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May 16, 2017

The case for nuclear (or, how I learned to stop worrying about renewables and love uranium)

Politicians and journalists alike seem reluctant to discuss nuclear as a viable (and actually scalable) alternative to wind and solar, reports science writer Geoff Russell.

The recent ABC Four Corners program “Power Failure” by Michael Brissenden began inauspiciously:

“By any measure Australia is an energy superpower. We’re the world’s largest exporter of coal, we have abundant sources of renewable energy and by 2020 Australia will be the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas. And yet, this apparently lucky country is now in the grip of an energy crisis.”

When I tell you that our roads are used by cyclists, cars and skateboarders, you probably have a good idea of the relative share of the traffic of each. And everybody would pick quickly that I missed trucks entirely. But almost nobody has any idea of the relative share of the energy system of the sources named; and the rest of the program failed to enlighten them. And I wonder, did anybody spot the energy export more than twice as big as liquefied natural gas that didn’t rate a mention?

According to the Australian Energy Update 2016, our total energy consumption in 2014-15 from renewables was 343 petajoules. A petajoule (PJ) is a large unit of energy. Most people are at best familiar with kilowatt-hours (kwh) from their electricity bills. A PJ is a rather large energy unit being equal to some 277 million kwh.

For comparison, our oil, coal and gas energy consumption was 2237, 1907, and 1431 petajoules respectively; and our energy exports were 13,088 PJs (mostly coal). Of the 343 petajoules from renewables, 186 were from biomass, and 48 were from hydro. Biomass might be renewable, but it isn’t necessarily low-carbon, and wood smoke has all the same toxic pollutants as cigarettes; it’s filthy stuff. Of the 343 PJs, wind came in at 41 and solar photovoltaic (PV) at just 21. People see solar panels on roof tops and don’t understand what a small piece of the energy puzzle they are looking at. Speaking very roughly, household electricity consumption is one-quarter of all electricity consumption, and electricity is one-quarter of all energy use and almost all energy use is from fossil fuels. Electricity certainly generates a disproportionate amount of CO2, but we have to solve the whole climate problem, not just the easy bits.

The other thing Australians, in particular, need to keep firmly in mind is that energy is not the be-all and end-all of our decarbonisation needs. We have more cattle than people in Australia and their methane will generate more warming over the next 20 years than all of our coal-fired power stations. And then there’s the land cleared, or kept cleared, to graze them.

In summary, wind and solar PV featured heavily in Brissenden’s story, despite only being worth 41 and 21 PJs respectively. And what of uranium? Remember uranium? Four Corners forgot it entirely.

The elephant in the room didn’t get a mention

We only produced 6110 tonnes of uranium in 2014-5, rather less than than the 67 million tonnes of coal we burned or the 392 million tonnes we exported. But what’s 6110 tonnes of uranium oxide in PJs? About 2592 PJ according to the Energy Update. That’s right, 123 times more energy than solar PV. But not all PJs are equal. Burning stuff produces around two PJs of heat for every one PJ of electricity. That’s not because engineers are incompetent, it’s a consequence of the laws of thermodynamics. Smart people use the heat for heating (fancy that!), desalination, or other industrial processes.

So if you used the uranium for electricity, rather than heat, then you can cut that 123 down to about 40. Meaning that our 6110 tonnes of uranium exports would produce about 40 times more electricity than our solar PV — plus a lot of heat.

A solid investigation of our energy problems would at least have have asked the obvious question: Why don’t we use our uranium instead of just exporting it?”

So the Four Corners program began with a glaring omission.

Lakeland solar farm and other toys

Considerable time was devoted to the Lakeland solar farm without pointing out how tiny it is; it’s 10.8 megawatts (MW). The fact that it looked massive on the program is just because solar energy harvesting uses large amounts of land to harvest very little energy.

Brissenden interviewed Lakeland’s Christopher West who claimed, “What we’re creating is a base load power generator”.

A five-second look at the Lakeland specs (as reported to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency) shows that his claim is false; not just exaggerated, but false. Lakeland is 10.8 MW solar farm with a 1.4 MW/5.4 MWh battery. A 10.8 MW base-load power station would provide 10.8 MW continuously for every hour in the day; maintenance notwithstanding. When the sun stops shining on the Lakeland solar panels, it won’t provide 10.8 MW for any hours — not one. But if the battery happens to be full, then it could provide 1.4 MW for about four hours.

Clearly, talk of this being base load is a load of another sort entirely.

And then there’s the blackout

Think about a person riddled with metastatic tumours and weakened both by the tumours and large doses of chemotherapeutic drugs. When influenza finishes them off, how do you describe what killed them? The immediate cause of South Australia’s September 2016 blackout was the automatic shutting-down of the Heywood Interconnector when it needed to cover the loss of 456 megawatts of wind. The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) has been worried about the stresses to the interconnector caused by renewables in SA for years. A 2014 renewable integration study wrote:

“High variability in non-synchronous generation in SA presents challenges in managing flows within required limits on the Heywood Interconnector. This can occur when non-synchronous generation varies by large amounts over short time frames, and the necessary balancing of the variation occurs via the interconnector.”

They came up with two strategies, firstly to upgrade the Heywood Interconnector to handle 650 MW, and secondly to limit the load on that interconnector to 250 MW. The second interconnector, Murraylink, is much smaller with capacity at just 220 MW.

At the time of the blackout, the two interconnectors were supplying 613 MW of the 1826 MW demand. The wind farms weren’t delivering; they’d slowed down because it was too windy. One hour before the blackout, they’d been supplying almost 1200 MW and within the space of 20 minutes, this slowing down had dropped the power supply by 340 MW to just 860 MW causing the interconnectors to make up the shortfall. This meant it was loaded well above the 250 MW safety limit. AEMO responded by dispatching more gas to try to reduce the interconnector flow. What does this mean? It means they were trying their best to implement their policy of leaving enough capacity on the interconnector to cater for the unforeseen.

This is similar to not travelling too close to the car in front because something might cause that car to brake suddenly. But the unforeseen happened before the interconnector had enough capacity to handle it. The graph below shows the kind of large wind variability that the AEMO had to deal with on that day.

Unfortunately, Brissenden’s coverage of this was limited. He didn’t ask anybody why the interconnector capacity between SA and the rest of the grid had been recently upgraded. He didn’t ask anybody why it was running so close to capacity on the day in question. He certainly didn’t ask anybody why it was so far above the 250 MW limit mentioned in the AEMO renewable integration report.

A European study in 2014 found that 100% renewable systems need interconnectivity to be increased by a factor of five to 10 to optimally shunt power from where it is to where it is needed. This is precisely because of the huge swings that must be stabilised by allowing increased flows.

The devil is in the detail

The appendices in the final AEMO report are particularly fascinating. They detail the conditions under which future blackouts may occur. Here’s a key result:

“These simulation case studies highlight that it is paramount for all SA wind farms to ride through a sufficient number of voltage disturbances in quick succession, to allow the Heywood Interconnector to stably and securely operate at an import level of 550 MW.”

Read this carefully: a robust system is one where multiple components can fail without causing a problem. The internet is a great example. A fragile system is one where a failure in any subsystem can bring the whole house of cards crashing down. The preceding quote makes it clear that when Heywood is heavily loaded, a single wind farm not operating according to specification could bring the system down.

Keep reading and the identified risks grow. If the interconnectors fail or are disconnected (as in September) what are the chances of a blackout.

“These calculations indicate that with the loss of the Heywood Interconnector there is at least 10% likelihood of an unexpected response of protective relays that could result in cascaded tripping across the system. During islanding conditions, the number of synchronous machines online would have a marginal impact on the available fault currents.”

Of ladders and renewable electricity grids

The standout feature of the appendices needs some explanation. Think about a company making five-metre-long ladders. The ladder has a number of rungs and each rung is in a different spot on the ladder. Ideally you want to get the rung-maker to deliver rungs within a certain tolerance and you randomly test a sample of rungs from each batch to ensure they meet specifications. You don’t want to have to test each rung in place on a ladder. You don’t want it to matter where in the ladder this particular rung might end up to do your testing.

Now compare this with our power system as described in the appendices. AEMO has a couple of computer simulation models and it can simulate the result of various types of failures of any component of the system. Except that the components aren’t like rungs in a ladder. Every single one is different and their position on the grid is critical to the simulation. So AEMO can’t just simulate a wind farm failure, they have to separately simulate the failure of each and every wind farm at it’s exact location and each and every combination of wind farm failures and each and every failure of the many connections between them; and combinations of failure. This is a mathematical and technical nightmare.

The difference between a traditional grid with a small number of fairly large turbines and this extraordinarily complex tangled ball of twine is vast. This complexity is a direct consequence of the distributed nature of renewable energy systems. Weatherill’s claim that renewable energy had no roll in the blackout showed not only that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but also that he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know.

In summary, you can get away with driving too close to the car in front for years. And then one day, a tree falls in front of the car in front and you smash into the back. Of course, you can always blame the damn tree.

If we are to appreciate problems of scale and complexity, we must explore the Adelaide blackout in great technical detail, and take into account the miniature size of the Lakeland farm.

Scaling problems

To appreciate why the size of Lakeland is so important, you need to think about what happens when you scale it up.

It’s wrong to assume that things that work at small scales will work at large scales. Bicycles are wonderful things for commuting and just plain having fun, but they aren’t much use transporting a 30 million-tonne wheat harvest.

What does a solar farm look like at the kind of scale that matters?

Here’s a few numbers using a South Korean APR1400 nuclear reactor as a benchmark. The APR1400 is, unsurprisingly, a 1400 megawatt nuclear reactor. You could fit the main buildings on the MCG. There is always a safety zone around a large nuclear plant, but it’s typically used by wildlife so it’s really a benefit, rather than a cost.

Now compare this with the Nyngan solar plant, Australia’s largest and about 10 times bigger than Lakeland. You’d need 47 Nyngans occupying an area equal to about 6030 Melbourne Cricket Grounds to generate the same amount of electricity during a year as an APR1400. And none of that construction area would be wildlife friendly; it’d just be a sea of steel frames and solar panels. Lay those MCGs end to end and you’d have a 41-lane highway stretching 1032 kilometers.

Next we need to add in storage. Lakeland has a Lithium-ion battery, but that’s too expensive at scale, so molten salt is far more realistic. This isn’t sea salt but a mix of potassium and sodium nitrate made from stuff dug up by miners and transformed in large chemical plants. For 12 hours of storage, you’d need 1.6 million tonnes of the stuff and the current global output of these is about 3 million tonnes (see here and here). And that’s just for 12 hours of storage. If you have a few cloudy days in a row, you may still be buggered.

Infinite sunshine but finite harvesting tool

Many people confuse the renewability of sunshine and wind with the resources used to harvest them. These resources are non-renewable and quite normal. They include habitat, steel, aluminium, concrete, trucks, and rare earth metals, not to mention millions of tonnes of battery chemicals. Note that I said habitat instead of land. There’s no such thing as just land, all land is habitat for something and making this explicit helps ensure it gets thought about. We can’t avoid appropriating habitat, but we should be minimising our appropriation, not maximising.

Scaling that works

Uranium as an energy source scales incredibly well because of its energy density. Meaning that you need very little mining for a whole lot of energy. That should be obvious from earlier parts of this article, but here are some more numbers. You need about 280 tonnes of uranium oxide to power a 1400 MW nuclear plant for a year, but the same sized coal plant will need about 1540 kilometers of coal train cars carrying 4.3 million tonnes of coal. We are talking 11,000 to 12,000 tonnes every single day.

So in contrast to the vast coal mines producing our local and export coal, and the vast network of gas wells and pipelines producing gas, our uranium comes from a few small mines. The biggest producer is Olympic dam in South Australia; and this is really just a copper mine. It produces about 220,000 tonnes of copper per year and about 4000 tonnes of uranium oxide.

Scaling that doesn’t work: batteries

Scaling problems are also particularly relevant to the various battery proposals Brissenden looked at in the program.

Tesla got a mention, as did zinc-bromide flow batteries. Let’s think about the battery scaling problems.

Elon Musk is building the world’s biggest battery factory at present in the US. When it is complete in 2020 it will have as much Li-Ion production capacity as the entire global Li-Ion industry had in 2013. It will then be able to supply half a million car batteries a year. And how many car batteries do we need? We produced 95 million motor vehicles in 2016; up from 91 million in 2015. Can you see the problem? … and the giga factory will have taken five years to build when it is finished.

Now think what will happen if we start putting batteries into houses? We will have less battery capacity to put in cars. We desperately need batteries for cars because we have so few other clean ways of powering them. It’s a really tough problem and we need to solve it. Putting batteries in houses just makes that incredibly tough problem even tougher. It’s like trying to keep our antibiotics for really sick people while patients with colds keep demanding prescriptions.

Brissenden presented Tesla driving software guru Simon Hackett with his great zinc-bromide flow batteries and allowed him spin wondrous yarns of a city full of these things, all connected by intelligent software. The world produces plenty of zinc, but bromide is produced in quite small quantities and zinc-bromide is produced in even smaller quantities. Zinc-bromide is a Class 8 corrosive marine pollutant and it’s dangerous enough that you can’t legally carry more than 1 litre of it at a time on a passenger plane. Which makes it fairly innocuous in the toxic world of battery chemistry, but it should be enough to warn you that scaling it up to solve our global energy problem will require more than just smiling nicely and saying how cheap it is.

Case studies in energy planning that have worked

Brissenden was right when he said that we have had a total failure of leadership on energy in Australia. Not because nobody has done any leading, but they have been leading us up the garden path.

Let’s look at a few examples of what intelligent leadership coupled with planning and foresight could have delivered.

  1. Aside from a little residual coal use, France decarbonised its electricity system in about 15 years using nuclear power between about 1975 and 1990. No other significant industrial country has come even close to this. The International Energy Agency measures this somewhat indirectly in tonnes of CO2 per terajoule of primary energy (tCO2/TPES). Between 1975 and 1990 France dropped its tCO2/TPES from 61.2 to 36.8. This shows that they’ve basically cleaned up half of their energy problem: electricity. They still need to deal with transport and direct industrial use of fossil fuels. In contrast, Germany during the first 14 years since its Renewable Energy Act in 2000 reduced her tCO2/TPES from 57.7 to 56.4. The numbers tell a truth that all the hype about the German renewable energy revolution can’t hide.

  2. In the same year that I switched from being anti-nuclear to pro-nuclear, 2009, the United Arab Emirates started on their nuclear program. Meaning they started to build the regulatory structures. The first reactor build was begun in July 2012. It will come on line soon this year. Remember that Lakeland solar plant that featured in the Four Corners report? Well the South Korean APR1400 nuclear plant will produce about 580 times as much energy each year (assuming a capacity factor of about 20% based on this story). In 2018, the second reactor will start up. That’s another 580 Lakelands worth of electricity. And again in 2019 and 2020.

And lastly we need to look at China.

  1. For the past 17 years, China has been rolling out what are called super-critical coal plants. These run at a higher temperature and are more efficient than older plants. But the increase in efficiency is a minor matter. In 2006, China announced that work on a high-temperature gas-cooled nuclear (HTR-PM) reactor was a priority. The demonstration plants, 2×105 MW reactors, are due to start operation later this year.

A coal plant is a boiler hooked up to a turbine and generator, which are hooked up to a grid connection. Unremarkably, the Chinese have designed the HTR-PM to be plug-compatible with the super-critical coal boilers. The designs have identical steam production characteristics. Disconnect the coal boiler and connect the nuclear boiler. You can keep all the rest of the infrastructure. This provides a rapid and fairly cheap way to decarbonise almost all of China’s electricity.

Sadly, the state of reporting on energy in Australia is almost as dismal as the state of policy.

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40 thoughts on “The case for nuclear (or, how I learned to stop worrying about renewables and love uranium)

  1. pinkocommierat

    Nyngan, unlike most of South Korea, is in the middle of Bumfuck Egypt and has more space than it knows what to do with. Mining uses loads of water, chemicals, and carbon-sourced energy to extract the uranium ore. Some deposits are in national parks, are already marginal financial prospects, and have been the centre pf controversy in relation to water contamination and waste management.
    We would likely export and reimport our uranium for use as a fuel, adding to the cost and GHG emissions, while putting supplies at risk in a range of force majeure events.


      That’s a lot of bollocks. Nuclear energy has as much or more potential to be carbon-free as renewable sources.
      There are at least a dozen studies on low carbon energy and they don’t support your view. It’s clear that you only get your information from anti-nuclear sites. Anti-nuclear sites say nuclear isn’t carbon free and is expensive. Anti-wind sites say that wind isn’t carbon free and is expensive. That’s why you need to get information from independent sites like science direct. You’ll find a whole new world when you escape the echo-chamber of the anti-nuclear closed minds.
      Large numbers of eminent scientists support James Hanson’s view that renewable energy won’t work. Failure to address climate-change is a huge threat to the environment. Listen to the scientists.

    2. Geoff Russell

      Does uranium mining needs “loads” of carbon-sourced energy? Do the maths, its simple. The cost of uranium oxide is currently around $50/kg. The cost of diesel is about $1.30/litre. So how many litres of diesel is used to produce a kg of uranium oxide? Lets pretend the entire cost was just for diesel. Then we are talking 38 litres of diesel as the maximum amount that could possibly be used. It’s a ridiculous number and assumes no staff costs, no truck or equipment costs of any kind. The amount of energy in 38L of diesel is about 10 kwh ( and the amount you get out of a kilogram of uranium in a reactor? The wikipedia page gives a theoretical figure that is far too high of around 22,393 megawatt hours. But that’s for a breeder reactor … and doesn’t factor in the heat loss when you make electricity. A more realistic real world figure for todays reactors is about 40 megawatt hours per kg. And that calculation is, as you appreciate, a ridiculous over estimate of the diesel that could be involved in the mining.

  2. Mike King

    Still espousing nuclear as a valid power option in this day and age is ridiculous, when we have so many renewable energy and battery storage options. Sure, nuclear can provide cheap energy, but that doesn’t account for the nuclear waste storage and disposal. Not that you can really dispose of it because of its radioactive life.
    Nuclear is thinking short term, not long term and that’s what our electricity system needs. A viable, renewable energy system with plenty of storage capacity.

    1. Parker Robert

      Mike, nuclear energy uses materials vastly more sustainable than intermittent renewable sources such as wind or solar. Older style reactors have what is called an energy returned on energy invested (EROI) ratio of about 75. Since then they have reduced the amount of concrete and steel used by about five fold so I would not be surprised to see an EROI closer to 200. Your PV in Germany has an EROI of about 3.9 and stick in a battery and we are down to 1.6. With Australia’s improved solar radiation these number may improve by 50% but if PV and batteries are your choice then the new generation of nuclear plants use materials about 100 times more sustainably. Frankly I doubt we have room in our available carbon budget for wind and solar – they just ain’t sustainable.
      Your reference to the power source we use in this day and age is very flimsy – our fight against global warming is not some fashion contest and the future options for nuclear energy are massive such as the HTR-PM pebble bed reactor in China producing hydrogen for steel making and getting rid of coking coal emissions. This reactor is melt down proof and doesn’t need a pressure vessel – you could stick one in the back yard at Mum’s.

      1. AR

        Comedy gold – “I doubt we have room in our available carbon budget for wind and solar – they just ain’t sustainable.” move over BenP for BobP.


      Well scientific opinion overwhelming doesn’t agree with you. The average h-index of the signatories to the letter is 50, and it’s impossible to find an Australian scientist with an h-index>25 who opposes nuclear energy. Go to Google Scholar. 9 out of the top 10 conservation biologists in Australia have publicly supported nuclear energy.

  3. Graeski

    Could we at least give renewables half a try before dismissing them – together with an active strategy to reduce our total energy use as a society? Maybe it won’t work, maybe it will. At the very least I think we have a duty to try, before we bequeath toxic wastes with half lives measured in hundreds of thousands of years, simply because of our greed and selfishness.

    1. Graeski

      Bequeath to future generations, that is.

    2. Parker Robert

      Graeski, The problem with your suggestion is that we only have until 2050 to decarbonise our primary energy system and then its way too late. Because wind and solar especially with batteries are so resources hungry and unsustainable I’m not sure we have that carbon budget available to deploy them even if they worked. No nation has made major inroads into their emissions using wind and solar but they certainly have with nuclear energy.
      The used fuel can be recycled back through fast spectrum reactors that France and China both have positive plans to build and maybe one day the US will catch up – who knows? Otherwise it can be placed in deep geological repository. The really high level radioactive stuff is depleted after about 300 years – thereafter we just have material that has very low level penetration alpha radiation. At 500m underground it cannot cause any harm to future generations and the great benefit is that we positively address global warming

      1. mike westerman

        Parker – an extremely high proportion of solar and battery systems is able to be recycled, and will have to be. This and the primary production can all be fueled by renewable energy, so your initial claim is a furphy. Pumped hydro has an exceeding long life so storage is by an large not an issue with renewables.
        Non-renewables like nuclear have very long lead times because they are very complex installations, have little ability to recycle the majority of the materials used to build them and are too expensive.
        If you want to think of a sustainable future (even tho’ I’m not Xian), read Proverbs 6:6-8 – when 1 billion people all put solar on their roof and an EV and batteries in their garage, the “energy crisis” will no longer be a thing. We can then focus on the general level of environmental degradation that is poisoning the planet.

  4. mike westerman

    There was nothing particularly glaring about the 4 Corners program, altho’ there are several things very glaring about the above article!
    Most of the consumption of mostly imported oil is on transport, the replacement of which by EVs has started, and like the building of nuclear power stations, will take way longer than anyone would wish.
    The attempts to belittle solar by reference to the now tiny 10.8MW solar farm omits the 2,000MW currently being installed as large scale, much of which will be operating late this year or early next. It also ignores the 70MW/month being installed, even tho’ that rate is way too small to reach the goal of replacing all fossil fuel generation and allowing for EVs.
    But the most glaring omission is cost: sure nuclear proponents love governments stepping in and mandating and guaranteeing nukes, but that is not going to help here. Australia already has rooftop solar equal to a large nuclear power station of the same energy output, virtually all installed in the last 6y. That will double in the next 3y, so about 3 times the rate at which you could build nukes if anyone was interested. But more importantly, it’s happening because it’s the cheapest way for households to get their own power, and they can even make money exporting to the grid at the miserable FIT on offer. In SA, it is now cost effective to install storage as well. Current rooftop solar has a levelised cost to households <4c/kWh, compared to current nuclear of 12c/kWh (eg Hinkley C) excluding delivery costs which add another 10-15c/kWh in most regions.
    So Brissenden was quite right to ignore nuclear – most of us don't spend a lot of time giving the rear vision mirror more than a glance.

    1. Geoff Russell

      Nuclear build speeds in Europe in the 1970s and 80s far surpass anything renewables have achieved in the past 20 years.

      “The long term application of these [solar] cells is to replace coal as a source of energy for our power stations and that could be just ten to 15 years away.” who said that? An ABC reporter on Quantum in 1989 in a program about Martin Green.

      1. mike westerman

        I’d like to see those numbers as they seem at odds with published data, compared to the current rate of deployment of renewables worldwide!
        The historical fall in prices of solar energy is unprecedented in the energy market – more like the IT industry. When I did my undergrad thesis in 1979 on concentrating solar PV, 3 cm square cells producing about 100mW each cost >$100 each. The 6.5kW now going on my roof is costing $7,400, less the STC of $4,300, ie unsubsidised cost of $1.14/W or 878 times cheaper for a complete system, with the panels now just 45c/W or 2,222 times cheaper. Meanwhile nuclear needs a fully indexed wholesale price of $120/kWh to get funding!
        Martin Green may have been hopelessly optimistic, as I was in 1979, but what has happened in the last 6y in Australia only a fool would ignore. Fortunately most pundits including the IEA now conclude that nuclear is unlikely to play much of a role in the future, but the nuke enthusiasts will keep staring into that rear view mirror!

        1. Parker Robert

          The systems may be very cheap and in fact could be a free giveaway in packets of Cornflakes. The only relevant issue however is the system delivery cost. What is the cost of a system with 100% solar and wind going to cost? What is the cost of the massive grid upgrade to ensure power is delivered uniformly and at current rates of reliability? What is the cost to our environment by industrialising it with intermittent renewables and damming our streams for pumped storage.
          Even then however we have not scratched the surface of the more intractable energy problems such as synthesising transport fuels or making steel and other metals. Our future low carbon energy system has to meet the needs of all our primary energy emissions and not a minor niche issue such as domestic electricity. All Australians will need to collectively meet the cost of our energy future and hiving off bits to domestic PV just loads another system availability cost onto the remaining consumers.

          1. mike westerman

            Each man does his own lifting: distributed power does away with the need for centralised industrial energy industries. The cost is pretty clear: already solar plus storage at household level is cheaper in SA, and soon will be in Qld. The other states will follow. Pumped hydro, which doesn’t “dam our streams” as it usually is best built off stream, will help hold it together and provide secure cheap power (about half the cost of gas and about 30% more than new coal at the moment) for commerce and industry that can’t do their own generation and storage. Electric arc will displace met coal in metal smelting. You are right we’ve not progressed at the rate we need to but virtuous circles have an innate tendency to be exponential.


          Perhaps you should check out published scientific papersor look at the real world. In the real world, electricity in Germany and Denmark is about twice the price of that in France. Grid costs are substantially higher, and large subsidies need to be paid to gas and coal-fired stations for spinning reserve. Energy costs are complex, there is certainly no consensus amongst the scientific community. Lay people getting dogmatic about the issue is surely an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

          Getting your information independently is a great idea. Try Google. You’ll find that only a small minority believe that nuclear energy is necessarily expensive, essentially only the anti-nuclear groups. If you try Google site:edu, you don’t find anyone who says nuclear is expensive, nor do you at Science Direct. I’ll support the 100% renewable energy scenario when there’s a substantial consensus amongst energy-agnostic scientists that it’s the best option. At the moment the converse is true, it’s impossible to find an energy-agnostic scientist who believes 100% renewable energy is viable.
          It doesn’t matter how many Collingwood supporters think Collingwood is going to win the AFL premiership, if precisely zero neutral supporters think so, then Collingwood won’t win the premiership. It’s just the same, it doesn’t matter how many closed-minded ideological anti-nukes think that 100% renewable energy is a viable option, if precisely zero energy-agnostic scientists think so, then 100% renewable energy isn’t going to work. You need to stop choosing to believe opinions that suit your ideology, and disbelieving opinions that don’t suit your ideology. Look across the broad range of independent scientific opinions and find the mid-point. The mid-point is very much closer to being the opposite of your opinion than it is to your opinion.

  5. lykurgus

    You got your moneys worth (he doesn’t get paid for these)…

    Why did you bill Geoff Russell as a “science writer” when he’s barely the latter and Christ-Alive-you-had-to-get-me-started-on-the-former?
    And why did you not include the ritual disclosure that this self-described long-time-anti-nuclear-activist-who-has-seen-the-light, has only ever been known for 3 things; “Nukes is plusgood”, “Renewables is plusbad”, “Meat is doubleplusbad”?
    Maybe you forgot.

    Here’s a few other disclosures you forgot…
    -That his background (pure mathematics) doesn’t equip him to lecture those of us in the life sciences about DNA, yet he tries anyway (he didn’t understand that the leading cause of leukemia, of which one strain is acute, is still ionising radiation – which is why the Japanese government was rabbiting on about harder-to-trace pancreatic cancers instead of the much-more-tortious leukemia ones);
    -Or his well-publicised contention that veganism* has more climate-change-stopping power than renewables? Or that the knocking over of 50-odd pylons won’t lead to a grid failure (in his defence of Frydenbergs claim that wind turbines somehow caused the knocking-over of said pylons);
    -Or that the much-foghorned modular or Gen IV reactors (which eat only nuclear waste and emit only unicorn farts) have been just-around-the-corner since the year dot, because even the lab demos are refusing to work (unless their purpose is sinecure, in which case they work beautifully);
    -Or that the transport and infrastructure needs of a reactor that actually DOES react, puts its emissions second only to coal – for a cost of over a grand per kW/h once the subsidies and waivers are factored in.
    -Or that todays PV cells generate all day (not just when it’s a bright sunny one – that was just a sensitivity issue). Or that the blades on a wind turbine adjust to wind speed.

    Or that you (correctly) condemned the New York Times just last week for this very thing (running a column riddled with disinformation from a known shill and acting like it ain’t no thing). NewMatilda told his dissenters to basically piss off when they called him out.

    You didn’t even put it in the spellchecker (role has an “e” and only one “l”).

    *(in-vitro meat will have the same net result as near-universal veganism, without Geoff burping methane into the stratosphere or farting hydrogen in our general direction)

    1. Geoff Russell

      I couldn’t help noticing that you didn’t seem to have a question about the article or even a criticism. Just felt like a little gratuitous slander … have a nice day.

      Chris Graham, Editor at New Matilda, noticed this absense of substance in those slinging mud my way very early on.

      1. lykurgus

        This from the only one who failed to notice his own compulsion to react within four hours to critiques he clearly didn’t read (I have this weird astigmatism called “noticing things directly in front of me”), or that “just felt like” remains his gold standard on the fact/fiction dichotomy (but then how does one argue against ones own online CV).

        I’m in his eternal debt for the nice day he ordered me to enjoy (because in his defence, the aforesaid day WAS an exceptionally nice one).

    2. leon knight

      Perhaps you are right, but Mr Russell seems to make quite a few very valid points.
      Your opposition to any consideration of nuclear options seems a bit hysterical to me….

  6. andrew

    Not a good article. Trolling click bait.

    1. A.Blot

      The carbon budget for the life of a nuclear plant is positive when you take into account the mining, enrichment and disposal and storage of the uranium. Then the huge carbon output from the concrete required to build the plant and then the concrete required to mothball the plant.

    2. A.Blot

      There was an error in the reason for the wind farms failure. The reason that was found was the trip settings were incorrectly set for several. Not all failed as the trip settings were set as they should. If the same incorrect settings were for connecting a coal fired plant it would have been disconnected.

  7. Will

    The problem with nuclear energy is when things go wrong. Because if they do, they can go very, very wrong. So, can we trust Australia’s politicians, business people, and bureaucrats to build and operate such a capital intensive, complex and dangerous industry, particularly in an age of international terrorism (including cyber terrorism), resurgent nationalism and rising geopolitical tensions? I’d say absolutely not. Christ, half of our power elites think that climate science is a global conspiracy, and the other half are basically a bunch of careerist hacks. Our national political and economic leadership is far too immature – and likely will be for a very long time – to be handed such a grave responsibility.

    1. Geoff Russell

      The great thing about nuclear power is that it very rarely goes wrong and when it does, nothing much happens. Sadly that lesson has been slow to learn so people died during the evacuation of Fukushima despite the risk being well below that where an evacuation would have been recommended by the IAEA. So people died from a fear driven evacuation. Had they stayed put, nothing would have happened. Nobody would have got sick or died. They could have got on with rebuilding their lives after the tsunami. But instead, the Government reacted with blind ignorant panic and people died. The IAEA says evacuation should be considered if people are likely to get more than 1 Sievert per year. At the height of the meltdown, the highest level recorded anywhere in the evacuation zone was about half that. And it was much lower in most places and dropped quite rapidly during the first 12 months. Imagine an Australian Government ordering an evacuation because of bush fire smoke. Is it carcinogenic? Yes. Is it generally toxic? Yes. So why doesn’t out Government evacuate Sydney every time there is a bit of smoke? Because there isn’t the same level of unfounded fear. Fear and ignorance were the big killers at Fukushima … and still are. Read it and weep …

      1. mike westerman

        Geoff it is well established with safety matters that the precautionary principle is applied: you say nothing went wrong, and something going wrong is of a very small probability, but the consequences if they do go wrong are catastrophic. According to the same engineers who designed the powerhouse and its faulty backup power supplies, a tsunami of the size that hit was unlikely! You can’t therefore rely on decisions made on the basis of very low probabilities, you have to be cautious and conservative. That is not the same as fear and panic.

        1. Geoff Russell

          The consequences at Fukushima were not catastrophic. Think about rationally please. All along that coast in Japan, people built dodgy brother sea-walls which failed and thousands died. We aren’t talking about “risks” here, but actual fatalities and horror almost beyond belief. But at the nuclear plants … 3 people drowned. That’s it. Had the risk analysis been done properly and the IAEA guidelines followed, that would have been the end of the human consequences. It would merely have been some very expensive meltdown(s).

          All the engineers designing sea walls along that coast in Japan screwed up and people died. So why is it that the reactor sea wall failures, the smallest failure of them all, is singled out for attention? Don’t the other deaths matter? Why is outrage reserved for the failures with the least consequence? The double standards are infuriating.

          1. mike westerman

            “Had the risk analysis been done properly…” – but it never is, especially where probabilities are so low or statistically lost in the noise. Chenobyl and Fukashima gave us a clear example of how probable meltdowns are – we’ve yet to have an example of what happens when a meltdown becomes uncontrollable. Do you have a site near your home where we could test that?
            In my industry, we have enough failures of dams each year to understand with a fair bit of precision what happens as they fail catastrophically. We have a poor understanding of the likelihood of failure because our hydrological and seismic records are too short, even if we extend them by looking at paleo records. So our industry shoulders the cost of being conservative to the extent of not being likely to kill more than 1 person. And yet our projects are still economic. Pumped hydro plus solar is now cheaper than gas and nuclear by a long way, faster to build and providing additional amenity. We have investors lining up. The Chinese will build Hinkley with massive subsidies and guarantees, largely for political reasons. And you don’t see why this might be?

        2. Geoff Russell

          Mike, all meltdowns are uncontrollable … that’s pretty much the definition of a meltdown. The fuel melts precisely because you lose control of the reactor. If the fuel gets hot enough it melts and goes through the bottom of the reactor vessel and collects on the concrete underneath. Some new reactor designs have a special device to catch the molten fuel … which means the reactor is should be reusable.

          Why do you think meltdowns are dangerous? A certain Jane Fonda film has a lot to answer for … but it was fiction. Just Hollywood. A blast furnace will kill you in seconds if you get too close. Lots of things are like that. And you can’t climb into a reactor containment vessel with a lump of molten fuel on the floor. But it can’t go anywhere, the containment concrete is thick enough to absorb all the heat from the molten fuel. Engineers know the heat content of the fuel. If you have a hot metal ball and you know the heat content you can work out the amount of water you’ll need to absorb the heat without the water exceeding some temperature. It’s a pretty standard kind of problem. Nobody wants meltdowns because they are expensive and trash the reactor, but they aren’t dangerous.
          Anyway, I have other things to do, so will be unsubscribing now. Cheers.

      2. Will

        But Geoff, saying nuclear accidents/incidents to date haven’t been as bad as reported doesn’t mean they won’t be catastrophic in future, and nor does it deflect my argument that in Australia our power elites cannot be trusted with such responsibility. (If southern Australia’s power grid is now as vulnerable as you say, then what more evidence of this argument do you need?) So, it’s not a question of whether nuclear power should play a role in Australia. Any such role is ruled out a priori by the all to evident appalling unreadiness of those who would have to manage it. You don’t give a gun to an infant, even if the streets are dangerous!

        1. lykurgus

          In light of his misunderstandings about ionising radiation, and his belief that its link to assorted malignancies represents “obsolete knowlege about DNA” (a belief easily cured by Googling “Fukushima” and “leukemia” if you don’t fancy going into depth, or “Radium girls”) – and the fact that even the Curies (yes, them) thought radiation toxicity was bollocks (their notes still can’t be safely handled)…
          … what are his chances of understanding risk management as being about insurance and precedent recognition?

      3. Damon

        “The great thing about nuclear power is that it very rarely goes wrong and when it does, nothing much happens…”
        Geoff, until you can understand why the way YOU feel about the dangers of nuclear power [fission, I would interject, to be specific] is very different to the way most other human beings feel, I fear you’ll be writing these articles for decades to come.

        Take it from another vegan: it’s a dead duck. Get behind renewables. They ain’t perfect, but don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good. With sufficient investment they can do the job.

        1. Geoff Russell

          Meat consumption in Australia rose relentlessly between 2000 and 2015. Should that guide our decisions? I think not. In my experience vegans are rational, often obsessively so 🙂 … which means they change their minds when they are demonstrably wrong … like I did about radiation risks and consequently about nuclear power.

          Renewables aren’t just environmentally destructive, they have no end game. It isn’t good enough to replace 70% of our electricity with renewables, or even 80%, we have to do it all and also replace oil and renewables get progressively less capable as you increase their penetration. Its a fatal flaw. Batteries could fix it, but their waste, efficiency, safety and environmental issues are considerable and far worse than nuclear. Waste from nuclear power has never killed anybody, but battery waste kills, maims and sickens in large numbers on a daily basis. The problem is that its a distributed pollution source, which makes it a very tough problem. Centralised problems are far easier to handle. Which is why blast furnaces, despite being incredibly deadly, very rarely kill, whereas back yard swimming pools in Australia alone kill more children annually than thyroid cancer from Chernobyl has killed in 30 years.

          Wade Allison has a newish book out which collects the evidence on radiation and explains it all pretty well: Nuclear is for Life … buy it or read it free.

          1. mike westerman

            Geoff risk assessment involves both probability and consequence: in the case of nuclear the sample size is too small and history too short to put accurate numbers on probability, but the consequences are pretty easily assessed and equally awesome. The precautionary principle says if you don’t or can’t know, then be conservative in your estimates of likelihood commensurate with the scale of consequences. This should lead to the rational conclusion that widespread adoption of nuclear power should not be allowed to happen, and where it is adopted the strictest requirements for safety are imposed. Clearly at Fukashima this didn’t happen – radiation in significant quantities was and is being released, and that in a country with generally high levels of engineering quality and environmental protection rigour.
            So what’s your end game with nuclear? My conclusion is that all human life should be managed on an infinitely sustainable basis, with adequate margins for adjustments commensurate with our environment over time: we are currently way, way, way over that. I can’t see how nuclear fits in at all. To compare battery waste from the current battery population with that that will arise from widespread use of large battery packs in Powerwalls and EVs is dishonest, as is your assertion that no-one has died from nuclear waste – you seem to ignore that the first person to seriously experiment with radiation, Madam Curie, died of its effects, and the laws of nature have not changed since, as you note in quoting the ongoing stats from Chenobyl.
            Again your stats seem to be misleading you: <7 kids die in private pools per year, even tho' the cumulative hours x kids in pools x number of pools must be quite staggering. More kids are killed in car accidents. There were 245 deaths per year due to industrial accidents over the same period, in far, far fewer places than there are pools. Dead kids grab headlines, dead workers less so.


            Mike Westerman. If you want to apply the precautionary option, you would have to be very wary of hydro, given the Banqiao Dam Failure with 171,000 loss of life. Nuclear energy is 35 times safer than hydro according to IEA-Hydro.
            In reality both nuclear and renewable energy are vastly safer than fossil-fuels. A 10 years delay in addressing climate-change is likely to cause millions of deaths. James Hansen, Ken Caldeira, Kerry Emanuel, Tom Wigley and literally scores of other eminent scientists believe that the risk that 100% renewable energy simply won’t succeed. The precautionary principle would be to accept that the greatest risk is not addressing climate-change, and on the basis of expert opinion, 100% renewable energy is an uncertain option at best.

          3. mike westerman

            Noiretblancmange – the causes of failure in hydro dams is well known: it doesn’t always mean good practice is followed. The highest proportion of dam failures relative to numbers built is for earth and rockfill, earth core dams. The important difference between pumped and conventional hydro is that pumped hydro can be built in the dry, so that the rush to build, and disincentive to chase out foundation problems, are not there.
            I agree that the risks of the current do nothing approach to climate change is alarming, and shows no consideration of the risks associated with non-action. The risk for EVs and renewables is that the change will be too slow. My hydro projects are taking 2.5-7y to build, so there needs to be support/pressure to build many at once, without compromising dam quality. For Australia that is quite doable, for Indo-china (it is quite practical to have an interconnected grid from Pakistan to Korea and south to Indonesia) the time to change over from ICE and fossil fuel power is touch and go within an acceptable timeframe: the world needs to get behind China to make it happen. We don’t need failed experiments with nuclear to distract from that objective.

  8. Ben Huxham

    Just got a new subscriber. Well done

  9. Peter Farley

    You conveniently leave out cost, backup and build time. The Plant Vogtle nuclear plants are costing US$11b each and Toshiba says they are not going to build any more because they lost about $1.5b each on the 4 plants they are building in the US.
    The EPR’s planned for Hinckley point are guaranteed Pds92.50 in 2012 prices. By the time it opens in 2025???? that is A$205/MWhr.
    For all sorts of reasons including higher average operating temperatures, more variable demand, no possibility for exports etc etc nuclear plants in Australia will not operate at more than 90% of their rated power in hot weather and you probably need to allow for at least 10-15% of the plants being offline for one reason or another at peak times. (In October 2016, 21 of France’s 58 plants were offline. In 2015 all of Switzerland’s plants and 40% of Belgium’s plants were offline for months. )
    So using the Plant Vogtle costs and lets say 65% of generation from nuclear we need to build around 25 AP1000’s at US$11b= A$370bn.
    We would still need at least 15GW of other despatchable capacity to meet peak demand with sufficient reserve capacity. That can be met with existing gas and by replacing gas units 1 for 1 as they wear out
    Including operations, maintenance and security variable operating costs will be about $3.5b per year for nuclear plus another $1.5b for the gas and hydro plants

    On the other hand With existing hydro and maybe another 10GW of pumped hydro and 15GW of other storage and 5GW of solar thermal we can have a 100% backup for a renewable grid.
    If we build a wind and solar grid another 35GW of each will supply all the demand on the NEM. At current prices
    10 GW of pumped hydro will be about $25b
    5 GW of solar thermal will be $20b
    10 GW of batteries about $8b
    5 GW PtG, Power to heat etc $15b
    35 GW of new wind will be about $80b
    35GW of new solar about $60b
    Total cost of 100% renewable grid $200b
    with maintenance and operating costs of around $2.7b
    In other words a nuclear system will cost about double a renewable based system even before we consider issues of cooling water spinning reserves, ramping etc. By the way intraday ramping of French nuclear power is less than 40% of daily peak so to make even a 65% nuclear system work here we would probably need to add at least 12 and probably 15 GW of storage and $5-10b of grid upgrades

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