Politics Analysis

Dutton's climate policy nothing but hot air

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

The Coalition's push for nuclear energy appears to be an attention grab for votes, based on little to no scientific knowledge, writes Dr Norm Sanders.

DURING MY FRUSTRATING tenure as a Senator in the Parliament of this fair country, I often marvelled at the technical ignorance of the people occupying the seats of power. Many of them had worked their way up through the political system, starting as staffers learning the trade and then getting pre-selection in a winnable position on the ballot.

There were very few physicists in that bunch. Reality to them is what they can spin, not what is.

So we have Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, an ex-cop, framing an election campaign around nuclear power about which he and his advisors know little or nothing. Maybe it was just reflex action, as IA's Michelle Pini pointed out recently in an excellent editorial.

It seems the Libs think that pushing nuclear power will be an attention grabber and eventually a vote winner. Apparently, some Victorian Liberals were grumbling that the party didn't have enough new policies. Several Federal Liberal MPs told The Sydney Morning Herald they were frustrated Dutton hadn’t ‘released more policies to try and win back voters to the Coalition cause’.

Choosing nuclear power as an issue is an act of desperation and ignorance. Unfortunately for the Libs, John Howard is no longer Prime Minister and people are now far more educated about the many drawbacks of nuclear power. Nuclear power was once touted as “clean energy” and “too cheap to meter”.

Cleanliness or otherwise of nuclear power has been argued for years and “otherwise” wins hands down. The nuke industry cherry-picks one aspect of nuclear power – an operating reactor – and ignores all the rest of the chain. Although an operating reactor is carbon-free, it still produces vast quantities of heat pollution which can actually change local climates and add to global warming.

Uranium doesn't magically appear at the nuclear plant site nor does it disappear after use. It is all part of the nuclear chain which stretches from uranium prospecting through mining, milling, transportation and enrichment to ultimate disposal (somewhere.)

Fossil fuels play a big role in the chain, including the construction and ultimate dismantling of the plant itself. Vast quantises of cement are required during construction along with tankers full of fossil fuels to power machinery. The reinforced concrete reactor buildings and the massive cooling towers themselves contribute to global climate change.

An analysis by Technical Services Australia for the Victorian Parliament states:

‘Cement production consumes large quantities of raw materials and fuels and produces significant quantities of carbon dioxide. The production of one tonne of cement consumes around 1.6 tonnes of raw materials and 0.1 tonne of coal and produces 0.8 tonne of carbon dioxide. As a consequence, carbon dioxide emissions from cement kilns comprise approximately 5% of global emissions.’

Wind power also has a CO2 cost, but it is far less than that of the nuclear industry. 

An Australian Government Parliamentary report contained a comparison:

Groups critical of nuclear power cited other studies, such as those published by the German Oko Institut, which were said to have found that nuclear emits between 34–60 gCO2/kWh over its full fuel cycle, while wind emits approximately 20 gCO2/kWh.

 

Similarly, the Medical Association for the Prevention of War (Victorian Branch) argued that on a full life cycle basis nuclear produces between 1.5 and 3 times as much CO2 as wind generation.

The Libs may challenge these numbers or, more likely, ignore them, but they can't deny the fact that nuclear reactors generate a lot of heat. In fact, a nuclear reactor is just an expensive, dangerous way to boil water. Nuclear power is terribly inefficient.

An analysis in Science Direct states:

‘About 33% of the thermal energy produced in nuclear reactions is converted into electricity.’

The remaining 67% is released into the air through massive cooling towers or into lakes, rivers and the sea as waste heat, where it contributes to global warming. 

And then there's economics. 

From The Guardian:

‘Large-scale nuclear is estimated to cost between $141 and $233/MWh in 2030, with small modular reactors estimated to be $230 to $382/MWh. Electricity from a combination of solar and wind would cost between $73 and $128 a megawatt hour, depending on how much renewable energy was already in the system.’

Peter Dutton and his friends would have us penniless and freezing in the dark while their nukes were being built. Eventually, of course, the nukes would be producing lots of hot air to provide fuel for the Liberal Party climate change policy.

Dr Norm Sanders is a former commercial pilot, flight instructor, university professor, Tasmanian State MP and Federal Senator.

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