despite the latest nuclear crisis (which is not the first and will by no means be the last), nuclear power will be peddled as a possible global fuel source that is clean.  Nuclear power produces around 11% of the world's energy needs, and Australia has around 40% of the world’s uranium reserves, the largest of any country in the world.  Interestingly, on 9 March 2011 the Australian Resources Minister Martin Ferguson said that he would be pushing for the Labour Party to change its policy, which currently bans uranium exports to countries which have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to allow sales to energy hungry India.  A few days later, in the wake of the nuclear crisis, Russia's state-owned uranium miner, JSC Atomredmetsoloto (ARMZ), withdrew its one billion U.S. dollars takeover offer of Australian uranium miner, Mantra Resources Ltd. and shares of Mantra Resources Ltd. then plunged 29 percent.

Despite nuclear energy being a possible solution to climate change (it costs no less than fossil fuel), it will not be acceptable by the global community as a clean and safe power source, especially as renewable energy continues to grow as a safe and clean energy source, now delivering over a quarter of energy needs worldwide.  Politicians will increasingly fight a losing battle to promote nuclear power in a world where there are more people (and therefore more safety risks) and more climate-induced disasters, leading to much uncertainty around risk containment.  In 2008 for the first time, more renewable energy than conventional power capacity was added in both the European Union and United States, demonstrating a ”fundamental transition" of the world's energy markets towards renewable.  The transition in the right direction has begun.

Terence Jeyaretnam is a Director of Net Balance (terence@netbalance.com), 
one of the world’s leading sustainability advisory firms.
Terence is based in Melbourne.

Twitter: TerenceJey