Nuclear Power and Uranium A View from Australia

The Suit interviewed Dr. Clarence Hardy and asked him his views on nuclear energy in general and Australia’s role in the world nuclear industry. See his responses to a series of questions below. Dr Hardy has had a distinguished career for over 30 years in senior positions in three well-known national nuclear laboratories at Harwell in the UK, Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the USA and Lucas Heights in Australia where he was the Chief Scientist.  He is currently the Secretary of the Australian Nuclear Association, and Immediate Past President of the Pacific Nuclear Council which represents over 60,000 nuclear professionals in 12 countries in the Pacific region. He is Managing Director of a consulting company in Sydney and a director of two other companies in the nuclear field. He is prominent in giving talks on nuclear matters to wide ranging audiences in Australia and overseas.  Dr. Hardy has published two major books on nuclear energy

Are the peaceful uses of nuclear energy increasing worldwide?

Yes, the peaceful uses are increasing worldwide with the major increase being in China, Japan, Korea, India and Russia and moderate increases planned in the European Union, led by France, Finland and the UK. President Obama’s recent encouragement of the US nuclear new build by giving substantial loan guarantees will help the industry develop and the President said “This is just the beginning”.

What role should nuclear power play in the world’s energy future?
Nuclear power should play an increasing role in the world’s energy future since it is a mature, economic and safe technology for production of base-load electricity with very low emissions of greenhouse gases. It is increasing replacing fossil fuels in many countries.

What are the current and future challenges of the use of nuclear energy and how will these shape the future growth?
The current challenge is to build new nuclear power plants on time and on budget and to ensure that they are built to the highest possible safety standards. The future challenges are to demonstrate that nuclear waste is minimized and can be disposed of safely and all suitable nuclear products are recycled, so that plutonium in spent fuel is used sustainably to produce electricity and any potentially long-lived waste is burned up to minimise its danger to future generations.

Are nuclear power plants perfectly safe and how can the industry dispose of  nuclear waste?
No one can give an assurance that nuclear power plants are perfectly safe and no accidents will ever take place. Nuclear power plants are built to very high standards and closely monitored by regulatory bodies. The new generation of nuclear power plants being built have even higher standards of safety than previous generations as well as being hardened to withstand terrorist attacks by land or air or aircraft accidents.

All nuclear plant vendors and responsible governments are encouraging a high level of safety culture in operation of plants.
The generally accepted way to dispose of radioactive waste safely is to encapsulate it in carefully selected containers and bury it deep underground in stable geological formations. There is an increasing movement away from a once-through or “throw away” fuel cycle and to reprocess spent fuel to recover and re-use valuable materials. Unwanted long-lived fission products and transuranium elements can be burned up and thus reduce the volume and toxicity of the waste to be disposed of underground.

Are there any public perceptions and misconceptions about the use of nuclear energy?
Yes, there are many public misconceptions about the use of nuclear energy. Some of these are that it is not safe enough, costs too much, is a proliferation risk and that the radioactive waste cannot be disposed of safely. All of these misconceptions can be answered and better public education about the benefits and risks of nuclear energy is essential starting in the schools. I spend a lot of time giving talks on these issues to a wide variety of audiences.

What role will Australia’s uranium play in the next 10 years in the global market?
Australia currently has the largest low cost uranium resources of any country (about 40%) and currently produces over 20% of world production with every indication that this production will increase considerably in the next 10 years. Therefore, Australia’s uranium will play a major role in the worldwide expansion of nuclear power and help to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from fossil fuels.

When will Australia build nuclear power stations?
It is ironic that Australia, with the world’s largest uranium resources, has so far not built a nuclear power station. The main reason is simple to understand. Australia has very large resources of high quality coal located near major cities on the east and south coasts and can produce base-load electricity at a cost which is well below the cost estimated for nuclear power. However, no account is taken of the very large emissions of carbon dioxide and if a cost was placed by government on emissions from coal, then nuclear power would become more attractive. Nuclear power is economic in comparison with coal, gas and renewable sources in many other countries and this in one reason why nuclear power is being expanded in those countries and well as because of its very low carbon emissions and greater energy security.

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