The nuclear option

Unsurprisingly, evidence that the Rudd government is serious about emissions trading has produced a new round of calls for the development of nuclear power in Australia. There is certainly a case to be made that an expansion of nuclear power should be part of the global response to climate change. But the latest chatter isn’t part of a serious response to the problem of climate change; rather it’s an attempt to duck the issues raised by an emissions trading scheme.

The crucial points to bear in mind are these

* Nuclear power will never be viable in Australia without a high price on carbon and a clear commitment that the price is going to remain high. So, there is no point in raising the nuclear option as a cover for opposing emissions trading

* There is no way that Australia is going to lead the rest of the developed world (in particular the US, but the same points apply to most of Europe and Japan) on this. The US is attempting to restart its nuclear industry on existing brownfield sites. This process started with the passage of new legislation in 2002 and, if all goes well, construction on the first plants might begin in 2010 and (very optimistically) be completed by 2014. Given our lack of any regulatory capacity, construction and management expertise and so on, we won’t even be able to get started before the US industry shows the way on new greenfield sites and produces a significant number of operating plants, say by 2020. With a fast paced program, we might get plants on line by 2030

* It follows that whether or not the Rudd government (or whoever is in government for the next 5 to 10 years) changes its policy on nuclear power will make no difference to anything of substance

74 thoughts on “The nuclear option

  1. Keep up the good work Daggett. Be assured that there is a huge groundswell of opinion from ordinary people that there are too many people in Australia and the rest of the world.

    Peter Beatty advocated 60 million for Aus and now Andrew Bartlett thinks 40 million! What is wrong with these people?

    I would like to see a completely open debate about population in Aus with all politicians stating publicly what they think is an acceptable, sustainable, ecologically friendly population to aim for and how they have arrived at that conclusion.

    This issue needs to be resolved before discussions on Australia’s future energy needs can be sensibly discussed. There is a huge conflict of interest between ordinary Australians and population growth advocates which is being glossed over like a bad marriage glosses over the big issues until it blows up into disaster.

  2. wilful Says: June 30th, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    God you sound like Gerard Henderson Strocchi. That is NOT a compliment. It’s effing tedious wading through your posturing over largely irrelevant, archaic or non-existent ideological differences. (And why can’t you spell a country’s name out?). Too much snark from you, drawing a snarky response from me.

    I apologise to the internet for my long-winded, tedious, vitriolic, self-righteous, pompous commentary. I am trying to cut down but its awfully hard to break old habits. I cant help it, its just the way my mother dressed me.

    I also apologise to Ian Gould for my spiteful and nasty retort to his baseless and scurrilous accusations. No doubt he has the same excuse.

  3. Jack,

    Could you do me the favour of at least directing your long winded arguments against the point I am actually making ?

    There is more than a tiny difference between quoting someone as saying “The problems of nuclear power� when they clearly mean “The problems of nuclear power in Australia�

    Instead of instantly wearing out keyboards and strawmen you could have slowed down, used your eyes more carefully and noticed that my point was quite neutral on nuclear power in general. Maybe then you would not be surprised when I say that I actually think France’s nuclear program is downright commendable and a very effective method of dealing with carbon emmissions. Of course an examination of the reasons for France’s success (massive scale, excellent engineering base, substantial experienced with large scale central government planning) make it immediately obvious why it would makes no sense in Australia (huge existing capacity of very low cost coal plants, almost zero nuclear engineering base, little potential for necessary scale, abundant renewable energy resource alternatives). As in other areas, importing French solutions and policies to Australia would not make any sense.

    We disagree on enough things that there is surely no need to invent extra points of contention.

  4. “Obviously the post-1990 accession of the, relatively low per-capita carbon emitting, former Warsaw pact countries has reduced the contemporary EU’s per capita carbon emission levels. This does not have anything to do with national demographic policy or practice per se. Its just an accident of History.”

    – Jack Strochhi

    “Yes Ian, it is as disingenuous to quote EU emissions falls due to cleaning up Warsaw Pact countries as it is to say the Howard Govt was on track with our obligations, due to the land clearing sleight of hand when our emissions have gone up 31% since 1990.”


    EU-15 (sic) population 1990 365 million; 2000 378; 2010 (projection) 384 million.

    “EU-15: Emissions of GHGs decreased by 1.5% between 1990 and 2005”

    Jack Strocchi is, as usual, talking nonsense.

    As is Observa.

    Had they taken approximately 30 seconds to conduct two google searches they might have saved themselves some small modicum of embarassment.

  5. Thank you Salient Green,

    After decades of suppression of open discussion of immigration, the old trick of hysterical denunciation of any critic of immigration as a racist and xenophobe doesn’t seem to carry as much weight as it once did, so there’s quite a lot more calm discussion of this question going on these days than there used to be. Another excellent discussion accompanied the article about this is Canadian Tim Murray‘s Is it reactionary to oppose immigration?.

    Unfortunately, we need to do a lot more than win the debate. Nearly every state government and the federal government are ignoring the evidence and continuing to push population growth as fast as possible with demonstrably disastrous consequences. See, for example, Melbourne 2008: Life in a destruction zone.

  6. Ian, check your reference-‘Table 1: Greenhouse gas emissions in CO2 equivalents (excluding carbon sinks) and Kyoto Protocol targets for 2008–12’ and have a look at the column for 1990-2005 percentage changes. Recognise the pattern? For Germany read East Germany too. Oh and Oz was on track with Howard under our Kyoto targets too so the experts tell me.

  7. Of course population is a problem. But do you recall the hysterical reactions to Tim Flannery when he very mildly suggested that an ideal population for Australia was perhaps in the order of 12 million? And he’s got TWO CHILDREN!!1!1!!

    It is completely fallacious and says more about the commenter than anything else to make splits along old ‘left-right’ divides about where various clumpings of political allegiances sit on immigration. There are old-style socialists who welcome the brotherhood of man, versus watermelon greens who dont want any resource extraction, versus big business capital that wants to grow their markets, versus old school conservatives that don’t like the funny brown people. Give up trying to fit this into outmoded boxes and conducting ad hominem attacks on other schools of political thought – start arguing on the relative merits. There are points both ways, and I am personally conflicted, as it is actually quite a complex matter with a lot of facets.

    There are a few simple points I know I’m on solid ground about: birth control (here and overseas) is good, and the catholic church is evil.

    Observa, as you well know, Australia’s ability to meet Kyoto targets is a fiction, based on a once-off rorting of the accounting rules, deliberately and maliciously inserted by Australia for our benefit, and agreed to by other participants because a) they were exhausted, and b) thought that by giving up on that then Australia would be a positive contributor.

    The actual emissions have gone entirely in the wrong direction.

  8. dagget,

    I’m interested in your argument. Do you think that there will be more environmental damage in the world if people move countries, or is it just a matter of protecting Australia?

  9. And to back Jack’s point about immigration into the EU and per capita emissions Ian-
    But let’s not go into mechanistic details here as I think we’ve heard all the arguments before somewhere. Sufficeth to say that if those new EU laws are successful at significant repatriation they may well lower the EU’s emissions overall, whilst raising their average, per capita emissions. A fervent green might even be very relaxed and comfortable about the overall global emissions outcome, albeit a bit too much fervour for some tastes perhaps? An excellent case example of what’s occurring at the margin, impacting those averages and totals, giving us all an insight into those lies, damned lies and statistics. The staple diet of economists no doubt. Some are born with tradeoffs, some achieve tradeoffs and some have tradeoffs thrust upon them!

  10. Given that most of the key components would be imported anyway, or would be built under the direction of foreign nuclear contractors, it’s not that much harder for Westinghouse or AREVA to build early reactors in Australia than it is to build them in France or the USA. Indeed, the first EPR is being built in Finland, not France. They’ve indeed had some issues with it, but TVO, the company that commissioned the thing in the first place, wants to build another.

    The regulatory infrastructure would be tough, but we’ve got several models we could borrow from. Furthermore, the regulatory infrastructure will take a similar amount of time to build whether we start now or in 2020. If we started now, we could surely have the regulatory infrastructure in place by 2015 or so. If we start in 2020, it’ll be say 2025 to have the regulatory infrastructure set up.

    Finally, there is a reasonable probability that small, factory-built nuclear reactors (the most likely is the South African PBMR design, but there are a number of VC-funded startups going around) might start appearing on the marketplace in the 2015-2018 timeframe. The construction schedule for these is in the order of months (weeks, in some cases), not years.

    Finally, have a look at the price of natural gas. If conservation and renewables work less well than hoped, there might be considerable pressure to speed up the process…

  11. On your overall points wilful, see my last comment. It’s certainly not meant to imply the economic mindset has any more useful input than the layman into the identification of costs and benefits, nor their respective weightings, but is rather useful in clarifying and identifying the tradeoffs. For the layman’s superior wisdom you’ll need a particular value set and that should be my traditional, conservative, Judeo-Christian one of course. I’m resigned to the fact that it’s no good getting up the economist when he points out some of them are a wee bit in conflict from time to time, despite their patently obvious superiority over johnny-come-lately alternatives.

  12. Observa, my essential points, which I think you will agree with, are that
    a) talking about opponents and proponents of immigration according to old ideological positions is entirely fruitless
    b) the impacts of immigration on local, national and world issues are too complex for (m)any simple declarations.

    The problems of this thread in relation to immigration is that people seem to be pushing their own tired ideologies, and suggesting the answers are simple or obvious.

    Now, as to nuclear, I still assert that the only objective objection will be cost (opportunity cost really, of non-built renewables). Anything else can be overcome if truly necessary (and I think ACC shows it will be truly necessary).

  13. wilful, for mine Jack’s point was we all need to be careful that migration doesn’t obscure the greater focus on per capita emissions and how to drive down the obviously high, whilst checking the march of the low. Noone should be able to hide behind rubbery figures or political sleights of hand on that score. Coming back to nuclear power, it would be nice if we could achieve lowering per capita emissions without resort to such man-made, long tailed waste problems. It may be impossible politically given the imperative now. That’s where I’m skeptical C&T across diverse jurisdictions can cut it. Too much prisoner dilemma stuff and rubbery figure pleading for mine, apart from the policing costs and foisting the inevitable, counterproductive carbon credit costs onto LDCs (a la ET and the like) With China and India exempted for now, the whole point of MDC C&T is supposed to be exemplary to get them to come on board later. If that’s the case why doesn’t Aust simply cut to the chase with it’s own exemplary model? I get the impression because it’s all too hard for their thinkers, movers and shakers now and simpler and easier to float along with the current and ignore the impending rapids. It’s a race now to see whether C&T can get a guernsey before the world economy collapses or hits serious stagflation. That’s the Govt’s probelem now as one economist points out-

    ‘IF an emissions trading scheme doesn’t hurt, it won’t work, economist Chris Richardson says.

    Mr Richardson, director of economic consultants Access Economics, said many people still did not get the concept of an emissions trading scheme and much of the pressure on politicians was wrong-headed.

    “The whole idea of carbon pricing is that if it doesn’t hurt it won’t work,” he told Canberra ABC radio today.

    “Essentially, prices, for example for petrol as well as a whole bunch of other things, have to go up in order to encourage us to be more careful with how much we use and in order to encourage business to come up with new ways of getting it to us in ways that don’t pump out greenhouse gases.”‘

    Too true which is why it will be nigh on impossible to tack on C&T to a faltering economy and faltering fast it is now. On the upside the coming crunch will facilitate some deeper introspection as to the shortcomings of our current economic settings to deal with real environmental issues. I’ll have more to say on that ideal CM blueprint in that regard. The next step is to address shares of the new green pie, no doubt made more poignant by the current shrinking one.

  14. Re nuclear: Some residents in Hunters Hill, Sydney, have an issue with contaminated soil from a small nuclear facility decommissioned years ago.
    Very productive soil in the Ukraine is, I understand, contaminated – not helpful regarding foodshortage, is it? The problem of ‘costing’ nuclear power is, IMHO, more difficult than dealing with CO2 (non-reversibility of production for a very long time).

    Re: “The whole idea of carbon pricing is that if it doesn’t hurt it won’t work,â€? Who or what “hurts”? Perhaps one could consider a simpler question: How will the RBA factor into its ‘inflation control model’ changes of prices of marketable commodities due to the internalisation of externalities? Alternatively put, does the notion of ‘inflation’ have to be reviewed, starting from first principle rather than from familiar empirical measurements.

  15. #54 Ian Gould Says:
    June 30th, 2008 at 9:42 pm

    Jack Strocchi is, as usual, talking nonsense. As is Observa.

    Had they taken approximately 30 seconds to conduct two google searches they might have saved themselves some small modicum of embarassment.

    I am embarassed alright, on behalf of Ian Gould. It is cringe-inducing watching a supposedly climate-caring advocate riddle his foot with self-inflicted wounds.

    Ian Gould cites the EU-15’s recent popn growth to “proveâ€? that you can have your popn boosting cake and sustainably eat it too. By that logic there is no problem to constraining climate change. The EU-15, and like-organized jurisdictions, just have to open their borders, breed like rabbits and – hey presto! – the GHGs will disappear.

    To be sure the EU-15 reduced its GHGs over the past decade or so. But its obvious that this occurred in spite, not because, of its immigrant-driven small rise in population.

    The drivers of EU-15’s relatively miserly GHG output over that period were one-off, probably unique and had nothing to do with high immigration. They got off the mark quicker than we did, got stuck into power generator conversions and enjoyed warmer winters. There is not a lot more of that low-hanging fruit left there to pick.

    Characteristically Ian Gould “overlooks� my key point: popn growth (whether native or adoptive) is a key, although not sole, driver of GHG emmissions. AUS’s popn grew from 17m in 1990 to 21m in 2008: that’s ~ 25%. Comparably, the EU-15 pop grew from 365m to 380m: that’s ~ 5%. So AUS’s popn growth was, by ratio for the period, five times greater than the EU-15.

    If you think that largely immigrant-driven growth did not make much difference to AUS’s extravagant GHG emmissions then I have a nice bridge spanning Sydney Harbour that you might be interested in buying.

    More generally Ian Gould’s implied notion that high population growth is, ceteris paribus, compatible with Stern-satisfying GHG emissions targets over the long run does not pass the laugh test. The PRC’s one child policy has constrained its popn by about 300m. This reduced PRC’s GHG emissions by 1.3 billion tons pa – close to a 5% reduction in global GHG emissions, compounding. At least the polar bears appreciate this, unlike some commenters.

    Meanwhile AUS will have to build one million more GHG-intensive houses to cope with the flood of post-mineral boom immigrants. The concrete industry is more carbon-intensive than any other, accounting for around 4% of global carbon emissions. So bring on the household-forming waves of immigrants, way to go to melt the polar ice caps!

    Just reading the papers might have “saved Ian Gould some small modicum of embarrassment�. OTOH, his intellectual problems appear to stem from a lack of common sense rather than a lack of information.

  16. Ian Gould Says: June 29th, 2008 at 4:37 pm

    the poor countries where the people are – according to Jack’s brilliant and totally neutral analysis of the science in question which we’re all too foolish and brainwashed to comprehend – [are] genetically inferior…You can tell them by them by their black or brown skins.

    More anthropological delusionism:

    “Genetically” superior, as any schoolboy Darwinist will tell you, is identical to fitness – the capacity of an indvidual organism to generate its offspring to maturity. By that measure those with the “black or browner skins” are showing their pale-skinned bretheren a clean pair of genetic heels.

    This is supposed to be an example of Ian Gould’s “brilliant and totally neutral analyst of the science in question”. Pity the poor Darwinists too “foolish and brainwashed to comprehend” their woeful ignorance.

  17. swio Says: June 30th, 2008 at 8:30 pm

    Jack, Could you do me the favour of at least directing your long winded arguments against the point I am actually making ?

    There is more than a tiny difference between quoting someone as saying “The problems of nuclear power� when they clearly mean “The problems of nuclear power in Australia�

    As in other areas, importing French solutions and policies to Australia would not make any sense.

    Okay, sorry – my logical bad.

    But I am not convinced that AUS’s nuclear conversion problems are so insurmountable. When the French had their first energy crisis they could have scribbled out an equally long shopping list of reasons to sit on their hands. Instead they just did it.

    I can write out a shopping lists that give reasons to be cheerful. We have the benefit of their experience. We have piles of uranium in our own back-yard. National teamwork is a characteristic of the ordinary folk (as the Snowy Mountains and Sydney Olympics proved). Its mainly the elites who want to create political obstacles.

    Our major real obstacle is the lack of nuclear engineering talent. Perhaps we can convince some of those high-IQ Chinese students who so enjoy their scholarly stays under AUS’s sparkling blue skies to stick around, specialise in nuclear techhiness and score a permanent residency.

    I dont see why we have to wait a decade tinkering with regulatory regimes. Greenies are forever warning us that it is “five minutes to midnight” for the earth’s climate. But the prospect of nukes makes seems to make them go all “mañana”.

  18. # 60 Robert Merkel Says: July 1st, 2008 at 10:17 am

    The regulatory infrastructure would be tough, but we’ve got several models we could borrow from. Furthermore, the regulatory infrastructure will take a similar amount of time to build whether we start now or in 2020. If we started now, we could surely have the regulatory infrastructure in place by 2015 or so. If we start in 2020, it’ll be say 2025 to have the regulatory infrastructure set up.

    Its depressing to admit but Robert Merkel’s droll summary of the bureaucratic obstacle course is probably not far off the mark, given the prevaling liberal mindset, plague of lawyers and generally “can’t do” attitude.

    Twas not always thus. Steve Sailer recalls a moment in history when impending threat created a sense of urgency and a “can do” attitude:

    On May 28, 1942, the U.S.S. Yorktown aircraft carrier, badly damaged at the Battle of the Coral Sea, squeezed into a Pearl Harbor dry dock needing an estimated 90 days of repair. But with four Japanese carriers steaming toward Midway Island, 1400 repairman swarmed over her, using so much electricity that Honolulu had to be partially blacked out. Two days later, the Yorktown sailed off to the decisive battle of the War in the Pacific.

    And it need not be now. Underlying the kind of large-scale teamwork needed to overcome collective adversity is, yes you guessed it, national unity. THat is one reason why the French were able to mobilise their population to go nuke.

    In the abstract its easy to see why all people should just recognise plain facts and get with the program. But try telling that to political operators otherwise keen on magnifying social differences (“celebrating diversity”).

    Fortunately that push’s power is waning.

  19. Australia’s has committed to reducing CO2 to 60% of present levels, not per capita but absolutely. This makes it a more or less zero sum game within Australia. Most people are instinctively hostile to the idea of mass immigration, unless it can be argued that it will make the pie bigger for everyone, which it sometimes can. As soon as the most important political and economic game in town becomes zero sum, it will be much harder to convince people that immigration is a good thing.

    The question then is whether the 60% commitment was sensible. Mother Nature does not care at all about pollution per capita – only about total load. So it makes no sense to impose a per capita limit. However, if Australia is going to allow immigration then it seems unfair to penalise us. A fair system would commit us to decreasing our emissions not absolutely but rather scaled to an estimated population sans immigration.

    I believe that Rudd should withdraw from his 60% commitment for this reason, and insist on some version of the commitment I have just outlined. Otherwise, with 300,000 extra people per year we really have no chance at all of making the target. He is really painting himself into a corner,.

  20. In my view, the likely outcome of international negotations is going to be convergence on a common per capita limit, which will solve the problem discussed above.

  21. Today’s Crikey on population:

    There are some 250,000 foreigners studying at Australian tertiary institutions and two-thirds of them don’t want to be.

    Don’t want to be foreign, that is. According to a Graduate Careers Australia survey of more than 30,000 domestic and international students, 65 per cent of foreigners intend applying for permanent residence. Only 26 per cent intend to return home with the remainder intending to live in other countries.

    Says GCA executive director Cindy Tilbrook: “With the current skills shortage in some areas, many recruiters are taking an increasing interest in graduating international students.”

    Enter the 485 visa, hot on the heels of the 475. There’s also the 476 visa for graduates with specified desirable skills, but it was the 485 that was slipped into the effective guest worker options in last year’s federal budget papers without any indication of possible numbers.

    The 485 allows any graduate from an Australian tertiary institution unrestricted employment and study rights for 18 months. It’s also an excellent opportunity to acquire the required “120 points” to qualify for permanent residency although that’s not a straight-forward business, as indicated in this National Liaison Committee for International Students in Australia story.


    The 485 visa initiative looks like a useful tool for helping ease Australia’s skills shortage and chronic under-investment in education, but along with the 475 “guest worker” visa, it’s another way of fudging gross immigration numbers.

    We were being conservative when we were the first to suggest Australia was looking at gross immigration of some 300,000 this financial year. The official government numbers don’t count New Zealanders, 475, 476 or 485 visa holders — though they all have to live, eat, drink and travel while they’re here.

    The official net permanent migration number is expected to grow by 37,500 this year and it’s easy to forecast that the rapidly-slowing New Zealand economy will see a jump in those crossing the ditch as well.

    Crikey is no home of xenophobes and flat earthers — we leave that to the Greens, Hansonites and fellow travellers who would like to freeze our population and economy — but greater transparency about the enormous strains being put on our infrastructure by population growth (permanent, semi-permanent and wannabe permanent) just might help focus our various dysfunctional governments on the size of the task.

  22. re: immigration
    Not being in Oz, I have no horse in this race, but as an outsider fond of the place:

    a) “Attract skilled foreigners” can be a nice strategy; we do that in CA and Silicon valley especially, and inward brain-drain is handy.

    b) I am curious though: I haven’t seen immigration & water together. Are you folks OK on water now? Do you expect to be in the future? Does anyone have a good model for the carrying capacity?

  23. No we’re very much not OK on water, though there are a lot of possible reforms still to come through the system. Basically it’s the dairy industry, plus cotton growers and a variety of horticulture. Residential/urban water will make it through OK.

    No one has more than guesses about carrying capacity. Particularly since most of our impacts are offshore.

  24. I agree that a calm, well informed, rational and science-based evaluation of nuclear power is needed, and I, personally, expect that if this were ever done, and all the costs, benefits, risks and alternatives were fully evaluated, we would embrace the nuclear energy option.

    Of course, there’s the argument that “Nuclear power will never be viable in Australia without a high price on carbon and a clear commitment that the price is going to remain high.”

    But what does that mean? Nuclear energy is indeed more expensive than burning cheap abundant Australian coal and spewing the enormous quantities of dangerous coal waste straight into the atmosphere.

    Nuclear energy is more expensive than coal – if that’s what it economically non competitive in the absence of ETS means, then nuclear is not competitive in the absence of ETS.

    But there is nothing else that is economically competitive, either – it’s all more expensive than pollution-intensive coal generation, and in the case of most proposals for solar photovoltaics, solar thermal, etc, it’s considerably more expensive than nuclear energy for the same unit of energy generated.

    As for the argument about water use at nuclear power plant, I don’t believe it’s a compelling argument.

    All thermal power plants dissipate waste heat – they must, as per the laws of thermodynamics. Geothermal, solar thermal, nuclear, coal-fired – it does not matter! For the same thermodynamic efficiency, and the same power output, the cooling requirements of any Rankine-cycle power plant are essentially the same. We can replace a coal-fired power plant with a nuclear power plant, and the water use for the plant’s heatsink will hardly change much.

    “Nuclear fuel and nuclear waste *are* dangerous to transport.”

    No, they’re not! Nobody has ever been harmed, to my knowledge, by nuclear fuel being transported, anywhere in the world, ever! (I’m willing to see anybody disprove me by counterexample.)

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