“Nuclear energy, apart from nuclear war, is the greatest medical threat posed to life on this planet.” Helen Caldicott, prominent Australian campaigner against nuclear power in all forms but the sun, January 2000.
David Littleproud, new leader of the Federal National Party, called for a debate on “nuclear energy”. It presumably refers to a nuclear power plant or NPS that provides continuous “baseload power” to the electric grid (competitors are coal and gas). I’m happy to oblige with a design.
First, we need a site. Somewhere near the existing transmission infrastructure, with plenty of space for the NPS, a blast radius around it, and a water source to cool the NPS. The area must have, or be able to attract, qualified technicians to operate the NPS. Gladstone in Queensland seems ideal.
Gladstone is a heavily industrialized town on the Queensland coast, with the state’s largest coal-fired power station (maximum generating capacity of 1600 megawatts – MW). It is well connected to the “east coast grid” (low or no transmission upgrade costs). Built in 1976, it uses the local sea for cooling and requires increasing maintenance. It is due to close by 2035, so just over 10 years to get a replacement. Something has to be done, and if it’s not more coal, let’s try nuclear.
Another advantage of Gladstone is that it sits at the heart of Flynn’s electorate, held by the National’s new man, Colin Boyce (who has famously called the net zero goal “flexible”). A good place to test the National’s resolve for an NPS. The Nat’s suffered a 5% swing against them in the last election. Another drop like that and the seat will be taken by Labour, so now is the time to act. Let’s try nuclear.
Design of a nuclear power plant
An NPS of 1600MW would make it one of the largest in the world. So let’s assume that only 100 MW is needed, because the rise of renewables will account for the rest. We will opt for a third-generation water-cooled reactor, because we have a lot of water around. The industry is touting the new “Small Modular Reactor” or SMR as being faster and easier, but with only one built (in China) and nothing planned, we’ll go conventional (based on those designed for ships of war in the 1950s).
The reactor requires a lot of building material; 40 tons of steel and 90 m3 of concrete per MW. A coal-fired power plant requires 98 tons of steel and 160 m3 of concrete per MW, almost double an NPS. But a gas generator (called a combined cycle gas turbine or CCGT) needs 3.3 metric tons of steel and 27.90 m3 of concrete per MW. On this measure, nuclear seems better than coal, but much worse than gas.
What about Cost and Hourly? Our 1000 MW NPS will be $8.5 billion in current terms. A similar sized coal generator costs $5 billion and a CCGT costs $1.4 billion. The time required to build an NPS is undetermined at present – there are extraordinary delays overseas, where the NPS industry is well developed. A delay of ten years out of an estimated ten year delay is common. So, expect our NPS in 2040 (around the same time as our nuclear submarines). In contrast, coal plants take 5-6 years and a CCGT takes 3-4 years.
Coal, CCGT and NPS all require fuel. The environmental devastation of the coalfields is well known, a key reason other than greenhouse gases for phasing out coal. Gas is difficult since we have sold our national resources abroad without domestic reservation except in WA. But uranium fuel is even more problematic. Although it is the second largest deposit in the world, there is a supply problem in Australia as the deposits are on indigenous land and mineral rights are being reduced.
Then there is the question of waste. While the ash generated by coal is a hidden environmental disaster and the gas waste is mostly invisible CO2, the extreme problem of storing “spent fuel rods” must be solved. Not only is waste an extremely toxic material for human health, but it is also sought after by authoritarian regimes and terrorists around the world. Dangerous now, and for tens of thousands of years. My calculations are that its “safe” storage requires more steel and concrete than the reactor itself.
Forget persuading the country’s native landowners to appropriate the materials of white greed. Trying to bribe remote landowners in South Africa and the Northern Territories is an old idea. On the contrary, why not store it in a white suburb of Gladstone?
Then there is the problem of NPS end of life. A coal, CCCG and NPS have a lifespan of about 50 years. After that, the building material must be recycled or downcycled. The difference is that NPS material is highly radioactive and the idea of recycling is laughable. Once the reactor is shut down, the toxic demolition must be treated the same as spent fuel rods, at enormous cost. No more concrete and steel entombments.
And finally, think of a nuclear accident. Recent studies show that an accident or breakdown is possible; one like “Three Mile Island” might happen every 10 to 20 years, and a Fukushima type might happen every 50 to 100 years.
Nuclear is not the answer, twice
So if you’re looking for staple food, nuclear isn’t the answer. It’s too expensive, takes too much material and takes too long, costs too much to run, is dangerous, and leaves a highly toxic legacy. Even reviled coal generators are better at these conditions, and CCGT is even better.
But the real problem for Littleproud and the Nationals is that base power isn’t what we need. So everything in the last century. With the rise of renewable energies, which are variable, we have two needs: storage and dispatchable energy. That is, energy storage for times when renewables cannot provide, in the form of batteries, hydroelectricity or pumped hydroelectricity; and a power generator that can start quickly when needed and stop when not. And it’s a CCGT.
Over to you, Mr. Littleproud and Nationals. Are you still in favor of the nuclear power plant, and where do you place it, and what are the chances of safety? Will your constituents like the idea of a nuclear power station in the center of Gladstone, possibly hit by a tsunami, with toxic storage facilities nearby? This is your only chance, because it is certain that no other electorate will want it and it is totally unrealistic to expect the native owners to want a nuclear power plant in their country.
Or will we say no to an extremely dangerous, inefficient and costly white elephant. Nuclear energy is a failed answer to a question that does not arise. It’s a stupid theoretical idea from National.
Tone Wheeler is Principal Architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and President of the Australian Architecture Association. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and are not owned or endorsed by A+D, the AAA, or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by only reading and responding to comments addressed to [email protected]