Transporting nuclear wastes across Australia in the age of bushfires

This first appeared on Independent Australia

In 2020 the final decision on a site for Australia’s interim National Radioactive Waste Facility will be announced, said Resources Minister Matt Canavan, on 13th December. He added:

I will make a formal announcement early next year on the site-selection process.

With bushfires raging, it might seem insensitive, and non-topical, to be worrying now about this coming announcement on a temporary nuclear waste site, and the transport of nuclear wastes to it.  But this IS relevant, and all too serious in the light of Australia’s climate crisis.

The U.S. National Academies Press compiled a lengthy and comprehensive report on risks of transporting nuclear wastes: they concluded that among various risks, the most serious and significant is – fire.  

The radiological risks associated with the transportation of spent fuel and high-level waste are well understood and are generally low, with the possible exception of risks from releases in extreme accidents involving very long duration, fully engulfing fires. While the likelihood of such extreme accidents appears to be very small, their occurrence cannot be ruled out.

 Transportation planners and managers should undertake detailed surveys of transportation routes to identify potential hazards that could lead to or exacerbate extreme accidents involving very long duration, fully engulfing fires.

Current bushfire danger areas include much of New South Wales, including the Lucas Heights area, North and coastal East Victoria, in South Australia – lower Eyre and Yorke peninsulas. If nuclear wastes were to be transported across the continent, whether by land or by sea, from the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor in Sydney, to Kimba in South Australia, they’d be travelling through much of these areas.  Today – they’d be confronting very long duration, fully engulfing fires. 

Do we know what route the nuclear wastes would be taking to Kimba, (which is now presumed to be the government’s choice for the waste dump)?   Does the Department of Industry Innovation and Science know? Does the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation know?  Well, they might, but they’re not going to tell us.  We can depend on ANSTO’s consistent line on this :

In line with standard operational and security requirements, ANSTO will not comment on the port, routes or timing until after the transport is complete.

That line is understandable of course, due to security considerations, including the danger of terrorism.

Spent nuclear fuel rods have been transported several times, from Lucas Heights to ports, mainly Port Kembla, in great secrecy and security. The reprocessed wastes are later returned from France or UK, with similar caution. Those secret late night operations are worrying enough. But their risks seem almost insignificant, when compared with the marathon journey envisaged in what is increasingly looking like a crackpot ANSTO scheme for the proposed distant Kimba interim nuclear dump.  It is accepted that these temporary dumps are best located as near as practical to the point of production, as in the case of USA’s sites.

Australians, beset by the horror of extreme bushfires, can still perhaps count themselves as lucky in that, compared with wildfire regions in some countries,  they do not yet have the compounding horror of radioactive contamination spread along with the ashes and smoke.

Fires in Russia’s have threatened its secret nuclear areas.  Several American nuclear analysts have concluded about the fire dangers in Russia’s waste transport and temporary storage:

These risks could pose serious security implications not just for Russia but for the U.S. and for the world.

Similarly, Ukraine has had catastrophic wildfires, Ukraine has had catastrophic wildfires,endangering nuclear waste facilities and transport

In the USA, the Hanford nuclear waste reservation, always a dangerous place, had its dangers magnified by wildfires.  In 2018, California’s Woolsey wildfire spread radioactive particles from the Santa Sussana nuclear waste area. Famously, Kim Kardashian, not previously known for environmental activism, took up the struggle to expose this scandal, and agitate for a clean-up.  In Idaho, a nuclear research facility just like Lucas Heights one, aroused  much anxiety about its wastes, and waste transport, as wildfires invaded the area.

Many in America have long been aware of the transport danger:

The state of Nevada released a report in 2003 concluding that a steel-lead-steel cask would have failed after about six hours in the fire, and a solid steel cask would have failed after about 11 to 12.5 hours. There would have been contamination over 32 square miles of the city and the contamination would have killed up to 28,000 people over 50 years. .https://www.benzinga.com/news/19/12/15039410/freight-all-kinds-transporting-nuclear-ores-and-wastes

The State of Wyoming is resisting hosting a nuclear waste dump, largely because of transportation risks, as well as economic risks. In the UK, Somerset County Council rejects plans for transport of wastes through Somerset.

In the years 2016 – 2019, proposals for nuclear waste dumping in South Australia have been discussed by government and media as solely a South Australian concern.  The present discussion about Kimba is being portrayed as just a Kimba community concern.

Yet when the same kind of proposal was put forward in previous years, it was recognised as an issue for other states, too. Eureka Street reported:

In 2003 the mayors of Sutherland, Bathurst, Blue Mountains, Broken Hill, Dubbo, Griffith, Lithgow, Orange, Wagga Wagga, Auburn, Bankstown, Blacktown, Fairfield, Holroyd, Liverpool, Parramatta and Penrith — communities along potential transport routes — opposed ‘any increase in nuclear waste production until a satisfactory resolution occurs to the waste repository question’.

The NSW parliamentary inquiry into radioactive waste found ‘there is no doubt that the transportation of radioactive waste increases the risk of accident or incident — including some form of terrorist intervention’.

Most reporting on Australia’s bushfires has been excellent, (with the exception of Murdoch media, which tried to downplay their seriousness ) However, there has been no mention of the proximity of bushfires to Lucas Heights. As happened with the fires in 2018, this seems to be a taboo subject in the Australian media.

While it has never been a good idea to trek Lucas Heights’ nuclear waste for thousands of km across the continent, or halfway around it, by sea, – Australia’s new climate crisis has made it that much more dangerous. The bushfire apocalypse – is it just a one-off?   Or, more likely, is this nation-wide danger the new normal?

Australia has no choice but to adapt to this global heating world, and to do what we can to stall the heating process, by becoming part of a global climate action movement. And fast.  In this new, and scary scenario, nuclear power has no place. If nuclear power actually were an effective method of combatting climate change, it would still have no place, because the reactors would never be up and running in time.

It is ludicrous, as well as dangerous, for Australia’s nuclear lobby to pretend that nuclear power is any part of a solution to climate change. Ben Heard, in his nuclear front “environmental” site Bright New World, proposes this, and actually uses the bushfire risk as an argument for nuclear power.   Mark Ho, of the Australian Nuclear Association uses the bushfire risk as the reason why Australia should remove the ban on nuclear power, though he doesn’t explain the connection.

From the point of view of Matt Canavan and the nuclear lobby, the bushfires are probably a timely distraction. The whole bizarre plan for a Kimba nuclear waste dump might just be able to proceed, quietly, as a local matter only.

On the other hand, the Australian public in all States, those “quiet” people who go along with this government’s lack of any real policies, are now stirring, waking up to the painful realisation that climate change is upon us. Bushfires are now the national horror. They won’t want the horror of nuclear waste transport dangers added to the mix.

 

Australian government must fund nuclear power – Barrie Hill of SMR Technology

This first appeared on Antinuclear.

Barrie Hill gives an insight into just what the global nuclear lobby wants from Australia.  They want to overturn Australia’ s laws prohibiting nuclear activities, and get the tax-payer to fund the development of the nuclear industry in Australia

His submission (no.60) to the FEDERAL. Inquiry into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia is a fine example of the nuclear-lobby-speak that is turning up in these submissions from nuclear power experts.  He’s the Managing Director of SMR Technology, and makes sure to outline his impressive background in the industry.

His is a long submission, in 3 long documents.  Here are snatches from his main document.:

*****************************************************

Hill says that for Australia replacing coal with nuclear will be “ the least cost alternative “. He recommends a South Korean type nuclear chain. Says that “the viability and advantages of small modular reactors is fully covered in a separate submission”. Recommends setting up a Federal government authority to lead Australia’s nuclear program. Recommends the South Korean Advanced Power Reactor 1000MWe (APR1000).

“It is recommended that the groundwork for an inevitable future nuclear power program is put in place beginning with the removal of all legislated prohibitions and increased support or familiarisation and training programs.”

the government will need to guarantee high level positions with appropriate salaries for  qualified persons coming from existing nuclear areas”

Recommends used fuel storage to be ready by 10 years from first plant commissioning “and that storage allow for eventual fuel recovery”. Wants high regulation and documentation, and sites for reactors chosen early.

Outlines his strong background in the nuclear industry.

Discusses the needs for electricity, and limitations of renewable energy. Criticises the electricity marketing structure. All existing subsidies should be removed. Says base-load power is critically needed. Wants a single independent Australian Electricity Commission to be set up.

Goes on at length and in detail about projected.electricity costs. The development of nuclear reactors for power generation provides a cost effective, safe, and reliable option for the progressive replacement of the current Australian base load generation fleet.” and suggests direct replacement by Small Modular Reactors.

Says that Westinghouse indicated a  good potential for widespread industry involvement within Australia”.

Hill attributes the “difficult acceptance” of nuclear power to “accident outcomes sensationalised by technically uninformed media.”

At an early point in the process the Federal and State governments should act to remove all legislative bans prohibiting a final decision to proceed so that the work may be developed unobstructed and finally judged on it’s merits. It is clear that the existence of the bans has restricted expenditure on thorough analysis to date particularly by government  agencies and has been a severe detriment to the establishment of a coherent energy policy for the nation.”

He moves on to “Stage 2” – a feasibility study, resulting in a “national investment decision”, the forming of a Nuclear Energy Program Implementing Organisation, bring in many experts, including foreign experts for “high level knowledge” . Recommends Government Leadership and Continuous Investment in Nuclear Infrastructure….. “ The Australian government therefore should play a lead role in the program from the initial phase with investment funds, manpower selection, and appropriate planning –

With the existence of a firm financial guarantee from the government local and overseas companies will actively participate in the national nuclear power construction program with reduced risk. ”.

Only an Australian government agency can arrange and manage the required level of investment estimated to total $150B to eventually replace all retiring coal fired power stations, to ensure maximum benefit for the Australian community and minimum risk. The Reserve Bank has noted that this time of unprecedented low interest rates is the perfect  opportunity for government investment in productive new assets such as power stations.

Lengthy discussion on need for training and education especially tertiary. International co-operation, especially on safeguards. Need for a standard nuclear design.

[on nuclear wastes)”The work carried out for the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission based in South Australia has provided sufficiently detailed pre-feasibility studies to commence final feasibility work for the implementation of used fuel storage in Australia. It is recommended that used fuel storage be available ten years from first plant commissioning and that storage allow for eventual fuel recovery.”

Recommends importing nuclear wastes, as a way to fund nuclear power development :“The economic viability and revenue streams defined for used fuel import storage as part of the work carried out by the South Australian Royal Commission could in the extreme provide sufficient revenue to fund the development of a nuclear power program for all of Australia. This massive economic opportunity cannot be overlooked”

Need for a strong independent regulator.

On insurance, Hill explains why beyond a certain level risk had to be socialised. It is now understood that the state needs to accept responsibility as insurer of last resort”

Hill dismisses the idea of any necessary connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons proliferation.

Discusses how to organise a leadership team, then process for choosing sites for reactors.

Discusses radiation at length, tending to minimise the health effects of Chernobyl and Fukushima, and reassures about the nuclear industry’s good safety culture.

Recent OECD and local studies suggest that Federal action to introduce nuclear power is the only economically viable option to meet minimum cost of supply, maximum reliability of supply, and key environmental imperatives for the Australian electricity sector.”

Hill gives detail on choosing a reactor type- recommending a Korean one.

On risk analysis – Humans are poor risk managers, focusing too much on consequences and too little on probabilities – something insurance and lottery salesmen relish.” Gives lengthy detail on risk identification and risk mitigation. He includes not only safety risks, but also financial risks, and ways to mitigate them.

Finally, Hill turns to the issue of climate change, recommending nuclear power for reducing greenhouse gases, and replacing coal power.

“The Federal government will be required to manage the financing, construction and operation of all nuclear power stations for the foreseeable future.
A prerequisite for the investment is the establishment of a government leadership andmanagement control organisation the Australian Electricity Corporation”

“ It is time for the Australian Federal government to lead a strategy for change before all those benefits are irretrievably lost.”

Federal inquiry gives glimpses of public opinion on nuclear power

This first appeared on Online Opinion.

Up until 7 September, 38 submissions have been published on the website of the Federal Inquiry into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/House/Environment_and_Energy/Nuclearenergy/Submissions

The numbers of submissions for and against nuclear power are almost 50/50. However, as some submissions may be confidential, we can’t really be sure of the numbers.

The main arguments in the pro nuclear submissions

The topic mentioned most often was – advocating for thorium nuclear reactors. Pro nuclear submissions also tended to focus on a call for public education about nuclear power, and a need to remove Australia’s laws that prohibit the nuclear industry. Several submissions concentrated on the question of nuclear wastes – arguing that this was not such a problem and a solution would be found. Small Modular Nuclear Reactors (SMRs) were recommended, as cost effective.

The main arguments in the anti-nuclear submissions

Overwhelmingly, the most selected topic was economics – the costs of nuclear power, and the government subsidies needed. Nearly as often mentioned was renewable energy, and its role in reducing greenhouse gases. Another big concern was the safety risks of nuclear power. There were several mentions of water use of nuclear power, of radioactive waste problems, and risks of terrorism and of nuclear weapons proliferation.

There were a variety of other concerns raised by both sides. Radiation is a hotly argued issue. Its hazards are discussed by Paul Savi (Submission No 4), but Erlc Gribble (No 38) argues that low dose radiation is not harmful, in fact can be beneficial (radiation hormesis).

The anti-nuclear arguments included social and political claims – that nuclear power has no social licence (EcoEnviro Pty Ltd – Richard Finlay-Jones Submisson 6), – that there is historic Australian opposition – hence the ban, (Greig Myer Submission 25), – the undemocratic history of nuclear activities in Australia,(Paul Savi, Submission 4)

Other anti-nuclear claims – that Australia shouldn’t be the first to try out SMRs, that renewables would provide more employment, that Aboriginals’ historic care of the land should be respected, (Trish Frail 32) .

On the pro nuclear side, there’s some exasperation at Australians’ lack of knowledge about nuclear power. Robert Gishubl (Submission 28) rails at “the irrational faith-based objections many people have”. Eric Gribble (38) writes of “a widespread paranoid concern” about radiation, – “It is easy to be a green. You simply oppose everything “.

Pro nuclear suggestions include first getting an international nuclear waste facility in South Australia, which would then fund the development of Generation IV nuclear reactors – (Matthew Gustafson, (20). Keith Thompson (11) suggests that the government offer generous awards for people who produce solutions to nuclear waste disposal. Geoffrey Hudson (37) warns on delay problems for land-based reactors, and advocates reactors on barges at sea.Ian Fischer(No 8) recommends a voluntary postal plebiscite to allow Australians to decide about a nuclear future. Eric Gribble (38) is keen on nuclear power’s ability to further Australia’s role in space research.

Even on the pro-nuclear side, there are some reservations, and not all are sceptical of renewable energy. Goronwy Price (35) sees nuclear as a support to renewables. Geoff Billard, (31)’s support for nuclear power is conditional on it being cost-effective.

At this stage, it’s hard to assess the general opinions on “the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia”. Submissions are accepted until September 16th. So there will probably a new rash of submissions published, over the next weeks. . The ones published so far have been relatively short. We can expect some longer and more detailed ones from various companies and organisations.

Seven reasons why small modular nuclear reactors are a bad idea for Australia

This first appeared on Independent Australia.

SMALL MODULAR REACTORS are in the news internationally and, rather more quietly, also in Australia.

International news reports that, in a failed missile test in Russia, a small nuclear reactor blew up, killing five nuclear scientists and releasing a radiation spike.

In Australian news, with considerably less media coverage, Parliament announced an Inquiry into nuclear energy for Australia, with an emphasis on small modular reactors (SMRs). Submissions are due by 16 September.

A bit of background. The U.S. Government and the U.S. nuclear industry are very keen to develop and export small modular nuclear reactors for two main reasons, both explained in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2018. Firstly, with the decline of large nuclear reactors, there is a need to maintain the technology and the expertise of trained staff necessary to support the nuclear weapons industry. Secondly, the only hope for commercial viability of small nuclear reactors is in exporting them — the domestic market is too small. So, Australia is seen as a desirable market.

The USA motivation for exporting these so far non-existent prefabricated reactors is clear. The motivation of their Australian promoters is not so clear.

Here are the main reasons why it would be a bad idea for Australia to import small modular nuclear reactors:

1. Cost

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Engineering and Public Policy concluded that the SMR industry would not be viable unless the industry received ‘several hundred billion dollars of direct and indirect subsidies’ over the next several decades. For a company to invest in a factory to manufacture reactors, they’d need to be sure of a real market for them — Australia would have to commit to a strong investment up front.

The diseconomics of scale make SMRs more expensive than large reactors. A 250 MW SMR will generate 25 per cent as much power as a 1,000 MW reactor, but it will require more than 25 per cent of the material inputs and staffing and a number of other costs including waste management and decommissioning will be proportionally higher.

study by WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff, commissioned by the 2015/16 South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, estimated costs of A$180‒184/MWh (US$127‒130) for large pressurised water reactors and boiling water reactors, compared to A$198‒225 (US$140‒159) for SMRs.

To have any hope of being economically viable, SMRs would have to be mass-produced and deployed and here is a catch-22 problem — the economics of mass production of SMRs cannot be proven until hundreds of units are in operation. But that can’t happen unless there are hundreds of orders and there will be few takers unless the price can be brought down. Huge government subsidy is therefore required.

2. Safety problems

Small nuclear reactors still have the same kinds of safety needs as large ones have. The heat generated by the reactor core must be removed both under normal and accident conditions, to keep the fuel from overheating, becoming damaged and releasing radioactivity. The passive natural circulation cooling could be effective under many conditions, but not under all accident conditions.

For instance, for the NuScale design, a large earthquake could send concrete debris into the pool, obstructing circulation of water or air. Where there are a number of units, accidents affecting more than one small unit may cause complications that could overwhelm the capacity to cope with multiple failures.

Because SMRs have weaker containment systems than current reactors, there would be greater damage if a hydrogen explosion occurred. A secondary containment structure would prevent large-scale releases of radioactivity in case of a severe accident. But that would make individual SMR units unaffordable. The result? Companies like NuScale now move to projects called “medium” nuclear reactors, with 12 units under a single containment structure. Not really small anymore.

Underground siting is touted as a safety solution, to avoid aircraft attacks and earthquakes. But that increases the risks from flooding. In the event of an accident emergency, crews could have greater difficulty accessing underground reactors.

3. Security 

Proponents of SMRs argue that they can be deployed safely both as a fleet of units close to cities or as individual units in remote locations. In all cases, they’d have to operate under a global regulatory framework, which is going to mean expensive security arrangements and a level of security staffing. “Economies of scale” don’t necessarily work when it comes to staffing small reactors. SMRs will need a larger number of workers to generate a kilowatt of electricity than what is required by large reactors. In the case of security staffing, this becomes important both in a densely populated area and in an isolated one.

4. Weapons proliferation

The latest news on the Russian explosion is a dramatic illustration of the connection between SMRs and weapons development.

But not such a surprise. SMRs have always had this connection, beginning in the nuclear weapons industry in powering U.S. nuclear submarines. They were used in the UK to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. Today, the U.S. Department of Energy plans to use SMRs as part of “dual use” facilities, civilian and military.

SMRs contain radioactive materials and produce radioactive wastes which could be taken or used part of the production of a “”dirty bomb”. The Pentagon’s Project Dilithium’s small reactors may run on Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) – nuclear weapons fuel – increasing these risks.

It is now openly recognised that the nuclear weapons industry needs the technology development and the skilled staff that are provided by the “peaceful” nuclear industry. The connection is real, but it’s blurred. The nuclear industry needs the respectability that is conferred by new nuclear, with its claims of safe, clean, climate-solving energy.

5. Wastes

SMRs are designed to produce less radioactive trash than current reactors. But they still produce long-lasting nuclear wastes, and, in fact, for SMRs this is an even more complex problem. Australia already has the problem of spent nuclear fuel waste, accumulating in one place from the nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights. With SMRs adopted, the waste would be located in many sites, with each location having the problem of transport to a disposal facility. Final decommissioning of all these reactors would compound this problem. In the case of underground reactors, there’d be further difficulties with waste retrieval and site rehabilitation.

6. Location

I have touched on this in the paragraphs on safety, security and waste problems. The nuclear enthusiasts are excited about the prospects for small reactors in remote places. After all, aren’t some isolated communities already having success with small, distributed solar and wind energy? It all sounds great, but it isn’t.

With Australia’s great distances, it would be difficult to monitor and ensure the security of such a potentially dangerous system, of many small reactors scattered about on this continent. Nuclear is an industry that is already struggling to attract qualified staff, with a large percentage of skilled workers nearing retirement. The logistics of operating these reactors, meeting regulatory and inspection requirements and maintaining security staff would make the whole thing not just prohibitively expensive, but completely impractical.

7. Delay

For Australia, this has to be the most salient point of all. Economist John Quiggin has pointed out that Australia’s nuclear fans are enthusing about small modular nuclear reactors, but with no clarity on which, of the many types now designed, would be right for Australia. NuScale’s model, funded by the U.S. Government, is the only one at present with commercial prospects, so Quiggin has examined its history of delays. But Quiggin found that NuScale is not actually going to build the factory, it is going to assemble the reactor parts which have been made by another firm — which firm is not clear.

Quiggin concludes:

‘Australia’s proposed nuclear strategy rests on a non-existent plant to be manufactured by a company that apparently knows nothing about it.’

As there’s no market for small nuclear reactors, companies have not invested much money to commercialise them. Westinghouse Electric Company tried for years to get government funding for its SMR plan, then gave up and switched to other projects.

Danny Roderick, then president and CEO of Westinghouse, announced:

“The problem I have with SMRs is not the technology, it’s not the deployment — it’s that there’s no customers. The worst thing to do is get ahead of the market.” 

Russia’s programme has been delayed by more than a decade and the estimated costs have ballooned.

South Korea decided on SMRs, but then pulled out, presumably for economic reasons.

China is building one demonstration SMR, but has dropped plans to build 18 more due to diseconomics of the scheme.

There’s a lot of chatter in the international media about all the countries that are interested, or even have signed memoranda of understanding about buying SMRs, but still with no plans for actual purchase or construction.

Is Australia going to be the guinea pig for NuScale’s small and medium reactor scheme? If so, when? The hurdles to overcome would be mind-boggling. The start would have to be the repeal of Australia’s laws: the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 Section 140A and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998. Then comes the overcoming of State laws, much political argy-bargy, working out regulatory frameworks, import and transport of nuclear materials, finding locations for siting reactors, Aboriginal issues, community consent and waste locations. And what would it all cost?

In the meantime, energy efficiency developments, renewable energy progress and storage systems will keep happening, getting cheaper and making nuclear power obsolete.

What’s more chilling: watching Chernobyl or cogitating on the cost of going nuclear?

This first appeared on  Michael West Investigative Journalism on 20 june 19

The sudden push by the Murdoch media and Coalition right-wingers to overturn Australia’s nuclear power ban ignores the chilling economic cost —  huge public subsidies, storing radioactive waste for thousands of years, the heavy costs of decommissioning and, potentially, radiation-related health costs. Veteran nuclear writer Noel Wauchope reports on the popular TV series, Chernobyl, and the economics of nuclear power.

THE frightening TV miniseries “Chernobyl” could put a few Australians off the idea of nuclear power but nuclear economics might turn out to be the bigger scare.

It is bad news for the Minerals Council of Australia and nuclear lobbyists, that Chernobyl has now arrived on some Australian TV screens, but pro-nuclear advocates are continuing to push their campaign anyway.

The miniseries “Chernobyl” has just finished in Europe and USA, outdoing “Game of Thrones” in popularity. HBO’s Chernobyl topped film and TV database IMDB’s list of the greatest 250 TV shows of all time.  The first episode was screened on 12 June, 2019 in Australia, on Foxtel.

The series has had a big impact. It was highly praised by numerous reviewers but criticised by pro-nuclear lobbyists, and infuriated some Russian politicians.

The series graphically tells a shocking story of disaster, of official secrecy and cover-up. It must, surely, have its effect on public opinion about nuclear power.

But, perhaps not in Australia, as it is showing only on Foxtel — and so not available to most Australians.

The latest public opinion poll indicates a slight increase in public support for nuclear power, with an Essential poll finding that 44 per cent of Australians support nuclear power plants and 40 per cent oppose them. However, it is noted that 60 per cent don’t want to live near one.

The Coalition’s renewed push for nuclear power

In March this year, 11 Coalition MPs (Andrew Broad, James Paterson, Tony Pasin, Tim Wilson, Chris Back, Craig Kelly, Eric Abetz, Andrew Hastie, Warren Entsch, Bridget McKenzie and Rowan Ramsey) urged then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to put nuclear power on the table as an electricity source for Australia. That call is now repeated by  Queensland and Coalition MPs calling for an inquiry into the feasibility of nuclear power in Australia.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he is open to considering nuclear power if it can stand on its own two feet. Energy Minister Angus Taylor told The Guardian on 12 June 2019 he wouldn’t rule out revising Australia’s nuclear ban “when there is a very clear business case which shows the economics of this can work”. Two days later, Environment Minister Sussan Ley also told The Guardian she was open to the review considering a removal of the ban.

But — are the economics of nuclear power viable for Australia?

When even Australia’s former top nuclear promoter has doubts, it doesn’t look promising. In an interview in The Age on 11 January 2018, Dr Ziggy Switkowski admitted that “the window for gigawatt-scale nuclear has closed” and renewables were now a more economically viable choice:

“With requirements for baseload capacity reducing, adding nuclear capacity one gigawatt at a time is hard to justify, especially as costs are now very high (in the range of $5 billion to $10 billion), development timelines are 15+ years, and solar with battery storage are winning the race.”

The 2016 South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission found that that nuclear power is not economically viable in Australia. Peter Farley of the Institution of Engineers wrote in RenewEconomy on 4 February, 2019:

“As for nuclear the 2,200 MW Plant Vogtle [in the US] is costing US$25 billion plus financing costs, insurance and long term waste storage. … For the full cost of US$30 billion, we could build 7,000 MW of wind, 7,000 MW of tracking solar, 10,000 MW of rooftop solar, 5,000MW of pumped hydro and 5,000 MW of batteries. … That is why nuclear is irrelevant in Australia. It has nothing to do with greenies, it’s just about cost and reliability.”

How viable is nuclear power elsewhere?

Nuclear economics in America is really a tale of woe. You hardly know where to start, in trying to assess how much this industry is costing communities and tax-payers. There are the attempts to save the nuclear industry via subsidies. There are the continuing and ever-increasing costs of radioactive wastes.  There are the compensation payments to workers with radiation-caused illnesses, $15.5 billion and counting, and the legal battles over where to put the wastes. Needless to say, really, America is not initiating any new nuclear “big build”. The much touted “Small Modular Nuclear Reactors” are turning out to have no market and little prospect of being economically viable.

Compensation for nuclear workers

The UK nuclear industry is in the doldrums with repeated postponement of new projects – Hinkley Point C, Wylfa Newydd, Moorside, Sizewell C, Oldbury B and Bradwell B. See chart below:

Schedule for new nuclear reactors, UK (chart courtesy http://www.no2nuclearpower.org.uk/new-reactors/)

The 2018 forecast for future clean-up of Britain’s aging 17 nuclear power stations has blown out to £121 billion which has had to be spread across the next 120 years. As  the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s Nuclear Provision project must be discounted to a “today” value using rates laid down by HM Treasury and linked to government borrowing costs (adjusted for inflation), this results in a discounted provision of £234 billion.

France’s Flamanville nuclear project is taking years, remains bogged down with costly problems. Electricite de France (EDF)  has financial woes but hopes to save itself by switching from nuclear to renewables. France’s former nuclear giant AREVA went bankrupt and has changed its name to Orano and Framatome — and French tax-payers are still caught up in Areva/Orano costly legal corruption scandals.

Canada is up for increasing costs for managing its nuclear wastes. Interestingly, Canada abandoned its nuclear project for producing medical radioisotopes and now leads in non nuclear production of these isotopes.

India had grand plans for nuclear power, but has cut these back, and recently cancelled 57 reactors. It continues to have problems and many outages, at its huge Kudankulam nuclear station.

Of course, nuclear proponents will point to Russia, and to China. Well, for these totalitarian states, it’s almost impossible to get information on nuclear costs. Both countries are enthusiastically trying to market their nuclear technology overseas. Russia keeps offering “generous” funding to the buyer countries. But will those countries end up with big debts? Reuters reports that in China,

“No new approvals have been granted for the past three years, amid spiralling costs”

So — what does it all mean for Australia?

Those of us able to view Chernobyl may well ponder on the health and environmental risks of nuclear power.

Australia’s right-wing pro-nuclear zealots may well claim that nuclear power is the cleanest and safest source of electricity. But they’re unlikely to claim that nuclear power will solve climate change, given most are climate sceptics. Nor are they likely to consider a CARBON PRICE — the only way nuclear will stack up against gas and coal, according to the  Australian Nuclear Association.

 

Questioning the ‘medical reason’ for a nuclear waste dump in Kimba, South Australia

This first appeared on Online Opinion 1 August 2018

Small rural communities in South Australia are being told that it’s their patriotic duty to save Australia’s nuclear medicine – by allowing a nuclear waste dump in their area. Farming families who support the Federal Government’s plan to set up a radioactive are comfortable not only with the promise of continued economic benefit to their local area, but with the thought of the benefit to the health system of the whole of Australia.

But is this true?

According to parliamentary papers by Holland and James, and Richard Yeeles, the radioactive waste resulting from Australian use of medical isotopes is only a very small fraction of the overall Lucas Heights’ wastes, all of which could easily be stored indefinitely at Lucas Heights. Lucas Heights already has a secure purpose built facility, near to where the isotopes are produced and used. No dangerous transport of wastes is needed.

Regarding nuclear medicine, the vast majority of medical isotopes are very short-lived. They decay on the medical facilities’ premises until their radioactivity is negligible. They can then be disposed of in the normal waste stream (sewers, landfill etc) according to set standards. There is no need for a new nuclear waste facility for these isotopes.

As to cancer treatments, most cancer radiotherapy uses X-rays, which do not produce any waste at all. A very small proportion of cancer treatments need radioactive materials, which also are too short-lived to require a remote repository. A tiny number are legally required to be sent back to the (overseas) supplier once used up.

Nevertheless, the National Radioactive Waste Management Facility taskforce (NRWMF)’s information campaign in Kimba, has focused almost entirely on the medical aspect, emphasising the application of radio-isotopes in Australian hospitals. The NRWMF gives minimal information about the type, amount, and location of facility bound radioactive wastes, and specifically does not include what percentage results from actual Australian medical use.

The Department of Innovation, Industry and Science (DIIS) constantly promotes ANSTO’s ‘nuclear medicine production for Australian usage’, despite the fact that most of it goes overseas. When questioned by (then) Senator Scott Ludlam (Senate Economics Legislation Committee Session May 2017); The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO)’s CEO Adi Paterson informed us that last financial year 80% of ANSTO’s diagnostic medical isotope production consisted of Molybdenum 99. Of this, only 28% was used in Australia whilst 72% was exported.

The fact that the proposed nuclear waste facility will co-locate Intermediate Level Waste (ILW) with Low Level Waste (LLW) is barely mentioned. The Kimba community has not been informed that the ILW to be co-located at the site is much more highly radioactive and has to be isolated for thousands of years compared with hundreds of years for LLW. There are no plans presented for long-term storage or final disposal of this waste.

ANSTO has ambitions to dominate the world’s market for medical isotopes. This is dubious anyway, as other countries have advanced production systems, with an increasing trend towards modern non-nuclear production in cyclotrons, creating no nuclear wastes.

Using a nuclear reactor to manufacture radio isotopes creates a significant amount of ILW. ANSTO’s business decision assumes it will not have to pay for the disposal of the waste produced, even though it will need securing for many thousands of years. The cost of storing this waste is borne by the taxpayer and the community hosting it: this cost is not factored in to the market price for these isotopes

The reactor’s spent nuclear fuel constitutes High Level Wastes (HLW). These are sent to UK and France for reprocessing. Subsequently, Australia gets back a vitrified fission product-High Level Wastes compacted residues, which by the way are not physically Australian waste material.

The National Radioactive Waste Management Facility in its concept design design shows 2 LLW storage buildings, and 3 ILW ones.

It has not been made clear to the Kimba community that the predominant purpose of the nuclear waste facility is the “temporary” storage of ILW. There is no indication of how long “temporary” is going to mean.

Nuclear medicine will continue in Australia, regardless of whether or not this radioactive waste facility is built. The facility is not essential for Australia’s health system.

A Senate Committee is currently inquiring into the Selection process for a national radioactive waste management facility in South Australia. They will report back on August 14th. The local community will be voting on the proposal on August 20th.

In submissions to the Senate, several Kimba farmers are enthusiastic about the nuclear waste facility. Some other, opposing, submissions are sceptical of the NRWMF’s propaganda campaign. For example, Colin Mitchell (Submission No. 25) calls for an independent body to research the issue and assess the management of Australia’s nuclear wastes. Mitchell comments:

By failing to properly inform the communities about the co-location of the intermediate level waste the consultation process leaves itself open to the charge of deceit and thus undermines trust in the process and the agencies conducting the process as well as the government.

Volunteers wanted – to house small modular nuclear reactors in Australia

This first appeared on Online Opinion 11 December2017

We knew that the Australian government was looking for volunteers in outback South Australia, to take the radioactive trash from Lucas Heights and some other sites, (and not having an easy time of it). But oh dear– we had no idea that the search for hosting new (untested) nuclear reactors was on too!

Well, The Australian newspaper has just revealed this extraordinary news, in its article “Want a nuclear reactor in your backyard? Step this way” (28/11/17). Yes, it turns out that a Sydney-based company, SMR Nuclear Technology, plans to secure volunteers and a definite site within three years. If all goes well, Australia’s Small Modular Reactors will be in operation by 2030.

Only, there are obstacles. Even this enthusiastic article does acknowledge one or two of them. One is the need to get public acceptance of these so far non-existent new nuclear reactors. SMR director Robert Pritchard is quoted as saying that interest in these reactors is widespread. He gives no evidence for this.

The other is that the construction and operation of a nuclear power plant in Australia is prohibited by both commonwealth and state laws.

But there are issues, and other obstacles that are not addressed on this article. A vital question is: does SMR Nuclear Technology intend to actually build the small reactors in Australia, or more likely, merely assemble them from imported modular parts – a sort of nuclear Lego style operation?

If it is to be the latter, there will surely be a delay of probably decades. Development of SMRs is stalled, in USA due to strict safety regulations, and in UK, due to uncertainties, especially the need for public subsidy. That leaves China, where the nuclear industry is government funded, and even there, development of SMRs is still in its infancy.

As to the former, it is highly improbable that an Australian company would have the necessary expertise, resources, and funding, to design and manufacture nuclear reactors of any size. The overseas companies now planning small reactors are basing their whole enterprise on the export market. Indeed, the whole plan for “modular” nuclear reactors is about mass production and mass marketing of SMRs -to be assembled in overseas countries. That is accepted as the only way for the SMR industry to be commercially successful. Australia looks like a desirable customer for the Chinese industry, the only one that looks as if it might go ahead, at present,

If, somehow, the SMR Technologies’ plan is to go ahead, the other obstacles remain.

The critical one is of course economicsThe Australian article says that these new nuclear plants “could be the lowest-cost generation available”. They throw in a bit of detail on the “levelled cost of nuclear generation – an average of $US60/MWh”. It sounds good – but there are so many factors ignored here.

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There are many different designs being developed. No information is given on SMR Nuclear Technology’s design. Indeed for all SMRs, a vast amount of information on design is considered commercially sensitive or security-related and is being withheld from the public.

The construction costs per reactor, would of course, be cheaper, than for large nuclear reactors. However, they would have to be constructed en masse, the only way for the developer to sell them commercially. The SMRs would be more affordable than large nuclear reactors, but still not necessarily cost-effective.

SMRs are up against that old reality about economies of scale, which is why the nuclear industry turned to large reactors in the past. For example, a 1,100 MWe plant would cost only about three times as much to build as a 180 MWe version, but would generate six times the power, so the capital cost per kilowatt would be twice as great for the smaller plant (see, eg, the economies of scale formula used by Carelli et al)

The claims of the “small nuclear power” lobby about cheaper electricity can’t really be proved except after a fleet of SMRs is put into operation. This is the “Catch 22” of the SMR industry.

The economic problems for small reactors are compounded by the greater need for staff, including security staff. In the USA, security requirements mean having armed guards deployed at reactors around the clock.

The economic obstacle is linked to the safety obstacles. The safety of the proposed compact designs is unproven – for instance, most of the designs call for weaker containment structures.

The necessity to make reactors affordable clashes with the need for safety. For example, the containment structure needs to be strong, and the whole unit protected from internal and external risks, including terrorist attacks.

Some developers of SMRs are recommending the positioning of the reactors underground, as a safety measure. This raises its own safety risks, for example, the question of flooding. In an emergency, it would be harder for crews to get access. Underground siting, as with other safety initiatives, would increase costs.

For Australia, the SMR lobby has visualised small reactors being suitable for remote places, with small electric grids. But this would also involve issues of licences and security inspections, adding to the costs and complexity of the industry.

Other issues of costs and safety concern the transport of radioactive fuels to the reactors, and of radioactive waste management. The nuclear industry is very fond of proclaiming that wastes from small thorium reactors would need safe disposal and guarding for “only 300 years”. Just the bare 300!

The Australian Senate is currently debating a Bill introduced by Cory Bernardi, to remove Australia’s laws prohibiting nuclear power development. The case put by SMR Technologies, as presented in The Australian newspaper is completely inadequate. The public deserves a better examination of this plan for Small Modular Reactors SMRS. And why do they leave out the operative word “Nuclear” -because it is so on the nose with the public?

Misconceptions about radioactive medical isotopes

This first appeared on Online Opinion 29 August 2017

Australians get their information about medical isotopes straight from The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation(ANSTO) via handouts faithfully retailed via the mainstream media. Some recent examples of media coverage:

The message is straightforward and goes like this:

The purpose of the Opal nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights is to make medical radioisotopes to treat cancer. Australia needs a national radioactive waste dump in rural South Australia, thousands of miles away from Lucas Heights, to dispose of the low-level medical radioactive wastes produced. And this will be a bonanza for the lucky rural community of Kimba.

Is this story true?

No. It is misleading on a number of counts.

First of all, a nuclear reactor is not essential for making medical isotopes. The IAEA lists 39 countries that use cyclotrons to produce them. That includes Australia, which has them not only at Lucas Heights itself, but also at hospitals in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, and Western Australia.

From the invention of the cyclotron (1931) , and discovery of artificial radioactivity (1934), non nuclear particle accelerators were used to produce them. Globally, particle accelerators produced the vast majority of radioisotopes with medical applications until the 1950s. Radioisotopes of medical interest began to be produced as a byproduct of nuclear weapons reactors during World War II. After the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the USA Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)’s main mission was promoting the military use of nuclear material, but “giving atomic energy a peaceful, civilian image” was also part of it. In1948 the AEC took over, and isotopes for biomedical research, cancer diagnostics and therapy were made in nuclear reactors and even became free of charge.

Australia was a bit slow to jump on the medical isotopes bandwagon. The Lucas Heights nuclear reactor began its life in 1958 as the start of a plan for nuclear weapons for Australia.Then it was promoted as research for nuclear power, and later as for making medical radiopharmaceuticals. Lucas Heights and ANSTO itself are very much part of the nuclear lobby’s plan to promote the entire nuclear industry in Australia.

Australia does not need a national radioactive waste dump for medical wastes. Nearly all medical radioactive wastes are very short-lived – a matter of days, or even hours. There is no need to transport them across the continent. Australia does have a problem with higher level wastes: Spent reactor fuel sent to France, USA and UK for processing must be returned. This is the type of waste that needs deep and very secure disposal. That is sure to be the underlying purpose of the South Australian waste dump plan.

The planned national radioactive waste dump will not benefit the local community. Yes, there will be bribes – so far, not much – a $2 million Community Benefit Package to fund local projects, but I’m sure that the Feds will come with better than that. Jobs, no doubt. However, the underlying problem remains. The community is being asked to accept a temporary nuclear waste dump, which is to be set up long before any permanent dump is set up, if it ever is. Kimba, the proposed dump site, is likely to suffer the fate of so many sad sites in America –stuck with “stranded wastes” of radioactive trash. Think what that would do to Kimba’s environment and reputation as an agricultural area.The nuclear lobby has argued persuasively that the Lucas Heights area has held nuclear wastes for decades. However, the Lucas Heights residents did not grasp the implications when the nuclear reactor was set up. They do now – that’s why they want the wastes sent far away.

The global nuclear lobby is fighting a losing battle. The industry has always struggled to win over public opinion. In Australia, the industry’s “foot in the door” is the Opal reactor at Lucas Heights. Following the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission’s failed attempt last year, to introduce radioactive waste importing, the next sortie is to use Lucas Heights to get a national nuclear waste dump happening. To justify this, the argument put forward is the medical argument.

In the slick salesmanship from ANSTO and the nuclear lobby in general, they don’t mind a few lies and half truths,. For example, they’ll say ” The most important isotope technetium-99m can be made only with nuclear reactors” – conveniently forgetting that Canadian researchers achieved this with a cyclotron in 2015.

They’ll say that cyclotrons are too expensive to set up, conveniently forgetting that the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor was set up at  tax-payer expense, and that tax-payer will have to fund its waste management virtually for eternity.

They’ll ignore the facts that cyclotrons produce negligible wastes.  As most medical radioisotopes have very short half lives – it makes sense to produce them in a decentralised way – in cyclotrons close to the hospitals where they will be used.  The transport of isotopes from cyclotrons is much less of a problem, than from the centralised nuclear reactor.

The nuclear reactor produces radioactive wastes suitable for use as nuclear weapons fuel –  and present a safety problem, with the reactor itself also a target for terrorism.  Cyclotrons do not have these risks, and this need for huge, and expensive security measures.

Canada, having abandoned nuclear reactor production of medical isotopes, is now leading the way in their production and export without use of a nuclear reactor.  ANSTO’s boast of a future thriving export industry in isotopes is sounding hollow.

We should bear in mind that medical radioisotopes are used 80% for diagnosis, and only 20% for actual treatment of cancer. They are an additional means of diagnosis, but not the only means.

We should also be mindful that radioactive isotopes in medicine carry a small increased risk of cancer for the patient, staff, and sometimes the patient’s family.

Therefore our enthusiasm for nuclear medicine should be tempered with an understanding of its limitations and risks, both at the individual patient level, and in the broader context of nuclear fission and its health and environmental dangers.

A radioactive wolf in green clothing: Dissecting the latest pro-nuclear spin

This first appeared on Independent Australia 20 September 2017

Michael Shellenberger is a nuclear salesman posing as a new generation environmentalist with unsubstantiated energy “solutions”, writes Noel Wauchope.

LAST WEEK, The Australian excelled itself in uncritically regurgitating nuclear lobby propaganda in the article‘Nuclear the “only option” to replace coal and gas: Michael Shellenberger’. 

To start with, they describe Shellenberger as ‘one of the world’s leading new-generation environmental thinkers‘. Well, that is sort of, a bit, right. Shellenberger is well known as the founder in 2003, with Ted Nordhaus, of The Breakthrough Institute — a nuclear front group dedicated to promoting “new generation” nuclear reactors. He is not a new generation environmentalist, as his focus is solely on the nuclear industry.

In the same opening paragraph, Shellenberger is described as ‘a former renewables advocate to Barack Obama‘. Well, Shellenberger’s advocacy consisted of lobbying Obama to promote not renewables but nuclear power. He is described as ‘now a global champion for nuclear energy’,as if he had only recently become a convert from renewables.

The Australian goes on to quote Shellenberger’s statements against renewable energy, uncritically, despite the fact that he provides no evidence for them:

“[Wind and solar] are doubling the cost of electricity and they have big environmental impacts. All existing renewable technologies do is make the electricity system chaotic and provide greenwash for fossil fuels.”

And:

“[Opposition to nuclear] is like a superstitious religious belief.”

Shellenberger was a one of Time Magazine’s ’30 Heroes of the Environment’ in 2008. True. However, he was chosen and discussed in Time by Bryan Walsh, a nuclear proponent and a member of The Breakthrough Institute. That choice was strongly disputed by genuine leading environmentalists Bill McKibben and Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. 

Having thus established Shellenberger’s very shaky credentials as an environmentalist, The Australian gets to the gist of the story:

‘Michael Shellenberger  will visit Australia in Nov­ember to promote a rethink on nuclear at a minerals industry conference.’

We are told that Germany’s renewable energy transition is not successful and that Shellenberger believes better education about nuclear power is needed as well as ‘a leap forward in scientific literacy about radiation’.

He says:

“The reality is the death toll from Chernobyl in 1986, after 20 years, is less than 200 people.”

As we have come to expect from The Australian and from Michael Shellenberger, no references are given to back up these statements.

Also unsurprisingly, The Australian quotes Shellenberger’s conclusion without comment:

“Nuclear is the only technology that can lift everyone out of poverty and reverse human ­impact.”

As often happens, this article is followed by numerous positive comments, often glowing with praise, if somewhat lacking in information or insight. There were no negative comments. But then, only registered readers of The Australian are allowed to make comments. It is tiring but necessary to refute bald claims made by very manipulative nuclear spruikers.

Where to start?

Here are some links to thoughtful articles which address claims made in this article:

  • The cost or electricity from renewables?

Renewable energy versus nuclear: dispelling the myths about costs‘, by Mark Diesendorf, Associate Professor in Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies in the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of New South Wales.

  • Death toll from Chernobyl accident?

‘Radiation harm deniers? Pro-nuclear environmentalists and the Chernobyl death toll’, by Dr Jim Green, National Nuclear Campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and Editor of the Nuclear Monitor.

  • Nuclear lifting the world out of poverty?  

‘Nuclear Power Cost’, from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Australia’s international space agency hype

This first appeared on Independent Australia  Is the current hype about space travel justified, and what of the human and environmental cost? Noel Wauchope reports.

ENTHUSIASM for space travel has been mounting since Australia hosted the recent International Astronautical Congress (IAC), held in Adelaide in September.

Then there was the announcement that Australia is getting a space agency!

We are informed by space scientist Dr Megan Clarke:

“ … more than 3000 of the world’s top space experts wildly cheered [and] all aspects of Australian society were united on the need for a national agency.” 

 

In November, the very brilliant and appealing space travel and nuclear power enthusiast, Professor Brian Cox is to tour Australia! Champion astronaut Scott Kelly has just published his exciting bookEndurance: a Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery.

Dare anyone throw cold water on all this joy?

Intriguingly, the Australian Government, while proudly hyping up this initiative, has not yet come up with a title for the new agency. However, someone else has and they have set up an elegant and professional-looking website for it: Australian Research and Space Exploration (ARSE).

Let’s start with that most important consideration — money

Although everyone says that space exploration is going to be an economic bonanza, I can’t see how it’s actually going to bring in money. There are some vague suggestions about finding mineral resources on other planets. Even NASA seems hard-put to find any real commercial benefits.

They discuss a few useful scientific and medical technologies — for example, water purification techniques and advanced eye surgery. These are side benefits of space research but surely could have been developed more cheaply with research on Earth directly intended for the purpose. I am reminded of the “benefits” of man walking on the moon in 1966 – we got Teflon– and even that didn’t turn out so well.

What about the costs of space exploration, space travel and sending a man to Mars? It is very hard to locate actual figures. Even three years ago, NASA’s space travel research cost taxpayers US$17.6 billion (AU$22.9 billion) — and costs have surely risen by now.  A huge part of the cost is in fitting and fuelling the space rockets’ thermoelectric generators with the production of the plutonium fuel being the most costly part of the expense.

Plutonium fuel

Plutonium 238 fuelled Voyager 1, which is expected to keep going until 2025, the New Horizons trip to Pluto and Cassini, which recently crashed into Saturn. NASA is sanguine about risks of a space exploration accident, claiming that it’s a low probability.

Karl Grossman has described a previous accident, dispersing plutonium widely and the risks involved in the Cassini project thus:

‘ … the Plutonium-238 used in space devices is 280 times more radioactive than the Plutonium-239 used in nuclear weapons.’ 

A very small amount of Plutonium-238, that cannot be seen, felt, or measured with a Geiger counter is enough to kill you. One nanoparticle inhaled and lodged in the lungs is enough to give anyone lung cancer. In experiments with dogs, there was no dose low enough to NOT cause the death of these animals. Just one nanoparticle the size of dust (1 microgram) that could not even be seen, was enough to kill every dog tested.

There is a long list of space travel accidents, including 19 rocket explosions causing fatalities, as well as nine other crashes/accidents causing fatalities. There seems to be no published research on rockets and space debris that have ended up in the oceans. We can assume that such ocean debris does exist, including the long-lasting radioactive particles of plutonium, to be carried thousands of miles by ocean currents.

Ocean crashes are sometimes reported, but the public is generally unaware of the space junk and the plutonium that goes into the oceans. NASA is very coy about publicly stating that the rocket’s rockets’ thermoelectric generators are, in fact, fuelled by plutonium.

NASA continues research on solar-powered space flights, but that idea seems out of fashion at the moment.

The human toll of space travel

The human toll of space travel is not emphasised. However, Scott Kelly, who holds the U.S. record for time spent in space, has been quite frank about this in his new book. As an identical twin, Scott is an especially useful person for studying the effects of space on the body.

He became, in fact, a laboratory research animal — a sacrificial lamb, perhaps, in the cause of space research:

‘I lost bone mass, my muscles atrophied and my blood redistributed itself in my body, which strained and shrank the walls of my heart. More troubling, I experienced problems with my vision, as many other astronauts had. I had been exposed to more than 30 times the radiation of a person on Earth, equivalent to about ten chest X-rays every day. This exposure would increase my risk of a fatal cancer for the rest of my life.’

Despite Scott’s extraordinary health problems, which linger to this day, he is optimistic and keen about human travel to Mars.

Which brings us to the biggest consideration: the ethics of all this.

I am fascinated that it is stated in Wikipedia, in assessing the cost of sending humans to Mars (over US$500 billion or AU$651 billion), that:

‘The largest limiting factor for sending humans to Mars is funding.’

I think that the human cost should be a bigger “limiting factor”. There’s still the problem of lethal radiation on the trip and on Mars. Plus it’s a one-way trip. Scott Kelly has detailed, especially, the mental distress of being stuck in a spacecraft for months, isolated from human society and from loved ones, as well as the physical problems. Despite all this, Scott is keen on space travel and humans going to Mars. He is carried along, it seems, by a love of adventure, of risk, of achievement and fame.

Comfortable old white men in suits are planning the Mars trip; Younger, enthusiastic young men and women, like Scott Kelly, are mesmerised by the adventure and perceived “glory”. Should we be encouraging them on this suicide mission?

We are constantly being told of the benefits to come, in space travel. What benefits? Are they greater than the huge environmental and personal risks? And the financial costs – the US$500 billion (AU $651 billion), paid for by the tax-payer? That money could go to meet real human needs. There’s something wrong with our priorities when we mindlessly accept enthusiasm for technology, innovation, and so on, as better than healing the health of this planet and its populations.

Nuclear power

And there is one other issue — nuclear power. The space hype coincides with the current drastic downturn in the fortunes of the nuclear industry. To continue with space research/travel, plutonium is needed. And the only way to get it is from nuclear reactors. Space science could be a lifeline for the failing nuclear industry.

It’s no coincidence that the International Astronautical Congress was held in Adelaide — Australia’s hub of nuclear ambition. It’s no coincidence that Professor Brian Cox is visiting, hot from his recent pep talks to the nuclear industry in Wales.

The uncritical hype about space travel ties in well with the pro-nuclear hype, especially in South Australia.