You can feel the pressure building, from a number of directions. For a start, the mad Murdoch media empire getting oddly on board with the rhetoric of climate change action – something it has frantically opposed for years. Then there’s AUKUS, the Australian Government’s new plan to stick Aussie flags on nuclear submarines as part of the US plan to suppress China in the Indo-Pacific region. As soon as that announcement was made people started talking, right on cue, about Australia’s lamentable lack of a domestic nuclear industry, and how the subs would be a better investment if we had one. And in the background, something that’s been there for years and never really goes away, the idea that geologically stable Australia is the perfect place for the western world’s nuclear waste “storage facility”.
This plan for a domestic nuclear waste dump might be the thin end of the wedge for the import of foreign waste, with Australia signing on to “close the nuclear cycle”.
Suddenly more and more people are flying the nuclear kite again. It’s a kite that comes out of the attic every 10 years or so to gauge public opinion, and if people seem too freaked out by the idea it gets put away again, but always on the understanding that its day is coming, eventually. Every time it comes back the same arguments are put, with modifications. Nuclear power is “cheap” and plentiful. It is “non-polluting”. It provides an answer to the climate change problem. And technology has allegedly advanced so far that it is “safer than ever”. While Prime Minister Scott Morrison is insisting that helping the USA put more nuclear subs in China’s backyard doesn’t mean we will be nudged into letting the pro-nuclear lobby have its profitable way with us, plenty of people doubt his word.
Personally, I think that if nuclear power is the answer, then you have asked the wrong question. I don’t believe it is cheap. I don’t believe it is non-polluting and I don’t believe it is safe enough.
Nuclear power plants cost a fortune to build, they cost a lot to run and maintain and when they eventually reach the point where they have to be decommissioned that process is a massively expensive and problematic headache. They generate dangerous and intractable waste that is risky to transport and store and which will remain dangerous for centuries or more into the future.
You can talk about how safe nuclear plants are until the cows come home, but their history of operation is riddled with errors, mishaps and disasters that result in excess radiation leaking into the environment, with large and small consequences for the health of all life on Earth.
The problem is that nuclear infrastructure requires a level of long-term stability that humans can’t possibly guarantee. That applies to geological strata and seismic activity, weather systems, sea levels and everything else in the natural world, just as much as it applies to economic, political and social systems, global empires and everything else that human beings contrive.
Nuclear zombies just won’t die
Empires and economies rise and fall, and when they fall their infrastructure falls into ruin and disrepair. That doesn’t matter too much with a lot stuff. Sure, the detritus of modern human activity is toxic, but mostly limited in the ultimate amount of damage it can do to the wider world if humans were to be suddenly removed or their societies devolved. But nuclear infrastructure needs constant care and if that can’t be provided then the harm is potentially huge and very long-lasting.
My observations do not persuade me that our modern societies have what it takes to endure with the necessary stability for thousands of years from now. The trend-lines you can draw into the future, based on the way things are now in our human societies, do not suggest lasting and wise stewardship of global resources. On the contrary, we have societies and economies run for the benefit of a relative handful of extremely materialistic people and extremely anti-social corporations that make their decisions based on nothing other than greed. Without changes these trends can’t end well, and those who drive the trends won’t tolerate changes that diminish their power. Given that, I think long-term political stability is difficult to depend on.
Another factor that counts against nuclear in my mind is the problem of the uses that the cowboys in charge of the industry constantly find for its dangerous byproducts. They want to get rid of depleted uranium so what do they do? Sell it to the weapons industry to splash around whatever poor countries the rich countries choose to invade, leaving yet another horrible nuclear legacy. And let’s not even start on plutonium.
My preference for humanity’s long-term energy needs will always be for sustainable solutions. Coal and oil aren’t sustainable. Quite apart from supplies running out, and quite apart from the climate damage they are causing, the ruin created by mining and extraction makes them unacceptable from here on. Nuclear isn’t sustainable, in my view, because its risk-profile is terrible over its lifespan.
I agree with those critics of renewables who complain that mining lithium and other rare earths for batteries is just as unsustainable as the mining of coal. We need better ways than that. But I know they can be found and they will be found, if we make a serious effort to find them.
Ultimately the answer should be multifaceted. We need to stop wasting as much energy as we presently do. We need safer, less damaging methods of harnessing solar, wind and other renewable sources. We need better storage systems that don’t rely on scarce and hard-to-mine elements. We need decentralised systems in place of monster power plants feeding sprawling ineffficient grids.
The proponents of nuclear power keep telling me they are on the verge of breakthroughs that will make their darling energy option truly safe. So, make the breakthroughs and I’ll listen. Until then I will remain a nuclear skeptic.