Correcting Alan Finkel on nuclear power

Dear Dr. Finkel,

I’m writing to respectfully correct a few inaccuracies in your ABC Sydney interview today (28 October 2021).

A “handful of radiation deaths” from Fukushima?

The WHO concluded that for people in the most contaminated areas in Fukushima Prefecture, the estimated increased risk for all solid cancers will be around 4% in females exposed as infants; a 6% increased risk of breast cancer for females exposed as infants; a 7% increased risk of leukaemia for males exposed as infants; and for thyroid cancer among females exposed as infants, an increased risk of up to 70% (from a 0.75% lifetime risk up to 1.25%).

The WHO doesn’t estimate the long-term radiation death toll but based on estimates of the collective radiation exposure, the death toll is estimated at around 5,000 by radiation biologist Dr. Ian Fairlie (among others).

Nuclear power the second safest energy source after wind, and more dangerous than solar?

Such studies typically trivialise the death toll from major accidents. As noted above, a ball-park estimate of the Fukushima death-toll is around 5,000, plus around 2,000 indirect deaths. For Chernobyl, estimates of the cancer death toll range from 9,000 (in the most contaminated parts of the former Soviet Union) to 93,000 deaths (across Europe), plus an unknown indirect death toll among the 350,000 evacuees.

That said, nuclear is clearly safer than fossil fuels … if the unique security and proliferation hazards associated with nuclear are ignored, which they clearly shouldn’t be.

Passive safety of new reactors and safety as the number one design principle?

Those are industry claims that do not stand up to scrutiny.

Nuscale’s proposed SMR design received NRC approval (from a Commission stacked with Trump appointees) but the company has since revised its design. Academic-scientist MV Ramana wrote a critique of NuScale in 2020 and Simon Holmes a Court has been Nuscale myth-busting (noting that the project is many years behind schedule, construction has not yet begun, funding is still up in the air and cost estimates have increased by US$2.5 billion).

No SMRs exist. Using a looser definition, one SMR is said to exist, a Russian plant that was nine-years behind schedule, six times over-budget and produces power at an exorbitant A$270 / MWh. There have been numerous SMR casualties such as Generation mPower and Transatomic Power.

Finland a “standout” for its deep waste repository where they are “starting to store” HLW?

Construction is ongoing and completion is anticipated in the mid-2020s. The 2006 Switkowski report anticipated completion in 2010. No waste has been disposed of.

The only operating deep underground repository is WIPP in the United States, closed for three years after a chemical explosion in an underground waste barrel in 2014 followed by failure of the filtration system, worker exposure and off-site releases ‒ the culmination of staggering mismanagement and regulatory failures.

A few additional points:

No progress has been made with pebble-bed reactors.

Thorium is fundamentally the same as uranium, hence the dearth of interest.

After 70 years, there are just a handful of fast neutron reactors ‒ all of them described by the World Nuclear Association as experimental or demonstration reactors. You will be familiar with the disastrous French experience with fast reactors; and more recently France wasted another A$1 billion or so on another fast reactor project (Astrid) but gave up before construction began. Japan wasted about A$50 billion on a fast reactor that rarely operated and a reprocessing plant that has not yet been completed. Serious opportunity costs!

Dr Edwin Lyman has followed Generation IV fantasies for decades and concludes in his latest detailed report: “Based on the available evidence, we found that the NLWR [non light water reactor] designs we analyzed are not likely to be significantly safer than today’s nuclear plants. In fact, certain alternative reactor designs pose even more safety, proliferation, and environmental risks than the current fleet.”

The viability of renewables coupled with multiple storage technologies, demand management etc. is of course a work in progress. This isn’t my area of expertise but a few points nonetheless:

* Here in South Australia, we are up to 60% renewable power supply and our Liberal state government is enthusiastically pursuing a 100% net renewables target by 2030 ‒ and the state government says on the basis of expert advice the nuclear is not viable and will not be viable for the foreseeable future.

* The ongoing AEMO/CSIRO work is worth following. Their latest GenCost report estimates SMR power costs at A$258-338 / MWh, far in excess of renewables coupled with 2‒6 hours of storage at $84‒151 / MWh.

* Peter Farley, a fellow of the Australian Institution of Engineers, crunched the numbers and concluded that Australia can get equivalent renewable power plus storage for one-third of the cost of nuclear power, in one-third of the time.

Yours sincerely, Jim Green

National nuclear campaigner

Friends of the Earth Australia