A nuclear grand bargain ?

I wasn’t expecting much of a reaction to my submission to two Parliamentary inquiries into nuclear power, in which I advocated imposing a carbon price (set to rise to $50/tonne over time) and, conditional on this, repealing the existing legislative ban on nuclear power.

Over the weekend, though, I heard that Aaron Patrick of the Fin was asking a few people about it. Given my past history with Patrick, I was expecting a gotcha hatchet job, or worse.

When today’s Fin came out, I was surprised to learn (via Twitter and email, as I don’t subscribe), that the Fin had run not one, but two articles about my submission, both by Patrick. The first that came to my attention was the expected gotcha, focusing on the recommendation to repeal the ban, while softpedalling the carbon price to the point of near-invisibility (just enough of a mention that he could deny having ignored it altogether).

The second, though, was a reasonably accurate and supportive summary of the proposal (a few digs at me, but I have a thick skin). Money quote:

A carbon price would delight the left, and would be unlikely to upset most of the business community. Small-scale nuclear reactors could be framed as a nascent technology that might not ever happen – giving its opponents a short-term political victory in the long-term national interest.
A confident and pragmatic centre-right government could seize the opportunity to alter the path of Australian economic and environmental history – from one of the worst emitters of carbon, based on population, to among the lowest.

As I’ve said previously, anyone who seriously believes that nuclear power should be adopted as a response to climate change ought to endorse this proposal. I find it hard to imagine that the nuclear boosters in the LNP are in this category, but if they are, here’s their chance to put their hands up.

Since I’m the primary subject, I don’t feel the need to respect the Fin’s paywall on this one, so here’s the text of the two articles. First the serious one

A path from the left to nuclear power
Aaron Patrick ‒ Senior Correspondent
Sep 2, 201 
https://www.afr.com/companies/energy/a-path-from-the-left-to-nuclear-power-20190830-p52mgo
When an advanced industrial economy is unable to guarantee electricity will flow to factories, hospitals, and homes during the heat waves that appear to be becoming more common on this dry continent – or reasonably priced power on other days – society will, at some point, conclude that energy policy has failed and demand a solution from their political institutions.
Public opinion does not favour nuclear energy, the most obvious long-term filler for the reliability gap created by the decline of coal power and its displacement by less-reliable-but-cleaner wind and solar generators.
Into this failure of democracy – the political rejection of rational policy – an unlikely source has proposed a devilishly simple solution.
John Quiggin, a prolific economist and intellectual leader of the left, has proposed a grand compact – one that could finally end the climate wars, prevent what could conceivably become an energy crisis, support a struggling manufacturing sector and provide future generations with clean, reliable power in perpetuity.
The University of Queensland professor proposes ending the ban on nuclear power in return for the immediate introduction of a carbon price. His proposal would reshape the energy economy. Quiggin would initially set a $25 per tonne price for the right to emit carbon dioxide, which would rise to $50 in 2035. Total emissions would be reduced by 40 to 60 per cent by 2030, relative to the year 2000.
By 2050, after taking into account the effects of carbon farming and other forms of atmospheric amelioration, Australia’s net emissions would reach a Gilead-like zero.
Quiggin must know that his plan would be devastating for coal. A $50 carbon price would kill off those coal power stations that were still operating, according to Tim Buckley, a prominent anti-coal financial analyst. Coal exports, valued at $60 billion now, would be not directly affected.
Grand compromise
In the rejection of an industry almost as old as European settlement lies the germ of a grand compromise that might be capable of breaching the seemingly intractable hostility to nuclear energy.
“The Parliament should pass a motion … removing the existing ban on nuclear power,” Quiggin writes in a submission to an inquiry into nuclear power that recently began in the NSW Parliament. “Support for the motion should be binding on all members of the major parties.”
In the emotive world of nuclear politics, Quiggin’s call is treason. Others on the left have flirted with nuclear, including climate change activists Tim Flannery and Simon Holmes a Court, and economist Andrew Charlton. None have been prepared to take a central role in the current debate.
Public figures who propose Australia secure access to nuclear power – as almost all the nation members of the Organisation for Economic Development have – face personal attacks, facilitated by social media, that make a rational public discussion more difficult.
A South Australian energy modeller and pro-nuclear campaigner, Ben Heard, says that before pretty much every second public appearance he agrees to, the organisers express second thoughts after lobbying by Friends of the Earth or others.
“I have been called a racist,” he says. “I have been called corrupt. I am constantly called a lobbyist, which I am not. I have been accused of taking public money to deliver ridiculous ideas. I have been called not an environmentalist. I am an environmentalist. I am associated with a company that makes drones and I am somehow accused of being associated with killing children. I receive thinly veiled death threats. This is my life.”
Overshadowing the discussion is, as businessman Dr Ziggy Switkowski told a federal parliamentary inquiry last week, a mindset from 1979. Nuclear war was the world’s greatest fear when reactor number two at the Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania melted down. The accident, which didn’t cost a life, defined the industry in popular culture for a generation. At Daiichi-Fukushima in 2011 – the worst nuclear failure since the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl power plant in 1986 – there has been one reported death from radiation exposure.
Fifty nuclear power reactors are now being constructed in 15 countries. Yet anti-nuclear sentiment remains a totemic position on the left in Australia and a major constraint on the Labor Party.
Questioning baseload
Fighting off inner-city Greens, the opposition is already trying to undermine the nascent debate by arguing that “baseload” is an archaic concept that will be made redundant by mobile phones that charge themselves overnight and Tesla batteries.
Without a need for baseload, which is sometimes referred to as ‘firmed’ or ‘dispatchable’ energy, solar and wind power will make expensive nuclear power unnecessary, Labor MPs suggested at last week‘s inquiry, one of three under way.
Using language to rewrite the laws of physics isn’t a sustainable strategy, especially in manufacturing-loving Victoria, where Energy Minister Angus Taylor and the energy regulator have warned of blackouts this summer. When airconditioners in voters’ homes stop working on 35-degree days, Elon Musk’s promises of power self sufficiency aren’t going to stop a political backlash.
In an era when it is popular to complain about political short-termism, energy policy requires long-term, preferably bipartisan planning. A carbon price could be good politics. Nuclear power, some experts say, could be sensible policy.
If Quiggin or others can accept small-scale nuclear power as the cost of a carbon price, opposition on the left to nuclear could fracture. Creating political space for leading political figures on the left not to oppose nuclear would be important, which means welcoming their involvement in the debate.
In Quiggin’s case, the Whitlamite academic has felt the need to bolster his credibility with the anti-nuclear community by telling them through the Guardian that the political impediments are too great to overcome – without mentioning his underlying support for the technology.
“We don’t need to call on the phantom of nuclear power to secure a reliable, carbon-free electricity supply for the future,” he wrote on July 17, one month before urging NSW to endorse nuclear.
A carbon price would delight the left, and would be unlikely to upset most of the business community. Small-scale nuclear reactors could be framed as a nascent technology that might not ever happen – giving its opponents a short-term political victory in the long-term national interest.
A confident and pragmatic centre-right government could seize the opportunity to alter the path of Australian economic and environmental history – from one of the worst emitters of carbon, based on population, to among the lowest.
To get to that political pivot point, Taylor will have to convince Australians that nuclear power isn’t going to kill them.
It is a test for the minister, and of Australian democracy. Is the federation capable of shifting an economy blessed with huge energy sources from one of the most expensive electricity markets to one of the cheapest?

and then the gotcha

Left support for NSW nuclear power industry
https://www.afr.com/companies/energy/left-support-for-nsw-nuclear-power-industry-20190830-p52mji
Aaron Patrick Senior Correspondent
Sep 2, 2019
Left-wing economist John Quiggin has urged the NSW Parliament to legalise nuclear power, making the University of Queensland academic the most prominent environmentalist to support the controversial energy source.
Professor Quiggin told a NSW parliamentary inquiry into uranium mining and nuclear power that the ban should be lifted simultaneously with the introduction of a price charged for emitting Greenhouse gases.
“The Parliament should pass a motion … removing the existing ban on nuclear power,” he said in a written submission. “Nuclear power is not viable in the absence of a carbon price.”
The inquiry, one of three similar under way, is seen by some Coalition MPs as the start of a long process of convincing voters to support nuclear reactors to replace the state’s ageing coal power stations, including Liddell in the Hunter Valley, which is due to close after the summer of 2023.
The first step could be allowing mining companies to extract uranium in NSW, as they do in South Australia. Uranium was first discovered in Australia in 1894 near in Orange in central NSW.
“[Lifting] the uranium ban could be a way to test public sentiment,” said Taylor Martin, the Liberal chairman of the NSW inquiry.
Even though the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi reactor leak in Japan hurt public support for nuclear power, a survey in June by Essential Media estimated 44 per cent of Australians supported nuclear power plants and 40 per cent opposed them.
The Minerals Council of Australia, a lobby group, successfully pushed for a federal parliamentary inquiry into nuclear, which is examining the feasibility of a new generation of compact power plants that are meant to be safer and much cheaper than the huge stations that supply about 11 per cent of the world’s electricity.
“I think we are opening people’s minds to the fact that the solutions are not just a couple of types of energy sources for your energy situation in Australia,” said Minerals Council chief executive Tania Constable.
The NSW inquiry is the result of a private members bill introduced by state One Nation leader Mark Latham that would allow uranium mining. Nuclear power is banned in NSW under federal and state regulations, according to Mr Martin, who said his office hadn’t received any complaints about the inquiry.
“I have had not a single email from people even decrying us holding the inquiry,” he said. “I think everyone is quite open to having the discussion and looking at the facts and improvements in reactor design and technology and considering what may be necessary in decades to come.”
The NSW inquiry recently inspected a uranium mine in South Australia, about 150km from the NSW border, run by Heathgate Resources.
Treasurer Dominic Perrottet and Deputy Premier John Barilaro have both expressed support for nuclear power. Premier Gladys Berejiklian last week said she wasn’t a supporter but encouraged public discussion.
“I don’t think we should stop debating it,” she said. “If there are people who feel there are new emerging technologies we should look at, that’s for them.”

The biggest impediment to development of the industry is opposition from the Labor and Greens parties, environmental groups and left-wing think tanks such as The Australia Institute.
The conditional support of left-wing academics such as Professor Quiggin could, over time, lessen opposition to nuclear power, which supporters say could be used as a back up for wind and solar power.
In Victoria a parliamentary inquiry began two weeks ago at the request of a Liberal Democrat MP, David Limbrick.
The 12-month inquiry will explore if nuclear energy would be feasible and suitable for Victoria in the future, and consider waste management, health and safety and industrial and medical applications, AAP reported.
BHP’s Olympic Dam in South Australia contains 26 per cent of the world’s low-cost uranium and is the world’s largest uranium deposit.

21 thoughts on “A nuclear grand bargain ?

  1. I see at the end of the gotcha it is pointed out that South Australia has a huge uranium deposit. It seems to be implied that having a huge deposit makes it worthwhile to mine regardless of the actual cost of uranium. An oversupply of uranium I can live with. But when the same thinking is applied to coal, maybe I could live with that, but a lot of other people, mostly in poorer countries, won’t.

    It’s very Soviet of them to think that having a resource, or perhaps “nega-source” in the case of coal, means it has to be exploited.

  2. Opposition on the left to nuclear power as a totemic issue is probably concentrated among those aged 60 or more, the same people who cut their teeth on the anti-uranium mining campaign which ran from the mid 70s to early 80s. It doesn’t seem like such a big obstacle to me.

    A more practical obstacle is who will pay for it. No private investors in their right minds would commit to such a project when it could be killed at any time by capricious changes in energy policy such as we have seen in the past decade. This leaves only leaves government. I guess it could happen. The money for a nuclear reactor or three is chump change compared to what is being spent on the NBN and submarines and what is proposed on east coast fast rail.

  3. “I wasn’t expecting much of a reaction to my submission to two Parliamentary inquiries into nuclear power, in which I advocated imposing a carbon price (set to rise to $50/tonne over time) and, conditional on this, repealing the existing legislative ban on nuclear power.”

    But why do we have to always do things in such a way as to diminish local sovereignty? The same pricing effect could be achieved by a blanket policy of erring on the side of making royalties too high rather than too low.

    We are offloading this precious resource for a song and a dance and then burning up a lot of the energy in the transporting of it to its foreign destination. In a better world we could take that coal, liquify it, take out the fissionable material, which tends to hold as much of, or more than, the energy that the coal itself has. So we take that coal, liquify with heat and H2, take out the fissionable material, then add more heat and add more H2 and then we can be pulling off $1000 per hour jet fuel, and after all the high-priced hydro-carbons are taken out we can pump the cleanest, most awesome liquid diesel to the coast landing in giant tankers that use up just a small portion of the energy to get the product to people who can use it to end poverty.

    In other words we can have bipartisan support for slowing down our coal exports. But as soon as you type the phrase “Carbon Price” the shadows of the international oligarchs grow larger. And their incisors of their shadows grow disproportionately faster. You are empowering internationalist parasites with that sort of talk. We can get more bipartisan support if we follow international goals but always with local control. I’m not going to be critical of anything much you are saying there, because I have my own nationalistic and patriotic reasons to slow down coal exports. But could you not practice diplomacy and simply talk about cranking up coal royalties?

    I hope this is a friendly amendment.

  4. “A nuclear grand bargain ?” Now that I’ve torn off my chief caveat I can see that the entirety of what you are trying to do here is actually assemble a potential bipartisan agreement. So you know. What can I say but “Bravo” … But they say “Think globally act locally” and I think this phrase should apply to sovereignty. Good show and all that. I hope a slightly amended version of your suggestion gets all the momentum in the world.

    Onward.

  5. When they say “50 new plants under construction” they mislead by not continuing with “there were 174 nuclear reactors shut down permanently as of that year. The United States had permanently shut down 35 nuclear facilities as of February 2019”.

    Reasons for closures are cost overruns etc

    “The majority of planned new nuclear capacity is set in Asia. The increased capacity is also being created through upgrading already existing plants. Many existing atomic reactors are over 30 years old, which may exceed or is close to exceeding the designed lifetime of the reactors. ”

    https://www.statista.com/statistics/513671/number-of-under-construction-nuclear-reactors-worldwide/

  6. rog its all about molten salts. Molten salts CSP. Molten salts liquid metal batteries and molten salts fissionable materials. You can delay the nuclear and thats okay. Delay delay delay is okay but not with molten salts. Because in any better world we have to be molten salts experts, with molten salts tradesmen and a molten salts glutted workforce.

    Don’t make this a simplistic pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear argument. Thats just silly. We have at least one world-class concentrated solar power about to come online in the next one or two years. We need to leverage this superb technology to start getting good at replicating this stuff. Thats a big job. There just isn’t the room for this mindless taking of sides. If we become the molten salts experts of the world the thorium nuclear will just slide in easily without too much drama. Maybe thats 30 years in the future if we start working hard now. I mean by this getting the sole traders and workers so good at working with molten salts there is not going to be a blowout of costs when we start putting together these nuclear reactors.

    A good first step is to crank up the royalties on coal. The Professor wants to talk about a “carbon price” ggggrrrrr. But you know. We want to get the job done one way or another.

  7. A way for the LNP to save face on a carbon price, without significantly increasing the likelihood that a nuclear plant gets private funding. Nice work.

    Transmission and firming aren’t coming on fast enough for renewables yet, though, and it’s going to be a rocky 5 years while that sorts itself out. I’d expect lots more “but nuclear!” noise in that interim.

  8. I read my AFR this morning and nearly fell out of my seat. Still not entirely clear why you presented things in this way – make nuclear legit conditional on a carbon price.

  9. No surprise that I see being a party of pro-coal and gas climate science deniers is incompatible with – antithetical to – a policy of displacing fossil fuels with nuclear. The LNP having a clear policy of addressing emissions using nuclear energy should not be dependent upon the ALP or The Greens support; in any other policy area the very idea that the LNP won’t have a policy they believe in because the ALP and Greens don’t support it would sound ludicrous. Well, to me it still sounds ludicrous.

    It sounds more like a policy they don’t really believe in – that their frothing about nuclear is about raising a bar too high for climate action for those on the Left to support, with the convoluted logic of justifying opposition to renewables because the Left keep opposing nuclear. Despite nuclear being a policy the LNP does not even have itself!

    I do wonder if this time around this nuclear debate is as much about applying the same kind of tactical illogic to a more serious internal disagreement within the LNP about climate and energy, that simmers quietly behind closed doors – that it seeks to raise a bar on climate action that those on the Right (who do know better on climate – there must be some) will deem to be too high.

    I think Mr Joyce’s call to support nuclear or shut up about climate could have been aimed more at the internal “dissenters” than at the ALP and Greens – and whilst fundamental belief that the science on climate must be wrong is getting harder for the deniers-in-charge to sustain, belief in “just use nuclear – problem solved” still has some currency amongst politicians who have, so far, not really had cause to examine the optimistic assumptions more closely.

  10. Capturing the externality of fossil fuel is important, but I can’t see even with a carbon price how any other technology than wind/solar PV with storage will be headed off. Not sure if people saw a story about a Californian electrical union helping to block a solar PV with storage project with a delivered energy price of 3.3c/kWh. With storage! Nothing will touch it.

    They were trying to block it because it means two (relatively new) gas power stations get shutdown. Even new ones can’t compete.

    Nuclear advocacy is a deliberate distraction attempting to organise Govt policy to have fat handouts for stranded fossil infrastructure or just grabbing the cash from the corrupt political process.

  11. JQ pretends to be surprised at people being surprised by his support for the unbanning of nuclear in Australia.

    Really?

    JQ is a clever person, with a recent track record of pithy putdowns for nuclear nutquackers.

    So I had a think and realised that JQ like many others is in denial about nuclear negatives, particularly the health impacts of nuclear.

    Self deception perfected.

  12. This maybe a separate topic, but it seems to me there already is a good experience base with constructing small ‘modular’ nuclear reactors. They’re shipboard nuclear power plants for submarines and aircraft carriers. It’s extremely difficult to find the individual costs of those things however.

    Along with the impossibility of Gen4 versions, how different could they be?

  13. Zvyozdochka: No naval bases use small ship sized nuclear reactors to power themselves. That’s a hint about how much they cost. I don’t have figures, but the answer is definitely — very expensive. The Royal Navy decided not to use nuclear reactors for its new aircraft carriers as the expense was too great.

  14. @Zvyozdochka, the small modular reactors used for submarines and aircraft carries are very different to the advanced reactors under development in North America and elsewhere. Naval reactors are pressured water reactors that use highly enriched uranium (HEU). Just for starters, regulators are most unlikely to permit the use of HEU for civilian nuclear power as it is considered a proliferation risk. HEU is also expensive.The chance of naval reactors ever seeing civilian service is probably next to zero.

    There is an impressive range of technologies under development in the small modular and micro modular space including, but not limited to, pressurised water reactors, boiling water reactors, liquid metal cooled fast reactors, gas cooled reactors, fast and thermal spectrum molten salt reactors and even a nuclear “gas turbine”. No space to go into the latter here. The proponents of each have their good story to tell and valid grounds for their technology choices. We shall just have to wait and see which technologies win out in practice. That’s actually a good thing because of the diversity.

  15. @Rog, Wrt to plant service lives, almost the entire US reactor fleet have now been granted 60 year licenses and the NRC is now processing the first advanced applications for 80 year licenses.

  16. “Not sure if people saw a story about a Californian electrical union helping to block a solar PV with storage project with a delivered energy price of 3.3c/kWh. With storage! Nothing will touch it.”

    From now on they all need to show up with their own storage. If they are Australians we ought to have zero interest loans for them but they have to have storage because renewables without storage are messing with our grid.

    “A more practical obstacle is who will pay for it. No private investors in their right minds would commit to such a project when it could be killed at any time by capricious changes in energy policy such as we have seen in the past decade.”

    Right. The first few reactors are going to have to be communist undertakings, and we ought to have ASIO cover to head off sabotage. Or else every Mossad agent and his Momma will end up with a job there. We could buy the first thorium molten salt reactor, and get it delivered to a coastal town. But after the first bought one we ought to slowly get good at making them ourselves.

    “I see at the end of the gotcha it is pointed out that South Australia has a huge uranium deposit. It seems to be implied that having a huge deposit makes it worthwhile to mine regardless of the actual cost of uranium.”

    We ought not mine it until we have our own reactors. Or we ought to mine it with huge royalties. These things are so valuable we ought not be selling them off too cheaply. Processed uranium ought to be seen as only the kindling. Maybe only the match to light the fire. But kindling is a good enough analogy. Thorium is the big logs. Uranium and plutonium are the kindling.

  17. The French actually designed their naval reactors specifically to use civilian grade fuel. High end of civilian grade, but civilian grade – They did this because they did not want to open up a second fuel production line, but it also means they can, in fact, export them without getting into trouble with the relevant treaties. Which further means that one obvious benefit of getting rid of the nuclear ban is that it allows the Australian government to tell the French to just build standard (that is, nuclear) Barracudas for the navy instead of wasting engineering effort crippling the design.

  18. A clever way to get back to a worthy discussion on Australia’s energy future. As Graeme Bird has already alluded in this thread that any discussion cannot avoid the export parity prcing for resource exports that were agreed in the 1990’s that excluded the externality cost. Resource rents should be sufficient to allow Australia a strong funding base for future developments. International trade that does not account for externalities is the core. The suggestions that EU might insist on Paris agreement etc on trade deals may be a good sign, although they have other reasons.

  19. ‘In the rejection of an industry almost as old as European settlement …’ And he’s got the nerve to patronize other people as ’emotive’??

  20. Thomas, France doesn’t export nuclear submarines to any countries. I don’t think they’d be likely to make an exception for Australia just because we ‘tell them to’.

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