Nuclear update: Gen III dies an early death

One of the more tenacious beliefs on the political right is that their support for nuclear power demonstrates superior rationality and openness to evidence. But the evidence is that, no matter what the structure of energy markets no one is willing to choose (new) nuclear power over any of the alternatives: gas, renewables and coal. That’s bad in the sense that the true costs of new and existing coal far exceed those of even new nuclear. But where those costs are factored in to decisions, it’s renewables (plus storage) that benefit.

Let’s look at the evidence. The World Nuclear Association currently lists “about 50” plants under construction, a number that’s been declining over time. A closer look reveals 47 plants, of which 23 are due to be completed this year or next (most are way behind schedule). The rest are due by 2026 reflecting the fact that hardly any have been started in recent years (a typical project takes 7-10 from initial construction to connection, if all goes well).

Adding in those modern (Gen III or III+) plants already in operation, the total contribution of modern nuclear to the world’s electricity generation capacity is likely to fall short of 100 GW, maybe equal to a couple of years of renewables (adjusted for differences in utilisation rates).

The only real hope is that of Small Modular Reactors, but even here the gap between claims and evidence is striking. Pro-nuclear advocates routinely write as if SMRs are an established solution, rather than a design that has so far not even reached the pilot plant stage.

If those on the political right would accept a market solution to decarbonizing electricity, including a carbon price and an option for SMRs, that would be a good deal for the environment. Sadly, there’s no sign of that happening. Rather, support for nuclear power is little more than an excuse for hippie-punching and intellectual self-congratulation.

Climate change and the strange death of libertarianism

It wasn’t that long ago that everyone was talking about the “libertarian moment” in the US. Now, libertarianism/propertarianism is pretty much dead. The support base, advocacy groups and so on have gone full Trumpists, while the intellectual energy has shifted to “liberaltarianism” or, a more recent variant, Tyler Cowen’s conversion to “state capacity libertarianism“.

Most of those departing to the left have mentioned the failure of libertarianism to handle climate change. It was critical for two reasons. First, any serious propertarian response would have required support ofr the creation of new property rights (emissions permits) and the restriction of existing ones (burning carbon). That would imply an acknowledgement that property rights are not natural relations between people (owners) and things (property). They are socially constructed relationships between people, allowing some people to use things and to stop other people from doing so. Second, the effort to deny the necessary implications of climate change inevitably resulted in denial of the scientific evidence that climate change was occurring. That contributed to a situation where most former libertarians are now Trumpists, happy to deny the evidence of their own eyes if that’s what the leader requires of them.

I’m working on a longer article spelling all this out. In the meantime, comments welcome.

Blackrock and the AAA rating

Blackrock, the world’s largest asset manager has announced some big steps towards divestment from thermal coal. As I observe in this article in The Conversation, Blackrock’s shift marks the point at which divestment has become the norm for financial institutions, and continued involvement with coal a choice that must be justified in the face of the evidence.

As has already happened with Adani’s Carmichael project, thermal coal miners and power station developers will soon find it impossible to get external finance except from government and government-backed sources, such as China’s Belt and Road initiative. The Australian government is already pushing in this direction.

That brings us to the next step in divestment: government bonds. The Swedish central bank has already dumped Australian government bonds in protest against our climate vandalism. As with earlier rounds of divestment, this is a small start that is likely to accelerate quickly. A large-scale divestment from Australian government bonds would lead to the loss of our AAA rating, and an increase in interest rates across the board, including home mortgage rates. That might finally shock the quiet Australians into realising how disastrous the choices they’ve made have been.

Economic estimates don't account for tragic bushfire toll

That;s the headline for my latest piece for Independent Australia Obviously, costs like ecosystem destruction and the deaths of millions of native animals can’t easily be put into the framework of the National Accounts. But, even if we stick to the National Accounts, Gross Domestic Product is a terrible measure of economic welfare. As I always say, there are three reasons for that; it’s Gross, it’s Domestic and it’s a Product.

Consumed by fire (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

(Most of this will be familiar to regular readers of this blog. But it seems simplest to crosspost the whole thing, rather than do a separate version).

It’s been hard to think straight with the fires that have burned through most of Australia for months. Brisbane was among the first places affected, with the loss of the historic Binna Burra lodge, on the edge of a rainforest, a place where no one expected a catastrophic fire. But, as it turned out, we got off easy compared to the rest of the country. Heavy rain in early December helped to put out the fires in Queensland, and we can expect the delayed arrival of the monsoon in the near future. By contrast, southern Australia normally has hot, dry summers and this has been the hottest driest year ever. The increased likelihood of catastrophic fire seasons was evident when I started work on this topic back in 2012 [1], and the risks for this year were pointed out to the government months in advance. The warnings went unheeded for two reasons.

First, the government had been re-elected partly on the basis of a promise (economically nonsensical, but politically powerful) to return the budget to surplus. Any serious action to prepare for and respond to a bushfire catastrophe would wipe that out, as indeed has almost certainly happened now.

Second, any serious assessment would have to focus on the fact that climate change is causing large-scale losses in Australia right now. The government is a combination of denialists and do-nothingists, neither of whom are willing to address the issue.

Of course, Australia is only a small part of the problem. Our government’s policies are helping to promote climate catastrophes in the US, Brazil and other places, and theirs are returning the favor. A policy shift in any one of these countries, with no change elsewhere, would make little difference to the country concerned. That’s the nature of a collective action problem. But on any ordinary understanding of justice, we are reaping what we, and the governments we’ve elected, have sown.

Over the fold, some links to pieces I’ve written on this topic.

Australia is promising $2 billion for the fires. I estimate recovery will cost $100 billion Article I wrote piece for CNN Business in the US.

Hundreds more deaths will result from the particulates created by Australia’s current crop of bushfires, article for Inside Story

The opportunity cost of destruction, extract from Economics in Two Lessons

Climate deniers are worse than antivaxers but get treated better, from my blog

Burning the surplus, from my blog

Mainstream media remains quiet on Scott Morrison’s untimely holiday from Independent Australia. As the worst of the disaster started to unfold, our appalling Prime Minister skived off to Hawaii for a luxury holiday, without telling anyone. Most of the media were happy to cover for him.

fn1. Instant social media reactions have their problems, but the academic alternative, endless rounds of refereeing, is far worse. I started work on this topic with a colleague Tyron Venn, in 2012, but it didn’t get past the referees until 2017, by which time the central point (the case for mandatory evacuation, rather than encouraging people to defend their homes against fire) was generally accepted. And the demand for a tight focus meant that the discussion of climate change, my original motivation for doing the project, was cut down to a single sentence. For anyone interested, here’s a link.