Coal and the nuclear lobby (updated)

Against my better judgement, I got sucked into a minor Twitterstorm over the weekend. The main outcome was to remind me that, while Twitter is useful in the role of a microblog, providing quick links to, and sharp observations on, more substantial material, it is utterly useless as a venue for discussion and debate.

Update : A large number of nuclear fans were eager to tweet and share snarky responses on Twitter, but only three people were willing to debate the issue here. Thanks to David Michie, Jonathan Suhanto and Ben Huxham who did at least respond. For those concerned that I might have a home-field advantage, I suggested that they post on a site of their own, with links, but no one took this idea up.  That says it all for the nuclear “debate” on Twitter, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve muted the lot of them.  End update.

In this case, the debate was over nuclear power, and this post from last year. It’s reasonable to ask why I would bother arguing about nuclear power, given my frequently expressed view that it’s dead as a doornail. The problem is that nuclear fans like Ben Heard are, in effect, advocates for coal. Their line of argument runs as follows

(1) A power source with the characteristics of coal-fired electricity (always on) is essential if we are to decarbonise the electricity suppy
(2) Renewables can’t meet this need
(3) Nuclear power can
Hence, we must find a way to support nuclear

The problem is that, on any realistic analysis, there’s no chance of getting a nuclear plant going in Australia before about 2040 (see over the fold). So, the nuclear fans end up supporting the Abbott crew saying that we will have to rely on coal until then. And to make this case, it is necessary to ignore or denounce the many options for an all-renewable electricity supply, including concentrated solar power, large-scale battery storage and vehicle-to-grid options. As a result, would-be green advocates of nuclear power end up reinforcing the arguments of the coal lobby.

Looking at the argument set out above, point (1) is generally taken as self-evident, even though the idea of baseload demand is basically a nonsense, at least until the renewables share gets much closer to 100 per cent.

Point (3) is based on the claim that since France did this 40 years ago, Australia can do it today. The fact that France has long since lost the special characteristics that made its dash for nuclear power possible isn’t even considered.  When I looked at the issue a few years ago, I concluded that only China had anything like the characteristics needed, but nuclear power has stalled even there.

Coming back to the Australian debate, it’s striking that it’s still going on, given the negative findings of the SA Royal Commission, established at the behest of the nuclear lobby. But I’ll spell out the problem one more time. Let’s look at the most optimistic possible timetable. The hardest evidence relates to the time between the issuing of a contract to build a nuclear power plant and the connection to the grid. The best-case scenario is that of the KEPCO contract in the UAE, one of the rare cases where the construction phase was completed on time and on budget. There have, however, been unexplained delays in startup.  The contract was signed in December 2009 and, on current projections, the first plant (of four) will be connected to the grid ten years after that, at the end of 2019.

So, to get nuclear power going in Australia before 2040, we’d need signed contracts by 2030 at the latest. What needs to happen before that goal can be achieved

* First, obviously, both major parties need to be convinced of the case for nuclear power. That’s highly unlikely but let’s suppose it can somehow be done by 2020

* Next, the current ban on nuclear power needs to be repealed. This ban looms large in the  minds of nuclear fans, but actually it’s such a minor problem we can ignore it

* Next, we need to set up, from scratch a legislative and regulatory framework for nuclear power, and establish and staff a regulator similar to the US NRC. Bear in mind that there is essentially no one in Australia with any relevant expertise. I’d be surprised if this could be done in five years, but let’s suppose three

* Next we need to license designs that can be built here and, at the same time, completely remodel the National Electricity Market in a way that makes nuclear cost-competitive with both gas and renewables, while not opening the door for new coal (again, three years would be incredibly optimistic)

* Next we need to identify greenfield sites for multiple nuclear power plants, almost certainly on the east coast, and go through the processes of EIS, Environment Court and so on. In any realistic view, this would never succeed, but let’s suppose another three years.

After all that, we have to find companies willing to build the plants, and organize the necessary contracts. Given the absurdly opimsitic schedule set out above, this would have to be done inside a year.

In summary, even on magical assumptions it would be impossible to get nuclear power going in Australia before 2040, by which time we would already have had to close most of the coal-fired generation fleet. It follows that the only effect of nuclear advocacy is to prolong the life of coal-fired power to the limits of technological feasibility.

In practice, support for nuclear power in Australia is support for coal. Tony Abbott understands this. It’s a pity that Ben Heard and others don’t/


190 thoughts on “Coal and the nuclear lobby (updated)

  1. “BAU/RCP8.5 is most definitely a fate of humanity issue.”

    Nobody who understands historical and probable future trends in energy consumption and fuel types considers RCP 8.5 to be a plausible scenario. Likewise, no one who is both knowledgeable and honest would ever refer to it as “business as usual” (“BAU”).

    Further, to my knowledge, no one who has ever modeled the economic effects of RCP 8.5 to the year 2100 has ever found a “fate of humanity issue”:

  2. @Colin Street: In 2017 China produced 246TWh from nuclear, 118TWh from solar, and 306TWh from wind.

    Nuclear generation increased by 29% in 2015, 25% in 2016 and 15% in 2017. While the growth has not been as rapid as wind and solar nuclear is far from dead and hardly “vastly outweighed” by solar and wind, at least not yet.

    Facts matter.

  3. @JQ I’m fascinated as to how you see an industrial powerhouse such as China will generating heat for industrial processes, steelmaking, and synthesising carbon neutral fuels using wind farms and solar panels.

  4. David Michie,

    It is possible to make steel by electrolytic processes. The technology is in its infancy and would have to be further researched and scaled up.

    ” Sadoway and his team found that an anode made from chromium-based alloys could withstand the process. These materials are also cheap. “If you end up with something that’s superior but far costlier, nobody wants it,” Sadoway said.

    Using electrolysis to make metals has several advantages over a blast furnace. The resulting metals are purer because there are fewer contaminants introduced in the process. “The electrolytic route actually consumes less energy,” Sadoway noted, adding that it can be 30 percent more efficient than conventional methods.”

    Steel can also be recycled with renewable energy. Steel recycling in this form is part of the solution too.

    Finally, I am not a green cornucopian. I don’t say any of this will be easy. I don’t say we can continue our current highly wasteful ways of living. There will have to be much more efficiency, frugality and recycling to survive as a sustainable society. But the only alternative to the green sustainable way is ecological collapse, runaway climate change, sea level rise and civilizational collapse.

  5. “It is possible to make steel by electrolytic processes.”

    It’s also possible to make steel in electric arc furnaces. In fact, most steel in the U.S. is made that way.

  6. @Mark Banner: Electric arc furnaces are used to recycle steel scrap. Only a small amount of pig iron can be added.

    And what about producing synthetic fuels to clean up hard to decarbonise sectors such as aviation? Do you really think this is feasible? Are we really going to devote a square km of solar panels for every plane in the sky?

    “a solar reactor with a 1 square kilometer heliostat field could generate 20,000 litres of kerosene a day. This output from one solar fuels refinery could fly a large 300-body commercial airliner for about seven hours.”

  7. So far as I know, electric arc furnaces recycle scrap steel but do not make new steel from iron ore (primary steel making). But I am no expert on these matters.

  8. @Ikon: My understanding is smelters really don’t like to be shut down as happened recently in NSW. Are we really going to run smelters on battery storage? Come on guys, there are huge holes in the 100% renewables story which can’t be dismissed with a handwave from Prof Quiggin.

    Mr Howell said problems at Liddell, Bayswater and Vales left the power supply at the mercy of the weather.

    “When the sun is shining in the middle of the day and the wind is blowing there is generally sufficient capacity,” Mr Howell said.

    When we need it the most – early mornings and evenings in summer and winter, our solar resources are useless and the nature of wind resources frequently means that many wind assets are idle.”

    Mr Howell said Tomago had been forced to switch off all of its potlines at one point or another during the week.

  9. David,

    I can’t answer for China but developments in Australia are reducing the intermittency problem and point the way forward.

    The Aurora solar thermal plant being built in South Australia has 8 hours storage in the form of molten salt.

    Comment: Unfortunately solar thermal plants have underperformed to date because of technical issues, so very few are being built. I guess that makes them a bit like nuke. Hopefully Aurora will be a raging success and rebuild confidence in solar thermal.


    The offshore windfarm, Star of South, planned for off the Gippsland coast is as I understand it situated in a location that neraly always has decent winds.

    Comment: Wind patterns in different locations throughout the seasons could be mapped so that offshore windfarms could be strategically deployed so that you would have “X” chance at any given time that at least one or two of them would be generating significant power.


    “ZEN Energy, the clean energy company controlled by British billionaire Sanjeev Gupta, has approved a $700 million solar, battery and pumped hydro storage project to deliver power to Mr Gupta’s Liberty OneSteel works in Whyalla, South Australia”

    Comment: Australia has 22,000 feasible pumped hydro sites according to an ANU study and they believe using some of those sites would by itself be enough to deal with the solar/wind intermittency problem.


    There are other options. It will be difficult to put the pieces of such a complicated jigsaw puzzle together to give us a reliable electricity supply and there will be some teething problems but will it be any more difficult, complicated and expensive than nuke? I don’t think so.

  10. “@Mark Banner:”

    Not a huge deal, but it’s Bahner, not Banner.

    “Electric arc furnaces are used to recycle steel scrap. Only a small amount of pig iron can be added.”

    Steel can be produced by adding direct reduced iron to an electric arc furnace. That’s what they do at Emirates Steel in Abu Dhabi:

  11. Oops. My intent was to refer to slide #7 of that carbon capture Powerpoint…that illustrates the capture of CO2 from the direct reduced iron (DRI) process at Emirates Steel.

  12. the problem of intermittency is easily solved with renewables by a battery.

    What I find fascinating is that over the last summer units in coal stations broke regularly. Victoria was saved by the Telsda battery from a blackout. NSW by telling Tomago pull back on your demand and I am not sure what occurred in Queensland,

  13. It strikes me that arguments against a 100% renewables economy partake of some or all of the following aspects. They are arguments from;

    (1) Incredulity. (I don’t believe it can happen therefore it can’t).
    (2) Assumption of no further technical progress.
    (3) Assumption of lack of scalability (including adequate resources).
    (4) Assumption of lack of system integration.
    (5) Assumption of lack of smart systems.
    (6) Assumption of lack of demand management via the market and smart systems.
    (7) Assumption of no efficiency gains.
    (8) Assumption of continued public demand for wasteful consumerism.
    (9) Assumption of individualism and selfishness over capacity for cooperation to meet challenges.

    Of course, none of the above are proofs, when inverted, that a 100% renewables economy is possible. But these items do show where we should look for the possibilities that we can run a 100% renewables economy successfully. They provide hope and an agenda for action. They indicate that there won’t be one answer. There won’t be one magic bullet. Rather, the answer will be a complex amalgam of these and other possibilities all working together synergistically (apologies for the buzzword but it is appropriate here) .

    Part of the hope lies in the creation of distributed, interconnected systems with built in multiple redundancy and thus distributed robustness. Highly centralised systems carry their own kind risks from major failures.

    Renewable energy will be produced from widely distributed assets of;

    (a) solar PV;
    (b) concentrated thermal solar;
    (c) solar convection towers (if economic);
    (d) solar water and space heating;
    (e) waste heat power conversion to electricity (possibly by Stirling engines);
    (f) space heating with waste heat;
    (g) seasonal heat storage for space heating;
    (h) wind turbines (land and sea);
    (i) hydro power;
    (j) biomass and wastes combustion
    (k) gas turbine backup (until phased out);
    (l) nuclear power in some countries (until phased out);

    Energy storage will be provided by;

    (a) pumped hydro;
    (b) molten salt;
    (c) batteries;
    (d) heated water tanks (for hot water and space heating);
    (e) thermal ballast (for space heating);
    (f) flywheels with near frictionless magnetic bearings and running in a near vacuum (mostly for short-term grid frequency stabilisation);

    Efficiencies can be provided by;

    (a) smart devices and smart grids;
    (b) the 100% electrical economy;
    (c) frugality and long lasting products rather than planned obsolescence;
    (d) increase in low energy demand entertainments (esp. from less tourism);
    (e) more mass transit;
    (f) less and smaller electric automobiles;
    (g) shank’s pony, bicycles and mopeds for shorter journeys;
    (h) reduction of militarism.

    There are several more possibilities in each category. It could be a tremendously exciting and hopeful time if we really embraced all these changes. Even the lack of total certainty of achieving it (when compared to the complete certainty of doom if we don’t attempt it) should be tremendously exciting to any truly alive person who knows all life and all actions carry some risks and that many aspects of the future are always uncertain to some degree.

    Compare this aliveness, interest and hope to the satiated, over-producting, over-consuming, future foreclosing dullness of neoliberal BAU where nothing changes and we march inexorably on to certain doom out of sheer greed and blindness. That is what really kills spirit, hope, enterprise and cooperation.

    I don’t believe it is going to be easy. It’s going to be a tough challenge for the human race. Isn’t that part of the excitement of it? It ought to make you feel alive and invigorated, when the real change starts to happen. Change has been way too slow so far.

  14. No-one answered my question about aviation.

    See, I have no doubt that renewables can get us 50, 60, maybe 70% of the way, but it’s that last 30% that I struggle to believe can be powered by renewables alone. Can we really produce carbon neutral synthetic fuels on the scale required using wind, solar and storage? Are we really going to run smelters and energy intensive industrial processes using batteries on windless nights?

    Ridiculous handwave statements like “the problem of intermittency is easily solved with renewables by a battery” don’t help. Batteries will not provide bulk storage for decades. Have a look at to see what happened in South Australia on Sunday night. For 12 hours the sun did not shine and the wind did not blow. The entire state was powered by gas and imports. The Tesla big battery is a barely discernable blue slither. These are uncomfortable facts that can’t be ignored. It wouldn’t have mattered how many wind farms there were across the NEM on Sunday night because there was very little wind anywhere. So if you’re running some industrial process that requires 24/7 power from a 100% renewables grid, what do you do? Close for 12 hours? You can’t do that with smelters, the whole thing freezes.

  15. It occurs to me that both camps in this argument are saying the same thing. That is, they are saying X is not realistic because it is too hard therefore we must do Y.

    I now think that both arguments, (a) 100% renewables with storage and (b) a significant global role for nuclear in lieu of storage as a backstop for renewables, are worth considering.

    A generalist thinker who rules out X and says Y will surely work is engaging in an act of faith.

    I think it may well be a case of horses for courses. There is, I think, no case for nuclear in Australia but it may be quite sensible for China to keep growing nuclear, at a modest rate, as per its energy plan and its current actual behaviour.

    I note in passing that contra what Prof Quiggin has said, a number of new nuclear projects were commenced from 2015 to 2017 including:

    *Fangjiashan 2
    *Hongyanhe 3&4
    *Yangjiang 2
    *Yangjiang 3&4
    *Fuqing 2
    *Fangchenggang 1&2
    *Changjiang 1&2

    None of the above are mickey mouse projects.

  16. David,

    “No-one answered my question about aviation.”

    You hand waved at my idea that aviation could use offsets, such as funding mangrove restoration (which incidentally would have various positive fringe benefits).

    What matters is this:

    gross emissions – storage = net emissions

    Not this:

    gross emissions

  17. @Hugo: Sensible position. I have never suggested that renewables and storage should not pursued. I support those technologies 100%.

    Regarding aviation. Yes it is incredibly difficult to decarbonise. Offsets and negative emissions might have some small role to play but I don’t believe the industry can offset it’s way zero emissions while growing at ~5% annually. At some point aviation needs to genuinely reduce emissions at the source and that means either reducing demand or using carbon neutral fuels. Electric and hydrogen powered aircraft are decades away and airliners have 30 year lifetimes. Biofuels have almost always proved disastrous, which leaves you with synthetic fuels produced from captured CO2. This process requires a lot of energy and heat.

    Again, I recommend this talk:

    If you are interested in negative emissions technology (which are assumed on grand scale in most pathways to stay under 2C) I recommend you follow @Peters_Glen on twitter.

    Welcome to the rabbit hole.

  18. I addressed the aviation issue obliquely with the words.. “low energy-demand entertainments (esp. from less tourism)”

    We might have to accept a big reduction in aviation. Is there a great need for a great number of people to go jetting all over the world? Why do we have to assume that we have to have everything we have now?

    There will be some military, political, scientific and elite aviation. For the most part general aviation could be replaced by;

    (a) stay in your local region more;
    (b) use electric trains and modernized sailing ships;
    (c) transmit data, don’t transport people;
    (d) transmit designs and use local, regional “printing” fabrication for goods.
    (e) electric drones for smaller flying applications.

    People are not thinking out of the box nearly enough. Conceptually, they are expecting a renewables world to look like a fossil fuesl world. It won’t. The solutions will have to be very different. Some things will become easier to do. Some things will become harder to do. We will have to transition to the new things that are easier to do in a renewables, electric / electronic economy and forego other things that used to be easy to do in a fossil fuels economy. The renewables economy will create a new business evolutionary landscape. There will be new things that work, old things that don’t work any more.

  19. Offsets and negative emissions might have some small role to play but I don’t believe the industry can offset it’s way zero emissions while growing at ~5% annually.


    So what we have here is a pretty good sample of why I at least simply couldn’t be buggered explaining anything to you.

    That bit about “growing at 5% annually”? you never asked it before. The question you want answered now is not the question you asked earlier; the reason answers given to your question are not satisfactory is because they’re answers to the question as you actually worded it, not the question you’d wished you’d asked.

    And… suppose we do go to the effort and work out an answer to the words you asked this time. Non-trivial effort, there, and what guarantee is there that you’ve misexpressed yourself again?

    Not worth it.

    [also: feigned-incredulity — you’ve done it a couple of times — like most debate-focussed techniques, is kind of like high-pressure sales tactics, in that:
    + they can be more-easilly recognised as tactics by those who know them
    + they’re mostly ineffective if people are given ample time to ponder and respond
    + they don’t actually carry a lot of persuasive force or merit.
    Debate training is focussed on a very narrow aspect of discussion. It’s useful for that, but if debate training is the only training you’ve done it leaves huge gaps in your skillset.]

  20. Interesting the Aurora D8 experimental design saves 71% fuel at a slightly slower speed than a regular plane. It only saves 50% of the fuel if they bring it up to a similar speed… and yet as they commercialise for 2025 they chose the faster version. You’d think the fuel savings would be hugely valuable.

    AND… they were recently bought by Boeing, who have only spoken about Aurora drones and haven’t mentioned the D8 that I can find.

  21. The above attack on the character of David Michie is disgusting. David, as a more regular commenter here, I apologise and thank you for your contributions. I don’t agree with you on certain things but I have enjoyed our exchanges. Live long and prosper.

  22. @Hugo: Doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I’ll let others judge.

    @Greg Alexander: Thanks I hadn’t seen that. I wonder what’s happening with the D8. It’s been in development for a decade now. Real Engineering does some great explainer videos. Here’s one on electric planes.

    Also flying slightly slower and lower has the potential to deliver large reductions in warming impact. Great talk here from Woods Institute at Stanford. Almost a decade old now.

  23. @Ikon: I can’t see us powering down and living more frugal lifestyles unless it’s forced on us. Flying less is the only realistic way to reduce aviation emissions in the short term (unless you buy into the CORSIA fantasy) but in the mid to long term carbon neutral synthetic kerosene will allow us to maintain our jet-setting lifestyles. No guarantees that will happen of course. More likely we’ll continue to burn fossil kerosene at ever increasing rates for at least a decade.

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