Home > Environment > Another one (or more) bites the dust …

Another one (or more) bites the dust …

April 20th, 2014

Coming back yet again to nuclear power, I’ve been arguing for a while that nuclear power can only work (if at all) on the basis of a single standardised design, and that the only plausible candidate for this is the Westinghouse AP1000. One response from nuclear enthusiasts has been to point to possible future advances beyond the Gen III+ approach embodied by the AP1000 (and less promising competitors like EPR). The two most popular have been Small Modular Reactors and Generation IV (fast) reactors. Recent news suggests that both of these options are now dead.

The news on the Small Modular Reactor is that Babcock and Wilcox, the first firm to be selected by the US Department of Energy to develop a prototype, has effectively mothballed the project, sacking the CEO of its SMR subsidiary and drastically scaling back staff. Westinghouse already abandoned its efforts. There is still one firm left pursuing the idea, and trying (so far unsuccessfully) to attract investors, but there’s no reason to expect success any time soon.

As regards Generation IV, the technology road map issued by the Gen IV International Forum in 2002 has just been updated. All the timelines have been pushed out, mostly by 10 years or more. That is, Gen IV is no closer now than it was when the GenIV initiative started. In particular, there’s no chance of work starting on even a prototype before about 2020, which puts commercial availability well past 2035. Allowing for construction time, there’s no prospect of electricity generation on a significant scale before 2050, by which time we will need to have completely decarbonized the economy.

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  1. April 20th, 2014 at 18:58 | #1

    I’m sceptical about that “only one contender” idea for a number of reasons, but even if it were true it strikes me that the CANDU family of reactors is not only proven but is also very nearly available off the peg. That is, those reactors do take work but it is work of a straightforward sort, if only the expertise doesn’t have to redeveloped independently but can be bought in.

  2. derrida derider
    April 20th, 2014 at 19:47 | #2

    Gee, the US is hardly the only party trying to build SMRs – that they’ve put it aside doesn’t mean others will. And the attraction of the SMR approach is that the hard bit is design and development – construction is then quick and relatively cheap. That’s the opposite of using humungous older designs like AP1000 or CANDU.

    I think alternative nuclear approaches – especially liquid thorium – are promising enough that governments should be spending serious money developing them. Have a read of this Economist article (and the Economist has long been sceptical of the economics of nuclear power).

    I do agree that the timeframes for these are always longer than boosters think so we shouldn’t wait till then before trying to do something about our carbon emissions. But it could even turn out that natural gas, wind and solar end up as stopgap solutions until cheaper nuclear arrives – the opposite sequence to that proposed by some.

  3. John Quiggin
    April 20th, 2014 at 19:56 | #3

    “the US is hardly the only party trying to build SMRs”

    What others do you have in mind?

  4. John Quiggin
    April 20th, 2014 at 20:16 | #4

    @derrida derider

    More importantly, your third para is critical. I’m not much interested in predicting post-2050 energy systems: for all I know, nuclear fusion could be working sometime this century, and solving all our problems. It may be short-termist of me, but I’m mainly concerned about saving the planet over the next 30 years or so.

  5. David Allen
    April 20th, 2014 at 21:02 | #5

    All those bright nuclear scientists would be well advised to focus their minds on energy storage technologies instead. Nail that and we don’t even need these coming-soon reactors.

  6. Ikonoclast
    April 20th, 2014 at 21:09 | #6

    From a peer-reviewed study in Science of the Total Environment, “The End of Cheap Uranium” – Micheal Dittmar.


    Historic data from many countries demonstrate that on average no more than 50–70% of the uranium in a deposit could be mined. An analysis of more recent data from Canada and Australia leads to a mining model with an average deposit extraction lifetime of 10 ± 2 years. This simple model provides an accurate description of the extractable amount of uranium for the recent mining operations.

    Using this model for all larger existing and planned uranium mines up to 2030, a global uranium mining peak of at most 58 ± 4 ktons around the year 2015 is obtained. Thereafter we predict that uranium mine production will decline to at most 54 ± 5 ktons by 2025 and, with the decline steepening, to at most 41 ± 5 ktons around 2030. This amount will not be sufficient to fuel the existing and planned nuclear power plants during the next 10–20 years. In fact, we find that it will be difficult to avoid supply shortages even under a slow 1%/year worldwide nuclear energy phase-out scenario up to 2025. We thus suggest that a worldwide nuclear energy phase-out is in order.

    If such a slow global phase-out is not voluntarily effected, the end of the present cheap uranium supply situation will be unavoidable. The result will be that some countries will simply be unable to afford sufficient uranium fuel at that point, which implies involuntary and perhaps chaotic nuclear phase-outs in those countries involving brownouts, blackouts, and worse.”

    This report backs up my contention that Peak Uranium and thus a uranium fuel shortage is also an issue that nuclear fission generation faces imminently. So not only are there no plausible contender generators for a nuclear renaissance there is also no plausible fuel supply.

    A further point to note is that;

    “After a decade of falling mine production to 1993, output of uranium has generally risen since then and now meets 86% of demand for power generation.” – World Nuclear Association.

    IIRC, the remaining 14% is currently met from stockpiles and uranium “pits” from decomissioned nuclear weapons.

    To sum up again, we can’t build enough current-design reactors in time to save the world from over-use of fossil fuels and even if we could there would not be enough fissile material to run them. That’s a comprehensive one-two knockout.

  7. rog
    April 20th, 2014 at 22:21 | #7

    @David Allen Exactly.

  8. TerjeP
    April 20th, 2014 at 22:30 | #8

    In terms of the current crop of reactors the AP1000 does seem the most promising given the standardised design. No argument from me on that point.

    In terms of the future the three areas that I tend to watch are:-

    TerraPower – but only because they have Bill Gates and his money involved.
    Flibe Energy – because they are pursuing LFTR and seem to have the right brains on board.
    China – because they seem particularly serious about committing research resources.

  9. April 20th, 2014 at 22:35 | #9

    I don’t suppose people who should care will, but I will point out that none of the Small Modular Reactors designs that were semi-seriously proposed had any features that would actually lower the cost of nuclear power and were clearly recognized as being more expensive per kilowatt to build. The idea was that they would fit a very small niche of medium scale baseload power needs in grids that were willing to subsidise nuclear power. This niche doesn’t really exist and so they won’t exist. And I’ll point out that the Small Modular Reactors that were not fantasies and actually on the drawing board were not small but hundred(s) of megawatts. They weren’t going to be cheaper to build per kilowatt, for decades nuclear has been going the other way and getting bigger to try to get costs per kilowatt down, but it was hoped that the SMRs could credibly reduce finance costs by reducing construction time, reducing delays and costly mistakes on site by doing more of the work in a factory, and hopefully convince financiers they could avoid Olkiluoto scale mega-disasters. (Actually, since billions of euros have been blow, Olkiluoto should be a multi-giga-disaster.)

  10. Ikonoclast
    April 20th, 2014 at 22:55 | #10


    Have you read nothing before your post? The facts are now very clear. Nuclear power cannot be deployed in time to prevent global warming. Even if it could be, uranium reserves are inadequate. Reserves aren’t even adequate to power the current reactors to 2030.

  11. April 20th, 2014 at 23:21 | #11

    This kind of information supports my suspicion that there are two choices about nuclear power:

    1. use existing, (comparatively) cheap current designs, accept their flaws and build policy around managing the (manageable) consequences of accidents, probably relying on extending the lifespan of existing plants for the purpose of CO2 reduction. The obvious example is bringing Japanese plants back online as baseload power sources while they roll out renewables (but I suspect the reason the Japanese plants remain offline even though the govt is pro-nuclear is that they have found serious safety risks in the current crop of plants)

    2. Deploy some more modern designs in a few countries with specific pro-nuclear conditions, making them a limited temporary solution to AGW in some countries. The obvious example is China, which has huge pollution issues that nuclear could solve.

    The best use of nuclear seems to me to be maintaining existing plants in Japan, Russia, France and Germany as baseload power over the next 10-30 years to support the phasing out of gas and introduction of reliable renewables. The decision to close these plants in Germany and suspend them in Japan is climate madness.

  12. paul walter
    April 21st, 2014 at 00:17 | #12

    Ok, if they MUST build the b—y things, at least how about away from faultlines and big cities, and some where the water table wont be polluted by any stuff-ups.

  13. April 21st, 2014 at 01:04 | #13

    Don’t worry, Paul. No one must build nuclear reactors. It makes a lot more sense to take the money that a nuclear reactor would cost to build and then spend it on improving efficiency and renewable energy, as this will cut a great deal more emissions than nuclear power will. And to a considerable extent this is what is being done. France will replace aging nuclear plants with renewables, the Czech Republic has abandonned plans to build new reactors due to renewables pushing down the cost of electricity, and China is currently generating more electricity from wind turbines than nuclear and this year alone will install 14 gigawatts of solar PV, much of it point of use. It’s not all sunny news, or windy news for that matter, but there’s certainly no benefit to building nukes compared to other options. It would be a waste of resources. And given that plenty of existing generating capacity already exists, and the high capital/low fuel cost nature of nuclear power, it has no cost effective future role in filling in for lulls in renewable production. Or “keeping the lights on” as Hermit would say.

  14. TerjeP
    April 21st, 2014 at 05:57 | #14

    Ikonoclast – The uranium that is in limited supply is U235. IFR – uses U238. LFTR is fuelled by thorium not U235.

    The thorium fuel cycle if commercialised would not suffer fuel constraints. The amount of thorium present in surface mining coal waste is enormous and would provide all the power human society needs for thousands of years, without resorting to any special mining for thorium, or the use of any other form or energy recovery. Add up the other reserves and we’re good for at least a million years.

    Even the available supply of U235 can increase if we are prepared to pay more. And fuel is not the major cost in a LWR so paying more for U235 need not have much impact on electricity costs.

    As for timeliness of deployment to mitigate global warming I don’t think anything will be deployed fast enough to make a meaningful difference. Short term I’m for adaptation.

  15. yuri
    April 21st, 2014 at 07:08 | #15

    The@John Quiggin
    “Saving the planet over the next 30 years or so” isn’t 100 per cent clear. Do you think the “planet” will suffer adverse effects by then (contrary to the claim that there might be benefit for the average human up to about 2080 or 2 degrees increase) APART FROM what is set up for the future in terms of irreversible change?

  16. yuri
    April 21st, 2014 at 07:17 | #16

    Do you think that study – “peer reviewed” no less (sorry if that sounds cynical but my Mum runs the journal mypeer reviewed articles are published in) – about shortage of uranium is convincing. A Club-of-Romeish isn’t it. Think shale oil fracking etc.?? And thorium…..

  17. yuri
    April 21st, 2014 at 07:24 | #17

    No mention I think of pebble bed nuclear technology so presumably none of the a priori anti nukes have thought kf Googling “China nuclear power technology”.

  18. James Wimberley
    April 21st, 2014 at 07:43 | #18

    Wsetinghouse is no longer American but part of the Japanese conglomerate Toshiba. The Chinese government must have serious reservations about being dependent on Japan for a major technology. Rather than making a conscious decision to standardize on the AP1000 as JQ recommends, they are putting money into a design that is not dependent on foreign IP and can be exported. The candidate is the CAP1400, based on the AP1000: a joint venture with Westinghouse for which China will own the IP. (So Toshiba have no reason to make heroic efforts.) Wikipedia says that ground should be broken this month on the first CAP-1400 at Shidaowan. Will this work? Previous experience with Chinese attempts at the frontiers of technology, such as their first aircraft carrier, is not encouraging.

  19. BilB
    April 21st, 2014 at 07:50 | #19

    China was covered, Yuri, in a “if anyone is going to do it China will, mainly because their need is huge an government funding us not a problem” thread recently.

  20. Hermit
    April 21st, 2014 at 07:53 | #20

    I wonder if modular construction will come to the AP 1000 or its Chinese derivative the CAP 1400. Note the how laptop computers influenced the ‘all in one’ desktop PC whereby the processor is now in the back of the monitor not in a separate box. SMRs could influence the design of large reactors. We’ll need large generators for example Bayswater B of at least 2 GW planned for the Hunter Valley. Gas is already too expensive for whatever form this plant will take but let’s hope it’s not air release coal with the ploy ‘carbon capture ready’.

    I also wonder if the US has misjudged both its own soft power (compared to say Russia) and the lucrative export market. The makers of the mPower could not get private customers to sign up in advance in the style of military hardware sold between governments. Potential buyers would obviously like to see the first machine working glitch free. I think Australia needs to see SMRs working here before committing to a big machine like the Bayswater replacement. Otherwise coal it is then for most of our electricity for the foreseeable future.

  21. Fran Barlow
    April 21st, 2014 at 08:01 | #21


    “Saving the planet over the next 30 years or so” isn’t 100 per cent clear. Do you think the “planet” will suffer adverse effects by then (contrary to the claim that there might be benefit for the average human up to about 2080 or 2 degrees increase) APART FROM what is set up for the future in terms of irreversible change?

    {Sighs ,,,}

    The planet will survive the worst we humans throw at it. It may survive in a way however that prejudices the quality, quantity or distribution of ecosystem services. Given that as far as we can tell, planets that tick all the boxes for support of human life are very rare, trashing this one enough to make life much tougher for us ought to be fairly easy.

    And yes, the window of the next thirty years is important. Ecosystems are not things one can repair quickly, so even if “we” start fixing “our” mess in 2044 “we” may not succeed in remediating “our” mess.

    As to whether there will be a benefit for “the average human” in a 2 degree rise the studies strongly suggest that cropping will be seriously disrupted inter alia, by the redistribution of precipitation patterns, and of course the growing heat in the oceans will not simply end this uncontrolled experiment in changing the ecosystem there. After 2 degrees comes far worse.

    Finally, in matters if public policy, Homer Simpsonism (“can’t somebody else do it?”) is not only ethically bankrupt but also reckless. We are betting without foundation in this case that our guesses about the future will be far more rosy than we are entitled to assume, when we ought to be accepting that the reverse is at least as possible and that our successors will discover that when it is far too late to foreclose a roiling series of disastrous setbacks to human communities. There are no ‘do overs’ in public policy. “Oops, my bad” is not good enough. Farnarkling about now because 30 years from now, some bright shiny new technology might come to our aid is the behaviour of a hopeless gambler. We are not entitled to take this sort of all in bet with civilisation, IMO.

  22. Ikonoclast
    April 21st, 2014 at 08:22 | #22

    Nuclear power advocates are impervious to real evidence. I guess the only reason to argue with them is to counter their misinformation so that undecided people will not be propagandised.

    Because of the time lags involved in the global warming process, it is the CO2 emissions of the next 30 years (and then onwards) which must be brought down and kept down to prevent dangerous global warming into the future. John Quiggin has demonstrated factually that insufficient current builds of nuclear power stations are occuring to effect that change. Further, he has shown that commercial IFR and LFTR reactors cannot feasibly be implemented until well past 2035.

    I have shown, with references in this thread and past threads, that Peak Uranium production is a real and imminent phenomenon. Even if more conventional once-through reactors could be built there is not the fuel to run them. Commercial breeder and thorium reactors (two-cycle / muilti-cycle) are still a pipe-dream for now. They might work one day but not commercially within the next 20 to 30 years.

    It would actually be better to leave remaining uranium in the ground until when and if breeder reactors are perfected and commercialised. Uranium used on a once-through cycle basis is eventually being (or to be) stored in repositories where recovery is impossible due to safety concerns and other practical factors. Once-through use and permanent waste storage foregoes future cycle use.

    I always attempt to provide links to reputable science to support my views in this debate (as above). Nuclear boosters simply rely on ridicule of science and unsupported and fanciful assertions of their own. I appeal to people undecided on the nuclear issue to consider these differences and assess credibility accordingly.

  23. Hermit
    April 21st, 2014 at 09:46 | #23

    I don’t think Australia needs to worry about uranium depletion this century. We also have the most thorium according to Geosciences. However if we don’t enrich uranium, yet another value adding opportunity foregone, then we will be beholden to others. Ironically the ANSTO developed laser enrichment process is going great in the US. We could use lightly enriched uranium and possibly thorium in CANDU reactors the slight problem being they require $1.5 bn of heavy water in addition to everything else.

    The Russians may have stolen a march on ‘breeder’ reactors with the 800 MW machine Beloyarsk 3 about to start. They are also working on a floating Gen 3 reactor with Indonesia said to be a potential client. I’m not sure why the Brits are dragging their feet on the PRISM reactor that could burn their large plutonium stockpile. The deal would be no money upfront but a fee for results arrangement.

    If the first SMR isn’t ready until 2025 by then I suspect we will be importing 80% of our oil and our major gas users will priced out of business. There is nothing to suggest wind and solar will increase more than by a modest amount. I suspect Germany will still have nuclear despite a 2022 phaseout pledge. If things are desperate maybe the Chinese will have to build reactors for us with payment in uranium.

  24. Ikonoclast
    April 21st, 2014 at 10:44 | #24

    Nuclear power advocates are impervious to real evidence. I guess the only reason to argue with them is to counter their misinformation so that undecided people will not be propagandised.

    TerjeP and Hermit, as nuclear power advocates, either do not address AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming) at all or they dismiss it as already happening so we must simply adapt to it. Even if the later is partially true now (which is likely) that is no reason not to pursue CO2 emission reduction. Indeed, it is a reason to pursue it more quickly and vigorously to reduce future risks as much as is still possible. Finally, on this point, none of their contentions recently has been linked to a single scientific paper (or any supporting evidence at all).

    In addition, our resident nuclear boosters, not limited to TerjeP and Hermit, never answer or attempt to refute any scientifically supported evidence with scientifically supported evidence of their own. Often, they never even address the fact-supported arguments against nuclear power being practicably useful for CO2 emissions reduction in the next 30 years. They ignore all evidence and endlessly restate their prior beliefs.

    Then Hermit makes the unsupported blanket statement “There is nothing to suggest wind and solar will increase more than by a modest amount.” On the contrary, there is much to suggest that wind and solar generation are exponentially increasing. There is also much to suggest that prices and wind and solar power are rapidly decreasing.

    This linked graph from Wikipedia shows the exponential growth of world wind power.


    For someone to claim, “There is nothing to suggest quantity Y will increase more than by a modest amount,” – when variable Y shows an exponential increase to date on a graph plot – is the silliest claim imaginable except with one proviso. The only way to support such a claim would be to demonstrate a near hard limit or ceiling to further growth. Hermit has demonstrated no such near hard limit. So his idea that wind and solar power will suddenly revert to “modest” growth is entirely unsupported by him and as such is pure belief.

    Note: I am a Limits to Growth person. However, exponential growth from a very low base, in a field where energies and materials are not yet in short supply, is possible for some time. Limits to Growth became apparent when exponential growth “attempts” to continue from a very high base. Other aspects of our economy do exhibit these characteristics of a high current base and apparent attempted continued exponential growth. That is where the problem lies. But solar and wind power are far from hard limits.

  25. yuri
    April 21st, 2014 at 10:47 | #25

    And is the blog thread you refer to a good place to find out about pebble bed nuclear technology and what JQ and others think about it?

  26. April 21st, 2014 at 10:54 | #26

    It’s not particularly relevant, but I’ll mention that controlled fusion does not look like it will be a cost effective way to generate electricity. This is because controlled fusion is really difficult to do and requires a lot of very complex and very expensive equipment, so it looks like the capital cost of fusion power will be extremely high making it uneconomical compared to other low emission energy sources. And while future technological advances may lower the cost of building fusion reactors, it’s unlikely that just the cost of fusion reactors will be reduced. Presumably roboengineers would be able to lower the cost of other sources of energy as well.

  27. Ikonoclast
    April 21st, 2014 at 10:55 | #27

    The Wikipedia article on pebble bed nuclear technology points out the very many practical problems they have encountered. The technology is still highly experimental, past experiments and test reactors were failures and current claims for and against them are theoretical rather than practical or proven claims.


  28. April 21st, 2014 at 10:56 | #28

    Hermit, are you ready to continue with thinking things through? If so, I’ll just repeat my last basic question – Are you aware that South Australia gets over 25% of its electricity from wind power?

  29. yuri
    April 21st, 2014 at 10:58 | #29

    @Fran Barlow
    An interesting response to my question to JQ if a bit summary on the issue of when the benefits of extra warmth run out. However I really was asking JQ a question. After all he is not only the conductor of this somewhat discordant orchestra but the previous government must have appointed him to the Climate Change Authority [name?] for a reason – maybe even expertise rather than politics.

  30. John Quiggin
    April 21st, 2014 at 11:33 | #30


    Pebble bed is already dead. The only active program was in South Africa and was dumped a few years ago, as noted in the Wikipedia article. China is giving it another go, as with lots of other things, but there’s little likelihood of success, for the reasons noted by Fran


  31. yuri
    April 21st, 2014 at 11:34 | #31

    @ Ikonoclast & Fran Barlow…I’m a big fan of solar partly because I am optimistic enough to extrapolate from the increasing tempo of innovation, discovery and invention over the last 450 years and expect millions of bright Chinese and Indians to speed it up still more. Even if nuclear fusion and batteries with 10 times the storage density aren’t part of it, much that is unexpected will turn up, mostly positive with just ordinary luck.
    But can one be sanguine about wind power even with better storage (maybe by pumping water uphill rather than in batteries) and even with huge grids to pick up the benefits of win blowing in widely separated areas? The blight on the landscape of the towers and the extended grid is surely counted at too low a cost. The effect on property values is a pretty good measuring stick.
    Tidal and wave generated power shouldn’t be such a blight but, though optimistic, I expect there will be problems e.g for fishermen and whale watchin tourism.
    But much more fundamental for Australians, even those who accept that there is a moral obligation for us to join in worldwide efforts which will be futile without vigorous participation by China, the US and India, is how we should best spend our money (that includes all kinds of subsidies, tax rebates etc.). If it costs us $50 billion to meet some renewables or emissions reduction target which will make no difference to our future climate, sea level or coral reefs will we then be willing to levy swingeing taxes to pay for the adaptations we and some of our Asia-Pacific neighbours will need.

    Perhaps Prof Quiggin could give us all a primer on opportunity cost and its universal and everyday implication and applications.

  32. yuri
    April 21st, 2014 at 11:36 | #32

    @John Quiggin
    Thanks. Will try and follow up. If I had a dog in the fight I’ld chase down all the links asap and seek to pick some nits….

  33. Ikonoclast
    April 21st, 2014 at 11:39 | #33

    I highly recommend this WISE Uranium Project Slide Talk. It is slightly dated now (2006 data sources) but contains excellent information and projections. It details a host of practical problems and limits with uranium supply and enrichment and does so in a dispassionate scientific fashion. Can I suggest John Q watch it too? It essentially indicates that uranium supply and enrichment limitations are of equal importance to the build-out or build-up problems of commissioning new nuclear plants. Either problem of its own, of course, ends the nuclear “renaissance”.

    I challenge our nuclear boosters to watch it and then find credible debunking evidence from other scientific sources.

    Ensure you tick both options for the full slide show. Let it run automatically, the pacing is reasonable.


  34. John Quiggin
    April 21st, 2014 at 11:43 | #34

    yuri :

    Perhaps Prof Quiggin could give us all a primer on opportunity cost and its universal and everyday implication and applications.

    You’ll be happy to know I’m writing a book on this very topic. Less happy to know that I’m not applying my own analysis to getting it finished on time

  35. Hermit
    April 21st, 2014 at 11:46 | #35

    Never let the facts get in the way of some plucky thinking

    @ Ikon solar installations have nosedived since 2012. See Clean Energy Regulator REC-Registry Data-reports

    @ RonaldB SA gets 50% of its electricity from burning gas, the same gas which is expected to double or triple in price. See AEMO 2014 South Australian Fuel and Technology Report. Tasmania I believe was some 86% renewable in 2013 yet they’re broke.

  36. April 21st, 2014 at 12:14 | #36

    Hermit, in order to think things through it’s important to keep it simple. This is why I’m asking very basic questions. So do you know that South Australia gets over 25% of its electricity from wind power? You haven’t actually answered this.

  37. April 21st, 2014 at 12:17 | #37

    Yuri, do you agree with me that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and that climate sensitivity, that is the amount that the earth warms with each doubling of CO2 concentration, is likely to be somewhere around 3 degrees celcius?

  38. Ikonoclast
    April 21st, 2014 at 12:30 | #38

    Hermit, watch the WISE Uranium Project Slide Talk I linked to above. Then provide scientific and quantitative debunking if you can. I had to watch the show twice to understand everything he was saying and demonstrating by graph. In particular, I didn’t understand the tails assay argument points and graphs until my second viewing. If a person like me with a Qld senior physics grade of 6 (out of 7) albeit over four decades ago and with no physics since can understand this slide show on 2 viewings then it shouldn’t be too hard to absorb. If you don’t have at least senior physics, chemistry and maths passes to your name then honestly you are unlikely to know enough or understand enough to participate in this argument.

    Have a look at Graph of the Day: World solar capacity up 35% in 2013.


    So it is you who never lets the facts get in the way of your fantasy thinking. If Australian solar growth has temporarily stalled it is of little global consequence as the figure above shows. Our stall is due to local stupidity engendered and led by people like Abbott, Bolt and Murdoch.

    The interesting thing about solar and wind is this. Wind provides the best EROEI and currently, I think, the lower cost numbers. Wind is the more suited to rapid ramping up but solar still has valuable niche and capability characteristics to offer currently. In the long run, solar power has by far the highest energy gathering and production potential. Thus I would expect wind to lead the charge in the vanguard and then solar (PV and CST) to come ramping up slowly but surely as the main long term renewable infrastructure providing strategic capacity.

  39. Hermit
    April 21st, 2014 at 12:38 | #39

    @Ronald Brak
    Well funnily since I’ve linked to a 2014 AEMO report on SA power sources I’m looking at Figure 2-2 on p9 of that link.

    Did you know SA has the world’s largest uranium deposit at Olympic Dam? That factoid was curiously omitted from the AEMO report. It’s like going on safari and the guide says that large thing staring at us is not an elephant so don’t concern yourselves.

  40. April 21st, 2014 at 12:49 | #40

    Hermit, I’ll assume that your reply means that yes, you are aware that South Australia gets over 25% of its electricity from wind. Now you haven’t actually said this, so if I have misunderstood you, please forgive and correct me.

    So do you agree with me that each kilowatt-hour generated by wind power result in a kilowatt-hour, or about a kilowatt-hour of electricity not being generated from fossil fuels?

  41. TerjeP
    April 21st, 2014 at 12:56 | #41

    Ikonoclast – I’m not boosting nuclear as a cure for AGW. So my operating parameters are different.

  42. Ikonoclast
    April 21st, 2014 at 13:04 | #42


    Take up the challenge in my post above. Debunk the presentation about uranium fuel supply if you can. Supply links and references.

    Actually, it’s interesting, if frustrating, arguing with you. You link disparate and unrelated facts, exclude other relevant information entirely and then imagine you have constucted an argument. For example;

    “Tasmania I believe was some 86% renewable in 2013 yet they’re broke.”

    Is Tasmania broke? In what sense is a small state that gets fiscal transfers from the Commonwealth broke? If a state with high renewable energy production was “broke” would the two phenomena necessarily be correlated? They might be or they might not be. You have not provided any evidence to connect the two. There might be any number of other reasons a state was “broke”.

    “Did you know SA has the world’s largest uranium deposit at Olympic Dam?”

    This is irrelevant or of low relevance. We have no reactors and no enrichment structure. We have strong political resistance to nuclear power. Nuclear power is not the answer to the world’s energy and climate problems as I, Prof. J.Q. , Ronald Brak and others have demonstrated with scientific and quantitative arguments and references. If it takes too long to ramp up nuclear power world-wide (and the world has the right infrastructure) then it would take us too long and even longer than that(!) as we have no infrastructure.

    I could equally say, “Did you know SA has one of the world’s largest sunny, uninhabited arid zones located close to a major city.” So why not use it for solar power?

  43. Ikonoclast
    April 21st, 2014 at 13:04 | #43


    Why are you boosting it then?

  44. BilB
    April 21st, 2014 at 13:21 | #44

    I didn’t realise that the pebble bed reactor had those risks. I assumed from the way it was being spoken of by the Chinese that it was very safe. The lead cooled fast reactor looks like the most trouble free of the fast reactors all except that is on knowing what is going on in the reactor core. For all of the reasons that lead is good in terms of heat transfer and radiation shielding it is bad in terms of transparency and corrosion. Then there is the density of the lead fluid and the power of hydraulic shock waves in such a medium and their deforming effects on the delicate support structures of a reactor. A lot of variables.

  45. Ikonoclast
    April 21st, 2014 at 13:43 | #45


    Yep, solar and wind power engineering is positively sleek, simple, safe and elegant compared to nuclear power. Nuclear power presents an absolute gnarl of horrendously difficult and dangerous problems.

  46. John Quiggin
    April 21st, 2014 at 14:04 | #46

    Hermit, I suggest you stop yourself whenever you are about to type “I suspect”. In my experience of you, it invariably means “I suggest, with no evidence or in the face of abundant contrary evidence”

  47. Ikonoclast
    April 21st, 2014 at 14:23 | #47

    In support of my argument that nuclear power is a veritable gnarl of problems just consider fission products and neutron poisoning of the reactor core.


  48. Ikonoclast
    April 21st, 2014 at 14:26 | #48

    Also look up Iodine Pit and Xenon Pit.

  49. Will Boisvert
    April 21st, 2014 at 15:36 | #49

    @ John Quiggin,

    I agree that standardized designs are important for economical nuclear construction programs, and that the AP1000 is the best candidate because it is the basis for China’s Gen III fleet. But other models have good prospects, too. The South Korean APR1400 is a good, very cheap Gen III design and is developing an export market, with 4 reactors under construction in UAE. Russia’s Gen III-ish VVER family has more builds under way then does the AP1000, with exports to India, China, Iran, Turkey, Belarus, Finland and elsewhere.

    SMRs are pretty torpid in the West, but there are vigorous programs elsewhere. China, of course, is developing two models, the 100 MW ACP100, the first due to begin construction next year, and the CAP150.

  50. Will Boisvert
    April 21st, 2014 at 15:36 | #50

    @ John Quiggin, on Gen IV,

    “In particular, there’s no chance of work starting on even a prototype before about 2020, which puts commercial availability well past 2035.”

    John, no, where are you getting that from? There are utility-scale Gen IV reactors in commercial operation now and due on line in the next year or two.

    Russia’s BN-600 sodium-cooled fast breeder reactor, about 600 MW, has been in commercial operation since 1981, with a decent service record and a 76 percent lifetime capacity factor. It’s service life has been extended to 2025. A more advanced model, the BN-800, is under construction and due on line next year.

    China has a 210-MW Gen IV high-temperature gas reactor under construction, due on line in 2017. They plan to deploy these units in groups of 18 to make large power plants. China also has a fast reactor program, and recently shortened its deadline for a molten salt reactor prototype to 10 years.

    India has a 500 MW fast breeder reactor under construction, due to go into commercial operation next year.

    GE has offered to build a 600 MW Prism IFR in Britain as soon as it’s licensed.

    There will be lots of Gen IV prototypes in service before 2020.

    “Pebble bed is already dead. The only active program was in South Africa and was dumped a few years ago, as noted in the Wikipedia article. China is giving it another go, as with lots of other things, but there’s little likelihood of success, for the reasons noted by Fran”

    This paragraph confused me. How can pebble bed research be “already dead” if the Chinese are avidly pursuing it and building new pebble bed reactors? How do you know there’s “little likelihood of success?” (What reasons noted by Fran are you talking about?) Your reference is to a German pebble-bed reactor that failed 30 years ago (partly from post-Chernobyl political considerations). Does one past failure doom all subsequent efforts? Should we have given up on solar power in 1980 just because all the past experiments with it had been costly failures?

  51. yuri
    April 21st, 2014 at 16:12 | #51

    @John Quiggin
    Very good news. If you could teach all politicians and public opinion makers how important opportunity cost is to clear thinking about most (all?) public policy issues that would be a good start though the basic innumeracy which, if not identical with, correlates highly with the failure to understand opportunity cost is going to remain in the electorate at large and thus affect public policy.
    It occurs to me that failure to recognise opportunity cost is, amongst people of similar intelligence, more likely to be found on the left (and perhaps among the seriously religious) than on the right (at least the secular or merely nominally religious) if I apply the accurate enough stereotypes of social workers on the left and small businessmen on the right. Fair enough?

  52. kevin1
    April 21st, 2014 at 16:20 | #52


    Perhaps Prof Quiggin could give us all a primer on opportunity cost and its universal and everyday implication and applications.

    A little off topic, but Ross Gittins’ example does not include the benefit of using the Clapton ticket. If it was less than $10, it would be rational to throw it away and go to the Dylan concert. I’m sure music promoters would also love to know more about how to factor income elasticity into pricing as ageing 70s rockers travel the world cashing in on well-fed babyboomer nostalgics.

    Most introductory economics textbooks treat opportunity cost as one of the 10 or 20 commandments of “thinking like an economist”, yet with obviously not enough explication as the US survey shows. The idea of a Benthamite computer whizzing away up top would certainly be interesting to explore for behavioural relevance. However this gets described to first year students as a metaphor or model rather than a description, it’s a big shock compared to what they came for, and one more contributor to autistic economic instruction causing high drop out rates from economics.

  53. April 21st, 2014 at 16:22 | #53

    @David Allen How true. The nuclear industry is getting desperate. Even China has slowed down their nuke plans, while accelerating renewable energy. The Thorium pipe-dream is all about keeping the nuclear industry alive – with promises like “eating the wastes”, and “combatting climate change”

    The small reactors are indeed dead – could only be mass-marketed and mass-produced, and nobody’s going to get into that financially perilous exercise. But SMRs are good for confusing the public, and pretending that nuclear is the go.

    Meanwhile renewable energy, storage solutions, and energy efficiency go apace..

  54. Ikonoclast
    April 21st, 2014 at 16:29 | #54

    @Will Boisvert

    It is demonstrably impossible for a nuclear build-out to 2050 to prevent signficant global warming. J.Q. has demonstrated this in previous posts. It is also demonstrably impossible for a nuclear build-out to 2050 or any other date to replace all our primary energy supply and allow for some growth. (I am not an overall growth advocate at this point in history as we are close to the Limits to Growth. But that is another issue.)

    In addition, it is also the fact that uranium supplies are not adequate for a nuclear build-out to 2050 to replace all our primary energy supply nor are they adequate for long term, indefinite provision of nuclear energy. See this slide show about uranium supply limits.

    Watch the presentation linked to. Ensure you tick both options for the full slide show below. Let it run automatically, the pacing is reasonable. Copy and change “colon” back to “:” to make the link work.


    It is interesting, perhaps symptomatic, that you offer piecemeal information about new nuclear plant builds but no aggregate, systematic, collated information which would support your case. Indeed, it is not clear precisely what your case is except perhaps “we can and should build more nuclear power”. You don’t relate the piecemeal information of a handful of plant starts to goals, progress to these goals nor to quantitative analyses of possible generation totals, mining and reprocessing limits (i.e. feasible production and throughputs, needs for new mines and reprocessing plants), nor to uranium limits nor to realistic development lead times for new Gen IV technologies and so on from theory to test bed, to pilot, to commercial application.

    And that’s to say nothing of your continued minimisation and misrepresentation of real and continued nuclear risks.

    Tangential footnote: It is interesting to note US and European partial dependence on Russia’s huge Uranium fuel reprocessing capacity (the latter being a legacy of the cold war). Add to this Europe’s dependence on Russian gas and USA’s dependence on Russian controlled routes to both re-supply and exit (safely) the Afghanistan war effort and you get an idea of how absurd is the Western drivel about serious sanctions against Russia.

  55. Ikonoclast
    April 21st, 2014 at 17:02 | #55

    @Christina MacPherson

    You are right. The nuclear industry and lobby are getting desperate. Their desperation however will be of no avail. It is the case now that we are arriving at an energy composition tipping point. Physics and economics working together will inexorably move the world to renewables as below.

    Peak Conventional Oil – This occurred about 2005. The first half (about) of all known reserves and all reasonably imputed reserves is used up. Peak production flow occurred about 2005. A feature of using the second half compared to the first half is that oil flows will be falling not rising. This feature is obvious but ancillary features are not so obvious. The second half is a lot more costly to pump or extract than the first half both in financial terms and energy expenditure terms. This accelerates the increase in attatractiveness of alternatives.

    Unconventional Oil – This is being used to disguise the conventional peak. Unconventional oil is mostly deep sea oil or tar sands. This is also very difficult and costly to recover. High production rates can never be achieved and the energy profit is far lower. So even if we obtain the same or slightly production flow (for a while) by adding it on to declining conventional oil, the energy return is lower. So the barrels per day figure can go up a bit while the net energy return from the whole process is going down.

    Gas – Gas and unconventional liquids are a bit of a success at the moment for the fossil fuel brigade but Peak Gas is not all that far away. World peak gas estimates vary from 2020 out to 2030. The US Energy Information Administration who have been consistently wrong about everything in their field in the last 20 years favour the 2030 date. The US Energy Information Administration have approximately zero credibility.

    Fracked Gas – Fracked gas field flows regularly die to commercially useless levels in as little as two years. Fracked gas is an environmental disaster and rapidly depletes.

    Peak Coal – Coal faces a peak much earlier than most people realise. The latest, most credible peak coal estimates are for about 2025. Much of the easier to access high quality coal has already been mined and burned. Much of what is left is soft coal, brown coal and even peat.

    Peak Uranium – Nuclear power is unsafe at any generation level. What’s more its fuel depletes and peak Uranium will occur about 2015 to 2020.

    Given the above physical facts about non-renewable energy sources and the inescapable physical and economic realities which flow from that, an energy tipping point has been reached or will be reached very soon (2015 or thereabouts). We can expect rapid and indeniable changes in the decade from 2015 to 2025. The world of 2025 will look very different. All of the arguments being had in these threads will be laid to rest and the clear outcomes will be obvious to everyone.

  56. April 21st, 2014 at 17:05 | #56

    Will Boisvert wrote: “Should we have given up on solar power in 1980 just because all the past experiments with it had been costly failures?”

    Okay, I’m curious to know about these costly failures. In 1970 solar cells were basically only used in space programs and cost hundreds of dollars a watt. By 1980 they were about $30 a watt in today’s money and used in a range of niche applications. Sounds like quite a success to me. Also in the 70s the solar powered Skylab smacked into Australia to the country’s net economic benefit, despite the US not paying their $400 littering fine, while the nuclear powered Kosmos 954 hit Canada. At the time Canada billed the Soviet Union $6 million for the cleanup and the USSR stiffed them on the bill and only paid $3 million.

  57. Ikonoclast
    April 21st, 2014 at 17:10 | #57

    Apology and correction. Historical data from US EIA is reliable. It is in the field of projections that US EIA has been notably very unreliable (on the optimistic side).

  58. Will Boisvert
    April 21st, 2014 at 17:37 | #58

    @ Ronald Brak,

    Solar power only $30 per watt in 1980, you say? And that’s with 10-20 percent capacity factors on earth–and in space probably 100 percent! I take it all back Ronald–clearly a resounding success, and worth every penny.

  59. Hermit
    April 21st, 2014 at 18:13 | #59

    Strangely I share Ikon’s views that we (perhaps Russia and China excepted) will head for energy poverty in the next decade or two. The world is using about 17 terawatts of power of which say 13 TW comes from burning fossil fuels and 4 TW low carbon. Since some have jacuzzis and others kerosene lamps a more equitable but efficient power draw by mid century could be 20 TW = 4 carbon based + 16 non carbon based, a complete reversal. However coal is the only fossil fuel likely to still be widely available by mid century.

    As we speak there is no form of new large scale energy storage that can be installed in arbitrary locations that comes close to the California target of $40 per Mwh delivered or 4c per kwh. That storage is necessary for variable power flows to maintain current energy consumption patterns and to construct its own replacement. Some opine (eg Gail Tverberg) that expensive energy will tighten capital so that not enough fossil replacement technology can be built in time. A less-worse path is to build the highest yielding technology sooner rather than later. When that penny drops it may be too late to arrest the slide.

  60. April 21st, 2014 at 18:24 | #60

    Will Boisvert, did you have any costly failures in mind when you wrote, “Should we have given up on solar power in 1980 just because all the past experiments with it had been costly failures?” Or were you lying when you wrote that or did you just make a mistake there?

  61. Ikonoclast
    April 21st, 2014 at 19:16 | #61


    I used to have that view I admit. Now, I am unsure either way. My old view was that;

    (a) fossil fuels would peak relatively early this century (2005 oil, 2015 gas, 2025 coal);
    (b) nuclear would fail to deliver due to build time and U fuel limits;
    (c) renewables would fail to deliver much due to scalability and EROEI issues.

    Prof JQ’s arguments – and the facts and the figures this led me to find – did change my view on point (c). It is turning out that renewable EROEI is considerably more than passable and that scalability is looking a lot better too. I was never worried so much about cost, intermittancy or energy storage. I always thought, IIRC, that these would be second order issues.

    However, there is many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip. I think there are still many things that could go wrong in the energy transition. It will be an ambitious transition and essentially fossils and nuclear power will help underwrite the early phases of the transition energetically speaking. Renewables will have to reach some kind of critical generating mass to sustain the rest of the renewables build-out and to provide all other power needs at the same time (as fossiles and nuclear taper off).

    The complicating factors are that we appear to be hitting many other kinds of limits at about the same time: the limit to CO2 that oceans and atmosphere can absorb without large disruptions, the limit to population growth and food supply, limits to fisheries, limits to fresh potable water and irrigation water, ground water, so-called fossil water, and limits to other cycles like the nitrogen cycle.

    So energy poverty induced by multiple problematic feedbacks to the economy, by Limits to Growth and Liebig’s Law of the Minimum impacting in some way, by key material resource shortages and so on is still a significant possibility IMO.

    So maybe nuclear’s contribution is still necessary to energetically fund the transition. I am willing to accept that but only on the basis of running existing plants to the end of their advisable operating life and maybe by completing any plants already well under way. It appears from the Uranium resource numbers that this about accords with the capacity of Uranium reserves in any case. This would hold true for current once-through and twice-through cycle capacities. I discount Gen IV or better because it is just too far off commercially speaking. The renewables build, if feasible to complete, will be completed before Gen IV or better influences the actual generation equation.

  62. Ikonoclast
    April 21st, 2014 at 19:50 | #62

    Additonal to my post above.

    Re. Gail Tverberg’s theories; they do have some problems.

    (1) Gail endlessly asserts but never quantitatively proves that renewables will never work. This matches and even influenced my old concerns about scalability and EROEI. However, new data – either new to me or new because of recent progress – has modified my views. Gail appears stuck in her old belief on this point. She will never modify this belief because she ignores all new data and will not or cannot present thorough-going quantitative arguments with up-to-date data.

    (2) Gail’s view that free-market capitalist financing is the only way that anything can be built is false. The Soviet Union built a hell of a lot of stuff (heavily skewed to guns not butter) from 1922 to 1991. It fought at least two ruinous wars (WW2 and Afghanistan), become a nuclear superpower, was the first into space, subsidised communist allies all over the world etc. etc. and did it all as a pariah autarkic empire cut off from the rest of the world economic system albeit with an exploited empire bloc or buffer. Eventually, this broke Russia’s back, that has to be admitted, and it all collapsed in a heap. But 70 years survival and superpower status with a corrupt, inefficient totalitarian state capitalist system (nominally communist) and just about everyone against it is not a bad effort.

    If capitalist operations (markets) fail significantly in the USA (GFC, General Motors bankruptcy etc.), the state steps in and mandates that things still work (by various operations) so far as they socially, materially and energetically can. So Gail’s “if finance fails it all fails” thesis is very, very unlikely to hold true. The Government used Chapter 11 bankruptcy laws to keep GM running. It could do the same for oil production and refining and any other nationally vital operations of the economy. Under martial law and executive decree (in an existential emergency) conscription and direction of human security forces and labour and commandeering of property, materials and energy resources can and will happen. Make no mistake about that.

  63. yuri
    April 21st, 2014 at 20:45 | #63

    @Ronald Brak
    Indeed I have enough science reliably learned to be confident that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and I accept (because I’ve never heard any suggestion that it was wrong) that most of its effect to date results from the first 50ppm after which it is generally true that the inverse exponential function governing the relationship between concentration of CO2 and greenhouse effect means that each doubling produces much less effect. How that translates into increases in atmospheric temperature I have little idea but do note, as a matter of logic, that it matters a great deal in calculating that outcome whether there is a strong or weak positive feedback effect from increased water vapour in the atmosphere, or indeed a negative one or one which is contingent on additional factors. (I don’t know whether, for example, as I have been told, Svensmark’s theory about cloud formation and cosmic radiation has been definitively refuted. )
    There is more than one way to look at the IPCC’s reliance on many different models even if they all say, in differing degrees, that the earth is warming and will continue to do so. Up to a point its supportive of the IPCC’s output that so many different methods point in the same direction. But it does occur to me that it has much in common with the argument that, for thousands of years and in every imaginable culture, there is a theology which points to the existence of a supernatural being.
    With more cynicism, or realism, one notes that painters don’t attempt to get landscapes accepted as entrants in the Archibald Prize.
    We know – as well as we know that CO2 is a greenhouse gas – that there was a little ice age that ended about 1850 – we know it was ended by warming that was not the result of AGW. There are other reasons for believing, indeed knowing that the best of the IPCC’s many models are incomplete – the recent patchup of the long pause in atmospheric warming by finding a heat sink in the ocean that seems not to have been noticeable during earlier phases of warming is one. But there is a huge hole in theorising and modeling that needs to be filled by understanding natural causes of many major cataclysmic changes during the Holocene. If they can’t retropredict (even with the answers provided at the back of the textbook) the destruction of major kingdoms and civilisations and the many warm periods with their interspersed little ice ages how can they confidently say how much of current warming (I accept that it probably hasn’t stopped) is the result of our increasing the CO2 in the atmosphere.
    Then I hear the voice of the sage say something about “the precautionary principle” and I am still no nearer confidence that I know what Australian government should do and spend as no sage has yet shown me a meaning of that hortatory injunction which gives it meaning beyond Nanny’s finger wagging common sense.

  64. John Goss
    April 21st, 2014 at 22:06 | #64

    Ikonoclast, I am pleased to see that you have changed your mind about how much renewables will be able to help solve climate change problems. I was worried from some of your posts that you stuck to your views regardless of the changing evidence. Now we will just have to convince you that we can have very substantial economic growth which enhances the environment and society, if its the right sort of economic growth.

  65. Ikonoclast
    April 21st, 2014 at 22:40 | #65

    Solar updraft towers might be economic yet. Their ability to provide almost steady baseload power 24/7 (if engineered right) should convince even Hermit. What’s more the S.A. desert would be perfect for them. Heck, they could even power aluminium smelters! There are some very interesting data, maps and tables in this publication.


  66. paul walter
    April 21st, 2014 at 23:14 | #66

    Ronald Brak, thanks for intelligent reply.

  67. TerjeP
    April 21st, 2014 at 23:17 | #67

    Why are you boosting it then?

    My interest is primarily in cheap plentiful energy, not addressing AGW. So much more is possible when energy is cheap and plentiful. And I defend nuclear more so than boost it. But there are aspects of the industry I’d criticise more routinely if the general zeitgeist was pushing the other direction.

    My personal interested in nuclear relates mostly to technical innovation and it’s potential. The current combination of nuclear technology and the associated regulatory framework doesn’t overly inspire me but even so I think it cops unreasonable criticism from some quarters.

    Given that JQ is looking for a cure to CO2 emissions and is looking for a near term solution I understand his reasoning about new nuclear plant not necessarily being up to the job. Over recent years my views have shifted a little towards his in this regard.

  68. paul walter
    April 22nd, 2014 at 00:34 | #68

    Chernobyl and Fukushima.. just collateral damage, that?

    Talk sense, man!

  69. Will Boisvert
    April 22nd, 2014 at 02:19 | #69

    @ Ronald Brak, on lies about the costly failure of solar power in 1980,

    “Okay, I’m curious to know about these costly failures. In 1970 solar cells were basically only used in space programs and cost hundreds of dollars a watt. By 1980 they were about $30 a watt in today’s money and used in a range of niche applications. Sounds like quite a success to me. Also in the 70s the solar powered Skylab smacked into Australia to the country’s net economic benefit, despite the US not paying their $400 littering fine, while the nuclear powered Kosmos 954 hit Canada. At the time Canada billed the Soviet Union $6 million for the cleanup and the USSR stiffed them on the bill and only paid $3 million.”

    “Will Boisvert, did you have any costly failures in mind when you wrote, “Should we have given up on solar power in 1980 just because all the past experiments with it had been costly failures?” Or were you lying when you wrote that or did you just make a mistake there?”

    Ronald, of course I had nothing in mind when I wrote that solar power was a costly failure in 1980. One thing I definitely did not have in mind was your demonstration that solar panels had flown in outer space and only cost $30,000 per kilowatt. With their stalwart 15 percent or so capacity factors, that would have given them a capital cost per average kilowatt of just $200,000, only 25 times more expensive as Hinkley C. Yes, as cheap as that!

    So your evidence clearly refutes any suggestion that in 1980 solar power was costly or that it had failed to produce significant amounts of power here on earth. As you point out, any claim to the contrary must be a mistake or a lie.

    Ronald, once again you have proven yourself a national treasure. Don’t ever change!

  70. Will Boisvert
    April 22nd, 2014 at 04:08 | #70

    @ Ikonoclast, on the uselessness of solar updraft towers,

    Thanks for that link to the study on solar updraft towers. Unfortunately, the information there shows that the performance of SUTs is atrocious.

    The prototype 50 kw SUT at Manzanares, Spain, was a far cry from the “steady baseload power 24/7” that you touted. With a yearly output of 44.19 MWh per year, it had a capacity factor of just 10 percent. That means that, far from providing steady baseload, it produced nothing most of the time. In the most productive summer month the average daily output was 275 kwh, for a daily capacity factor of just 23 percent. In January its average daily output plunged to 10 kwh, or a capacity factor of 0.8 percent, so essentially no power produced at all for an entire month. SUT so far is an extraordinarily unreliable power source, much less reliable even than run-of-the-mill wind turbines and solar panels. Any large-scale plant would be dependent on natural gas “backup” to produce steady electricity.

    The study speculates that new designs might do better, but even so the figures would be woefully short of reliability. Their largest proposal, a deep desert 200 MW plant, would produce 680 GWh per year, for a capacity factor of 39 percent; in Spain it would produce 532 kwh for a 30 percent CF. The study doesn’t explain why the new SUTs would get 3 to 4 times the capacity factor of the Manzanares prototype. But even if they did, those numbers would still be no better than what CSP with storage or off-shore wind now do. So SUTs are in no way an advance over the performance of existing solar and wind technologies. And the low (actually kind of high) costs the study touts will balloon if the unexplained rise in capacity factor doesn’t pan out, even assuming the interested industry figures who wrote the study did their other sums realistically.

    Then there’s the extravagant land use of SUTs. The proposed 200 MW plant in the desert would occupy 38 square kilometers to produce 680 GWh per year of electricity in deep desert, 532 GWh in Spain. A plant that could produce Hinkley C’s 25,000 GWh per year would have to occupy 1,397 square kilometers in deep desert, 1,785 sq km in Spain, assuming much higher capacity factors than have been observed with prototypes. (Of course, that plant would still need 100 percent fossil-fueled backup capacity during frequent lengthy slumps of near-zero production.) There’s no way such land-hungry installations will be feasible in most of the world.

    So when you look at the facts, instead of the hype, SUTs are very disappointing.

  71. James Wimberley
    April 22nd, 2014 at 06:01 | #71

    @Will Boisvert
    Will B: you are shifting ground from an indefensible claim. Early solar proponents never tried to build solar power stations and it makes no sense to accuse them of failing to do so. Instead they developed the technology gradually, improving efficiency and lowering costs year by year, slowly opening up new niche markets, each bigger than the one before. They had orders of magnitude less public funding than nuclear technologists to to do all this. In the last two decades, they had significant help from Japanese and German public policy to subsidise early-stage deployment and bring costs down to grid parity, which is now achieved. Solar pv is a model of how to do technology right.

    Can you point to a single false claim of significance ever made by representatives of the solar industry, comparable to the repeated lies about economics and safety made by the nuclear one? You must be aware that most people sensibly go by the maxim falsus in unum, falsus in omnia. The reasonable default assumption about nuclear advocates like you is that they are lying. Sophistical polemics like the phony claim I’ve just attacked tend to confirm this presumption.

  72. Ikonoclast
    April 22nd, 2014 at 06:12 | #72


    Hmmm, interesting that you don’t care about AGW. That must mean you either deny the possibility that it is occurring or you discount the possibility that it is dangerous to human economy and survival. Either would seem to be dubious judgements IMO.

    If you are interested in cheap, plentiful power then you are backing the wrong horse. Nuclear power is expensive with all the subsidies and state assumption of costs and liabilities that it requires. It is not plentiful either. All known reserves of uranium will run out by about 2050 at not much more than current use rates. Did you watch the presentation on Uranium reserves and fuel cycle at WISE Uranium Project? The one called Uranium Supply and Demand. It’s an eye opener.

  73. April 22nd, 2014 at 06:24 | #73

    Thank you for your reply Yuri. Personally, while I can’t be certain that all the warming that the earth has experienced over the past couple hundred years has been the result of increased greenhouse gas concentrations, I haven’t seen any convincing evidence that increased greenhouse gas concentrations are not sufficient to have resulted in the warming we have experienced.

  74. April 22nd, 2014 at 06:39 | #74

    Will Boisvert, if you had nothing in mind when you wrote, “Should we have given up on solar power in 1980 just because all the past experiments with it had been costly failures?” Then why did you write that? Solar PV prior to that was clearly a success in the roles it was used for and other active methods of using solar power were clearly not failures nor particularly expensive. Active use of solar power only really started during World War II in Australia, but other countries began earlier. For example an American business person had sold 1,600 solar hot water heaters by 1900.

  75. Ikonoclast
    April 22nd, 2014 at 06:56 | #75

    @Will Boisvert

    You are very confused about capacity factors. It is meaningless to compare capacity factors of different styles of plant. Capacity factor comparisons are only useful when comparing a plant to itself (after modifications) or comparing plants of the same type, make, model and cost. With power plants, what counts in cross comparisons is LCOE (Levelized Cost of Energy).

    If you look at “Cost of Electricty by source” in Wikepedia and scroll down to the table “Estimated Levelized Cost of New Generation Resources, 2018”, you can compare capacity factors to LCOE. There is no direct correlation. A technology with a low capacity factor can have a good LCOE. A technology with a high capacity factor can have a poor LCOE.

    As the article says: “Capacity factors vary greatly depending on the type of fuel that is used and the design of the plant. The capacity factor should not be confused with the availability factor, capacity credit (firm capacity) or with efficiency.”

    Solar updraft towers will have to rise and fall (perhaps literally) on the back of their technical feasibility, fit to locale and LCOE. Yes, to date I have been surprised by their relative poor performance compared to solar PV and CST Concentrating solar thermal. They might come good or might not. Some of their characteristics are very useful: 24/7 power in the right configuration with very cheap heat ballast (stationary water sealed in black pipes or bags) and no need for ongoing supply of cooling water.

    So-called “extravagent use” of land is irrelevant in deep desert. Countries with large, hot arid areas (Australia, Sth-West USA, Saharan countries etc. will not have any problem with land use. Clearly, they would not be deployed in Benelux style countries.

    However, I note your modus operandi is to immediately dismiss without any assessment or with spurious assessments any and all renewable solutions. On the other hand, with nuclear power, you immediately and summarily dismiss all evidence of safety and subsidy concerns. You have a classic a priori position where you never listen to new evidence and never give it a fair hearing. Have you checked the information at WISE Uranium Project? I mean the slide show called Uranium Supply and Demand.

  76. April 22nd, 2014 at 07:33 | #76

    Hermit, are you up to continuing to think things through? You appear to have indicated that you understand that South Australia gets over a quarter of its electricity from wind power, so do you agree with me that each kilowatt-hour of electricity generated from wind power in South Australia will result in one kilowatt-hour, or about one kilowatt-hour, less electricity being generated from fossil fuels?

  77. Hermit
    April 22nd, 2014 at 07:49 | #77

    We can only hope solar updraft towers and wave power projects do a better job of producing dispatchable electricity than another recent favourite, dry rock geothermal. A small pilot plant has been built in the Simpson Desert not far from the gas fields. The gas comes from the overlying shales which act as an insulator for the granite basement rock heated by radioactive decay. I understand the pilot plant is not currently operational
    That site appears to be at least 200km from any transmission lines in the east Australian grid.

    Dry rock geothermal was also highly praised by AEMO the author of the 100% renewables study yet so far has been an expensive dud. Since uranium (decay not fission) is the ultimate source of its energy I’m surprised it passed muster. Good thing there’s no urgency about the carbon problem so we have decades to try things that may or may not work.

  78. BilB
    April 22nd, 2014 at 08:37 | #78

    JQ there is a comment for WB with CSP and PV figures in your mod bin (I made the 2 link mistake)

  79. Ikonoclast
    April 22nd, 2014 at 08:39 | #79


    Some direct questions are in order. Do you understand John Quiggin’s explanation of the fact that nuclear deployment cannot now occur fast enough to make significant further reductions to CO2 emissions in the timeframe required (the next 30 years)? Do you understand that scientific quantification and estimation of RAR (reasonably assured reserves) of Uranium indicates that at current use rates with current technology, uranium reserves will be exhausted by existing nuclear plants (and those currently under construction) by 2050?

    Thus, in a nutshell, do you understand that nuclear power provides no solution to our long term dilemma re climate change and sustainable energy? If you understood this you would realise we must make renewable energy work as well as it can work. There are no other options except perhaps fusion after 2050 or 2080 maybe. And that’s a big “maybe”.

    Furthermore, a realistic attitude to new renewable energy sources and technology is required. Not every attempt will succeed. Some ideas, directions and projects will work better than others. Some will fail totally. However, it is a good sign that all possibilities are being tested and that feasible projects are being sifted out from the unfeasible ones. There is always a difference between theory and practice. Real, empirical trials are always the final and the telling step.

    If you are arguing against renewable energy then you are arguing against all hope. This is something I realised myself after being very doubtful about the macro potential of renewable energy for a long time. (I was always convinced of its micro and niche potential.) In the long run, sustainable, renewable, clean energy will be the only possibility left. All other energy sources on earth will be exhausted or foreclosed if we wish to avoid destroying the biosphere as a place capable of supporting human life.

    So instead of employing all your ingenuity to argue against renewable energy, you should be employing all your ingenuity to not only make your own micro renewable energy (which you do I believe) but also you should be employing all your ingenuity to argue for the quest to discover safe, feasible, cost effective, macro renewable energy. The other direction leads to total despair.

    Micheal Ruppert, sadly, stands as a warning against both the indulgence of total despair and the gratification of “heroic” Quixotian narcissism; taking on personal crusades you cannot possibly win against much larger forces no matter how noble the battle may be. As Bruno Latour writes of capitalism (or any monster): “If you keep failing and don’t change it does not mean you are facing an invincible monster, it means you like, you enjoy, you love, to be defeated by a monster.” I would add that there are monsters you should realistically avoid or only confront with allies or even many allies. This reasoning can be applied to any bête noire that one faces. This is the honest self analysis of the psychopathology of helpless defeatism and Quixotian crusading that one must apply to oneself to avoid becoming a Micheal Ruppert.

  80. TerjeP
    April 22nd, 2014 at 08:45 | #80

    Hmmm, interesting that you don’t care about AGW. That must mean you either deny the possibility that it is occurring or you discount the possibility that it is dangerous to human economy and survival.

    The latter. Of course a lot depends on the CO2 to temperature sensitivity at the end of the day. I’m not really backing the high sensitivity scenarios like I might have done ten years ago. And for low sensitivity we should just adapt and deal with CO2 emissions as a long range problem.

    Either would seem to be dubious judgements IMO.

    But not IMO.

    If you are interested in cheap, plentiful power then you are backing the wrong horse. Nuclear power is expensive with all the subsidies and state assumption of costs and liabilities that it requires.

    The liabilities are not as bad as many imply. The subsidies I agree are a problem. But my interest is more in what nuclear technology might become than what it is today. If I was building a power plant for electricity in Australia today using currently available technology then given commercial reality I’d probably back something using fossil fuel. Not nuclear. But I’d want the nuclear option on the table.

  81. April 22nd, 2014 at 09:03 | #81

    Oh dear terjep, the liabilities are not as bad? I visit the nuclear accident zone around Fukushima regularly, and I have pointed out here before that it is now well known that the nuclear accident did not directly cause much harm, but this is only because the affected area was contained, and people within it evacuated. Farmers have lost their livelihoods, whole towns will never be used again, those towns still occupied are in some cases receiving compensation from tepco, the population distribution has changed so that those towns are at risk of collapse. There are major liabilities, and nuclear power is only “safe” provided society is willing to wear them. You can’t dismiss these underlying costs.

    I think it is interesting too that you are keen to see what nuclear could become when it’s potential depends on subsidies and govt protection, but won’t countenance the same support for solar… Libertarians never saw a state-subsidized zaibatsu project they didn’t like, did they?

  82. Will Boisvert
    April 22nd, 2014 at 09:34 | #82

    @ Ronald Brak and James Wimberley,

    Guys, hey, relax, I’m with you on this. My claim that solar power in 1980 was a costly failure was dead wrong, and I totally retract it.

    Ronald’s assertion that solar cost $30,000 per kw in 1980, which works out to $200,000 per average kilowatt or a mere 25 times the cost of Hinkley C capacity, definitely proves that solar was incredibly cheap in 1980. Furthermore, Ronald has also demonstrated that solar was a roaring success, not a failure, in the energy sector that really counts–satellite power. Now, some might point to inflated claims made for solar rooftop panels in the 1970s–the kind they put on the White House–but those anti-solar shills would be wrong and I hereby repudiate them.

    So I stand corrected: solar power in 1980 was phenomenally cheap and successful, no doubt about it. Any contrary suggestion is either a perverse mistake or, more likely, a deception hatched by conspirators in the pay of Big Nuke. I want to thank you guys for setting me straight–you are both national treasures!

  83. BilB
    April 22nd, 2014 at 09:50 | #83

    I think, Will Boisvert, that your figures are way out of whack on energy delivered over area. Have a look at the SEGS figures first up


    Secondly just on basic energy available over area there would be a minimum 4.6 trillion kwhrs solar energy available from your 1785 square kilometers, so to recover just 532 million kwhrs from that area would be horrendously inefficient.

    There are some good basic figures in this excellent pdf from the DLR


    Example: 800 square kilometers (this is about the area of the Hunter Valley open cut coal mine) of spaced out basic 20% PV panels would provide about 60% of all of Australia’s electricity needs so I think that you have dropped a naught somewhere.

    (400,000,000 square meters * .2 kw per square metre * 6.5hours * 275 clear solar days ) = 143 billion kwhrs

    Australia’s total electricity consumption 2011 about 240 billion kwhrs.

  84. Ken Fabian
    April 22nd, 2014 at 10:33 | #84

    I think Terje inadvertantly puts his finger on the essential point I’ve made repeatedly (sorry to those who have heard it too many times) – lots of people who promote and defend nuclear have no commitment to solving the climate/emissions problem. Genuine advocates for nuclear as climate solution have failed to confront that essential division and crossing of purposes within nuclear advocacy’s ranks. Or confront it within their perceived allies in mainstream politics.

    BraveNewClimate seems to typify this – it’s writers will endlessly attack renewables and ‘green’ politics but the overt and entrenched climate obstructionism such as typified by Abbott and team and their long term success in sucking impetus out of any broad commitment to any climate action by any means, including nuclear, don’t get a mention. My understanding is that climate science deniers within mainstream politics are considered too intractable to be worth any effort but persuading people that greenies are the problem is seen as ground they can score points on – which fits neatly with broader anti-environmentalist politicking on one level, but fails to differentiate itself clearly from anti-green politicking that is intended to obstruct action on climate. But I think mainstream denialism being “too intractable” is just a convenient excuse to avoid confronting and potentially alienating a significant bloc of supporters of nuclear energy, no matter how wacky and out there they are on climate change; they really are that deep in a PR black hole that they avoid confronting climate science deniers who like nuclear. Or, I sometimes think, any climate science deniers at all.

    The widespread failure of mainstream politics to find and make bipartisan cause in addressing the climate/emissions/energy problem has seen nuclear in a fight with fossil fuel interests for Right Conservative support – and losing. Except it really looks like there is a willful refusal within nuclear advocacy to even admit there has ever been such a fight, let alone that it is more critical and fundamental to their cause than confronting the open opposition of anti-nuclear activism.

  85. Hermit
    April 22nd, 2014 at 10:37 | #85

    I accept that paralysis-by-analysis may prevent us from building enough nuclear to replace coal despite the fact the French did it in the 1970s. I don’t accept that uranium depletion is a problem for Australia this century and after that it’s either game over (in the apocalyptic sense) or something else like Gen 4.

    Thanks for your encouragement on my renewable projects. However I keep coming to the conclusion none of them will scale up or ever be cheap enough to replace fossil fuels. I’ve mentioned before someone else in the district with tracking PV, a small wind generator and a battery bank said ‘I’m getting too old for this sh*t why can’t we all just be on nuclear electricity’. Seems like renewables enthusiasm is more of an urban thing.

  86. yuri
    April 22nd, 2014 at 15:06 | #86

    OMG! Professor Sir Guy Rundle FRS – all purpose entertaining polymath has shown us our terrestrial nirvana in today’s Crikey. And, if not right in every detail he’s surely right in general though I find it hard to work up enthusiasm for the future of windpower (actually solar at a couple of removes of course, wave power being at a third remove) given what it and its grid do to the landscape. Nothing said though about what clever scientists arr going to do to add value to coal….

    Assuming that the world’s vast resources of coal are going to lose a great deal of value over the next 50 years or so GR has, like it or not, pointed to a most important policy priority for Australia: export and burn profitably as much coal as possible as quickly as possible. Professor Quiggin will explain authoritatively how opportunity cost relates to this compelling necessity…..

  87. April 22nd, 2014 at 16:46 | #87

    Will Boisvert, have you finished pretending that anyone said that anyone said that $30 a watt solar PV was a cheap method of generating grid electricity? Portraying that as my position, or the position of anyone else here, is a dishonest why to proceed with discussion. If you have finished salving your ego with that lie, we are left with your statement, “Should we have given up on solar power in 1980 just because all the past experiments with it had been costly failures?”

    I’ve asked for examples of these costly failures and you’ve given us nothing. I’m not surprised by this, as there’s not a lot there to give. The first practical PV solar cells were developed 1954 and and by 1980 had dropped by an order of magnitude in price. If you wish to play silly buggers I could point out that the capital cost of the first commercial nuclear plant was 875 pounds a kilowatt which is about 20,000 pounds in today’s money which means that if we can believe the projected cost of Hinkley C, nuclear power’s capital cost will have dropped by about 75% in about 70 years, which is considerably less than an order of magnitude. But I won’t bring that up because that would be stupid.

    By 1980 solar cells were being used successfully and cost effectively in a variety of terrestrial applications including marine bouys. In the 80s and 90s solar PV went on to supply off grid electricity in a variety of uses and I imagine we all know what happed after that.

    In Australia the active use of solar energy really began during World War II with war time energy rationing leading to the use of solar water heaters on a small scale. After the war Australia lead the world in the development of flat plate water heaters and solar hot water managed to be both successful and competitive all the way up to 1980 and beyond, particularly in the north of the country. Commerical development of solar water heating began earlier than this in some other countries with units being sold in the United States in the late 19th century. Oh, and by the way, the solar panels installed on the Whitehouse in the 70s were for heating water not generating electricity. Now I have no idea how economical installing solar hot water heating on a historical building like the Whitehouse was, but I don’t think Carter’s goal there was just to save a few bucks. I think he might have been exercising leadership through example.

    And now solar power is the cheapest source of energy available to many people in the word and has quite clearly been a success story and this includes in the years before and after 1980 with no evidence that “…all the past experiments with it had been costly failures”.

    Will, if you want to retract your statement in a grown up manner you still can. After all, we all make mistakes. But when you dishonestly misrepresent people’s positions, as you did in your last comment, it becomes harder to apply the principle of charity and considerably easier to apply the principle of the bleeding obvious.

  88. April 22nd, 2014 at 17:04 | #88

    Yuri, I live in South Australia which has way more wind power than any other Australian state and I can’t say that I’ve noticed wind turbines doing anything wrong with either the grid or the landscape. Generally speaking wind turbines are a clear plus for the landscape as they lower wind speeds over the agricultural land they are built on and so reduce soil erosion from wind directly through reduced wind speeds and indirectly by reducing the rate of moisture loss. They also provide something interesting to look at in some distinctly less than riviting areas of South Australia.

    I’m not sure what grid problems you could be referring too. There’s nothing here like the frequency of Queensland’s negative price events caused by their coal heavy electricity grid. Such things do happen here, but only as the result of the operation of fossil fuel plants not wanting to cut production and if needed it would be easy enough to feather wind turbines to curtail production. Not that there’s ever much need to curtail production as on the rare occasions when wind power exceeds state demand electricity can be exported to Victoria which has stupidly severly limited its wind development leaving South Australia with a clear opportunity to take advantage of.

  89. John Quiggin
    April 22nd, 2014 at 17:30 | #89


    Oops! I thought that was a duplicate and deleted it.

  90. April 22nd, 2014 at 20:09 | #90


    and I accept (because I’ve never heard any suggestion that it was wrong) that most of its effect to date results from the first 50ppm after which it is generally true that the inverse exponential function governing the relationship between concentration of CO2 and greenhouse effect means that each doubling produces much less effect

    And there I was thinking that each doubling of CO2 would have the same effect. Because that is what you get with an “inverse exponential function”.

    I hope you are a “skeptic”, Yuri, because this is a typical “skeptic” blunder.

  91. Nathan
    April 22nd, 2014 at 21:24 | #91

    It never ceases to amaze me, that here we are just weeks after the IPCC has put out yet another heroic complication of rigorous science demonstrating the severe economic risks posed by climate change, and yet Terje and his companions continue to calmly assert their “opinions” that everything is going to be somehow alright. Just to be clear, the claim that adaptation alone has any hope of sparing us vast economic hardships is comparably anti-science as denying the existence go AGW to begin with.

  92. rog
    April 22nd, 2014 at 22:25 | #92

    @Faustusnotes This is somehow overlooked by pro nuke advocates, that the relatively low numbers of morbidly/mortality associsted with nuke incidents has more to do with the massive evacuation and exclusion of the population from the incident area than the “safety” of the product.

  93. rog
    April 22nd, 2014 at 22:37 | #93


    The IPCC report puts the global cost of carbon reduction at 0.06% of GDP.

    Joe Romm explains here

  94. Nathan
    April 23rd, 2014 at 00:15 | #94

    Yes? I’m not quite sure what your point is

  95. April 23rd, 2014 at 00:46 | #95

    rog, I’m generally pro-nuclear, I don’t think the health risks are as great as people say and actually large parts of the area affected by the Fukushima plant have been reoccupied. Nonetheless, the risks remain high and even if the actual health risk fo radiation is low, the obvious human response to it needs to be factored into disaster planning. Furthermore, I think that from a design and management standpoint the Fukushima accident was easily avoided. However, I thoroughly agree with all the points in the OP and the general economic criticisms of nuclear, and furthermore I think that the dodgy relationship between govt and the nuclear lobby is exactly the reason that the Fukushim accident happened.

    This means I think it’s incredibly reckless to close existing plants – Germany and Japan are two of the world’s biggest economies and they absolutely should not be shifting away from nuclear – and I can appreciate the impulse to open new nukes in e.g. China. But I think they should only be considered where the alternatives are really dire – as in China – and just on the speed of construction alone I can’t see them being a useful solution to AGW.

    What worries me is that if we delay renewables, and continue to stymie growth in that sector, there will come a time in 10 -20 years when a desperate decarbonization is necessary, and then a huge swathe of nuclear plants will be built with massive public subsidies and no concern for safety. Of course, at that point libertards like TerjeP will be all for it. It never ceases to amaze me that libertarians are so supportive of an economically uncompetitive and govt subsidized product like nuclear, but are full of hate for solar which, as others in this thread have pointed out, is a free market success story.

  96. TerjeP
    April 23rd, 2014 at 01:44 | #96

    It never ceases to amaze me, that here we are just weeks after the IPCC has put out yet another heroic complication of rigorous science demonstrating the severe economic risks posed by climate change, and yet Terje and his companions continue to calmly assert their “opinions” that everything is going to be somehow alright.

    Let’s take a look at what the latest IPCC report says about “economic risks posed by climate change”. I’ll quote from IPCC WGII AR5 Chapter 10. Link to the full document here:-


    On page 4 in the Executive Summary we have the following text:-

    Globally aggregated economic impacts of global warming are a small fraction of income up until 3°C [10.9.2, medium evidence, high agreement]. A global mean average temperature rise of 2.5C may lead to global aggregated economic losses between 0.2 and 2.0% of income (medium evidence, medium agreement) and losses increase with greater warming. Little is known about aggregate economics impacts above 3°C. Impact estimates are incomplete and depend on a large number of assumptions, many of which are disputable. Aggregate impacts hide large differences between and within countries. The incremental impact of emitting a tonne of carbon dioxide lies between a few dollars and several hundreds of dollars per tonne of carbon [10.9.3, robust evidence, medium agreement]. Estimates vary strongly with the assumed discount rate. The uncertainty about the marginal impacts is large, and more so for lower discount rates. [10.9]

    So if a century of climate change delivers a 2.5 degree increase in temperature the economic impact is apparently comparable to suffering a minor one off recession of a few months that slightly lowers the subsequent economic output.

    This is not what I would refer to as a “severe economic risk”. I’d call it a storm in a tea cup.

  97. Will Boisvert
    April 23rd, 2014 at 06:04 | #97

    @ Rog and FaustusNotes, on Fukushima evacuations being unnecessary

    “the relatively low numbers of morbidly/mortality associsted with nuke incidents has more to do with the massive evacuation and exclusion of the population from the incident area than the “safety” of the product.”

    Rog, no. For example, studies of the Fukushima spew suggest that the morbidity/mortality that was “avoided” by the evacuations would have been too small to measure had there been no evacuation. Had everyone in the 20 km evacuation zone simply stayed there forever, individual risks from the radiation would have been tiny—less than the risk of dying in a car crash—and collectively there would have been no discernible uptick in cancer rates or any other health problems from the radiation. The notion that the evacuation zone was rendered “uninhabitable” by Fukushima fallout is a myth.

    1) First the methodology:

    The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Airborne Radiation just released a consensus report that quantifies the actual risks from radiation in the EZ. They calculated the radiation exposures that people in various parts of the 20 km EZ would have incurred during the first year after the accident, had they not evacuated. They also estimate that lifetime radiation exposures from fallout in a given area would be about three times the first-year exposure, assuming no decontamination measures. (Radiation levels drop fast because of radioactive decay and natural weathering.) We can then take UNSCEAR”s estimates of lifetime radiation doses and multiply them by standard risk factors to get the lifetime cancer fatality risk from the radiation. (I use the risk factor from the U. S. National Academy of Science’s authoritative BEIR-VII report: 570 fatal cancers among 100,000 people exposed to 100 millisieverts radiation dose, scalingly linearly with the dose.)

    2) Now the results:

    UNSCEAR found that the highest avoided first-year dose in the EZ, in the townships surrounding the nuclear plant, would have been 51 millisieverts. Multiplying by three gives a dose for someone living there a whole lifetime of 153 msv. Multiplying that lifetime dose by the BEIR VII risk factor gives a lifetime fatal cancer risk from the radiation of 0.86 percent. In other words, if all the roughly 100,000 people in the 20 km zone had stayed there and received that lifetime radiation dose, then we could expect 860 of them to die of cancer caused by the fallout. That’s about the same risk that an American runs of dying in a car crash. That risk is conjectural, too low to be discernible amid the normal variation in cancer from natural causes, which would kill 20,000 of those people in the EZ anyway.

    But that’s the cancer risk in the hottest spots in the EZ. Radiation levels in the rest of the EZ were on average much lower, so the lifetime radiation dose and cancer risk from the fallout would also have been much lower than the risks of driving a car, and undetectable amid the background noise of natural cancer mortality.

    To put those EZ radiation levels in context, the 153 msv lifetime dose in the hottest spots is equal to the additional radiation dose someone would get from living 30 years in Denver, Colorado, which has an extra 5 msv per year of background radiation because of high elevation and natural radon exposure. Indeed, UNSCEAR reports that, as of last month, the fallout radiation just about everywhere in the EZ is now below 5 msv per year, so the EZ is on average less radioactive than Denver. An immediate resettlement of evacuees throughout the EZ would therefore have no measurable health consequences.

    We should take special note of the risk of thyroid cancer to children from iodine-131 in the immediate fallout plume. UNSCEAR estimates that thyroid doses could have been as high as 800 msv, which would impart an elevated lifetime thyroid cancer risk to an infant of 2.9 percent. (That’s a negligible fatal cancer risk because thyroid cancer is over 90 percent curable.) But that’s the risk assuming no prophylaxis with iodine pills. Average thyroid exposures in the EZ were much lower than the 800 msv in hot spots. UNSCEAR also notes that comparison with direct measurements of thyroid exposure using radiation scanners indicates that their own estimates may be 4 to 5 times too high. So the thyroid cancer risk to children in the EZ, especially if they got iodine pills, would likely have been negligible as well. And radio-iodine entirely decays away in 3 months, so the thyroid risk to children after that point would have been nil.

    The bottom line is that staying in the Fukushima evacuation zone during and after the spew would have been much less risky than driving a car or moving to Denver. That raises questions about the wisdom of the mandatory evacuations the government forced on residents, especially since hundreds of sick people died from the stress of relocation. It raises further question marks about the apocalyptic dangers we associate with nuclear power, all the hysteria about mass body counts and uninhabitable dead zones. Those specters have never come true; the objective health risks to civilians from worst-case nuclear accidents like Fukushima, even if they live right at ground zero and do not evacuate, have proven to be modest to nil. A more rational understanding of the risks could help clear away political obstructions that slow the deployment of nuclear power.

  98. rog
    April 23rd, 2014 at 06:04 | #98

    @TerjeP That would be global aggregated economic losses of 0.2 and 2.0% of GDP per year, a significant risk.

  99. rog
    April 23rd, 2014 at 06:23 | #99

    @Will Boisvert

    UNSCEAR claim

    the expected low impact on cancer rates of the population is largely due to prompt protective actions on the part of the Japanese authorities following the accident

  100. Fran Barlow
    April 23rd, 2014 at 06:31 | #100


    So on this analysis you would be pushing for measures that stabilise temperature increases to no more than 3.0 C?

    What would the global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration have to stabilise at to stabilise at that level of increase over pre-industrial?

    Given also that aggregate economic impacts hide large economic impacts impacts between and within countries, unless these differentially harm wealthier countries more climate change will exaggerate relative poverty and hardship, so achieving the lower bound of stabilisation would be more than avoiding a storm in a tea cup.

    Unless policy changes very sharply in favour of abatement, and very soon, stabilisation at 2.5 to 3.0 above pre-industrial is improbable.

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