We need to talk about nuclear

We need to talk about nuclear

Nov

17
2011

Andrew Horvath
The Big Picture

So nuclear power is back on the Australian agenda courtesy of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s plan to get the green light to allow uranium sales to India at next month’s Labour Party conference.

While I welcome the change in energy discussion – renewables have had more than their fair share of the spotlight lately – it’s somewhat baffling that a leader so intensely focused on “clean energy initiatives” refuses to consider some of the cleanest options for use in her own backyard.

Nuclear fission energy is a major contender in the mix of energy alternatives ready to replace incumbent fossil fuel resources. It deserves a place at the table. It is, however, not without its problems and though incredibly rare, the consequences can be catastrophic.

It’s no secret that Australia is sitting atop vast uranium reserves – and that countries looking to ramp up their nuclear energy capacity are increasingly looking to us as a supplier – but we’re also surrounded by vast reserves of another fuel source which doesn’t get nearly as much press.

It’s the fuel for muon catalysed fusion – a particular form of nuclear fusion being researched in Australia by Star Scientific Limited – and it’s found in abundance in every ocean worldwide. That fuel is Deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, and just one cubic kilometre of seawater contains the energy equivalent of the entire known oil reserves on Earth.

Basically, it’s nuclear without the nasties using seawater instead of uranium. Surely that’s something which should feature in any discussions on clean energy initiatives.

And since no plutonium or uranium are used, muon catalysed fusion is utterly incompatible with any kind of meltdown, leak, accident or explosion. It’s also incompatible with nuclear weaponry.

Since we can’t make the same claim about uranium, next month’s ALP party conference is likely to get pretty heated.

The Greens and the ALP left are concerned about uranium being diverted from power stations to weapons programs – boosting the region’s nuclear capacity.

The truth is much more likely that the burgeoning nation is seeking to extend electricity access through any and every means available to its 1.1 billion in habitants, many who are without electricity at all.

In a world powered by muon catalysed fusion, there’d be no need to tap our vast uranium resources.

Any countries mining or buying uranium or plutonium would be doing so for only one reason, to build their nuclear arsenal. Trouble is, we’d all know about it.

Muon catalysed fusion could achieve universal energy access much more quickly, effectively and cheaply than any nuclear fission power strategy, which will necessarily be many, many years in the making. Nuclear fission power plants are not portable and they don’t just pop up overnight.

Despite espousing the benefits of selling uranium to India – economic stimulus, strengthening ties with a soon-to-be superpower – the Prime Minister claims there’s no demand for it back home because of our “abundant energy sources”.

Apparently it’s perfectly reasonable to continue pilfering our fossil fuel resources indefinitely – since they’re there for the taking – so long as you slap a tax on big business afterwards and call it “pricing pollution”.

Perhaps our mining sector is so phenomenally profitable the political powers are too blinded by dollar signs to ever take serious steps to investigate ALL sustainable energy options.

Ms Gillard is right that the US’ decision to sell uranium to India means that if Australia doesn’t get on board it will be us, and not India who will be penalised.

Where her view is blinkered is in not looking at the whole of the nuclear picture  - and by doing she risks missing an even bigger prize. With scientists around the world in hot pursuit of sustainable nuclear fusion, if Australian researchers perfect and commercialise it first we can supply not just India – but the world.

We shouldn’t be focused on selling Australian uranium to the world, we should be focused on selling Australian innovation.

 The rewards will be far greater.