What price nuclear power ?

As I mentioned a while ago, the Standing Committee on Environment and Energy of the Commonwealth Parliament is inquiring into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia. There’s a similar inquiry happening in NSW.

All the evidence suggests that this isn’t serious exercise. Rather it’s something intended to appease the National Party or troll the Greens, depending on where you are coming from.

Still, it’s a Parliamentary inquiry on an important issue, so I decided to take it at face value and make a submission. My central recommendation is a combined policy

  • Introduce a carbon price, rising gradually to $50/tonne of CO2
  • Repeal legislative bans on nuclear power

I’m pretty confident this package will have close to zero supporters in Parliament, but it ought to appeal to two groups.

First, anyone who seriously believes that nuclear power should be adopted as a response to climate change. That’s a small, but non-empty set, since most nuclear fans are climate deniers. But for those people, it should be obvious that nuclear power is never going to happen except with a carbon price high enough to wipe out coal, and compete with gas.

Second, renewable supporters who want action now, and are prepared to give nuclear a chance in 15-20 years time if it’s needed. The carbon price would push a rapid transition to solar PV, wind and storage, and would be neutral as between these technologies and nuclear. On present indications, that would be sufficient to decarbonize the electricity supply at low cost. But if a fixed-supply technology turned out to be absolutely necessary, one or two nuclear plants might possibly happen.

I looked over the other submissions. The anti-nuclear ones raise the obvious points about waste, accident risk and proliferation.

What’s striking about the pro-nuclear submissions is the absence of any mention of existing technologies or the main alternative, small modular reactors, on which I spent a fair bit of time.Rather, the nuclear fans are talking about vaporware such as thorium, Gen IV and even Gen V, described by Wikipedia as ‘ reactors that are purely theoretical and are therefore not yet considered feasible in the short term, resulting in limited R&D funding. ‘

34 thoughts on “What price nuclear power ?

  1. Sounds good to me.

    I find it implausible that nuclear power could be cost effective in Australia either now or decades in the future, but if something is developed that makes economic sense to deploy (after all costs are accounted for) sure, why not?

    On a side note, I’ve read a suggestion that CO2 could be sequestered from the atmosphere using mineral weathering for around $12 a tonne. Which is weird because I can’t see it being done for under $40 a tonne. And I think we’d be lucky if we could do it for $50 AUD a tonne. But maybe a carbon price of $50 a tonne will be enough to net out emissions or perhaps go carbon negative.

  2. “most nuclear fans are climate deniers”

    Is this really true? Maybe it is in the public debate, but most nuclear fans I meet are scientists, who see it as part of a solution to climate change (they just tend not to think about costs).

  3. Since the nuclear reactors being proposed by lobbyists and fans are vapourware, they should be assessed against other technologies that share the minor disadvantage of not existing. On this basis, fusion power (limitless fuel, useless for bombs) and hot rock geothermal (no waste, 100% despatchable) are far superior and should get the blue-sky funding.

    I think JQ is underestimating the damage zombie nuclear is still doing. Policymakers, academic experts, and even blog commenters have limited time and energy. Every study and enquiry sucks up these and distracts from efforts on things that might work. V2G for instance creates tricky coordination problems. Say what you like about the overmighty finance industry, it drew a line decades under nuclear as not bankable. Nuclear survives as a purely socialist (or deep crony/parasitic capitalist) project, needing cast-iron state guarantees to get started.

  4. Duke – whether it is most or not the overlapping of climate science denial and support for nuclear is strong enough that there are prominent advocates who choose not to challenge climate science denial in any way for fear of upsetting nuclear supporters. This inquiry was called for by pro-coal and gas climate science deniers who, if they had the numbers to build new nuclear would have the numbers to build new coal plants – and would not hesitate to throw nuclear under a bus to get them. Preferably a hippie painted Kombi bus.

    I see climate science denial and obstructionism as more intrinsically damaging to nuclear than to renewables – the day that conservative right politics chose lying about climate to protect fossil fuels was the day nuclear for climate died; if they routinely lie about the biggest threat to Australia’s enduring prosperity ever to advance the very activities that make the problem worse, I can’t see them ever using the truth about it to advance nuclear. And promoting nuclear using that most compelling reason – with continuing denial of it – looks doomed, irrespective of anything anti-nuclear activism could do or say. Climate science denial – industrial scale lying and cheating – has no redeeming features in my opinion, and the Wall of Denial conservative politics has built confines the largest bloc of extant support for nuclear away where it cannot be used effectively for climate purposes; an outcome no anti-nuclear activists could ever have achieved. It is the enemy of nuclear as well as of renewables – so that overlapping of denial and support for nuclear is a profoundly serious problem for sincere nuclear-for-climate proponents.

    I think this whole exercise is political theatre by the strongest opponents of climate action to raise a bar too high – and not just too high for Environmentalists but for those who lean Right but who’s climate concerns have grown to be an internal problem within their political parties. They will criticise others for not supporting nuclear but, hypocritically, it is not THEIR policy either. I think it is a noisily distracting effort intended to move the spotlight from those sitting in the very offices making the very decisions that matter on to “extremists”. The LNP’s ability to make their climate and energy policies about countering “extremists” and NOT about addressing the climate problem – blameshifting – borders on miraculous. Perhaps their greatest strength. Of course it greatly helps that large parts of mainstream media support and endorse their BS.

  5. We need expertise in molten salts to integrate our renewables into the grid. Whereas the renewables seem to be making some money and generating a lot of energy actually they are a nuisance right now, and will be until we have serious storage power. So molten salts are needed to integrate them, both for molten salts driving steam turbines. But also for liquid metal batteries. Liquid metal batteries consist of two different base metals separated by molten salts. So the idea is to get a CSIRO and then a workforce skilled at working with molten salts. Once that expertise is ubiquitous then bringing in nuclear energy over the top should be pretty cost-effective. But doing nuclear from a standing start could probably be predicted to lead to the usual debt catastrophes and cost blow-outs.

  6. Ronald, reference for your weirdly cheap CO2 absorption suggestion, please?
    Graeme Bird, have a look at ASX:14D for existing storage technology that could easily be slotted into the grid.

  7. Thats a bit glib isn’t it? Share price information? When I whacked ASX:14D into search engine thats what I got. That sort of sloppiness just won’t do. This is a serious matter. Thats like a tactic to stop yourself from thinking. Molten salt is the key expertise for batteries that can be used anywhere. Its key to concentrated solar power, key to many heat applications, and it just so happens its key to nuclear as well. So thats our strategic nexus. Pumping water uphill for hydro later is good also. But its not always possible in every location and its not a really a nexus technology.

    These batteries are cool because they don’t need to take extra land space. They can fit under the heliostats, under the ground or in high-rise. There is not much impetus coming from the grid people to solve their problems. They are actually going to make more money under SNAFU. Continual fire-fighting of daily problems is just fine for these guys. The electricity price is high is it not? Thats something for a producer to be happy about. If the system was working the electricity would be cheap, or if it was dear we could clearly trace price increases to deliberate increases in coal royalties. A fine thing in my book.

    This fellow Sadoway. Lecturer of solid state chemistry at M.I.T. Nothing he does involves rare earth elements. So his entire act is completely scalable. Even more scalable than CSP which would eventually put a bit of pressure on silver prices. Its this fellows thinking I would put my faith in. His electro-Chemistry lectures are awesome. And free.

    See the team he’s got. Not experienced. We need to work with this fellow and train up a workforce just like he trained up his team of inexperienced students. I don’t like to delay nuclear because it means exporting way too much coal which I think is far more valuable than the price we are selling it for and its such a shame to export it across the world, using all that energy, in solid form. Particularly when its foreigners buying and exporting our gear. It cannot be helped for the moment I know. It can only be slowed it cannot be stopped. But we don’t need to rush into nuclear if we can instead institute a strategy that gets us gearing up our skills and tools for molten salts. Its just catalytic money I’m talking about. Close down ten departments and open one other and it can be started on very thin cash-flow.

  8. John Howard should be held accountable for us having no nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Now we have to fight the next war with a solar panel, and a water pistol !! !!

  9. O6, that’s interesting. I like the idea of silicon over molten salts as a phase change material, and it should have a much higher energy density than molten salts.

    As with molten salts and the corrosion problem, the trick would be finding a crucible that won’t degrade quickly under prolonged contact with molten silicon. I wonder what they use, and if it can scale up cost effectively.

  10. Silicon is a liquid above 1414 celsius at sea level pressure. We don’t anticipate that these will be high pressure undertakings but you may be sticking heat exchangers in and out of these things or you may be pumping molten Silicon everywhere. With higher pressures come higher needed minimum temperature. So lets say 1500 celsius as the minimum. So then you need the temperature to be considerably higher than that for many hours of storage capacity. So lets bump that up to 1700 degrees. Better go 1800 because with higher temperatures you may get disproportionately more heat loss.

    So what are you going to house it in? And the metals for pumping it? Thats going to leave you with maybe titanium or tungsten housing with maybe a carbon fibre insulation. I don’t know for sure how you’d do it, but you can look at a ranking of boiling points and suddenly you are up in the high ranges. If you have to use too much of any one rare metal that will blow out the prices. But sure I think we can aspire to such a thing. I think Silicon is a very good idea. Silicon may get better and better as time goes on. And there are a lot of heat applications where we want these higher temperatures. But you can see how the higher you go with these temperatures the more of a niche application it has to be in any near-term arrangement. I think you may be talking about a longer range vision.

    Do we really want our boys having to get used to temperatures upside of 1700 degrees when they could dip their toe with 600-800?

    Of course there will be alloys for containment. But with molten salts they are talking a lot about nickel alloys. Whereas with the higher temperatures of silicon you will need more rarified materials. So I think we want both these mediums and we won’t be putting molten salts on the shelf anytime soon.

  11. Graeme “Pumping water uphill for hydro later is good also. But its not always possible in every location and its not a really a nexus technology.”
    Nothing is possible in every location. But with 22,000 potential PHS sites in Australia and 616,000 worldwide (Blakers), there are more than enough. Bad luck to the Netherlands, Denmark, Latvia and Bangladesh, which are completely flat, but they can mostly trade with spikier neighbours as Denmark is already doing with Norway.

    I confess I have no idea what a “nexus technology” might be. Does it synergise blockchain with cold fusion? There is something to be said for a technology invented over a century ago by Swiss engineers in waistcoats and long whiskers, that is guaranteed to work without surprises, startup hype or IP rents.

  12. Olivine story really interesting, thanks Ronald.
    Graeme B and others, the point about 1414 degrees Ltd ASX:14D is that it is building commercial-scale pilot rigs to store and use heat. The Si can be heated by renewables and can replace process heat from fossil fuels. Many different technologies show promise, not just molten salts. Of course I’m in favour of molten salt technology too, but 1400C will do a lot (breweries, wineries, sewage farms…)

  13. Why was project vesta is so straight forward why was such a project not proposed in 1990 or 2000 or 2010?

  14. OOPs a bit of an editing problem above. I meant to say, If project vesta was so straight foward why……..

  15. Hi Curt.

    First off, it doesn’t work at the optimistic costs they give, as far as I can see. Second, even if it did work at the cost of say $40 AUD per tonne of CO2 removed from the atmosphere and sequestered it would still make more sense to use that money to reduce fossil fuel emissions at this moment. What we should be doing is trying out different methods of removing CO2 from the atmosphere that have a reasonable chance of being low cost on a large scale to see how well they work. And then expand the most cost effective ones. If we look at things like olivine sands, reforestation, biochar, ocean dumping of biomass, capture of brewery CO2 etc. while eliminating coal use Australia could go carbon neutral in 5 years and the improvement in heath from reduced coal and oil pollution might be enough to pay for it.

  16. If someone is really desperate for pumped storage in flatland they could built a water tower. But with one-third of new cars in the Netherlands apparently being electric Tesla Model 3s there is a lot of potential for battery packs on wheels to store surplus energy. This is the case even if they never contribute power to the grid. All that is needed is a price signal and just a little bit of electronic smartness so people mostly charge when electricity is cheap or free.

  17. World’s largest EV never has to be recharged… thanks to site specific usage… and gravity. 

    James Wimberley said:
    “But with 22,000 potential PHS sites in Australia and 616,000 worldwide (Blakers),”

    Ronald said: “there is a lot of potential for battery packs on wheels to store surplus energy.”

    Then we must have 22,000 potential sites to use;

    “The dump truck, at 45 tons, ascends the 13-percent grade and takes on 65 tons of ore. With more than double the weight going back down the hill, the beast’s regenerative braking system recaptures more than enough energy to refill the charge the eDumper used going up.

    “Marking that trip around 20 times a day, Kuhn Schweitz says the eDumper produces 200 kwh of surplus energy every day, or 77 megawatt-hours a year. A typical dump truck uses between 11,000 and 22,000 gallons of diesel fuel a year. That saves up to 196 metric tons of global-warming carbon-dioxide gas a year.”


    How many mines (any transport) in Australia have the required height difference to use ” the world”s largest EV”?

  18. “If someone is really desperate for pumped storage in flatland they could built a water tower.” No-ones desperate for any kind of storage anywhere. The problem isn’t going to be solved by unrealistic and glib one-liners. For people on the ground who really wish to solve these problems (if such people can be found) these one-liners aren’t going to help with practical problems which add to cost. The idea of the car batteries is a nice idea. But none of this is going to stop renewables from being the massive nuisance they are with the grid. We want to get a bit real here.

    Renewables have run away from us and are causing massive problems. The dirty secret of the industry is that now, in order to cope with the problems that renewables have caused, and in order to take advantages of all these sudden power drops occasioning high price rewards …. a whole string of inefficient small diesel generators are being installed all the time. Is that what you had in mind? Inefficient, noisy, and dirty diesel as being the big money-makers in the field?

    “Nothing is possible in every location.” This glibness. This fancy-pants talk. This wishful thinking. Its hurting everyone whose not a comfortable rich lefty true believer. We have a serious problem here which is going to get worse with every new renewables plant that comes online. The only thing worse than no electricity is surging and unreliable electricity that can cause accidents, problems, electrocution, high prices and so forth.

    So no the electric car batteries aren’t a serious “look over there the problems gone away” one-liner. And no its no good to have many hydro storage potential sites in some places when storage is necessary in all places if you want renewables. For one thing with the current car batteries each recharge wears the battery down, and they tend to involve rare stuff.

    Enough damage has been done. If we cannot get the liquid metal battery investment to integrate these renewables we will have to stop hurting ourselves and close them down. With the grid in its current form headline production figures are irrelevant. So its a serious matter that we need to get in surplus and perhaps extend zero interest loans to everyone to make them invest in the storage we need.

    And this idea that you are going to build water towers in the desert for hydro energy storage. This is emblematic of the lack of seriousness we have when it comes with dealing with this self-inflicted disaster we face now.

    Why do you guys think I’m so euphoric with the idea of CSP solar towers above Alice Springs and so dubious about Photo-Voltaic panels in many contexts? Because the PV’s involve rare earths and don’t come with their own storage. Whereas the CSP, a little silver aside, doesn’t involve rare earths, comes with its own energy storage, and therefore could be scaled indefinitely and could open up more land rather than close it off. But mostly its because I’m being serious about these things. These are serious matters, so far the renewables have only hurt Australians, and the problems won’t just go away with glibness.

    Winter is coming and we need to get budgets in surplus, get rid of all rebates, but extend zero interest loans to solve all these problems.

  19. Its just started in Australia, but its a trend around the world wherever you have renewables. The more renewables, in the absence of energy storage, the more you are going to need these tiny inefficient diesel generators. What must be understood is the the grid is a system without inventories. Like water without a tank anywhere. This is why the prices go up wherever renewables arrive, despite these impressive alleged cost declines.

  20. Oh I see what you’ve done here. Yes I suppose the diesels don’t need to burn all that much fuel to pick up a lot of the peak money. They just sit there doing nothing, waiting for the high price to offer itself, and then they have to crank up all these diesels from a standing start. So I suppose from that point of view, you wouldn’t actually get a great deal of juice out of the diesel generators. Its a crazy way to be doing things.

    So supposing you’ve got thousands of diesel generators. You might only average half an hour a day with these things. Because they are there to hold the slack until the coal generators can accelerate a little bit. So I wasn’t expecting them to come out as a huge part of the total joules generated. Is that what you thought I would expect? Try and get a grip conceptually as to what is going on here.

  21. Graeme: Did you know that if you string a copper cable from poles or pylons with insulators, you can send electricity down the wire? I heard it’s been done for over 100 miles – about the mean distance of Australians from pumped storage dam sites in the Dividing Range. Thomas Edison and Nikolas Tesla may be lying about this, of course.

  22. If we are getting 13% of our electricity consumption from solar and wind with 0% diesel consumption, then using the power of maths 100% solar and wind generation would require 7.7 times 0% diesel.

  23. See Ronald you don’t read properly and you don’t understand. Its not anything about the proportions or the cost per joules or anything of that sort. Its about the problem of intermittency in a distribution system where there are no inventories. The grid that Tesla gave us was almost too good. It was so good that we didn’t solve the problem of intermittency. Plus you are lying about it being 0% from diesel as your own linked figures show. The lying doesn’t help but the main thing is you keep barrelling on without understanding what is already written. You did this before and you are doing in now.

    Now James. One hundred miles you say? And then you pull out one example where we have the problem licked. But we need storage everywhere to have low prices. Not just in one place 100 miles away. If your outlook was correct, then the electricity prices would have fallen, and we would have picked up the price for renewables IN THE REBATE ALONE. Now am I going too fast for you here?

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying scrap the renewables. Someone else is going to scrap them if you cannot get with the reality that they have to come with their own storage. And if I were wrong about this the prices would have fallen.

  24. “If we are getting 13% of our electricity consumption from solar and wind with 0% diesel consumption, then using the power of maths 100% solar and wind generation would require 7.7 times 0% diesel.”

    Oh I get it. I may have misunderstood your misunderstanding. The answer is NO. Thats not the thing. Its all about how quickly you can accelerate the coal. You can accelerate coal but it takes some time. So thats why you need these diesel generators. They have to flick on just long enough for that cloud to get out of the way or for coal to accelerate. So if you get rid of coal you don’t have coal accelerating reliably and predictably. So what you are saying above doesn’t work at all.

    There is no getting away from it. Intermittency must be solved always and everywhere. And its a coo-ee away from being solved. But it will take surplus budgets and interest free loans to pull it off.

    But some people, used to living in an otherworldly life of schmoozing and cocktails, don’t want to take the problem seriously. Not looking at cocktail James here. I could have been talking about anyone.

  25. Tried my hand at a mojito yesterday. Pretty good, though I say so myself.

    The reason we haven’t built Twh of pumped hydro storage yet is that we don’t need it yet. IIRC you can get to 80% renewable electricity or thereabouts firming with gas, which is a cheap option since the gas turbines mostly exist. To get rid of them we will have to build large volumes of pumped hydro storage (or cheaper unicorn methods) which will be quite expensive, though overall cheaper than today. Generally, people don’t build a lot of expensive equipment until they have to.

  26. They don’t have to do anything do they James. They can just sit there raking in the money due to the disaster of having a grid with intermittent power sources that causes price spikes everywhere. No-one has to do anything. Thats failure and stupidity. The goal of the exercise is to have low prices for electricity. Or if they are high to trace the high prices to high royalties. This is not some self-correcting market we are talking about. If stupid things are done they stay stupid and the producers get all the loot.

  27. You’re welcome, Curt. It’s an interesting idea but I don’t see how they can get the cost of olive sand any appreciable amount cheaper than it is at the moment. But it could still end up being the cheapest method of removing and sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere. Of course, the easiest thing to do first/during is reduce emissions by 90+%. It’s not as if there aren’t huge health savings to be had from reducing coal and oil use.

  28. No the easiest thing to do first is NOT reduce emissions 90%. Thats the hardest thing to do first it will mean immediate destruction of the Australian economy and mass starvation. The easiest thing to do first is farm reform for the purpose of building soil. The second easiest thing for Australia to do is to keep coal cheap for local electricity generation, but crank up royalties to reduce coal exports.

  29. The easiest thing for the AMERICANS (as opposed to the Australians) to do first is STILL to reform farming for the purposes of soil building. The second easiest thing for the Americans to do first is to put $5 dollars more per gallon on their gasoline taxes. The Americans are letting us down having cheap gasoline. Thats making the international oil price unnecessarily high. The rest of us have quite high gasoline (petrol) taxes but the Americans are keeping the before-tax oil price high.

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