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Rundle: Who ate all the yellowcake?

Never let a good crisis go to waste,” White House chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel is fond of saying — as countless, clueless pundits now tell us, unaware that it’s a political saying as old as the hills, in a hundred different versions.

It’s certainly not an insight that has escaped Paul Howes of the AWU, the employers enforcement authority, sorry, right-wing trade union, who used an occasion at one of the Sydney Institute’s all gruel-and-gravel evenings to spruik the idea of Australia developing a nuclear power industry.

Howes’s voice joins the chorus that began in the Howard government, as it used its acknowledgement of climate change to open a fresh front in the culture war, and get out from under the awful prospect of admitting that the Greens were right about something.

Howes attacks the Rudd government’s continued commitment to not starting an Australian nuclear industry as the continuation of a superstitious attitude. Actually it’s because there is no way to start up a nuclear power industry without a multi-billion dollar state commitment involving a direct transfer of government money to private industry to create institutions that have no power pay-off for a decade or more, and that generate a lethal poison by-product the disposal of which raises NIMBYism to the highest power imaginable.

If you think it’s tough to get an incinerator built these days, trying putting a waste dump anywhere. Whatever seat and state you put it in, you can guarantee the government will lose both, and the election. Labor knows that nuclear plants would be a godsend to the Green movement, uniting greens, locals, farmers, indigenous groups, run a split right down the middle of the party, and give the Greens second Senate quotas across the mainland.

So no nuclear power during the life of Rudd Labor, Gillard Labor and whoever the education office for Queensland Uni student union currently is Labor stretching over the 15 years or so they hope to be in power. Even the Coalition — if it still exists in that form when Labor finally falters — will shy away from it, most likely.

Howes is right about nuclear power. It is a superstitious issue. Trouble is the superstition is all on the side of the nuclear power lobby. Nuclear isn’t a new technology. It’s the last of the old technologies, one where you use a massive amount of energy to get a greater amount, the gap between energy expended and created being your dividend.

With fossil fuels you use chemistry to unlock the stored energy of given compounds. With nuclear power you use a greater level of abstraction and go to physics to unlock the energy contained within atoms. With fossil fuels you’re time travelling back hundreds of millions of years to release the energy laid down by geo and bio processes, with nuclear power you go back to the formation of the universe itself.

Nuclear power thus appeals as a promethean technology — after the mythical figure who gave technology to man, and got his liver pecked out by birds in Hades for ever as a result of the Gods’ anger. Screw all this fart-arsing around — let’s bang the rocks together! Let’s bang the atoms together! Hear us roar!

A moment’s thought will see that this is pretty much the dumbest way to extract energy, if the possibility of energy sources with a minimal and diminishing cost of extraction are available. Once you build a wind turbine or install a solar panel they keep on giving without further input, until they need to be replaced.

Not only is start-up cheaper, and the energy contribution immediate, but the transition cost as you come down the other side of the peak oil curve is lower. It should be obvious that our decades-long underinvestment in transition out of oil has put us in a bind – as it becomes more expensive (added to by increased demand from the China, India etc), transition becomes a second additional cost. Leave it too long to really start this process, and you face a genuine economic crisis in the west, based on rising costs of everyday life.

It’s not the opposition to nuclear power that shows old thinking, or lack of imagination — it’s the belief that renewable energy is bound by the limits of the pathetic level of commitment we’ve made to it over past decades, as if aviation were to stop at the biplane.

There’s a deeper cultural aspect to the pro-renewable technology however, and that’s the very different nature of nuclear power in producing a by-product substance that is not merely damaging in excess amounts (as CO2 is), but lethally poisonous by its very nature. To conclude that, with all the options available to us, the best way to go is to produce that sort of lethality, is to choose death over life.

It’s an expression of the thanatophilia at the heart of the west that it could simultaneously maintain itself in a state of hysteria over terrorism, while running pointless wars of occupation, contemplate massively expanding production of material conducive to WMDs, in a world where stable state forms are coming under pressure other forces — all set within a growth-consumer-turnover economy that cannot continue in its current form indefinitely.

The Simpsons got it right when they made Montgomery Burns, local purveyor of nuclear excellence, a walking corpse. The Montgomery Burns club — and have you ever seen them and Gerard Henderson together, significant, no? — are simply quietly hysterical about the fact that things cannot go on as they are. Their answer is desperate improvisation around a dead politics — more war, failed war, ramrodding the engine till it blows.

There is no need to do that — and most sensible people realise that, which is why nuclear power remains popular among a power elite, and the power intellectuals who gain their energy from attaching themselves like suckfish to their hulls. The trouble is that they are right about one thing — a cult of austerity and anti-humanism has attached itself to the new energy movement.

The point to make about renewable energy is not that it confines us to austerity, or to being under the domain of “mother nature”. What could be more in servitude to “mother nature” than having to find a rock cavern within which to seal its lethal poop for tens of thousands of years? With the application of human genius the creation of a plentiful supply of clean energy should be straightforward.

That would see us go beyond the centralised power utility for most of our daily needs, with local power co-ops, sub-grids, and two-way flow of power, its generation cost heading asymptotically towards zero. Quite aside from getting us off fossil fuels, that would be a major step towards a post-capitalist future.

And that of course is the other thing all the angst is about — because the nuclear power push takes us back to the beginnings of mass power generation, and the re-enclosure of what is an abundant resource, i.e. electricity, sub-atomic flow as power. One of the reasons why the enigmatic figure Nikola Tesla is getting such renewed interest these days is because his — ultimately unsuccessful — approach to electricity distribution effectively imagined that it would be beamed wirelessly and hence unmetered.

Small scale power — solar, wind etc — revives Tesla’s dream in a more achievable fashion. Nuclear power means in grosse plante right at the centre of things, owned by someone. Furthermore, the lethal nature of both the raw material and end product of nuclear power demand a level of security involving the state, and a widespread nuclear system is incompatible with democracy.

It is a recipe for turning the world into one big China — authoritarian rule over a red-in-tooth capitalist system — and if it can be argued that this is a necessary phase for the Middle Kingdom to pass through, as a destination for the west and the world, it is death itself, a kind of hell.

So yes, nuclear power is the defining struggle, around which a new politics is organised — one with new divisions. Hence the resonance of Peter Garrett’s compromise on a fourth uranium mine — it wasn’t any old compromise, it went to the defining heart of his previous politics. The silly goose traded his role in history to be junior minister in a middling centre-right government.

Hence also Paul Kelly’s bizarre article in The Oz today suggesting that anti-nuclear politics was symbolism, acknowledging that there was no credible revenue model for Australian nuclear industry — and then suggesting we look at it anyway! Talk about meaningless symbolism.

We’ll have to keep moshing through these delusions for some years to come. If the GFC of 08 proves to be the first act of a three act crash, then those issues will come to the fore. If not, we’ll have to wait for the global crash of 2017-19, for things to really be shaken out. But the dunces who think that nuclear is just another technology are living in a world of signs and wonders, drinking the kool-aid and eating the yellowcake.

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  • 1
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Wednesday, 19 August 2009 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    It’s not the opposition to renewable energy that shows old thinking, or lack of imagination — it’s the belief that nuclear energy is bound by the limits of the pathetic level of commitment we’ve made to it over past decades, as if aviation were to stop at the biplane.

    Remarkable how eloquently you can polemicise without the tedium of employing a single fact.

    Explain to us exactly how this chap is a dunce, Mr Rundle, and then I might take you seriously.

    Though I dips me lid for your honesty in acknowledging your deeper, Marxist motivation.

  • 2
    TheOtherMichaelT
    Posted Wednesday, 19 August 2009 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Holy Cow, someone should quickly warn France that their country is about to become a fascist “red in tooth” state due to their 87.5% total reliance on nuclear power!

    Talk about delusional rantings….probably the most worthless article i’ve ever read, on any topic.

  • 3
    Evan Beaver
    Posted Wednesday, 19 August 2009 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Ahhh, great to see 2 disagreers in the first 2 comments.

    I thought it was a great article and summarises fairly succinctly (but perhaps with a bit of exaggeration) the manifold problems with nuclear, particularly in Australia.

    Mark, what are you on about? World wide, nuclear energy has had absolute bucket loads of money thrown into it, mostly subsidised through the screen of the military. You want the bomb? Gotta have a nuclear power industry to support it. Then military dollars subsidise the development, enormously, and push the research along nicely.

    Fortunately this has come full circle now and the US have decided that all of their military bases need to be energy secure. Not for GHG reduction, but for the energy security side of the argument. We should see some terrific developments in renewables funded through this program, as the development of fuel cells before it can attest.

    The Other Michael, you’ve almost answered your own quesiton here. Yes France has tonnes of nuclear power, but it all exists in an enormous state controlled sealed facility, heavily subsidised by the Government. It’s an economy of scales decision; you can’t dip a toe into nuclear power, and the French jumped in head first.

    My question is this Guy; why did you use thanatophilia rather than necrophelia? What’s the difference?

  • 4
    The Zebras
    Posted Wednesday, 19 August 2009 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Rundle - even when he’s talking shit he’s awesome but he’s really dropped a bollock on this one. Burning fossil fuels isn’t physics it’s chemistry?? Hee Hee. Science and technology are obviously not one of Guy’s strong points. I suggest he stick to the US health care debate where he is far more convincing. Rememer we only have a few decades to completely turn shit around and bi-plane to A380 took 100 years. We just haven’t got that long. To think that renewables alone can replace current power sources in that time frame is a f#cking fantasy Guy! A fast track to when co2 free renewable energy provides 100% of our energy must be our goal, but in the meantime we’re gunna have to eat a bowl of shit on this one and accept that we blew our chance and make nuclear part of the equation. Wind doesn’t vote green and uranium doesn’t vote conservative - they both just don’t emit co2 and that’s all that matters.

  • 5
    Frank Campbell
    Posted Wednesday, 19 August 2009 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    You should investigate wind power, Guy. It delivers a piddling amount of very expensive electricity at the wrong times (i.e. not peak demand, due to continental high pressure cells). No base-load generation is displaced: conventional power stations have to keep running. Typically wind turbines manage less than 20% of rated capacity (the spivs claim 30-35%).
    But wind turbines do deliver a great deal of pain. The carpet-baggers who spruik them never mention infra-sound, which literally drives some people mad. It is inescapable. The blades spin at nearly 300kph, slaughtering raptors and bats. The countryside is industrialised. No one in their right mind would live anywhere near them, including you, Guy. Property prices fall sharply. Intense hatreds develop between the mass of losers and the handful of rentiers. Jobs vanish in the bush as disinvestment accelerates.
    Urban greens contemptuously dismiss this misery as Nimbyism.
    The political fallout is yet more impetus for nuclear power, which would be a real disaster.
    There are many promising renewable-energy technologies, none of which generate controversy. Domestic solar, while still expensive, has the merit of reducing demand. For the price of three large useless windfarms, every house in Victoria could have solar panels. This would cut power consumption sharply and render new power stations unnecessary. In western Europe, heavy investment in wind has not reduced carbon emissions one scrap, and new power stations are still being built.

  • 6
    John Bennetts
    Posted Wednesday, 19 August 2009 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Solar thermal? Photovoltaic? Wave power? Geothermal? Microbes eating plankton and producing oil substitutes? Tidal? Wind? Coal? Coal bed methane?… who cares?

    They all have major problems when used to produce electricity or liquid fuel at the scales demanded by human societies.

    Unable to contemplate that humanity’s consumption is inevitably going to cripple the world in one or another way for all species, we plunge forward.

    Nice work, Guy. Got ‘em talking!

  • 7
    Barry Brook
    Posted Wednesday, 19 August 2009 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Unfortunately, it would take many essays of this length to point out the flaws and fallacies in Rundle’s polemic. Fortunately, I and other ‘promethean environmentalists’ have been taking the time and effort to do just that, with no reward other than it’s the right thing to do.

    I thank Mark Duffett for linking to my website. You can find out more by specifically heading to this category: http://bravenewclimate.com/category/nuclear-energy/

    My position is one of a researcher of the impacts of climate climate, and one who has considered, from a scientific and logical perspective, the best chances we have to decarbonise our energy system within the next 40 years or so and avoid the worst consequences of global warming. In that assessment, nuclear fission power comes out as our best (not only, but top ranked) solution, and can supply sustainable energy for millions of years into the future.

  • 8
    Adam Dale
    Posted Wednesday, 19 August 2009 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Just as there is no one answer now for energy, with Coal, Gas, Oil, Nuclear etc. there will be no one answer in 10 or 20 or 30 years time. We will still have to use a number of different sources to meet our current and growing needs.
    Wind as the comments say, is fickle, unreliable in the extreme. Solar is better, but again not going to supply our countries growing energy needs.
    And anything we decide to do will have a negative impact, it is impossible to please everyone. But that negative impact cannot be to simply provide less of what is required, and hope people and industry will get used to it.
    So we need to focus on what is required, now.
    Reduction of CO2, limited impact on the environment, long term reliability and supply, potential future replacement for current fossil fuels.
    I agree that renewables, given the time (and remember there are organisations pumping hundreds of millions into the development of this technology… it is not second rate now for lack of funding) will play a small but contributing part.
    But right now, and for the foreseeable future, Nuclear Power is the only power able to tick most of the boxes… and managed rightly with the requisite checks and balances, it may check them all.
    Is it as green as a wind farm slaughtering raptors and bats? No; A tidal generation system killing Nemo and his buddies? Probably not;
    But can it be managed? Yes.

  • 9
    Evan Beaver
    Posted Wednesday, 19 August 2009 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    I think calling it ‘sustainable’ is a bit of a stretch Barry. ‘Low Carbon’, yes, but sustainable, no. The waste is a huge issue, technically and politically.

    Also, I very much doubt the Australian voter will swallow it. They just won’t vote for reactors in their neighbourhood. Lots of people don’t even want wind, and they can’t blow up and destroy half the countryside. (Which may or may not be true, but lots of people think that is the case).

    Adam, you might be right about nuclear being the best long term option, but it is exactly that. A long term option. Not short term as we require. I also think your statement that there’s hundreds of thousands of dollars being pumped into renewables right now is a bit generous. Maybe overseas, but not here. The Howard Government made sure of that.

  • 10
    The Zebras
    Posted Wednesday, 19 August 2009 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Evan Beaver - “France has tonnes of nuclear power, but it all exists in an enormous state controlled sealed facility”

    Who cares? France’s per capita carbon emissions are 0.33 of ours and it’s not because they don’t have showers. That’s 3 times less than us and people say nuclear has nothing to offer!

  • 11
    Posted Wednesday, 19 August 2009 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    Evan, given that there is sufficient uranium and thorium to power our civilisation for millions of years, and that the small volume of waste it produces will only need to be managed for 300 years (not 10,000 or 100,000 years), I don’t see any problem with calling nuclear power ‘sustainable’. I’d encourage you to read my website to find out why this is the case - it might surprise you.

  • 12
    Posted Wednesday, 19 August 2009 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Also Evan, how exactly do you propose a nuclear reactor could ‘blow up and destroy half the countryside)? As you hint, it’s not true, unless you wish to dispense with the laws of physics, and people just need to be educated on the matter. From my conversations recently, the vast majority of folks are very open to learning more and to taking a rational approach to this matter.

  • 13
    Michael James
    Posted Wednesday, 19 August 2009 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    There is simply no reasoning with the likes of bloggers Adam Dale (5.01pm ), Frank Campbell (4.37pm) or Zebras (3:44 pm) . Jim Green in today’s Crikey very effectively demolishes all the arguments of Howes. As he points out, and as I have said earlier [http://www.crikey.com.au/Politics/20090305-Costellos-foolish-flirtation-with-nuclear-power.html#comments] nuclear power fails in the specific Australian context on political, economic and time-to-implement criteria without even worrying about toxic waste or NIMBY issues (which is not to say that those issues would not kill it anyway). Switkowski’s own report says the same when read dispassionately.

    The other more important argument in the Australian context is that for a tiny little country with limited capital and human resources to throw at large problems, we should invest in something that is an industry of the future rather than an industry of the past (and dominated by much bigger countries with four decades lead time advantage; interestingly France leads in both nuclear and CCS industries but then they actually did some rational planning decades ago). In the 15 to 20 years it would take to create a nuclear power industry in Australia (read my earlier article) are Frank, Adam and Z so pessimistic that they honestly believe a combination of wind, solar-thermal, geothermal and eventually solar-PV are not going to become cost competitive? Especially if they got anything like the capital that nuclear would require—and which involves essentially importing the technology. Frank is effectively saying that Germany, Denmark, Spain and the United States (and oil billionaire T.Boone Pickens) are fools for investing so heavily in windpower. He’s got to get his head out of whatever dark hole it is buried in. And somehow he, like all the fossils advocating business-as-usual with fossil or nuclear fuels, ignores the billions in subsidies every year. Why on earth are we subsidizing coal and especially dirty brown coal? Pure political capture and idiocy. Now you are advocating doing the same for nuclear. Are Australians even capable of thinking of something abut the future that doesn’t exist in fully mature form right now?

  • 14
    Julius
    Posted Wednesday, 19 August 2009 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    Michael James: you are just the latest of many who talk of “subsidies” to the fossil fuel industry. In your case “billions… every year” no less. Would you or someone please spell this out? I would have thought that the fossil fuel industries are subsidising all of us with exports of coal (about half our total production), exports of LNG etc. since the companies which do the production and export pay taxes.

    You are also one who seems to think there is an economic problem for Australia using nuclear power apart from the main one which is that, though much cheaper than renewables, it is much more expensive than burning fossil fuels. The fact that countries like France (and Canada and others) got into the business of building nuclear power plants much earlier is not a disadvantage for us. It could well be a big advantage if we could invite competitive tenders from engineering companies which have ironed out the bugs in other countries and will sell their products to us for the usual competitive markups that would apply to any company with the expertise and the need to beat the competition. We might even enjoy loss leaders for our first nuclear plants.

  • 15
    Frank Campbell
    Posted Wednesday, 19 August 2009 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    Michael: I don’t ignore the subsidies, de facto and otherwise, that fossil fuel power-gen gets. Given that I specifically called for an expansion in non-wind renewables, you assumption is gratuitous. As for the intelligent investors in Denmark, and Pickens, you should get up to date. Many Danes and Germans now realise that wind was an ‘expensive mistake’ to quote the chairman of the Danish Parlt’s energy committee. But huge subsidies were made available, not to mention forced purchases of power (as here). That’s why I refer to carpetbaggers. I know the wind “industry” well. A sleazy, lying, rapacious pack of ratbags grabbing at the public tit. Never stand between an arsehole and a bucket of money. The ‘investment” in wind is an artificial creation, a political decision. It has nothing to do with economies of scale (windfarms are already enormous) and everything to do with political expediency.

    You don’t seem to realise how much harm this is doing to the cause of renewables.

  • 16
    Julius
    Posted Wednesday, 19 August 2009 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

    Well said about wind farms Frank Campbell. They are an economic and an environmental blight on the countries they infest.

  • 17
    Guy Rundle
    Posted Wednesday, 19 August 2009 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    evan - necrophilia is love of the dead (ie corporeal decay). thanatophlia is love of death, as a force.

    the zebras - yeah uh the chemistry/physics thing was by way of being a reflection on the dominant scientific level at which an encounter with nature occurs. the manipulation of petrol, coal etc is overwhelmingly at the level of the chemical in terms of transforming them for use, ie at the level of composed substances. nuclear power reaches into the atom and explicitly transforms matter through sub-atomic manipulation, hence the sub-chemical level. It’s a way of pointing out the qualitatively different nature of nuclear power.

    do try to keep up. tee hee hee.

    as to wind turbines i sympathise. but why cant we put one small one on each house, and 10,000 of them in bass strait? bit of imagination please.

  • 18
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Wednesday, 19 August 2009 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    Guy, putting an answer to your question as simply as I can: lots of little machines (as opposed to a few big central facilities) = lots more moving parts = lots more maintenance and breakdowns = lots more inefficiency = FAIL. So, sorry, but your socialist utopia is at odds with basic engineering principles.

    But, I repeat, what I’d really like to see is for you (and Jim Green) to seriously engage with Barry Brook. If you can.

  • 19
    Evan Beaver
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    I love the way that everyone is arguing assuming that everyone else is ignoring the facts, and eventually the scales will fall from their eyes.

    Firstly, wind farms, receive ZERO subsidies in Australia. Not a cent. They are economically viable in a lot of places.

    The subsidies for coal are through Government innovation programs primarily at the moment, trying to get Clean Coal up to speed. The Govt are panicking about losing coal exports and figure that researching the solution to maintaining business as usual is a reasonable investment.

    Barry, I don’t think a nuke will blow up, and have a very good understanding of the physics and material science behind them. However, it would be a ridiculously large education job and frankly I just don’t think it will happen. It will become a political issue, and the nonsense, from both sides of the argument, will be impossible to control. Leaving all technicalities aside, I subjectively think the australian public just won’t vote for a nuclear solution. You may be well over 100% right about the technicalities, but I just can’t see the politics lining up.

    And Mark, you’re mostly right about turbines on rooves. Further, the boundary layer effect is a debacle over residential areas, and turbine power is related to the square of the turbine size. So bigger=better for wind turbines.

    Frank, you’ve clearly got a barrow to push with wind turbines and sure, that your prerogative. Fact is, energy retailers are signing power purchase agreements with wind farms all over the country, and this is before the introduction of the CPRS and with RECs at pretty low prices. Your assertion that their supply curve doesn’t match the demand curve is fairly faulty as well, but I’d loe to see a reference if you think otherwise. Most residential demand is in the afternoon in winter and summer, through to about 10pm. The wind blows hardest in the afternoon as the thermal gradients start to heat up. Seems a good match to me.

    Also, all you renewables doubters, you really need to catch up on energy storage technology. There’s a few Gigs already in the East-Coast grid (pumped hydro) and plenty of projects in the pipeline for ‘base load’ renewables with fancy batteries. It’s not that hard.

  • 20
    TheOtherMichaelT
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Nice to see that the discourse here isn’t at a 3rd grade level like the actual article.

    But people, do you seriously believe that the future of power is from wind power, and not harnessing the almost infinite energy that is locked up in the basic structures of the universe? Please. You can’t argue with E=MC2.

    And seriously, if anyone actually cared about global warming/climate change, then you’d be all over nuclear energy as a replacement, you know, as we’re all about to perish next week under water or something arent’ we? I can’t keep up with all the predictions.

    Well that last point was a little provocative, but i’ve not had my coffee yet.

  • 21
    Evan Beaver
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Come on Michael, apply your logic one step further. “Basic structures of the universe”? The sun, powers wind and solar technology, with far lower technical and health risk. If you’re using this argument you’re pretty blinkered against renewables.

    Also, the assertion that ‘if you’re serious about climate change then you must be behind nuclear’ is patently false. If we’re going to avoid the worst effects of CC we need to act NOW. Carbon payback, even by generous estimates, is 10 years on a nuke plant. Add 10 years to build it and it’s difficult to see how this helps at all.

  • 22
    TheOtherMichaelT
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Fair enough on the renewables, i don’t know enough about that topic and it’s effeciency etc, but that’s not taking the logic one step further. “Basic structures of the universe” referred to the energy that can be released from a small amount of material with nuclear fission, or better yet, fusion. It has nothing to do with solar power.

    Though i always wondered as a child why we don’t just cover the entire outback with solar cells and live off of that. I hear it’s pretty hot and sunny out there.

  • 23
    Evan Beaver
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Transmission costs are the reason. They’re a big problem for the awesome geothermal field in the desert also. $1.2M per kilometre for high voltage transmission lines, either DC or AC come in at about the same cost.

    Keith Lovegrove, solar boffin from ANU has calculated that, even allowing for average capacity factors and efficiency we could meet all of Australia’s energy needs with a 138x138 km solar array (probably thermal). There’d need to be some awesome storage technology linked to that, but it’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. There are no engineering problems in the way, only cost.

  • 24
    Frank Campbell
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Guy: domestic wind turbines (there are several near my place) barely light a lightbulb. That light goes off when the wind stops. It’s a fun green accessory. A symbol. As are the big ones, without the fun. Also Mark is right about maintenance. Lots of moving parts. Exactly the same problem the big ones have. They fail frequently as they age. Fire is the real threat in this country, yet it gets not a mention. There have already been two fires in South Australia. At 120 metres, the turbines are too high for firefighters. Each turbine holds 400 litres of oil. Burning debris falls and ignites the grass etc. Most turbines in Aust. have been and will be built in the areas of greatest fire risk, notably western and central Victoria. If a Black Saturday is caused by wind turbines, expect a truly savage reaction. Genitalia will hit the fan. You read it here first.

    As for 10,000 turbines in Bass Strait, the problem is offshore turbines are far more expensive to build and maintain. Also power is lost because of distance from the grid. It’s also shitty news for migratory birds. Much thoughtless “Green” energy development damages the environment.

    But I’m touched by your “sympathy”. Tea will no doubt follow. I know it’s a 10th order issue for you Guy (and the rest of the urban population), but investigate wind. Then get back to us.

    Evan: With John MacEnroe I can only bellow “you cannot be serious!” about ‘zero’ subsibies for wind: it costs 3 times as much and power companies are forced to buy it. The consumer is paying the subsidy. If wind gets to20% of total generating capacity (it won’t here) as in Denmark, then expect power prices to soar. Denmark has the 2nd highest power prices in Europe, even though the tiny amount of power they generate is simply flogged off cheap to the Eurogrid when the wind does blow. Australia has nowhere to sell off excess power- wind power can’t be stored, remember.

    Then there are the disguised subsidies from govt.

    The absurdity of windpower is a stick which the Neanderthal Right uses to beat renewables- and greens.

  • 25
    Evan Beaver
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    You really do have a barrow to push Frank don’t you. The passion in your statements makes it obvious. The flaws more so.

    You’re arguing that wind turbines are too complex and so shouldn’t be supported? Ever seen a (heat exchange) circuit diagram of a nuclear power plant? Ever had a look through a coal fired plant? The complexity argument is school kid stuff.

    Your definition of a subsidy and mine are quite at odds. Firstly, the RET bill hasn’t even passed yet. Second, the Government doesn’t, and hasn’t for a while, give any money directly to wind farm installers. Look through the budget papers for program specs if you doubt me.

    3 times as much? A reference please? More like 20% more in my experience (cost to grid) and I’ve helped sign a few power purchase agreements.

  • 26
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Pre-caffeine it may have been, but TOMT’s point (9:12 am) is a good one: If we were truly fair dinkum about climate change as an emergency, there’s no way it needs to take 10 years to build a nuclear power plant. Several, in fact. I’d love to see some numbers crunched on how many reactors could be built for the same price as a 138 x 138 km solar array + storage.

    Evan: you don’t have an interest to declare here, do you? Just wondering.

  • 27
    Michael James
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Frank Campbell, TOMT, Z et al.
    Pop quiz: what source of power doesn’t come out of the ground, doesn’t burn and isn’t radioactive? Hint: it contributed the most new electricity generation to the U.S. grid in 2008. (Answer in a later post.)

    Guy is right. Victoria burns the dirtiest fossil fuel known (well perhaps Canada’s tar sands are worse) despite Australia having the best quality and cheapest black coal in the world. But of course it is from Queensland or NSW so in our wonderful disfunctional way, we destroy the environment from petty state rivalries.
    Victoria has some of the best wind resources in Australia in Bass Strait. In such situations the bigger 3.6 MW turbines can be used which is 50% more than land-based and they run much more of the time. If Vic built Guy’s 10,000 they would have 36 GW which is actually more than all of Australia’s current electricity direct consumption! So Guy you made a terrible blunder, they only need about 1,000 to satisfy Victoria’s future power needs for years to come. The capital costs are approx. $4M per turbine (3.6MW) plus costs of the grid (but remember there is already a large capacity trans-Bass-Strait cable). So it could be about $5B, but heck let’s say $10B. Do you guys think this is too much? Do you think it will bankrupt the country? If you do, please tell me how much that new dirty-brown coal station near Mildura is going to cost (with about $250M combined fed+state SUBSIDIES, Julius) and how much power is it going to deliver?

  • 28
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    Ah, if you want to talk about petty state rivalries…

    Victoria has some of the best wind resources in Australia in Bass Strait.” Actually, if they’re in Bass Strait, they’re probably Tasmania’s. Basically you can see the boundary from Wilsons Promontory.

    More seriously, anyone equating nameplate turbine capacity with current (in both senses) consumption is talking through their hat. Unless you can engineer a way to stop high pressure systems parking themselves over south-eastern Australia for days at a time.

  • 29
    Evan Beaver
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    Interest to declare, I’ve given that some thought actually.

    Currently I work for the Government on renewables. I’m impartial politically.

    I’m a mech engineer by trade, but it’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem. Do I support renewables because I’m trained in them, or did I get trained in them because I think it’s the right thing to do? More of the latter than the former I think. In any case, I won’t make any extra money with either solution, being a mechE means I can do pretty much anything. I certainly don’t have any investments that are going to go either way. Can’t with the Govt anyway.

  • 30
    Evan Beaver
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    The high pressure system is a bit of a problem; I would always advocate a diversified generation portfolio in any case. However, when there’s a HP system, we also get clear skies, so solar output will be awesome.

    I think too that people get carried away with the finality of the whole debate. We’re not going to ever power the whole country by one energy source. Also, to make the recommended reduction targets we don’t need to anyway.

    I’ve said before, 40% renewables will probably solve the problem. Lets make half of those straight out intermittent. The other half feeding a big pumped hydro or other storage facility. replace all brown coal with peaking gas and we’re there. Done. Probably only cost $15B. Also note there are some very cool despatchable renewable techs on the horizon; check out CSIRO’s ‘syngas’ technology, which stores solar energy in gas by reforming methane (nat gas) to a higher calorie product (a mixture of H2 and some other stuff) which can be burnt through a standard gas turbine later. Imagine a huge solar facility in the desert (there’s a big gas field at Moombah) creating higher calorie gas which can be burnt later, anywhere, any time. This doesn’t need to be a one technology argument. But, I think with the scale required to make nukes cost effective (need to share all the ancillary equipment) you will effectively close out large sections of the market.

  • 31
    Michael James
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Answer to pop quiz: Windpower accounted for 42% of new electrical generation added to the grid in the United States last year.

    Supplemental question: how much new capacity has been added by nuclear power in the USA in the same period (or in fact the previous decade)?

    Now ok, you guys will always find things to carp about. The total windpower added is still pretty small relative to total requirements. But no one is supposing that windpower or any one source of renewable power should be either the sole source or a majority source but it remains inexplicable why you are so locked into old dirty energy sources that are only considered cheap because of false accounting/subsidies etc. I do not necessarily accept all the details but here is a CSIRO/UTS report that suggest renewables may well be less expensive. http://igrid.net.au/node/182

  • 32
    Michael James
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    (I am reposting this without the weblink to avoid delays in moderation.)
    Answer to pop quiz: Windpower accounted for 42% of new electrical generation added to the grid in the United States last year.

    Supplemental question: how much new capacity has been added by nuclear power in the USA in the same period (or in fact the previous decade)?

    Now ok, you guys will always find things to carp about. The total windpower added is still pretty small relative to total requirements. But no one is supposing that windpower or any one source of renewable power should be either the sole source or a majority source but it remains inexplicable why you are so locked into old dirty energy sources that are only considered cheap because of false accounting/subsidies etc. I do not necessarily accept all the details but here is a CSIRO/UTS report that suggest renewables may well be less expensive

  • 33
    Guy Rundle
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Mark

    Interesting about the moving parts thing. Recently a poll was taken on the most liberating machine of the 20th century. One answer was the domestic washer and dryer, which replaced both mass laundries and handwashing. But imagine what you would have said on its introduction - all those parts! all widely distributed! bound to be an epic fail. amazingly, not.

    What strikes most of us about the pro-nuclear comments on this thread is their utter lack of imagination and sense of possibility - their determination to judge renewable tech by its current underinvested state.

  • 34
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Guy@1:58 pm

    What’s that line of FDOTM’s? ‘This is so stupid I have gone blind.’

    There’s a rather large difference - like many, many orders of magnitude - between pushing around cartloads of textiles and pushing electrons. And that’s only considering mass.

    As for lack of imagination - well, you’re free to imagine a new set of laws of physics if you want. But here in reality, the laws of physics we’re stuck with enforce real constraints on how much it’s practical to do with renewable energy.

    Finally I maintain that nuclear power technology has also been seriously underinvested since around 1970 (Evan’s comment @ 3:07pm notwithstanding; I think you’ll find the bomb came before the power generation, not the other way around).

  • 35
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Oh, and the failure of anyone here to engage substantively with Barry Brook is duly noted.

  • 36
    Julius
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Michael James: you airily refer to a brown coal power project at or near Mildura which you say is receiving combined federal and state (which state?) subsidies of 4250 million. None of this rings true. re you sure you are not thinking of the solar thermal project announced under the Howard government for which the subsidies would indeed be huge? And where may I check those subsidy figures? What are the details of the subsidies, both amunts and means of subsidising?

    Also Evan Beaver: you seem to have a limited view of what logically constitutes as subsidy for the purpose of a discussioin like this. It is like the various forms of trade protection. If a customer is forced to buy a certain amount or proportion of a product or service so that he can be charged an inflated price that is clearly a means of subsidising the recipient of the excessive price. Renewables are heavily subsidised in this way and it is proposed to add to the subsidies by requiring 20 per cent of electricity to be sourced from renewables.

  • 37
    Evan Beaver
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you Julius, but that hasn’t happened yet. The bill hasn’t passed the senate. The current MRET went from 12% of total to 8% of total generation up to today. This is not far in front of voluntary contribution. Also note this is all renewables, and wind is 4th on this list, after bagasse, hydro and wood waste. Sure, this equals a small market distortion/subsidy, but really, to imply that wind is ‘heavily subsidised’ stretches the truth considerably.

    All these figures can be checked through the ABARE website for the pedants.

  • 38
    Evan Beaver
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    I’ll have a crack at Barry’s stuff later, but I don’t remember seeing anything compelling.

  • 39
    Evan Beaver
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    At a first pass I don’t see anything new in there that addresses the critical problems.

    1. It is political suicide. Educate as many people as you want but the misinformation campaign by the other side will be more than ample to put people off. Remember the nonsense that came out with the republic debate? What about DLS time in WA?

    2. It’s too slow. Sure, we COULD build a reactor in lets say 3 years. But the approval time would be diabolical. Have a look at how the pulp mill has played out. Add 10 years before carbon equivalence of the embedded energy is met and we’re miles behind the game.

    3. Waste. Sure, it’s only 300 years, but find me a region that is not only geologically stable over that time, but also politically stable over this time and you’ll see we have a problem. Add to this the refining, mining and supply chain and there are a lot of holes in the system.

    Over all I think it’s a pointlessly stupid overly complex solution. Wind, solar, wave, hydro, geothermal, you just plug the thing and walk away. No fuel supply problems, no security risks, no emissions. Why do you want to make it so bloody complex?

  • 40
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    1. I never have liked the euphemistic use of ‘political’ to mean ‘irrational’, as in ‘that is a political decision’. Really don’t like the defeatism of it in this particular context. Taking this to its logical conclusion means nothing will ever change. If we can’t as a species make rational decisions collectively then we deserve to be extinct.

    2. Again, if we’re fair dinkum about climate change being a 1942, war footing-type emergency, regulations can be streamlined a great deal.

    3. Gawler Craton, South Australia. Geologically stable for the last 1500 million years, likely to remain so for hundreds of millions of years more, notable for historical lack of insurrections.

    I don’t especially want a complex energy solution. I just want something that works. In bulk. All the time.

  • 41
    Michael James
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    Quick Google only found this so far (and our system is about to close for maintenance..): this is not the one I was thinking about because I distinctly remember the Rudd gov is giving $125M which is matching the Vic State (all in the name of making these dirty brown coal plants clean by CCS……yeah, right).
    (this one is a mere $150M subsidy):
    Privately owned Australian company HRL has announced its intention to build a new 400 MW coal-fired power station alongside the Loy Yang Power station in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria. If it proceeds it will increase Australia’s greenhouse pollution by at least 2.5 million tonnes each year. The Victorian Government and the Howard Government backed the project pledging $150 million in subsidies towards this new coal-fired power station. The Rudd Government has shown no signs of withdrawing the $100 million of Federal Government support pledged by the Howard Government. Environment Victoria opposes the project as it will lead to increased emissions, and is more polluting than renewable energy or even gas-fired alternatives to a new coal-fired power station.

  • 42
    Evan Beaver
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    That’s a pretty dodgy ahh, dodge Mark. I don’t mean irrational, I just think people will not vote for it. It’s that simple. it is both the strength and flaw of democracy. Misinform enough people and nothing will every change. It’s not what I want, but most likely what will happen. Please recognise the difference, becaus it is also important in…

    2. Yes we COULD change. But we wont. The changes you suggest would be tantamount to a dictatorship. It could happen, but will not.

    3. Again, you dodge the political stability issue. I agree it is geologically stable, but the politics is important. If some lunatics, within 300 years, 50% longer than white settlement in Australia and roughly 6 times longer than the nuclear age, decide they want to dig up this outrageously poisonous waste they will know exactly where to go and what to do when they get there. Sure, you can make Synrock or something from the waste, but are you including that in your energy balance?

  • 43
    Julius
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    On subsidies, I haven’t yet learned anything about a brown coal fired power station near Mildura but I do understand that the subsidies being referred to are subsidies for development of methods of reducing CO2 emissions which does not justify the continual insinuations that coal fired electricity generation is only cheap because subsidised. The fact is that Australia’s current prosperity, relative and absolute, is a function of the cheapness of its coal fired electricity generation to a significant extent without any question of subsidy entering into the matter. So, thank goodness, Australia can carry on with the windy and worthy arguments about saving the planet, regardless of how ridiculous or sound the IPCC “consensus” science turns out to be, knowing that the only substantial effects on anything important that Australia can have through its policy, diplomacy or (laughably) “example” are on our own economy. We can make ourselves a lot less able to help poor people in our country or elsewhere, and pay for health care for the increasing retired population, by making gestures which greatly increase the cost of Australians using power. Some of the responses to the proposed incentives will be good of course, e.g. more and better insulation for one of the simplest, but the net result will be negative for us.

  • 44
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

    Politics goes on inside human minds. They can be changed. A generation ago the environment was nowhere as an issue. Two generations ago the White Australia policy had bipartisan support. The sea changed on both these issues very quickly. It can be done, no dictatorship required.

    On waste, an idea I’ve had recently is that there may be a certain synergy between nuclear and geothermal. Once the heat in a given rock volume is significantly diminished, it occurs to me that there could be a further use for those dozens of 4 km-deep production holes. They should accommodate spent fuel rods quite nicely. Might even extend the life of the geothermal production.

    They’d have to be extremely well organised lunatics to dig the stuff up from a depth of four kilometres.

  • 45
    Evan Beaver
    Posted Thursday, 20 August 2009 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

    Coincidentally most estimates place the geothermal resource in the 300 year range. The holes won’t be ready any time soon.

  • 46
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Friday, 21 August 2009 at 12:22 am | Permalink

    Global (as in whole-of-operation) resources might have that sort of capacity, but I’m pretty sure the useful life of individual production holes is measured in years; a few decades at most if the conditions are just right.

  • 47
    Frank Campbell
    Posted Friday, 21 August 2009 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Evan: Twice you refer to “the barrow” I’m pushing re wind turbines, and the evident “passion” about this minor matter, as if I were tourettic obsessive wearing an egg-stained cardigan and in need of a good rogering behind the shelter shed.
    Let’s assume wind isn’t a grossly subsidised technical failure and actually provided some decent base-load power. I’d be just as critical as I am now- because the imposition of wind turbines on defenceless rural districts has numerous bad effects. Why are there no wind turbines on the Otway coast? Because it’s the politicians’ coast. The first Victorian turbines were put on the coast near Portland: it won’t happen again. Too much opposition. So the attack is directed inland, where the wind “resource” is much weaker but the inhabitants are weaker still.

    People suffer. Their property falls sharply in value or is unsaleable. There are appalling problems with infrasound. There is no compensation. Their rentier neighbours get rich and move to the coast to escape their own turbines. Tourism declines. Internal migration ceases and with it imported capital. Birds and bats are slaughtered. Bushfires ignite. Pylons proliferate along with turbine towers. The countryside is industrialised. The planning process is farcical. There is no remedy or defence.

    Yet there are plans to put huge windfarms in unpopulated areas, notably the world’s largest west of Broken Hill. A colossal waste of capital, but if it is feasible out there and we can’t stop you, go right ahead, make our day.

    (Incidentally, that windfarm will require 160,000 tonnes of concrete just for the pads, based on the 40,000 used in the Waubra windfarm. So don’t imagine that windpower is clean ‘n green.)

    Not one contributor to this discussion has even mentioned social and environmental drawbacks to turbines. You either don’t care that your fellow-citizens suffer or you are blithely unaware.

    As for my property, it isn’t and won’t be threatened by wind turbines, but I’ve watched the disaster unfold within a 100km radius over five years. I can testify to the political damage done to the green movt. in the provinces. I’ve seen friends in anguish. And guess who cheers whenever a windfarm is announced? The vicious, feral rednecks who infest the bush. They don’t benefit, so why the delight? It’s something too subtle for the urban left to comprehend: rednecks want to control and ransack the bush. They ransack every day and every night, legally and illegally. They see turbines as symbols of domination over the environment. They’re right.

    So there’s the barrow, Evan. It’s human rights and the environment. I supported turbines when I was ignorant about them. Since then I’ve had death threats, bomb threats, arson threats, verbal abuse etc, just like many others Out Here, far from the pulsating magnetic field of Daylesford and its satellite, Melbourne. Think Wake in Fright (1971) and Deliverance (1976). Think smart-arse commentators ramming things up other people’s arses and crusading politicians pretending to save the planet.

    Guy: It’s hardly worth commenting on your analogy between the moving parts of domestic appliances and wind turbines. My point is simply that over the 25 year life of wind turbines, they are expensive to maintain. There are frequent breakdowns. These and many other costs are never considered by proponents of wind energy.

    I look forward to the fruits of your research into windpower.

  • 48
    Evan Beaver
    Posted Friday, 21 August 2009 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Well, you’ve proven my point nicely Frank, albeit wordily. All of the criticisms you raise could be levelled at coal, nuclear or gas very easily. ‘Industrialise the country side’ my ahse. Also, not sure about your cardigan wearing imagery. That was a little off topic?

    I know very well the resources required to make a turbine and yes, it does use resources. Name me one generation form that doesn’t? Big numbers don’t scare me, it’s all about energy and CO2 payback time. Wind is miles in front of the low carbon alternatives.

    Your concerns are valid, although they are a little bit exagerated. You’ve also done something that annoys me deeply; taken potshots at something rather than comparing it to the alternative. A problem that must be solved has been identified (low carbon electricity generation). Sure, wind turbines annoy a few people; equal or greater numbers actually like them. But, the criticisms you raise apply equally to all generation forms, save possibly solar. Live next to a coal mine? Down go property prices. Build a nuclear plant and watch the people move away. Coal and uranium mining destroy habitat, arguably killing more wildlife than turbines.

    Your passion is duly noted. Lots of people disagree with you. Keep pushing that barrow and contributing to the debate. We live in a democracy and it is your responsibility to be heard, but no one else’s responsibility to agree with you.

  • 49
    Frank Campbell
    Posted Friday, 21 August 2009 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think you comprehend the scale of large windfarms Evan: hundreds of square kilometres. The “footprint”, to use the current cant word, is vast. Go and see for yourself.

    As for exaggeration, you haven’t specified just what is “exaggerated”. And I’ve been reading for years now exactly your form of words: “windfarms annoy a few people, others actually like them”. You should research the social and psychological impacts. This dismissive, airy response is patronising. Those who “like” wind turbines don’t live amongst them.

    You refer to “democracy”: it’s a sham democracy that permits people’s rights to be trashed. And you continue to patronise me with reference to barrow-pushing. No wonder so much political damage is being to environmentalism when real concerns are dismissed with put-downs like that. Treat people’s suffering with respect Evan, even if you choose to do nothing about it.

  • 50
    Evan Beaver
    Posted Friday, 21 August 2009 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Frank I HAVE researched them and I can comprehend the scale. I’m a renewable energy engineer for christ’s sake. I thoroughly disagree with your review of the situation though. I know in great detail about the impacts on birds, flicker effects and noise disturbance. And in my judgement I believe these impacts to be far less than the alternatives.

    I’m not trying to patronise you Frank, just point out that your view of wind turbines is more emotionally charged than mine. You don’t like them. Fine. I do. I would happily live near a wind farm, however I don’t think the threat is that great in central Canberra. I love the idea of this ‘appliance’ you essentially plug in and make power from simply and with relatively low impact. It would make me happy on windy days (which I generally despise, terrible weather for climbing) to look out the window and see the enormous blades churning out kWh. I would put even a small inefficient one on the roof of my house if planning laws allowed it. Further, I think they are heaps better than the alternatives. Solar is relatively expensive and hugely energy intensive. Hydro is no longer an environmental solution above 25MW, my objections to nuclear are detailed greatly above. You’re not going to convince me to change my mind either. At this stage of the game, we need to reduce CO2 emissions as quickly and cheaply as possible. Wind is the most mature and reliable of the options. That doesn’t mean you need one in your house, but we should build as many as poossible. Your concerns about people suffering are valid, but there is a middle ground between ruining people’s lives and not installing turbines.

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