The Wind, The Sun and The Nuclear – Part 2

In Part 1 we used information from Australia’s own independent electricity grid operator (and other authorities) to compare wind, solar and nuclear of similar nameplate capacity. We weren’t interested in playing favourites or getting distracted by barriers (real or imagined), but instead in seeing how they would all slot into our power supply as we know it.

Now we must look at why we need it – wind, solar, and nuclear too. Polling has revealed how popular renewable energy is – particularly solar – and that the prospect of using nuclear energy still has much ground to make up. The gender difference is the most striking factor. Only 14% of female respondents were in favour of nuclear energy (compared to 45% for males). It was less popular even than coal and coal seam gas! This seemed to be reflected in SACOME’s nuclear survey, too, which framed the technology as a tool for climate action. The distinct, comparative lack of overall support from women respondents clearly affected what was still a resounding result for nuclear, but suggested that outreach efforts are not connecting with a substantial proportion of women.

Courtesy of @Nuclear4Climate

Courtesy of @Nuclear4Climate

The science is clearer than ever that nuclear power will be needed in our future clean energy mix. What is it about standard efforts to communicate this which is turning women off? I’d really like to explore some possibilities on this without just being another privileged anglo guy telling you all how necessary I think it is, or mansplaining radiation and modern reactor safety. I’d like to find the appeal I know it has, that it shares with towering wind turbines and gleaming solar panels. I’d prefer to achieve this without pretence or rhetorical tricks, just straight-up communication about the things which matter when we think of electricity.

What matters when you think of electricity? Apart from the hole it leaves in our budgets every few months, maybe you only think about saving it when it’s obviously being wasted, like lights on in empty rooms, standby power for the TVs when they’re off, old inefficient fridges, etc. You probably also look at how many kilowatt hours (kWh) you have to pay for. Is it higher or lower than the average for your size household? And what is using the lion’s share of it? When I run the dishwasher, I cancel the program before the drying cycle and let the dishes air dry, and it uses only slightly more than 1 kWh that way. I try to run it around lunchtime when the rooftop panels are generating… but I’m sure you understand I still need to clean the dishes even on rainy days.

Same goes for clothes. I don’t know how some stay-at-home mums make it look so easy. There always seems to be another load of the kids’ unpaired socks to wash. Washing machines have become incredibly efficient machines, ubiquitous and commonplace. As the entertaining Swedish doctor and statistician Hans Rosling pointed out, even the “hard core” members of the environmental movement, who do without the convenience of cars, still won’t wash their jeans and sheets by hand like everyone had to less than a century ago.

And by everyone, I mean women.

This uses up to 1500 watts. The alternative is a cold bathroom.

This uses up to 1500 watts. The alternative is a cold bathroom.

I have 2 vacuum cleaners. Do you? A big model for getting the house really clean, and a small cordless one for quick tidies? Did you know that in a couple of years, any machine more powerful than 900 watts – less than a small microwave oven – will be banned in the EU? Anything above 1600 watts already is. What is your vacuum cleaner rated? Do you think you could get your carpet clean enough if you had to downgrade to less power? I do most of the vacuuming in my house and I know I couldn’t. I like my labour-saving appliances; I’d need to see some pretty overwhelming reasons to start giving them up.

So, without labouring the point, we clearly need electricity when we need it, and when we need it, we’ll pay for it. The difference between watts and kWh isn’t so important – one essentially being the “strength” of the motor or heater, the other being the amount of electricity it ends up using – compared to the incomparable service of always having a sufficiently powerful one there to use.

Let’s relate that back to the task of decarbonising this electricity, because while we’re saving it or paying for it, we’re rarely appreciating the hundreds of grams of carbon dioxide per kWh we also get as a byproduct. In South Australia this is of niaukcourse cut significantly in high wind periods. Commissioning the Ceres wind project would enhance this. Getting all those treatment ponds covered in solar panels would provide somewhat more regular carbon-free electricity. Building the next generation of nuclear plant would permanently replace a large proportion of our fossil-based generation. The more clean generation we have going, the more we’ll be exporting across the border – as it stands, we currently import six times what we export, and it’s some of the world’s most emissions-intensive electricity. Sounds good, right? So what concerns are keeping so many Australian women from giving nuclear a fair hearing?


“We don’t need it.”

If we keep expanding what has worked so far – wind and solar – we’ll someday, soon, have enough to replace coal and gas – that’s the theory, at least. But remember that availability-to-match-demand which AEMO estimated? Really low for wind, not much better for solar… If this is all we had, the numbers say we’ll end up importing even more electricity from the eastern states, for most of the time that we really need it.

OK, so now that we’ve demonstrated wave power works, why don’t we add it in? I definitely want to see more of this technology… but see what we’ve already done – we’ve invoked something else to make up for the holes left by wind and solar. “We don’t need it” has become “we need something, just not nuclear“. This disguised rejection is the same whether we propose grid-scale batteries, biomass combustion, geothermal, concentrating solar or a combination of all of the above. It isn’t obvious unless we keep those AEMO availability percentages in mind.

It also pervades every “~100% Australian Renewable Energy” proposal that we’ve seen. “Professor such-and-such has shown we can go 100% renewable” is a tantalising notion. These plans are never 100% wind and solar: they do demand a complex mix of technologies, some of which are far from proven. They involve “cascading assumptions” to support the desired result of simulated success.

What assumptions do they make about the electricity you use at home? To be frank, they need you to use less, not more. This efficiency-drive is certainly helped by LED light bulbs and efficient heating/cooling – things most of us will probably do in time. But remember the European vacuum cleaners?

Ever consider that your next car might be a fully electric model? Dramatically reducing our overall fossil fuel use will naturally include less petrol consumption. So if most of us end up driving EVs, that’s hardly going to be less demand for electricity.


While distributed energy is lately touted as a more decentralised, “democratic” answer, the required solar panels and hi-tech storage still come from very centralised overseas factories which need constant, reliable power to operate competitively.

And what about businesses? Your workplace? Your partner’s and your friends’? Clearly, they are bigger users of energy, and efficiency initiatives work well to cut what’s being wasted. But there’s a paradox involved because for, say, a 10% saving through efficiency, the business now has more capital available to use to increase productivity. Doing so will tend to use further energy. You’ve maybe heard of Rebound or Jevon’s Paradox; until recent times its influence has been largely underestimated.


Beware of dismissals of baseload. It is not a “myth” – it is literally a fundamental aspect of modern electricity supply. It is the base of the total load (or demand) of everyone using the electrical grid. Click the image for more information.

Recent analysis
by energy policy researchers in the US compared how much efficiency was required for a selection of global 100% renewable plans. The graph shows how this requirement is roughly double the historical best improvements in energy intensity ever achieved (denoted by the lower red bar). Moreover, it would need to be achieved without any rebound.

So these are really plans for electricity decarbonisation which need more than just wind and solar while needing less demand from you and me – instead of including nuclear. Are such plans more popular with women because of this? And why?

“It’s too risky.”

What if you don’t want one in your backyard… because you don’t have one in your backyard?

I developed an untested hypothesis: the more contact you have with people who work at a nearby nuclear plant, the less you fear nuclear and the more you appreciate the benefits of clean electricity. It’s easy to informally ask your neighbors “what’s the truth?” about things that worry you. And you learn the people who operate the plant are just as devoted to their children as you are.

Although every watt coming through our wires is indistinguishable from the other, its source is familiar. Natural gas is a ubiquitous alternative for cooking and heating, and there’s charcoal in the Weber. Virtually anyone can put solar on their roof. You get the picture. But even if Australia had nuclear power plants twenty-plus kilometres outside our cities, and even if you went on a tour, how much of the underlying science could you be comfortable with? (Of course, we have just one such facility in NSW, which runs regular tours, but it makes medicine, not power.) If you don’t have an interest in nuclear physics, then nuclear physics will remain unfamiliar, which is an understandable barrier to letting it into your home.

But as alluded to above, people who already live near them, even if they don’t work there (such as Katie Woods,  Sarah Kovaleski and Maria Korsnick) will overwhelmingly support nuclear plants.


Shouldn’t they? Exhaustive UK research has concluded that rates of diseases like leukaemia are normal around their plants – which are many decades old. Normal, functional plants just aren’t a health risk.

The concern is when they don’t function normally, of course, but even then, why do some people assume that contamination risks trump any other impact? Sarah Laskow is a journalist who lives in New York – a region which is 31% powered by nuclear energy. As she recently observed:

The compelling policy question around this risk and impact and things like that is, on a policy level, how do we make decisions about dealing with these risks? So, I live in New York, it’s pretty close to Indian Point. I know that if there was an explosion at Indian Point or some sort of terrible nuclear incident, I’m not going to get cancer tomorrow, or in ten years, whatever. But, there is this question of, how close to my neighbourhood would the evacuation zone be? Would I be evacuated from my house? And how do we make those decisions? To me it’s a really scary thing that we’re making these decisions based on not-totally certain science. If someone’s going to say ‘Hey Sarah, you need to change your whole life’ it would be nice to know that they knew exactly why. And that I could weigh the risks of health impacts against the impacts social, psychological, financial and again on your health of uprooting your whole life and moving somewhere else. I think that’s part of what people in Fukushima are dealing with.

I won’t address the consequences of the accident four years ago at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant – that is better left to knowledgeable professionals like Geraldine Thomas:

The sort of perpetuated misunderstandings which retard acceptance of energy technology are hardly specific to nuclear power, of course. How often is “wind turbine syndrome” cited in opposition to wind farm planning? And every time, experts must tirelessly push back against the rubbery interpretation of the science, while public perception is altered in subtle ways.

And remember: in Part 1, the nuclear plant we looked at, the one which would be required for the recycling of the nuclear fuel we would save up in the Spent Fuel Bank, would be a modern design which would shut itself down in accident scenarios. This is unequivocal. Assertions about the risks of operating PRISM reactors are put forward publicly by various groups, but, crucially, these are groups who refuse to consult with the scientists and designers of the system. It is the ultimate irony that they are not more open to the prospect of safe reactors which would solve another big issue they have with nuclear power – the high level waste, the spent fuel which PRISM runs on.


Chances are good that a few of these are stuck to your ceiling. The active source is derived from spent nuclear fuel.

They might not want any part of it, but the rest of us stand to enjoy guaranteed low-emissions electricity around the clock. I see South Australia becoming a hub for modern energy technology, and much besides, all with a competitively low carbon footprint. How good will it be to run my dishwasher, washing machine, coffee maker or high-wattage vacuum cleaner “guilt-free”, as it were? What if one of my children decided to be a nuclear engineer in our home state?

I hear a lot made of the terrorism risk. While nuclear would slash emissions, surely the stations would be eminently tempting targets? Well, there are 438 operable reactors worldwide, with 253 planned or already under construction in countries which have judged that the benefits outweigh the risks. I bet the only articles you’ve seen which emphasized the terrorism angle were penned by members of the above-mentioned nuclear opposition groups.

Doctoral researcher Suzy Waldman examined this late last year, stressing a broader perspective:

[W]e must seriously consider that an associated risk of not using nuclear power to produce carbon-free energy on a large scale is climate change itself, with the hundreds of millions of climate refugees that are projected to be engendered by it in the coming century. These hazards—we need not look at probabilities, because these patterns are already in motion—are apart from the millions of respiratory and other deaths already caused by fossil fuel burning and generation every year.

At the end of the day, nuclear still has a popularity problem. Hopefully a bit of perspective and genuine discussion can convince enough people – men and women – of the need to consider it. As Agneta Rising, director general of WNA and co-founder of Women in Nuclear, said:

We should put more emphasis on why people should choose nuclear energy. We have plenty of energy sources, plenty of ways of making electricity and heat and so on. But there are very few that have a lower impact on the environment and nuclear has really good environment characteristics – and people would choose nuclear if they had access to better information about these benefits.

Rising also had this to say with regard to South Australia’s move to investigate the potential for nuclear:

It is only natural that a technologically sophisticated country like Australia should seek to make expanded use of the nuclear fuel cycle as it attempts to address its climate and energy challenges. The country is already home to at least one of the most advanced nuclear research and medical facilities in the world, not to mention being one of the largest suppliers of uranium.

So let’s keep mounting those solar panels and erecting wind turbines. This renewable energy capacity is helping to mitigate the need for commitment to further fossil fuel infrastructure. It is relatively affordable and popular. Let’s also keep those AEMO availability-for-peak-demand estimates in mind, and realise intermittent renewables can be built quickly but cannot substitute for essential dispatchable generation in the long run. Licensing, regulating, building and commissioning the first nuclear reactors will take time in which climate action needn’t be delayed. We can decide now to support clean, safe, decarbonising, modern nuclear power – if the full historical record is anything to go by – and we can get involved to ensure Australia becomes the first nation to do so as part of an effective, firm climate strategy. It will be like the tortoise and the hare, but this time they can cross the finish line together.


Further reading:

Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air

Our High Energy Planet

The Nuclear Energy Option

GreenJacked!: The derailing of environmental action on climate change

The Youtube channel of Bionerd23

Part 3


The Wind, The Sun and The Nuclear – Part 1

What if the latest plan comes off? What if South Australia ends up with an on-going windfall of billions from foreign nuclear fuel disposal funds, and all we have to do in the short term is set aside a small patch of stable land, seal it and start lining up impregnable concrete-steel casks on it? Is that all we’d need? What if we see Australia’s regressive restrictions shortly lifted, and the next generation of nuclear energy debuted here in our front yard?


Some insist on using the word “dump”. It doesn’t look like any dump I’ve seen. Click on the image for more information.

The royal commission
should allow us to answer these questions with high certainty. One further question which will be addressed is the impact potential energy generation may have on renewables – since it is in the terms of reference. I personally think it would be more constructively examined elsewhere. At worst it could perpetuate the imagined incongruity between nuclear and renewables.

I am quite prepared to be corrected.

Critical comparisons between the technologies – or is that between two different approaches to servicing demand? – are inevitable. But making the judgement that it must be one, not the other, is just tribalism. I think we’re all capable of better than that. The following analysis will strive for this impartiality – relying only on official numbers and minimum assumptions, and avoiding inaccessible technical language. What it won’t do is ignore what we’re trying to achieve with all this.

The Wind

The Ceres Project, to be constructed on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, is intended to be the nation’s largest wind farm yet at 600 megawatts (MW). This is 43% larger than MacArthur in Victoria. 197 turbines will be erected within a 600 square km area. The project has government approval, support through the state renewable energy target and also broad community support. It will require the first bit of major renewable energy-related transmission infrastructure proposed for the National Electricity Market (NEM) in an underwater high voltage direct current (HVDC) link to Adelaide.

We are all familiar with what it will produce – electricity to our homes, schools, hospitals, businesses and industry, bought and sold as kilowatt hours (kWh). How much? REpower estimate a capacity factor of 38% for their generators at this site. This means there will be perfect, windy days and nights that keep the turbine blades turning at full power, as well as times without wind (or merely a breeze too weak to reach the start-up speed and all wind speeds in between, but over yearly time spans it will all add up to enough to produce an average of 38% of rated power. Multiplying this figure – 418 MW – by the 8760 hours in a year gives 1,997,000,000 kWh. Over the course of a year all of these kWh will be effectively portioned out to meet the demand from our fridges, phone chargers, traffic lights, factories, and so on. It won’t be enough – SA produced over 12.2 billion kWh in 2013-14, and also imported plenty from Victoria – but it will be a substantial fraction.

However, that demand may be high at particular times when wind speeds have dropped. This has been studied by the independent market operator AEMO, for SA wind resources specifically. Based on a decade of data, for 85% of the time during peak summer demand periods, generation can be expected to reach 8.6% of capacity. This means that when we’re running our air conditioners, when hospitals and supermarkets need to keep stocks cold, and everything else is running besides, Ceres will have a high probability of supplying something like 51.6 MW out of an anticipated peak demand of 3250 MW (based on recent AEMO estimates). Remember, these are statistics from the independent market operator, not an anti-wind organisation or a thinktank.

This contribution factor is somewhat variable: 2014 calculations put it at 8.7%. However, it cannot be dramatically improved as it is a basic function of the intermittency of the resource.

Should we do this?

Yes – Ceres is ambitious, with many anticipated benefits for the region. The underwater cable can integrate modern fibre optic communication capacity to the peninsula. The SA grid and the wider NEM can handle more wind capacity if interstate connection upgrades also proceed. Overall emissions from the SA power sector will most certainly decrease further. Moreover, a recent analysis of generation technologies quantified the ecological advantages of deploying wind energy where appropriate.

The Sun

South Australia has no utility scale solar farms such as the recently connected Nyngan plant in NSW, but 2015 will see the commissioning of an elegant application of photovoltaic (PV) technology. 4 MW of panels spread over three water treatment ponds in Jamestown will apparently cut evaporation by 90%, and operate more efficiently through constant temperature moderation.


I don’t know how many treatment ponds are operated in the settled coastal areas of the state, but for the purpose of this analysis we want to extend this idea to 150 of them. The result would be 600 MW of efficient solar power that operates with a higher than average capacity factor of 17.65% (for PV, this is a function of the limitations of night and cloud cover). Similar to wind, taking the capacity factor-corrected output of about 106 MW over a year produces 468,700,000 kWh – meeting a somewhat smaller fraction of overall demand.

Of course, solar is considerably more regular than wind. Does this mean it’s better for meeting demand? AEMO has also looked at this, and for South Australia it estimated that the average PV output during maximum summer demand periods at 4 PM equates to 38% of installed capacity. That would be 228 MW from these ponds – about 7% of AEMO’s anticipated high end peak demand for the state.

This regularity can be taken into account by such things as demand side management – getting more load to line up with that maximum supply earlier in the day. This will only work to a point because Bureau of Meteorology figures inform us that we can depend on 224 days of no or minimal cloud. The other 141 will see output drop as low as approximately 25%.

Should we do this?

My word, yes. The elegance of boosting panel efficiency while reducing evaporation makes this a perfect application of the technology. I can’t think of a reason this shouldn’t be deployed on every suitable treatment pond.

The Nuclear

AEMO have not evaluated the benefits and challenges of integrating nuclear power into the SA system. After all, it’s somewhat beyond its remit. The closest we have is Heard and Brown’s exhaustive Zero Carbon Options report, which assessed the suitability of a proven Canadian-designed reactor as a “drop-in replacement” for the capacity and service provided by the ageing Port Augusta coal station.

The sort of nuclear power now being suggested is the next generation up. It is typified by GE Hitachi’s PRISM model, which was recently systematically evaluated for its ecological benefits. A twin unit plant, like that proposed for Sellafield in the UK, is expected to generate 622 MW for the grid, with an outage every 18 months for refueling. A 90% capacity factor is generally accepted for modern nuclear plants, so year on year we could expect 4,904,000,000 kWh from PRISM. Importantly, for a single year between refueling outages, this would be a total of 5,449,000,000 kWh, and during normal operation it would supply almost 20% of AEMO’s forecast upper peak demand.

In addition to steady electrical power, the generator would provide a stable frequency (the 50 hertz which all our devices operate at) as well as inertia – the ability of the electrical grid to cope with rises and drops in demand (and supply) in a stable way. Broadly, stability means less chance of blackouts. Wind and solar power can only supply these functions by addition of expensive, complex electronics. For power plants like PRISM – or the coal and gas that we’re used to – it is an inherent property of the rapidly spinning turbines.

While wind and sunlight, as fuels, are thought of as free, PRISM would not be burdened with fuel costs either – it consumes either fuel removed from conventional nuclear reactors or the ‘depleted uranium’ left over in the initial enrichment of that fuel. None of these materials are really useful for much else; they sit around, securely stored, and have never caused any occupational injuries. Even the radioactivity one might conceivably be exposed to is negligible.

Should we do this?

A PRISM plant would straight up replace South Australia’s remaining coal-fired capacity plus some of our old gas capacity. It would be the apex of a brand new, innovative 21st century industry that could directly and indirectly employ tens of thousands. It would also be necessary for dealing with the foreign material accepted into our proposed Spent Fuel Bank. Fortunately, the revenue from the Bank can apparently be expected to pay for the reactors.

There are plenty of challenges. It would be illegal under current federal law. Regulations would need to be adopted, though this has been recently and rapidly achieved in certain countries. While the group of materials, construction and service companies organise themselves, training of sufficient expertise would need to be sought, as well as a suitable site. Education would be required to address any and all public concerns. It would probably be at least two election cycles’ worth before the plant would come online, so bipartisan support would be rather crucial.

It should now be clear that comparing renewables and nuclear is unhelpfully simplistic. The above three (not two!) very different approaches to servicing the demand for the same product – electricity – each have fundamentally different features and advantages, along with perfectly surmountable challenges. All will serve to drive state power sector emissions down, facilitated by being part of a larger market.

In Part 2, we will examine what all this electricity is for; the cost, challenges and adjustments that we, as its consumers, will face in the future; and the new things we’re going to need it for if decarbonisation is our overriding goal.




Anti-Nuclear Climate Inaction: Vermont

Guest articles from Meredith Angwin. You can follow her on twitter at @yes_VY.

Air Pollution and Vermont Yankee – NOVEMBER 11, 2012

My name is Meredith Joan Angwin and I live in Wilder Vermont.  I am here to speak in favor of granting Vermont Yankee Certificate of Public Good for continued operation.  I am the Director of the Energy Education Project of the Ethan Allen Institute, I blog at Yes Vermont Yankee.

I am a physical chemist by training. I worked at improving pollution control methods and corrosion resistance of nuclear, gas, geothermal and coal plants. I was a project manager at the Electric Power Research Institute. I also consulted with many utilities, in the U. S. and abroad.

I am here today as a citizen of Vermont who wants Vermont to remain the clean, green and attractive state that it is today. Nuclear power has the least environmental impact of all baseload types of electricity.  Specifically, it creates no air pollution. Nuclear power creates no nitrogen oxides.

Intermittent renewables like solar and wind must have be backed up by baseload power and dispatchable power.  What kind of backup power will Vermont choose? Hydro, nuclear or fossil?

New hydro plants and new nuclear plants are unlikely to come on-line in this region. Our practical choices are Vermont Yankee, new fossil plants, or buying power from outside Vermont. I will discuss the environmental issues of natural gas versus Vermont Yankee, because I have technical expertise in this area.

Fossil power means air pollution. Natural gas plants are the best in terms of emissions, but they emit acid gases to the air: carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides.  I will talk about nitrogen oxides, an acid gas that contributes to acid rain and smog.  I have patents in the control of nitrogen oxides.

Controlling nitrogen oxides is difficult. At the high temperatures in gas turbines, the air actually burns itself. That is, the nitrogen in the air combines with oxygen in the air and makes nitrogen oxides (NOX). NOX is only partially controlled by ammonia addition at the end of the process. Sometimes the ammonia itself becomes a pollutant.

NOX is a very acid gas, contributing to acid rain. NOX is also the main cause of smog, which can happen on any sunny day. You don’t have to be in Los Angeles to get smog.  All you  need is NOX and sunshine.

Nuclear plants do not release NOX. They keep our air clean. For clean Vermont air, we need to make our baseload power with Vermont Yankee, not fossil fuels.



Where Vermont Power Will Come From After Vermont Yankee – NOVEMBER 18, 2013

Rainfall in U S during ice storm Does not include rainfall Jan 4 and 5

On Sunday, the Valley News published my op-ed Yankee’s Closing Will Hurt Vermont. 

I always enjoy having an op-ed in the my local Sunday paper.  I hope you read it. It’s about the probable effects on Vermont when Vermont Yankee closes.

Factors Affecting Vermont Electricity 

As I wrote in the op-ed:

Vermont Yankee’s closing will affect everyone in Vermont. It will make our electricity more expensive, more fossil-fuel based and less reliable.

I explained the factors that will affect our power supply and pricing after Vermont Yankee closes.  Specifically:

  • The plant will not be replaced by renewables.  Wind turbine construction in Vermont is practically at a standstill, for example.
  • Our power will come from outside Vermont, and be subject to various sorts of interruption, including too few natural gas supply lines, ice storms, and HydroQuebec needing to use its electricity in Quebec during a cold snap.
  • The electricity price will follow the grid price of natural gas.  According to FERC, the New England price of natural gas is set to rise substantially (from $6.60 MMBTU to $11.75 MMBTU).  In the rest of the country, the price of natural gas is set to remain stable.
  • Grid payments of $75 million to oil-burning plants (the ISO-NE Winter Reliability Program) will be rolled into our electricity costs.
What About the People at Vermont Yankee?

Realtor map of my area Map shows town boundaries Dartmouth is in Hanover My home is in Hartford

Several people asked me why I didn’t mention the people at Vermont Yankee, the effect of the plant closing on the local economy, the effect on the state economy, the effect on the state taxes?

There’s a simple reason.  I live about sixty miles north of the plant, and I think people in this area don’t care very much about southern Vermont.  People here generally commute across the bridge to New Hampshire, where they work at Dartmouth College, Dartmouth Medical Center, and many high-tech industries spawned by Dartmouth (for example, HyperTherm).
People here care where their electricity comes from. They care about reliability and about environmental impact.  They care somewhat about their electric bills.  My own feeling is people here don’t care that much about what happens to Brattleboro or Vernon. They are insulated from many aspects of the Vermont economy through their jobs in New Hampshire.
Therefore, for my local paper, I wrote about things that affect all of Vermont: where our electricity comes from, how reliable it is, how fossil fuels will be used to produce our electricity, and how expensive electricity may become.
The Op-Ed
For an op-ed, Yankee’s Closing Will Hurt Vermont was  very data-dense! Sometimes I wondered–where was the “opinion” part?  Why did I write it this way?
Still, it was fun to write, and I plan to reprint it on this blog in a week or so.
However, I always like to have people access the op-ed at the newspaper for a few days before I begin putting it on my own blog.  I hope you enjoy the article.


These articles were originally posted at Yes Vermont Yankee.

Further reading on the impacts to society of VY’s early closure.

Did You Hear Something?

What does one do when ones entire public identity is invested in opposing nuclear technology… Yet everyone else just won’t stop discussing it evenhandedly?

When my Radio National Ockham’s Razor segment was announced, this nuclear opponent offered a preemptive critique in an article comment thread.

Here I quote Robyn Williams’ introduction. Hard to know for sure, but who could it be that he’s upbraiding?

Nuclear! As soon as I mentioned last week that today’s talk will explore our nuclear options there were protests from the anti-nuke lobby. As if it is not appropriate to mention such possibilities. Now, this is wrong.

This opponent had no interest in identifying me before this. It’s probably quite confusing seeing an ABC radio segment matching up with a federal senator’s proposal for a next generation nuclear industry in the context of a royal commission. I’m as surprised as anyone how it all happened at the same time. But from my perspective the timing cannot be better. It must be nightmarish from the other.

A brief word on Caldicott and life cycle emissions, both of which are reliably referenced. As recently as September last year Caldicott was citing this discredited and entirely fictitious diagram in support of her fringe views.

But apparently she would be a suitable authority to invite to counter all of Senator Edwards‘ recent claims. She insists that the Chernobyl accident means certain death for up to a million Europeans, relying on the most questionable of unscientific source material.

And all the while we have a young German radiation researcher showing us reality in the town of Chernobyl: a clean, populated town, serviceable trains, lots of employment – a relatively peaceful part of Ukraine, really!


And the rare fragments of destroyed reactor core which she confidently picks up with her fingers.

It is monumentally astounding to see assertions regarding prohibitive life cycle greenhouse gas emissions attached to the nuclear fuel-recycling fast reactor technology put on the record by someone who was as good as personally corrected on this specific subject nearly three years ago.

There’s nothing special about this particular budding intervenor except for the perfect example of the increasingly irrelevant commentary which is interminably provided. And while I still hold hope that Greens leaders can eventually be reasoned with, I fear this breed’s dread of the ‘N’ word is incurable.


Addendum: I noted the poll, that is triumphantly cited in that blog, at the time.

It is a massive, desperate stretch to wave the result around as a statewide rejection of considering nuclear technology.


Anti-Nuclear Climate Inaction: California

Guest article: A eulogy for San Onofre

Andrew Benson works as an Energy Analyst for the California Energy Commission. The above was written in his capacity as a private citizen and represents his personal opinion. It does not purport to represent the opinion of the California Energy Commission or the State of California.

The author’s father is a 30-plus year reactor operator and nuclear engineer of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
You can follow the author on Twitter at @A_G_Benson. He blogs at

California has a global reputation for its environmental policy. Most notably, the state was first in the US to enact comprehensive legislation regulating greenhouse gas emissions. The law, known simply as AB 32, set a statewide goal of returning to 1990 levels of emissions by 2020 and 80% below that by 2050. Unfortunately, California’s ban on the construction of new nuclear power plants in California comes directly at odds with these goals. Enacted in 1976, the law is technically temporary: new construction may resume once the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved a method for the permanent disposition of spent nuclear fuel. However, the escapades of the Obama administration have squashed the prospects for Yucca Mountain and thereby the near-term future of nuclear power in California.

It seems incomprehensible that anyone armed with basic scientific knowledge and a genuine concern for the environment would ban nuclear power yet continue to use fossil fuels. On any comparison, the environmental attributes of nuclear power are vastly superior to fossil fuels. Nuclear power emits not a single gram of the parade of horribles that waft from the smokestacks of a fossil-fired power plant. By virtue of its astonishing energy density, far less uranium needs to be extracted from the earth than coal, oil, or natural gas to supply the same quantity of energy. The roughly4000 premature deaths estimated by the United Nations to eventually result from the Chernobyl meltdown is equivalent to a rounding error in comparison to the 3.2 million annual premature deaths attributable to air pollution from combustion sources. Even the death toll of hydroelectricity overshadows that of nuclear power: 230,000 lives were lost and 11 million people were displaced from their homes as a result of the collapse of China’s Banqiaohydroelectric dam in 1975.

California’s energy in 1976 and today

California’s environmental activists, bureaucrats, and politicians have never been cheerleaders for fossil fuels. Yet, what did they think banning new nuclear power plants would accomplish? Their assumption — essentially a quasi-religious article of faith — was that energy efficiency and renewable energy could be deployed quickly and reliably to eliminate the need for both fossil fuels and nuclear power. While there is evidence that California’s energy efficiency standards have made a substantial dent in demand growth, it has taken over three decades for the renewable half of this one-two punch to even begin to deliver on its promise. Let’s consider some statistics:

In 1976, California consumed 156 TWh of electricity. As of 2011, that figure had grown by 68% to 262 TWh. Fossil fuel use grew accordingly. Annual natural gas consumption in the electricity sector more than doubled, from 313 in 1976 to 630 trillion btu in 2011. Coal — a fuel previously unknown to California’s electricity sector — entered the picture in 1989, and a cumulative 500 trillion btu had been consumed by 2011. Only the consumption of petroleum products has declined in the electricity sector, from 612 trillion btu in 1976 to 11.5 in 2011.

But the biggest story is in imports. In the ten years prior to 1976, California had gone from modest net exports to net imports of 50.6 TWh, around one-third of total demand. By 2011, net imports had grown to 89.2 TWh. Having denied itself nuclear power and not particularly amenable to hosting all the fossil-fired plants needed, California simply exported the environmental problems to other states and imported the power.

Only geothermal and hydroelectricity have made substantial contributions since 1976, but both have begun to decline in recent years. Disappointed with the limited market success of solar, wind, and biomass, California’s legislators enacted a “Renewable Portfolio Standard” (RPS), simply mandating that utilities serve a specified percentage of their retail sales with renewable energy. Currently, the RPS target rests at 33% by the year 2020.

All the while, nuclear power has been available and utilities were eager to build more (they sued the state for the right to do so). Even despite the ban on new construction and the retirement of three early reactors, the two nuclear plants in construction in 1976 expanded in-state nuclear generation more than seven-fold by 2011, providing 12.5% of the state’s total electricity consumption.

The end of an era

2011 marks the end of an era for California. It was the last full year in which San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station operated. Located on the coast halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, the plant consisted of two pressurized water reactors with combined net generating capacity of 2150 MW. In January of 2012, a small amount of steam was detected in the steam generator of Unit 3. Inspection of both units revealed that the steam generator tubes were showing unusually advanced signs of wear and tear for steam generators that had so recently been replaced. Analysis revealed that the tubes vibrated at just the right harmonic frequency to cause the corrosion.The manufacturer disclaimed liability; the parties have entered binding arbitration to settle the dispute. Ordering another steam generator was out of the question, as the plant’s original 40-year license was set to expire in ten years, leaving little time to recover any costs unless a license extension were approved. After plugging some tubes and further analysis, the utility proposed restarting Unit 2 at 70% power as a five-month test. But California’s anti-nuclear activists were sharpening their knives for a fight and a preliminary ruling by an arm of the NRC made the prospects of a quick restart dim. The utility decided to throw in the towel in June of 2013. California’s environmentalist groups roared with delight.

But quickly, the consequences hit home. Data revealed that GHG emissions from California’s electric power sector spiked by 35% in 2012. Of this, 6.75 million metric tons were attributable to the offline status of San Onofre. For reference, this is equivalent to 10% of the GHG emissions California needs to reduce from the peak in 2004 to meet the 2020 target. A decline in hydroelectricity production and continued recovery of demand from the recession also played a significant role. Altogether, these factors left a 41.7 TWh hole in the state’s electricity supply, of which a paltry 2.6 TWh were filled by increased renewable generation. Fossil fuels were eager to supply the rest. The independent grid operator recently estimated that the new transmission investments needed to deal with the long-term consequences of San Onofre’s retirement will cost on the order of $2.3 billion.

Goals for ‘replacing’ SONGS

State agencies have agreed on a long-term goal of “replacing” 50% of San Onofre’s electricity with “preferred resources” (bureaucracy jargon for energy efficiency and renewable energy). However, every TWh of renewable energy procured will count toward meeting the RPS target. No actual GHG emission reductions will occur that wouldn’t have otherwise been required by the law. Furthermore, every TWh of energy efficiency is a TWh that could have been used to replace business-as-usual fossil fuels. The “50% preferred resources” scheme is a half-hearted face-saving mechanism to prevent California’s regulatory edifice from having to admit that California’s economy and environment are best served by nuclear power. Meanwhile, environmental lobbyists are protesting the numerous natural gas-fired power plants that have been proposed and approved to fill the gap. Despite thirty-plus years of evidence to the contrary, environmental activists in California seem not to have questioned their faith in the adequacy of renewable energy alone to seriously address shortfalls in energy supply.

Looking ahead, independent experts widely agree that the 2020 GHG emissions target can be met despite the absence of San Onofre. But they also agree that either new policies or radical technological innovation are required to ensure that the 2050 target is even possible. Notoriously intermittent solar and wind have accounted for the vast majority of new renewable energy in California and are expected to continue to do so. The economics of GHG abatement will divert essentially all biomass to the transportation sector. EIA projects that US installed geothermal capacity will grow by a paltry 4.8 GW from 2011 to 2040. Hydro will continue its decline in California as the state’s water troubles persist. The California Council on Science and Technology framed the problem most bluntly:

If we try to generate 100% of electricity with largely intermittent renewables … we would need zero emission load balancing (ZELB) technology to work, otherwise emissions from firming the power with natural gas… alone will nearly equal the 2050 emissions target.

To oversimplify for the purpose of illustration, the state will, at a minimum, need to overcome the legal problems with nuclear power related to the requirement for nuclear waste storage, or solve the load balancing problem without emissions for renewable energy.

Intent on high penetrations of solar and wind, California is left with limited options to achieve a reliable 100% carbon-free grid:

  • carbon capture and sequestration (CCS)
  • nuclear power
  • demand response
  • electricity storage

California’s initial interest in and funding for CCS research is waning. Even with their GHG emissions safely bottled up, fossil fuels remain deeply unpopular with the regulatory and activist elite. Demand response has been pursued as a strategy to mitigate California’s peak summer demand, but I suspect California ratepayers aren’t going to be very pleased if they find their electricity consumption dictated by the whims of the sun and the wind. That leaves storage. Currently, the costs of most forms storage — excepting pumped hydro — are exorbitant. Perhaps R&D will bring them down to a competitive level in a few decades. Rather than wait for the cost-benefit analysis to pencil out, the California Public Utilities Commission has ordered the states’ investor-owned utilities to procure storage.

Meanwhile, California will continue to needlessly sideline nuclear power. California’s electricity sector will continue to emit unnecessary GHG emissions into the Earth’s atmosphere. California’s ratepayers will finance an interesting experiment in which a modern society attempts to rely solely on the energy resources that were available to humanity prior to the Industrial Revolution.

Rest in peace, San Onofre. You’ll be missed.


Originally published in NEI Magazine.