Home > Economic policy, Environment > Faith-based energy policy: the case of nuclear power

Faith-based energy policy: the case of nuclear power

March 16th, 2017

If you want to explain the success of Trump and Trumpism, despite Trump’s blatant reliance on falsehood, it’s crucial to understand that the mainstream political right has been rendering itself more and more impervious to reality for at least two decades. A striking example is the belief that nuclear power is the answer to our needs, and that the only obstacle is Green Nimbyism. This claim has recently been restated by a number of LNP Parliamentarians, by no means all of whom are on the hardline right.

Rather than rehearse the arguments I’ve put many times, I’ll quote the conclusion of the SA Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle:

a. on the present estimate of costs and under current market arrangements, nuclear power would not be
commercially viable to supply baseload electricity to the South Australian subregion of the NEM from 2030 (being the earliest date for its possible introduction)

b. it would not be viable
i. on a range of predicted wholesale electricity prices incorporating a range of possible carbon prices
ii. for both large and potentially new small plant designs
iii. under current and potentially substantially expanded interconnection capacity to Victoria and NSW
iv. on a range of predictions of demand in 2030, including with significant uptake of electric vehicles

c. nuclear would be marginal in the event of a lower cost of capital that was typical for the financing of public projects and under strong climate action policies.

That closes off just about every loophole a pro-nuclear advocate might want to use. And the Royal Commission was anything but anti-nuclear. It pushed hard for the idea of a nuclear waste dump (not really credible, but not as obviously infeasible as nuclear electricity generation).

TO finish, I can’t resist quoting Bernard Keane

As for the suggestion from backbenchers that nuclear power should be thrown into the mix, take note of the names involved, according to the Fairfax report: Andrew Broad, James Paterson, Tony Pasin, Tim Wilson, Chris Back, Craig Kelly, Eric Abetz, Andrew Hastie, Warren Entsch, Bridget McKenzie, Rowan Ramsey. Take note and remember that none of them can count.

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  1. GrueBleen
    March 16th, 2017 at 14:20 | #1

    “…the mainstream political right has been rendering itself more and more impervious to reality for at least two decades”

    Well much as I’d dearly love to enter ‘epistemic closure’ back into the debate again, I think the simple fact is that “the mainstream political right” together with “the mainstream rightwing daydreamers” (aka the general public of a ‘right wing’ persuasion) have been busily building “a world of their own” for quite a while now. But with the coming of the Limbaughs, Breitbarts, Drudges and in particular, Murdoch’s empire, they have finally fused together a world they don’t ever have to leave.

    A world in which, for instance, Trump will “make America Great Again”. A world that to them, is the one and only reality, and any attempt to say otherwise is just an evil Leftie plot.

  2. GrueBleen
    March 16th, 2017 at 14:25 | #2

    And by way of a topic-centered postscript, yes, you are totally correct as you always have been on this topic and so, tragically, is Bernard Keane.

  3. Tim Macknay
    March 16th, 2017 at 14:36 | #3

    Malcolm Turnbull seems to have responded to his backbenchers by promoting a large increase in hydroelectric pumped storage. First sensible thing he’s done since… .

  4. Ikonoclast
    March 16th, 2017 at 14:45 | #4

    @GrueBleen

    I agree… “they have finally fused together a world they don’t ever have to leave.” This is true however, only while the system, their system (as they own and control it), remains sustainable. However, something tells me that a system which doesn’t correctly take in real world evidence and factor it into the calculations and measures necessary to sustain the system, is a maladaptive system. It is going to have a painful collision with reality at some point. Note, I have not attempted to predict which members of the system will feel the most pain from this collision with harsh reality. I am simply saying when the owners and controllers of the system close their minds to all empirical evidence… well it’s probably akin to driving at 200 kph with your eyes closed.

    As to nuclear argument, it’s all over but certain dunces (if they can’t count then they are dunces) don’t know the argument is over. Basically, the only people who want nuclear power for their country are the people who want nuclear weapons for their country, whether they want them openly or secretly.

  5. John Quiggin
    March 16th, 2017 at 14:46 | #5

    @Tim Macknay

    Quite so, though of course it totally undermines his attack on Weatherill for doing the same thing. And so, Josh Frydenberg had his collision with reality a few hours ago.

  6. GrueBleen
    March 16th, 2017 at 15:01 | #6

    @Ikonoclast

    It is going to have a painful collision with reality at some point.

    Indeed, Ikono, it indubitably will – the process is beginning its slow, but accelerating transition from creeping entropy into galloping chaos. But with the economic and military might of the USA – and the incredible capacity of people to suffer while still believing that all is good – it could take quite a while. Then again, what is it that wise people say ? “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

    But I suspect quite a few intelligent rodents will have left the sinker before the final day. Why, we could maybe even get a significant immigration rush from America to Australia: 5 or 10 million yanquis perhaps ?

  7. GrueBleen
    March 16th, 2017 at 15:03 | #7

    @John Quiggin

    Josh Frydenberg had his collision with reality a few hours ago.

    Well don’t keep the joyful news all to yourself: give us the pointer !

  8. Jack Williams
    March 16th, 2017 at 15:32 | #8

    Thank John.

  9. HED PE
    March 16th, 2017 at 16:14 | #9

    @GrueBleen

    Google is your friend: www abc net au / news/2017-03-16/josh-frydenberg-and-jay-weatherill-awkward-press-conference/8359432

  10. Tim Macknay
    March 16th, 2017 at 17:00 | #10

    @HED PE
    That is hilarious.

  11. GrueBleen
    March 16th, 2017 at 17:06 | #11

    @HED PE
    Yes, entertaining enough, thanks HED, but I wouldn’t describe it quite as “Josh Frydenberg had his collision with reality”. I was kinda hoping for just a little more substance – enough to make Frydenberg lose his self-satisfied idiot’s grin for just a few minutes.

    Though no post at The Conversation, yet, not even by Ms Grattan – maybe something will arrive later.

    But I must try to get some details on Mal’s “pumped hydro” – as Derrida Derider is happy to confirm, the Snowy Scheme has been a money loser throughout its life. But who knows, maybe now … ?

  12. Ken Fabian
    March 17th, 2017 at 10:02 | #12

    Are any of the pro-nuclear Liberals listed known to accept the science on climate and it’s seriousness? The names I’m familiar with look to be quite staunch opponents of climate action. Without commitment to the fundamental goal (preserving climate stability) can their promotion of nuclear be taken seriously?

    Opposing strong climate action is antithetical to strong climate action with nuclear. Climate science denial, not anti-nuclear activism, is what has prevented the largest body of existing, mostly Conservative Right, political support from being utilised in any credible and effective manner. They pretend to propose nuclear, Greens make some predictably noisy objections, they back down without putting up a fight and retreat to their true pro-fossil fuels position but with blaming and finger pointing.

    There is not and perhaps never was real LNP commitment to nuclear. It’s all political gamesmanship and blameshifting in place of the real policy they are too divided and compromised to develop.

    There can be no sane and rational energy policy from a party controlled by climate science deniers, that is dedicated to preventing climate responsibility being accepted as necessary, who are staunch in their commitment to preserving the long term economic viability of fossil fuels.

  13. Douglas Hynd
    March 17th, 2017 at 10:34 | #13

    “Greens make some predictably noisy objections, they back down without putting up a fight and retreat to their true pro-fossil fuels position but with blaming and finger pointing.”

    Not sure what Ken is referring to here but certainly not true in the ACT where there has been lockstep innovatively engineered movement on renewable energy from both the ALP and Greens

  14. Tim Macknay
    March 17th, 2017 at 11:47 | #14

    @Douglas Hynd
    It’s a bit unclear, but I thought what Ken meant was that, after the Greens make some predictably noisy objections, the pro-nuclear Liberals then back down and retreat to their true pro-fossil fuels position. No doubt Ken will correct me if I’m wrong.

  15. Ken Fabian
    March 17th, 2017 at 13:16 | #15

    Yes, “they” was referring to those pro-nuclear Liberals. In balancing clarity with brevity I often seem to end up with neither.

    It’s not a widely promoted view to blame the Conservative Right for how nuclear for climate has failed to gain traction – traditionally that has been blamed squarely and singularly on anti-nuclear activism by Environmentalists but, I suggest with little real examination or question. Strength of opposition by a “radical and irrational” Green-Left fringe is taken to be overwhelming but the weakness of support and conflicted aims of the mainstream Conservative-Right are taken to be inconsequential.

  16. GrueBleen
    March 17th, 2017 at 16:03 | #16

    @Ken Fabian

    In balancing clarity with brevity I often seem to end up with neither.

    🙂 the eternal human dilemma.

    It’s not a widely promoted view to blame the Conservative Right for how nuclear for climate has failed to gain traction

    I kinda thought it was the massive expense and risk associated with nuclear fission power plants (not to mention radioactive waste) which meant that no sane (non-government) organisation was eager to fund them. Sorta like what is happening to coal-fired power plants (and especially the lignite-fired versions) nowadays.

    But hey, “reviving” Australia’s Great National White Elephant (aka the Snowy Scheme), well that’s obviously a goer, isn’t it. For just $2bn we get an intermittent power generation system that may, or may not, provide electricity for up to 500,000 ‘households’. I wonder how much it will cost to provide the electricity needed to power the pumps almost every night ? Lots of night operating wind turbines, maybe ?

    Incidentally, NSW and Victoria together had a combined population increase of nearly 238,000 for the calendar year to June 2016 (immigration plus births minus emigrations plus deaths). So, if we can assume an average of 1 ‘household’ per, say, 3.5 people on average, that means that ‘households’ in Vic+NSW are increasing by 68,000 per annum. In short, in just a little over 7 years from now, the entire 500,000 households that Snowy 2.0 is expected to power will have been taken up by population increase.

    Anywhere else we can start some ‘pumped hydro’ ?

  17. John Quiggin
    March 17th, 2017 at 17:19 | #17

    My late colleague Bruce Davidson did the definitive study of the Snowy Scheme in Australia Wet or Dry: The Physical and Economic Limits to the Expansion of Irrigation He said to me (I don’t have the book to hand) that the hydroelectric component alone was economically viable, but the irrigation project (like all Australian irrigation projects) was an economic disaster.

  18. jrkrideau
    March 18th, 2017 at 02:32 | #18

    @GrueBleen
    More than one smart refugee who had fled to the USA is now fleeing to Canada despite the weather—not insignificant -10 and zero visibility in a blizzard does not make for safe border crossings.

  19. GrueBleen
    March 18th, 2017 at 02:52 | #19

    @John Quiggin

    the hydroelectric component alone was economically viable, but the irrigation project (like all Australian irrigation projects) was an economic disaster.

    An interesting distinction that personally I wasn’t conscious of. One then might wonder though, if the Snowy would ever have been undertaken for just the hydroelectricity alone – we weren’t such big users back in the 1950s – we didn’t have TV yet and most didn’t even have refrigerators. As for air conditioners …

    And I seriously wonder what it will take to provide the electricity to drive the pumps on a continuous basis, recalling that Snowy hydroelectric is presently intermittent because pumping depends on the market price being paid for the electricity needed to pump being less than the price for the electricity that the Snowy generates, which isn’t always so. But also that the pumping electricity is currently supplied by good old “conventional” (ie coal-fired) power generators.

    In short, I await the completion of the ‘feasibility study’ – which I sincerely hope will contain not only cost/benefit but also risk/reward analysis – with much curious “anticipation”.

  20. GrueBleen
    March 18th, 2017 at 07:49 | #20

    @jrkrideau

    …10 and zero visibility in a blizzard

    Heh. Much better to take a leisurely cruise across the Pacific and end up in a land warmed by El Nino.

    But at least the Canadian buses run very precisely on time, they tell us.

  21. Ken Fabian
    March 18th, 2017 at 08:35 | #21

    @GrueBleen
    I suppose I’ve focused on the rhetoric of nuclear advocacy as I’ve seen it – the bottom line of costs is crucial to the decisions but not necessarily the arguments, and the decision is for these “supporters” to not follow up with the real commitment nuclear for climate requires.

    I think the whole climate science denial thing itself follows from the perception amongst the influential captains of commerce of the bottom line being worse with climate responsibility – and it’s essentially a non-technology specific position; the decision to dodge that responsibility and justify it with science denial hurts every genuine and potentially effective policy. Yet I think it is inherently more damaging to nuclear than renewables.

    Nuclear requires a far greater level of enduring political commitment to the fundamental low emissions goal to achieve the far more extreme state interventions it requires as well as emphasis of the true seriousness of the emissions problem to overcome both the widespread (but mostly not deeply and irrevocably held) distrust of nuclear and the (more deeply held) unwillingness to make any personal sacrifices for the cause long term climate stability. People who are, by any historical standards extraordinarily prosperous and extravagantly wasteful, are encouraged to feel outrage that they might have to sacrifice the least thing for the long term good of other and future people.

  22. GrueBleen
    March 18th, 2017 at 14:25 | #22

    @Ken Fabian

    Yet I think it is inherently more damaging to nuclear than renewables.

    Nuclear requires a far greater level of enduring political commitment to the fundamental low emissions goal to achieve the far more extreme state interventions it requires

    Very much so, I think, Ken. The US government put just enough effort in to get nuclear weapons out of the research (and make sure they were ahead of Germany), but after that it all fell into the hands of ‘market economics’. Which meant that it had some success for a while, but eventually all the negatives – from huge cost and time overruns in construction to the eternal question of ‘waste’, plus Three Mile Island, then Chernobyl etc. – and it all fell in a heap.

    Compare it with the space program, where the US and Russian governments kept control of the major, massively costly, undertakings while the rest of the world learnt how to build and launch relatively reliable and cheap satellite carriers -cost $hundreds of millions, not hundreds of billions.

    What nuclear fission power needed was the same kind of support: government to take on and finance years of trial and error development and improvement and then a gradual path into ‘private enterprise’ hands – like the US space program is slowly passing into Elon Musk’s hands now – after 50 years of government funded R&D.

    But now the rapid rewards of renewables – especially rooftop solar plus batteries – is just about completely closing off the future for nuclear fission anywhere except government funded China.

    So it goes [phew, remembered the / this time]

  23. GrueBleen
    March 18th, 2017 at 16:30 | #23

    @John Quiggin

    the hydroelectric component alone was economically viable

    It seems that your colleague just might be right: the hydro-electricity component of the Snowy Mountain appears to have been in reasonable, though quite variable, profit for some years.

    However, I do wonder how things will turn out if the hydro scheme is no longer able to be “intermittent” – ie to run only when the cost of the electricity required to fill the upper reservoir is lower than the sale price the authority gets for the power generated (for however long it generates at a stretch).

    Doubtless this will all emerge in the very thorough feasibility study that the Fed Gov will have conducted.

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