The Old and the New

Some environmentalists like to pretend nuclear is just going away. Were this the case, we wouldn’t be seeing this situation:


Nuclear component manufacturers are gearing up to supply plant for an 48-fold expansion of capacity in China alone. The rising eastern power will also be deploying the kind of fourth generation liquid fueled thechnology first demonstrated in the 1960s.

Meanwhile, Russia is progressing towards closing its fuel cycle with proven fast reactor technology. India is at a similar stage.

Bolivia looked at its neighbours, saw how safe and reliable their nuclear capacity is, and have made the right call.

It’s only a matter of months before the first Japanese reactors are brought back online, safer and more desperately needed than ever.

I could go on. But instead I’ll very roughly make a point. In 2008 Ranger uranium mine exported about 4643 tonnes of uranium, and it generated 1,495,000 GJ (at 433 GJ per tonne) in foreign power plants which is over 415 GWh of practically carbon-free electricity.


If coal had been burned instead, that would roughly be an extra 415,000 tonnes of CO2 dumped into the atmosphere, plus a share of all the rest. Sure, Australia exported a heap of coal in the same year, but my point is the cumulative effort of those miners and truckers who extracted and delivered that uranium conceivably achieved more in the effort against greenhouse gas emissions than any given institutional environmentalist with a flair for polemic and disregard for expert wisdom. However, with groups like the Canada Greens considering calling for new safer reactor designs, it looks like the orthodoxy could soon be challenged from within.



Top Ten Reasons to Learn to Like Nuclear Energy*

10. Upgraded and modern nuclear plants offer defence in depth safety against foreseeable accidents, overseen by stringent international conventions.

9. Both major accidents involving western-designed, robustly contained reactors have caused no deaths or serious injury. Fukushima is unlikely to appreciably raise cancer incidence. Current and proposed modern designs avoid the flaws involved in the Chernobyl disaster.

8. Even non-permanent storage of spent nuclear fuel is so far very safe. Dry casks release no radiation and proved resistant to all damage during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

7. Modern plants can be built as direct replacements for coal-fired capacity, and can operate for around double the lifetime if not more.

6. Uranium in a conventional reactor provides 50 000 times the energy as the equivalent mass of burned coal.

5. Spent nuclear fuel still contains up to 99% of the potential nuclear energy, available to power Fourth Generation reactors in closed fuel cycles.

4. Reactors produce numerous medical isotopes like iodine-131 and molybdenum-99, vital for diagnostic procedures and sophisticated treatment of disease.

3. Australia exports nearly 7500 tons of uranium oxide yellow cake which generates carbon-mitigating electricity in foreign reactors. The market is worth over $800 million to our economy. Without this resource, these countries could conceivably turn to expanded fossil fuel energy, increasing their carbon emissions.

2. Bill gates, Richard Branson & the Dalai Lama expect modern reactors to help alleviate poverty.

1. Lifecycle GHG emissions are very low, making nuclear just as “zero carbon” as wind energy. Levelised volumes of materials are low. LCOE (including cost of waste storage and plant decommissioning) is very competitive with renewable energy.



*As much of my previous postings demonstrate, I am familiar with all the common political, social & technical challenges and relative risks of this technology. While I have never been vehemently anti-nuclear at any time in the past, like all too many Australians I’ve felt the casual cultural aversion that is apparently part-and-parcel of being environmentally aware in this country, so I get it – I get that even the consideration of nuclear can be hard to accept. So, while this fun, positive list does not aim to include objections and points of serious contention, what it does include is verifiable and worthy of reflection from those who have not yet seen both sides as I and my fellow advocates have. I thank you for reading.

Some Just Have To Overcompensate

The assertion that the fossil fuel-replacing potential of wind power combined with photovoltaics and concentrating solar thermal plants is so utterly guaranteed that consideration of modern nuclear energy is not merely entirely unnecessary, but somehow foolhardy, is often repeated, always implied, but never any more than specious. The survey of over 1200 South Australians that recently revealed only twenty percent of people were actually strongly opposed to nuclear power intimates that it’s only a vocal minority who is convinced that renewable energy is the one true path. The future of energy is a serious matter, and we’re not living in Dirt Girl World where adequate renewable energy solutions can be cobbled together from junk while everyone is content to grow all their own organic veggies.

I'm sorry, I couldn't resist.

Renewable henergy.

But popularity is hardly a way to reach sound conclusions, so it’s back to the analysis, which helps us grasp some pretty obvious limitations inherent in variable renewables.


Some shows have no other options, of course.

Firstly, although the LCOE of solar is higher, absent cloud cover we at least know for sure when it will be generating. But no so-called 100% renewable energy plan even pretends it will meet our needs without substantial gas back up. No matter how you paint it, the hydrocarbon burning infrastructure is locked in with the intermittent, “clean” technology. If we want to use battery storage instead, the numbers are still against us.

So, OK, by themselves the solar panels would not be able to supply the energy Australia requires but we can always use storage to smooth the power delivered.

Considering that in winter days are shorter let’s add enough storage for 14 hours of the average consumption. That would be 14 x 26 GW = 364 GWh.

Considering Tesla S grade batteries for the above, a total of approximately 2,330,000 tons of batteries would be required. The above would represent ~100 kgs per person. Sure, lithium batteries are among the lowest weight technology, other chemistries would be heavier.


At this point we might want to turn to lower LCOE wind generation but we will quickly wish we hadn’t. The 2013 AEMO wind study included analysis of availability versus demand over a ten year period, highlighting the 10% most demanding periods from summer and winter. For 85% of the time only 8.6 % of installed capacity was firmly available in summer. It was 7.9% for winter. This contribution factor drags wind down below solar for effective availability, and it should be immediately obvious that to increase it would require unavoidable overbuild. To even equal the capacity factor of solar (~20%) in the summertime would require 230% of total 2013 installed capacity.

It’s not just that there are guaranteed to be times when renewables are inadequate. Overproduction has its own problems.

… Increasing the penetration of renewables beyond the point where energy share equals capacity factor would mean the renewable source would begin to regularly produce more electricity than demanded. Without storage or energy sinks willing to buy up excess power, renewable generators would then have to curtail a growing share of their output and waste any associated revenues.

In practice, this ceiling could actually be reached before renewable energy penetration equals capacity factor, as production would begin to regularly exceed demand on high output/low demand days long before this point.

Finally, ultimately, cost will determine what we install, but at the scale we are considering we can’t ignore what we expend for what we’re getting – energy for energy. Analysis by Weißbach and colleagues puts solar and wind, combined with the cheapest required energy storage option (pumped hydro), below the threshold at which they can mathematically contribute economically to the electricity supply of model countries USA and Germany at current prices.


Solar PV in Germany even with the more effective roof installation and even when not taking the needed buffering (storage and over-capacities) into account has an EROI far below the economic limit. Wind energy seems to be above the economic limit but falls below when combined even with the most effective pump storage and even when installed at the German coast.

I still see a substantial role for wind and solar in Australia’s energy future. I actually wish the figures were better for justifying expanding capacity. But it’s simply going to take more than a blind charge down that path.


We need reliable power, but we need to cut emissions. If only there was a way…



Rather Be Wrong My Way

Climate change due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions is a complex topic and I can understand the hesitation of some to simply “believe” the scientists. For others, it would be tempting to focus on a handful of apparent flaws or gaps in the research in order to distance themselves from responsibility or the need to make changes. Whether you accept the scientific conclusions and estimates or not, hopefully this video can provide what I submit is the most rational perspective.

Mr Craven makes the choice perfectly clear – not between “believing” or “disbelieving” in climate change, but between carrying on without risk-mitigation investment or choosing to essentially take out insurance. I personally go with the latter, and I think it is consistent with how most people go about their business. I’d still prefer to be wrong… but only this way.

I advocate that the investment should be in a widespread expansion of nuclear power to first and foremost replace coal as the world’s primary thermal baseload source. We know it can be done. This isn’t a new idea, but responding to the potential impact of climate change was always going to be an expense, and this keeps the plan very simple. Additionally, nuclear energy potentially mitigates all the atmospheric pollutants which no one denies exist and which kill millions annually, and if the warnings do turn out to be alarmist, then the investment has been in a long-term, economical source of reliable electricity which can and will power industry and innovation.

So there’d be a whole lot more nuclear reactors, right? So now we have a new risk, i.e. statistically increased likelihood of accidents. Yes, but how likely, relative to the consequences of severe climate destabilisation (remember Mr Cravens list?) we may have averted, as well as all the benefits of clean electricity we will enjoy? It’s not spin: in perspective, nuclear is safe. We know what went wrong in each of the three famous accidents. No one is planning to build dangerous old Russian reactors or 2nd Generation PWRs or BWRs. The prioirites now focus on defense in depth and beyond design basis accidents. Given that some of these new plants are 3rd Generation solid fuel reactors then we will certainly increase the stockpile of spent nuclear fuel, but this stuff has been safely contained for nearly 50 years while waiting for a permenent solution; the solution would be part of the climate change mitigation investment, i.e. a 4th Generation reactor fleet. Potentially a mix of sodium-cooled reactors and molten salt reactors, they would be modular and dispatchable, and fueled primarily with all of the “nuclear waste” which no one else appears to have a solution for. (Apart from “don’t make more”. It won’t matter if we do, once we have the solution in place!)

So what is my way?

  • Governments must begin setting incentives for domestic nuclear electricity production (through carbon fee/dividend, cancellation of subsidies to fossil fuel sectors, economical licensing regimes, loan guarantees etc). Additionally, they should facilitate international expansion (such as more nuclear in China, and less coal) and enable the IAEA in it’s role. Locally, Australia should assume a responsible leading position in uraniam utilisation/export and nuclear energy in Oceania.
  • Fossil fuel use should be incrementally required to internalise all its waste. There are fees and penalties for dumping solid and liquid pollution, why exclude gasses? This will naturally price it out of use.
  • Commercialise affordable modular power plants to provide secure electricity in developing countries, under strinct treaty controls where necessary, so that fossil fuels can function in a largely transitional role. Clean power will be fundamentally vital for community and national resilience.
  • Prioritise SNF-consuming 4th Generation reactor installations.
  • Specialise reactor technology for superscale desalination and industrial process heat: keep agriculture secure with abundant fertiliser and water to insure against disruption by climatic changes, and even begin reclaiming coastal desert.LFTR_dessert
    Synthesise carbon-neutral hydrocarbon fuels that compete with fossil fuels, which will lead to the diversion of petroleum products away from combustion towards synthetic feedstock.

They’re the main points (let me know if I missed anything vital!). Lot of details to work out, and with all that cheap, clean electricity and heat energy, I guarantee countless applications I haven’t even considered. Personally, it begins to look to me like the difference between being wrong and being right could all be in the weather.

That’s “Honest” Debate Part II: Electric Boogaloo

Is there any advice out there about not posting angry? Well, today the actual numbers pertinent to the solar PV projects at Nyngan and Broken Hill were brought to my attention, and I asked myself, on behalf of Australia, “What in heck do we think we’re doing?”


What 102MW of outback solar might look like.

The pair of farms will boast 155 MW of installed capacity, and with a price tag of $450,000,000 this equates to just over $2.9 million per nameplate MW. I suppose this is 375 hectares of sunlit Australia that will at least be harvesting electricity for us.

Olkiluoto unit 3 receives a lot of criticism for being billions over budget and years late. A 1600 MW EPR, at the recent estimate of US$11.1 billion it will eventually cost $6.94 million per MW.

But these are fundamentally different forms of generation. AGL work with a capacity factor of 0.265 when they announce their solar farms will supply 360 GWh/year of electrcity. The entirely reasonable capacity factor of 0.9 for modern nuclear plants will see Olkiluoto 3 contribute 12.6 TWh/year to the Finnish grid.

With that in mind, consider the expected lifetime of PV panels. In 25 to 30 years perhaps all 2 million panels will be replaced by cheaper equivalents, or by something new and more efficient. An EPR is, of course, rated for 60 years of operation, with negligible fuel costs. The million versus billion dollar pricetags aren’t stacking the way you’d expect them to any more.

And if we actually want to limit the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of our low carbon electricity?


Sanmen, China, not long ago.

The pair of Generation III+ Westinghouse AP1000 reactors in Sanmen are approaching their scheduled completion. With a combined capacity of 2234 MW for US$5.88 billion, or US$2.63 million per MW, and a reasonable capacity factor of at least 0.9, China gets an extra 17.6 TWh/year.*

I’m not saying we should halt the expansion of outback solar. Some of these cost estimates may even change with time, and it reamins to be seen how these Chinese costs transfer out of their domestic market. But it is painfully clear that every year Australia excludes modern nuclear terawatt hours, with their reliability and (at worst) competitive or (more representative) starkly superior capacity, we are fiddling during the proverbial conflagration. After all, are coal plants going to close once those PV farms start chipping in their daily contribution?


*Yes. That is almost 50 times as much power, for less $ per MW.