Home > Economic policy, Environment > Decarbonising Australia (updated)

Decarbonising Australia (updated)

May 7th, 2013

I’ve been meaning to post about the Australian Energy Market Operator’s report on the feasibility of a 100 per cent renewable electricity supply system for Australia (H/T commenter Ben). In the meantime, Brian Bahnisch at LP has done a detailed summary, so I’ll refer you there and make a few points of my own.

First, this study should kill off, once and for all, claims made here and in many other places (notably, at Brave New Climate) that the intermittency of renewable electricity is an insuperable problem.[1] The AEMO is the body that manages the electricity market on a minute-to-minute basis, so it has the expertise to assess this claim, unlike the many amateurs who have tried their hands. And, since it might have to do the job, it has no reason to understate the difficulties of a renewables-based system.

Second, the estimate cost of $111 to $133 per megawatt-hour represents an increase of $60-80/MwH on current wholesale prices, or 6-8c/Kwh on retail prices. That’s much less than the increase we’ve seen thanks to the mishandling of electricity market reform. If we wound back those costs, we could actually end up with both 100 per cent renewables and cheaper electricity.

Third, although the study envisages a role for electric vehicles, it doesn’t present a full-scale program for decarbonization. But once you have a scalable, fully renewable electricity supply, everything else is comparatively easy.

Finally, if we take Tony Abbott at his word in wanting direct action to deal with climate change, this report provides him with a blueprint. If we want to, we can eliminate the great majority of domestic CO2 emissions simply by mandating renewable technology and electric vehicles. The cost would be substantial in dollar terms ($250 billion for the electricity component). But, over a couple of decades, it would be a barely detectable deduction from growth in national income.

Update As it turns out, there’s a response at Brave New Climate from Martin Nicholson. Nicholson reports on a study of his own, in which nuclear is included in the mix. On Nicholson’s estimates, this substantially reduces capital costs, a point of which he makes a big deal. But obviously, renewables have much lower operating costs and Nicholson estimates the levelised cost for his system at $124/MWh to $126/MWh. As he says:

As this is in the middle of the AEMO range, wholesale prices are likely to be similar with or without nuclear

Given that very few current-generation nuclear plants have been built, cost estimates for nuclear are speculative. The obvious inference for Australia is that we should push along with renewables, and take a “wait and see” position on nuclear, observing developments in the UK, US, France and China. If they can deliver nuclear safely and at low cost, we can add it to the mix (say, after 2030).

Sadly, I think most of the BNC readership are locked into a position that nuclear must be the answer, which requires them to believe that renewables won’t work. Even a comprehensive demonstration that renewables can deliver a 100 per cent solution at a cost comparable with optimistic estimates for nuclear isn’t going to shift them.end update

fn1. This is part of a rhetorical manoeuvre aimed at pushing the conclusion that nuclear is the only feasible zero-carbon option. Once it’s admitted that 100 per cent renewable electricity is feasible, nuclear advocates need to present a case based on comparative costs. In the Australian context, it will be very hard to make that case, given the need to set up a complete nuclear infrastructure from scratch.

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:
  1. May 7th, 2013 at 13:08 | #1

    It is 12:37 in the early afternoon here in Adelaide and for the whole day so far South Australia’s electricity has pretty much entirely come from wind and solar. Getting about a third of our total electricity use from renewables has lowered our wholesale electricity prices and SA is the only state to have had a cut in retail electricity prices. I mention this because so few people are aware that Australia has a state that spends a fair bit of time with its grid powered only by renewables and that this has saved consumers money.

  2. Garry Claridge
    May 7th, 2013 at 13:24 | #2

    @Ronald Brak
    Thanks for that Ronald :)

  3. aidee
    May 7th, 2013 at 14:18 | #3

    Nuclear proponents will also have to counter the immediacy of renewables to deliver (besides new hydro). Renewables are here now: rapidly deployed, delivering, approaching the cost of coal (if not matching), with pricing to drop. Importantly renewables (wind and solar) are distributed sources that act to spread investment through communities and have community support. Nuclear thus becomes a solution to address a non-existent problem…

  4. Hermit
    May 7th, 2013 at 14:56 | #4

    @Ronald Brak
    So where do you think SA’s retail electricity prices stand compared to other states? I’ve started to analyse this and it’s difficult to compare like with like but the overall picture seems clear to me. Perhaps it can be simplified by finding an exception. Can you find another capital city that has retail power prices at base summer rates more expensive than Adelaide?

    Follow up question; with energy costs as they are what new industries is Adelaide likely to attract after the car subsidies run out and the air warfare destroyers are built?

  5. aidee
    May 7th, 2013 at 15:09 | #5

    @Hermit
    Interesting question re SA and I quite like the “Monthly Merchandise Trade Balance by State” chart at: http://www.macrobusiness.com.au/2013/05/trade-back-in-black-on-iron-ore-spike/

    Wonder if SA will just continue to hum along without a car industry (remembering one previously exited the state) and other heavy industry – a surplus is a surplus. Maybe now’s the time to setup solar towers with concomitant storage; the sun’s bright over here! The worrying aspect of renewables is that Australia is flush with renewable infrastructure but not enough signalling re decarbonising and thus wholesale buyers of new renewable sources cf. geothermal by Geodynamics in Innamincka.

  6. iain
    May 7th, 2013 at 15:18 | #6

    If the 100% renewable figure was anywhere near possible you would expect to see, at least, some examples (somewhere) of where this has been done on a small scale (eg a city).

    Outside of areas with abundant hydro and geothermal (or examples featuring a large bio-energy source), I am unaware of any example (anywhere in the world). Can someone point me to any, at all?

    Why does the theory not fit the practice?

  7. Ernestine Gross
    May 7th, 2013 at 15:24 | #7

    “Nuclear thus becomes a solution to address a non-existent problem…”. Exactly.

    And those who manage, in one way or another, to implement solutions to non-existent problems create problems.

  8. may
    May 7th, 2013 at 15:27 | #8

    gee,i wish we had some kind of way to let people know about this stuff—y’know,like news broadcasters?
    free press?
    substantive reporting without leaving out the best bits?
    anybody?

  9. Hermit
    May 7th, 2013 at 15:29 | #9

    I realise anecdotes are no substitute for serious analysis but they stick in peoples minds. A couple that seem relevant are the status of geothermal power in Australia and Germany’s coal revival. Geothermal figures prominently in the AEMO all renewables scenarios yet this week a pilot plant in the outback is making its first electricity, a very modest amount compared to expectations a decade ago and after a large amount of public funding. I suggest AEMO has too much optimism in some unproven technologies.

    Germany is now over 20% non-hydro renewables I believe. The country has very high electricity prices and essentially no GDP growth. However they are building several GW of new coal fired power stations to to replace nukes. Google German coal revival. That suggests there may be logs on the road less than a third of the way towards 100% renewables.

  10. iain
    May 7th, 2013 at 17:15 | #10

    @Hermit not often I agree with Hermit — but agree with this, the all renewable scenario needs high quality energy sources (emergy) such as geothermal and hydro to make it work (on paper).

    Without technology breakthroughs in energy storage systems (including hydrogen storage) it is unlikely to work (off paper).

    Again, one can ask, outside of areas with abundant hydro and geothermal (or featuring a large bio-energy source), is there any city (anywhere in the world) that credibly fits the 100% renewable tag?

  11. Newtownian
    May 7th, 2013 at 17:27 | #11

    “Third, although the study envisages a role for electric vehicles, it doesn’t present a full-scale program for decarbonization. But once you have a scalable, fully renewable electricity supply, everything else is comparatively easy.”

    The bit that bothers me greatly is the word ‘easy’.

    Electricity generation now seems a standing energy solution, agreed – which is what this article is really about – but total decarbonisation of energy generation is another matter on several counts. Some comments for critiquing:

    - Globally coal constitutes only about 30% of total primary energy production. (A useful reference here is the updated version of U.S. Energy Information Administration. Annual Energy Review 2009. In: U.S. Energy Information Administration OoEMaEU, ed. Washington, DC 20585: U.S. Department of Energy, 2010.) So the scale up issue is a serious one which needs a lot of analysis.

    - Much of the replacement is for transport fuel where electricity at present only has a small role and many technologies are unproven. I guess changeover to electric semitrailers will be possible but its not likely to be easy.

    - Building is heavily dependent on CO2 generating concrete production and there is no serious replacement material yet.

    The bottom line is coal removal is the first ‘easy’ bit. But getting rid of the other 50% of carbon generation will require an infrastructure revolution going way beyond electric cars. There are solutions in books by the likes of Lovins and Leggett and while they offer hope they are still more a wish list.

    Should we worry about the other 50%? – leaving aside how dirty production of petroleum from tar sands and oil shales are (necessary to delay peak oil?) the drive is still to expand the global economy in the cause of ‘Green Growth’ (an oxymoron) so that the benefits of decarbonising standing electricity can easily be lost and we are back to square one – except by that time we will have reached 450 ppm CO2 and 500 ppm CO2 equivalent.

  12. John Quiggin
    May 7th, 2013 at 17:51 | #12

    @Newtownian

    * Electric trains provide a good alternative to semi-trailers. The balance between the two has shifted back and forth over time, but replacing heavy trucks with trains is one of the easy ones

    * Cars and and light trucks can be replaced with existing EVs – they may not have been adopted on a large scale yet, but the technology is proven and the cost is modest relative to GDP.

    * Not yet proven, but there’s a lot of work on CO2-absorbing versions of concrete

    * What’s with wanting to delay Peak Oil? Apart from the fact that we passed Peak Oil decades ago in terms of consumption per person, it’s obvious that we want to accelerate the arrival of Peak Oil, and certainly stop shale and oil sands

  13. Salient Green
    May 7th, 2013 at 18:32 | #13

    @Hermit
    I’m pretty sure I’ve corrected you twice before on this notion of a ‘German coal revival” or “coal generation build out to replace nuclear” nonsense.

    All coal fired power stations currently being built in Germany were planned or being built before the decision to close down all Nuclear following Fukishima.

    Six coal fired power stations planned have actually been stepped away from in response to the success of renewables.

    Some of the new coal burners are state of the art, highly efficient plants with quick start up designed to back up renewables and will replace older plants.

    No additional coal plants will be needed.

    In regards to geothermal funding, it has been a pittance. More public money has been wasted on FAILED Carbon Capture and Storage than has been invested in geothermal efforts and the conditions placed on geothermal companies for access to public funds were far too extreme for most to access.

  14. May 7th, 2013 at 20:44 | #14

    Iain, given that solar was prohibitively expensive until five years ago, its hardly surprising nowhere has yet built a system on solar and wind alone. Add in that most of the places with the wealth to lead on this either have little Sun (eg Scandinavia) or are oil states with an incentive not to promote renewables the only places where it might have been done were Australia, south-west USA or Hawaii. Hardly surprising none have done it, and hardly indicative that it can’t be in places with plenty of Sun and wind . It will be tough for places that lack much of one or the other, but that certainly doesn’t mean Australia can’t.

  15. Ben
    May 7th, 2013 at 21:20 | #15

    @iain
    There are a few island power systems with very high penetrations of renewables. Two that spring to mind are El Hierro in the Canary Islands and Tokelau.

  16. May 7th, 2013 at 21:23 | #16

    @may

    Yes, wouldn’t it be nice to have a functioning media not monopolised by climate-change-denying neo-cons?

    For example, how many people in Australia who rely on Murdoch/Fairfax/ABC/SBS for “news” know that a fully solar powered plane is flying across the US at the moment – and that it can fly night and day?

    On the weekend it flew from San Franscisco to Phoenix. I thought that might be interesting for the people our “media” pretend to be informing.

    The point isn’t to suggest solar planes are a good idea. It is to show what can be done with existing renewable technology and to get people to think.

    When it’s in the air you can watch its progress live. It’s called “Solar Impulse”.

  17. indigo
    May 7th, 2013 at 22:17 | #17

    Over at Watts Up With That, I have suggested that burning fossil fuels in ever greater quantities is a bad idea and that we might want to reduce our usage.
    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/05/02/help-launch-climate-skeptic-film-project-50-to-1/

    jc notes in one response among many:

    Born of the worm that animates you. Which is you.

    You are a thing that seeks the extermination of people, and by that, Humanity.

    Where does that leave the poor South Australians?

  18. Fran Barlow
    May 7th, 2013 at 22:36 | #18

    Speaking as someone who, unusually for a Green, doesn’t have a fundamental objection to resort to nuclear power and regards it as a technically feasible component of an industrial-scale low carbon intensity energy system …

    it’s obviously great news if renewables really can do the job that people wanting advanced industrial societies want them to do — i.e produce acceptably reliable and low cost power with low intensity, indefinitely, and most importantly, on a timeline consistent with avoiding the worst case scenarios in those IPCC reports.

    It is clear that decarbonisation is urgent and if for any reason, reliance on prospective benefit from nuclear power measurably delays decarbonisation, then the price is IMO, too high. There’s no use in doing brilliantly on decarbonisation with nuclear power, — 25 years from now after we are locked into disaster. If there is even a realistic chance of us doing that, renewables + demand management + efficiency must be given first chance at solving the problem in front of us.

    I continue to believe that humanity must place a serious price on fossil fuels at the earliest opportunity — and that Australia should be making the running on this.

  19. Ben
    May 7th, 2013 at 22:43 | #19

    @iain
    I forgot to mention Güssing in Austria is an example of an energy self-sufficient town/city. Quoting from this page, “The town of Güssing now annually produces more energy (heat, fuels, and electric power) from renewable resources than actually can be consumed in the town.”

  20. BilB
    May 8th, 2013 at 00:05 | #20

    Iain,

    That is a desperate last gasp effort to throw cold water on the renewable future reality, isn’t it.

    As a preview of the impossible becoming real. A two seater aircraft that can take off and fly all day while the sun is shining without any fuel other than sunlight.

    http://blog.cafefoundation.org/?p=7718

    This is the effort of one man and his wife.

    What else is possible?

    You won’t believe it.

  21. Mel
    May 8th, 2013 at 00:29 | #21

    Very interesting post, PrQ. It will be interesting to see just how much more can be done over the next decade or so to bring down the costs of renewables and in particular solar.

    In any event, I think we’ll see change happen “too little, too late” and we’ll end up relying on techno fixes to clean up the mess. Up until approx 8-10 years ago many on the right were interested in the big techno fixes but we don’t hear much about that now, presumably because much of the right has moved into the delusionist camp.

  22. Mel
    May 8th, 2013 at 01:02 | #22

    I know it is about as fashionable as Safari suits, but I’m not giving up on retrofitted CCS. Note this:

    SaskPower [an electricity producer in Canada] is in the midst of the world’s first and largest post-combustion, commercial-scale coal-fired carbon capture and storage project at the Boundary Dam Power Station.

    The $1.24 billion project remains on schedule for completion in the first quarter of 2014, and will cut CO2 emissions by up to 90 per cent from the aging Unit 3. It will also significantly enhance the longevity of Unit 3.

    “To keep coal as a viable fuel source, SaskPower occupies a leadership role in carbon capture and storage technology,” said Watson.

    SaskPower is also currently building a carbon capture test facility with Hitachi Ltd. at the Shand Power Station near Estevan. The $60 million project, funded by both SaskPower and Hitachi, is scheduled for completion in mid-2014.

    It will offer a neutral platform for vendors to verify and improve post-combustion technologies in a commercial setting.

    wwwDOTsasklifestyles.com/article/20130502/ESTLIFESTYLES0101/130509982/-1/estlifestyles/unit-1-at-boundary-dam-officially-retired

    According to CO2CRC :

    The project will not only be the world’s first large-scale retrofit of a coal-fired power station but it appears to stack up well economically with the levelised cost of electricity production estimated to be around $80 MWh.

    wwwDOTco2crc.com.au/dls/co2futures/CO2FUTURES_issue_41.pdf

  23. Ikonoclast
    May 8th, 2013 at 06:57 | #23

    This mob have a zero carbon stationary energy plan which details its feasibility;

    http://bze.org.au/zero-carbon-australia-2020

    In conjunction with AEMO’s report, this proves the physical, technical, financial and commercial feasibility of the plans to de-carbonise stationary energy generation.

    Many economic hurdles and a great deal of work would remain to de-carbonise the rest of the economy. We would gain great energy efficiency benefits from moving to a full electric economy. The private internal combustion engine automobile will have to become a thing of the past. Trains, mass transit, bicycles, walking and electric vehicles will all be part of the solution. There will be far less vehicles on the road and those that remain will be electric; near silent and pollution free. The aesthetics of urban living could receive a huge boost.

    A lot of work is being done on energy saving passive solar design. I have lost the link unfortunately, but one set of designs for giving every unit in a multi-storey complex “solar access” comes up looking a lot like an Escher drawing and it is very interesting and pleasing architectually.

    To be consistent, we should stop exporting thermal coal and even natural gas. The thermal coal should stay in the ground. Our natural gas should be used to replace petroleum imports and our internal combustion engine fleet (1) converted to gas and then (2) retired as other solutions take over. Natural gas already developed can also supplement electricty generation. No new coal mines or gas wells or coal gasification or fracking sould be developed at all.

    We cannot control what the rest of the world do. However, we can progressively stop using and exporting fossil fuels.

    The bottom line is that all of this might not be enough now. Globally, we may well have passed several irreversible tipping points already. The balance of evidence is that we have. The most dangerous positive feedback underway is the release of methane from the tundra. If the deep sea heats up even a little more, the release of methane clathrates from the seabed will cause a mass extinction of the order of the Permian-Triassic extinction.

    “The Permian–Triassic (P–Tr) extinction event, informally known as the Great Dying, was an extinction event that occurred 252.28 Ma (million years) ago, forming the boundary between the Permian and Triassic geologic periods, as well as the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras. It is the Earth’s most severe known extinction event, with up to 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species becoming extinct. It is the only known mass extinction of insects. Some 57% of all families and 83% of all genera became extinct. Because so much biodiversity was lost, the recovery of life on Earth took significantly longer than after any other extinction event, possibly up to 10 million years.” – Wikipedia.

    Despite and indeed because of this depressing possibility, we have to make every effort to decarbonise our economy rapidly and cap quantitative (not qualitiative) growth of the world economy as soon as possoble.

  24. TerjeP
    May 8th, 2013 at 08:47 | #24

    Given that very few current-generation nuclear plants have been built, cost estimates for nuclear are speculative. The obvious inference for Australia is that we should push along with renewables, and take a “wait and see” position on nuclear, observing developments in the UK, US, France and China. If they can deliver nuclear safely and at low cost, we can add it to the mix (say, after 2030).

    That’s the position I think we should take with renewables. If somebody can make them cheap enough to be viable without subsidies (eg MRET) then we can embrace them. In the mean time we should hold off. The obvious corollary is that MRET is a folly. It is either propping up technology that is not yet economical or else it is unnecessary.

  25. BilB
    May 8th, 2013 at 09:18 | #25

    TerjeP,

    And then there is the small matter of saving the climate.

    Obviously not a big issue with you if it costs a dollar more.

    How do you manage to seperate those two issues in your head?? “Musn’t pay a dollar more for electricity even though it means I lose everything from catastrophic weather events”.

    I just don’t get it!

    Are you a problem gambler?

  26. Hermit
    May 8th, 2013 at 09:46 | #26

    Assuming that for some years we will need a large amount of dispatchable generation there are other issues at stake. We should ask how long will we be stuck with the big stinkers like Hazelwood and if gas can displace much coal. Unfortunately it doesn’t look good. Carbon tax at $23 or $24 now with cheap Euro offsets is not enough. The east Australian wholesale gas grid ranging from Bass Strait to Chinchilla coal seam gas will soon be exposed to world prices when Gladstone starts exporting LNG next year. Hazelwood put up their hand to be bought out under under ‘contracts for closure’ last year. They were knocked back and now as gas looks increasingly pricey they are sticking around, carbon tax or not.

    I don’t believe the answer is to progressively increase the RET from 20% to 100%. I think the answer is a brutally tough CO2 pricing mechanism (no giveaways or special deals) with all technologies allowed. Nuclear has a 5-10 year implementation lag during which time CCS or renewable energy storage could get better. Conceivably Australia could exceed 20% renewables (absent RET) during that nuke free decade.

  27. BilB
    May 8th, 2013 at 09:50 | #27

    OK, Hermit,

    So you’re a problem gambler too, obviously, ……and partial to a little Bling too.

    If its new, flashy, and can glow in the dark you just gotta have it?

  28. Ernestine Gross
    May 8th, 2013 at 10:12 | #28

    Re update.

    “On Nicholson’s estimates, this substantially reduces capital costs, a point of which he makes a big deal.”

    Professor Nicholson (math, engineering) is obviously highly qualified in matters of quantification. However, I am truely surprised to read about his paper apparently asserting ‘substantially reduced capital costs’ because standard project evaluation in Finance includes disposal costs as project costs and therefore affect ‘capital costs’.

    On this blog-site the issue of disposal costs of nuclear power plants has been discussed several times. These costs depend, among other factors, on storage technology of waste. To the best of my knowledge, there is no satisfactory storage technology of waste at present and the costs are potentially so huge that treating then as ‘infinite’ in a project evaluation is ostensibly at least as valid as assigning ‘zero’ or a value agreed with those governments who are prepared to shift the effective costs onto ‘taxpayers’.

    I went to the BNC site in the hope of asking Professor Nicholson a few questions on the treatment of disposal costs. A person by the name of “Barry” advised to write to another web-site and there was the notice: “Comments closed”.

  29. TerjeP
    May 8th, 2013 at 10:43 | #29

    BilB – if your concern is with the climatic impact of CO2 emissions then the most appropriate response is a carbon tax. We can debate the size of the tax but it seems to me to be the right structure if you want to lower emissions. MRET is just a subsidy by people picking winners. It may make much more financial sense to favour gas now and renewables later. Or switch brown coal to black. MRET simply distorts the decision making process rather than leaving it as an open question with a natural process for discovery.

  30. Ootz
    May 8th, 2013 at 11:00 | #30

    Absolutely agree with you BilB, what the ‘problem gambler’ sceptics are missing in the AGW debate, are the relevant aspects of contingency planning or risk management. Concepts and practices therein are well understood and conventionally adhered to in the business and professional world.

    So, if the MRET is ‘picking winners’, what are fossil fuel subsidies doing?

  31. John Quiggin
    May 8th, 2013 at 11:07 | #31

    ” Nuclear has a 5-10 year implementation lag”

    Would you care to spell out a timetable to justify this claim? Assume that there’s bipartisan agreement, starting right now, that we should go nuclear. Then give some estimated timescales for:

    (a) Drafting and passage of legislation to establish a regulatory authority, set up a liability regime, make plans for waste disposal etc
    (b) Establishment and recruitment of expert staff
    (c) Site selection for possible plants
    (d) Process for eliciting bids to construct plants
    (e) Environmental impact statements etc
    (f) Construction of pilot/demonstration plant
    (g) Large scale construction
    (h) Beginning of operation on a scale large enough to affect CO2

    As a starting point, you could look at the US, which began a major initiative, with bipartisan support and generous funding, to promote nuclear power in 2002, optimistically named the Nuclear 2010 program. On current indications, they’ll have four new plants online by around 2018, and they might start large scale construction some time in the 2020s if all goes much better than it has so far.

    The US could skip steps (a)-(c) since the NRC was in place, and all the proposals were colocated with existing plants. They also had substantial expertise on hand for the remaining steps, whereas we have zero (The country’s only nuclear energy education facility, the former School of Nuclear Engineering at the UNSW, was closed in 1986).

    That suggests to me that a target date of 2040 for Australia would be highly ambitious. But, if you think it can be done in 5-10 years, I’ll be interested to see your reasoning.

  32. BilB
    May 8th, 2013 at 11:10 | #32

    People are still missing the point that the “laters” have all been used up. The only option is now, Now, NOW.

    Fortunately Solar PV has the advantage of distributed investment as we are seeing with the strong uptake of Rooftop Solar. This will really pick up as business ramps its uptake of Rooftop Solar installation.

    There is probably sufficient information now to calculate the time frame for 60% of electricity demand being met from the distributed network.

  33. Ootz
    May 8th, 2013 at 11:23 | #33

    “The world’s nations must scrap fossil fuel subsidies and put a price on emitting carbon dioxide if the planet is to avoid dangerous climate change, according to the president of the World Bank.

    “We need a global response equal to the scale of the climate problem. Bold action that will make the biggest difference,” Jim Yong Kim told about 30 of the world’s energy and environment ministers gathered in Berlin for informal talks on a new global climate deal to take effect in 2020.

    “They (fossil fuel subsidies) are regressive, negatively impact the environment and act as a barrier to progress on clean technology,” he said.”

    Source: Reuters – Mon, 6 May 2013 03:30 PM

  34. wilful
    May 8th, 2013 at 12:02 | #34

    Ernestine Gross :
    I went to the BNC site in the hope of asking Professor Nicholson a few questions on the treatment of disposal costs. A person by the name of “Barry” advised to write to another web-site and there was the notice: “Comments closed”.

    That’s an idiotically unfair characterisation of how comments are treated on BNC and it’s associated blog.

  35. may
    May 8th, 2013 at 12:26 | #35

    the wave energy people i’ve talked about here in the west have just announced commencement of a pressure driven desal plant that is in addition to the grid connected electricity they are doing for the navy.
    i don’t know if the fresh water is for the navy as well.

  36. Ernestine Gross
    May 8th, 2013 at 12:49 | #36

    @wilful

    Why?

  37. John Quiggin
    May 8th, 2013 at 13:11 | #37

    @wilful

    No need to raise the temperature with terms like “idiotically unfair”. However, I don’t see anything sinister in the fact that BNC redirects comments to a discussion board. It’s less convenient than the more usual practice of linking them with the post, but doubtless the blog manager has reasons for doing it this way.

  38. Ben
    May 8th, 2013 at 13:55 | #38

    @TerjeP
    You make it sound as though the current system was built without government assistance.

  39. Hermit
    May 8th, 2013 at 14:17 | #39

    @John Quiggin
    For a ‘monolithic’ Gen 3 plant design approved by the US NRC we would have to use the Chinese or as the UAE is doing the South Koreans. I think we can rule out Indian, Russian and Chinese ‘budget’ reactors. US built small modular reactors may go on sale by 2022 and can be installed in 2 years. However we’d need a dozen or more modules to do a big coal plant equivalent like the planned Bayswater 2. Some claim speedy construction will offset higher average power costs for small reactors.

    Slow bureaucracy has been blamed for delays in Finland yet now the Brits plan to build to the same French design, the EPR. While the learning curve argument has been used for solar thermal I think big reactors will become more prefabricated. Notice how desktop computers start to resemble laptops. I think Australia should break the ice with an SMR to power a mining project then think about big reactors later. Bureaucrats and legislators should start to wrap their thinking around this now. Funny how it only takes a week to approve an offshore island as a detention camp so they can do it if they try.

  40. John Quiggin
    May 8th, 2013 at 14:44 | #40

    @Hermit

    SMRs are an appealing possibility but, as you say, unlikely to be available for a decade or so Realistically, even if we did a lot of advance preparation, it would take 5-10 years after that before we could see even an initial deployment.

    So, if we are serious about climate change, there’s no alternative to renewables and higher electricity prices, at least for the next 15 years or so. The good news is that, as the AEMO report shows the cost is very modest in relation to national income. The bad news is that, as other commenters have said, we and other countries are likely to let the planet go over the edge while we play politics as usual.

  41. Uncle Milton
    May 8th, 2013 at 15:35 | #41

    @John Quiggin

    “the cost is very modest”

    Well, maybe. AEMO says that it hasn’t taken account of what look to be some quite big costs, like acquiring 5000 square kilometres of land to put all the infrastructure in place. If the acquisition cost is (let’s guess) $1000 per square kilometre than that’s an additional $50 billion of cost.

    Then there’s a bunch of other costs that AEMO identifies but doesn’t quantify, like the additional cost of staging all-renewables: “It would not be entirely built using costs which assume the full learning technology curves, but at the costs applicable at the time.”

    I think a reasonable rule of thumb would be to double the estimated costs. You can still argue it is worth doing with double the costs.

    But presumably the reason AEMO did this study in the first place was as a result of a deal between the Government and the Greens, which was an artefact of the hung house of Reps. (It’s hard to imagine the Energy Minister at the time it was commissioned, Martin Ferguson, being interested.) Come September 14 though neither of the main parties will have to deal with the Greens. And I just don’t see Tony Abbott taking this forward of his own volition even if it is direct action.

    We might well get 100% renewables one day (with or without nuclear thrown in) but it’s unlikely to be in the lifetime of anyone reading this blog, including any precocious children.

  42. Uncle Milton
    May 8th, 2013 at 15:37 | #42

    @Uncle Milton

    That should be $10000 per square kilometre.

  43. John Quiggin
    May 8th, 2013 at 15:42 | #43

    @Uncle Milton

    Against that, they don’t look at energy efficiency, both exogenous and in response to higher prices. But, yes, even double the cost would be so modest as to be undetectable relative to the ordinary fluctuations in GDP and the much greater fluctuations in individual household incomes.

  44. Ikonoclast
    May 8th, 2013 at 15:55 | #44

    @John Quiggin

    Are you certain that a rise in the price of energy to double the current costs would not have significant knock-on costs all through the economy? If that is what you are saying. I agree we absolutely need to move to full renewable energy, I just think the economic and adjustment pain will be very significant. Claiming it will be nearly painless might be misleading people. If that is what you are claiming.

  45. Ben
    May 8th, 2013 at 15:59 | #45

    @Uncle Milton
    I’m reasonably confident I will live to see Germany and/or Denmark running with 100% renewables.

  46. Sam
    May 8th, 2013 at 17:01 | #46

    @Ikonoclast
    Only a doubling of the wholesale rate though. The retail component would be unchanged.

  47. iain
    May 8th, 2013 at 17:06 | #47

    @Ben, the reason why I specified without a large bioenergy source – was with Gussing specifically in mind. This was to avoid people doing a quick google and confusing this as a “sustainable” example. Not sure I would classify Tokelau as a good example either, definitely no net emergy return with their extensive use of batteries.

    Happy to be proven wrong, by other examples.

    A clear case would be the Geraldton region in Australia. Often billed as the best renewable energy centre in the world – with world class solar, geothermal, wind and tidal resources. If you can’t make this 100% renewable in the next 10-20 years, then I think the whole of Australia is really a pipe dream in the mid to long term.

    At the end of the day, the studies are currently rely on some fantasy extrapolation of technology, or energy efficiency with no rebound. Without big breakthroughs in energy storage systems (and hydrogen production and storage), these papers are theory, not practice.

    Better to focus on energy descent policies, in the meantime (a far more realistic policy setting).

  48. rog
    May 8th, 2013 at 17:12 | #48

    @Ikonoclast “thermal coal should stay in the ground”. I can see a lot of problems with that; the valuation if many or most resource entities includes what is in the ground. If it was to stay in the ground valuations would tumble dragging banks and others with them. That would be quite a shock to the system.

  49. May 8th, 2013 at 17:47 | #49

    Uncle Milton, the last time I checked 5,000 * 10,000 came to $50 million, not $50 billion, making it barely a rounding error in the estimates.

    I can’t imagine that much more than 5000 square kilometres will be needed. The price will vary hugely of course – some of it will be more like $10,000 per hectare, while in in the desert it would probably be less than $10,000 per square kilometre.

    However, even if we take the figure as $10,000 per hectare (not quite prime agricultural land, but certainly not clapped out grazing country) you are still only looking at $5 billion, so I can’t see this as a major obstacle.

  50. John Quiggin
    May 8th, 2013 at 17:51 | #50

    “a rise in the price of energy to double the current costs ”

    We already had that over the past 10 years. Since more than half the cost is in distribution and retail, a doubling of wholesale costs means a 25 per cent increase in final cost, over 20 years or so. I think the economy can handle that.

    (I see Sam already pointed this out)

  51. May 8th, 2013 at 18:02 | #51

    Iain, once the Mumbida windfarm is completed the Geraldton area will be producing more renewable energy than the electricity it consumes. However, by virtue of being connected to the Western Australian grid, much of this electricity will be exported to Perth, while there will be times when coal fired power will be coming up the transmission lines. It’s hardly credible that people will tear down the connectors so that they can make a demonstration program out of Geraldton and have it on 100% renewables before the rest of WA, since doing so would prevent the excess renewable energy produced during windy times from being sent south.

  52. iain
    May 8th, 2013 at 18:10 | #52

    @Stephen Luntz

    Not too mention that the intermittency would make it not possible, anyway… But feel free to keep making excuses?

    Next you will be telling me, like Ben, that small islands with 70% of their power derived from batteries are 100% renewable?

    Anyway, I think I can rest my point that there is no credible example of 100% renewable at reasonable scale – outside of areas with large hydro and geothermal (or smaller areas with large bio). Note, all of these are high net emergy resources, a point that is lost on commentators here (and at BNC).

  53. iain
    May 8th, 2013 at 18:26 | #53

    @Stephen Luntz

    A quick response on an obvious error – to open 4 or 5 reclosers on the west coast, is a trivial matter, and would quickly demonstrate the fallacy of your “logic” of powering Geraldton 100% with a wind farm.

    The idea that you would “tear down” infrastructure to isolate electrical feeds is bewildering.

  54. Uncle Milton
    May 8th, 2013 at 18:35 | #54

    @Stephen Luntz

    My bad on the arithmetic. Thanks for the correction.

    However, as even AEMO admits, they have (probably vastly) underestimated the costs of going to 100% renewables. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have 100% renewables, if that’s what we want to have. But we have to prepared to pay for it.

  55. Uncle Milton
    May 8th, 2013 at 18:41 | #55

    @John Quiggin

    “Since more than half the cost is in distribution and retail”

    I think you mean distribution and transmission, where there’s been a lot of new build (some would say gold-plating).

    And in a 100% renewables world wouldn’t there also be a lot of new transmission lines from the desert where the solar panels would be, etc?

  56. BilB
    May 8th, 2013 at 18:49 | #56

    iain,

    King Island is most of the way towards 100% renewable capability. 65% so far. Here they use the Redox Battery for load smoothing with their wind farm.

    http://www.hydro.com.au/about-us/news/2011-10/king-island-renewable-energy-integration-program-website-launched

  57. John Quiggin
    May 8th, 2013 at 19:19 | #57

    @Uncle Milton

    Retail is big and expensive business too, which didn’t exist before reform. In Qld it’s about 10 per cent of the average household bill (140/1400). The extra cost of going all renewable is two or three times the cost of adding the retail function to the old integrated system. As you say, gold-plated distribution is even more costly, but the current gold-plating is a reaction to the round of asset rundown that followed the 1990s reform. Having been on the QCA when most of Brisbane was blacked out as a result, I can say that the pressure to spend was irresistible.

  58. Uncle Milton
    May 8th, 2013 at 19:29 | #58

    @John Quiggin

    Some retail must have implicitly existed pre reform as the state-owned electricity companies sent bills and billing systems are a very large component of the cost of retailing.

  59. TerjeP
    May 8th, 2013 at 22:30 | #59

    Ben :
    @TerjeP
    You make it sound as though the current system was built without government assistance.

    Ben – I’m not meaning to. If coal plants were built with government assistance so what? Just because something was constructed using a subsidy in the past, and I want to stop subsidies, nobody should assume that I want to rip down what is already built. I’m suggesting that we end MRET and the implicit subsidy it entails. I’m not suggesting that we go out of our way to rip down renewable energy plants.

  60. TerjeP
    May 8th, 2013 at 22:35 | #60

    JQ – I don’t wish to disagree with your position on the lead time for nuclear energy. However we are not starting form zero in terms of nuclear regulation.

    Eg http://www.arpansa.gov.au/index.htm

  61. BilB
    May 9th, 2013 at 00:45 | #61

    Slovenia provides an interesting perspective on energy.

    For starters it is the smallest country with a nuclear reactor, and yet it has significant geothermal capacity. Why have a nuclear reactor, particularly one which brings huge operational issues. Ownership of the plant is in dispute leading to problems with waste management and financing such.

    Slovenia does have better options as is proudly demonstrated by light aircraft maker, Pipstrel.

    http://www.pipistrel.si/top-quality/ecolution-our-philosophy

  62. BilB
    May 9th, 2013 at 00:53 | #62

    further

    Pipistrel boast 100% sustainablility for their factory. They are a succesful business in a country with real economc problems, but they do demonstrate that with self interest, vision and effort 100% sustainability is achievable

  63. May 9th, 2013 at 00:57 | #63

    @John Quiggin

    I think you meant “reform” rather than reform.

    Change for the worse is not reform.

    I’ve often wondered how long until certain people start to casually mention “climate reform” when discussing the interesting changes to their local weather or maritime condition.

  64. Hermit
    May 9th, 2013 at 07:50 | #64

    @BilB
    I understand the vanadium redox battery has been replaced or supplemented with the CSIRO designed ultrabattery which is a lead acid battery coupled to a supercapacitor. It can store 1.6 Mwh or 45 minutes typical energy consumption for King Island. Note the abattoir closed citing high energy costs a bit like more threatened smelter closures on the mainland.

    However to power a city on a calm frosty night would take Gwh of energy storage, three or maybe four orders of magnitude greater. Large scale energy storage via batteries hasn’t arrived yet, perhaps never will. AEMO says we can fill in the gaps with biogas, something I doubt.

  65. BilB
    May 9th, 2013 at 09:20 | #65

    Hermit,

    Your cherry picking. If you go to the original report you will see that night performance is handled primarily with storage CSP, biomass, geothermal, wind, wave and hydro. That is a broad band of all hour options.

    King Island information suggests servicing or replacing the Vanadium flow battery. Your having more concise details does not alter the fact that King Island energy works and the people there are very happy with it. These are operational issues which will vary over time. The point with King island is that they are commited to renewables and it is working. An abattoir closing down for whatever reason is part of a trend of such closures, and nothing to do with any one specific cost factor.

    I think that the, now being researched, Sea Floor Hydro has huge potential for stored energy at the grid level.

    Nuclear will never be a necessary option for Australia, in simplest form because it equates to sending sand to the Sahara. This is a country bathed in energy direct from the only constant source. The energy production landscape is far too dynamic for investors to have confidence of a worthwhile long term return. Even if an ideologically driven political party in government regulated renewables into retreat, this could only be sustained for that political tenure, still not stable enough for sound investment. Business can cope with ebbs and flows of throughput (weather variation) but it cannot cope with widely fluctuating commercial viability.

  66. Newtownian
    May 9th, 2013 at 10:10 | #66

    @John Quiggin

    @Newtownian
    * Electric trains provide a good alternative to semi-trailers. The balance between the two has shifted back and forth over time, but replacing heavy trucks with trains is one of the easy ones
    * Cars and and light trucks can be replaced with existing EVs – they may not have been adopted on a large scale yet, but the technology is proven and the cost is modest relative to GDP.
    * Not yet proven, but there’s a lot of work on CO2-absorbing versions of concrete
    * What’s with wanting to delay Peak Oil? Apart from the fact that we passed Peak Oil decades ago in terms of consumption per person, it’s obvious that we want to accelerate the arrival of Peak Oil, and certainly stop shale and oil sands

    Thanks John, I appreciate your points. My communication was not ideal. For the record I am not against decarbonisation but very supportive provided the process is not simply structured to keep economic growth going and the numbers add up.

    My central reason for expressing concern about your use of the word ‘easy’ is illustrated by the biofuels industry history. It promised much in 1979 and everyone said it would be easy too then while ignoring the secondary impacts e.g. rainforest clearing – which did puzzle me at the time. Since then this secondary impact and many more have been documented we now know its more of a niche solution than a panacea. One worth contemplating is the need for phosphorus to grow anything and the implications of cheap/peak Phosphorus.

    My concerns over decarbonisation are similar – they are not about the concept per se but whether the numbers add up, especially the time required for changeover. My gut feeling and very close observation of the process locally (NCARF, LCLCRC) suggests people have good intentions but its still more in the R&D phase analogous to where PV was say 35 years ago.

    In short decarbonisation is possible but if you do a system/risk analysis a lot of issues will arise which if not address will not only slow the process but worse – provide ammunition for those who would discredit decarbonisation in the future i.e. those industries and individual who stand to lose.

    I can illustrate my concerns also by responding to your specific points:

    * Transport electrification: To some extent electrification can replace fossil fuels especially on the major transit routes. But this leaves the distribution point to/from house door/farm gate, the shopping centres etc. which are symbiotic with current transport patterns, mad as these are. Then there is the farm/industrial machinery, sourcing of all the new technology required (do we have the necessary industrial base here?). The roadworks alone are mind boggling for the charging systems.

    Where are we to find the capital? The ZCA people want about $200 billion just for standing energy replacement let alone what we would need for total decarbonisation and infrastructure changes. Wright M, Hearps P. Australian Sustainable Energy Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy Plan. Melbourne: The University of Melbourne Energy Research Institute Beyond Zero Emissions; 2010.

    WWII is proposed as a model for how change might be driven. But whether its possible to spook people soon enough in peacetime to implement such radical change is still debatable. We are now seeing full Arctic icesheet melt decades ahead of schedule. But it is largely being ignored or presented by the media ‘on balance’ more as a business opportunity than a gorilla size canary in the coalmine.

    Maybe its different in UQ but where I am the academic community who should be first to change are not treating this as anything serious, more just a new funding opportunity which allows taking the moral highground and is a trivial concern compared to superannuation issues which of course bear know relationship to all of this (??!!).

    Overall I don’t say the needed change is impossible or oppose it. I just don’t see it as being ‘easy’ especially with the current clowns than dominate both state and Federal Australia.

    * EV vehicles: I agree the technology of EVs, like the rest, can work and should be promoted. But will it be easy to introduce without massive government intervention beyond boutique and inner city use?

    PVs and solar thermal provide a useful technology change comparison here. PV has proven relatively easy to bolt onto the existing energy infrastructure and made very good economic sense in early more expensive use situations which supported its development and brought down costs – like enthusiasts, remote site power, space technologies.

    Yet it still took a long time to mature and it still has a long way to go.

    Solar thermal despite it being a simpler technology is taking much longer even though its a perfect bolt-on example which has largely got the power storage problem addressed. The why, I suggest is the crude economic challenge of raising the capital for big plants despite the urgent need for decarbonisation. In the old days the government could simply tax electricity and subsidise such power plants but this isn’t easy now since economic fashion changed (the good side is that this change also scuppered nuclear power).

    Moving back to transport – can we easily bolt on an EV system? In certain situations yes but across the board especially in Australia where long vehicle range is needed?

    Of course adaptation is possible but I cant see it happening easily or spontaneously.

    * Regarding concrete I should be able to make more informed comment very shortly if I can give up blogging for Lent. But what I have seen so far is disturbing. One of the largest available materials identified is in fact power plant ash (and maybe iron ore slag where we still make steel). But we are trying to stop coal burning in the first place and the transport costs aren’t trivial. Put another way recycling wastes is possible but it is not a permanent or complete solution as we should be getting rid of the wastes in the first place. It feels a bit like CCS technology – interesting but a marginal solution which has the downside of suggesting business as usual is possible with just a few tweaks.

    Beyond that for such radical materials to be accepted by industry there is a maze of product development, certification etc. to negotiate.

    On the good side progressive companies are looking for solutions – but ones within their business models rather than more radical ones which may be needed.

    * Peak Oil: For me there are two meanings for peak oil – one is the peak of conventional liquid petroleum production which you are referring to, the second is the peak of liquid fossil fuel use. Unfortunately we don’t routinely distinguish these and the two get conflated (I wasn’t precise enough here).

    I absolutely agree about conventional ‘liquid gold’ production having virtually peaked. However it appears that ‘unconventional’ oil can keep the current energy system going for a long time to judge by the reserves.

    There is a useful summary of the scale of unconventional fossil fuel in this article by the US supremo who used to work with Paul Ehrlich – Holdren JP. Environmental change and the human condition. Bulletin 2003: 24-31. (not sure of web link but GoogleScholar should find it). Basically it shows the alternative oil fuel stocks of unconventional oil and gas, clathrates, oil shale and coal total 60 X the traditional oil and gas reserves. The technology already exists for coal conversion shale oil extraction and I believe for turning any gas into diesel.

    Given the vested interest already in the fossil fuel industry then the maxim about there being too much coal to burn applies to ‘oil’ in the generic sense too – and the peak is someway off subject to politics and emergy costs.

    Should this eventuate it would be a disaster but the vested interest will not make change easy.

  67. Newtownian
    May 9th, 2013 at 10:38 | #67

    @Fran Barlow

    Speaking as someone who, unusually for a Green, doesn’t have a fundamental objection to resort to nuclear power and regards it as a technically feasible component of an industrial-scale low carbon intensity energy system …

    As someone who has thought about this I was wondering about your position on the problems/limitations of nukes, especially in combination, that keep being swept under the carpet from my observation?:

    1. Top most is nuclear proliferation. Nuclear power industry historically has gone hand in hand with weapons proliferation as it provides much of the basic material and much of the trained personnel. Today, things don’t feel too antagonistic between the many who have these obscenities. But as evidenced by the aftermath of 1900 to 1910 when things seemed great, things can change very rapidly. The IAEA has not been successful as we know in stopping the development of massive arsenals – look at India and Pakistan. We are sitting increasingly on a tinderbox.

    I don’t remember 1962 but I do remember the dark times of 1983 when we did nearly lose the world (which is only now becoming public). I never want to see the return of those times but until we become a lot more sane and humane as a global society I cant see nuclear power not leading to massive proliferation as resources become more constraining. Australia is one nation that didn’t go down this track but there are people who still lobby for a nuclear deterrent and there have been past projects which nearly led to and illustrate this exact problem e.g. the plan to construct a reactor at Jervis Bay suitable for conversion to Plutonium production at short notice.

    2. The prospect of nukes as the primary (why else bother?) means of energy decarbonisation begs the question of what scale – to full decarbonise you aren’t talking a few hundred reactor but tens of thousands to service the 17 TW of global energy demand. Its simple arithmetic. These have to replace not just coal full all energy virtually if they are selected. The impact isn’t talked about seriously.

    Or maybe we will have to manage hundreds of thousands of unit it these so called miniature reactors ever got off the ground as a serious energy source.

    3. This scale required would exhaust Uranium 235 resources in no time necessitating the movement to Pu and U233 breeder reactors – perfect for bomb material production. That is what these Gen IV reactors are about and even the prototypes are still a ways off.

    4. All of which will generate a glorious legacy for future generations but we wont have to worry about this.

  68. Hermit
    May 9th, 2013 at 10:39 | #68

    @BilB
    You must go to sun drenched United Arab Emirates and tell them to stop their N-build as it isn’t necessary. Saudi Arabia has even bigger plans.

  69. Hermit
    May 9th, 2013 at 11:20 | #69

    @Newtownian
    17 TW/1 GW = 17,000 large reactors which is a bit of a worry. Still N Korea or Pakistan haven’t imploded yet. The 17 TW is for now but presumably a bigger future population will be more frugal and share more equitably.

    As you say 4th generation nuclear has to arrive or we’re screwed. For example there will be no public aviation industry after 2050 without synthetic liquid fuels. That’s when today’s primary school kids will be middle aged. I don’t see how the energy problem can be managed or afforded by covering hundreds of square kilometres of the outback with solar panels. Spain has started in that direction now they have 27% unemployment. We’re already in pain with current energy prices. If there were only a billion of us world wide we could make liquid fuel out of coal and postpone the problem.

  70. BilB
    May 9th, 2013 at 11:33 | #70

    Saudia Arabia?

    Completely different politics. Completely different perspective on energy.

  71. Fran Barlow
    May 9th, 2013 at 11:57 | #71

    @Hermit

    I don’t see how the energy problem can be managed or afforded by covering hundreds of square kilometres of the outback with solar panels. Spain has started in that direction now they have 27% unemployment.

    Post hoc ergo propter hoc … Sequence is not causality. Unemployment in Spain is not the product of solar panels, or renewables, A Blot notwithstanding.

  72. BilB
    May 9th, 2013 at 12:28 | #72

    Gosh, Hermit @19, you appear to be stepping back in time. Have you been talking with Clive Palmer?

  73. Nathan
    May 9th, 2013 at 12:57 | #73

    @iain
    You seem to be forgetting one important point here. As long as fossil fuels remain a (even fractionally) cheaper energy source [1], one does not necessarily expect to see examples of 100% renewables regardless of how technologically feasible they are. The lack of purely renewable powered cities is *not* credible evidence that this is impossible or even necessarily particularly difficult. Instead one needs to look at each proposal in detail to judge their economic and technical merits to work out if they make sense or not. When this is done, there a several examples of highly successful large scale renewable energy production which have clear and practical (if sometimes expensive) paths to be scaled up.

    Also, you said earlier that the renewable energy plans relied on currently “fantasy extrapolation of technology”, a claim often thrown around by the ill-informed. But perhaps you’ve done your research and I’ve missed something. If so could you name an example of this from the BZE plan for instance?

    [1] artificially so due the the lack of a mechanism by which the externalities of fossil fuel based energies are included in today’s market (i.e. a truly representative carbon price)

  74. Fran Barlow
    May 9th, 2013 at 15:33 | #74

    @Newtownian

    I was wondering about your position on the problems/limitations of nukes {…} Top most is nuclear proliferation.

    This handy phrase — “proliferation” — is close to being a weasel word IMO. It should go without saying that nobody with an ounce of humanity will be relaxed about nuclear weapons (or their precursors) being in loose circulation. The idea that some non-state actor, or perhaps a “rogue state” (another weasel term) might deploy such a device against a civilian population — particularly one in an advanced industrial country is something that elicits existential angst — especially in places where people like us fancy we live orderly predictable lives.

    Yet as the concept of the “nuclear club” — the permanent members of the Security Council — makes clear, the attempt to constrain “proliferation” is not an attempt to abolish nuclear weapons as quintessentially abhorrent, but to protect an existing monopoly on engaging in actual or putative nuclear-weapons-based violence. The people of Russia, China, France, the US and the UK and their allies may well be horrified at being on the wrong end of it, or placed under some sort of policy duress by someone else possessing it, but the fact remains that we/they simply have no basis for asking others not to do do what will not — decommission them and secure the materials properly. It’s unlikely that any state possessing nuclear weapons will in practice deploy them — for the simple reason that in most cases, near neighbours or allies would suffer, and in some cases, their own populations would too. One may ask — what has kept the US from waging war on North Korea? — and one will conclude that the prospect that they might have a deployable nuclear weapon was key. Had the US thought the Taliban or Saddam Hussein had them, it’s doubtful that they’d have held them responsible for 9/11. They’d have been a lot more circumspect. Outside of a world in which WMD really are regarded as anathema — something to be “turned into ploughshares” by whoever holds them, the horror at “proliferation” is cant. Indeed, one might add that a world in which a handful of big states can wage intimidation and violence on a mass scale with conventional weapons ought also to be anathema, and crying “proliferation” is really a lot like misdirection. But I digress …

    As dreadful as the prospect of existential violence is, it really isn’t all that likely or well-connected with the nuclear power industry. To the best of my knowledge, none of the materials likely to be used in building nuclear weapons would be sourced from nuclear power plants. The material most likely to be used would be from existing nuclear weapons. The fact that despite the break up of the USSR more than 20 years ago, there has not been a single incident of nuclear blackmail by a non-state actor tells us something about the scale of this threat.

    The hazmat of nuclear plants really isn’t that much better suited to making nuclear weapons than is uranium oxide. It’s far easier to use fertiliser to make bombs than it is to use the waste from an FBR to make something like a nuclear weapon. A fast breeder reactor is one way that Pu from decomissioned weapons could be rendered less useful to putatively nuclear weapons-using psychopaths. Using this material in this way might well meet the meonymic test of turning swords into ploughshares. Your remarks to the contrary, the hazmat in a breeder is not “perfect” for weapons. Really — if it is weapons you want, then you want to keep your activities under the radar. Since we are not discussing a commercial activity, if you have the requisite technology and the motivation, why not extract uranium from seawater?

    This scale required would exhaust Uranium 235 resources in no time necessitating the movement to Pu and U233 breeder reactors

    That’s simply not so. Firstly, as noted, one can extract uranium from seawater. It’s a lot more expensive but the fuel for a nuclear plant is a tiny proportion of the energy cost. I’m also not that bothered by the prospect that fast breeder reactors may cause more nuclear weapons to be built.

    Do you really argue that if they were built here, Australia would move to acquire nuclear weapons or supply them to non-state actors? That’s unthinkable isn’t it? This is a fantasy, but allowing for the sake of argument, that Australia or some other state did want to take this course, they wouldn’t need nuclear power plants to do it. Pakistan managed it without them. So too did Israel and Pakistan. The US of course did too. The key here is not nuclear power plants but politics.

    As I said above, it could well be that nuclear-based decarbonisation fails other feasibility tests — most importantly — schedule feasibility — they cannot be rolled out with the speed and at the scale needed in the places needed with the distribution infrastructure needed to do the job we need them to do when we need them to do it. Nuclear power may turn out to be a fool’s errand. I also accept, proponent of inclusive governance that I am — that people can make choices about how they’d like their infrastructure to be composed. if people who are fully informed about the actual and prospective costs and benefits of the technologies don’t like the idea of nuclear power in their jurisdiction and would prefer to get the job done some other way, then I’m for them having that choice — providing no other compelling interest is prejudiced by that choice — and I don’t see that one is. Even if, in extremis, resort to renewables entailed a substantially less wealthy society — and I remain to be convinced that this would follow — people are entitled to make this choice.

  75. iain
    May 9th, 2013 at 16:10 | #75

    @Nathan
    Projections for geothermal, any projections for energy efficiency without real life rebound factors.

    @bilb
    Pointing to systems that rely predominately on batteries, is bewildering. You need to replace every few years, and the embodied energy costs defeat the main purpose.

    Shall we install battery capacity to counter 30 GW for Australia, and then replace every few years?

    Better policy, would be based around energy decent.

  76. iain
    May 9th, 2013 at 16:43 | #76

    @Nathan

    “The lack of purely renewable powered cities is *not* credible evidence that this is impossible or even necessarily particularly difficult.”

    It isn’t exactly credible evidence for it either, right? This is the 21st century already, right? Have you, or any commentators, even read the draft report in detail? It is fantasy world projections for geo thermal, and has low probability of being close to reality.

    You are far more likely to have distributed generation, with hydrogen energy systems, than the fantasy world projected in this draft report, see link below.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130217134237.htm

    Even RMI’s 100% renewable mix is more credible than this report.

  77. May 9th, 2013 at 17:52 | #77

    I’ve been reading this comment thread with interest, or possibly another emotion, but I’ve only made one comment so far as I haven’t been feeling my usual jolly self. I’ve been feeling an entirely different person.

    Anyway, I’ll let some people put their minds at ease and stop then stressing over whether or not Australia will have nuclear power. It won’t. The proposed Hinkley C nuclear plant in the UK looks like it may not go ahead on account of how they have not been able to get a minimum price of 15 cents a kilowatt-hour. That means for consumers its considerably more expensive than point of use solar. In England. That’s just embarrassing. It’s also more than twice as expensive as onshore wind and considerably more expensive than offshore wind. And while there are limits to the scale on which this can be done, it is also more expensive than burning natural gas and then dumping plants in the ocean to sequester the CO2 released. Obviously, with Australia’s better wind, solar, and agricultural resources nuclear will be priced even further out of the market than it already is. I’m not against nuclear in the sense that I think people should be stopped from building a modern nuclear power plant in Australia with their own money if they want to, I’m just honest about that fact that it’s not going to happen.

    I could go on about the cost of insurance, but there is no point. A minimum wholesale price of 15 cents a kilowatt-hour makes that irrelevant.

    Maths break: Torrens Island power plant, Australia’s largest gas user, produces about half a kilogram of CO2 per kilowatt-hour. As it should cost less than $50 a tonne to sequester CO2 agriculturally on a small to moderate scale, for Torrens Island to go carbon neutral should cost less than 2.5 cents per kilowatt-hour.

  78. Newtownian
    May 9th, 2013 at 20:04 | #78

    @Fran Barlow

    Thanks for responding in detail. I disagree with most or your points but they were revealing.

    Here is my reply interspersed with what I judge are in context quotes from your arguments.

    I sense several problems here but rather than dwell on them I’ll get straight to the points with your concerns in (hopefully reasonable contextual) quotes.

    “This handy phrase — “proliferation” — is close to being a weasel word IMO.”

    Around 1980 when nuclear war risks were hotting up we (e.g. SANA, NDCC, PND) were concerned about all issues including proliferation and big power politics and were just as sceptical as you. We were also worried that India and Pakistan South American countries, South Africa etc. would develop arsenals. We were also concerned about Israel and the Middle East countries getting into a tussle and the hypocrisy of course. And it would keep going from there. This was the era of the Great Cold War. For you this appears history, for me its still vivid memories. We didn’t have Armageddon but we came damn close in 1983. And the fears about spread were confirmed. India and Pakistan now have very large arsenals. Only South Africa has notionally disarmed – but the plant is still there at Hartbeespoort outside Pretoria/Tshwane should they change their minds ever.

    So you comment is pretty insulting of our concerns and the environmental battles we fought for at the time – the aim of which was complete disarmament by all nations irrespective of nationality. It didn’t happen but given what I’ve now read of 1983, maybe we stopped the worst.

    But closer reading suggests you are framing this in a modern context and mistakenly assumed I was.

    The central question for me is has the problem gone away or is proliferation rolling on helped by the development of nuclear industries? Iran & North Korea are important as case studies of the problem. Personally I don’t care if their leaders are sane or insane in the long run. Its their development of nuclear arsenals is mad just like it is for all other nations.

    We/they simply have no basis for asking others not to do do what will not — decommission them and secure the materials properly. It’s unlikely that any state possessing nuclear weapons will in practice deploy them — for the simple reason that in most cases, near neighbours or allies would suffer, and in some cases, their own populations would too. One may ask — what has kept the US from waging war on North Korea? — and one will conclude that the prospect that they might have a deployable nuclear weapon was key. …….

    This one blew my mind. Your logic is approaching the justification for the old Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) of the Cold War. Did you really intend that? Of course MAD is quite logical in the short term. Its flaw is eventually one too many brinkmanship exercises will likely turn to war at least to judge by history.

    This almost reads like you support all nations having the bomb. I doubt that was you intention but that is the logic – the slippery slope to Armageddon. As to the question of what is holding this process back and what role nuclear power? see Montgomery AH, Sagan SD. The Perils of Predicting Proliferation. Journal of Conflict Resolution 2009 53 302-328. Basically the barriers boil down to technological capacity (hence my concern about the nuclear power industry), and politics (national paranoia and prestige).

    As dreadful as the prospect of existential violence is, it really isn’t all that likely or well-connected with the nuclear power industry. To the best of my knowledge, none of the materials likely to be used in building nuclear weapons would be sourced from nuclear power plants.

    The original British nuclear power stations were design nominally with power in mind but bomb material as the real rationale e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calder_Hall_nuclear_power_station#Calder_Hall_nuclear_power_station.
    A more recent illustration of the problem is this Bergeron K. While Noone was Looking. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 2001; 57: 42-49. Basically a civilian nuclear power station has been redirected to produce Tritium (essential for all modern nuclear weapons if they are to make a real bang).

    The material most likely to be used would be from existing nuclear weapons. The fact that despite the break up of the USSR more than 20 years ago, there has not been a single incident of nuclear blackmail by a non-state actor tells us something about the scale of this threat.

    In response to this so-far so good argument I recommend Hellman ME. How risky is nuclear optimism? Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 2011; 67: 47-56. The point made is that the longer we go on, the bigger the arsenals, potential and real, and the more the chance of something (accident, crazies) happening. The systems put in place will likely be the basis for things way into deep future future. Have you ever read about the Fermi paradox?

    It’s far easier to use fertiliser to make bombs than it is to use the waste from an FBR to make something like a nuclear weapon.

    Actually nuclear weapons are pretty cost effective in a serious war. They saved the US maybe a million deaths in an invasion of Japan which is argued to have been the alternative. The insanity though is we cant even ecologically afford one little war in the name of principle – Mills MJ, et al. Massive global ozone loss predicted following regional nuclear conflict. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2008; 105: 5307-5312.

    A fast breeder reactor is one way that Pu from decomissioned weapons could be rendered less useful to putatively nuclear weapons-using psychopaths. Using this material in this way might well meet the meonymic test of turning swords into ploughshares. Your remarks to the contrary, the hazmat in a breeder is not “perfect” for weapons.

    If only it were so. A feature of the new technologies is their development of modular units e.g. pebble beds. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pebble_bed_reactor . Have a look at the design. You could run these peacefully for ages but when war threatened all you need is modify some of the ‘pebbles’. Doh. This was one of the big concerns about the Candu reactor though India’s first bomb was derived from several other reactor sources including peaceful power reactors. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Candu#Nuclear_nonproliferation . So much for peaceful nuclear power.

    This scale required would exhaust Uranium 235 resources in no time necessitating the movement to Pu and U233 breeder reactors

    That’s simply not so. Firstly, as noted, one can extract uranium from seawater. It’s a lot more expensive but the fuel for a nuclear plant is a tiny proportion of the energy cost.

    Are you familiar with the concept of Emergy, the amount of energy you need to put into a process to get the endproduct. The basic question it raises is how does the energy put into extracting Uranium compare with how much you actually get out. It’s the old Red Queens Race. There is a nice analysis here: Bardi U. Extracting Minerals from Seawater: An Energy Analysis. Sustainability 2010; 2: 980-992 which shows. Ugo’s calculations are a little wonky but the order of magnitude principle is still valid.

    I’m well aware of Randian/neoliberal argument bright entrepreneur scientists will come along with some new technology to solve the problem in response to market forces. Sometimes that is possible as happened with photovoltaics happily. But Graham Turner’s work shows such cornucopianism is overall misplaced (Turner. G. A comparison of the limits to growth with thirty years of reality. 2008). Also if you read Bardi’s analysis you will quickly see what a nightmare proposal this seawater mining is – worse even than geo-engineering sea fertilization or lunar mining. As to low quality ores which is an intermediate case – have a look at Mudd GM, Diesendorf M. Sustainability of uranium mining and milling: Toward quantifying resources and eco-efficiency. Environmental Science and Technology 2008; 42: 2624-2630.

    I’m also not that bothered by the prospect that fast breeder reactors may cause more nuclear weapons to be built.

    I’m speechless. Are you really Green? Is this a bad joke?

    Do you really argue that if they were built here, Australia would move to acquire nuclear weapons?

    This is not an hypothetical. In the 1960s work was commenced to build just such a reactor under the urgings of two AEC/University scientistis Baxter and Titterton, two old imperial nationalists. The foundations were laid at Jervis Bay and they were still there last time I looked. The project was stopped by Billy McMahon. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jervis_Bay_Nuclear_Power_Plant_proposal. They didn’t go for the proven commercial PWR design but for a British design suited to conversion to plutonium manufacture with guess what future contingencies in mind. (I got this last from a colleague who worked at Lucas Heights at the time and have since found supporting information). Apparently its all there in the archives if you want to look and know how to interpret the information.)

    Supply them to non-state actors?

    If you look at my original text I make no reference to nuclear terrorists or other straw men. I’m talking basic principles.

    The key here is not nuclear power plants but politics.

    There are three key constraining factors, one is technology, two are about politics (have a look at the Montogomery reference above).

  79. quokka
    May 9th, 2013 at 21:14 | #79

    Nobody seems to be actually interested in what’s in the AEMO document so long as it says (or rather can construed to say) that nuclear power is not needed or the use of nuclear power does not confer advantages. Of course it can reach no such conclusion, because nuclear power was excluded from it’s terms of reference. As nuclear power has proved to be the most successful non-hydro low emissions technology, this is a rather strange omission if a safe climate is the over arching problem that any such report is ultimately addressing. If the anti-nukes are so sure of their ground, they should have demanded inclusion of nuclear power (or more generally technology neutral terms of reference), but that could put the memes under the microscope which might turn out to be a little troublesome.

    Initial comments on the contents:

    1. For both Scenario 1 and Scenario 2 there are large amounts and baseload and dispatchable capacity. So much for the “baseload myth”. Baseload is provided by geothermal+wood – in Scenario 1 geothermal dominates. There are no heroic assumptions about movable demand – just a moderate adjustment to move the peak to around midday with a second slightly lower peak in late afternoon/early evening.

    2. Storage is pumped hydro and CST molten salt. All the other gadgets are not considered to be economic.

    3. Geothermal is still very much at the “proof of concept” stage for the particular geothermal technologies that might be applicable to Australia and it is still rather uncertain when the concept may be proved. The track record is not good. There is no good reason to believe that geothermal could be deployed in Australia any sooner than nuclear. Nuclear has a lower technology risk and is functionally similar (baseload, synchronous). It is quite possible that small modular reactors will be available before geothermal is viable.

    4. Burning wood. Multiple questions about this, not the least being “Is this a good idea and where is it going to come from?”. At the very least, burning wood incurs a carbon debt that is not repaid for decades. In best case, there would be no advantage over coal (actually probably worse) until regrowth recaptures significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. And questions remain about carbon accounting for burning trees.

    The baseload problem has not gone away.

    The AEMO report gives every indication that modelling of nuclear (and CCS if you must) in the generation mix could be done fairly painlessly and easily using the methodology and tools they have used. Anything less than that is well short of due diligence with so much at stake. Not very democratic either.

  80. May 10th, 2013 at 07:56 | #80

    you made it again

  81. John Quiggin
    May 10th, 2013 at 07:59 | #81

    Quokka, I’ll refer you back to the link cited in the OP, published on BNC and concluding that adding nuclear to the mix doesn’t change much. Then, I’ll ask you to answer the same question I asked hermit, namely

    Assume that there’s bipartisan agreement, starting right now, that we should go nuclear. Then give some estimated timescales for:

    (a) Drafting and passage of legislation to establish a regulatory authority, set up a liability regime, make plans for waste disposal etc
    (b) Establishment and recruitment of expert staff
    (c) Site selection for possible plants
    (d) Process for eliciting bids to construct plants
    (e) Environmental impact statements etc
    (f) Construction of pilot/demonstration plant
    (g) Large scale construction
    (h) Beginning of operation on a scale large enough to affect CO2

    I think any honest attempt at this will lead to the conclusion that nuclear power can’t play a significant role in Australia before 2030 or so. In the meantime, it’s clear that we can go a long way towards decarbonisation using renewables. So, if you care about the planet more than about advocacy for one particular power source, why not get behind renewables now, and remind people that we should keep an open mind about nuclear in the future?

  82. Hermit
    May 10th, 2013 at 08:31 | #82

    Australia’s avowed aim is to reduce year 2000 emissions 80% by 2050. See the DCEE climate change factsheet. At 1.6% reduction a year (coincidentally similar to population growth) starting at 558 Mt net CO2e in 2000 last year 2012 we should have hit 451 Mt. It came in at 552 Mt. We saved bugger all. Not only that we exported about 800 Mt of CO2 via coal and LNG but that’s another problem.

    Clearly we are never going to make an 80% cut without something drastic. We’ve lost 1 out of 6 aluminium smelters perhaps that needs to be 5. The unpalatable reality may be that Hazelwood and accomplices are going to be with us for another 20 years. Even if carbon tax and the RET are retained we’ll be burning and exporting massive amounts of coal, perhaps kidding ourselves with dodgy offsets. Nukes do the same job as coal minus the CO2. We should make an in-principle decision to accept accept nukes now and hope that affordable high powered quick build models come to the market sooner than later.

  83. Ikonoclast
    May 10th, 2013 at 09:19 | #83

    @Fran Barlow

    Fran, you cannot “extract uranium from seawater” and get a positive EROEI (energy return on energy invested). The process would be an energy sink. I have posted links to reputable scientific papers which calculate the energy costs and energy returns. I have done this several times on this blog. I leave those interested enough to find the links again.

    No matter how many times one points out with reputable empirical studies that extracting uranium from seawater is an energy loss maker not an energy source, this kind of furphy keeps coming up. You need to check the scientific facts and stop making such erroneous claims.

  84. Ikonoclast
    May 10th, 2013 at 09:33 | #84

    @Hermit

    Solar (PV, concentrating and convection towers) does the same job as coal without the CO2. Let’s make them now.

    Solar concentrating and solar convection towers can produce power 24/7. Solar concentrating stores heat in molten tanks and re-uses this heat (through a turbine system) to make electric power at night. Solar convection towers convect 24/7 and thus generate power with air-flow turbines 24/7. Indeed the temperature differential between the surface and the tower top is greater at night so they work even better at night.

    If you want to talk engineering difficulties and dangers, yes molten salt tanks have them but compared to nuclear power stations, molten salt tanks are easy to engineer.

    No matter how many times I say these things on this blog nobody pays the slightest attention. It seems that most people have their obsessive beliefs which they are fixated upon and they are totally incapable of learning anything new when a single fact involved threatens to overturn one of their pet obsessive beliefs.

    It indicates we have absolutely no hope as a society of dealing with the problems we face. That would take a real committment and ability to form and reform views based on empirical facts. Something which apparently less than 1 in a 100 matured adults are capable of (in my estimate).

  85. Fran Barlow
    May 10th, 2013 at 11:52 | #85

    @Ikonoclast

    extracting uranium from seawater is an energy loss maker not an energy source,

    I’m not aware of your source but if it is Storm & Van Leeuwen, then it assumes massive pumping of water rather than passive “adsorption” materials which use far less energy to collect the uranium than would some sort of forced filtration system forcing peta litres of seawater through it. Assuming a conventional reactor, you can get about 700Gj of energy out of a Kg of uranium and your adsorbent and related infrastructure isn’t coing to consume anything like that collecting it. Using it in a breeder would have an even better EROEI.

    The process would be relatively expensive of course, and, I assume, fairly slow/difficult to scale up and so it would assume a much larger price for uranium than obtains now — probably several hundred dollars per kg — which is why nobody would do it right now, but it would seem to be technically feasible.

  86. Nathan
    May 10th, 2013 at 12:02 | #86

    @iain
    Are you claiming that the BZE report contains either of these? If so you are flatly mistaken. The plan involves no geothermal projections because they conclude that it is in the class of “technologies that are on the horizon, but as yet have not overcome all technical hurdles nor have they been demonstrated at scale”. Also the efficiency savings are modelled on applying programs and their corresponding efficiency gains that have already been demonstrated in comparable economies (mostly Germany). Thus the efficiency projections are based on outcomes that have already happened and thus already include rebound effects. I repeat my question, can you substantiate any of your accusations regarding the BZE report?

  87. quokka
    May 10th, 2013 at 13:03 | #87

    @Ikonoclast

    1. Japanese research and more recent work from Argonne National Lab indicates a likely cost of uranium from sea water of $300 per pound, possibly reducing over time. It’s basically a problem of materials science/chemistry. No pumping of water is required – simply use ocean currents, and all estimates of EROEI that depend on pumping water are entirely irrelevant. How you can have a negative EROEI for U extracted at $300 per pound really does need some explaining.

    I have already pointed this out here once before, and I must say I would like to be surprised that the claim has been repeated. There are decades before extraction of U from seawater might need to be called upon – lots of time to develop the technology and on balance of current evidence, it seems far more likely than not that it would be a viable option.

    2. CST with is NOT the same as coal as should be plainly obvious from reading the AEMO report. In the AEMO scenarios CST with storage is short term to extend availability of solar electricity into the evening/night. Storage time scales are a matter of hours (ie < 24) with some reserve maintained. When CST is not there, biogas and hydro step in – see Figures 23 through 31 of the AEMO report. This is not the same as coal. CST is not fully baseload in the AEMO scenarios. In the AEMO scenarios, baseload is mostly geothermal+wood.

    You *might* be able turn CST into fully fledged baseload but it would be pricey. The AEMO scenarios are the way they are for a reason.

  88. Troy Prideaux
    May 10th, 2013 at 13:31 | #88

    Quite simply, the world needs more Elon Musks

  89. Sam
    May 10th, 2013 at 14:54 | #89

    @Ikonoclast
    I think we’ve had this debate before haven’t we? As I recall, the conclusion was that a “once through” reactor certainly couldn’t make use of seawater uranium with an EROEI>1, but that a breeder reactor probably could. This is because a once through reactor only uses the U235 isotope (0.7% of natural uranium), while a breeder can theoretically use the fertile – as opposed to fissionable- U238 isotope (99.3%).

    It was acknowledged that breeder reactors hadn’t been commercially successful, but were demonstrably technically feasible, and had operated in the past with EROEI>1.

    We also agreed that the easily researchable literature was deficient. It only focused on the dollar cost of seawater uranium extraction, not the physical energy requirements.

  90. John Quiggin
    May 10th, 2013 at 15:24 | #90

    So a proposed deal for me, Hermit and Quokka. I’m happy to support nuclear in principle, with adoption as and when overseas experience shows the existence of a cheap, safe, reliable model, if you’re willing to support a full-scale push for energy conservation and renewables now (this is agnostic as to the mix of prices, permits, and direct action used to get there). Takers?

  91. Fran Barlow
    May 10th, 2013 at 16:04 | #91

    @John Quiggin

    I’d be OK with that deal, but I’d like it sweetened by setting aside reasonable funds to do R&D in nuclear power technologies (which a body like the CSIRO could licence) to examine constraints on technical and economic feasibility not being adequately addressed elsewhere, with an especial focus on those Gen IV plants about which there has been so much talk.

    It seems to me that any plant that really can produce power from existing hazmat or decommissioned nuclear weapons, accelerating the decay of the said hazmat, is doing both a good thing and a better thing — given the concern so many have over decommissioning plants and weapons. Whatever one says about renewables, or however hostile one is to nuclear power, everyone acknowledges the legacy problem we will have even if every nuclear plant were shut tomorrow.

    Maybe the GenIV idea will prove nearly as elusive as fusion, but we owe it to future generations to give it a good hard look, at least conceptually. Maybe some more safe and cost-effective way will be developed to do long term sequestration of hazmat than building GenIV plants to ‘burn’ the once-used fuel or the ex-nuclear weapons material, and that is fine too if having a plant doesn’t stack up. It does seem to me though that if we are worried about nuclear hazmat, Australia would seem to be a nearly ideal place on the Earth to take on storing it — suitable technologies permitting of course.

  92. Hermit
    May 10th, 2013 at 16:41 | #92

    @John Quiggin
    I’m halfway there. I support carbon pricing but not the RET. I can hardly object to renewables per se as my power bill is hundreds of dollars in credit due to the generous feed-in tariff for PV, the fact I have alternative heating and I have several hundred litres of biodiesel ready to put in the vehicle. It’s just I confidently predict those kinds of novelties are not enough for an industrialised society brought up on the teat of coal and oil.

  93. sunshine
    May 10th, 2013 at 19:16 | #93

    Dos anyone know if waste from nuc power plants would have to be kept safe (and crucially for how long ?) because dirty nuc bombs can be made from it ?

    If the answer is ‘yes’ and ‘ a long time ‘ then I cant vote for nuclear power .

  94. quokka
    May 10th, 2013 at 21:13 | #94

    @Newtownian

    You can speculate on Gorton’s support for the Jervis Bay reactor. It is certainly possible that there may have been an intention for Australia to acquire a breakout capability to build nuclear weapons, but that does not necessarily imply an intent actually build weapons.

    But to suggest that the choice of a heavy water reactor design was made over a light water design solely on that basis is stretching things too far. At the time, although the US was pushing LWRs it was hardly universal. The UK went with AGRs which are very different. In retrospect, that may have been a mistake but hindsight is easy. Canada went with CANDUs – heavy water reactors and they have been very successful. What would ultimately dominate was still very much an open issue.

    Heavy water reactors have a big advantage of not being picky eaters. They can be fueled on unenriched natural uranium. LWRs will not work without enriched uranium. For a nation getting into nuclear power, and wanting to attain self sufficiency heavy water reactors were an attractive proposition. Nations with heavy water reactors and no nuclear weapons include Canada, Sth Korea, Argentina and Romania. China, India and Pakistan also have heavy water reactors.

  95. Fran Barlow
    May 10th, 2013 at 21:19 | #95

    @sunshine

    Does anyone know if waste from nuclear power plants would have to be kept safe (and crucially for how long ?) because dirty nuclear bombs can be made from it?

    There are a number of serious technical feasibility constraints associated with a non-state actor acquiring the material for making, making, transporting and deploying a “dirty bomb”. Avoiding getting a lethal dose before deployment would be tricky, assuming one wanted to move the weapon into a place where it could cause serious disruption since the shielding would make it very heavy.

    Also, nuclear power plants probably aren’t the best places to source the best materials. Research reactors, medical labs and so forth are far better potential sources. Nuclear hazmat from power plants tends to be very well secured, and extracting the desirable actinides (strontium 90, caesium 137, poloniumn 210, etc) would not be a straightforward job.

    Hazmat does have to be kept safe — sequestered from humans, in large part because humans fear exposure — with good cause. Yet “dirty bombs” would be unlikely to cause mass casualties — though mass panic and the consequent political demand for an extravagant response by the authorities could make the cost of such an act very serious indeed.

    However that might be, the absence or presence of nuclear power plants is not a serious variable in the calculus. Shutting down imaging labs and lighthouses in remote parts of Russia might make more sense.

  96. BilB
    May 11th, 2013 at 05:21 | #96

    This morning’s good news is that Atmospheric CO2 levels have officially reach 400 parts per million.

  97. BilB
    May 11th, 2013 at 06:03 | #97

    Just looking at the graph it took 45 years for CO2 levels to increase 40 ppm to 1985 when the level became 300 ppm, then took 28 years to increase 50 ppm to 400 ppm.

    So we should reach the 450 ppm level about 2035 at this accelerating level.

    Even though the global population growth rate has slowed from 2% in the 1960′s to 1.2% now, the carbon consumption expectation per person has increased an order of magnitude since the 60′s.

    The only thing that is going to stop this growth of CO2 levels is the failure of human civilisation…

    or

    Human Civilisation’s rapid ascention to a new level of technological performance.

    Considering that we have just 20 years in which to achieve this before Climatic Hell breaks loose what do you think are the chances.

    Can this country afford 10 years of an environmentally recalcitrant Coalition government? How costly has the last 4 years of obstinant blocking of climate action been? How expensive to the future was the previous 11 years of JWH climate change denial?

    Make your own decision, but for September’s election there is only one important issue.

  98. Fran Barlow
    May 11th, 2013 at 07:10 | #98

    @BilB

    Make your own decision, but for September’s election there is only one important issue.

    Yes, but no. Climate policy is a seriously important issue, but sadly, it wan’t be in contest at the coming election, except in the negative sense that neither party is going to do much about it.

    One side will rest on its entirely modest step forward in putting a pepercorn value on CO2e, while the other will posture as being likely to reverse even this step, but will find, upon victory, that like G&ST rollback, it’s simply all too hard to do and that even if they did, it wouldn’t make a snowflake in hell’s bit of difference to anything they or the ALP care about.

    The reality is that no important issues will be resolved at this election. I foresee a cathartic moment when reactionaries, spivs and fools of all kinds will have their moment in the sun, and then, 6 months later, many of that group will have to find something else upon which to vent their rage. The boats will keep coming and a bunch of posturing vacuous nincompoops will be in charge instead of our comparatively competent but conservative socially regressive xenophobes.

    In the unlikely event that this latter group proved capable of mustering the will and the discipline to turn the political tide and cling to power, Australia will contine to lag far behind what is necessary in abatement policy, and even if it didn’t, the value of ecosystem services to humans rests ultimately with the actions of the major emitters now, over which neither party, thankfully, currently, has any influence at all.

  99. alfred venison
    May 11th, 2013 at 07:10 | #99

    the threat is not so much from people who would steal radioactive material and spirit it away for use later, although radioactive material has been found missing after audits.

    the threat is that someone will seize and occupy a reactor and make demands.

    just google “nuclear power plant security breach” and help yourself. -a.v.

  100. Ikonoclast
    May 11th, 2013 at 07:47 | #100

    @Sam

    I will admit that memory is a fickle beast and my memory is no better than average for my age. However, my recollection is of unearthing very reputable (so far as I could tell) scientific papers which illustrated the complete un-viability in both financial and EROEI terms of mining uranium from seawater. Indeed by quickly looking on the net I again found this paper which does do an energy analysis.

    Look up “Extracting Minerals from Seawater: An Energy Analysis” – Ugo Bardi.

    I don’t want to post a link as the automatic anti-link cop is touchy.

    Read the paper and you get an idea of the enormous practical difficulties involved. For example you would need a fleet of ships greater than the world’s fishing fleet to haul out, immerse and haul back out these membranes and take them back to the processing facility for the elution process. The costs, financial and energetic, of manufacturing the enormous sheets of synthetic membranes required must also be considered. Then there is the effect on ocean currents and fish in the narrows areas (like the Strait of Gibraltar) where the currents are high enough to make the process near viable.

    An optimistic estimate of an EROEI of 2.5 to 1 is made early in the analysis. This is before many more practical problems are addressed.

    However, I agree with nuclear proponents in a sense. I say;

    1. Remove all subsidies from all energy generation methods,
    2. Levy an appropriate carbon tax and other pigovian taxes for all negative externalities.
    3. Require adequate safety and insurance provisions for all energy generation methods.

    Then let market forces determine the outcome. However, since global warming dangers are now critical, the carbon tax would probably have to be at a level that the fossil fuel industry would see as punitive. Well so be it, if it is needed.

    I am always flabbergasted by the selective analysis of what constitutues insuperable practical difficulties. The problem of intermittancy from solar and windpower is built up as some huge insuperable problem. But creating a fleet of ships greater than the world’s entire fishing fleet, obstructing many narrows and straits with huge membranes and hauling them all back for processing to get an EROEI of 2.5 at best before fleet fuel costs and membrane manufacture costs is blithely assumed to be an easy and worthwhile exercise.

Comment pages
1 2 3 11549
Comments are closed.