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Nuclear’s global renaissance

Ideas@TheCentre – The CIS newsletter (Sydney), 19 February 2010

The announcement by US President Barack Obama this week to provide federal loans for new nuclear power stations signals a revival of this technology. This may have implications for Australia, too.

For the United States, the President’s push for a new generation of nuclear power plants did not come a day too early. There are about 100 nuclear plants operating in the United States. Yet, the last one was built more than 30 years ago. Originally constructed for operating periods of just over 40 years, most of the existing plants had already been approved for a total of 60 years. Experts have been discussing a further extension to 80 years.

However, at some stage such lifecycle extensions will reach a limit and, thus, the Americans urgently had to make a decision in principle whether to continue with nuclear power. Nuclear contributes about 19% to US electricity production. It’s a substantial amount of energy, and the Obama administration has apparently concluded that currently there is no viable, let alone a better, alternative than building a new generation of nuclear stations.

Predictably, environmentalists have criticised the Obama’s decision. Yet, it is precisely the green lobby that should welcome the drive towards nuclear power if they are concerned about the use of fossil fuels. Despite all the talk about renewable energies such as solar and wind, it will take decades until these alternatives would be able to provide reliable and affordable base load power. In the meantime, nuclear power can be the bridge towards the age of renewable power.

Of course, environmentalists never tire to warn of the dangers of nuclear power generation. However, the risks are overstated. The two worst accidents in nuclear power’s history happened at Three Mile Island and at Chernobyl. Fortunately, no one was killed at Three Mile Island, whereas at Chernobyl an estimated 56 people died. Tragic as this had been, there are other industries with far worse safety records. Yet nobody would shut down road transport, coal mining, or the chemical industry. In any case, today’s generation of nuclear reactors simply cannot be compared with the shoddy standards used by the then Soviet Union.

More and more countries are re-embracing nuclear power. In China alone, 21 new nuclear plants are being built. Worldwide, the figure of new reactors in the pipeline is 56, so there is a good chance that the nuclear industry will enjoy a global renaissance over the next decades.

With giant uranium reserves under our feet, Australia should seriously consider whether it wants to be part of the new nuclear age or content itself with just providing nuclear fuel to others.

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