Last night on The Cutting Edge, a documentary entitled The Nuclear Comeback investigated the nuclear power option with respect to its costs, its benefits in terms of lowered carbon emissions, its safety, especially with terrorists attacks – infrequent as they are – at the forefront of everyone’s minds, and long-term effects such as waste storage. It was immensely interesting and I hope SBS publishes transcripts, videos possibly, and other information about it.

I wasn’t studiously taking notes unfortunately, but some of the facts and figures in the documentary, most of which came from the nuclear industry itself, are too amazing to forget. Here is a sample:

  • Australia currently derives 80% of its energy from coal, rendering Australians the highest per-capita emitters of carbon.

  • A minimum of 6, but a possibility of 14 nuclear power stations are planned for Australia.

  • 14 such stations together would produce only a projected 20% of Australia’s energy demands (presumably those demand are measured against our current consumption).

  • A power station in the UK (I can’t recall which, nor exactly where) employs more people in decommissioning than it ever did during its active life.

  • This power station produced energy for 47 years, yet it will take an estimated 120 years to decommission, which will cost an estimated one billion pounds.

  • Currently no high-level waste repositories, those needed for storage of spent fuel, exist in the world.

  • Several facilities exist that store low-to-medium-level waste, including workers’ clothing, instruments and tools (Incidentally, this is the sort of facility that seemed as though it was being forced upon the Yapa Yapa people of Muckaty Station).

  • Spent fuel takes 75 odd years to become exhausted of its residual heat energy. It must become exhausted of this heat energy before it can be stored in a high-level waste repository.

  • The fuel then takes an estimated 100,000 years before it’s deemed ‘low-to-medium-level’ and is able to be stored safely, that is, kilometres underground.

We want to build behemoth facilities that produce energy for a mere few decades but require over a hundred thousand years of management after that? How forsightful are we?

Apart from all this, the program looked at Chernobyl, and yes, while it was a tragic accident that was probably the indirect result of poor Soviet management and is now ‘entirely avoidable, it still provides a didactic demonstration of the monumental long-term effects when something does go wrong. Besides, there’s no guarantee that something else might go wrong. In 2006 in fact, the Forsmark nuclear power plant in Sweden came perilously close to meltdown, as backup deisel generators failed to run as expected. According to some, mere luck alone prevented a meltdown.

There remains an exclusion zone with a radius of 30 kilometres that surrounds Chernobyl, within which no one is allowed to live. Reactor 4, the one that exploded, is still producing radioactive material and is housed in a gigantic concrete sarcophagus, built mostly by remote controlled robots, to contain this material. Despite interminable repairs to the sarcophagus, it continues to deteriorate. If this sarcophagus happens to collapse, it may cause another cloud of radioactive dust to be released into the atmosphere. The last such cloud spread over much of the European continent, and most fell on Belarus.

The Chernobyl nuclear power station now produces no power and instead consumes huge amounts in maintenance and repairs, and several teams are employed to supervise the entire plant around the clock. This maintenance will necessarily continue for hundreds of thousands of years until the radiation decays to acceptable levels.

Honestly, nuclear power is insanity.