Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ali Moore speaks with Dr Gavin Mudd about nuclear issues (ABC interview)


Broadcast: 24/04/2007
Reporter: Ali Moore

Ali Moore speaks with environmental engineer, Dr Gavin Mudd, about the future of uranium.


ALI MOORE: Well, when it comes to resources it's uranium that's been in the spotlight of late, albeit more for the politics of the topic than the economics of the industry. Whether Labor will abandon its long held ban on new uranium mines will be a big issue at this weekend's ALP national conference. While the Prime Minister has made it clear he believes nuclear power is part of the solution to Australia's future nuclear energy needs. Certainly, there are big predictions about demand for uranium. But in fact, there's been no new nuclear reactor built in either the US or Britain for more than 20 years. For his views on how important nuclear energy will be in the future I spoke earlier to Monash University's Dr Gavin Mudd, an environmental engineer who specialises in the mining sector. (to Gavin Mudd) Dr Gavin Mudd, welcome to the program.

DR GAVIN MUDD, MONASH UNIVERSITY: Thank you Ali, good to be here.

ALI MOORE: Let's start by looking at this picture globally. Nuclear energy supplies currently around 17 per cent of the world's energy needs, will it ever have a significantly bigger role?

DR GAVIN MUDD: I suppose that's where the current debate is. There are those who would like to see that role increased. But we know for about the last 20 years or so that it's been around about 15, 16, 17 per cent of electricity now for the last 20 years or so. And I suppose the debate at the moment is really whether that will grow into the future, and if there is, you know, a justifiable place for nuclear.

ALI MOORE: Do you think there is?

DR GAVIN MUDD: Personally I don't. I think there's alternatives such as renewable technologies, there's solar thermal, there's biomass, there's now photovoltaics, there's wind, there's a whole range of technologies combined with energy efficiency, which can supply baseload, which can supply peak demands and which can meet, you know, our energy needs in order to boil our coffees in the morning and power our computers and all of the things that we like to do at appropriate levels.

ALI MOORE: That may be the case, but if you look at where the nuclear industry is right now, to throw a couple of statistics at you, to quote our own Industry Minister from a speech at the end of last year he said almost 30 new nuclear power reactors are being constructed in some 11 countries including China, India, Russia and Finland. The Ziggy Switkowski report recently which had a full page on plans for new reactors in Asia, or indeed Tim Flannery who says that China is going to approve two new power stations, nuclear stations per year for the next 20 years, that to me sounds like a significant increase in the use of nuclear energy.

DR GAVIN MUDD: And over the same time frame, a lot of reactors are going to be decommissioned in the West. There were six reactors in the West that were decommissioned on December the 31st, including four in the UK. So, I think there's a big debate there. But I think ultimately, they're not building new reactors in the West, they're building reactors in sort of centrally planned economies, and the one new reactor that they've ordered in the West over the last several years in Finland is significantly behind budget and you know, also behind time. So, I think there's real issues there that over the same time frame of which they're supposedly going to expand nuclear power, a lot of the existing ageing reactors and it's not without risk will also be decommissioned.

ALI MOORE: And you'd say those decommissioned plants are not going to be replaced by newer more efficient, perhaps less, but more efficient plants?

DR GAVIN MUDD: Well that … well, the future remains to be seen. But certainly at the moment, they're not building new reactors in the US, they're not building new reactors in the UK, they're not building new reactors in Germany. So, where are they building new reactors on the same scale to replace the existing ageing fleet of reactors, and then to build additional new reactors that are actually going to drive new nuclear capacity? And I think that's the big question at the moment.

ALI MOORE: The plan is on the table though, for China and for India. Are they not eventually going to end up on the same scale as what we've got in the European countries?

DR GAVIN MUDD: Well, China for example, they're promising to build reactors at a rate faster than they've ever built them in the past. So, I think there's a real question there whether they can actually achieve that. Now, for the same time frame that they're proposing to double their nuclear capacity, they're also planning to increase their renewable energy component to about 15 per cent, whereas nuclear will still only be 4-5 per cent. So, renewables will play a bigger role than China's energy future than nuclear. And yet, you know, we're not falling over ourselves to sell renewable technologies, which can provide significant export revenue, which can provide significant jobs in terms of the manufacturing sector. And why aren't we doing that? I think that's an important political question about our economic future.

ALI MOORE: Before we get to renewables, I must ask you, I mean if you're right, if the world is not embracing nuclear power as some in the debate would have it, why is it that we've seen uranium go through the roof in recent times, up 57 per cent in price this year alone?

DR GAVIN MUDD: It's a good question, and, you know, I don't think anyone I've seen has a good answer for why the uranium prices has hit the sort of magnitude that it has. And a lot of mining industry analysts are also asking about this bubble at the moment, about what is causing this price. I don't think anyone ever predicted the price would go this high.

ALI MOORE: Well, let's talk about renewables, and about energy needs. I mean, the International Energy Agency says by the year 2030, Australia … well, the world will need 60 per cent more energy than it needs today. How do we make up that gap, and when you talk about renewables, can they ever be used for baseload generation in our lifetime? Will we see that?

DR GAVIN MUDD: Well, we're talking about building, you know, baseload renewable energy stations in Australia now. They're talking about building solar thermal towers that work 24 hours a day. There's existing prototypes of that around the world, it's an existing technology, it's proven, and it can work and it's economic. A lot of these things, the technology is around. And I think what we also have to question is this insatiable increase for continual growth in energy demand. What we want to be able to make sure is that we know that there are impacts associated with a range of energy production, whether that is coal, whether that is renewables, whether that is uranium and nuclear. So, what we need to make sure in the long term is that we also couple, you know, supply with also efficiency. We also change the way we do our engineering designs. We make, you know, cars more efficient, we make, you know, buildings more efficient and we start to put all of these things, integrate them together in a proper policy that actually says in 30 to 40 to 50 years, we can achieve significant cuts in greenhouse emissions without actually having to cop a drop in the standard of living.

ALI MOORE: Dr Gavin Mudd, many thanks for talking to us.

DR GAVIN MUDD: My pleasure.

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