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Risking nuclear over safe renewables

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Ever since the Fukushima meltdown, nuclear apologists have been in a full spin cycle, culminating in Australia now deciding to risk selling uranium to India, says Ludwig Heinrich.

Ever since the Fukushima disaster, there has been a veritable tsunami of articles from nuclear apologists presenting specious arguments for nuclear power. These have increased recently — which seems to be a campaign to smooth the path of uranium sales to India. I have written about these pro-nuclear arguments elsewhere but, in sum, it can be said that there is no compelling argument for nuclear power but there are compelling economic, social and moral reasons for avoiding it and its consequences. Not the least of these being the intergenerational toxicity management. Biblical curses only go unto the 7th generation — nuclear ones go at least twice as long."

The Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman apparently said:
“There is no such thing as a free lunch”.

Barry Brook, the well-known nuclear proselytiser, has recast this as:
“There is no such thing as a(n electrical) free lunch”.

This seems intuitively true, but is nonetheless false. I have had many a free lunch whilst living with Aboriginal peoples in their homelands. The food was there for the taking. The energy expended walking to gather the free food may be regarded as a cost by some but, as my health advisors tell me, I needed the walk anyway and they – Friedman and his ilk – are ignoring natural capital, the economically valuable inputs from nature.

They also tend to ignore the importance of what we might call social and human capital, because they only see value and refuse to see values. Value as an expression of monetary accounting, against the broader values that encompass all we consider good in our lives. This seems to be a case of not questioning the purpose of economic activity, it treats economic activity as an end in itself rather than asking how it advances the human endeavour, how it improves our lives.

*****



In making judgements, the Early Kings were perfect, because they made moral principles the starting point for all their undertakings and the root of everything that was beneficial. This principle however, is something that persons of mediocre intellect never grasp. Not grasping it, they lack awareness, and lacking awareness they pursue profit.

~ Lü Bu-wei c.239 BC

*****




It is possible to imagine systems of energy generation that serve multiple purposes, both economic and social, but (surprisingly?) these tend to be renewable energy systems. Consider a wave generator, for example. Not only can it produce power with a reasonable degree of constancy in the southern States of Australia, but it can also provide a storm surge barrier. Something that may very well be desperately needed if sea level rises continue — global average sea level rose at an average rate of around 1.7 ± 0.3 mm per year from 1950 to 2009 and at a satellite-measured average rate of about 3.3 ± 0.4 mm per year from 1993 to 2009. Some other examples of multi-purpose power generation are algal farming and solar updraft towers. Algal farming fixes carbon from the atmosphere, which can then be deployed to create bio-fuel, stock and human food, water remediation and pharmaceuticals. Solar updraft towers can be configured to provide some energy in an urban setting and at the same time clean the air of particulate pollution or can be configured, like the tower in Jinshawan, Inner Mongolia, to restrain sandstorms with its extensive heat-collecting greenhouse. These examples are indicative of where we might be led if we were to look at the potential for indirect or secondary benefits.

This is an often overlooked aspect to the debate on nuclear energy and renewable energy systems that I touched on in my previous article: the capacity to provide social amenities as well as electricity. I suggested in that article that
‘…perhaps it's economically and politically possible, to set solar installations on Aboriginal lands and thereby, as well as meeting capacity requirements, provide those communities with an income stream from rents.’

Someone with a calculator might argue that it is not the least cost option for generating electricity for our largely coastal based cities and industrial enterprises but, against that, we can posit that providing a rental income, plus the opportunity to develop commercial enterprises, to economically disadvantaged communities, provides a value that is at least as important.

Most indicators of poverty and related disadvantage show that Aboriginal people are worse off than non-Aboriginal people in Australia; for example, their average life expectancy is 17 years shorter. And there is widespread support for the notion that Aboriginal communities need income and development partnerships to close the gap in health, wealth and access.

Perhaps the political need was best stated by Prime Minister Paul Keating in his Redfern Park Speech:


“… we cannot confidently say that we have succeeded as we would like to have succeeded if we have not managed to extend opportunity and care, dignity and hope to the indigenous people of Australia — the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people…. failure to bring much more than devastation and demoralisation to Aboriginal Australia continues to be our failure.”

And he reminded us that:
“However intractable the problems may seem, we cannot resign ourselves to failure — any more than we can hide behind the contemporary version of Social Darwinism which says that to reach back for the poor and dispossessed is to risk being dragged down. That seems to me not only morally indefensible, but bad history.”

It is morally indefensible to not address issues of Aboriginal health, wealth and culture, but we can “subsidise” the measures we take by the solar installations rentals I have outlined.

In a similar vein many rural communities could host power generation capacity for the urban and industrial needs. Modern agricultural and pastoral operations do not require the labour force of the older methods which has led to a collapse in employment. (Farmers represented 1.7% of all employed persons in 2010–11, a decrease from 2.9% in 1996–97 and this is part of a historic trend.) This in turn has led to the decline of rural centres and the exodus of youth — the median age of people working the land has risen to 53 years. Placing nuclear power plants in such areas, as well as being politically untenable, does nothing for local employment — the skills required are unlikely to be there.

However, the story is entirely different when it comes to renewables. Many of the maintenance tasks require only minimal skills and there is a good range of skills rising above that, many of which are already present in local electrical, hydraulic and mechanical trades. Then there are obvious benefits of maintaining social cohesion and continuity within those communities.

What is often seen as a weakness of renewable energy systems is the local variability of generation. New developments in battery technologies, in particular the liquid metal battery, go a large way to addressing this.



But aside from that, having a network of smaller systems that can be locally maintained provides a number of benefits. The cellular grid that this creates provides resilience in the system – the wind is usually blowing somewhere, and the sun is geographically variable – but a widely distributed network of electrical generation also provides a back-bone system to support the move to electric and hybrid vehicles. At the moment, road transport produces 12.7 per cent of Australia's greenhouse gas emissions. But for this to change to any great extent those non-fossil fuelled vehicles will need to draw on low carbon energy generation. Distributed systems also provide delivery security in the face of environmental disasters and terrorism, and again renewable energy systems are capable of generating local employment opportunities.

It is often claimed – usually by the proponents of large scale non-renewable systems, such as coal, gas or nuclear – that their operations provide economies of scale compared to a wider deployment of smaller systems. But, aside from the dangers of centralised power (see previous articles), there are many situations when a small system can also provide an amenity. Business shelters, street lights, the amenities and lighting in the park, these are applications where small systems have proven economically viable. Similarly, remote communities are often serviced with diesel generators but, small scale renewables are a better match to their needs. It is notable that “developing countries host 53% of global RE electricity generation capacity” — in part, once again, because there is a good fit to local skills and localised demand.

Nuclear generating systems, taken at their best, may apply to some contingency. But the only use for which I can see any merit is for exploration beyond our atmosphere. Inside, here on planet Earth, they do not make sense. They require high technical skills, high security, external regulatory oversight, insurance beyond what commercial insurance can provide; in short, they are too expensive in every sense worth noting. And the only moral claim that can be made for nuclear is that it is a low carbon energy system but, as I have explained elsewhere, this is not enough to make it a sound moral choice.

*****


The PM, Julia Gillard, has been building a framework for uranium sales to India despite India being a nuclear weapons state and not being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This could lead to a challenge under the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, signed by 12 nations in the Pacific and Australia, which governs nuclear testing and the use of nuclear materials from the region. Such a challenge would be given weight by the statements from India's comptroller and auditor-general, Vinod Rai, that the Indian nuclear industry is dangerously unsafe, disorganised and, in many cases, completely unregulated.



Little wonder then that Julia Gillard is being petitioned by Indians not to export uranium there, and also, as Dr M V Ramana has noted in The Conversation:
'…a large majority of the Indian public, particularly those living near proposed nuclear facilities, learned the obvious lesson from Fukushima: nuclear reactors are hazardous, and communities living near nuclear facilities would be the worst affected in the event of an accident. This is why there are ongoing protests at all new sites selected for nuclear plants.'

It is worth remembering that Fukushima used Australian uranium. Considering the state of the Indian nuclear industry, it is morally indefensible to sell uranium to them.

*****


Nor are fossil fuels a sensible or moral path.

A Government climate change report said:
'Taking all externalities into account, including the health burden of coal in Australia, estimated by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering to be $2.6 billion per annum, it is likely that coal is the most expensive fuel.  Yet under our present accounting system it is the cheapest, and an unfair competitor for renewable energy.'

Aside from the health burden of pollution, coal also accounts for about one half of Australia's energy-related greenhouse gas emissions.

Cities consume around 70% of energy demand_ and this is unlikely to change — the population of Australia's capital cities grew by 17% between 2001 and 2011 — so it is important, if we are to tackle climate change and pollution_ in general, to look at how we can address this energy demand. One strategy is to look at old industrial spaces, landfills and urban renewal requirements as opportunities to bring renewable energy systems into the city and at the same time create employment. There are suburbs in most Australian cities that are in need of reworking; they contain inadequately designed housing that is not energy efficient, and they have pockets of intergenerational unemployment and poverty. Redevelopment of these areas could address urban energy needs as well as tackling the socially divisive and destructive patterns of inequity.



Beyond this we need to realise that our current levels of demand are putting immense strains on our planetary systems. That constitutes an intergenerational injustice as succeeding generations will have to deal with the consequences, so we should remove the energy inefficiencies in our existing structures. A study conducted by Julian M. Allwood, the director of the Low Carbon Energy University Alliance and a team from MIT and the University of Cambridge in London concluded that by improving efficiencies in everything from cooking habits to vehicle manufacturing we could reduce energy consumption by as much as 73%. Even without reaching that level it is clear that reducing demand has major environmental benefits without reducing human amenity and in many cases improving it.

So the question is not really whether or not we should move to renewable energy generation – because we already are, and combined with increasing efficiency, this represents our best energy option – but rather, it is how can we maximise the social good of changing to clean energy sources. With 2.26 million Australians living below the poverty line, and much of our built and natural environments needing repair, opportunities to provide these social goods should not be hard to find.

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