Advanced fossil fuel and nuclear technologies

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An essential component of sustainable development in the energy context involves the development of new technologies to make the production and consumption of the principal fossil fuels, oil, natural gas and coal, more environmentally friendly in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric pollution. In relation to coal, new advanced technologies such as direct coal liquefaction for synthetic fuels production, pressurised fluidised-bed combustion, and coal integrated gasifier combined cycle plants at high efficiencies have been developed. Significant improvements have occurred in industry in cogeneration plants based on gas turbines and combined cycles.76 Synthetic fuels have been developed in recent times which are useful for alleviating concerns over oil supply security as well as combating atmospheric carbon emissions. Secondary and tertiary oil recovery techniques have ensured that existing oil fields are exploited much more productively than has occurred in the past.

Certain countries, especially those without significant indigenous reserves of oil and gas, have placed increasing reliance for their energy security on the use of nuclear energy.77 Overall, nuclear energy counts for 17% of electricity generation worldwide, and 7% of all energy use.78 The best examples are France and Belgium, which in recent years have produced almost 80% of their electricity from nuclear power plants. In the 1950s and early 1960s the nuclear option was generally seen as a panacea for the world's energy needs for the indefinite future, and it was even promised that energy from nuclear sources would be too cheap to meter. The reality, unfortunately, is otherwise, and many countries that were initially enthusiastic about adopting the nuclear option abandoned or curtailed the

75 For a preliminary discussion of these issues in overseas jurisdictions, see W Vincent, 'Hydrogen and Tort Law: Liability Concerns Are Not a Bar to a Hydrogen Economy (2004) 25 Energy LJ 385; R Moy, 'Tort Law Considerations for the Hydrogen Economy (2003) 24 Energy LJ 249; Hydrogen, Fuel Cells and Infrastructure Technologies - The Hydrogen Future, available at <www.eere.energy.gov/hydrogenandfuelcells/future/ benefits/html>.

76 For a discussion of cogeneration technology, see note 19 above and accompanying text.

77 For a discussion of the nuclear electricity industry, see e.g. Ian Hore-Lacy, Nuclear Electricity, Uranium Information Centre Inc and World Nuclear Association, 7th edn 2003, <www.uic.com.au/ne.htm> (accessed 20 July 2005); C Flavin, Reassessing Nuclear Power: The Fallout from Chernobyl, Worldwatch Paper 75, Worldwatch Institute, Washington DC, 1987; G Greenhaugh, The Future of Nuclear Power (1988).

78 World Energy Report 2004 Update, at 53.

building of nuclear plants because of spiralling costs and licensing difficulties.79 Other countries were later deterred by the safety and environmental problems associated with the generation of nuclear energy, which were highlighted by the well-publicised incidents at Three Mile Island in the United States, and Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union,80 together with the discharges of heated water that can damage aquatic ecosystems and kill fish in large quantities.81 Yet further problems have surfaced more recently because of the failure to find guaranteed safe means of disposal of nuclear wastes82 and the colossal costs associated with the decommissioning of aging nuclear electricity plants.83

Serious security issues are also associated with the use of nuclear energy. Of increasing concern is the possibility of nuclear terrorism, whereby a radical group acquires plutonium and produces a crude nuclear device. The method of constructing a nuclear device is not complex, the major difficulty being the availability of plutonium, an essential component. Disturbingly, there have been several reports of theft or the mysterious disappearance of small quantities of plutonium and other components of nuclear devices.

Since the emergence of environmental concerns over global warming, there are signs of a re-emergence of nuclear energy in some countries as, unlike traditional fossil fuels, nuclear energy releases virtually no atmospheric carbon emissions or traditional air pollution. Safety concerns have been in part alleviated by the development of modern light water reactors with an excellent safety record, which are technologically far superior to the Chernobyl-type reactors.

Nuclear energy has never been used in Australia. Only one nuclear reactor exists, at Lucas Heights in New South Wales, which is used primarily for medical research. Nuclear energy is even banned legislatively in Victoria, pursuant to the Nuclear Activities (Prohibitions) Act 1983. This is despite the fact that Australia possesses large reserves of uranium, which it exports to other countries for nuclear purposes. It is also despite the very high per capita incidence of atmospheric carbon emissions in this country, which nuclear energy could significantly reduce. Part of the reason is the enormous cost of building nuclear plants and the fact that the population is too small to benefit from the economies of scale that a nuclear plant could offer. The other reason is political. Along with New Zealand, Australia has always been at the forefront of rejecting nuclear

79 For a discussion of licensing schemes, see B Kunth, 'International Aspects of Nuclear Installations Licensing' (1987) 5 JERL 202; M Purdue, 'The Licensing of Nuclear Power Plants in the United States' (1988) 5 EPLJ 4.

80 See United Nations Environment Programme, 'Energy, Renewable Energy and NuclearEnergy', in Handbook for Legal Drafting, United Nations, New York, 2005, chapter 22; Peter Cameron, Leigh Hancher and Wolfgang Kiihn (eds), Nuclear Energy Law After Chernobyl, Graham & Trotman, London, 1988.

81 K Kennedy, 'The Importance of Renewable Energy', in Adrian J Bradbrook and Richard L Ottinger (eds), UNEP Handbook for LegalDraftsmen on Environmentally SoundManagement of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Resources, United Nations, New York, 2005, at 101.

82 See, for example, S R Helton, 'The Legal Problems of Spent Nuclear Fuel Disposal' (2002) 23 Energy LJ179.

83 For decommissioning issues, see C Beck-Dudley and J Malko, 'Decommissioning Nuclear Power Plants in the United States' (1990) 10 J Energy L & Policy 141; R Neufeld and G Paskuski, 'Legal and Regulatory Considerations in Plant Decommissioning and Rationalisation Plans' (1993) 31 Alberta L Rev 259; B Kunth, 'Decommissioning of Nuclear Power Plants' (1986) 4 J Energy and Natural Resources L 107.

energy out of environmental concerns.84 This has surfaced most recently in the ongoing dispute about the establishment of a nuclear waste disposal plant. The World Energy Assessment concluded that nuclear energy could not be regarded as a sustainable energy option unless and until concerns regarding safety, waste disposal and nuclear proliferation and diversion are effectively addressed in ways that permit nuclear energy to compete on an economic basis.85 This seems unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

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Getting Started With Solar

Getting Started With Solar

Do we really want the one thing that gives us its resources unconditionally to suffer even more than it is suffering now? Nature, is a part of our being from the earliest human days. We respect Nature and it gives us its bounty, but in the recent past greedy money hungry corporations have made us all so destructive, so wasteful.

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