Time to go nuclear ?

My column in yesterday’s Fin was about the option of nuclear energy as a solution to the problem of climate change, an issue that’s been discussed a few times here already. One point I didn’t make is that the availability of nuclear-generated electricity as a ‘backstop’ technology puts an upper bound on the costs of a strategy that would reduce CO2 emissions enough to stabilise atmospheric concentrations (this is much more than Kyoto which aims only to stabilise emissions from developed countries, as a first step to a solution).

There’s lots more on global warming over at Troppo Armadillo, with a lengthy comments thread raising some interesting points.

Nuclear option premature

With the Kyoto protocol in force, and evidence of rapid climate change mounting up day by day, it’s not surprising that there has been renewed interest in nuclear energy as a source of electricity, free of emissions of greenhouse gases. What’s surprising is that so many of the participants in the debate seem to be restating positions that have been frozen in time for twenty years or more.

The debate over uranium mining provides an example. Labor’s ‘three mines’ policy was a grubby internal compromise reached in the early 1980s. It owed a lot to the interaction between geographical and factional alignments and almost nothing to a rational evaluation of the issues. It made no sense even at the time, yet it is still defended by some as an appropriate policy for the future.

The central reasoning underlying the anti-uranium campaign was rendered obsolete by the late 1970s. It was assumed that nuclear power was set for rapid growth, and that restricting the supply of uranium was the best way of constraining that growth. Meanwhile, nuclear proponents were looking at ‘fast-breeder’ reactors that would generate their own plutonium and thereby avoid the uranium shortage.

But the stagnation of nuclear power after the Three Mile Island accident meant that the shortage of uranium never developed. Releases from military stockpiles after the end of the Cold War have ensured a continuing supply. The availability of uranium is not a constraint on nuclear power and is unlikely to become one. Restrictive Australian policy might raise the world price, but that would merely benefit other suppliers at our expense. Similarly, the fast breeder reactor is commercially dead. France pulled the plug on its Superphenix reactor in the late 1990s, and Japan’s Monju has been mothballed for a decade.

If the opponents of nuclear power seem stuck in the 1980s, many of the supporters seem to back in the 1950s, still selling a dream of limitless clean power, ‘too cheap to meter’, and obstructed only by baseless fears. If the experience of the past thirty years has taught us anything, it’s that this dream is illusory.

Nuclear power can be clean (at least compared to the main alternatives), it can be safe and it can be cheap, but it apparently can’t be all three at once. In the aftermath of the Three Mile Island meltdown, it was pointed out by some that no-one had died, and it was suggested that nuclear power was being held to excessively tight safety standards, compared to those prevailing in the Soviet Union, which was forging ahead while nuclear energy stalled in the West. The Chernobyl disaster put paid to that claim.

In the ensuing decades, there have been repeated claims that the problems have been solved and that the stage is set for a renaissance of nuclear power. There has been much less in the way of concrete achievement.

It is hard to assess the costs of nuclear power because of its long stagnation. Large-scale construction has mostly been undertaken in countries where nuclear power attracts government subsidies, usually linked to military objectives, as in France. The main issue relates to capital costs. With the low interest rates prevailing currently, nuclear power looks marginally competitive with fossil fuels, but a complete analysis, including a proper allowance for waste disposal, would almost certainly yield substantially higher costs.

It would be foolish to foreclose any options, but a return to nuclear power looks premature at this stage. There are lots of conservation options, and alternative strategies such as tree planting, that could yield savings in emissions at significantly lower cost. Only when these options are exhausted would an expansion of nuclear power make sense.

In the meantime, it would be helpful if advocates of nuclear power could clarify their own position regarding climate change. While many are happy to score points against environmentalists by pointing to nuclear power as a solution to climate change, a surprisingly large number simultaneously push the claims of the handful of scientists (mostly not experts in the field, and many with glaring conflicts of interest) who deny the reality of human-caused climate change.

Not only does this undermine the case for re-examining the nuclear option, it undermines the credibility of its advocates. If an individual or lobby group disregards the massive body of evidence on climate change, often on the basis of a predetermined political or interest-group agenda, what reliance can be based on their claims about the safety and cost-efficiency of nuclear power?

John Quiggin is an ARC Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.

39 thoughts on “Time to go nuclear ?

  1. I checked the Joskow study (which is available online) and their conclusions seem more cautious than those stated. The up to 60% figure describes costs in the absence of carbon emission costs. Quote “Carbon emission credits can give nuclear a cost advantage’ and this indeed is the main reason Joskow et al seek nuclear as an important option to retain. Important because it can meet electricity needs with CO2 costs.

    On waste disposal they are cautious but state “We concur with the many independent expert reviews that have concluded that geologic respositories will be capable of safely isolating the waste from the biosphere”.

    One interesting feature of the Joskow et al study is that it was completed in 2003 using data up to 2002. Since then uranium prices have more than doubled. Hard to reconcile the Jaskow et al study’s claims that ‘currently the nuclear industry faces stagnation and decline’ with current price trends and with the almost daily news reports of governments reexaming the nuclear option e.g. in Britain, Tony Blair sees this as a solution.

  2. Some brief responses:

    Conservation is great, but can we conserve as much as we need to quickly enough? I doubt it.

    A request for renewables advocates; if the nuclear power people have to factor in waste disposal, can they factor in the cost of having an alternative plant or energy storage sitting on standby when the wind ain’t blowing and the sun ain’t shining. This is not so bad when renewables make up only a small part of the grid, but it’s a showstopper when the grid is full. There are *no* energy storage technologies available that would allow us to use “non-firm” energy sources to replace existing generators.

    Regarding the cost of uranium, one thing that has to be kept in mind is that the cost of uranium is a very small percentage of the cost of running plants.

    As far as the Joskow study goes, the nuclear industry claims lower construction costs than the estimated 2000 USD per megawatt are feasible:

    http://www.uic.com.au/nip16.htm

    Another interesting thing to keep in mind is that while high-level waste remains radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years, the level of radiation emitted decreases quite quickly. See the decay graph on this page (again, an industry advocacy site):

    http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf60.htm

    According to the page, after about 40 years the level of emissions has been reduced by a factor of 1000 or so, and it keeps decreasing. After 1000 years, the level is not much higher than the original ore. This stuff gets much, much less dangerous as time goes on. The nuclear reactors of the Roman Empire wouldn’t be dangerous any more.

  3. Good point about a backup generator when the wind/sun ain’t blowin’/shinin’.
    Tas Hydro can turn off their Bass gas powerplant now the dams are filling up.

    Pronukes tend to be a bit more honest about life cycle costs and failure probabilities. The tree planting lobby tends to gloss over inconvenient facts such as the forest dying after 100 years, rotting back to CO2 and having to be replanted. No mention of the forest succumbing to drought or fire, running out of suitable soil or being guarded by future generations.

  4. Sorry to post so voluminously, but there are have been so many points raised and I’m hoping I’m being informative. Anyway, some more points to consider:

    Purely in terms of health effects, Chernobyl is simply not that bad – the real costs have been economic and social. 28 people died in the immediate aftermath. A lot of kids have gotten thyroid cancer; this is bad, but thyroid cancer is thankfully very treatable and very few people die from it. Beyond that, it’s hard to find a rise in any disease attributable to radiation release. See the UNSCEAR reports on the subject:

    http://www.unscear.org/chernobyl.html

    Keep in perspective that some reasonable estimates have 20,000 Americans (sorry, but they’re the most readily available statistics) dying prematurely each year from coal pollution, about half as many as die from car accidents. Better pollution controls should knock this back to about 2000, still more people dying every month than Chernobyl has killed.

    As to the cost estimates, the key factor is that $2000 USD per kilowatt figure for construction costs. Read Appendix 5 of the MIT study, and you’ll note that the industry claims that new reactor designs should be well under that. If they’re true, nuclear starts to get much, much closer to fossil fuel costs. But until somebody starts actually talking real deals with Westinghouse or the other reactor makers, who knows how serious those estimates are…

  5. Nuclear debate at Troppo and in Age op-eds…

    Troppo has a discussion nuclear power for a future Brendan Nelson-led Liberal Party. The information content is pretty low; it seems that the general knowledge of nuclear

  6. Robert – “Conservation is great, but can we conserve as much as we need to quickly enough? I doubt it.”

    How long does it take to replace the incandescent lights in your house with compact flouros? This simple measure can save massive amounts of power. How long would you run your air-conditioner if the power it used was 50cents per kWhr? Again this would take long to implement. Solar panels on a house can be up and running in weeks. All it takes is political will and correct subsidies and taxes.

    There is storage available – batteries. We just need to make people buy them for the utilities by disguising them as personal transport. Modern electric AC drives convert the DC battery supply into AC current to drive the vastly more efficient AC electric motors that all advanced electric cars use. THe power demands of a car (40 or 50 Kw) dwarf the peak requirements of a house (about 4 or 5 Kw) so the cars inverter can supply a house without even getting hot. As the cars are plugged into the grid then they can communicate with it and supply power when needed and store power when there is a surplus. The other huge advantage of this is that we solve 2 problems with one solution. With huge amounts of hybrid and electric cars we are finished with oil imports. Base load can always be generated by renewably produced and locally stored natural gas or hydrogen.

    What people do not realise is that we already have the massive backup generator effect already in operation. We pay tarrifs based on maintaining generating capacity to the peak value. This peak value is only achieved on rare occasions so most of the time the generators are idling. It has been found that renewable power’s peaks and troughs follow peak power demand very closely. Also as it is unlikely to be rainy and still in Brisbane at the same time as Mildura or Melbourne or Geraldton or Perth then the problem of storage becomes less of a problem when the generating sites are dispersed.

    Finally if you really believe that the nuclear power lobby’s claims about waste then there will be no problems. I am sure then we can have a nuclear waste dump in Turramurra, Sydney (the middle of Brendan Nelson’s electorate). If the waste is safe in 40 years the you will have no problem with having it in your backyard instead of some remote site that does not have enough influential voters in it to scream blue murder. Again the nuclear lobby is telling a few porkies here. It is true that some of the waste has short half lives and would be safe in a few years however there are elements like plutonium and Uranium 235 that make up a small but significant pertion of spent fuel especially when it it bred to increase the uranium supply.

    Here is link to a chemical text book. As it is not sponsored by either the pro or anti nuclear lobby then you can regard it as accurate.

    http://www.ieer.org/fctsheet/pu-props.html

    “All isotopes of plutonium are radioactive, but they have widely varying half-lives. The half-life is the time it takes for half the atoms of an element to decay. For instance, plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24, 110 years while plutonium-241 has a half-life of 14.4 years. The various isotopes also have different principal decay modes. The isotopes present in commercial or military plutonium-239 are plutonium-240, -241, and -242. Table 2 shows a summary of the radiological properties of five plutonium isotopes.

    The isotopes of plutonium that are relevant to the nuclear and commercial industries decay by the emission of alpha particles, beta particles, or spontaneous fission. Gamma radiation, which is penetrating electromagnetic radiation, is often associated with alpha and beta decays. ”

    So you can see that it can be dangerous for many many years – far longer than we can store it for.

  7. Ender:

    If you are worried about peak oil, you should also be worried about peak gas…which means that gas power will likely get more and more expensive as time goes on.

    Where the hell are you going to build your wind generators? Wind generation is only cost-competitive in windy places. However, wind farms in windy places (cliffs along the coastline) tend to be highly unpopular with the locals, for good reason. I don’t like your odds of building enough actually meet energy demands.

    Solar cells are not cost-competitive even with carbon taxes, unless they get much cheaper. Maybe the solar tower in Mildura will be.

    Yes, you need backup generators for fossil fuel plants, but you need a lot more for solar or wind. If you look at the UK report, they factor in a 25% overhead for standby generation. You will also note that it’s completely irrelevant at the moment what the weather’s doing in Geraldton as far as the eastern grid is concerned, as there’s no interconnect. Sending power that far is highly inefficient anyway.

    I think your vision of pluggable hybrids providing energy storage is in theory very interesting; it would make electricity much cheaper, regardless of what generation method was used, but would be particularly advantageous for renewables. I have some concerns; peak availability would be during the day when everybody’s car is at work (so unless employers make charging available during the day there’s nowhere to store all that surplus energy), and peak electricity demand is generally immediately after everyone drives home from work; I am curious as to how much surplus capacity would be available. My biggest objection, however, is the timeline for such a system.

    Finally, you’re quite correct that nuclear waste *does* contain long-lived radioactive products. However, long-lived radioisotopes are long-lived because the rate of decay is very slow. They may still be around thousands of years from now, but that doesn’t make them particularly dangerous.

  8. Robert – coal mines are pretty ugly places too however they tend to be in areas that people do not live in so they do not know how bad they really are. Cliffs along coastlines are not the only place wind generators can be installed. There are many inland windy sites. Also people who object to wind generators can be given a choice. Either they have the wind turbine or they get no power. It is amazing to me that people can just use inefficient and power hungy appliances without taking any responsibility for the environmental cost of generating that power. A wind turbine where you live places this stark relief. Up until now people have been able to pollute far away places where the ugliness of power generation is hidden from view.

    We now have the possibilty of placing power generation in peoples faces and force them to accept compromise instead of just hiding the problem. I personally do not find wind generators ugly. If a developer want to build a huge ugly building in a pristine location then as long as local jobs are created and someone influential in the town benefits this usually goes ahead. For some reason when wind turbines get mentioned usually non-environmental people suddenly develop a keen interest in the environment and become passionate about bird survival. The fact that the house they built was stridently objected to by the ‘real’ locals for exactly the same reason seems to pass them by. And in case you think I do not know what I am talking about I grew up in Byron Bay where it went from a tiny sleepy country town to what it is today – a yuppie mecca. I would never live there now. Some of the ‘locals’ that you speak of are only weekend locals.

    I would include subsidies so that all cars are plugged in at work or at home. It would not be a huge task to outfit parking bays with power points. Nothing else is needed as the required communication would be over the power lines.

    Low level irradiation over a long time is just as damaging as high level for a short time. If you do not know the material is there then you will not take any precautions. Just look up radon gas in houses for more information about this.

  9. If energy use has to be cut severely in the future then people who remember current lifestyles will be highly discontented. It’s one thing to take the bus knowing you have a car at home to taking the bus when that’s all you can do. If you accept that renewables can only partially replace fossil fuels in coming decades this means that people will be practicing reluctant conservation or effective rationing such as rationing via wealth. I think people know that energy sources are not problem free eg they don’t turn off the TV powered by the coal grid because there is a news item on melting glaciers. That’s why when energy belt tightening becomes unprecedented since WW2 they will soften on nuclear plants, so long as they are not built in the next suburb. This is only the start of the debate.

  10. I agree with JQ in the sense that Australia has very little motivation to consider nuclear energy for a long time. That motivation would probably come only from future Kyoto-type arrangements that Australia decided to agree to.

    It will be interesting to see how Australia and the rest of the world react when it becomes clear that big reductions in carbon emissions will be required to avoid major environmental effects. If it starts costing people a lot of money, there will be a big incentive to find excuses to avoid it. e.g. why should some average emitting country agree to costly emission reductions while countries like the USA and Australia are still emitting far more than average to support their high consumption lifestyles? Humanity will be in a classic Tragedy of the Commons situation that affects the entire world. This could be one of humanity’s greatest challenges.

    One point about the nuclear waste issue, I haven’t noticed anyone mention any industry website that answers the usual questions about the hazards of storing nuclear waste. I’m not in charge of what anyone believes apart from myself but you can see what they say about the Yucca mountain project at http://www.nei.org/index.asp?catnum=2&catid=197. The planned construction start date is 2008/9.

  11. Hermit: “If energy use has to be cut severely in the future then people who remember current lifestyles will be highly discontented.”

    The Japanese currently use about one quarter as much energy per capita as do the average American. The average western European uses about half as much and even Australians and Canadians use about 10% less.

    I don’t see much evidence that the inhabitants of those countries are “highly discontented” as a result.

  12. Totally agree Ian. There is a persistant idea that for the US to reduce energy use is somehow against the American way of life and a restriction of their civil liberties. We can drastically cut power use without a reduction in lifestyle.

    If we are prepared to go a bit further smaller houses, smaller cars etc can reduce energy use even more

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