Episode 3      19 min 38 sec
Nuclear Power: Cure or Curse

Associate Professor Martin Sevior speaks with Jacky Angus and weighs up nuclear power in an energy-hungry and rapidly warming world.

Guest: Assoicate Professor Martin Sevior, School of Physics.

Topic: Nuclear power: Cure or Curse

"India needs to increase its use of energy by about a factor of ten, ten times more electricity than what it does now. If it does this via the production of coal, then India all by itself will wipe out all of the Kyoto CO2 emission protocols that we!|ve developed." - Associate Professor Martin Sevior





           



Assoc Prof Martin Sevior
Assoc Prof Martin Sevior

Associate Professor Martin Sevior from the School of Physics.

Credits

Host: Jacky Angus
Producers: Kelvin Param and Eric Van Bemmel
Audio Engineer: Miles Brown
Theme Music performed by Sergio Ercole. Mr Ercole is represented by the Musicians' Agency, Faculty of Music
Voiceover: Paul Richiardi
Photography: Kelvin Param

Series Creators: Eric Van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

Melbourne University Up Close is brought to you by the Marketing and Communications Division in association with Asia Institute, and the Melbourne Research Office.

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Nuclear Power

VOICEOVER

Welcome to Melbourne University, UpClose, a fortnightly Podcast of research, personalities and cultural offerings of the University of Melbourne, Australia. Up Close is available on the web at upclose.unimelb.edu.au. That!|s upclose.u-n-i-m-e-l-b.edu.au.

JACKY ANGUS
Hello welcome to Episode 3 of Melbourne University Up Close. I!|m Jacky Angus from the Research Office of the University of Melbourne. Today!|s subject is nuclear power, a topic of interest and concern given the increasing use of limited resources to produce energy, and the effect this is having on our environment. Take electricity for example. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in the five years between 1999 and 2004 the total consumption of electricity in Australia increased by 19%. That is an increase of 11% per person. During the same period the Australian population grew by 6% and our gross domestic product rose by nearly 18%. A resources boom and increased spending power in Australia have helped propel this largess, some might call extravagance in energy consumption. It!|s also part of a global trend in higher consumption of electricity. In some societies, Sweden, France and Denmark for example, substantial efforts are now being made to harness alternative sources of energy. This is now being considered in Australia too. A recent government white paper addressed the need for a national framework for energy efficiency. It concluded that Australians should seriously consider using nuclear power to generate energy. It!|s been argued that nuclear power is more practical and sustainable than other alternatives, and far kinder to the planet. But is it, and would it be kinder to us? What are the costs of going nuclear, for our health, our budget and our safety in an increasingly unsafe world? To address some of these issues associated with going nuclear my guest today is experimental particle physicist, Associate Professor Martin Sevior, from the School of Physics here at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Welcome to Up close Dr. Sevior.

DR MARTIN SEVIOR
Thank you Jacky.

JACKY ANGUS
Well Dr Sevior how did you first get interested in the nuclear debate.

DR MARTIN SEVIOR
Well it started in the middle of last year when I read an article in the paper that said some things that I !V I just didn!|t think were right. So together with a group of physicists I just asked around our department, we decided to put together a website that was both accessible and authoritative. And we spent 6 months doing that. The name of the website is nuclearinfo.net, have a look at it please. And since then this site has stirred up quite a lot of interest.

JACKY ANGUS
Well to set the scene for this comparative focus, some basic questions first. Why is another form of energy really needed in Australia?

DR MARTIN SEVIOR
Well there're a few answers to that. I guess the first and more immediate problem is that Australia like the rest of the world is coming up against an oil crunch in that the rate at which oil can be produced and extracted from the ground is likely to reach some maximum to peak, some time within the next ten years. When that happens and as that happens the price of petrol will substantially increase and we!|ve seen that this year. In the process we!|ll need to find some other form of energy to drive our personal transport.

JACKY ANGUS
So, can we become more energy efficient and not affect our standard of living? I mean, could we cut consumption in electricity across all sectors or only residential?

DR MARTIN SEVIOR
All sectors definitely have their potential for improved efficiency, but like all of these things that!|s a cost benefit analysis, and businesses and people decide how best to spend their money. And that basically comes down to the price of energy. If the price of energy is very low, like it is in Australia, it!|s not really to a business or a person!|s benefit to invest in the efficiency.

JACKY ANGUS
And why nuclear given other options?

DR MARTIN SEVIOR
Well the problem with other options, especially within an Australian context is that they can!|t scale to the demand for energy that we!|ve placed upon ourselves and !V and upon our resources. Wind power can perhaps provide up to 10 or 15% of our total electricity consumption. Solar power maybe in 20 years time could do something similar. But for the sort of large scale electricity production that we!|re likely to need over the next 5, 10, 20 years, nuclear seems to be the best option, the most mature option.

JACKY ANGUS
And other countries? What!|s happening in France and Sweden and Denmark for instance?

DR MARTIN SEVIOR
The three different countries that have all provided three different ways of going forward. Denmark has totally rejected nuclear power and has concentrated on developing wind. And in fact !K the world leaders in their use of wind. They managed to get the contribution of wind to their total electricity consumption up to around 20%. France is kind of the world leader in the use of nuclear energy. Their fraction of electricity production from nuclear is around 77%. Sweden is somewhere in between. It uses around 50% of nuclear for its electricity production. Now Sweden has a long standing policy to phase out the use of nuclear power dating from 1980 but the reality is that over the last 25 years the amount of nuclear induced electricity in Sweden has remained constant at around 50%.

JACKY ANGUS
So what you!|re saying just seems to me that there is a combination of uses of resources that works best or you!|re !V you!|re saying but these are even that combination is kind of limited. Eventually we!|ll really need to move to nuclear power, is that what you!|re saying?

DR MARTIN SEVIOR
Well, it really depends on each particular country!|s circumstances. In France for example they have almost no fossil fuel resources, so for them it makes perfect sense to have this very high fraction of nuclear power. And the remainder is hydro electricity. Similar situation in Sweden. They basically have very little fossil fuels and reasonable amounts of hydro electricity, so their electricity consumption is based 50/50. Denmark uses coal for 80% of its electricity production, and as I said wind for around 20%.

JACKY ANGUS
But that means doesn!|t it, that they!|re still producing greenhouse gases aren!|t they?

DR MARTIN SEVIOR
Well certainly; Denmark; is yes. And in fact Sweden and France had very low CO2 emission rates, about one quarter that of Australia. The whole problem of greenhouse gases is enormous. The challenge is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60%, by 2050. To do that we!|ll have to introduce a whole range of new technologies and a new way of doing business, and using nuclear power is one way to address that. It won!|t be the only means.

JACKY ANGUS
But is that enough. We!|ll still be producing greenhouse gases with nuclear power won!|t we?

DR MARTIN SEVIOR
For the amount of electricity that!|s produced it will be 1% that of, say, coal. So that!|s a huge contribution to greenhouse gas reduction.


You!|re listening to Melbourne University Up Close. I!|m Jacky Angus and I!|m speaking with Associate Professor Martin Sevior about nuclear power.

JACKY ANGUS
The whole questions raises some political questions too doesn!|t it? I !V I gather that there!|ve been discussions about global nuclear energy partnerships in such a way that things can be centralised and therefore safer. Have you got any comment about that?

DR MARTIN SEVIOR
Yes as far as I can tell the main issue is nuclear enrichment. Light water reactors require uranium 235 to be enriched to 3 to 5%. Now light water reactors all by themselves are not a particularly dangerous thing from the point of view of nuclear p- proliferation because the spent nuclear fuel does have plutonium in it, but it!|s contaminated with the wrong isotope which makes it very difficult to construct a nuclear weapon. But the problem is then, situations like Iran, where instead of stopping at 5% this enrichment process is continued to 80% in which case you can make a nuclear weapon. So I guess the main issue is to halt the spread of enrichment technology and to keep it within some sort of IAEA, International Atomic Energy Association approved scenario.

JACKY ANGUS
Which is what I understand Mohamed El Baradei, who is the head of the IAEA, was suggesting - wasn!|t he, when he said that perhaps there can be some central way of distributing nuclear energy and ensuring that storage is carried out properly and the !V you can prevent the enrichment of nuclear power for weapons. Is that practical?

DR MARTIN SEVIOR
Indeed, it!|s practical provided there!|s so means of enforcing this upon sovereign states. I mean look at Iran there!|s !V has received incredible pressure but nevertheless has decided that it needs to carry out this procedure of enrichment.

JACKY ANGUS
And when you have a rogue state where you can!|t control the situation and a sort of international game going on at the same time, that !V it!|d be very difficult !V isn!|t it just too dangerous?

DR MARTIN SEVIOR
What can you say? If you look at India for example. India needs to increase its use of energy by about a factor of ten, ten times more electricity than what it does now. If it does this via the production of coal, then India all by itself will wipe out all of the Kyoto CO2 emission protocols that we!|ve developed. So really, we have to balance the amount of CO2 that!|s produced in the planet with this danger of controlling the spread of nuclear weapons.

JACKY ANGUS
One of the things that another local physicist has said, Alan Roberts, has been that really there!|s a limit to how much ore there is in the first place and that really it!|ll only last nine years or so. How do you respond to that?

DR MARTIN SEVIOR
Well this is something we looked at in great detail and we!|ve corresponded with the authors that Dr Roberts quotes. In fact we!|ve mined less than one ten millionth of the total amount of uranium we have on !V in the world and a reasonable extrapolation from the energy cost of mining the least rich mines in operation now, to ones that would still be practical, would indicate we have at least 8,000 times more uranium minable than what we!|ve currently used. So I don!|t foresee a shortage of uranium any time soon.

JACKY ANGUS
So would mining of uranium in fact reduce greenhouse gases or not?

DR MARTIN SEVIOR
Well you have to look at the whole energy life cycle of any particular industrial activity to work out what its total CO2 emission rates are. Nuclear is in fact extremely good. Used at world!|s best practice, it emits less than 1% that of a fossil fuel power station. If you compare it to wind, it!|s comparable because wind also needs steel, it needs concrete, and you need to build large structures to contain it. Solar energy!|s even worse because you have to make extremely pure silicon. All of this requires fuels as well. So you have to add up everything and if you add up everything, nuclear looks extremely good.


You!|re listening to Melbourne University Up Close. I!|m Jacky Angus and I!|m speaking with Associate Professor Martin Sevior about nuclear power.

JACKY ANGUS
So what are the contra indications of nuclear power? What does the scientific community say, for example? They!|re pretty divided aren!|t they and the medical implications I!|m thinking of Dr Helen Caldecott, the prominent anti-nuclear campaigner of many decades. She!|s very concerned about the implications of nuclear power.

DR MARTIN SEVIOR
Well Dr Caldicutt has had a !V a long standing view that nuclear energy was a grand mistake and should never have been made, and she cites a number of reasons. But her fundamental one is that it produces large amounts of radioactive waste, which is poisonous and dangerous. And that!|s entirely true, it does.

JACKY ANGUS
And so how do you go about that, do you think in terms of storage here?

DR MARTIN SEVIOR
Yes so our society produces large amounts of waste of all different types. Actually, the handling of nuclear waste has been generally far better than many other kinds of wastes that we!|ve produced in our industrial society. It can be and has been isolated from the environment and to date there !V except for Chernobyl, there have been no large scale contaminations of the general public.

JACKY ANGUS
But we can!|t guarantee that can we, I mean Chernobyl presumably could !V could happen again.

DR MARTIN SEVIOR
No, I don!|t think Chernobyl will ever happen again. It was a terrible design with terrible safety procedures, and the world has learnt the lessons from Chernobyl.

JACKY ANGUS
Can you explain a bit more about how you go about this process of storage, because it takes stages doesn!|t it, takes a while, you!|ve got to cool things down, and move them around, and so on, it!|s pretty complicated isn!|t it. It!|s a bit of a challenge really.

DR MARTIN SEVIOR
It!|s definitely a challenge, and it!|s one that hasn!|t been completely met yet. Nevertheless the Scandinavians, the Nordic countries have a very well developed series of proposals for handling their waste. So basically what happens is a nuclear power plant requires around 30 tonnes of fuel per year. At the end of this period of time, at the end of one year it is what!|s called spent nuclear fuel and is highly radioactive. So what happens then is it!|s placed into cooling ponds and it!|s allowed to cool for five years. In this first period of time a lot of the radioactivity dies away till it!|s less than 1/10 of what it was when it first was emitted. Subsequently, it!|s placed in either dry storage, then the proposal is to place it into long term geologic storage. Now the long time geologic storage developed by the Nordic countries, involves a number of different stages. So first stage, is you take the nuclear fuel, and you place it inside a cast iron insert. Take the cast iron insert and place it inside a copper canister. You take the copper canister and you place it inside benonite clay. And then you take the whole assembly and bury it 500 metres under ground. So the idea is to develop a series of multiple barriers in case something goes wrong with one. The next one will succeed in containing the waste. Now each of these barriers are separately designed to be stable for a long period of time. For example the copper canister, the innermost or the second most barrier to the waste has been observed to not corrode over a very long time period of time, so for example copper and brass canons from Roman times found at the bottom of the Mediterranean Ocean, have been found to not corrode over a 2,000 year period. So you can extrapolate that and say if you put copper in an aqueous environment and remove all of the oxygen, it basically doesn!|t corrode. So what you do then with the benonite clay is arrange that scenario. The benonite clay when it absorbs water, ground water, when buried deep underground, swells and expels all of the oxygen. So you can actually provide this anaerobic environment, this oxygen for the environment to keep the copper from corroding. In addition the benonite clay itself is a substantial barrier should the copper corrode. benonite clays have been observed to contain organic products like pieces of trees for over 500,000 years later, so the piece of tree is still there 500,000 years later. Finally you place this thing 500 metres underground in granite rock. The bacteria you find in this granite rock has been observed to retain the fission products, the radioactivity products, that might leap from the benonite clay.

JACKY ANGUS
If I can come in there just a minute. I understand that, that they!|ve found that in Oklo in West Africa, there!|s been a sort of natural nuclear process. Now that means that we can !V presumably we can learn from that in terms of the stability of an environment when you!|re putting this waste away. Can you !V can you tell us a bit more about that? That!|s always been an interesting one to me.

DR MARTIN SEVIOR
Yeah it!|s a very interesting natural phenomenon. Two billion years ago the earth had substantially more uranium 235 than it does now. The uranium 235 has since decayed away. Two billion years ago water filtered into a natural uranium concentration, like the !V of the sort that we have here in Australia. But this one was in Gabon in West Africa and basically initiated nuclear reactions of the sort that we use in our present modern day reactors. So what happened was over a - the period of a !V a million years or so, water would seep in, initiate a nuclear reaction, the nuclear reaction would start to heat up, dried the water out then the water would come back in again after everything cooled down.

JACKY ANGUS
So it!|s a paradigm of storage in a way?

DR MARTIN SEVIOR
It!|s a paradigm of actually how current light water reactors operate. If they get too hot, they naturally slow down and stop. So that!|s the reason why I think Chernobyl won!|t happen again, is because modern light water reactors are designed to stop and slow down, should the temperature inside them get too high, just like what happened in Oklo.

JACKY ANGUS
So you!|re suggesting that the more recent generators are a sort of a better model than the Chernobyl era.

DR MARTIN SEVIOR
Yes. Now the Chernobyl era were a terrible design. The other point about Oklo is that all of the fission products from that process, all of the radioactivity, the radioactive waste didn!|t move over 2,000 million years. So it!|s still right there.

JACKY ANGUS
Now for my last question DR MARTIN SEVIOR I!|d like to know what you!|re doing at the moment in your own research.

DR MARTIN SEVIOR
I!|m not into nuclear energy for research. Actually I!|m an experimental particle physicist. What I!|m interested in is the matter, anti-matter as symmetry of the universe and looking for the !V looking to see if we can find the origin of mass using extremely high energy accelerators. That!|s NKK in Japan.

JACKY ANGUS
Thanks very much it!|s been very interesting and most informative.

DR MARTIN SEVIOR
Thank you Jacky.

Melbourne University Up Close is brought to you by the Marketing and Communications Division, in association with Asia Institute and the Melbourne Research Office, of the University of Melbourne, Australia. Our producers for this episode were Kelvin Param and Eric Van Bemmel. Audio engineering by Miles Brown, theme music performed by Sergio Ercole. Melbourne University Up Close is created by Eric Van Bemmel and Kelvin Param. I!|m Jackie Angus. Till next time, thank you for joining us. Goodbye.

VOICEOVER

You!|ve been listening to Melbourne University Upclose, a fortnightly Podcast of research, personalities and cultural offerings of the University of Melbourne, Australia. Upclose is available on the web at upclose.unimelb.edu.au. That!|s upclose.u-n-i-m-e-l-b.edu.au. Copyright 2006, University of Melbourne.


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