Home > Environment > Uranium exports: bonanza or bust?

Uranium exports: bonanza or bust?

February 23rd, 2013

Note: The usual sitewide ban on discussions of nuclear power is lifted, for this post only

Queensland’s ban on uranium mining was lifted last year, and a committee is due to report soon on the conditions under which mining might be restarted. As recently as a year ago, the prospects for uranium exports looked bright, despite the Fukushima disaster. In March last year, the Bureau of Resource and Energy Economics predicted “prices close to $100 a pound between now and 2015, rising to $124 in 2016 and $141.6 in 2017, in constant 2011-12 Australian dollars.”

In reality, however, the price has fallen to $US43/pound in early 2013 and looks set to decline further. Looking ahead, the future of nuclear power looks bleaker than at any time since the industry began. That’s bad news for the global climate – cheap and safe nuclear power would be the ideal replacement for coal if it could be delivered – but there is no benefit in denying reality

It’s now clear that the “nuclear renaissance” is dead in the US. There are four plants currently under construction, behind time and over budget as usual. No more are planned, and with two plants already closing, it seems clear that nuclear power capacity is going to decline. It’s fashionable to blame cheap gas for this, but that hasn’t stopped huge growth in wind and solar, neither of which is as heavily subsidized as nuclear. It’s even more silly to blame the opponents of nuclear power, who have been both quiet and politically marginal in the US, as is evidence by the bipartisan support for nuclear loan guarantees.[1]

The situation in Europe, and of course in Japan, is even worse. Again, and despite the absence of cheap gas, the economics simply don’t stack up. George Monbiot, who famously became an advocate of nuclear power *after* Fukushima, has reluctantly concluded that “for now, the facts are against me”.

The great hope for the future of nuclear power is, of course, China[2]. Given its rapid growth, China is in a position to place a bet on every horse in the energy race, including nuclear. But, while its plans for renewables have been steadily upgraded, China’s nuclear plans were scaled back substantially after Fukushima.

It seems likely that, with higher safety standards, the Chinese nuclear program (until now characterized by on-time and on-budget delivery, but probably with compromised safety) will start to experience construction costs and delays comparable to those that have been the uniform experience of the developed world. If not, there is still a chance for nuclear power in the future. But the establishment of a track record of safe construction and operation in China will take at least a decade, which means that any global renaissance won’t start delivering benefits until after 2030.

Most of these negative outcomes could have been, and were, predicted on the basis of 20th century experience with nuclear power. In this context, it’s striking that rightwingers who want to excuse anti-science attitudes on their side so often point to the anti-nuclear stance of many (not all) on the left as an example of leftwing anti-science.

The opponents of nuclear power have been proved right on the big question of whether cheap, safe and clean nuclear power can be delivered in developed countries. Perhaps some were right for the wrong reasons. But on this issue, as on so many others, the clearest examples of magical (and therefore anti-scientific) thinking are found among those rightwingers who continue to insist, against all the evidence, that nuclear power represents an obvious solution to our problems, and that the only obstacle to its success is the unreasonable opposition of environmentalist.

Coming back to the original quesiont, the price of uranium boomed in the early 2000s, after supplies derived from nuclear stockpiles were exhausted. But the current decline looks set to continue for a long time. Unless new mines are profitable at prices of $40/tonne or less, they will probably be uneconomic.

fn1. Of course, news like this doesn’t help (H/T David Adamson).

fn2. BREE also mentions India and Russia. But given the long history of lax construction standards in both countries (a problem China is at least addressing), it seems unlikely that either of these countries will serve as a model, or that they can manage a rapid expansion without another disaster, perhaps not on the scale of Chernobyl or Fukushima, but enough to derail the whole process.

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  1. Nathan
    February 27th, 2013 at 11:19 | #1

    @quokka

    The hydro vs non-hydro point is probably a good one though.

  2. quokka
    February 27th, 2013 at 11:19 | #2

    Ronald Brak :
    Quokka, you must have skipped the bit where I explained that nuclear power doesn’t pay the full cost of its insurance. That’s a huge subsidy right there. Another subsidy of sorts is waste disposal in the US. Nuclear generators are only charged 0.1 cents per kilowatt-hour for waste disposal, but that hasn’t really panned out. Twelve billion dollars of the money collected has been spent and there is still no waste repository and none on the horizon. But who knows? Maybe in a few years Nuke-Away will be invented.

    And you must be missing the reality that no industry carries unlimited insurance. What if the Gulf oil spill was due to a company with far less resources than BP? Who would cough up then? By the way, BP largely self insures via it’s subsidiary Jupiter Insurance. How cozy.

    As no industrial facility of any sort can ever be declared 100% safe, those facilities with potential to do serious harm MUST all carry unlimited insurance, eh? Let start with large hydro dams which are conclusively proven to be capable of do great harm in the event of a catastrophic accident. Does such insurance actually happen?

    Then we could a have a look at the chemical industry, a catastrophic accident in which has been shown to lead to great harm on multiple occasions. And who is insuring against the harm done by the 10 million tonnes of toxic industrial chemicals, two million of which are carcinogens dumped to the environment every year.

    Clearly the reason there is no universal requirement for unlimited insurance is that it would be plain unworkable.

    So why should such requirement be uniquely applied to nuclear power? Nuclear power is far more environmentally benign that the oil industry and is the most successful and important low carbon electricity generation technology other that hydro. It generates much more electricty that all non-hydro renewables put together which is not going to change anytime soon.

    If fossil fuel industries had to insure against the cost of air pollution and future climate related damage, they would be in big trouble. Care to insure the Great Barrier Reef?

    As for cost of spent nuclear fuel management being factored into consumer electricity prices via a levy, just how is this a subsidy? How absurd.

  3. quokka
    February 27th, 2013 at 11:43 | #3

    Nathan :
    @quokka
    The hydro vs non-hydro point is probably a good one though.

    @Nathan

    Yes, it is. And here’s another one. A significant amount of the nuclear R&D spend has gone into work with only indirect connection with nuclear power in the form of light water reactors in a once though fuel that are the foundation of nuclear power not only in the US but world wide. For example research into a closed fuel cycle with fast reactors and proprocessing technology for cycling of actinides.

    Such R&D work really currently provides no commercial benefit at all for the existing nuclear power industry and it really is stretching it to call it a subsidy.

    Of course this is not unique to nuclear R&D. I’ve no doubt that some of the renewables R&D spend is “blue sky” stuff and it would be unreasonable to tally those costs up as subsidies to existing renewables industry.

    This is definitely not an argument against much expanded government backed advanced energy R&D, fodr which there is a dire need.

    I really do wish people would put some more thought into these matters.

  4. February 27th, 2013 at 14:04 | #4

    I didn’t mention unlimited insurance, Quokka.

  5. TerjeP
    February 27th, 2013 at 20:17 | #5

    Ronald Brak :
    You know, even if it was Elton John’s fault, I don’t think it would change the situation. It wouldn’t actually convince the nuclear waste to skip to the end of its decay series or make it easier to dispose of.

    There are proven ways to make most of the waste skip to the end of its decay series (and to massively shorten the decay life of the small remainder). And these methods have the advantage of not only removing a legacy radioactive bi-product from existence but of also delivering large quantities of additional energy. In my view the later means that much of the waste could in the right context be considered a valuable asset rather than a liability. Disposal seems positively silly. What is called for is storage, management and commercialisation of certain technologies.

  6. February 27th, 2013 at 21:12 | #6

    Just let me look up the market price for nuclear waste…

    Hmmm… It looks like no one on the entire planet is willing to pay for red cent, or indeed a cent of any other colour for it. Sure, I had an offer from someone in Kabul, but I don’t think he was ligit. I guess the market has spoken. The investors of the world, even in these low interest rate times, obviously think it’s very unlikely that nuclear waste will become valuable any time soon, and who am I to say they’re wrong? Sure, the world’s investors have been wrong before, but, particularly in this case, I wouldn’t go betting any money on it.

  7. TerjeP
    February 27th, 2013 at 21:20 | #7

    I think it’s called a glut. And as I indicated it’s a function of tge technological context. But the fact remains that most of the nuclear waste could be made to skip to the end if it’s decay series.

  8. February 27th, 2013 at 21:32 | #8

    I just realized something. Japan’s huge uranium stockpile is poised to go off like a bomb in the world market. (Maybe that wasn’t the best turn of phrase to use.) I suspect nothing has been done about it yet and uranium bought on long term contract could still be being added to it. So it’s not just a matter of reduced demand, but it’s possible for former consumers to become suppliers, particularly if they have enough nuclear fuel to last out the life span of their remaining reactors. Not a happy thought for anyone in the uranium mining business.

  9. Mark Duffett
    February 27th, 2013 at 22:06 | #9

    @Ronald Brak

    Gee, Ronald, you really reckon you’ve stolen a march on the world’s commodity traders? Go right ahead and put your life savings on shorting uranium if you’re sure, but for mine, I think you’ll find they’ve already thought that one through and long since priced it in. They’ll also have factored in that rumours of the death of Japanese nuclear generation have been greatly exaggerated, as Japan’s leaders have now realised the damage being done to the national accounts by skyrocketing fossil fuel imports.

  10. Katz
    February 28th, 2013 at 05:28 | #10

    “If fossil fuel industries had to insure against the cost of air pollution and future climate related damage, they would be in big trouble. Care to insure the Great Barrier Reef?”

    But the point is that the fossil fuel industries are not compelled to take out this insurance. So why drag this red herring across the path?

  11. John Quiggin
    February 28th, 2013 at 08:47 | #11

    @Mark Duffett

    As the OP says, the market price of uranium has been falling for some time, and seems likely to fall further. That would impose losses on governments who hold stocks of uranium, but I don’t think many private traders have long net positions. So, yes, it does seem as if adverse developments have been priced in, but there may still be more to come.

  12. February 28th, 2013 at 09:38 | #12

    Mark, what led you to think that I would conclude that commodity traders wouldn’t be able to realise something before I did? Particularly something that should be extremely obvious to anyone who trades in uranium? When I write comments here, do I come across as a supreme Narcissis who believes themselves to not only be a world leader in thought, but a world leader in all the thoughts? If so, I apologise, as I was only aiming to give the impression of being a mild Narcissis.

  13. Hermit
    February 28th, 2013 at 10:21 | #13

    Some rough comparisons of the cost per gross gigajoule of different fuels. If recent spot trade in yellowcake has been about $100 per kg that contains nearly 600 GJ of energy under conventional fission. However that requires energy intensive enrichment which could be deducted. Power plants generally convert heat to electricity with 40-50% efficiency.

    Thermal black coal has about 22 GJ per tonne recent spot price ~$100. Minemouth brown coal costs about $6/t for 10 GJ or less. No allowance made for tax on the resulting CO2. For comparison I’ll use the predicted 2015 east Australian gas price. My resulting figures for the cost of gross energy per GJ are then;
    yellowcake 17c
    brown coal 60c
    black thermal coal 455c
    export parity gas 900c

  14. TerjeP
    February 28th, 2013 at 13:35 | #14

    One GJ is 278kWhrs.

    Hermit – the fuel cost is interesting but ulimately it is meaningless without knowing the cost of the machine that can convert it to a useable form. This is the problem with claiming that wind and solar is free energy. It isn’t free because you need a machine to convert it to a useable form. And useable form needs to include time and place issues.

    Nuclear energy is extremely appealing because the fuel is so energy rich but the associated machine has to be evonomically viable.

  15. Fran Barlow
    February 28th, 2013 at 15:59 | #15

    @Ronald Brak

    Twelve billion dollars of the money collected has been spent and there is still no waste repository and none on the horizon.

    Not one cent of this has been held by the nuclear power industry. All of it has gone to the Feds, AIUI. That’s plainly wrong, but you can scarcely blame the nuclear power generators for this. It’s not taxation as such, but clearly, it is the opposite of a subsidy.

    Also, if you are not suggesting that the nuclear power industry should not have infinite liability, where is the appropriate place to cap liability? So far, no incident in the US has gone close to the Price-Anderson limit.

    Let’s allow Fukushima’s cost to be $250 bn and with that in mind had required that to have been spread over the 46 years of operation you come up with a figure of about $5.5bn per year (in current dollars). Had this been imposed from 1964 it might well have been the case that Fukushima would have been closed in 1999 when some issues began arising. Maybe they’d not have excavated to build at sea-level. Maybe they’d have had independent back-up power in the form of isolated diesel generators to do the emergency shut down and cooling.

    Fukushima was built and managed by a non-accountable regime. I’d much sooner unaccountable regimes ran wind and solar plants and such, but the key problem is governance rather than technology choice.

  16. John Quiggin
    February 28th, 2013 at 16:36 | #16

    @Fran Barlow

    The annual output of Fukushima was worth way less then $5.5 billion, so if the accident were anticipated, it would have been insane to build the plant.

    A more relevant comparison is to spread the cost over all of Japan’s 50 reactors, which comes out at $5 billion per reactor, more than the typical construction cost. As I observe here

    http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/the-steep-path-nuclear-future-6849

    Fukushima has turned Japan’s decision to rely on nuclear power from a costly but defensible investment in energy independence to an economic disaster

  17. TerjeP
    February 28th, 2013 at 17:16 | #17

    The Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant had a closer proximity to the epicenter of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami than Fukushima. Onagawa stood the test of both the magnitude 9 earthquake and ~14 meter high tsunami. I don’t think you can say all nuclear plants present an equal risk. If you suggested that the old russian reactors of the Chernobyl type design should be shut then you would get no argument from me.

    As for the $245 billion dollar figure can somebody explain where this comes from.

  18. Jim Rose
    February 28th, 2013 at 18:04 | #18

    TerjeP, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onagawa_Nuclear_Power_Plant#2011

    the town of Onagawa was largely destroyed by the tsunami. Following the tsunami, about 300 homeless residents of that town found refuge in the nuclear plant’s gymnasium.

    the tsunami was more than 13m high at both Fukushima I and the Onagawa power plant.

    The largest difference apart from the reactor safely systems designed 20 years apart, was the Fukushima I seawall was 5.7m high; the Onagawa power plant seawall was nearly 14m high.

  19. Fran Barlow
    February 28th, 2013 at 18:23 | #19

    @John Quiggin

    The annual output of Fukushima was worth way less then $5.5 billion, so if the accident were anticipated, it would have been insane to build the plant.

    Of course, in that case they might have decided that building it some place else might have been better, or building it with higher sea walls and/or not excavating to put it at sea level and/or building the separate and protected diesel generator as back up.

    I’m not sure that one really can spread the cost over all reactors in Japan. In 1960 the Val Verde quake on the other side of the Pacific had sent Tsunamis to parts of Japan not far from Fukushima. The people commissioning the plant had to be aware of the risk. Really, at $5.5bn per annum, you can buy an enormous amount of tsunami mitigation.

    Fukushima has turned Japan’s decision to rely on nuclear power from a costly but defensible investment in energy independence to an economic disaster.

    It wasn’t that decision per se that did that, but rather, the way nuclear power was implemented. They might, in theory, have built fail safe plants — meaning that they were safe even if they failed. They plainly chose cheap plant design specs instead.

    Also, we need to consider what they might have done in 1964 instead. Equivalent coal plants would have been a disaster not only for Japan but the world. More pollution and more radioactive waste would have been spread about as part of normal operation than was released post-Tsunami — so the $245 bn in damages may be misleading.

  20. John Quiggin
    February 28th, 2013 at 19:00 | #20

    @TerjeP

    $245 billion sounds implausibly precise, but here’s a reasonably solid source for “up to” $250 billion

    http://newsonjapan.com/html/newsdesk/article/89987.php

    This estimate of over $130 billion covers only costs to TEPCO

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-11-07/fukushima-137-billion-cost-has-tepco-seeking-more-aid.html

  21. quokka
    February 28th, 2013 at 19:17 | #21

    @John Quiggin

    This is just the big number without context gambit again.

    Here is some context:

    From the European Environment Agency “Estimated average EU external costs for electricity generation technologies in 2005″, the estimated external costs are:

    Lignite: 8-26 Eurocents/kWh
    Hard Coal: 5-18 Eurocents/kWh
    Oil: 7-22 Eurocents/kWh
    Nuclear 1 Eurocent/kWh (approx, because it is so tiny on the chart)

    The nuclear external costs are of course for normal operation not for an accident.

    From the IEA Energy Statistics Electricity Generation by fuel chart, I estimate total nuclear production at about 6,000,000 GWh till 2010.

    This is 6,000,000,000,000 kWh.

    Let’s be a bit generous to fossil fuels and suppose that they have 5 eurocents/kWh external costs over and above nuclear.

    We can now make a minimum estimate of the external costs savings by using nuclear rather than fossil fuels in Japan

    6,000,000,000,000 x 0.05 = 300,000,000,000 = 300 billion Euro = USD 308 billion

    Of course, fossil fuel external costs may be MUCH higher than these estimates and the savings due to nuclear might be of the order of 1,000 – 1,500 billion if we used the upper European estimates.

    This is without considering the huge costs of fossil fuel imports, if fossil fuel burners had been used instead of nuclear.

    The case that the Fukushima accident proves nuclear is too expensive is a very long way from being proven. In fact the numbers suggest the opposite.

  22. quokka
    February 28th, 2013 at 19:39 | #22

    @Jim Rose

    It was not only the height of the sea wall at Onagawa. In August 2012, the IAEA reported on it’s fact finding mission to the Onagawa plant. It concluded that “the structural elements of the NPS were remarkably undamaged given the magnitude of ground motion experienced and the duration and size of this great earthquake”. This fact finding mission was part of the IEAs compilation of a database of seismic risks to NPPs. The intensity of the earthquake at Onagawa was among the highest of that at any NPP in Japan.

    The oldest of the reactors at Onagawa started operation in 1984. Despite claims to the contrary, nuclear engineering like just about all engineering makes progress in most areas including safety.

  23. Mark Duffett
    February 28th, 2013 at 21:57 | #23

    @Ronald Brak I took “Japan’s huge uranium stockpile is poised to go off like a bomb in the world market” to mean ‘the uranium price is about to experience a precipitous decline’, and commented accordingly. Apologies if I have misconstrued.

  24. March 1st, 2013 at 08:18 | #24

    Fran, I may well be using the term subsidy incorrectly, but if the US government still has to take take the waste for long term storage it still looks like a subsidy to me as it’s going to cost considerably more than 0.1 of a cent per kilowatt-hour to dispose of the waste, even if nuclear plants are racking up medium term storage costs in the mean time. Looking at other countries, 0.1 cents a kilowatt-hour won’t be nearly enough.

  25. March 1st, 2013 at 08:20 | #25

    Mark, I realised that maybe that wasn’t the best turn of phrase to use, so I wrote, “Maybe that wasn’t the best turn of phrase to use,” right next to it.

  26. quokka
    March 1st, 2013 at 09:29 | #26

    Before getting too excited about the market price of uranium as an indicator of the prospects for nuclear power, it would be well to look at the performance of solar/wind ETFs

    PowerShares Global Clean Energy (PBD) Five year high about $29 closed at $8.64
    Market Vectors Glb Alternatve Energy ETF (GEX) Five year high about $56 closed at $12.14

    Nuclear ETFs have not done well either, but still much better than “alternative” energy.

    We had better hope that the financial markets are not a predictor.

  27. TerjeP
    March 2nd, 2013 at 04:46 | #27

    Just found this so I thought I’d share it.

    How many windmills does it take to replace a nuclear reactor?

  28. Chris Warren
    March 2nd, 2013 at 07:48 | #28

    TerjeP :

    Typical nuclear cartoon propaganda.

    Who has suggested that windmills provide all the power equivalent to nuclear reactors?

    Just Terje.

  29. quokka
    March 2nd, 2013 at 09:13 | #29

    @Chris Warren,

    Isn’t this the whole issue – the potential for various energy technologies to ultimately displace fossil fuels?

    There is a new paper by Adams and Keith of Harvard School of Engineering and Applied sciences that suggests that for very large wind farms – hundreds of square kilometers or more – the energy density has been seriously overestimated. They suggest that rather than a range of 2-7 W/m^2 as been conventionally assumed simply from experience with much smaller installations, a figure of 0.5-1 W/m^2 is more likely. In which case, that video would flatter wind.

    If such conclusions are true, the potential for wind to satisfy large portions of global energy demand becomes very problematic. It would also make wind much more expensive. They also conclude that wind power on a vast scale will cause significant regional climate change.

    Anybody with a concern for climate should have a keen interest in this paper and responses to it. If the conclusions are supported what then?

    There are, without doubt, very serious issues with the land (or ocean) requirements of renewables if they are to scale to required size. Hand waving dismissal of this as nuke propaganda is less than useful and getting us nowhere with the climate/energy problem.

    Less dogmatism and more critical thinking please.

    PS, the Guardian has a piece about an opinion poll that finds over a number of countries, public concern over environmental issues is the lowest in 20 years. Something has gone terribly wrong with environmentalism.

  30. Jim Rose
    March 2nd, 2013 at 09:32 | #30

    @quokka see Environmental Concern and the Business Cycle: The Chilling Effect of Recession by Matthew E. Kahn and Matthew J. Kotchen NBER, July 2010

    • an increase in a state’s unemployment rate decreases Google searches for “global warming” and increases searches for “unemployment,” and that the effect differs according to a state’s political ideology.

    • increase in a state’s unemployment rate is associated with a decrease in the probability that residents think global warming is happening and reduced support for the U.S to target policies intended to mitigate global warming.

    • In California, an increase in a county’s unemployment rate is associated with a significant decrease in county residents choosing the environment as the most important policy issue.

    In DEMAND FOR ENVIRONMENTAL GOODS: EVIDENCE FROM VOTING PATTERNS ON CALIFORNIA INITIATIVES, Journal of Law and Economics, April 1997, MATTHEW E. KAHN and JOHN G. MATSUSAKA studied voting behaviour on 16 environmental ballot propositions in California in order to characterize the demand for environmental goods:

    • The environment was found was to be a normal good for people with mean incomes, but some environmental goods are inferior for people with high incomes, at least when supplied collectively.

    • An important price of environmental goods is reduced income in the construction, farming, forestry, and manufacturing industries.

    • In most cases, income and price can explain most of the variation in voting onenvironmental ballots; it is not essential to introduce non-economic concepts such as ideology and politics.

    p.s. wind cannot be a base load energy source because the wind sometimes does not blow.

  31. Ikonoclast
    March 2nd, 2013 at 10:34 | #31

    Many issues and many interlocking levels of complexity are raised by the above four posts.

    1. The area requirement alone for windfarms is not a prohibitive concern in countries with high land areas. For ease of analysis we could consider any country as large as France or larger as having no concerns about lack of area for windfarms, solar power and all other land uses.

    2. I find it hard to see how even extensive wind farms would affect the earth’s climate in any macro way. I know argument from my own incredulity is not argument enough. However, you need to consider the energy that large forests and even more importantly large mountain ranges (Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, European Alps etc.) take out of wind systems. The resistances and diversions of winds by these large features (consider the frontal area of the Rockies compared to the swept area of even a few million wind turbines) must certainly be many magnitudes greater than that which would be taken out by wind turbines. All the waves of all the oceans are created by wind power too and they take power out of the wind also. Considering the energy in waves too we again are led to think again that wind turbine energy extraction will be small compared to all the above effects.

    3. Nuclear power may have a place in a future energy mix. If we are to reduce and stop CO2 emissions in time (sadly it’s highly unlikely now) then we will need every other available energy source plus energy economising measures plus a stabilised material state economy including stablised population.

    4. So it doesnt have to be either/or with renewables and nuclear. It could be both. Properly cost all negative externalities, remove all energy subsidies, require equivalent safety and environmental standards from all energy sources and let renewable and nuclear combine in the proporations determined by the market. This would be via a regulated market, free within the bounds set by negative externalitylegislation and safety and environmental standards.

    (I am no supporter of corporate capitalism, but even in a cooperative (worker-owned) economy, regulated free markets will need to be a feature. “Regulated free markets” is not a contradiction in terms. It means “free within regulated bounds”. All social and political economy “freedoms” are in fact freedoms within regulated bounds.)

  32. TerjeP
    March 2nd, 2013 at 21:53 | #32

    1. It’s not just land. There is a lot more stuff that has to be mined and refined to build the wind farm depicted.

    4. I could easily live with that. The biggest market distortion today is the ban on nuclear and MRET. Followed by an excessive carbon tax.

  33. quokka
    March 3rd, 2013 at 12:18 | #33

    @Ikonoclast

    First the easy bits. Yes, renewables and nuclear can and will work together, though there are non-trivial engineering issues. Personally, I don’t object to solar and wind at all – in principle. Though I do strongly object to extravagant claims whose underlying driver is invariably anti-nuclear politics. There is a burning need for more understanding and clarity about energy but some people think they will achieve there objectives out of a morass of confusion. Ain’t gonna happen.

    No argument that the climate problem is completely out of control and without really major policy initiatives which look very unlikely at the moment, our only hope is that climate sensitivity is significantly less than current estimates.

    Also no argument that the devil is in the detail on each nations energy production, and there is huge variation in national circumstance.

    Now to the nitty gritty and I’ll have a go at doing a David Mackay on wind power for France.

    Source IEA: 2009 Final Energy Consumption: ~ 160 Mtoe = 1,860,800 GWh
    This is equivalent to about 212 GW of average power. Simplistically, lets call that 230GW after losses in a very efficient grid. This is our goldilocks scenario.

    David Mackay gives a figure of 2W/m^2 average power for wind corresponding to a 33% capacity factor. That implies land use of 115,000 km^2 or 21% of France’s area of 551,500 km^2 (excluding overseas possessions).

    Superficially plausible. Now for the gotcha’s.

    27% of France is forests and according to a 1999 estimate urban areas cover 100,000 km^2. So that’s ~50% of France ruled as possible wind farm sites for a start.

    The 33% capacity factor mentioned above is almost certainly unrealistic. In the UK it is 26-27%, worldwide about 23% and in Germany a miserable 18%. And that’s with the best sites used first and without the potential issues alluded to in the Harvard paper.

    The goldilock’s figure of 21% of France’s required area for wind farms could easily blowout to 40%, 50% or more of land area – ie all land that has any remote possibility of being used for wind. Throw in energy losses in storage and so on and it’s looking implausible.

    This implies wind farms as far as the eye can see – essentially everywhere where humans are likely be in their daily activities. I cannot see how such a situation would be even remotely politically acceptable.

    Even 10% of land area may be unlikely.

    And there are plenty of problems that I have not touched on. France cannot be power by onshore wind.

  34. quokka
    March 3rd, 2013 at 12:52 | #34

    And from the department of “You couldn’t make this stuff up”, in the UK, EDF proving that the bounds on stupidity are considerable, is reportedly taking legal action to recover purported damages due to an occupation of an EDF gas plant by “No Dash for Gas” protesters.

    I wonder if any of the protesters have read the Greenpeace “Battle of the Grids” document purporting to be a feasible energy plan for Europe. On page 18 it calls for a doubling of gas fired capacity in Europe by 2030.

    How can anything other than public confusion be the outcome of this shambles?

  35. John Quiggin
    March 3rd, 2013 at 15:11 | #35

    @quokka

    Unfortunately, this is the kind of calculation I see all the time on Bolt, BNC etc, so it doesn’t carry conviction.

    How about doing the calculation for Denmark, which plans to meet 50 per cent of electricity needs (that is, about a quarter of total energy needs) with wind by 2020, and is already around 30? Presumably, if your numbers are anywhere near correct, they should already be running into serious difficulty finding locations.

    I should also mention a characteristic problem of calculations like this, namely that they assume final energy demand is unchangeable.

  36. Sam
    March 3rd, 2013 at 15:55 | #36

    @TerjeP
    Please explain why you think the carbon tax is too high, and not – as JQ has previously argued – too low by a factor of 2.

    JQ’s estimate assumes that ~$50 a tonne would be needed to keep CO2 at 450ppm, the minimum necessary to avert dangerous climate change.

  37. Hermit
    March 3rd, 2013 at 16:16 | #37

    @John Quiggin
    This article seems to answer why high Danish wind penetration works. In effect Norwegian hydro stores 40% of it
    http://knowledgeproblem.com/2012/04/06/danish-wind-power-%E2%99%A5s-norwegian-hydropower/

    Fearing moderation I’ll refrain from linking to a recent article on the need for gas backup for wind power in countries with meagre hydro resources nearby. That article shows how Danish wind output fluctuates wildly. Here in Australia we have limited hydro and a fast rising gas price raising the prospect of wind as a gas saver but that is a topic for another day.

  38. TerjeP
    March 3rd, 2013 at 16:39 | #38

    Sam – it’s a reasonable question but I don’t intend going into it again. I don’t think the carbon tax is that big a deal really so I don’t want to quibble over the details about the rate. I think it’s too high but I don’t want to sweat over it. Things like MRET etc are of far more of a concern.

  39. quokka
    March 3rd, 2013 at 17:11 | #39

    @John Quiqqin,

    I wouldn’t know about Bolt, because I never read his words of “wisdom”. Simply can’t be bothered. But that does raise an interesting point, and that is that some portion of climate denial is directly attributable to (rightful or wrongful) disbelief in the hard sell of the renewables only story. You don’t have to stick your head up too often to suggest that it is not all that believable, to be accused by some zealot of being a climate change denier or a shill for this or that.

    On to Denmark

    From IEA Energy stats 2009 final energy use about 14 Mtoe = 162,820 GWh
    From IEA Monthly Electricity Stats 2012 Wind/Solar/geo etc production about 10,000 GWh (extending Jan-Nov figures to full year) or about 6.1% of final energy use.

    50% of electricity from wind = about 10% of current final energy use.

    Interesting stats for Jan-Nov 2012 (GWh / % of electricity supplied / % Growth)
    Wind/Solar/geo etc: 9,206 30% 8.7%
    Imports: : 14,898 46% 37.5%
    Exports: 9 445 30% 0.7%

    The import/export figures are a bit interesting. Denmark was not self sufficient in electricity production, but more important are the relative sizes in a small market. Denmark has had something of a free ride with wind integration issues due to interconnects with much larger markets. The Danish experience is not, and will not be representative.

    Of course final energy demand may drop. In the developed countries, it is probably more likely to drop than rise. The issue is by how much and how quickly. If you want really big drops you are talking electrification of transport and space heating. That’s going to cost and it’s going to take decades. Overly optimistic assumptions absolutely smell of attempts to ram the renewables only square peg into the demand hole. That’s a high risk strategy.

    Finally it should be recognized that there are some sources of energy demand – eg high temperature industrial process heat – that make significant contributions to emissions that are never likely to be powered by solar/wind. Unless a significant portion of the worlds heavy industry is relocated to the Sahara for CSP, the only feasible fossil fuel substitute for this is high temperature nuclear reactors and even that would be a fair way off in the future.

  40. Sam
    March 3rd, 2013 at 17:19 | #40

    @TerjeP
    I’m pretty happy with renewable subsidies. If it’s true that solar’s costs decline 20% for every doubling of capacity, then incentives to increase PV coverage push out the technological frontier. I’m not happy about the middle class welfare that goes along with it, and would prefer the government to invest directly in buying panels for their own many buildings, but the current policy is not as terrible as you suggest.

  41. frankis
    March 3rd, 2013 at 17:44 | #41

    TIME’s article on WHO’s just-released “Health Risk Assessment” of the Fukushima nuclear accident: http://ti.me/Xiwc1q
    Or if you like here’s my (lengthy) TL;DR of the 172 page report:

    ……
    Outside the geographical areas most affected by radiation, even in locations within Fukushima prefecture, the predicted risks remain low and no observable increases in cancer above natural variation in baseline rates are anticipated.

    Some health effects of radiation, termed deterministic effects, are known to occur only after certain radiation dose levels are exceeded. The radiation doses in Fukushima prefecture were well below such levels and therefore such effects are not expected to occur in the general population.

    The estimated dose levels in Fukushima prefecture were also too low to affect fetal development or outcome of pregnancy and no increases, as a result of antenatal radiation exposure, in spontaneous abortion, miscarriage, perinatal mortality, congenital defects or cognitive impairment are anticipated.

    In the two most affected locations of Fukushima prefecture, the preliminary estimated radiation effective doses for the first year ranged from 12 to 25 mSv. In the highest dose location, the estimated additional lifetime risks for the development of leukaemia, breast cancer, thyroid cancer and all solid cancers over baseline rates are likely to represent an upper bound of the risk as methodological options were consciously chosen to avoid underestimation of risks. For leukaemia, the lifetime risks are predicted to increase by up to around 7% over baseline cancer rates in males exposed as infants; for breast cancer, the estimated lifetime risks increase by up to around 6% over baseline rates in females exposed as infants; for all solid cancers, the estimated lifetime risks increase by up to around 4% over baseline rates in females exposed as infants; and for thyroid cancer, the estimated lifetime risk increases by up to around 70% over baseline rates in females exposed as infants. These percentages represent estimated relative increases over the baseline rates and are not estimated absolute risks for developing such cancers. It is important to note that due to the low baseline rates of thyroid cancer, even a large relative increase represents a small absolute increase in risks. For example, the baseline lifetime risk of thyroid cancer for females is just three-quarters of one percent and the additional lifetime risk estimated in this assessment for a female infant exposed in the most affected location is one-half of one percent. These estimated increases presented above apply only to the most affected location of Fukushima prefecture.
    p8

    The psychosocial impact is one of the major consequences of nuclear emergencies; this was one of the lessons learned from the Chernobyl accident (141,149). As with the Chernobyl accident, the psychological impact of the Fukushima accident may outweigh other health consequences (150).
    p90

    The psychological impact of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami was compounded by the subsequent nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi NPP. For many people, the Fukushima Daiichi NPP accident resulted in many stressors that constitute a potentially traumatic situation. In addition to the significant impact of the loss of lives and missing loved ones because of the earthquake and tsunami (134), other conditions such as evacuation, relocation, material and financial loss – as well as fear and uncertainty related to radiation exposure and its potential consequences – increased the mental health impact of the combined disaster. As of September 2012, 329 777 people remain relocated or evacuated (156).
    p91

    The present results suggest that the increases in the incidence of human disease attributable to the additional radiation exposure from the Fukushima Daiichi NPP accident are likely to remain below detectable levels
    p92

    To date, the Fukushima Daiichi NPP accident has not resulted in acute radiation effects among workers. None of the seven reported deaths among workers is attributable to radiation exposure(1). Thyroid dysfunction was reported in three workers as a result of repeated self-administration of stable potassium iodide for thyroid blocking against radioactive iodine. This effect was transient and thyroid function returned to normal once the administrations were stopped
    p93

    The HRA Expert Group considers the risk estimates robust on the basis of existing knowledge and information at the time of this assessment. The input data and risk models used are considered to be the most appropriate at present. An effort was made to avoid any underestimation of risks when adopting assumptions; hence, any possible bias is likely directed toward overestimation of health risks
    p94

    It is important to note that this is a report on radiation health risks and that it does not refer to radiation-induced health effects. While radiation risks can be estimated prospectively, radiation-induced health effects are assessed retrospectively and this requires a long-term follow-up of the exposed population. Surveillance of health and monitoring of disease occurrence is required for empirical assessment of the health consequences of the accident and quantification of health outcomes resulting from it. The Fukushima Health Management Survey is expected to contribute to future health effect assessments. Population health surveillance will permit the identification of additional needs for the delivery of health care. In addition, as part of the occupational health programmes, a special protocol for medical follow-up of emergency workers is being adopted. These initiatives are also relevant for the mitigation of the psychosocial impact of this accident and the prevention of adverse mental health consequences, which are considered to be of major significance.
    p95

  42. John Quiggin
    March 3rd, 2013 at 18:02 | #42

    @quokka The interconnection issues are second-order, since we are currently discussing the claim that area constraints preclude wind from meeting (enough of) energy demand.

    1. From your comment, I assume you agree that the area constraint is unlikely to prevent wind meeting at least half of current electricity demand. Allowing say 30 per cent PV and 20 per cent gas, you’d have a system with about 10 per cent of the emissions of coal. Of course, keeping existing nuclear plants running longer would help a bit.

    2. The implicit assumptions regarding the replacement of fuel use by electricity create immediate problems. Most obviously, electric engines are more efficient than internal combustion – you’ve alllowed for electricity network losses but not for this difference. So, I find calculations like this unhelpful.

    3. It’s true, of course, that converting from direct fuel use to electricity will be a big task. But that’s largely independent of the electricity source.

  43. March 3rd, 2013 at 18:20 | #43

    South Australia is up around Denmark’s level in terms of percentage of electricity produced from wind and is a lot less interconnected than Denmark is, but doesn’t have problems integrating wind power. There are costs involved, but they are less than the decline in the average wholesale cost of electricity caused by wind power.

  44. Sam
    March 3rd, 2013 at 18:26 | #44

    @quokka
    The problem, Quokka, is with your interpretation of average power. Perhaps it’s true that the average over a whole country is from 1-2 W/m^2, but in practice there is significant variation from region to region. In all the places you put wind turbines, the power per area is much much higher than the average (by probably a couple of orders of magnitude). In this way, you can extract a very large percentage of a country’s total wind energy with a very small percentage of land covered.

  45. March 3rd, 2013 at 18:28 | #45

    Sam, rooftop solar is now subsidised at the same rate as any other renewable source of energy and new solar for most Australians generally receives a feed-in tariff that isn’t much higher than the wholesale price of daytime electricity. Depending on the value put upon its network benefits, new solar often appears to be subsidising the rest of the grid. So don’t worry, nowadays there’s not really anything about solar that could be described as middle class welfare even by a highly imaginative person.

  46. Sam
    March 3rd, 2013 at 18:35 | #46

    @Ronald Brak
    Well that’s good. I’m personally the beneficiary of 44c/KWh, but I’m not planning on giving anything back to Mr Newman.

  47. Chris Warren
    March 3rd, 2013 at 19:24 | #47

    @frankis

    Interesting,

    Do you have a map of where this applies:

    For leukaemia, the lifetime risks are predicted to increase by up to around 7% over baseline cancer rates in males exposed as infants; for breast cancer, the estimated lifetime risks increase by up to around 6% over baseline rates in females exposed as infants; for all solid cancers, the estimated lifetime risks increase by up to around 4% over baseline rates in females exposed as infants; and for thyroid cancer, the estimated lifetime risk increases by up to around 70% over baseline rates in females exposed as infants. These percentages represent estimated relative increases over the baseline rates and are not estimated absolute risks for developing such cancers. It is important to note that due to the low baseline rates of thyroid cancer, even a large relative increase represents a small absolute increase in risks. For example, the baseline lifetime risk of thyroid cancer for females is just three-quarters of one percent and the additional lifetime risk estimated in this assessment for a female infant exposed in the most affected location is one-half of one percent. These estimated increases presented above apply only to the most affected location of Fukushima prefecture.

    Did the article mention any statistical bias due to the fact that the plume of released radiation flowed east over the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately for Japan, westerlies dominated through the peak of the incident.

  48. Jim Rose
    March 3rd, 2013 at 21:37 | #48

    on solar, and roof top solar, the 10/90 diffusion lags on any new technology is a couple of decades.

    Jovanovic and Lach (1997) for a group of 21 innovations: takes 15 years for diffusion to go from 10% to 90%. Grubler (1991) covering 265 innovations found that the 10-90 lag is between 15 and 30 years.

    targets of 90% solar etc., by 2022 etc., seem to be ahead of most known diffusion cycles.

  49. frankis
    March 3rd, 2013 at 21:59 | #49

    @Chris Warren
    The report is here http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/78218/1/9789241505130_eng.pdf (2.6MB). On p41 is a map of ground level Cs137 contamination. In the most affected Group 1 location are two towns, Namie and Iidate.

    The report deals only with the facts of this event not with hypotheticals such as what effect different weather conditions might have had on the fallout pattern.

  50. frankis
    March 3rd, 2013 at 22:02 | #50

    [To avoid a moderation queue, apparentlly, I'll leave out a link]
    @Chris Warren
    The report is linked from the TIME article (PDF 2.6MB). On p41 is a map of ground level Cs137 contamination. In the most affected Group 1 location are two towns, Namie and Iidate.

    The report deals only with the facts of this event not with hypotheticals such as what effect different weather conditions might have had on the fallout pattern.

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