Opinion

SA’s short-sighted view of uranium and nuclear options

Something quite extraordinary is happening in South Australia, the state that initiated the national movement against French atmospheric nuclear tests in 1971-72, and where the movement against uranium mining began in 1975, which ultimately led to a five-year ban by the ACTU on the mining, transport and export of uranium. Forty years later, it is the ultimate irony that the French nuclear industry is interested in becoming involved in South Australian uranium enrichment and nuclear reactors.

In 2010, the University College London (UCL) established its School of Energy and Resources, Australia, in Adelaide. The school partnered with pro-nuclear and pro-shale gas corporations, including BHP Billiton and Santos. On the surface this may seem harmless enough, but the school and its well-connected backers has had a profound impact on the nuclear debate in South Australia, particularly as the state begins a royal commission into “opportunities and risks” in the “nuclear fuel cycle”.

Professor Stefaan Simons, who is the director of the International Energy Policy Institute and UCL’s BHP Billiton chairman of energy policy, has been strongly promoting construction of nuclear powered submarines in South Australia, as well as a repository in the state for radioactive “waste streams”. Dr Tim Stone, a businessman and visiting professor to the UCL’s Adelaide campus, was expert chair of the British Office for Nuclear Development and sits on the board of British energy company Horizon Nuclear Power. James Voss, the former managing director of Pangea Resources, the company that originally proposed a nuclear waste dump in Australia in the late 1990s, is also part of the UCL fold, as honorary reader at the International Energy Policy Institute. 

Outside of UCL, support has come from the likes of Professor Barry Brook, former professor of climate change at the University of Adelaide, and now professor and chair of environmental sustainability at the University of Tasmania. Brook has vigorously promoted the whole nuclear fuel chain, from uranium mining and enrichment to reactors and storage of radioactive waste in the desert of South Australia. He and Tim Stone have been appointed to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission’s Expert Advisory Committee.

The arguments put for nuclear power are many and specious. As South Australia continues to be seduced by them, it is worth pointing out the flaws that too often go uncorrected. 

The first argument is environmental: that nuclear power is the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and as such combat climate change. But this ignores the huge expulsion of greenhouse gas that goes into producing nuclear power.

The massive industrial process supporting a nuclear power plant is complex and energy intensive. It involves mining millions of tonnes of soil and ore. The uranium must then be separated, milled, enriched and converted into ceramic particles to be packed into zirconium fuel rods. Construction of the huge reactor complex adds substantially to global warming as it is largely made of concrete – a CO2-intensive product. One hundred tonnes of enriched uranium fuel rods are packed into the reactor core and submerged in water. The fission reaction boils the water, steam turns a turbine and generates electricity. Each 1000-megawatt reactor requires one million gallons of water a minute, for cooling. 

In operation, the uranium becomes one billion times more radioactive, and more than 200 new man-made radioactive elements are created. Thirty tonnes of radioactive spent fuel rods – nuclear waste – removed from the reactor core annually must be continually cooled for decades. Decommissioning of the intensely radioactive reactor occurs decades hence and long-term storage of radioactive waste for one million years must follow. 

This complex process produces massive amounts of global warming gases, including CO2 and chlorofluorocarbons. Enriching uranium also requires the enormous expense of energy, as in Paducah, Kentucky, where two huge coal-fired plants provided the requisite electricity for uranium enrichment for atomic power and weapons. 

As far as mitigation of global warming is concerned, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research estimates that 2000 to 3000 reactors of 1000 megawatts each would need to be built over the next 50 years to have any impact – one a week – in order to replace half of our present oil and coal capacity as well as meeting globally escalating electricity needs.

Nonetheless, the South Australian Liberal senator Sean Edwards, a real estate agent and winemaker, has parroted the fallacious arguments about climate change mitigation in a recent interview for the Murdoch press. But he also went further.

He said that South Australia could create a special economic zone, thus eliminating $4.4 billion in taxes, including payroll tax, motor vehicle taxes and the emergency services levy, if it became the world’s radioactive waste dump. He said that because international partners would pay handsomely for this service, “free power could then be provided to SA households”. 

Ben Heard, an occupational therapist and PhD candidate studying nuclear power, agreed with Edwards and said this proposal was “entirely credible” and that the global market for storing radioactive waste was worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Heard argued that “the used fuel rods … can be converted into a metal form and that can go into a fast reactor that recycles the metal over and over again until all of that material has produced energy, and in that process it converts into a much shorter lived waste form”. 

Heard is advocating the reprocessing of radioactive fuel. This involves dissolving intensely radioactive fuel rods in nitric acid and chemically precipitating out plutonium, which would then fuel small, modular, fast-breeder reactors. 

Here, another specious argument. Reprocessing is an extremely dangerous process, exposing workers to high levels of radiation and leaving a toxic corrosive brew of more than 100 deadly radioactive elements that must then be isolated from the ecosphere for one million years, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. It’s a scientific impossibility. The proponents argue that fissioning plutonium (the process of nuclear reaction) in a fast reactor converts it to shorter-lived radioactive elements, which reduces the amount of very long-lived waste. Plutonium’s radioactive life is 250,000 years, while that of converted elements such as cesium-137 and strontium-90 is 300 years. But they are wrong. Only 9 per cent of the plutonium successfully fissions, leaving 91 per cent of it with its extensive life, as well as producing deadly fission byproducts. 

It is also argued that South Australia’s reserves of thorium could be used for electricity production, but this would require the use of enriched uranium or plutonium to make thorium fissionable. This is another vastly expensive and dangerous operation.

Next, there is the question of militarisation. Proliferation of nuclear power and weapons is intrinsically linked. Fast reactors make access to plutonium readily available to use as fuel for nuclear weapons for the next 250,000 years. Fast reactors also use liquid sodium as a coolant, which explodes or burns if exposed to air, should a cooling pipe crack or leak. Five kilograms of plutonium is critical mass – the amount necessary for a sustained chain reaction – and with tonnes of plutonium in the reactor core, a loss of coolant could induce a huge nuclear explosion scattering deadly plutonium. Moreover, fast reactors are hugely expensive and have never been produced on a commercial scale. 

There are, as mentioned, supporters of the South Australian waste dump proposal. No doubt, countries with some of the 350,000 tonnes of spent fuel in the world would be thrilled with such a scheme. The dump would be constructed on Aboriginal land, near and likely above the Great Artesian Basin. The extremely dangerous elements in this waste include plutonium-239, existing for 250,000 years and so toxic that one-millionth of a gram is carcinogenic. There would also be americium-241, even more deadly than plutonium, as well as strontium-90 and cesium-137, lasting 300 years. Radioactive elements that concentrate in the food chain are odourless, invisible and tasteless. They induce varieties of cancer, including lung, liver, bone, testicular, breast, muscle and brain. They can cause severe congenital deformities and their presence increases the incidence of inherited genetic diseases, including cystic fibrosis, diabetes, haemochromatosis and dwarfism.

The South Australian population would be likely to experience epidemics of cancer, leukaemia, congenital anomalies and genetic diseases through future generations as the waste inevitably leaked.

The entire nuclear fuel chain in all countries with nuclear power, including its accident insurance, is heavily subsidised by government. Wall Street will not invest in nuclear power, so in essence it is a socialised industry paid for by the taxpayers. Construction of 1000-megawatt nuclear reactors in the US now costs upwards of $US12 billion. Many of the nuclear power plants in Britain, Europe, Japan, Canada and the US are reaching the end of their productive lives. But because the private utility companies that run the reactors make over 1 million dollars a day selling electricity, they are persuading governments to allow these dilapidated and dangerous reactors to operate for another 20 years. 

Clearly this whole disastrous process is financially beyond the reach of little South Australia. However Premier Jay Weatherill has been persuaded to establish a flawed royal commission to assess the viability of incorporating the entire nuclear fuel chain in the state. In addition to Barry Brook and UCL’s Tim Stone, the commission’s expert advisory committee includes John Carlson, former director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office, biotechnologist Dr Leanna Read, South Australia’s chief scientist, and Ian Lowe, emeritus professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University and former president of the Australian Conservation Foundation. There are no medical doctors.

Yet this is a carcinogenic industry that must be halted immediately in the name of public health. The people advocating a nuclear South Australia have no comprehension of genetics, radiation biology, oncology and medicine. Or they are willing to ignore the risks. 

South Australia has vast amounts of geothermal energy available in its northern reaches and it is perfectly suited for solar and wind power, which get cheaper by the day. With a little initiative and wise political leadership, the state could become a world leader in clean, green and sustainable energy, installing solar panels on every building and parking area, building electric solar-powered cars, constructing thousands of turbines and upgrading the grid, which would enormously increase the GDP and welfare of South Australia. But there are no institutes or Liberal senators or well-connected businessmen advocating that.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 30, 2015 as "The nuclear option". Subscribe here.

Helen Caldicott
is a paediatrician and longtime campaigner against nuclear proliferation.

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