COUNT THE COSTS OF NUCLEAR POWER
Saturday Telegraph March 19th 2011.
Professor Vassillos G. Agelidis is the director of the Centre for Energy Research and Policy Analysis at the University of NSW and one of Australia’s leading authorities on energy issues. A former Energy Australia Chair of Power Engineering at the University of Sydney, Professor Agelidis was a member of the CSIRO review panel on energy and an expert witness to the Australian Senate Committee on Energy and Fuels. He spoke to Malcolm Holland about the rekindled debate over nuclear energy.
Three Mile Island and Chernobyl temporarily halted nuclear power plant building. Do you think the same will happen after Japan’s nuclear crisis, or do you think the effect will be more profound this time around?
For a start, let us have a look at the three major incidents. The first two had to do with design and industry practices and operational issues that went really wrong. Such issues could have been avoided.
The last accident is not due to industry procedures and technology that went wrong as under normal operating conditions this disaster would not have occurred.
The Japan disaster happened because of a natural, unprecedented disaster.
The difference in this accident is that the event has not yet unfolded. In other words, the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better so any speculation of its impact at this early stage is just speculation. We must wait to see the full picture to unfold.
What are the attractions of nuclear power?
Security of supply is one of the most important points for nuclear energy. As a generation source nuclear energy has, relatively speaking, low carbon emissions and can be utilised as part of the energy mix to reduce the dependency of carbon-intensive alternatives such as coal and oil.
The concept that nuclear energy is lower cost compared with other technologies is misleading because the cost of managing radioactive waste, the cost associated with the long-term storage of such waste and the cost of dealing with accidents like the one in Japan are not economic factors taken into account when the cost of electricity using nuclear energy is calculated against other options.
Another reason is we do not currently have a price for carbon at international level which will advance sustainable energy technologies from the cost point of view.
Much emphasis has been put on renewable energy resources like solar, waves and wind? Why are so few of these up and running?
The obstacles are not technological but rather perceptions in the marketplace that such solutions are not possible ways forward or, even if they are, they present expensive ways forward.
There are many facts that need to be confronted.
For a start, lack of a price of carbon does not help renewable energy sources but, once it is there at a reasonable price, it will advance the contributions of renewable energy technologies to the energy mix, gradually but surely.
The other fact is that in Australia is we have the cheapest energy generation alternative based on coal.
Such a coal-based solution is not environmentally friendly but its impact is not currently costed in a transparent way so one can see the impact of such energy-generation methods long-term on quality of life and the environment.
In Australia, despite the usual political discussions, we have the cheapest electricity price among all advanced nations. The other fact is we expect to deal with emission reductions at almost no economic cost. Any approach to deal with emission reductions will cost us but if we are clever we can do it early, at lower cost, and also see the opportunities of creating new jobs of a low-carbon economy in the long-term.
Last, our electricity infrastructure is ageing and needs to be renewed and such renewal means that in the near future we must pay more anyway.
Green lobbyists favour smart grids, combining various renewable energy sources. What are their benefits and problems?
Smart grid is a journey and not a destination. It is also a way to indeed integrate more renewable energy sources with the electricity grid.
We at UNSW are working on solutions that include wind, solar PV and battery technology to deliver a renewable energy station that can compete against other base load alternatives.
Other researchers are working on solar thermal technologies that also address the base-load issue linked to wind and solar PV.
Does nuclear power deserve the evil status bestowed upon it by green groups?
There is no reason to speak about nuclear energy being the devil. Nuclear energy is not the issue but rather the (problem is the)lack of vision and investment and the recognition that we need renewable energy for a sustainable future.
Nuclear energy scores well for emission reductions but not against a sustainable future.
This is the real issue and in my opinion any negative event, such as the disaster in Japan, should help us to see the positive way forward. I am confident that the positive way forward is through more investment on research and development of renewable and sustainable energy technologies. If we are serious about sustainable development long term we have to put our money where our mouth is and for a while we have been using cost as an argument to progress.
Can anyone estimate the cost of the latest nuclear energy-related accident and will anyone modify the cost of nuclear energy in the future based on such an accident?
That is what is required to square things off. But I think it will be highly unlikely to happen because it is such a huge task for anyone to calculate.