An Open Letter – Nuclear Power

I've been involved in a bit of a discussion with my local federal member about energy costs, and have decided to post my most recent contribution as an open letter. I want more learned people to give me understanding, and I want more people to be involved in this sort of discussion.

Hi Ewen, thanks for getting back to me so quickly. This will probably be a rhetorical debate, so don't address it until you have a little time and are feeling like a bit of a ramble.

On 1 July 2011 13:22, Jones, Ewen wrote:
> Matthew,
> If you are worried about the rising costs of energy, then nuclear is
> probably not your answer. It will reduce emissions but it is expensive and
> you do have to do a lot of work with the waste. I understand that the
> Chinese are developing smaller nuclear power stations where the waste will
> be reduced significantly using Rare Earth mineral (we are a supplier).
> For mine, we have to look no further than coal for our power. It is cheap
> and abundant. What we have to do is control the emissions and JCU’s algae
> programme is the answer there.

My two points in the survey about energy should probably have been separated, because as you noted, in the short term they're completely at variance. My concern about rising costs of energy is two fold:

On one hand, I've recently lost my job and am having trouble finding another in the Townsville region, so any rising costs are particularly stressful, and energy is a necessary resource which seems to be increasing in cost disproportionately, and there's not much I can do about it – so I whinge at the government. I want the quick fix, silver bullet that makes power cheap right now.

On the other hand I have intuitive concerns about long-term costs and growth. We dig and burn our own coal, which makes Australia self-sufficient and I support that completely, but coal is to my mind still an industrial revolution-era power source. It produces all the energy we need, but I feel like we've pretty well exhausted it in terms of innovation – current projects seem to be focused on either squeezing the last vestiges of efficiency out of the process, or increasingly, dealing with wastes. While carbon scrubbing and recycling is a brilliant area of research, and can be useful in other areas than just coal power waste management, I don't believe it can be used as a justification for continued emphasis on coal power.

Talking about waste management, we come back to one of your points against nuclear power. If I may be flippant: how much work is it to deal with nuclear waste, in comparison to scrubbing gases and burying mounds of toxic ash and inventing ludicrous carbon-pricing schemes? I know that, in political and social terms, "nuclear" is a very risky word, but its very stigma can work in its favour. We already know the wastes are risky, and we have the advantage that people have been working on reducing the risks and solving the issues since nuclear power was invented; in that respect it already has a big head-start on coal. There are still (foolish and misinformed) people out there who doubt that human carbon emissions are having a negative effect, but *nobody* says nuclear waste is ok.

Back to innovation and development: you said yourself, the Chinese are developing potential (safer, cleaner) nuclear alternatives and we're supporting them. Why shouldn't we take a more active role in the process? Australia is a brilliant technical nation, but as far as the world (especially China) is concerned, we're just a big pile of dirt with valuable minerals in, and a couple of universities on top. If we produce uranium and rare earth minerals, and provide great technical knowledge and training at universities, why do we export all of that, and leave ourselves just coming up with better ways to burn rocks? We could benefit from the energy, and boost our reputation at the same time.

It is very expensive, and I understand that the capital costs in setting up a nuclear energy system are probably the biggest barrier, and yes it would increase short-term costs to everybody noticeably; but if a government is willing to sacrifice itself on the issue of coal wastes, shouldn't nuclear power be just as worthy a cause? And, out of my own interests, do you have any approximate numbers (the vaguest ball-park figures) comparing the cost of starting and running a nuclear power scheme vs coal, taking into account regulatory costs, taxes, etc. All I could find is this page <> which is both American and found on a pro-nuclear website.

As I mentioned, I'm just an out of work computer programmer, not a nuclear, political, or economic expert, but these are my thoughts and understandings on the issue of energy costs. Please feel free to correct any wrong assumptions, and address any missing concerns, and thanks for taking the time to read this unfounded and rhetorical essay.

Matthew Kerwin

CC BY-SA 4.0

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