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Nov 17, 2009

A radioactive issue for the Coalition?

Why has Ian Macfarlane completely reversed his opinion on Carbon Capture and Storage -- from such a strong advocate of the when in government to his recent denunciation on Four Corners? asks Michael James.

It is understandable that the media has focused on the Coalition political shambles revealed by, and arising from, last week’s ABC Four Corners program, but it was not the most surprising thing. We all know Barnaby Joyce is loopy about the ETS and that the Liberals harbour some out and out climate deniers, even if Nick Minchin’s performance was exceptional in the depth of the damage he inflicted on his leader’s credibility, and in torpedoing his party’s negotiation with the government.

None of this was a surprise though it may make it moot to discuss the CPRS and the current state of play of the politics. Penny Wong’s concession on the weekend to the farmers is yet another abnegation of responsible consideration of the third largest source of greenhouse gas in Australia. As Bernard Keane said in his cri de coeur (Take your CPRS and shove it, yesterday, item 3) between the timid government and obstructionist opposition the CPRS has become worse than a joke.

Notwithstanding all that, the most surprising revelation was that Ian Macfarlane, Shadow Minister responsible for the negotiations with government, has unambiguously declared he no longer believes that Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) will solve Australia’s coal problem. This author recently wrote that it was almost unimaginable that Macfarlane (or Martin Ferguson, Energy Minister) would ever accept the hard facts about Clean Coal. I am happy to give him a genuine apology for my misjudgement.

But (well, of course) a few points.

First, he did not make clear why he has completely reversed his opinion on this, from such a strong advocate of the Clean Coal solution when in government and until recently to such an irretrievable refutation. He said:

The reality is that you are not going to see another coal-fired power station built in Australia. (…) That concept (CCS) will not materialise for 20 years and probably never.

Presumably a significant factor was the very frank report by the Global CCS Institute report, which Crikey explained stated “a viable business case for commercial scale, integrated projects has not been established at this time for coal-fired power generation and other large CO2-emitting industries”. The scientific, technical, timing and commercial facts are irrefutable that CCS will not be viable until 2030-2040 at the earliest. The government-sponsored analysis could not have reported otherwise without losing international credibility.

Second, it is not clear why Macfarlane chose this time to make such an admission that has wide-ranging implications for any serious CO2 abatement strategy. The sunny view is that this could aid the painful acceptance in Australia that we should turn to alternative energy sources, such as solar, wind and geothermal.

Of course, Macfarlane is not in power and it is notable that so far, 18 days after the report’s official release, there has been no government response and it may be too much to hope that they will come as clean on Clean Coal. There have, however, been significant — if long overdue — federal grants to support geothermal and wave power. Announcing these grants Martin Ferguson said he placed the same level of importance on geothermal as CCS, which is at least progress.

So far so good. For a change there are a few slivers of appropriate action or reality reassessment by government and opposition. As Tony Kevin said yesterday (The Australian climate movement needs to take a good, hard look at itself, yesterday, item 16) the government needs to start “with serious and unbiased R&D into how the different forms of alternative energy might be rapidly integrated into a dependable, emissions-free national grid”.

Feasibly the Liberals may also be fashioning an energy policy to differentiate themselves from the government. The other favourite of the fossil fuel lobby is gas but while it is a lot cleaner than coal, it is still a heavy emitter of greenhouse gas and is considerably more expensive than existing coal-fired plants. Those coal generators cannot be retrofitted to burn gas so it would still require massive new capital expenditure. It is also more expensive, which again leads back to the only rational options: renewable energy sources.

Except for one other highly contentious option. Ziggy Switkowski was spruiking it again, most likely in reaction to last week’s UK government’s announcement to fast-track 10 new nuclear reactors. Add to that Malcolm Turnbull’s recent visit there, and it would come as no surprise if the Liberals were considering a commitment to revisit nuclear power. As politically risky as that might seem, it may just possibly help mollify his fracturing party with a halfway plausible energy and climate strategy. Or not.

On the other hand, as we have discussed previously an honest report on nuclear power would be not much better than the report on CCS. Many have already reacted in disbelief to the UK claim to build their planned reactors in a mere eight years compared to the 15 years it took to build the last one (begun 1981, finished 1995). For an opposition that is mired in irreconcilable differences, the nuclear option (energy policy not coalition party politics) involves mere rhetoric — a pretence at a solution with no foreseeable action until the far future. Perfect policy for denialists.

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12 thoughts on “A radioactive issue for the Coalition?

  1. Dennis O'Neill

    An honest report on nuclear power may not be much better than a report on CCS but it would be an improvement on the policy and public discussion censorship now dominating the baseload energy space in Australia.

    Neil James is surely disingenuous at best, if not misleading, by referring to nuclear build experiences of the 1970s and 1980s in the US and the UK and for not allowing the possibility for more enlightened and standardised licensing and regulatory frameworks.

    Yes we have an Anglo background and US and UK experience tends to influence policy outcomes here more than French experience. But it need not be the case for new nuclear. Let us observe over the next few years how the Finns, the Italians, the Poles and others implement their new nuclear aspirations. We could learn something about approvals processes and, indeed, why democracies elect governments, not judicial systems, to make and implement policy.

    If nuclear was fine only up to the 1970s, as James asserts, why then is only one country among the G20 turning its back on nuclear as a viable contributor to a lower carbon baseload generation – Australia? Indeed several G20 countries have reversed their nuclear hiatus.

    Let’s face some technical and financial realities. Intermittent renewable sources of generation cannot meet new or replacement baseload demand without industrial scale technical breakthroughs – none of which would be bankable initially. That is they would not meet commercial banking risk criteria for debt financing. Thus solar, wave and hot dry geothermal sources (or CCS) will require a ramp up period, maybe as much as 10+ years to satisfy commercial risk criteria, after the technical breakthroughs. We are not talking about 2-5 year retail technology uptake here, such as for mobile phones, IPods or DVDs.

    Wind power’s contribution is technically limited by grid stability issues so a Plan B in the event of CCS failure is required. In any case intermittent renewables like wind need back-up sources. Danish wind is actually backed by German nuclear – lol.

    Despite their high capital costs, nuclear plants are bankable today, albeit with government uninsurable risk support. There is sufficient operating experience to satisfactorily quantify technical, operational and financial risks. A number of countries, thank goodness, have not copied US licensing frameworks and can build them in about 5 years. A good starting place is where current power stations are located not least because of the sunk investment in transmission infrastructure.

    Cooling water is not the issue it is painted to be. It depends on the reactor design.

    Rather than polarise the baseload electricity debate into CCS, renewables only or no-nuclear and maybe-nuclear camps, let’s have the objective and transparent studies completed, the costings undertaken and the comparisons made – all based on what may be invested in the here and now, not on 1970s approvals misadventures.

    Then may the debate begin, preferably on a non-partisan basis, leaving ideology where it belongs, in the 1970s.

  2. Evan Beaver

    Dennis, I thought the Switkowski report was a pretty good assessment; albeit biased to the pro-nuke position. It made it pretty clear what the actual worth of nuclear in Australia is.

    Is it really the regulations that hold up commissioning, or the fact that a plant is fantastically complex? Or do you suggest changing regulations to be less stringent? I definitely wouldn’t support that stance.

    Your suggesiton that energy storage technologies do not exist is not quite right. I’d like to see more, larger, demonstration projects to be really happy with it, but energy storage systems that can do the business have been proven in the 50MW range, and well beyond that size. Check out the electricity storage associations web site for more details.

    And I don’t think ‘baseload’ is a useful goal. Who needs electricity at 3am? Heavy industry. Why should we support them? Peaking or deliverable is a better goal, and in the short term, nat gas is ideally suited for this.

  3. matt buckels

    For a second I thought Crikey was going to rationally consider nuclear energy. I used to be anti-nuclear.. the same old arguments… too slow to build, to expensive to build, too expensive to decommission, what to do with the waste, the fuel will run out in 50 years if there is widespread conversion to nuclear, Chernobyl, 3-mile island yadda yadda yadda.

    But I am now of the opinion that nuclear is cheap, clean, and ideally positioned to take over from coal to provide baseload. As for “who needs baseload”… hmm modern society maybe? If renewables cannot provide baseload (and maybe it can if it overcomes some massive and expensive hurdles) then something has to, and I’d far rather nuclear over coal – and this stands even if climate change were found to be bunkum.

    Climate Change activists are happy to champion NASA’s James Hansen, but seem to forget the bits where he champions nuclear energy as a major part of the technical solution to the problem.

    I encourage people to visit, the blog of Professor Barry Brook, who holds the Foundation Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change and is Director of Climate Science at The Environment Institute, University of Adelaide, and enjoy what they learn about climate science and the significant role that nuclear power can play in getting us off coal and maintaining supply of cheap and reliable energy.

    The last paragraph of the above article is particularly innacurate. Perfect policy for denialists… pffft I’m afraid the author is the one in denial on nuclear, prefering superstition and old wives’ tales over the science.

  4. Gratton Wilson

    Penny Wong’s concessions to agriculture must not extend to foreign owned agriculture and thus deter high polluting agricultural industry, owned by foreign shareholders, from leaving their country of origin to operate here.
    This would be the reverse side of Australian high polluting industries’ threat that they will export their industries off-shore thus destroying Australian jobs without reducing global greenhouse gasses.
    Industry has been dumping toxic waste into the atmosphere, the sea and landfill for over 100 years with reckless disregard of the consequences to future generations. All industries are going to have to recycle their waste products so that do not compromise the future of life on the planet. It is not enough that industry claim, like the tobacco and asbestos industries did, that they did not know that they caused harm.

  5. Roger Clifton

    A nuclear roll out would be a lot faster than the author would have you think.

    The build time he quotes is for a one-off, first-of-a-kind. He should have told readers that an off-the-shelf reactor can be installed in 3 to 5 years from first concrete to first electricity. Further, a roll-out would be built in parallel, with a number of reactors in construction at the same time, opening one by one in short order.

    The Queen Mary was took three and a half years to build. A few years later, the Liberty Ships were being mass produced at six weeks apiece and launched at a rate of two a day. Now that’s a roll-out.

  6. Michael James

    Dennis O’Neill (2.51pm). Who is being “disingenuous at best, if not misleading” by saying I discussed nuclear construction in the 70s and 80s? The plants I discussed were completed in 1995 (UK)and 1999 (USA). The Finns are in the middle of their nuclear rejuvenation—double the budget and double the time (so far; including all the planning etc prior to beginning construction it is probably going to be at least 9 years, US$8B in upfront costs and so it goes….). So it is just no good for you to effectively wave a magic wand and say that it doesn’t have to be like that in Australia. If anything it will be far worse here–look at how lamentable our big infrastructure is and how long we decide to do things (then hardly ever do them anyway).

    But anyway, as I have written, I am not against nuclear power per se. But given the huge political will required, the awful timetable and the equally awful costs (A$10B in upfront costs never mind all the hidden subsidies) why would we make such a stupid commitment to such torment? With less funding and in shorter timetables (other than nuclear fantasy of “5 years”!) we could make a success from a balance of the renewables. And who knows, actually make an industrial success not based on digging holes. We are too small to do both nuclear and renewables, especially because history (modern history at that, look at the Finns and the Americans and keep a good eye on the Brits now) shows nuclear is horrendously demanding.

  7. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    A question for pro-nuclears. If Australia (or any other newcomer) was to join the nuclear generators club, should we constrain ourselves by membership of some meaningless anti-proliferation organisation when so many others are not, and will never choose to be, so constrained and should we have a view about what others do with their radioactive waste or the quite large amounts of plutonium they (and we) would soon possess? Is Australia free to choose its own path – like Iran – and therefore free to lead by example? I don’t think so.
    Let’s be clear. No country has a functioning sustainable nuclear waste storage/disposal facility. They are all temporary. Perhaps such a thing will never be invented. Will later 21st century governments be better able to deal with nuclear security (our own and that of ‘the other’) than current governments? If “she’ll be right, Mate”, then let’s stop banging on about Iran, North Korea and, say, Israel and stop cherry-picking the good bits. Face ALL the music – just like the climate change debate has to.

  8. Roger Clifton

    Charlie asks about non-proliferation. Rest assured that Australia is bound by several non-proliferation agreements. One of the most recent is the GNEP , which would ensure that any nuclear reactor on Australian soil would have its used fuel reprocessed and retained in a overseas nuclear country.

    Charlie goes on to say “let’s be clear” but then uses that hysterical phrase, “nuclear waste”. (What on earth is it that you guys are worried about?)

    Okay, let’s be clear: Because of our continued use of carbon-based fuels, there are now 1.6 kg of CO2 over every square metre of land, sea and ice on the planet. That is 40% above background levels. The half life of this pollutant is in the many thousands of years. Its consequences are going to visit us with a mounting savagery that will come to exceed anything in the most fearful dreams of “nuclear waste”.

    Should we tolerate the use of any carbon-based fuel when we have alternatives available?

  9. Evan Beaver

    Roger, my understanding is that nuclear waste is anything that’s been contaminated. This is a pretty broad grouping. There’s levels, all the way down to clothing that was worn by maintenance crews. Apparently the reactor at Lucas Heights has been storing this since their inception and it now fills a decent sized warehouse. Whether or not this is okay is neither here nor there; there’s a lot of it, and a proper sized reactor will generate a lot of this waste, that can not be stored in a municipal tip. This is not a small issue. We probably need 10 reactors for it to be anywhere near cost effective; that’s a lot of rubbish. Where that goes will be a diabolical political football.

    But. did I read that right; the GNEP means our waste would be “retained in a overseas nuclear country.” Seems odd to me to just ship it OS. Who would allow that?

  10. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Roger Clifton, what I am interested in (not “worried about”, thank you) is the language we use to describe the issues. In the past few years various forms of theoretical ‘repository’ have been touted in various countries (France, Finland?, the US) as being the latest and greatest…. and ‘permanent’ to boot. None of them (to my knowledge) has passed the test of their various governments and inventors. There always seems to have been some issue which just dudded the whole idea.
    So whatever was going to be deposited in these repositories, and you may well know the answer, that’s what I referred to as nuclear waste. I suspect that ‘low level’ stuff like lab coats and gloves are not in quite the same league as that bubbling liquid I have seen film of in large double-skin tanks – liquid that has been bubbling for some years if not decades.
    Also, Roger, if the carbon stuff will exceed anything in the most fearful dreams of “nuclear waste”, why is half the world in such a panic about Iran?

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