One of the quirkiest conversations I’ve ever had occurred on the way to my mates’ farm in Tamworth. We were headed up there from Sydney to see the Country Music Festival, something I’d never done before. On the Hunter Expressway the valley gave way to two plumes of smoke billowing from behind the horizon and as we drove on the source became apparent.
“Cloud makers” is what he said. “My mum always used to call them cloud makers when we drove past them. It’s fair enough, I was only a little kid, calling them that is way easier than explaining what a power plant is to a five-year-old.”
The cloud makers of my friend’s childhood were powered by coal and still are today. Tall plumes bubble from the chimneys courtesy of locally sourced Hunter Valley Coal. Many understand the hunter valley to be home to some of the world’s best wine, some of the world’s best Horses, and some of the world’s best cattle. It’s a lesser known fact that the Hunter is also the domain of international giants like Rio Tinto, Yancoal and Anglo American; and as these giants stride, they bore holes into some of the best farming soil in the world.
Approaching this issue is somewhat an exercise in flogging a dead horse, we know the problems with coal, we are aware we have an overdependence on it, and we know its producers will play dirty to ensure that their product is bought. We provide 30% of the world’s coal, and it accounts for 75% of our domestic energy production. In other words, the cloud makers aren’t going anywhere.
Criticism of this fact is Australia’s zeitgeist, and despite the fact that liberal party members bring coal into parliament for show and tell, the mineral is very unpopular. The call for an alternative fuel source is strong. We are in a great position to find an alternative source; we have ample space, we are resource rich and have some of the best academic facilities to study which options will serve us best.
Renewables aren’t perfect yet; some creases are yet to be ironed out. Energy storage is tricky, the sources themselves (the sun, wind, etc.) are inconsistent and co-ordinating multiple sources of power is an art that is yet to be perfected. The argument for nuclear energy isn’t perfect either, but I believe by adopting nuclear energy as a primary source of energy, Australia could establish itself as a world leader in curbing the effects of climate change.
Consider this: behind Kazakhstan and Canada, Australia has the third richest uranium deposit in the world. We also have high production rates already, which means fewer mines would have to open. Unlike coal, where mines exclusively fall within the borders of Queensland and New South Wales, uranium presents an opportunity for each state.
Regarding waste storage, Australia has vast areas of desert and spare land which could hold waste safely in facilities that are away not only from people but from the richer ecosystems we see develop closer to the coastline. A substantial amount of waste could be stored there from many countries without heavily impacting us, providing a source of income for the country and a solution for other nations wanting to go nuclear that lack the capacity to store waste. In effect, this would not only aid our efforts but empower other countries to reduce their carbon emissions.
The nature of nuclear is changing as well. Technology is allowing uranium to be harnessed in more efficient and safer ways. New reactors and new fuel sources are paving the way for this progress. Old reactors use water to maintain temperature; it’s inefficient, expensive and unsafe (this reactor type lies at the heart of the recent Fukushima disaster). Uranium rods are also an old form of fuel, which most reactors today still use; and because rods use a solid fuel source that burn and decay, conventional methods can only extract 4% of the potential energy stored in the rod.
Rather than a solid combustible rod, new approaches to harnessing uranium take a different form: liquid. Liquid uranium encased in ceramic spheres, known as fuel pebbles allow for heat to extract energy but don’t burn the fuel. This allows for greater efficiency and less wastage and also reduces fuel related risks. New research is being conducted on reusing old fuel rods in this liquid pebble form as well.
New reactors, designed for this new fuel source are revolutionising nuclear power. Pebble-bed reactors, as they are known, are being further tweaked to increase safety and fundamentally change our idea of what a nuclear plant means to us. Companies like Transatomic (a subsidiary of MIT) and NuScale are creating smaller reactors than the standard models today.
One feature that new reactors sport is passive cooling. Whereas active cooling requires manually controlled fans and pumps, passive cooling uses automatic mechanisms to cool the fuel pebbles which can reach temperatures of up to 2000℃ in their core. Transatomic mixes salt into its fuel pebbles to cool its reactors, it has a much higher boiling point and is a better material to use than water. Salt cools rapidly, and if it gets too hot, it expands and solidifies, killing the reaction process and cooling down the reactor. According to an MIT Technology review “If you lose electricity, even if there are no operators on site to pull levers, it will coast to a stop.”
Pebble beds, with the fuel and coolant neatly encased in ceramic result in a power plant that vastly differs from the image we have in our head, there are no cooling towers, no vast, grey scapes of concrete. Architects would be able to design beautiful buildings to encase the reactors; nuclear wouldn’t seem so terrifying anymore.
There are disadvantages, and the largest of those is that the prospect of nuclear power is terrifying for many people. For the generations before us, the primal birth of nuclear potentiality occurred in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it occurred in Chernobyl after that, and it returned many years later in Fukushima. An understandably haunting series of first impressions. Overcoming this fear could be the key to unlocking a prosperous and sustainable solution for the next stage in Australia’s life, and it’s imperative that we as a nation discuss the merits to change the public perception of nuclear power.
The cloud makers of my friend’s childhood will be remembered fondly, but as we grow older and begin to understand the world and it’s workings we know that the chimneys must be torn down. A nation of open minds will be the only thing able to do this, and from it, we can build something better.