For the record

Another quick post on nuclear power, probably the last for a while. Most of my discussion about nuclear power has been on the question of whether expansion of nuclear power is, or is likely to be, a cost-effective way of reducing CO2 emissions. The answer, as revealed by the failure of the heavily subsidised “nuclear renaissance” in the US, is “no”. But, for the existing (mostly Generation II, see over fold) plants, there’s a separate question – does it make sense to close them down early, or, alternatively to seek to extend their lives.

Since this issue comes up a lot, I thought I would state my position clearly. Nuclear power is an almost exact substitute for coal, has no CO2 emissions and (except where particular vulnerabilities have been demonstrated) comparable or lower health and safety risks (these numbers can be played with in various ways). The marginal cost of generating power from existing plants is low. Problems like waste disposal will have to be addressed anyway, and a few more reactor-years worth won’t make much difference.

So, except where there are particular vulnerabilities that are too costly to repair, I favor keeping existing plants open as long as they can be kept in good repair.

A quick typology of nuclear plants (cribbed from Wikipedia, where you can get more detail if you want)

Generation I refers to the first experimental plants, now all retired
Generation II refers to designs from the mid-60s to about 1990. Nearly all operational nuclear plants, including some now being completed after long delays, are in this class
Generation III refers to designs with improved safety features and other advances, developed from 1990 to the early 2000s. Virtually none of these were built
Generation III+ refers to the current state of the art for plants now being built. In practice, the Westinghouse AP-1000 is the only serious contender (some prospect of 20+ being built)
Generation IV refers to hoped-for future evolutions on this path

Finally, there are various vaporware proposals, such as thorium reactors, the Integral Fast Reactor, small modular reactors and so on. None of these has got past the prototype stage, and most not even that far.

44 thoughts on “For the record

  1. I agree that plants that pass stringent safety checks shouldn’t be closed down. This is not because nuclear plants are economic to run, if they had to pay the full cost of their insurance I’m certain they would be shut down, but because they are competing with fossil fuels that do not have to pay to remove the greenhouse gases they emit from the atmosphere or for negative health effects they cause.

    Looking at the potential cost of a nuclear disaster in Germany it looks as though it makes economic sense for them to close down all or most of their reactors, but I’m confident it would make a lot more economic sense for them to close down their coal power plants first, as on a large scale it may cost over $300 a tonne to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

  2. @Ronald Brak

    Agreed. If all coal plants had already been closed, the case for keeping nuclear plants open would be very weak. But, until then, closing coal plants is better than closing nuclear.

  3. Meaningless tirade deleted. Unless you have something substantive to say, please don’t comment further on this thread

  4. Germany and Japan illustrate the excruciating difficulties of mothballing a key component of the generating mix. Despite pledges to reduce emissions they have now compromised themselves with increased fossil fuel burning.

    Looking ahead at the likely inroads wind and solar can make on emissions we now see that the public won’t accept ongoing power price increases. Wrongly or rightly the energy companies used the lead up to carbon tax as a smokescreen for network gold plating. Now I doubt the public would accept much more nor would they accept the long build times of Gen 3+ nuclear. The billions in capex that could solve our hospital problems would become a focal point for resentment when all that cheap coal is available.

    Therefore for nuclear virgins like Australia I suspect it will be prefabricated mini nukes (SMRs) or nothing. They won’t be available til the 2020s. In the meanwhile we will get $2.50 a litre petrol along with devastating fires, floods and droughts. Post 2050 when there are 40m of us (or whatever) gas and oil will be gone and coal will be demonised like asbestos. Something like thorium or the integral fast reactor will have to step up. We’ll need desalination, summer air conditioning as a public health issue and electric transport. I don’t see palatable alternatives.

  5. Thanks John. A good topic provided all can be civilised! Some observations relating to ‘sustainable development’ and economics –

    * Influential interests seem to be pushing the nuclear power renaissance here in Australia. A suggestion is that it be marketed under the banner of ‘sustainable power’.

    * The Thorium push is fascinating since it reemerged in the UK a few years back. I assume this reflects the economic problem that high grade U235 resources are very limited so in the long term plan the move must be some form of Plutonium or U233 breeder / ‘fast’ reactor. Thorium breeders are being pushed I understand because notionally they are a bit more proliferation resistant and dont produce as many troublesome long lived transuranics which isnt doing the economics of nuclear power much good currently. Still costs arent clear. The following is a widely distributed recent introduction: Hargraves, R., Moir, R., 2010. Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors. American Scientist 98, 304-313.

    * A driver which could over-ride economics is ‘security’. A colleague told me that while we almost had a power plant in the 1960s with weapons support in mind Billy McMahon decided the economics of this dream were dubious and shut the works down (the foundations can still be seen at Jervis Bay).

    * A question I seldom see addressed by nuclear proponents is how many of these plants do they envsage assuming complete decarbonisation of the economy and who would be the lucky communities? Currently Australia’s primary energy use is about 200 GW which suggests about 200 one GWe nuclear power stations not counting downtime and contingencies. This is about 55% of the current global installed capacity and about twice the current US stock. Typically they need to be sited close to coolant water. All of which suggests an interesting impact on coastal real estate prices!

  6. Chris Warren :
    Meaningless tirade deleted. Unless you have something substantive to say, please don’t comment further on this thread

    You have over reacted.

    The points should stand.

    It is how the real world operates.

    To the extent that this blog is part of the real world, it is not. Nothing more on this thread, please – JQ

  7. i think nuclear waste can be used to make dirty bombs so it needs to be kept safe for tens of thousands of years . there is no chance of political and military stability over that time scale to achieve safe storage . to me that rules out the nuclear option. one hope may be that there is work under way to make reactors that can run on this waste .
    also i dont like it because nuclear power is a mega business solution not one that puts power back into peoples hands (like solar , wind , water tanks and vegie gardens etc do)

  8. @Ronald Brak
    I can see the logic here, apart from a quibble with the last bit. My objection to this is that while it may be well take $300 to remove a tonne of CO2 from the atmosphere, it doesn’t take $300 to ensure that some other tonne never gets in to the atmosphere in the first place. Since to me these two things are equivalent, surely it’s reasonable to just take the cheapest currently available abatement instrument as the cost.

  9. It’s a wicked problem isn’t it?

    ‘”Wicked problem” is a phrase originally used in social planning to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The term ‘wicked’ is used, not in the sense of evil but rather its resistance to resolution. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.’ – Wikipedia.

    We are now at the point where our problems appear “difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements”. Complex interdependencies also constitute a kind of Gordian knot at the centre of our dilemmas.

    Ideological and even “tribal” resistance to nuclear power (mine included) have functioned alongside more objective and reasoned rejection of nuclear power. Now, we face the possibility that nuclear power may be a (partial?) way out of the climate warming trap.

    However, I would reaffirm my objection to nuclear power in the following terms;

    1. It is militarisable and many orders of magnitude more dangerous than almost any other militarisable threat. (Biological and nano technology warfare may be as dangerous.)
    2. The nuclear accidents problem has not been solved.
    3. The waste problem has not been solved.
    4. Fission fuel is exhaustible (not renewable) and for fissile uranium peak uranium is near.
    5. It does not appear economic when full insurance, risk management and waste management costs are included.

    Finally, we should reduce energy use and consumer greed for junk (much of our culture is just consumerist junk) before we run to nuclear power. This last point is important. Why do we assume our profligate consumerist society must be non-negotiable when it is wrecking the biosphere?

  10. What I didn’t fully highlight in my post above, is the possibility that we could “cut the Gordian knot” of our dilemmas by jettisoning excessive consumerist capitalism.

    We seem to simply assume that all our power “needs” (and other production “needs”) must continue to be met by whatever means possible.

    The alternative is to recognise that we need to power down our society and drop its material production to some considerable extent. Elimination of wastefulness would also play a role. For example, Western nations could clearly survive comfortably on half their current food consumption (including wasted food as consumption). We could clearly survive comfortably with half the cars and better public transport, walking and bicycles. We could clearly survive comfortably with half the electricty consumption, half the whitegoods and so on.

    Concurrent with this we would have to increase the amount of physical and social (health, welfare, education) labour performed in our society.

  11. Hopes for reduced energy consumption are being dashed by 1.6% population growth and big biz constantly telling us we need more and bigger stuff. Exemplified by Coke and Schweppes calling the cops on those protesting the blocking of drink container deposit legislation in the NT.

    The bar may be rising even for frugal energy demand. If Australia’s major cities are going to hit 50C in summer then air conditioning is a necessity not a luxury. Oh wait coal exports will pay for it. A looming shortage of capital doesn’t only apply to nuclear construction. I don’t see a mortgage stressed night shift worker finding $60k to buy a Holden Volt even if solar panels provide some of the traction. I think we have to lower our expectations all round.

  12. see for A Comparison of Government Regulation of Risk in the Financial Services and Nuclear Power Industries By John B. Taylor and Frank A. Wolak 2013

    1. Both sectors are heavily regulated, both are susceptible to regulatory capture.

    2. the safety record in the nuclear power sector is better than the record in financial services in United States, as evidenced by the recent severe financial crisis and the lack of
    a major nuclear incident since Three Mile Island.

  13. reduced consumption alone could get our footprint down enough . so much waste about .
    my car is net worth zero $ and helps me contribute the same to our nations productivity as if i drove a new 100 000 $ car evary year .
    it is known that ,above meeting basic needs , extra wealth does not add proportionally (or perhaps at all ) to happiness . most know this intuitively – gina is not 1000s of times happier than me . health, human interaction , connectedness , community , expierience of the natural world , and , relations with non- human animals are what matter .
    neoliberal social policy needs to be called out for what it is – not allowed to happen as if it is a natural apriori human condition . greed is not good , selfishness is not a virtue , compassion is not weakness , cooperation is as natural as competition .
    when you challenge these assumptions people say you are ‘being political’ as if saying nothing is not . we need to call it what it is – a neolib social engineering program . throw it back at them in their own terms – their laws are reducing our freedom .

  14. “Problems like waste disposal will have to be addressed anyway, and a few more reactor-years worth won’t make much difference.”

    John, I don’t disagree with your position overall, but I do think you’re understating the problem of waste disposal. If every Gen II reactor in the US is allowed to run until it’s retired (2035-2050), US nuclear waste will double from 70,000 tonnes to 140,000 tonnes. A problem with no solution becomes twice the problem with no solution.

    There is currently $18 billion held in the disposal contribution fund. All of this will be clawed back by the plant operators by 2020, via lawsuits against the government. The operators will profit from receiving that money, and the government will be left at square one. It will take until 2040 to restore to what it is now, and legislation has already decoupled the fund from being required to be used exclusively for permanent disposal. There appears no reason operators won’t simply continue to claw back their contributions by charging exorbitant rates for interim storage. A colossal waste of money x at least 2 – with still no end solution in sight by 2050…

    That said – I don’t expect many governments around the world to prematurely terminate their nuclear programs (I expect renewables markets will do that for them long before 2050), and to the extent that they don’t – yes, that will aid against climate change in the short to medium term.

    My position is simply that Australia would be foolish in the extreme to begin treading down such a monumentally failed path at this late stage of the game.

    The real issue in the end is not cost. It is time. For many reasons – not the least that it is quite simply not mass-producible – nuclear energy has proven far too slow to implement. At its peak in the 70s-80s, it installed maybe 150GW a decade worldwide. It would be lucky now to manage 20GW.

    By contrast, there were at least 100GW of solar energy and 200GW of wind energy installed this last decade. At a third capacity factor, solar and wind are already close to matching nuclear in its industrial peak, and even without storage available, they are outpacing current nuclear by 5 to 1.

    Or to put it another way – if the world continues to install solar and wind at the rate it did in 2011, with no further growth – we would see an additional 750GW brought online in the next decade. At a third capacity factor, that is close to double the install rate nuclear ever achieved in its lifetime.

  15. @Nick
    According to Wikipedia France constructed 56 reactors 1973-1988. No doubt they were heavily public funded but so was our Snowy Mountains Scheme for which we are now grateful. With wind and solar I suggest a levelling out for several reasons..subsidy fatigue, early takeup of best sites, rapidly increasing cost of gas backup and diminishing returns to intermittent integration beyond 20% or so. Also wind output averages something like 30% of nameplate capacity; make that 90% for nuclear.

    There must be something about gas, hydro, coal and nuclear that fills a need. AFAIK not a single large non-decrepit coal plant has been retired due to replacement by wind and solar. Therefore I’d hesitate to make long term predictions.

    Re waste storage let’s ask the fossil fuel industry to keep their 30 bn tonnes p.a. just in CO2 in a secure warehouse somewhere.

  16. @Hermit

    “Also wind output averages something like 30% of nameplate capacity; make that 90% for nuclear. ”

    Yep, 90% for nuclear until it blows up, melts down or leaves you with a 10,000 year storage problem. Then it’s an effective minus 100% cost-wise (or something of that order) for about the next 100 to 10,000 years. That’s the real whole-of-lifecycle analysis.

  17. Nuclear operates at about 82% of capacity. And I’ll mention that was before Fukushima resulted in mass shut downs for safety inspections. Only US reactors operate at about the 90% figure but for some reason that figure seems to get used for nuclear in general. And another odd thing is that no one seems to ever use the actual figure for Australian wind capacity which is about 35%. I don’t even use it myself and usually just round it off to one third.

  18. hermit: “According to Wikipedia France constructed 56 reactors 1973-1988.”

    Yes. So at its peak, it installed 36GW of a decade. That’s the highest figure that can be found for an individual country. Even at lower than 33% capacity factors, Germany is currently on track to surpassing that.

    It is the worldwide averages which are important. Almost any country in the world can rapidly deploy significant amounts of solar and wind. Almost any citizen of the world can order panels from the ubiquitous eBay.

    Not the case for nuclear. There were only ever 4 of 5 countries with any possibility of emulating what France did 30 years ago (a mature 30 year old nuclear program under your belt etc).

    It shouldn’t be surprising in the 21C that nuclear is being left behind.

  19. There are 7 bn of us using an inequitably shared 17 terawatts of which 13 TW or so are from burning fossil fuels Post 2050 suppose we max out at 9 bn but oil and gas are effectively gone while coal is demonised. By 2050 we’ll need say a frugal 20 TW of which only 2 TW or so is fossil derived. We need a low carbon power source that can not only operate 24/7 but replace what normally powers our cars, much of our heating and supplies our chemical feedstocks. Wind and solar are intermittent, energy dilute and for reasons I gave earlier increased uptake may get a lot harder from now on.

    If wind and solar were up to the heavy lifting task we’d already see smelters and affordable SUVs powered by them. Countries that are forcing high renewables targets are not doing so well economically. It takes an extraordinary level of wishfulness to think this can be turned around.

  20. @Hermit

    A couple of relevant analyses Jacobson, M.Z., Delucchi, M.A., 2011. Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part I: Technologies, energy resources, quantities and areas of infrastructure, and materials. Energy Policy 39, 1154-1169.
    Delucchi, M.A., Jacobson, M.Z., 2011. Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part II: Reliability, system and transmission costs, and policies. Energy Policy 39, 1170-1190.

    They suggest 10 TW is feasible. Both seem to be openly accessible through Google Scholar as PDFs from Stanford if you dont have an Energy Policy subscription.

    Another relevant reference is

    Having read the first two and the latter partially, and based on personal experience, I’m personally satisfied that completely switching to renewables and rational technologies is technically feasible.

    But it will need enormous research and retooling for this to come about. Whether this is possible consider the reaction of someone in the late 70s if you suggested in 35 years photovoltaics would be on 10% (?) of Australian roofs. We may have problems over the next 5 years but 30 years is another country.

    So what we can say is the stumbling block is the social driver notionally economics ( my main reason for watching this site) – but its also to do with personal, group and national philosophies and narratives about the human condition and how and where these will evolve too.

    With positive change in mind Australia right now feels a pretty ratty place what with the likes of Abbot and our appalling NSW and Queensland governments (is there a link here to Rugby League and the attitudes it promotes?). On many dark forces are now showing their hands and lack of genuine vision. Hopefully this is a sign of weakness.

    – talking about dark forces ever wonder what John Howard is up to these days?

  21. “It takes an extraordinary level of wishfulness to think this can be turned around.”

    World energy consumption (not just electricity) in 2011 was 150,000 terawatt hours.

    Let’s say world energy consumption in 2050 turns out to be 300,000 terawatt hours.

    To achieve 90% renewables in that time, we would need to see their current rate of installation increase by a factor of 25.

    To achieve 60% nuclear in that time, we would need to see their current rate of installation increase by a factor of 600.

    Nuclear suffers from much greater capacity and network constraints than renewables. That is one reason so many projects have run overtime or been cancelled or never got off the ground. People finally got around to working out what was required, and wondering where the money for those was going to come from. Average spend is estimated by investment banks to be about the same cost as a reactor, per reactor.

    What kind of level of wishfulness does it take to think we have any chance of ever installing 600 reactors a year?

    To achieve even 20% of world energy consumption by 2050 would require 200 reactors a year.

    France only ever managed 3 or 4. Are there 150 countries like France around the world? Are there 50?

    I’m sure we can agree it’s an uphill battle. But let’s maintain some perspective.

  22. I think we could see an explosion (in the metaphorical sense) in small modular reactors after 2020. Coming off a US assembly line they can be installed at the customer’s site in two years or so, with say a four year refuelling cycle. At a suggested $5 a watt capex they are perhaps too expensive and too small to replace big coal units like Hazelwood Vic or Bayswater NSW. However I think they could fill many niches. True the security problem will be greater more work for bully boys.

    There was some discussion on an earlier thread about wind turbine shadowing and limits to capacity. I think that is less important than the threat of gas backup becoming too expensive or even prohibitive by mid century. I suspect batteries large or small for PV won’t improve that much. Therefore the system must have a large component of dispatchable generation, some say 50% minimum. If nuclear is shunned it probably means coal for SASOL style transport fuel, chemical feedstock and electricity. We’ll be digging out of back yards. Something to think about in our long summer.

  23. @Hermit

    I think we could see an explosion (in the metaphorical sense) in small modular reactors after 2020. Coming off a US assembly line they can be installed at the customer’s site in two years or so, with say a four year refuelling cycle.

    I’ve seen a few of these reports from time to time. They often give, and some actually suggest directly, that what you are looking at here is something like a container that you plonk down next to the local substation of small city, plug it in and flick the switch. The reality looks a little different. Out of curiosity I consulted the Delphic Oracle (Wiki) which identified this interesting document: Status of Small Reactor Designs Without On-Site Refuelling (2007) of about 850 pages. It turns out ‘small’ is a relative term. For example Figure FIG. XXIV-15 shows a ca 400 MW thermal in its 100 m x 30 m bunker which they propose pumping out at 750 per year probably like 747 jets. (Another is FIG. XXX-16 which shows a 150 MW unit). For comparison a total of only 1500 747s have been produced in total.

    This raises the obvious question who is going to fund such large scale mass production plants on unproven systems?

    Even if the government introduced a war mobilization program (which seems rather unlikely given current neoliberal ideology which would tear itself apart trying to rationalise such a hegemonic project with ‘taxpayers’ money) you would also need the other infrastructural stuff like fuel transport and fabrication, decommissioning, fuel recycling etc.. and I guess a bit of environmental regulation. And finally who would run these things. I dont think there are that many high experience nuclear engineers around.

    It also suggests the US would redirect its financial investment from paper speculation (which doesnt seem to be happenning) to war scale good old fashioned mega-engineering and the oil companies would retool and construction systems (they are the ones suggested to carry this forward in this particular instance).

    And doing this by 2020??!!

    Alternatively I have seen some suggestions of real container sized reactor pumping out say 5 MW – – of which hundreds of thousands would be needed.

    Really this suggestion does not scan anymore than the rest of the nuclear renaissance.

  24. I recently looked at the electricity output per kilogram of the sort of reactors the USSR used to launch into orbit. (And they managed to hit Canada with one and left them millions in the hole for clean up costs. Can’t believe how lucky we were to get hit by the US Skylab which has turned out to be a positive money maker, despite the Americans not paying their $400 fine for littering.) Anyway, I also looked at the sort of output solar panels used in space were getting nowadays. The interesting thing was that even on surface of mars which is about one and a half times as far from the sun as we are, solar panels produced more electricity per kilogram of mass than nuclear reactors. Currently we can apply a PV surface in a very thin layer to roofing material and other or walls and windows, that probably only adds grams per square metre, so this means that at the moment, we currently have solar PV with a higher energy output than nuclear per kilo of mass.

  25. China is responsible for the majority of the power reactors under construction. The current targets are for 40 GW installed by 2015 (vs 100 GW for wind and 21GW for solar – say 35 and 5 continuous GW equivalent), and 58 GW by 2020. It’ s plausibly claimed that safety standards are now rigorous, as failure could imperil the régime.

    We can confidently expect from universal experience that the Chinese nuclear targets will be missed and budgets exceeded, and the wind and solar targets will be met at expected costs. Future policy reviews will therefore see nuclear decline and further increases in renewables, particularly solar, where targets are raised regularly. The long-term-future of nuclear also depends on how much success China has in developing geothermal, a beautiful despatchable technology.

  26. Hermit :
    I think we could see an explosion (in the metaphorical sense) in small modular reactors after 2020.

    Highly unlikely. The most developed design (the B&W mPower) has a planned first deployment date of 2022 which, based on past history, will probably be pushed back. And so far the only company that has shown any real interest in building the proposed design is the state-owned Tennessee Valley Authority. The other two designs that have some viability (the NuScale MASLWR and the Westinghouse SMR) are much less developed and don’t have firm customers. And with all three, the main advantage is the capital cost. They are not “advanced” reactors; they are PWRs with a uranium fuel cycle, which means they will face the same fuel costs and disposal problems that large reactors would face if either gets built at a higher rate. But a lower capital cost is a benefit that is entirely unproven at this point, so private companies won’t sign up to build them until enough are built for the cost reduction to be proven, leading to a catch-22 sort of problem. Short of a collapse of natural gas production, SMRs are highly unlikely to be deployed en mass. I suspect the reactors at the TVA plant will be the only ones of that particular design constructed. NuScale might get lucky and get enough funding to build one at Hanford or INL, but no more than that because the Northwest has plenty of hydro and wind resources and doesn’t need nuclear. If the Westinghouse design ever gets built it will be in China or some country on a nuclear ego trip. (Brazil? Indonesia?)

  27. Solar PV demand is going through a bumpy phase right now, as Germany backs away from generous incentives. But production capacity is still growing – could easily approach 100 GW a year in the next few years.

  28. @PeakVT
    You touched on the key variable of the gas price. South Australia’s biggest project the Olympic Dam expansion was mothballed to due to high ‘input costs’. One component was the construction of a 250 MW gas fired power station at OD with other energy inputs such as coastal desalination to be supplied by the state grid. That’s a perfect candidate for SMRs either air cooled at the mine or with the desal on the coast. Store the ‘spent’ fuel in disused parts of a uranium mine if that’s acceptable.

    There’s a nuclear irony in that a key driver of the increasing gas price is Japan importing over a third of the world’s LNG (note all LNG is exported, domestic gas is piped). So well before 2020 there will be reluctance here to fire up more gas plant due to expense. The Germans twigged to this early which is why they are building more coal fired capacity. Therefore I see no proven alternatives to SMRs for low carbon dispatchable power. If this is correct it could turn into a technology export bonanza for the US.

  29. Hermit, Olympic Dam was mothballed because BHP chose to (stupidly) put its money into US shale oil and gas plays instead. Low expectations on returns were due to declining commodity prices – including uranium – not the cost of gas, or a gas-fired power station. Wouldn’t BHP have just been piping its own gas to the station anyway? I’m sure it could have managed to come to a satisfactory price agreement with itself.

  30. @Hermit
    “If wind and solar were up to the heavy lifting task we’d already see smelters and affordable SUVs powered by them.”

    In the past, renewables have been more expensive than fossil, hence they made up a small fraction of the energy mix. There is reason to believe this situation will be reversed in the future. Nothing you’ve said here or anywhere convinces me that renewable intermittency is an insurmountable problem.

  31. @ Nick
    The OD expansion plan involved building a 400km gas pipe that originates at Moomba run by Santos, not BHPB. Santos have just renewed old gas contracts that were $4 a GJ at the new price of $9. Couple that with pending CSG drilling restrictions and SE Australia will face a gas shortage, fracking or otherwise.
    @ Sam
    The day an aluminium smelter gets more than a few percent of its power from wind and solar I’ll recant. If the intermittency problem is easily solved how come Germany is building new coal fired power stations? Google the Bloomberg articles on Germany and coal.

  32. The nuclear industry has had the ability to build small reactors for a long time. The first reactors were quite small and small reactors have been built for ships, submarines, satellites, and some were even built that were intended for airplanes. So it’s been possible to build small nuclear reactors for a very long time. Economies of scale, which are supposed to make small nuclear reactors competitive, have also been known about for a very long time. So if small nuclear reactors will be cheaper to build than large nuclear reactors, then the nuclear power industry has really been very very dumb indeed to continue building larger and larger nuclear reactors through the 50s, 60s, 70s and right up to the modern day, when they could have instead been building smaller, presumably cheaper reactors. It’s really hard to grasp how phenomenally dumb they have been. Think of all the countless billions of dollars they left on the table simply because they were too dumb to build small nuclear reactors instead of building gradually larger and larger reactors as they actually did. Really astoundingly dumb. A Brobdingnagian dumbness of immense proportions. And you know what? I don’t want people that dumb building any sort of reactor at all.

  33. Sorry Hermit, I didn’t realise you’d replied. See:

    Click to access odxEisChapter5DescriptionOfTheProposedExpansion58To510.pdf

    “The natural gas required to operate the CCGT plant would be delivered to Olympic Dam from the Moomba hub via a new gas pipeline. The natural gas supply may come from one or several of the major production wells connected to the Moomba hub (i.e. the Gippland Basin in Eastern Victoria; the Otway Basin in Western Victorial; the coal bed methane fields in Queensland (see Figure 5.40)).”

    I’m pretty sure BHP has interests in all of those locations.

  34. Ronald, on technological developments, something I meant to post the other week. Did you catch that graphene was recently given a one billion euro research program by the EU? Such a fascinating material, and widely regarded now as having the potential to be more important to the world than plastic in the 20C.

    One property it has is that it will allow water and water vapour/gas to pass through, but almost nothing else. Applications for coal and gas flue filtering immediately come to my mind. Osmotic power is another one.

  35. @Nick
    Nick, gaphene certainly seems to have a lot of applications. People are looking into using it for both solar cells and for supercapacitors which means it could be used to both gather and store energy. And with one nanometre holes poked in it it can let water molecules through but not chlorine and sodium ions. (Actually, I think the sodium ions can go through, they just don’t like it on the other side as it’s a water fest, so they head on back over to hang with the chlorine ions.) Graphene might be to the 21st century what low cost steel was to the latter part of the 19th century. But the really good thing is that while further advances are welcome and make things easier, we don’t need to rely on them to save the planet. We’ve got everything we need right here. We just need to use it.

  36. @Hermit
    New coal in Europe is a problem, but it’s been caused by three things.

    1) A foolishly depressed carbon price, partly because of over allocation, and partly because of extreme demand-side insufficiency induced by austerity.

    2) Looming policy changes, which decree that by 2016 new coal must be cleaner (and therefore more expensive). This is resulting in a “coal rush”, before construction gets more expensive.

    3) The american exodus into gas, resulting in more exports from the US, and hence a lower price.

    As for aluminium smelting, I must say you sound like a broken record on this. It’s been dealt with ad nauseum on this blog. I’ll just repeat the standard points (which I’ve never heard you refute convincingly)

    Aluminium smelting makes up a small part of our national electricity demand. It’s an example of the electricity consumer which would be most expensive to do demand side shifting on at this time, but we don’t have to worry about that last 10% type problem until we get down to our last few coal stations. That’s a long way into the future no matter what we do.

    We can increase grid connectivity, and use HVDC to link remote places together, reducing variablity.

    We can increase demand side participation quite a lot, especially starting from the low base of almost nothing. Smart grid technologies significantly smooth out the bumps. Preferentially charging electric cars at times of low demand also come to mind. Despite the fact you presented electric cars as a problem for grid stability, they’re actually part of the solution.

    Grid storage exists, from pumped hydro, to upscaled hydro, to compressed gas, to newly emerging flow and grid batteries, and others.

    Yes there hasn’t been much investment in these sort things in Australia yet, but that’s because variability hasn’t been much of a problem yet. As renewables increase their contributions to the grid, rational private actors will make the required investments.

    Smelters can pay more money for a reliable supply. Any level of uptime can be provided, for a price. If smelters have got used to not paying much and now face a new reality, so what? Life changes, get used to it.

    Yes, that would mean a higher price, but we can reduce our total use of aluminium. It’s a substitutable good. This would make almost no difference to most consumers. Yes it would be a real cost, but such a small one that most people would hardly notice.

  37. Looking at a page written for some strange reason in German, it looks like Germany might bring 8 or 9 gigawatts of coal power online by 2015 or so. But this all appears to be due to the high price and potential unreliability of Germany’s gas supply, combined with the success Europe has had in cutting emissions resulting in a low price for carbon credits. Just like here, coal plants take a long time to build and and as far as I can tell they were all planned before Fukushima and the nuclear plant shut down, but of course the nuclear shut down certainly would have helped the prospects of those that were still on paper. Having the competition closed down is handy.


    It took six years to build the plant, meaning that the process started in 2006. It is by no means a reaction to the nuclear phaseout of 2011. And as Altmaier himself points out, the new plant can ramp up and down by 150 megawatts within five minutes and by 500 megawatts within 15, making it a flexible complement to intermittant renewables. In the area, 12 coal plants more than 40 years old have been decommissioned, and the new 2,200 megawatt plant is to directly replace 16 older 150 megawatts blocks by the end of this year, so 2,200 megawatts of new, more flexible, somewhat cleaner capacity (the new plant has an efficiency of 43 percent, whereas 35 percent would be considered ambitious for most old coal plants) is directly replacing 2,400 old megawatts.

    Germany has a target of 35 percent renewable power by 2020, rising to 85 percent by 2050 – meaning that 65 percent of its power supply will be conventional in 2020, and the country will still have 15 percent conventional power by mid-century. Obviously, Germany needs to build some new conventional power plants to reach even that ambitious goal for renewables.

    There have been reports that Germany plans to construct some 23 coal plants, but as in Cologne these plans predate the nuclear phaseout of 2011. The question is how many of these will be built. German environmental organization BUND has a map (in German) of the power plants planned and those already blocked. In addition, Germany’s Energy Agency (Dena), which is not considered a blind advocate of renewables (on the contrary, the renewables sector considered its Grid Studies subservient to grid operators’ needs), estimates in a recent study (PDF in German) that 18.5 gigawatts of coal power capacity (both hard coal and brown coal) will be decommissioned by 2020, whereas only 11.3 gigawatts will be newly installed by that time. Most of the new capacity is expected to be gas turbines, with 20.7 gigawatts going up by 2020.

    Finally, it is simply not possible for Germany to increase its carbon emissions from the power sector because the country has emissions trading, which sets a limit on emissions. If anything, the phase-out of nuclear will remove a chunk of low-carbon generating capacity, thereby raising the price of carbon, which will make future investments in coal plants expensive — but the effects will not be felt for years because it takes years to build these plants.

  39. The Fukushima-design, non-failsafe GE Mark I reactors need to be shut down; all of them. Likewise, the Chernobyl-design, non-failsafe carbon-cooled reactors need to be shut down; all of them.

    This still leaves quite a lot of “second generation” plants which do not have fatal design flaws and can be allowed to run for some time.

  40. @Nathanael
    Unfortunately the Fukushima and Chernobyl reactors were only regarded to be fatally flawed after they flawed fatally. There could be hidden surprises waiting in design and programming of other types of reactors. Of course this does not mean that reactors with obvious flaws should not be shutdown or modified. (And if they had to pay the full cost of insurance I am sure they would be shut down.)

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