No takers for a nuclear grand bargain

A while ago, I made a submission to a Parliamentary inquiry into nuclear power and, in particular, the removal of the 1998 legislative ban on nuclear power. The inquiry was pretty obviously a stunt aimed at placating Barnaby Joyce and the nuclear lobby[1], but I decided to take it seriously and ask what would be needed to give nuclear power any chance, economically and in terms of social acceptance, in Australia.

I proposed what’s been called a grand bargain , lifting the ban in return for a commitment to decarbonize electricity by 2040, and a carbon price increasing steadily over time to achieve that goal.

The Committee has now reported, and, unsurprisingly no one is interested in the idea of a grand bargain. In fact, the idea wasn’t mentioned, not even to dismiss it. Nor, as far as I can tell did any of the pro-nuclear submissions say anything about carbon prices.

The government majority has advocated (with a fair bit of hedging) a partial lifting of the ban, but did not dare break the taboo on talking about carbon prices. Unsurprisingly in these circumstances, the dissenting reports (from Labor and Zali Steggall) pointed out the obvious errors in the majority report, made some modest suggestions about renewables, and left it at that.

This wasn’t a surprise. As I wrote at the time,

nothing remotely like this will happen. It’s rather more likely that Barnaby and the committee will discover a working technology for cold fusion, based on harnessing unicorns.

Still, I think it was worth making a good faith effort to test whether there is any serious thought behind nuclear advocacy in Australia, or whether it’s a combination of culture war and delusion. This process shows, pretty clear, that it’s the latter.

fn1: Right wing culture warriors make up the majority of nuclear fans. They support nuclear power because greens and lefties oppose it (if the left switched its position, as it did on market-based emissions policies back in the 1990s, the right would reverse themselves also.

A smaller, but more passionate group of supporters consists of people who’ve latched on to nuclear at some point when it seemed promising, and then ignored all the evidence of its failure to deliver on its promises. Since the case for nuclear depends on the assumption that renewables can’t do the job, these nuclear fans end up making the case that continued reliance on coal is desirable, or at least inevitable, until the far distant day when their preferred solution becomes available.

22 thoughts on “No takers for a nuclear grand bargain

  1. If, or since, nuclear is prohibitively expensive, why should anyone take it seriously – with or without a carbon price? A carbon price isn’t going to make nuclear economically viable, since a carbon price will make renewables the first to be dispatched.

    What residual role would remain for nuclear, such as providing on demand generation at night when the wind isn’t blowing and batteries are not sufficient, won’t be nearly enough to pay for nuclear construction and fuel.

    The only way nuclear could be viable would be with massive subsidies, which no one has argued for and no one wants,

  2. > theoretically very cheap

    The same assumptions that make nuclear very cheap (cheap labour and materials) also make everything else cheap from what I can see.

    One reason renewables are so popular is that they’re scaleable, so people can build the size that makes sense. You can build a single megawatt of solar or wind power, and that is roughly 1/100 as hard as building 100MW of it. Sure, nuclear is sort of scalable but when the basic unit is ~10% of Australia’s electricity demand it’s really hard to be flexible (viz, they are roughly gigawatt size). You can’t build a single MW of nuclear power, and it’s definitely not 1/1000 as hard as building a GW of it.

    The “easy and cheap” nuclear solutions I’ve seen are a bit like the “recycle lithium batteries” solutions – currently there’s no demand for them, but people are definitely thinking about the problem and if the predicted demand arrives it seems likely we’ll have a solution. However, unlike nuclear power, there is a very definite predictable demand for recycling lithium… the batteries exist, one day they’re going to need to be cleaned up.

  3. Photovoltaic doesn’t scale as well as all that. The panels require silicon to be heated to 1400 degrees with Chinese brown coal. They require rare earth elements, which means mining and therefore more hydrocarbons. To be economic they need to be compatible with a Georgist land tax which seems a stretch. And they must come with storage. So they are just one more energy source rather than a key one. We need all these sources. We must not be against any of them. But photo-voltaic solar will never carry the whole thing on its own. Nor should we expect any one energy source to do so.

    CSP is good for the deserts while nuclear would be good for the coast. CSP only requires silver as a rare earth and perhaps that can be overcome with a more common substitute. Since all other materials in CSP are common, given enough time we can get the price down. Heliostats can be so big that trees, grass, animals and even houses can spring up underneath them, and desert land would not seem to require a large Georgist tax. Even if it will take 100 years before we can make heliostats very cheaply 100% Australian, we ought to get started slowly because of the inherent scalable nature. The inherent potential cheapness in the right section of the continent. So it goes with Thorium. Though it might take 50 years getting our ducks in a row with thorium, since its so inherently cheap if we start now and start slowly we will eventually do well out of it.

  4. Nuclear power is a weapon that culture warriors like to keep handy, as a gotcha win to any argument.

    Deep down they don’t really want to live next door to a nuclear reactor, whatever the size.

  5. I think there are other reasons why people support nuclear power and others don’t support it. I think there are a lot of people who do not understand our energy options and their different consequences, along with the magnitude of those consequences. This is why the debate is so opaque. It can’t be properly weighed up without an understanding of engineering and physics. Filter out all the people that don’t have a decent understanding of the problem and you have a different consensus. Unfortunately the Dunning-Kruger effect seems to exist and often the loudest voices are also the least informed of the perplexing complexity.

  6. JQ may be under a misconception. If the other side were s genuine industrial interest, with major investors sitting on projects ready to go under the right conditions – as with gas, oil, renewables and even coal – then his deal would have made sense. But there are no such investors. The nuclear infustry in OECD countries consists of moribund legacy reactor builders, kept alive as wards of the state like Areva, or longshot startups run by wild-eyed projectors. The pro-nuclear bloggers are hobbyists or students in nuclear engineering departments slowly realising that they made the wrong choice. For practical purposes, there is no other side to strike a deal with.

  7. James is absolutely right. Thats why nuclear must be a decades long commitment. Rushing will lead to white elephants and cost over-runs. Nuclear may constitute an ultimate solution for our distant ancestors. Yet clearly its no quick fix.

    But we ought not be thinking of the one correct solution. We ought not be thinking of any one quick fix. We ought to be pursuing many investments at once. Fortunately for renewables we need storage. The best storage is liquid metal batteries incorporating molten salts. We need molten salts also for nuclear. So here we have a clear path of producer goods accumulation, skills, and investments that we need to make to incorporate all energy sources. The right strategy writes itself.

  8. Listen here Birdy, nuclear has already had decades of commitment, it’s failed to meet expectations and needs a stake driven through its undead heart.

  9. Who do you have in mind when you say this

    Since the case for nuclear depends on the assumption that renewables can’t do the job, these nuclear fans end up making the case that continued reliance on coal is desirable, or at least inevitable, until the far distant day when their preferred solution becomes available.

  10. “Since the case for nuclear depends on the assumption that renewables can’t do the job, these nuclear fans end up making the case that continued reliance on coal is desirable, or at least inevitable, until the far distant day when their preferred solution becomes available.”

    Thats the logic for sure. And its perfectly good logic. The renewables have to pay their way without subsidies, they have to pay for their own storage. They must pay their land tax. Renewables under these circumstances must be able to pay for the manufacture of more renewables. If all these requirements aren’t met, they cannot yet do the job.

    Since it will take us a long time to get nuclear right, this means we need another generation of coal stations. There is no denying reality. Clearly one more generation of high-tech coal stations is needed, and no-one here can get around this, who isn’t demanding subsidies, and therefore making his case ludicrous. So yes thats the logic. The logic is unassailable. And it is a great shame. But the left brought this on themselves. They created the extra costs which lead to the unviability of nuclear from 1979-1983. Part of the idea of making nuclear a long-term national goal is to stop the left from playing silly-buggers.

  11. Saint Germain: “Nuclear power in one small country” makes even less sense than “socialism in one country”. Major industrial countries including the USA, the Soviet Union, France, the UK, ROK and Japan struggled and failed to crack the problem of safe, cheap, and reliable nuclear power. China is repeating the experience as it ramps up safety to OECD levels. Do you think Australia can succeed where all others failed?

    Before you repeat again the falsehood that renewables plus backup are expensive, read Andrew Blakers’ 100% renewable electricity scenario for Australia. It’s now two years old and the prices for wind, solar and batteries have continued to slide, but even then he found that a grid with only wind, PV solar, HVDC transmission and pumped hydro storage worked out cheaper than the current coal-heavy Australian supply.

  12. I think Saint Germain is just sock puppet Graeme Bird. The truth-denial, fake facts style is very similar.

  13. Saint Germain says:
    December 16, 2019 at 10:06 pm

    “There is no denying reality.” in your mind.

    After you read Blakers as suggested by JW above, see if you can match the $200 pp from ‘us’ to spend $4-8bn on renewables.

    https://abc.net.au/news/2019-12-17/what-youd-spend-to-prevent-climate-change-and-what-you-could-get/11784704

    Do you realise who’s blog you are commenting on?
    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/16/the-idea-of-producing-nuclear-energy-in-australia-before-2040-is-absurd

    Make sure it is not only your words, as I don’t believe in saints.

    To all above, can we not challenge SG as it will just come back with more “So yes thats the logic. The logic is unassailable. And it is a great shame. But the left brought this on themselves. They created the extra costs which lead to the unviability of nuclear from 1979-1983. Part of the idea of making nuclear a long-term national goal is to stop the left from playing silly-buggers.”

    As J-D says – sigh-tation please.

  14. Tim Buckley has a more encouraging view of the energy market in India

    “ India entered the first decade of the 21st-century on a path of massive coal-fired power generation investment, with plans reaching over 600 gigawatts. India now exits this decade with over four-fifths of this high-emission, high-pollution investment intent now shelved, uncompetitive against zero emissions renewable energy.

    What’s more, the Indian government’s plans include a progressive expansion of electric vehicles, putting the country on a path to progressively reduce reliance on expensive, high emissions oil imports.”

    https://thebulletin.org/2019/12/good-news-for-climate-change-india-gets-out-of-coal-and-into-renewable-energy/#

  15. The biggest energy subsidy of all is the de-facto one fossil fuels get through an enduring amnesty on their emissions; as long as it persists any estimates of relative energy costs will be greatly and misleadingly distorted. Preserving that amnesty appears to be our current government’s energy priority – certainly much more important than enabling an accelerating shift to low emissions through support for nuclear energy.

    I think Morrison’s lot get more value from nuclear as something they can point at others for stopping than as an actual policy of their own; blaming others and harnessing divisive opinion to make them appear the least bad voting option is how they do politics. Once nuclear moves out of the realms of tribal beliefs into those of actual policy the inbuilt assumptions (better and cheaper than renewables) will get scrutinised and will not be sustainable. An actual nuclear policy would need foresight and planning and commitment. And willingness to emphasise how serious the climate problem is. And admitting the need to phase out coal and gas.

    It will take them arguing the climate problem is very serious to overcome popular distrust and reluctance and they are not going to do that. Doing nuclear through any kind of non-technology specific policies like emissions pricing will put it directly in competition with RE – and nuclear will lose. As long as they are pro coal and gas climate deniers they don’t really want nuclear; if they really believed the climate problem is serious and nuclear is the best solution they would have that for their policy, irrespective of anything Labor or The Greens say or do. They do not. If anything, being opposed by Labor and The Greens would be seen as yet more reason for the LNP to do it.

    I fully expect the conservative right to end up supporting strong climate action – but when they do they will push RE investment forward, way ahead of any commitment to nuclear.

  16. I was going to post a frustrated grammatically incorrect advisory ad-hom.

    I decided instead to clean my solar panels and read up on not reply to trolls.

    “A new book brings the nuclear and climate threats together in a scary warning. In The Plutocene: Blueprints for a post-Anthropocene Greenhouse Earth, Andrew Glikson considers a future scenario where nuclear war, radioactive pollution, and global heating combine to produce a new era. He urges a range of tactics to avert this gloomy future.”

    “S and P Global Ratings has made it plain: nuclear power can survive only with massive tax-payer support.”

    “A bit of good news –  Ocean Cleanup Makes History by Successfully Collecting First Plastic From Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”

    “Climate change is a health emergency – physicians.”

    “World Nuclear Waste Report.   Dangerous radioactive hot particles span the globe.    Still no country for old nuclear waste. Tritium and other radionuclides are hazardous,even in transport and storage.”

    “Will Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) submarines make nuclear submarines relatively obsolete?”

    https://nuclear-news.net/2019/11/18/154447/

    * I have no idea who nucmear news is.

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