Nuclear Energy: A light in the darkness

Energy prices across the country have continued to increase. Despite the short term fall in energy prices due to the removal of the disastrous Carbon Tax, this overall trend has remained the same. Concerns over energy security have been raised due to an increased reliance on renewable energy. Clearly, a better solution is needed.

Nuclear power is among the cleanest, cheapest, and most reliable forms of energy generation currently known to man. In May 2016, 30 countries worldwide were operating 444 nuclear reactors for power generation, with 63 new nuclear plants under construction in 15 countries. In 2015, 13 countries relied on nuclear power to produce at least one quarter of their total electricity.

Nuclear power is also one of the lowest greenhouse gas emitting forms of energy production. Independent studies have shown that the life-cycle emissions of a nuclear power plant are comparable to wind, solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric generation.

Irrespective of one’s stance on human-induced cli- mate change, nuclear power is still a great option for a cleaner and healthier environment for humans to live in. The air pollution caused by fossil fuel plants can be extremely hazardous, and damaging to the air and water quality in surrounding areas. While the waste generated by nuclear power generation must be safely stored in special underground facilities, this has no effect on the surrounding environment. The disposal of waste generated by fossil fuel generation is simply dispersed into the air, where it can spread to neighbouring areas and reduce air quality. This is easily demonstrated by the unhealthy air quality in cities such as Beijing, which have a very heavy reliance on fossil fuel.

This is not to say that the best alternative is wind and solar power generation. The recent state-wide power outage in South Australia in September, showed that an over-reliance on renewables (such as wind power, which currently provides 40% of South Australia’s electricity) can have disastrous consequences when hit by severe weather conditions. Nuclear power generation is undeterred by such weather, and can operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, regardless of whether the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. While it is true that catastrophic natural disasters can impede the safety of nuclear reactors, South Australia is very fortunate to be free from weather conditions that would traditionally make nuclear power plants unsafe, such as tsunamis or severe earthquakes.

Safety is of course, an important factor. But for more than 50 years of nuclear energy production in the United States – equivalent to 3,500 reactor years of operation – there have been no radiation-related health effects linked to their operation. When carefully monitored and operated, nuclear power plants are very safe working environments. People are more likely to be injured working in a fast food restaurant, than they are in a nuclear power station.

Australia has 31% of the world’s uranium reserves – the highest of any single country by a very large margin. South Australia contains 80% of this, or just under 25% of the global uranium supply. As of 2009, there were more than 1.6 million tons of recoverable uranium in Australia. Just 28 grams of uranium releases the same amount of energy as 100 metric tons of coal. This makes transportation of fuel much lower (as less is required), thereby reducing the overall cost of energy production. South Australia, or indeed Australia as a whole, has the potential to become an entirely self-sufficient power generator – it need only tap into the reserves that are already available.

Nuclear power generation is also great for the economy. Aside from the obvious benefits of significantly lower electricity costs, nuclear power generation creates jobs. Typically, 3,500 people are employed during the construction phase of a nuclear power plant, and 400 to 700 people are employed during its operation. In the United States, salaries for such workers are usually 36% higher than those in the local area. Moreover, nuclear power plants often operate in rural communities that benefit considerably from the presence of a large industrial complex.

Liberal Senator the Hon. Eric Abetz commented after the SA state-wide blackout that “Australia should revisit the possibility of more nuclear power” (ABC). Former Liberal Senator Sean Edwards was a strong advocate of nuclear energy in South Australia, and wanted to see South Australia become a nuclear-powered state. He made great efforts to this end before the announcement of a royal commission into the nuclear fuel cycle for South Australia.

The Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission delivered its final report on May 9, 2016 which was quite favourable towards the use of nuclear energy and South Australia’s participation in other aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle. It was found that a waste disposal facility could generate $257 billion in total revenue. Additional exploration and mining of uranium in South Australia would also contribute to the economy, and could function effectively and safely under current regulatory frameworks. Electricity generation, admittedly, was found to not be economically viable under current market rules, but should be considered as a viable option if current restrictions are removed, and the market is made freer – reforms that the Liberal Par- ty excel at making. At the very least, the royal commission strongly supported the building of a waste disposal facility, and increased mining operations in the state.

Nuclear energy is the way forward. It provides a safe, clean and efficient method of energy production, and de- livers greater energy security than other options. It will mean lower electricity costs for households, lower energy costs for businesses, create hundreds of jobs, and protect the environment. And with recent state-wide blackouts, nuclear energy could very well be a light in the darkness.

Joshua Sweaney is a member of the South Australian Young Liberal Policy Committee.