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Thursday, 18 March 2010
Page: 2965

Dr JENSEN (12:27 PM) —I also rise to speak on the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010. Labor has belatedly accepted the necessity for a radioactive waste facility after typically in opposition embarking on a scare campaign regarding a radioactive waste repository. Now in government, they have belatedly come to accept the political, economic and scientific reality with regard to setting up a nuclear waste repository. This is given that in a few short years we will have the legal requirement to take back the waste generated by the Lucas Heights facility. It has to be remembered that the benefits that accrue from this facility—be they for fundamental science, applied science or nuclear medicine—are huge and far outweigh the small negatives associated with it.

This brings up another nuclear related issue—that is, the issue of nuclear power. This is an issue that the technologically illiterate Rudd government choose to not even communicate or debate on. Instead, they proffer either various technologies that will be introduced in the never-never or some technological pixie dust that they see as solving all their problems. The most compelling argument for nuclear power has nothing to do with climate science. As an aside, it is interesting how the whole environmental debate has become a glorified carbon dioxide tax debate. Where is the concern for the real environmental issues that are killing people today and not for some supposition about some people who may be impacted in some distant time period? Consider, for example, particulate emissions from diesel and coal fired power stations. These emissions kill approximately 3,000 people every year. You never hear about them despite this being approximately double the national road toll. Why don’t we debate that?

I will go back to nuclear power. The most compelling argument for nuclear power has to be the economics of electricity generation. I shall outline here the economic benefits, the renaissance of the nuclear energy industry, the safety issues and the progress in nuclear technology. The price of electricity is increasing. In Western Australia the average power bill will rise by $220 next year and gas will cost families about $35 a year more. Quite simply, for nuclear energy to become a reality it has to be economically viable. With increasing power prices the argument for nuclear becomes more compelling every day.

Consider this thought on the viability of nuclear energy: if the cost of nuclear energy were indeed prohibitive and thus economically uncompetitive, there would be no need to outlaw nuclear energy by legislation. After all, what company would build an uncompetitive power station? When you run the numbers, nuclear power is an economically competitive technology. It is significantly cheaper than wind or solar, though it is marginally more expensive than coal in the current Australian context. The capital costs associated with nuclear power are more than for coal and significantly greater than for gas, but these are outweighed when it comes to the cost of the fuel. A briefing by General Electric, which builds nuclear power stations, gas fired power stations, wind and solar, indicated that, in the case of the US, nuclear power was the cheapest method of generating power. Similarly, Eskom, the utility providing 95 per cent of South Africa’s electricity, showed data that nuclear is the cheapest method of power generation—despite South Africa, like Australia, having abundant cheap coal.

The US has begun opening up new nuclear stations under President Barack Obama. At the same time, the United Kingdom is opening up new nuclear power stations and South Korea has recently opened up new reactors as well. Nuclear power is an economically viable choice for baseload power. President Obama has committed the US to a significant expansion in its commercial nuclear power industry, a process that halted after the Three Mile Island partial meltdown in 1979. It must be noted here that no lives were lost in and no injuries resulted from this accident.

Interestingly, Kevin Rudd, in stark contrast, will not even countenance a detailed debate on the issue in the Australian context, so hypocritical is he. There are some inherent contradictions and breakdowns in logic in Mr Rudd’s attitude. There are no valid reasons for banning nuclear power in the Australian context, but he is blinkered by a 1970s antinuclear mindset—or perhaps, being a spin cycle politician, he simply uses that expedient argument as the basis for yet another fear campaign. He is certainly not actively evaluating alternatives. If Kevin Rudd genuinely believes that nuclear power presents a clear danger for Australia, then I believe that he is being grossly irresponsible to say the least, not only in continuing to export uranium but in opening up the first new mine in years.

While it is true that nuclear power has had a relative hiatus over the last couple of decades, it is a fact that there are massive expansions in the pipeline in the US, Europe and Asia. Australia stands to lose by not being in the game, both in power generation and in the intellectual capacity to compete in this rapidly advancing technological industry. New nuclear power stations can be constructed and become operational within five years of the first sod being turned, but approvals tend to slow the process down—regardless, I must add, of the electricity-generating method employed. It should be remembered that the first commercial nuclear power station began generating electricity a mere 12 years after the first employment of the atomic bomb. There was no corporate memory of how to achieve nuclear power generation; they had to start from scratch. This was an amazing achievement.

The economic benefit of nuclear power is self-evident. If the method were economically uncompetitive, why bother banning it? No company would choose to lose money. The final decision on which technology to use should be the generators’ and thus the market’s. As such, legislation should encompass issues relating to safety and emissions but not prescribe which method may or may not be employed to generate electricity. Despite the best attempts of green groups, the question of safety is no longer an issue. New generation IV reactor designs will be built to such a level of safety specifications that the physics of a meltdown are impossible—no China syndrome. Advanced generation III reactors similarly have an extremely high safety factor. Simply put, the safety of these reactors renders safety arguments for not using nuclear power irrelevant. Essentially they are Homer Simpson-proof.

I noted in 4 March’s WA Business News that in terms of decommissioning nuclear power stations John Jacob stated:

You switch off the lights, lock the doors, and then nobody ever, ever goes there—ever again.

This is errant nonsense and totally disingenuous, which would make it precisely the sort of argument which this government would pick up. The fact is there are many nuclear power stations undergoing decommission worldwide. In the United States alone, seven commercial nuclear power stations have been completely decommissioned and returned to greenfield status, meaning that the site can be used for any purpose—including, dare I say, construction of a school or playground.

The issue of waste disposal is a major consideration with nuclear energy. There is a permanent repository underway in Sweden, but at present there are no others. The issue is one of a lack of political will. For the last 50 years the spent fuel has been stored in cooling ponds. Technology is moving on, however, and the fact that no fuel has yet been permanently sequestered may be a blessing in disguise. Some of the generation IV reactor designs use a fast neutron process, meaning that all the uranium is used rather than just the U235; thus the spent fuel rods will become a resource. When the fuel is depleted in these fast neutron reactors the waste form has a much shorter storage period than is required for current waste.

In the WA perspective most reactor designs are too large to swallow at a single gulp unless accompanied by the decommissioning of a coal fired or large gas fired power station. A Westinghouse AP600, generating 600 megawatts of electricity, would be appropriate. Given the time and approval period likely in the WA context, however, something like a pebble bed reactor, with 165-megawatt modules, would be ideal and could be easily incorporated into the grid. These reactors could, by virtue of high operating temperatures—which also mean very high thermodynamic efficiency—directly desalinate water or produce hydrogen as bonus operations. This would give the power station considerable flexibility of operation—something to think about in shaping our future energy market.

However, this government is far more interested in politics than in our future. Consider that energy is, after food, water and shelter, the major issue of concern for all generations and then consider how inept and disinterested this government is in this critical issue. There are a lot of platitudes about our energy future, particularly with regard to various renewable technologies that are in no position at present, and may never be, to provide baseload electricity. The government’s attitude reminds me of a T-shirt my wife gave me early in our relationship. The T-shirt had the heading ‘Wish or Work?’ and smaller print that had to do with needing to work to get anywhere. It is clear that this government does not want to put in the work behind setting up Australia’s energy future for the next half century. It simply wishes that renewables would cut it and that geosequestration will be feasible technically and economically, but is taking no steps.

So why have we banned nuclear power? Economics is a nonissue. As already stated, industry will not choose the technology if it is uncompetitive. Is it safety? I doubt it. Even with Chernobyl, nuclear power is demonstrably, by far, the safest method of generating power. I gave data to this House in a speech in March 2005, so I will not repeat it here. Furthermore, modern reactor designs are Homer Simpson-proof, with passive safety measures that mean there is no requirement for operator intervention. Generation IV designs will be inherently safe. Meltdown will be physically impossible due to the actual physics of the design.

It must be the waste? The simple fact is that waste is quite manageable and is actually, as I have already stated, a resource for the future. Fast neutron reactor designs use all the uranium, not just the U235, and there are two benefits that accrue. First, uranium will last at least 60 times longer than it does for slow neutron reactors, so whatever story you have heard about ‘we only have enough fuel for so many years’ you can multiply that number by at least 60. Then there is the situation that these reactors can use fuel spent in conventional reactors as fuel for the fast neutron reactors. The waste from these fast neutron reactors is safe to handle, literally, within 300 years, and that is certainly not a show stopper.

The reality here is that the Labor Party simply see this as a very convenient political scare campaign for elections. Shame on you for playing with our nation’s energy and technological future on the basis of political expediency! Just as with anthropogenic global warming, where there are many of you who do not agree with the so-called consensus position, there are many on your side who I know believe that Australia should have nuclear power. Shame on you for playing politics with our children’s and grandchildren’s futures! Don’t you have any desire to do what is in the national interest and the interest of our children’s futures rather than what is politically expedient in terms of the next election?

I have laid out the potential objections to nuclear energy, so I, as well as very many Australians, would like to know what your objections are, rather than simply hearing rhetoric. Let us have those objections, and let us have a national debate on the issue, with a view to repealing the ban on nuclear power generation—or, like the Prime Minister, is there a lack of the intestinal fortitude to even discuss what is in the national interest, as that would remove a potential scare campaign for the next election?

There are many factors related to nuclear energy and technology that we need to consider. In the Australian context, we could lose out on massive opportunities by ignoring a significant method of power generation, one that is likely to have major growth as well as technological opportunities. In my view, we need to become involved in the Generation IV International Forum. This is the forum that will shape the future of the nuclear power generation industry. This forum is involved in the standards for the various generation IV reactor designs that will proliferate in the near future. For us not to be involved in this will be similar to Australia missing the boat on transistors and solid state electronic circuitry in the 1950s. The assessment at that time was that it would be a niche electronic technology and the main game was, and would continue to be, thermionic valve technology. When was the last time you saw a valve in your local electronics store? We stand to miss the boat here as well technologically. Not only that but there will be a whole range of technological spin-offs that result from the forum that will either benefit us or cost us in the long term when it comes to both scientific expertise in high-tech industries and the royalties that accrue—or cost—in the intellectual property domain.

Looking a little further into the power generation future, it is clear that nuclear fusion—the power of the sun—will be the generation method of choice. In 1997 a critical result was obtained by the Joint European Torus program, or JET, investigating plasma fusion. At that time, for the first time, a Q factor, or energy out divided by energy in, exceeded one. That means that more energy was obtained from the fusion reaction than was needed to sustain the fusion reaction.

There is a very large multinational science program called ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, currently underway in France, where the Q factor will be between five and 10 if no more technological breakthroughs are obtained or higher if there are breakthroughs. Australia can become a minor partner in this program for a mere $63 million over 10 years. That is mere chump change when compared with the pink batts program and the fixes that are now required. We will, in decades to come, either benefit from the royalties and technologies which result from this, the world’s largest scientific experiment, or we will have to pay for the technologies, the development of which we could have been a part of. It really is time for Australia to become a significant player in high-tech industries.

We punch above our weight globally in scientific terms, and it is time for us to benefit from this. We will not be able to trade off and massively benefit from our mining sector forever. We need to diversify and spread our portfolio. So what is our future to be? Investing in our future, choosing to boldly face the challenges and embracing the opportunities that our highly educated population should grasp? Or do we go forth timidly, rejecting the bravery of our forebears who built this great nation, all on the altar of a scare campaign built on political expediency in the mere desire to cling to power?

Debate (on motion by Mr Clare) adjourned.