Nuclear power: an industry whose glory years never arrived

David Havyatt

The prospect of nuclear power should be dubbed ‘The Great Distraction.’* A look at one historical text has lessons for us all in making technology predictions.

Albert Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2 dates from his miraculous year of 1905, in which he published four groundbreaking papers.

Despite its importance in calculating the energy released from nuclear reactions, scientists only realised the prospect of these reactions in the 1930s with the work of Rutherford and Chadwick.

Pioneers in atomic physics, including Neils Bohr and Albert Einstein, believed harnessing this power for practical purposes in the near future was unlikely.

The history of the nuclear industry in Australia is littered with badges. Credit: David Havyatt

The study of nuclear reactions advanced rapidly after scientists, including Einstein, persuaded the US to develop a nuclear weapon before Germany did. This resulted in the construction of the first fission reactor in 1942, developed only to produce weapons-grade plutonium.

In 1953, a mere eleven years later, the newly-appointed Professor of Physics at the University of Sydney, Harry Messel, penned a paper Nuclear Power for Australian Industry (The Australian Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 4, pp. 7-12.). Unfortunately, its opening paragraphs have not, as the saying goes, aged well. They read:

“Before discussing the economics of nuclear power for industry, it is perhaps worthwhile to see why, in a general way, so many countries of the world are interested in nuclear energy as a source of power.

“Mr. Palmer Putnam has recently made a survey of world fuel reserves for the Materials Policy Commission of the U.S.A. The results of this survey contain the answer to the above question. Putnam reported that the complete world coal reserves will probably dwindle to a negligible amount within 100 years and that the oil and gas reserves will disappear in about one half of that time. The question now arises – what then?

“There is little or no hope that power from wind, tides and waterfalls will take over any large fraction of our power requirements. The utilisation of solar energy is not as easy as many people have been lead to believe and is not likely to play a major role in supplying power for many hundreds of years. This source of power will probably be tapped after the world’s mineable uranium resources have been depleted.

“Thus, in spite of the fact that nuclear energy has a number of disadvantages, such as the inherent danger of radioactivity, the difficulty of disposing of radioactive wastes, it seems that the world will – whether it likes it or not – be forced to turn more and more to nuclear energy as its major source of power.”

These short paragraphs offer the conclusion that fossil fuels would have dwindled to a negligible amount by 2053 and that solar power would not be viable for hundreds of years.

Messel’s following paragraphs are somewhat more prescient. Having noted that uranium would become a highly prized commodity and that Australia was likely to be one of the top three producers in the (Western) world, he opines:

“Unfortunately, Australians have not realised what nuclear power can mean to this country and are rapidly falling in with the deplorable view that in uranium we have a handy exportable mineral for which there exists a very ready dollar market overseas. Australians have yet to realise that in their uranium resources in nuclear energy – they may have the means at their disposal for making their nation another Canada or America of the southern hemisphere.

“Uranium is not just another mineral to be exported. The return, whether it be in pounds or dollars, will be negligible compared to the national budget and will probably do little to build Australia into a great nation. Let us make sure that our children’s children will not be left with just holes in the ground – where Rum Jungle and Radium Hill once stood – and nothing to show for it.”

Here we have a forerunner to Ross Garnaut’s economic superpower argument but based on using nuclear power as the cheap source for a massive industrial enterprise rather than sun and wind. At least Messel had the excuse of being a physicist, whereas Garnaut should understand that there are limitations other than energy holding back our industrial potential. Foremost among these is labour – but it is not the over-blown argument of labour cost but labour volume.

However, it is touching to see the confidence with which Messel enters the detailed conversation about the economics.

“The economic problem is one of considerable magnitude, complicated by the fact that as yet no nuclear reactor has been built for the sole purpose of generating power for industrial purposes. There are well over 30 nuclear reactors in the world today but not one of these has been built for this purpose alone.”

He addresses the economics first by observing that, yes, nuclear power is hugely expensive upfront, but the final cost of delivered electricity is very close to that for conventional steam power. Next, Messel turns adversity to advantage.

“Though nuclear power is not a paying proposition in America yet, this does not say that it would not be a paying proposition in many remote parts of Australia today. Conditions are very different in Australia from those existing in America. We have an urgent need for more power, whereas this is not the case in America.

“One thing is certain – before any further large-scale expenditure on electrical power generation is made in Australia, a close study should be made of the feasibility of achieving the same end power at an equal or even smaller cost.”

Messel was writing when Australia was experiencing tight electricity supply conditions. Post-war growth combined with the inability of our traditional vendors in England to provide generators so that supply struggled to meet demand.

Messel’s forecast of when Australia would develop nuclear power for industry was simple.

“It is perhaps worth venturing a guess as to how long it will be before Australia gets its first nuclear power plant. The most optimistic answers to this question are usually given by people who have never built a nuclear reactor. I am one of these people, hence I will be optimistic and state that if Australia puts its shoulder to the problem and pushes it, then we will have nuclear power station number one in Australia within ten years, and a nuclear-powered industry within 30 to 40 years.”

Australia’s electricity shortage soon eased. A quarter-century after the paper, your correspondent was marching with his fellow students chanting ‘Export Fraser, Not Uranium.’

Within another five years, there was excess electricity supply based on an investment cycle promoted by the Fraser government in a failed attempt to prolong the 1960s and 70s mining (aka resources) boom.

Now, just shy of seventy years after the paper was published, the world isn’t running out of fossil fuels; it just can’t sustain us burning them much longer. Solar has not only been developed, but its ‘levelized cost’ is below that of all the fossil fuel sources of electricity. And globally, nuclear power continues to struggle, with one piece this week headlined ‘In 2022 nuclear power’s future looks grimmer than ever.’

There is a moral to this tale; don’t put too much faith in any technology forecast (or forecaster). Just as Messel was wrong about solar, those who dismiss the potential economics of hydrogen could be wrong.

Nuclear fission’s younger brother, fusion, is still forecast to be the thirty years away that it has been for every one of the last fifty. But that could change rapidly, as demonstrated by the short ten year period from Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron in 1932 to the role of neutrons in the chain reaction at the heart of the first reactor.

Note: I discovered the Messel article in response to a Facebook thread about Professor Julius Sumner Miller. Someone had posted something about Messel, who used to bring Miller out for an annual science school. People studying high school science under the Wyndham scheme (the HSC) (until the mid-1970s) would have used science textbooks forever associated with Messel.

However, the actual title was ‘Science for high school students: an integrated four-year course in physics, chemistry, biology, and geology based on and covering the science syllabus approved by the New South Wales Secondary Schools B Board/ by the Nuclear Research Foundation School Certificate Integrated Science Textbook Group of Authors and Editors, under the chairmanship of H. Messel.’ The second volume for years 11 and 12 was simply ‘Senior science for high school students.’

While Messel was a particle physicist originally, throughout the 70s and 80s he spent his time researching crocodiles in the Northern Territory. One student in the late 70s spent a term living in Messel’s otherwise abandoned office.

For those interested in what has gone wrong in STEM education, an article by Messel on the textbooks is instructive. It states that under the Wyndham scheme, ‘In the field of science the most significant decision at the senior level was again to reject the study of separate sciences in favour of a coordinated study of at least three sciences.’ This approach was then abandoned, I think at the time of the introduction of the units system in 1976.

* ‘The Great Distraction’ is a play on Milton Friedman’s ‘the Great Contraction’, which was his term for the early years of the Great Depression. It is technically the phase in which a monetary policy response could have avoided the recession.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

  1. David Glover 5 months ago

    Interesting! However the link to Prof Messel’s article needs a UOW login for access. It’d be great to have an open link, or the full title so I can track it down.

    • David Havyatt 5 months ago

      The link I gave was to JSTOR –…I don’t know why the fact I accessed it through UoW causes an issue sorry. Also the full title is given and the journal details are given in parentheses following the article title.

  2. Ian Lowe 5 months ago

    Even the enthusiastic Messel recognised the problem of managing the radioactive waste produced by nuclear reactors. He also recognised, without saying it explicitly, the inevitable connection with the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons, noting that none of the nuclear reactors that had been built when he made those comments had been designed simply to provide energy. They had all been designed to produce material for weapons. Sixty years later, those problems are not just still with us but have become systematically worse. The economic issue remains: nowhere in the world does nuclear energy appear cost-effective without huge public subsidies. As my recent book makes clear, only the terminally deluded still see a bright future for nuclear power.

  3. Graham R.L. Cowan 5 months ago

    When nuclear power saves one human life, government loses between $1 million and $2 million in fossil fuel tax revenue.

    To those who see only the lost petrobucks, I suppose that seems rather inglorious.

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