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Living Lightly column

Weighing up our energy choices

By Graham Parton

When looking for ways to live lightly, an important consideration relates to our energy sources. Clean energy means lower greenhouse emissions.

Australia’s National Party have recently become advocates for nuclear power, and their coalition partners the Liberals would like to have “an intelligent conversation” about it. Both Barnaby Joyce and David Littleproud have suggested that Australia should develop small modular reactors (SMR) which appear to be replacing ageing nuclear reactors known as Light Water Reactors (LWR) at the end of their useful life. Advocates for SMR argue that they compete with renewables, but how do they really stack up?

In 2020 the Minerals Council of Australia suggested that any new energy source would need to produce energy at $60-80 per megawatt hour in order to be able to enter the market. At the same time the CSIRO estimated that SMR power would cost between $258-338 /MWh, dropping to $129-336 by 2030. This is not competitive with solar energy at ($50-55/MWh) or wind power at $50-65/MWh and dropping.

Despite being marketed as clean and green, it appears SMRs are actually worse than the older LWR. The University of Pennsylvania recently found that shifting from LWR to SMRs would increase the volume of nuclear waste by factors of 2 to 30, depending on the type of waste.

Instead of focusing on nuclear waste though, proponents of SMR point to the waste produced by solar and wind energy.

Perhaps the most strident argument against wind energy refers to turbine blades which have the potential to become a waste problem of the future. However, US based company Veolia has developed a process to turn old turbines into cement, which in turn can be used in construction.

Similarly, solar panels are made out of up to 95% recyclable materials that can readily be absorbed by existing recycling processes.

It’s also worth noting that many other industries, the motor vehicle industry for example, creates mountains of waste material but this is never used as an argument against making or using cars. For some reason the relatively obscure and currently non-existent wind turbine waste stream attracts the Nationals interest. To date, no convincing argument for nuclear energy has been put forward.