Coal versus nuclear: the necessary debate

Tuesday, 25 July, 2006

Should Australia have a nuclear industry? According to Prime Minister John Howard, this is a debate we must have. Cabinet has now signed off on his proposal to investigate the economic, environmental and health and safety aspects of an expanded nuclear industry. The report is due back to Howard by the end of the year.

Dr Roderick Duncan, a lecturer in economics at Charles Sturt University, is researching development problems in Third World countries and the links between natural resources and development. He says nuclear power is probably not economically feasible in Australia.

"We are simply too small. We would have to set up a whole industry to support nuclear power and it is much easier to do that in a larger economy. We would only need four or five reactors, in which case it is probably not worthwhile."

Duncan says there are aspects of nuclear energy that are cheaper and more efficient than traditional coal-powered electricity. For example, mining and transporting uranium is more economical than it is for coal. "The uranium to run a reactor for a year is something in the order of three cubic metres, whereas for coal you're taking about hundreds of thousands of tonnes. So there's an enormous saving right there."

However, Duncan says nuclear reactors are expensive to build, insure and decommission. "They cost a lot to build because you have a lot more safety features and a lot more technology going in there. And if there's a significant nuclear accident, damage claims could be as much as 20 or 30 billion dollars."

The Dounreay nuclear plant in Scotland is currently being decommissioned. It is expected to take 40 years or longer and cost between $90 and $110 million each year. A nuclear facility needs at least 15 years to start paying for itself.

"If you're thinking of it as a short-term patch-up for a couple of years, then no, you are much better off building a coal-fired power plant that's cheap, that you build quickly and you can take apart pretty quickly. The major cost is the fuel rather than the facility.

"We have extensive coal reserves and we don't even look for it. We probably have a lot more coal out there than we know."

Duncan says what may come out of the inquiry into Australia's nuclear industry is the true cost of our energy. Topics such as energy conservation and carbon taxes need to enter the public consciousness, which he claims is long overdue.

"Fossil fuel energy and nuclear energy end up costing about the same, and renewables like wind and solar cost about two or three times as much per kilowatt hour. But that's not including a carbon tax on fossil fuels, so if we are serious about global warming, we would have to double or triple the cost of coal-fired electricity." But would this be popular?

"Imagine opening up your quarterly energy bill and it is three times as much as it is now. We don't pay a carbon tax, so in a sense our electricity is artificially cheap. That is one of the things that always puzzles me "“ whenever I ask people about global warming, they say they are concerned, but whenever I tell them, well we could triple the price of energy, then they become a lot less enthusiastic."

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