Nuclear power, based on existing technologies, still has all its original problems: proliferation of nuclear weapons, terrorism, lack of long-term waste management, rare but catastrophic accidents and huge economic costs. All except the risk of accidents are worse now than in the 1970s. In several decades, as high-grade uranium is used up, nuclear power will also become a substantial emitter of carbon dioxide from uranium mining and milling.
All this comes from Mark Diesendorf, the deputy director of the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of New South Wales in Australia. We’ve been following Australia’s to-and-fro on nuclear energy with some interest, as it seems to be where Germany was about two years ago.
For us, Diesendorf’s article represents a stage in the process of finding nuclear energy at least tolerable – noting that it is achieving some traction, however slight, in Australia, he does his utmost (and in a rather elegant understated way – he’s a good writer) to stamp the beast into mush. And the paragraph above represents a lot of stamping.
He grasps that nuclear energy provides carbon-emission free baseload energy, which is a problem for his argument – unless he can make baseload energy irrelevant:
Baseload supply can be provided by a mix of wind, bioelectricity from combustion of residues of existing crops and plantation forests, solar thermal power with low-cost thermal storage and soon hot rock geothermal power.
Peakload power, that can respond rapidly to fluctuations in supply and demand, can be provided by hydro and gas turbines burning biofuels produced sustainably. With the forthcoming growth in electric vehicles, there will be ample electrical storage available in car batteries connected to the grid to smooth out the fluctuations in sunshine and make solar photovoltaic power a reliable source of daytime power.
Well, all right, we kind of admire the ingenuity of the energy contraption Diesendorf constructs here – it shows he dreams big and that should always be encouraged. But it does depend on a lot of things working just so and in tandem and with some sources barely out of the lab much less scaled up. Rube Goldberg would be proud.
It’s a fascinating article in one of the last major beachheads of anti-nuclear zeal.
And here’s why that zeal might feel imperative to Diesendorf and others:
A secure, clean and cheap energy future for Australia in which nuclear power plays a pivotal role is a categorical imperative. Uranium should be recognized in the Rudd Government's carbon pollution reduction scheme bill as the most valuable and cost-effective form of "carbon offset".
That’s from Leslie Kemeny, the Australian foundation member of the International Nuclear Energy Academy. Well, all right, he is obviously an interested party. But the point is: this is playing out in Australian media with unusual intensity. How it will go is anyone’s guess, but recent history does make one of those guesses a better bet.
[Rube Goldberg], was thinking of [a college professor’s] improbable mass of quasi-identifiable parts when he drew his "Automatic Weight Reducing Machine" in 1914, for The New York Evening Mail. It used such elements as a lump of wax, a bomb, a helium balloon, a red-hot stove and a donut rolling down an incline, to trap the overweight individual in a sound-proof, food-proof prison until he loses enough weight to wriggle free. More on Goldberg here.