Home > Environment > The Steep Path to a Nuclear Future

The Steep Path to a Nuclear Future

April 26th, 2012

That’s the title of my latest piece for The National Interest. The first three paras are below.

In the wake of the meltdown last year at the Fukushima nuclear plant, the viability of nuclear power has been called into question yet again. The Japanese government has closed down all but one of the country’s nuclear plants (though there are plans to start reopening them), and Germany has abandoned a previous decision to keep existing nuclear plants operating. Concern about nuclear power has also increased in the United States, with most opinion polls now showing a majority opposed to further expansion of the industry.

On the other hand, some commentators have been struck by the fact that the disaster did not cause any direct loss of life and that estimates of the adverse health effects of the radioactive releases are very modest. A striking example is English writer George Monbiot. An opponent of nuclear power before Fukushima, Monbiot has switched to the view that nuclear power should be supported as a response to climate change.

Unfortunately, this debate has taken place without much attention to the economics of electricity production. The critical question is whether nuclear power can be a cost-effective alternative as compared to renewables, investments in energy efficiency or even such long shots as carbon capture and storage. A look at the economic cost of the Fukushima meltdown suggests that the path to a nuclear future is steeply uphill.

I’m too busy to referee another fight over nuclear power today, so I’m delaying opening comments here until tomorrow. The TNI post is open to comments there, so that will give everyone a chance to get started straight away.

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  1. Hermit
    April 30th, 2012 at 17:13 | #1

    Aside from the heebie jeebies the Fukushima disaster is already affecting Australia since Japan is paying very high prices for LNG imports. If domestic gas users in Australia eventually have to match those prices it will make gas fired baseload too expensive by about a factor of four as an alternative to coal. Germany like Japan has opted to switch off several nuclear plants but 2011 emissions remain static since increased coal and gas burning was luckily offset by lower domestic gas use from a mild winter. Note as of last year the Germans have spent $110bn on feed-in tariffs to barely nudge 20% renewables penetration including older hydro. It is not yet clear if they can actually reduce emissions without a recession.

    Germany brings into question claims that wind and solar can make nontrivial cuts in coal use. Nuclear agnostics like UNSW’s Ted Trainer say the required investment in new renewables is unaffordable.
    Trainer suggests we resign ourselves to a massive powerdown. Some renewable advocates instead suggest storage of intermittent output and burning biomass for backup rather than gas. For example solar thermal with heat banks to run boilers at night topped up by burning hay during rainy weeks. So far the prototypes are small with high average costs. We await gigawatt scale systems without gas backup that can produce electricity no more than double the coal fired electricity price.

    My response to those who imagine reactors abandoned for centuries must be to ask whether we will still have a coherent society in future. If it goes Mad Max then there is no future to speak of. In my opinion Gillard should convene an expert panel to look at nuclear options for Australia w.r.t. legislation, site and technologies such as modular vs. large, cooling options etc. Since this exercise has been done before without result this time make it so the recommendations lead to a firm decision by Cabinet.

  2. John Quiggin
    April 30th, 2012 at 17:18 | #2

    I don’t give Ted Trainer much credibility, I’m afraid. As far as I know, he has no background in economics or any relevant discipline – his academic position is in social work. In a long correspondence with him some years back, I concluded that he starts with his desired conclusion then presents the arguments to reach it. To be fair, his estimated cost for a renewables based solution is now much lower than it was. In fact, he now concludes that an annual investment of 11 per cent of world GDP would be needed, which is obviously feasible. Admittedly, it would be difficult politically to reach this point, but since his recommendations are totally outside the realms of political possibility, this isn’t an argument he can rely on.

  3. John Quiggin
    April 30th, 2012 at 17:29 | #3

    Looking back at our 2008 correspondence, his model used as an “optimistic” estimate for solar PV in 2050 a cost of $5/installed watt. I suggested that $5 was already in sight and $2 would be more reasonable for 2050. In fact, utility scale costs were at $3/watt in mid-2011, and have certainly fallen since then, so I was far too pessimistic – we will reach $2/watt installed in the next few years, not in 2050.


    Looking at the new report, he is using a future (2050) cost of $2.70/watt, which is pretty much the current cost under favorable conditions. Similarly, he assumes 15 per cent efficiency for PV cells by 2050 – this is important because it affects calculations of embodied energy costs, which he double counts. In reality, most commercial cells now on the market exceed 15 per cent

    and labs regularly report efficiencies well above 20 per cent.

  4. Jim Rose
    April 30th, 2012 at 17:41 | #4

    is atomic power viable without regulatory protections against tort liability?

  5. Hermit
    April 30th, 2012 at 18:03 | #5

    @Jim Rose
    Government backed indemnity is not unique to nuclear. In Australia both the Commonwealth and WA governments will pick up the tab if any of the 120 Mt of future sequestered CO2 escapes from beneath Barrow Island

    The other major form of government intervention is loan guarantees, not as big here as in the US. The most notable default was solar firm Solyndra whereas no nuclear guarantees have defaulted to my knowledge.

    In Australia nuclear power is prohibited by the ARPANS Act with I presume separate legislation enabling Lucas Heights. If a power generating nuke proposal was on the table then several new pieces of Commonwealth legislation might be required.

  6. Laurie Savage
    April 30th, 2012 at 19:17 | #6

    Have you spoken with Barry Brook or read any of his work over at Brave New Climate (http://bravenewclimate.com/)? He is pretty rigorous and open minded in his costings of renewables versus nuclear .

    Quoted from the site:
    “Brook is employed at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute, where he holds the Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and is also a member of the Center for Energy Technology. He has published three books, over 200 refereed scientific papers, is a highly cited researcher, and regularly writes popular articles for the media and public policy documents.”

  7. John Quiggin
    April 30th, 2012 at 20:02 | #7

    I’ve had some limited discussions with Barry Brook.

    Unfortunately, much of the material on his site, particularly on renewables is written by Peter Lang, who’s shown himself to be both innumerate and dishonest. This is related to the fact that he’s a rightwing AGW denier, but his dishonesty and general nastiness goes well beyond what’s implied by that. Barry shows very poor judgement in publishing his material.

  8. April 30th, 2012 at 20:49 | #8

    Last year Germany installed point of use solar at an average cost of $2.60 a watt. As there is no reason why Australia can’t install solar at that price, both are high labour cost countries, and there is still plenty of room for further cost reductions, nuclear power is economically impossible in Australia.

    Just how much solar capacity we will have with a installed cost of $2.60 a watt or the $1 a watt I am sure we will get to before too long, I don’t know. But on sunny days of low demand solar power will push the price of electricity down towards zero. Also, as a price taker with zero fuel cost, solar power, like wind, reduces the wholesale price of electricity. Both of these effects are disasterous for the economics of nuclear plants which need both high wholesale prices and to operate at close to full capacity to hope to make money. Nuclear power could not compete when Australia was mostly coal and gas powered, and it certainly will not be able to compete now that the price of solar has dropped so low. And if nuclear has to pay the market rate for insurance, well, what can I say? Pushing nuclear in Australia is flogging a dead parrot. It’s shuffled off its Tesla coil. It’s a deceased power source.

  9. Chris Warren
    April 30th, 2012 at 21:31 | #9

    @Ronald Brak

    Last year Germany installed point of use solar at an average cost of $2.60 a watt. As there is no reason why Australia can’t install solar at that price,

    Except for politics.

  10. Hermit
    April 30th, 2012 at 22:32 | #10

    With ‘solar too cheap to meter’ you might ask whether this an arm’s length arrangement. The energy retailers have to take all the surplus PV or else they will be charged a shortfall fee of 6.5c per kwh by the renewable energy regulator ORER. That’s on top of the carbon tax advantage that solar already has. If they had their druthers resellers may not take any household PV as it is too fickle. In cloudy Germany resellers want the right to curtail excess PV during bursts of sunshine as it requires gas plant to be throttled back faster than is optimal. I believe German power prices are higher than any equivalent Australian price.

  11. Sam
    April 30th, 2012 at 23:36 | #11

    @John Quiggin
    Why is $ per installed watt an important measure though? Surely cost per kilowatt hour is more relevant.

  12. May 1st, 2012 at 00:05 | #12

    Hermit, here in Adelaide our 100 or so megawatts of solar capacity is spread over hundreds of square kilometres. Can you describe how Adelaide’s solar power capacity could experience a burst of sunshine, besides from at the end of a total solar eclipse?

  13. May 1st, 2012 at 00:15 | #13

    Sam, cost per installed watt is straight forward. But when someone gives cost per kilowatt-hour I have to stop and determine what assumptions have been made. For example, if I wanted to make solar power sound cheap I could give the marginal cost of solar power per kilowatt-hour, which is zero cents as currently sunshine is free. But if I wanted to make it sound expensive I would include the cost of the pixie souls that are vapourised during the silicon purification process, which pushes the cost up to millions of gold crowns per kilowatt-hour. (The exact cost depends on the amount of souless pixie isotopes used in the process.)

  14. Hermit
    May 1st, 2012 at 07:20 | #14

    We could ask a couple of pertinent questions about residential PV
    1) how come sunny places like India aren’t going for it?
    2) how much could the grid rely on it if it cost $0 per watt?
    If an alternative power source (say hamsters on treadmills working night and day) could keep power bills down for millions of people, then the public funding given to residential PV would be seen as an expensive fad. A couple of years back the Productivity Commission calculated that CO2 saving by residential PV cost $400 per tonne. We’d like it to be under $23 so the incentives are immediate to displace daytime coal power.

    Apart from efficiency there is the fairness question of others paying higher power bills so PV owners can cut theirs. In the US I’ve seen a suggestion that non-beneficiaries pay a third of the cost of PV via capital help and subsidies. If we are to cut coal dependence an all weathers night and day power source will have to be found.

  15. May 1st, 2012 at 09:08 | #15

    Hermit, you are typing into the wrong reality again. Use our internet to look up solar power in India in our reality and see what’s happening there.

    A couple of interesting things about solar power in India:

    Poor, off grid, rural Indians are starting to use small, pay as you go, solar power systems for lights and mobile phone charging. This is cheaper, more convenient, and safer and healthier than the kerosene lighting they used to use. They get a solar panel and battery and for a fee they unlock it with their mobile phone when they want to use it. Eventually they pay it off and can use the system for free.

    India has gotten the price of grid connected solar power down to about 14 cents a kilowatt-hour. While still not competitive with other grid connected electricity sources, despite it being load following, this is a very impressive feat and not one I would have expected to be reached at this point.

  16. rog
    May 1st, 2012 at 09:15 | #16

    The relative cheapness of coal generated energy is somewhat offset by the cost of the grid. Recent rises in cost of electricity in Australia have been put down to much needed investment in grid infrastructure. This is one area of advantage for solar in places like India, which doesn’t have much in the way of a grid.

  17. May 1st, 2012 at 09:36 | #17

    Hermit, you asked how much could the grid rely on residential PV if it cost $0 per watt. The answer is, it could and would rely on it a lot. Basically, if it was free, all our electricity during the daytime would come from solar power. Since it costs nothing it could be installed wherever it is convenient for the grid and we could install surplus capacity to cope with cloudy days that would connect itself to the grid as needed when it receives a signal over the internet. Our existing, non-solar generating capacity would be used to meet demand at night, although since electricity during the daytime would be basically free we might start investing in energy storage. So the grid would rely on solar energy during the daytime, although the existing fossil fuel capacity could be brought online if it was needed for some reason.

    So, can you tell me how Adelaide’s solar capacity could experience a burst of sunshine?

  18. wilful
    May 1st, 2012 at 11:09 | #18

    @John Quiggin

    John Quiggin :
    I’ve had some limited discussions with Barry Brook.
    Unfortunately, much of the material on his site, particularly on renewables is written by Peter Lang, who’s shown himself to be both innumerate and dishonest. This is related to the fact that he’s a rightwing AGW denier, but his dishonesty and general nastiness goes well beyond what’s implied by that. Barry shows very poor judgement in publishing his material.

    I don’t believe that’s a fair characterisation, and it doesn’t answer the question.

    (Though I agree about the Peter Lang stuff).

    Also, isn’t the idea of solar being very cheap in terms of $/watt all well and good, but the critical thing is, it lacks storage for the times when the sun doesn’t shine. And the sun most certainly doesn’t shine, across large parts of the country, for significant periods, often for more than twelve hours at a time.

    Reportedly, the $/watt of the best solar thermal plants isn’t nearly as pretty.

    I find it analogous to coal fired power with/without CCS. Without CCS, there’s nothing cheaper than coal. Add a magic not yet proven and quite expensive technology and away we go.

    Just like solar with or without effective storage.

  19. Sam
    May 1st, 2012 at 12:50 | #19

    @Ronald Brak
    The reason you shouldn’t compare by cost per installed watt is that the different technologies have vastly different capacity factors. Unless you take this into account, $/watt is very misleading.

    When you’re considering the merits of future investment of any particular technology, you also shouldn’t use marginal cost per kilowatt hour. The null cost of generating one more kilowatt hour from the sun comes only after a large(ish) initial investment in the PV array. To discount the initial investment required is to miss something important.

    The appropriate measure to use here is average cost per kilowatt hour. This is higher for solar than for other technologies, but has seen a very steep decline in the last few years.

  20. May 1st, 2012 at 13:30 | #20

    For people visiting from other realities I’ll give an update on South Australian wind power:

    In 2011 South Australia received 26% of its electricity from wind power. The cost of integrating wind power was about 1.4 cents per kilowatt-hour it produced, but as a price taker it reduced the average wholesale cost of electricity by at least half a cent, resulting in an overall gain for consumers. South Australia began to construct a significant amount of wind capacity in 2005 and since then has increased electricity use while decreasing the use of coal and gas and reducing electricity imports. Carbon emissions have been cut 15%. As a result of wind, and to much smaller extent solar, South Australia is shutting down its oldest coal power plant permanently, and will operate its remaining coal plant for only the six hottest months of the year. So, there is absolutely no question that wind can result in very significant, large reductions in coal and natural gas use.

  21. May 1st, 2012 at 13:55 | #21

    Sam, you mean you don’t you walk around with a table of insolation values in your head ready to plug into cost per installed watt to work out daily and thus yearly outputs for a solar system depending on its location? You know, sometimes I really wonder just what’s going on inside the heads of normal people.

    And one can’t just look at the cost per kilowatt-hour for solar. It needs an extra piece of information to make sense and that is whether it is point of use or grid. Grid solar power that sells electricity directly to the grid competes with wholesale electricity prices which will soon be something like seven cents a kilowatt-hour during the day, while point of use solar power competes with retail electricity prices which are often over 25 cents a kilowatt-hour. As solar is quite easy to use point of use while pretty much everything else isn’t, just looking at the cost per kilowatt-hour can make for misleading comparisons.

    And as I said, if you give the cost per kilowatt-hour I am going to want to know the assumptions. Too many calculations, such as ones on Barry’s site, are full of fetid dingo kidneys. So by all means give the cost per kilowatt-hour, but also give the information you used to determine it so we can guage its fetid dingo kidney content for ourselves.

  22. BilB
    May 1st, 2012 at 14:23 | #22

    Good on you, Ronald Brack. Thanks for the the news from SA. I’ve just had to turn off the psuedo news, the new ABC24, and put on a video because the “real” news is just too far fetched and shallowly focussed to be believeable for thinking people.

    And you get first use rights for your solar “point of use” reference. The element that is missing though is that, from my observations those people who have installed significant rooftop solar capacity display a new understanding of energy efficiency and regulate their energy consumption to fit within their domestic energy production. This energy self regulation trend is under researched and definitely under reported.

    Good on your for your impressive renewable energy successes South Australia (Barry Brook World).

  23. David Irving (no relation)
    May 1st, 2012 at 14:26 | #23

    Thanks for the article, Prof Q. We need more dispassionate discussions on the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear power (rather than the partisan squabbling we usually get).

  24. John Quiggin
    May 1st, 2012 at 14:38 | #24


    If you agree with me on Peter Lang, in what sense do you think I’m being unfair? According to the listing on Barry’s site, Lang is the primary author of articles on renewables. He’s followed by Ted Trainer, discussed above, and then an American nuclear advocate called Blees, whom I haven’t read, but who doesn’t look any more credible than the other two at a first glance


  25. John Quiggin
    May 1st, 2012 at 14:47 | #25

    To clarify on cost/watt, I quoted those numbers not as the basis of a comparison with coal or nuclear, but to point out that Trainer’s assumptions were way off the mark. Trainer used cost per watt, so that’s what I quoted the evidence on.

    To transform $/watt into c/kwh, you basically need an estimate of the number of peak-equivalent hours per year (2000 or so under favorable conditions), and a percentage cost of capital, including depreciation (10 per cent would be a reasonable starting point) and an allowance for operational costs. With the given parameters, $2/watt=$2000/Kw translates to 10c/Kwh+operational costs. Note that this is a generation cost, for utility-scale projects you have to add transmission, distribution and retail, which will typically be at least as much again, but are the same for other sources.

    I’ve picked these numbers to give round and easily remembered answers, so I’m not going to respond to quibbles.

  26. Sam
    May 1st, 2012 at 15:24 | #26

    @Ronald Brak
    Agreed. Yet another complication is the extent to which solar is load following. In Australia peak electricity use occurs at peak PV generation, so point-of-use PV really reduces the peak strain on the grid.

    In England, peak electricity use comes on cold, grey afternoons in winter, when PV is negligible. In this case, rooftop PV is delivering energy to the grid only when it costs very little. Under existing arrangements, electricity costs the same to the consumer all the time, which means users at times of low demand subsidize users at high demand. The PV owner gets to opt out of this arrangement, avoiding the artificially high price at times of low demand (by using their own array), and exploiting the artificially low price (offered by the grid) at times of high demand.

    To sum up; In Australia, the fact that solar only has to compete with retail electricity and not wholesale represents a real saving to the system as a whole. In England, it’s just an implicit subsidy to PV owners. It just exploits an arbitrage opportunity presented by an artificially constant price (to consumers) of electricity.

    Of course, the answer to both situations is real time electricity pricing. This would make clear the highly profitable nature of Australian rooftop PV, and the comparatively much poorer prospects for the English.

  27. Fran Barlow
    May 1st, 2012 at 17:12 | #27

    I find much of the argument on cost something of a red herring. As far as I can tell, power in Australia is relatively cheap to users (excluding of course the costs of damaging the biosphere and the exposure to price shock risk associated with resopurce price volatility and depletion). If the end use cost of electricity to users was three times what it is now, personally, I wouldn’t much care. So speaking purely personally, if solar or wind or geothermal or any other renewable or sustainable technology (and here I include nuclear power) can get under this price point, I don’t see a serious problem. And if you ask me whether I’d be happy to make a straight swap of all coal and gas for nuclear power, I’d say yes without hesitation. Nuclear power is technologically capable of doing the job that coal and gas do within the grid at a tiny fraction of the ecological footprint of either of those. As far as I’m concerned, it costs whatever it costs and we ought to just pay up. If we did, our emissions from stationary electricity would fall to zero in a very short time, and we’d also be doing our bit for reducing ocean acidification. The air around current coal and gas plants would be cleaner.

    Of course, politically, that’s simply not feasible, and I am amongst other things, supportive of the majority of people getting their way even when what they want isn’t entirely reasonable, provided nothing dreadful follows from giving them what they want. If people want to go 100% renewable and wear whatever costs are associated with complete decarbonisation of the grid, I see no reason why they shouldn’t have it, even if it does turn out to be a lot more expensive than resort to nuclear power. People are entitled to decide how they’d like to spend their money. My concern has always been that when faced with the reality of the costs of such a roll out, the fossil hydrocarbon folks would scare the living daylights out of the citizenry and make that the case for business-as-usual. One only has to look at the way they’ve made $23tCO2e seem like the end of life as we know it to see that. Whatever course we take, we must decarbonise the grid — and our transport system too, and find ways of producing all the many other things we need to on a low emissions base. Time is short. We just need to get this done.

    The fundamental constraint here is political. The regime we have seems likely to fall in a little over a year from now. The replacement regime is not going to be even remotely interested in renewables and has sworn to remove the carbon price as well. They probably won’t get away with that but things do look troubling. If we’d committed to build about 25GW of nuclear power between now and 2030, the colour of the regime would be moot. We’d be locked into a low carbon future. It seems perverse to me that those interested in that end and who know how politics works in this country are opposing a way of ensuring we get there which can’t be white-anted by the fossil fuel lobby.

  28. May 1st, 2012 at 17:15 | #28

    Sam, what with all the heat waves England has suffered from I was wondering if winter was still a time of clear peak demand, but looking into it, I see that the high cost of oil and gas has resulted in lots of UKians installing electric heat pumps to warm their domiciles (and their homes too), increasing winter demand. I also found out that the retail price of daytime electricity is something like 16 cents a kilowatt-hour. So if the UK can install PV at the same price as Germany did last year, and looking up UK insolation in my head I get an average of about 3 kilowatt-hours per square metre for a fixed panel, that means a point of use PV system will give a return of about 6.7%. That’s pretty lousy. I won’t even get out of bed in the morning for 6.7% and that’s not even including the cost of the system eventually wearing out and needing to be replaced. Mind you, the UK has shoot itself in the economic gonads so effectively maybe a 6.7% return on a 30 year investment doesn’t seem so bad over there. Anyway, I think the cost of PV will have to drop even lower before it takes off in Britain, and I’m quite confident it will drop. If solar’s 7% a year decrease in cost is maintained those whacky Germans will be installing it for under a $1.30 a watt in eight year’s time. But in the meantime, when the cold wind blows, the Brits can take comfort from the fact that their wind turbines will help keep them warm.

  29. May 1st, 2012 at 17:39 | #29

    Fran, South Australia has demonstrated that wind is a inexpensive way of reducing carbon emissions and the massive decline in PV prices means that point of use solar is also cost effective in sunny Australia. So there’s no need to worry that decarbonizing the electricity sector will cost a huge amount of money compared to doing nothing. However, I am concerned that certain people will act to delay the introduction of low emission generating capacity and/or make it more expensive than it needs to be.

  30. BilB
    May 1st, 2012 at 17:51 | #30


    If Australia were to be foolish enough to instal 25 Gw of Nuclear generation capacity half of those would be white elepants within a decade and half of the balance abandonded within the next 10 years. And the reason is that people have a choice now.

    Take your view that electricity up to 60 cents per unit is an acceptable imposition, let it be 40cents which is more likely, then a household with 4kw of capacity on their roof would be saving $1760 per year in offset energy costs, even with a basic system. No feed in tariffs, just straight personal consumption. That is a lot of money into any family budget. Further, it gives the viability to perhaps double that capacity and increase the savings to $3500 per year, and then to add some storage. $350 per month are the payments on an $18,000 dollar car over 5 years, so as payment on a home energy system, that is quite a respectable system system which once paid for provides a very significant improvement in the standard of living for a family.

    It is the same incentive level for business. Now that the self generated power, “point of use” as Ronald Brak phrased it, genie is out of the bottle, nothing is going to be able to stuff it back in. Solar power is going to continue to grow at an ever increasing rate. In the not too distant future an essential factor in real estate values will be the amount of installed solar capacity for average houses and factories.

    So with that realisation Nuclear Power systems will be very much the completely wrong grid system in which to invest. Of course there will still be the need for 4 or 5 gigawatt of continuous background capacity which would keep some of the nuclear plants operating once in place. The question would be which ones and where, and it that very question that poisons the choice for an initial startup Nuclear Facility.

    That is why I do not believe that Nuclear will never arrive in Australia unless some bullish political party forces a plant into reality simply to make a point. The Electricty Generation industry has a lot of technologies to choose from, at much lower per item cost than a Nuclear Plant, and that range is even greater if the retail price is 40 cents per unit.

  31. Sam
    May 1st, 2012 at 18:05 | #31

    @Fran Barlow
    Fran, I must say you appear to be arguing from false premises. You say,

    “If people want to go 100% renewable and wear whatever costs are associated with complete decarbonisation of the grid, I see no reason why they shouldn’t have it, even if it does turn out to be a lot more expensive than resort to nuclear power.”

    The real world just doesn’t look like this anymore. Maybe it did 10 years ago when your views on this stuff formed, but it doesn’t now. In Australia, nuclear just isn’t going to be cheaper than PV and wind, it would be more expensive, which is why it isn’t going to happen.

  32. rog
    May 1st, 2012 at 18:40 | #32

    @Fran Barlow Fran, saying that cost is a red herring is just such a cop out – cost is the argument.

  33. Ikonoclast
    May 1st, 2012 at 19:59 | #33

    @Fran Barlow

    Fran refers to “renewable or sustainable technology (and here I include nuclear power).”

    Nuclear (fission) power on planet earth is not renewable nor is it sustainable.

    “A renewable resource is a natural resource with the ability of being replaced through biological or natural processes and replenished with the passage of time. …

    Solar radiation, tides, winds, geothermal, biomass and other natural elements are renewable resources of energy now called renewable energies.

    Gasoline, coal, natural gas, diesel and other commodities derived from fossil fuels, as well as minerals like copper and others, are non-renewable resources without a sustainable yield.” – Wikipedia.

    Uranium, thorium and other possible nuclear fission fuels fall under the “minerals” definition and as such are in finite supply on planet earth. There can be no significant renewal of the accessible fission fuel endowment on the crust of the planet outside the highly implausible and totally apocalyptic collision of a large uranium / thorium endowed meteor or comet with earth or the equally implausible and apocalyptic eruption of uranium rich material from the earth’s deep crust/outer mantle.

    All renewable resources and energy sources on earth depend on incoming solar radiation except for geothermal energy which depends on the large latent heat and radioactivity of the core of our planet. As such “renewable” means renewable while the long term exogenous (to the biospehere) energy source remains operative.

    It is important to get the scientific facts and definitions right.

    Also cost is always the issue with power as with the acquisition of any resource. Costs are not only financial. The most important costs by far are the real physical, chemical and biological costs and thus in total the biosphere system costs as damage and even irreparable damage.

  34. Fran Barlow
    May 1st, 2012 at 21:34 | #34

    @Ronald Brak

    <blockquoteSouth Australia has demonstrated that wind is a inexpensive way of reducing carbon emissions and the massive decline in PV prices means that point of use solar is also cost effective in sunny Australia.

    As the Howard Cosell head in Futurama might say: fabulous if true. SA also has geothermal reserves and if they can make these work, that’s also great. When the last coal and gas plants close there we can declare victory.

    @bilb said:

    If Australia were to be foolish enough to instal 25 Gw of Nuclear generation capacity half of those would be white elephants within a decade and half of the balance abandonded within the next 10 years.

    It’s a lovely thought, but utterly improbable. Similar things are being said of the NBN.

    let it be 40cents which is more likely, then a household with 4kw of capacity on their roof would be saving $1760 per year in offset energy costs, even with a basic system.

    That might push down energy costs in the early afternoon, but it’s hard to see how they could put a dent in consumption much after about 4PM. You’ve also got to deliver all that output to places where plants are operating.

    @rog said:

    Fran, saying that cost is a red herring is just such a cop out – cost is the argument

    Not really. Nobody outside the left asks about the cost of the defence forces. It’s sacrosanct. In Australia, geothermal may well be the best non-nuclear option that can do the job now being done by coal and gas but that doesn’t seem likely to be cheap. CSP with storage isn’t going to be cheap either. If you massively invest in storage technology then renewables (intermittents mostly) become fully despatchable but at significant cost, one way or the other. As I said, that doesn’t bother me. All I care about is getting fossil hydrocarbons out of the system as quickly as possible.

    @Ikonoclast said:

    A renewable resource is a natural resource with the ability of being replaced through biological or natural processes and replenished with the passage of time

    While nuclear is not technically ‘renewable’ it is arguably ‘sustainable’. It is likely (according to Mackay) that with FBRs the supply of known nuclear fuel might last 1000 years. Well before humanity reached that point, it might well have found some other way of extracting low carbon energy from the biosphere.

    The most important costs by far are the real physical, chemical and biological costs and thus in total the biosphere system costs as damage and even irreparable damage.

    I certainly agree with that. So the question is — how do we minimise the human footprint in a world that is unlikely to choose to reduce its demand for energy-intensive service?

  35. May 1st, 2012 at 22:56 | #35

    Fran, you wrote “Fabulous if true.” You know, you can go and look these things up. Would you like me to give you a link to an AEMO South Australian Supply and Demand Outlook report? It only has data up to March last year, but I think the AEMO would be considered a reliable source. Anyway, here it is:


    If you are willing to accept that they are telling the truth, then I can help you find more up to date sources, or you can just wait for them to put out the 2012 report.

  36. Hermit
    May 2nd, 2012 at 06:42 | #36

    I’d be careful to give SA as an example of successful energy policy since it has very high power prices by world standards
    While 26% of SA’s megawatt hours are from wind another 44% are from gas. A mix of gas generation technologies gives the flexibility to smooth the fluctuations in intermittent sources. The Torrens Island baseload plant is Australia’s biggest gas user. As pointed out SA’s developed coal deposits are dwindling fast but so are gas reserves in the Cooper and Otway basins.

    SA does of course have the world’s largest uranium deposit at Olympic Dam which is hamstrung for future development by lack of power and water. If gas supplies cannot be maintained for SA the stakes are huge; power for Adelaide itself, balancing of wind and solar and the development of the State’s best economic prospect. In dry years SA will depend heavily on desalination. Nuclear with flexible load following capability could fill the energy gap nicely.

  37. BilB
    May 2nd, 2012 at 07:20 | #37

    Fran, you cannot hide from the reality that personal Solar Electricity generation is both effective and increasingly more popular. This DIYEG improves the living standard of participants and reduces the demand for the grid generators and distributors. This is what is happening in parts of Europe which do not have anything like Australia’s insolation. So where Europe urges the Solar industry forward with subsidies Australia is removing subsidies and yet the industry continues. So as Australia’s better insolation partially compensates for Europe’s subsidies. But as the local grid energy price grows (driven by grid industry opportunism, not a Carbon Price), the compelling argument for roof top solar continues to grow. A thirty year period is sufficient time for 50% or more of Australia’s electricity to come from owner consumers.

    This will make a mess of the grid electricity system if the power companies have invested in the wrong kind of infrastructure. The economics of personal power generation are reasonable now. As electricity retail prices increase they will become compelling. Parallel to this, as you are aware, is the certainty that the price of oil based products will steadily rise through the next 20 years. This will put pressure on families for their transport costs as well as on all products that use oil for their manufacture. Where families and businesses can employ electricity for their personal transport, this will become an important and compelling pressure to further invest in rooftop solar, for both business and domestic. These issues cannot be treated in isolation from one another. Energy is energy regardless of the form it arrives in.

    So over the next twenty years most households are facing a $60,000 investment in rooftop solar electricity and water heating as well as for an electric commuter vehicle. That might sound like a lot of money until you calculate how much familes already spend on vehicles and energy. The fact is that over the same period families wil save as much as they spend times two by making the investment.

    Decarbonising our energy environment will be an accidental consequence over the next thirty years as these commercial forces play out.

  38. Katz
    May 2nd, 2012 at 09:21 | #38

    Jim Rose :
    is atomic power viable without regulator protections against tort liability?

    I notice that no one has attempted to answer Jim Rose’s key question.

    To hand wave this question away by pointing to other instances of government indemnification won’t do.

    The sheer scale of the indemnification of the nuclear industry may well be on the scale of accepting the economic costs of damages arising from losing a major war. Few regimes emerge intact from the consequences of such a loss.

  39. Chris Warren
    May 2nd, 2012 at 09:42 | #39


    I notice that no one has attempted to answer Jim Rose’s key question.

    Presumably because no-one wants to admit that corporations always seek conveniences and protections from the State – and will change the government if this is not provided.

    They simply assume that if something goes wrong various emergency services and regulatory agencies will deal with it, even if a particular subsidiary goes bankrupt.

    Given the type of regime we live under – there is no issue.

  40. BilB
    May 2nd, 2012 at 11:59 | #40


    I think that following Fukushima all of those considerations will be back to the drawing board and think it out from scratch, especially in Australia where there are minimal regulations for Nuclear Power Production. I doubt that regulations in place for our Nuclear Research facilities will contain much that would be relevent.

    If the simple act of climbing a ladder has a OH&S cloud over it or every power lead on a building site requires monthly inspections, then the regulations for building and operating a Nuclear Power facility is going to need a mountain of Public Safety regulation.

  41. May 2nd, 2012 at 12:13 | #41

    Hermit, why wouldn’t South Australia be a good example for the rest of Australia when, once the higher wholesale price of electricity caused by the lack of cheap coal is accounted for, we pay about the same or less than most Australians do for electricity? This means our distribution is just as messed up as everyone else’s.

    Oh, wait a minute, are you suggesting that electricity is expensive in South Australia because of wind? Oh dear, I’ve already covered this. If you look up a little you’ll see I gave the cost of integrating wind energy into South Australia’s grid and how much wind lowered electricity prices and pointed that consumers came out ahead. You see, the reason why South Australia has a lot of wind power is because we have no good coal deposits. This makes the wholesale price of electricity in South Australia higher than in states with coal. And the higher wholesale price makes wind power more profitable. If you were going to build a wind turbine, would you put it Queensland where you could sell the electricity for about 4 cents a kilowatt-hour, or would you put it in South Australia where you could sell the electricity for about 7.5 cents a kilowatt-hour?

    And there’s no need to worry about South Australia’s coal running out. While according to the AEMO we did only have 14 years of lignite left, we’ve just recently increased that to over 30 years, as we are closing down one coal power plant and only running the other one during the hottest six months of the year.

    And also, South Australia isn’t about to run out of gas any time soon. There is a very long pipe that brings in gas from other states. Also, South Australia has taken the step of reducing gas use by using wind power, and solar power too. Gas and coal use have declined over the past few years while electricity consumption has gone up.

    Oh, and Hermit, wholesale electricity prices are about 7.5 cents a kilowatt-hour here, and will be maybe 8 or so cents after the carbon price is introduced, so no one’s going to build a nuclear reactor here.

  42. May 2nd, 2012 at 12:17 | #42

    By the way, Hermit, you haven’t gotten back to me about how Adelaide’s solar capacity could experience a burst of sunshine. Are you going to back up what you wrote or is it something we don’t have to worry about?

  43. Hermit
    May 2nd, 2012 at 12:48 | #43

    @Ronald Brak
    Good question. Adelaide at Latitude 35 South is far better suited to solar than Germany at Lat 47+ N. Germany now has so much subsidised PV it will have to be either curtailed or exported at a giveaway price
    Due to aircons Adelaide’s electricity demand is very peaky during hot weather with demand lingering into the evening when PV output fades. The official thinking seems to be to ration aircon not to install more PV

    In case you’re asking I’ve spent $20k on PV but I find I make greater use of other forms of renewable energy. My conclusion is that PV is a middle class fad not a serious source of electricity absent subsidies.

  44. BilB
    May 2nd, 2012 at 13:21 | #44

    I f the Chinese can ship Coal from NSW and Qld for electricity generation then so can South Australia. I doubt that there is a problem with backup energy for Renewables in Australia, unless we let the likes of Clive Palmer to flog the lot so that he can squander the proceeds building replica ships.

  45. May 2nd, 2012 at 14:23 | #45

    Fortunately there is no realistic stituation in which South Australia will want to import coal. While I said we have over a thirty year supply, the fact is it’s really an infinite supply as it’s not going to be very long before we mostly give up on coal as lignite is not competitive. Once we start getting about five percent of our electricity from solar we’ll see it having a significant effect on lowing daytime electricity prices and between the high cost of coal here and the carbon price it will only make sense to use coal for peak power. It only took seven years to go from an insignificant amount of wind to getting 26% of our electricity from it, and I think we’ve started a roughly similar expansion of solar power. We might keep the remaining coal plant as a peak plant for a long time, or we might not. It all depends on the cost of keeping it operating and what happens to wholesale prices. My guess is that it will probably be shut down for good before too long, but that’s just a guess.

  46. May 2nd, 2012 at 18:12 | #46

    Hermit, Germany only gets something like 5% of its electricity from solar. This is enough to have a noticable effect on daytime electricity prices, but they are a long way from curtailing it or exporting it at bargain prices.

    As a resident of South Australia, I haven’t yet received my air conditioner rationing card. I think rather than rationing, they’re actually pushing efficiency here, so we can get the same amount of cooling for less electricity.

    You may have concluded that PV is a middle class fad and not a serious source of electricity absent subsidies, but that doesn’t change the fact that at the moment for many Australians point of use solar is the cheapest source of electricity without subsidies. Installations are currently being done for under $4 a watt. That means that provided one’s discount rate isn’t too high, point of use solar is cheaper than electricity from the grid before any subsidy is received. As we have a feed in tariff that lets people sell point of use solar to the grid for three quarters of what they will charge your neighbour 5 metres away to use it, we are doomed to experience a continued rapid expansion of solar power here in South Australia.

  47. Hermit
    May 3rd, 2012 at 08:05 | #47

    I’m not sure that energy retailers actually want to take surplus residential PV. It’s more a case that they are forced to via the small scale technology certificates (STC) mechanism. I understand a review of the renewable energy target is coming up requested by the retailers. Garnaut, the Productivity Commission and ACCC have also suggested a RET on top of the carbon tax is double dipping. I’d have no problems with PV if there were no feed-in tariffs (paid in part by battlers) and the owner of the wires could decide how much they want to take, perhaps charging an integration fee as done in the US with wind power.

    However the big issue is what can substantially replace coal for that 40-60% of peak demand called ‘base load’. PV doesn’t suit that role. Generators are now reluctant to build either coal or gas fired baseload plants due to future cost unknowns, both carbon tax and raw fuel cost. Even when Prime Minister Abbott temporarily repeals the carbon tax those doubts will remain. Therefore we seem locked into an energy death spiral whereby coal plants won’t be replaced and expensive gas takes over their role while renewable energy costs are out of proportion to their contribution.

  48. May 3rd, 2012 at 13:28 | #48

    Hermit, I feel as though you haven’t been paying attention to what I’ve written. From July South Australia will have no baseload.

  49. Hermit
    May 3rd, 2012 at 16:06 | #49

    @Ronald Brak
    What? Is the 1280 MW Torrens Island single cycle gas plant (and Australia’s biggest gas user) to be retired?

  50. May 3rd, 2012 at 16:31 | #50

    It’s a load following plant.

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