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.

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Are SMRs vaporware

It seems as if nuclear fans in Australia have given up on conventional Generation III/III+ reactors such as the Westinghouse AP1000 and Areva EPR: unsurprising in view of the massive cost overruns and delays experienced in attempts to construct them.

They’ve also gone quiet on the prospect of more advanced “Generation IV” reactors. Again that’s unsurprising. Most of the leading research projects in this field have been abandoned or deferred past 2030, even for prototypes.

The great hope now is for Small Modular Reactors, which will, it is hoped, be assembled on site from parts built in factories. The idea is that the savings in construction will offset the loss of the scale economies inherent in having a larger reactor (arising ultimately from the fact that the volume of a sphere grows faster than its surface area).

Lots of SMR ideas have been proposed, but the only one with any serious prospect of entering commercial use is that proposed by NuScale, with funding from the US Department of Energy. NuScale has recently claimed that it should have its first reactor (consisting of 12 modules) in operation by 2027.

A couple of observations on this. First, when the project was funded back in 2014 the proposed start date was 2023. So, in the course of five years, the target time to completion has been reduced from nine years to eight. That suggests the 2027 target is pretty optimistic.

Second, NuScale isn’t actually going to build the factory that is the key selling point of the SMR idea. The press release says that the parts will be made by BWX, formerly Babcock and Wilcox (who abandoned their own SMR proposal around the time NuScale got funded).

So, is BWX going to build a factory, or is this going to be a bespoke job using existing plants (presumably much more expensive). I went to their website to find out. But far from getting a clear answer, I could find no mention at all of a deal with NuScale, or of any recent activity around SMRs.

So, there you have it. Australia’s proposed nuclear strategy rests on a non-existent plant to be manufactured by a company that apparently knows nothing about it.

Rethinking nuclear

Apparently, in order to placate Barnaby Joyce and others, there will be a Parliamentary inquiry into nuclear power. I was thinking of putting a boring submission restating all the reasons why nuclear power will never happen in Australia, but that seemed pretty pointless.

Given that the entire exercise is founded in fantasy, I’m thinking it would be better to suspend disbelief and ask what we need if nuclear power is to have a chance here. The answer is in two parts:

  • Repeal the existing ban on nuclear power
  • Impose a carbon price high enough to make new nuclear power cheaper than existing coal (and, ideally gas) fired power stations
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Mesmerised by Messmer

Faced with glaring evidence of delays and cost blowouts, advocates of nuclear power invariably fall back on the same argument: France did it in the 1970s, why can’t we? An obvious riposte is that France can’t do it any more, as shown by the Flamanville fiasco. A more reasonable answer, which I put forward some years ago, is that the 1970s program depended on characteristics of the French state at the time: centralised, technocratic and with complete control of the energy sector. Those characteristics can’t be replicated today – the state doesn’t have the same power to ignore public opinion or to direct investment.

In writing this, I wasn’t aware of the details of the French experience, which make the point even more clearly. The French nuclear expansion began with the announcement of the Messmer Plan, by PM Pierre Messmer for France to go ‘all nuclear, all electric’.

Messmer announced the plan in early 1974, and construction of the first three plants started in December of that year. There was no parliamentary debate, no opportunity for public discussion and of course nothing like an environmental impact statement. It was the absence of any kind of due process, rather than super-efficient construction that accounts for the speed with which the Plan took effect. The first plants took six years to build; delays and costs increased over time.

Even so, the Plan was not delivered in full.The plan envisaged the construction of around 80 nuclear plants by 1985 and a total of 170 plants by 2000. Even so, the Plan was not delivered in full. The actual number was only 56, and the hoped for transition to an all-electric economy didn’t happen.

The big yellow grader, one last time

Adani is getting on with the job of building its Carmichael coal mine as opponents prepare for a renewed campaign of protests.

That’s the lead in this SMH story about the Carmichael mine. But the picture released is the same yellow grader that’s been there for months.

This is a puzzle. On the one hand, Adani’s pronouncements exude confidence that the mine will be shipping coal within a couple of years. That was reinforced in a recent interview with Gautam Adani himself.

On the other hand, the company is showing no signs of urgency about getting to work. They’ve advertised only four jobs on their portal this month, after cutting lots of staff last year. And there’s been no announcement regarding contractors, consulting engineers and so forth, even though all their previous partners have either been sacked or walked away.

Given the subsidies Adani has recieved in India, the project might just be financially viable. But if so, why isn’t the corporation rushing to get it done while the political stars are aligned.