The Age Opinion: An atomic problem

by ericknight

Shortly after the devastating earthquake in Japan, a friend sent me the following text. “Does Japan change your view on nuclear?” The answer is contained in an opinion piece I have written in The Age today. Click here to read it.

I am not an engineer or a scientist. I have no special insight into technologies. Whenever I’m at a conference on clean energy I invariably end up chatting to someone eager to tell me about some amazing widget they have discovered in the South-western corner of Nowhere – a technology which has the capacity to supply the world’s energy. My response is always the same. ‘Fantastic! Go and start up a company to commercialize it.’

The point of my piece is not to promote or defend a particular technology (like nuclear). It is simply to help us think clearly about how we approach a complex dilemma. What is the best way to address an emotive, controversial topic like nuclear energy?

Interestingly, the events in Japan also seem to have changed George Monbiot’s view of nuclear. Read it here. The irony of the Japan disaster is that it may actually lift nuclear energy out of the political quagmire.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Phil March 24, 2011 at 2:32 am

some random thoughts: my biggest hesitation is the waste, not so much the costs/risks of the operations. the creation of a substance that is deadly, has a half-life of tens of thousands of years, and we haven’t yet a perfect method for storage makes me nervous. In fukushima, it was the spent fuel rods that have caused so much difficulty, not the live ones. tho if ever you could manage that risk it would be in the vast middle-of-tectonic-plate expanse of australia’s desert. the awkward thing about the Japanese plants is that the risk analysis of the plant wasn’t so wrong re earthquake readiness, in terms of tsunami readiness, it was only prepared for a tsunami of 5.7 (& 5.2) metres, and the tsunami was about 10 m high.


David March 24, 2011 at 11:41 am

I refer to the following comments in your Age article today, Eric: “It is true that mankind has found ways to spin turbines by the power of the sun and the breeze. But these sources of energy do not work at night or on a still day.”

The statement about these sources not working at night is not quite true as solar thermal generation can generate electricity over a 24 hour period. I commend to you the work of Beyond Zero Emissions here in Melbourne which has developed a plan for baseload generation using renewables. I would prefer to a plan like this (developed by a large group of scientists and engineers) put to the test and, if a goer, to be considered well before nuclear energy with all of its attendant issues including that of waste mentioned by Phil above.

By the way, you can find Beyond Zero Emissions on


ericknight March 26, 2011 at 8:01 am

Phil – I agree the waste is the tricky part. I’m not sure what the answer on nuclear is. My point was merely to point out the fact that we often over-react to certain disasters based on extremely dramatic events. Incidentally, though, the situation in Japan is different to Australia on this point. Japan sits above tectonic plates, whereas most of Australia is incredibly stable.

David – I agree that you can get a mix of renewables to compensate for the geographical nuances of each technology. Battery storage is also a way of getting around this. But the point is that renewable energy sources are geographically specifics. From my experience, VCs and entrepreneurs alike have often overestimated the market size for renewables by assuming that can be sold like a commodity. This is not the case. More on this in another piece…


Chong April 7, 2011 at 8:54 am

Eric, do you have an opinion on thorium as fuel?

From the little that I’ve read it seems like a no-brainer. Unsurprisingly China is in the lead on developing this. Seems like it could be an important turning point in terms of nuclear power.


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