No Alarms and No Surprises

The announcement of a Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission for South Australia surprised practically everyone. Should it have? When this state sits on a significant portion of global uranium reserves? Wasn’t something like this inevitable?

Protestations from traditional Australian nuclear opponents were immediate and shared a common theme: the inquiry is unnecessary. This is our first hint that they are worried. It most certainly is necessary, given:

  • South Australia’s current role in the global fuel cycle;
  • last year’s independent survey indicating a large support base and dwindling opposition in the wider community; and
  • the recommendations of global peak bodies which involve substantial increase in nuclear capacity.

They hurried to reiterate their favourite objections: nuclear’s not low-carbon enough (it is); the Japanese exclusion zone is uninhabitable (it isn’t); nuclear is a failed, ailing technology (it’s flourishing, though not enough); there’s no room for both it and renewable energy (what the heck?). And so on.


Hasn’t France’s reputation held up pretty well..?

Then, the announcement by Senator Sean Edwards of an ambitious vision for a revolutionised nuclear fuel cycle centred in SA – reminiscent of my Radio National talk – with the potential to revitalise our region, promote the growth in nuclear energy recommended by the IPCC, and slash our state electricity emissions and rates, and which directly addresses the concerns over costs and waste. The senator spelled out the errors of stubborn nuclear opponents. Variations on the stale objections dutifully followed.

Predictably, Karecha and Hansen‘s analysis of lives saved and emissions abated globally by convectional nuclear power was carefully ignored – even the published attempt at rebuttal was left uncited by its own author. It was a bit of a disaster last time, after all. As Ben Heard observed:

The study quoted by Kharecha and Hansen is “Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions from historic and projected nuclear power”, published to the journal “Environmental Science and Technology”… When academics resort to cheap shots in a comment thread, it is symptomatic of a weak underlying argument.

So what the heck is going on?

A recent evaluation of related attitudes to climate change action presented to the Canadian Nuclear Association by Dr Matt Nisbet may provide a framework.

Clearly, the potential contribution of advanced nuclear energy has been neglected and its rejection is part of the identity of renewables+efficiency academics and anti-capitalist downwingers. Ecomodernism strives to transcend this and other limitations and fearlessly illuminate the optimum path. It’s about dialogue… which is hard when the other guys refuse to engage.

Let them submit their objections to the Royal Commission. Let the evidence be weighed. If they sincerely believe they are doing good work, that the drawbacks of nuclear are overwhelming, they should be more excited by this inquiry than we are as it will prove them right. Right?



Propaganda. Science. Pick One.

We have earned a new label: the conservation-industrial complex. Evocative, monolithic, dehumanising – perfect for avoiding analysis and self-reflection.

Why bother presenting reasoned critique of, say, distinguished scientists calling for the reevaluation of nuclear energy in the context of global climate destabilisation when a polemical epithet can save all the trouble?

…the recent “An Open Letter to Environmentalists on Nuclear Energy,” signed by a number of academics, some conservation biologists, and other members of the conservation-industrial complex, labels nuclear energy as “sustainable” and argues that because of global warming, nuclear energy plays a “key role” in “global biodiversity conservation.” …And for what will this energy be used? To continue extraction and drawdown­–to convert the last living creatures and their communities into the final dead commodities.

Or maybe it will be used in a key role to conserve global biodiversity, exactly as claimed – rather than the conclusion you have decided fits your castigatory narrative of outright rejection at any and all costs.

Ideally, yes – nuclear energy will be used to continue economic development of emerging nations, alleviation of poverty, expansion of opportunity for following generations. It will also undoubtedly enable the continuance of many of society’s inequitable, undesirable characteristics. And many things besides, but all with significantly lower emissions of greenhouse gas and poisonous particulates, less intensive material extraction and land use, and more certainty based on historical experience.

What would achievement of the romanticised past, deep green agrarian idyll entail? The forced disenfranchisement – or worse – of innumerable humans who currently enjoy and contribute to a high-energy society. The cessation of ubiquitous, affordable technology, such as that exploited in coordinating grass-roots environmental institutions. They are welcome to leap-frog their hoped-for day of reckoning and renounce the internet any time.

Would it involve men and women sharing the hand-washed laundry equally?

With a bit of manufacturing industry experience under my belt, I feel I have an appreciation for just what such people must blithely take for granted when putting finger to injection-molded plastic key to express such a perspective. Nuclear as a future energy source is being reevaluated right at a time when the byproducts of industry are being increasingly sequestered from the environment, when equality in economic participation is expanding and pathways to enhanced health and longevity are coming into greater focus, when statistics and technology will allow a future of prosperity for billions – if that’s what we want.

I Couldn’t Have Written it Better

A trifecta of recent well-written articles deserve their own “ICYMI” post today. The first is a piece on The Conversation about thorium as a potential energy source in the Australian context (certainly something we can anticipate in the future). It is accessible to everyone, gets all the facts straight and makes several key points:

While compelling at first glance, the details reveal a somewhat more murky picture. The molten salt architecture which gives certain thorium reactors high intrinsic safety equally applies to proposed fourth-generation designs using uranium.

Indeed, in my estimation the most promising MSR design at this stage is David LeBlanc and Hugh MacDiamid’s effort over at Terrestrial Energy. He has no intention of debuting with thorium in his reactor.

As a nation we haven’t even managed to figure out the best way to handle slightly radioactive gloves in hospitals, let alone have a mature conversation about nuclear power. The real question is whether Australia can find a way forward to have a civilised discussion about how to generate non-fossil baseload power. And so, by all means, we should talk about thorium, but let’s not demonise uranium at the same time.

Second up is a commentary from Swaraja – Mr Prabhu absolutely nails how stubborn opposition to nuclear revolves predominantly around misunderstanding and fear of the hazards – radiation, in particular:

…Most fear of nuclear technology is based on an ignorance of basic science which is then played upon by interest groups using risk aversion, negativity bias, the framing effects of risk, and an echo chamber to amplify it all. …Radiation is prevalent everywhere; there is no such thing as zero radiation. Life on earth is constantly exposed to radiation from dozens of sources, from the building materials they surround themselves with, the earth they walk on, some of the technology they use, to even the food and water they consume. If you had a banana for breakfast this morning, you have ingested a source of radiation and it may be wise to keep away from the rajma chawal or aloo gobi during lunch. …There is a lot of interesting biology that can be discussed here but suffice it to say that the ability of cells to repair themselves seems to be amplified with exposure to low doses of radiation. However, to put this into context, spontaneous DNA damage occurs at the rate of approximately 200,000 events per cell per day. The approved radiation dose of 1 mSv from nuclear power plants results in natural cell damage at a rate of 0.03 events per cell per day.

Third and last, Hollywood’s latest nukesploitation effort Blackhat came in for relatively bemused criticism from Les Corrice at ANS Nuclear Cafe. The film didn’t rate a cinema release here in Australia. The descriptions of the “reactor” remind me of something depicted in a James Bond film decades ago. It was ridiculous then and it’s ridiculous now.

My first inkling was early on, when the control room was shown. I almost laughed because it had wall-to-wall windows overlooking a vast, steaming open pool of water. First-off, there are no windows in actual nuclear power plant control rooms. Also, the depicted control room looked much like a high-tech Press Box at a modern professional football stadium. Regardless, I was curious about the hot-water pool. I wondered if that was supposed to be the reactor. My speculation was soon verified. There was a series of long, vertical metal pipes deep within the pool—the supposed core. Surrounding these pipes were several rotating fan-like devices. It seems that these were supposed to be the circulation pumps. After a brief computer-graphic depiction of a malware bug invading the fantasy plant’s computer system, the fans speed up and fly apart. The metal pipes immediately begin to get red from massive heat generation and…well…it gets so bad that there’s an explosion that blows open the domed containment, a la Chernobyl. It’s Hollywood, folks. There is literally nothing real-world about the nuke in the flick. It doesn’t matter that all nuclear power plant control room operating systems are not connected to the internet. It doesn’t matter that a massive power surge generating cataclysmic heat generation is only possible in units having a positive reactivity coefficient (Chernobyl, again). What matters is that this is purely the fabrication of creative Hollywood minds doing their best to exploit public fears about nukes spawned by skewed Press and internet reports concerning the Fukushima Accident. It is a pure fiction.

It’s also baffling – if the film makers were struggling for inspiration, rewatching The China Syndrome (complete with its enclosed control room and safely functioning reactor) would have enabled far better realism. Also, what people perceive as the hazard of conventional nuclear is primarily the significant pressure under which the reactor water is kept. The reinforced containment dome’s main function is to contain any release of pressure, as demonstrated at Three Mile Island. Today, the interests of Hollywood, like those of many who still dismiss the technology, is apparently better served by avoiding consulting those in the know.

Whatever amount of research it takes. For the authenticity.

Whatever amount of research it takes. For the authenticity.