The Nuclear Dilemma


“The release of atomic energy has not created a new problem. It has merely made more urgent the necessity of solving an existing one.”

That was a quote from Albert Einstein, the man who first discovered how to tap into the atomic code, and you could only imagine the excitement he felt upon his discovery.

But now the mere mention of the word “nuclear” is enough to bring images of mushroom clouds looming in the distance or an underground facility housing radioactive waste for centuries to come.

Since its creation nuclear technology has been a catalyst for debate among academics, politicians and scientists alike, all in an attempt to understand, and justify the use of such technology.

The debate surrounding the technology divides one group in particular more than any other however, and this is among environmentalists.

Those opposed to the use of nuclear technology argue that the technology poses a danger to the environment and to ourselves, so great that the ends don’t justify the means.

However there are those who see nuclear technology as a game-changer to society, with aspirations of using the technology as an alternative to the fossil fuel era and  with the second highest reserves of uranium in the world, it is an issue that the Australian people would be wise to consider.

Anti- Nuclear protest in Germany; Source: Wikipedia Commons

With the Paris Climate Agreement urging countries to drastically reduce their carbon emissions and pursue sustainable development, the nuclear option is an increasingly feasible option not only to Australia, but for countries with high demands of energy.

The department of Industry, Innovation and Science recently released a report in October putting Australia’s energy consumption of coal, oils and gases at 94.2% for 2014-2015. Phasing out of fossil fuels and converging to sustainable energy would take considerable time, and the process could be hindered if energy demands could not be maintained securely.

A proposed solution to this problem is nuclear energy, but this isn’t an option to be taken lightly, and faces considerable opposition.

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam is one such individual, who has campaigned heavily against nuclear technology in the past, stating that nuclear power is, “just a range of less bad options.”

He talked about how the long term effects of the nuclear waste produced from nuclear power is unsustainable.

“The industry has a lot more work to do before it can prove it can isolate these materials.” – Scott Ludlam

Mr Ludlam also expressed scepticism regarding the economic benefits of nuclear energy, citing the technologies’ high start-up costs and the social/environmental impacts it would have on communities.

However there is more to the argument against nuclear technology than just the environmental and social costs of nuclear power.

Robin Taubenfeld from Friends of the Earth is strongly opposed to the use of nuclear technology as a whole, believing that the utilisation of nuclear technology such as nuclear power impedes efforts in the total elimination of nuclear disarmament.

“I think it’s very important to acknowledge that the nuclear industry from its inception as we know it is a military based industry,”stated Robin.

It’s true that the first impact that nuclear technology had upon the world was in warfare, an undisputed fact that has stayed with the industry ever since.

Robin explained that after World War II, the USA attempted to re-brand the nuclear industry as ‘consumer friendly’ through the “Atoms for Peace” program. The re-branding of nuclear technology had an influence on the industry allowing research for nuclear energy and medicine, but did little to deter the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

“The nuclear non-proliferation treaty as it stands – are non-proliferation, disarmament, the use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. I question the framework used to determine a peaceful purpose or use of nuclear technology, it’s very clear that civilian nuclear technology is inherently linked to military proliferation.” – Robin Taubenfeld

It’s a dilemma that every country that has considered the use of nuclear technology must face.

However, only nine countries possess a nuclear arsenal and thirty have developed a nuclear energy program, an indication that nuclear technology can be pursued, without developing nuclear weapons.

So how does a country proceed with developing a nuclear energy program without aiding in the proliferation of nuclear weapons?

Nuclear technology  expert and director of ThinkClimate Consulting, Ben Heard might have the solution.

Ben assisted with the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, and predicts that with government support, and commitment to the development of nuclear power it is possible to commercialise the industry within Australia.

The proposal submitted to the South Australian Royal commission called for the commission to re-think the problem, as Ben’s research has shown that the nuclear waste left-over after processing is still usable for production.

Nuclear material recycling summary, Source: Senator Sean Edwards submission to the nuclear fuel cycle royal commission

The current definition of nuclear waste under the Australian code of practise is “waste material which contain radioactive substance for which no further use is envisaged.”

This definition is important to how we perceive and handle nuclear waste; it presumes that  nuclear waste is worthless within the supply chain, but Ben’s research shows this isn’t the case.

Ben explained that through recycling the nuclear waste the energy output is 20 times its original value, and decreases the half-life of the radioactive isotopes. The process not only increases the amount of energy available within the material, but also decreases the life span of the radioactive material, returning it to natural levels of radiation with three hundred years (such as levels found with uranium ore).

This is still an excessive amount of time to manage and monitor such materials after being drained of energy, however this is a vast improvement compared to past nuclear technology.

The development of a nuclear industry within Australia could strengthen the energy market, relieving pressure on energy demands, as a transition to sustainable energy is undertaken.

Ben said, “the development of nuclear energy within Australia wouldn’t be possible without an integrated sustainable development plan.”

 As mentioned earlier this arguments divides environmentalists as arguments concerning safety continue to arise, as well as the potential risks of accidents and the militarisation of such technology.

The decision to use such technology shouldn’t be taken lightly, but as climate change becomes an increasingly urgent issue, we may have to consider alternatives to address the crisis.

Another quote from the man who discovered how to break into the atomic code was, “The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking…the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.”

Which begs the question: is the inherent problem with the technology itself, or how we choose to apply it to our lives?

Sharn Kennedy

Griffith University - Journalist

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