Until You Read It

On a Tuesday in June, in Adelaide, coinciding with a major conference looking at the potential of nuclear energy, the Conservation Council of South Australia announced an ambitious 100% renewable energy plan for the state. It was intended to show that nuclear energy was not merely unnecessary, but unwelcome and indeed a burdensome and unequivocally nasty prospect in every conceivable way.

It comes at a time when educated scepticism of such exclusive energy visions is finding its mainstream voiceIf nuclear energy is only to be feared and not considered, it insists, you renewable-energy-only advocates are far from convincing us.


The first curious thing was the near dearth of actual renewable energy available on the chosen day (the third set of peaks in the above chart). Is it too bold to suppose that these nuclear opponents would have made quite a point of all the wind and solar had the day been a cloudless gale? The second was the pamphlet which accompanied the announcement. It made no bones about reinforcing a collection of misinformation regarding nuclear power. It was also set out in the promotional formatting of a major telco, and the inclusion of irrelevant residual technical details on “Ethernet reliability” and “application-awareness” made it clear how much proof-reading was involved. Thirdly, the background paper itself (left uncited in the pamphlet) could only be described as a missed opportunity. In a process for gathering and assessing serious, detailed knowledge and perspective (namely, a royal commission) the case for expanding South Australian renewable energy to 100% in place of any further consideration of the nuclear fuel cycle has received the most cursory of efforts. Considering the calibre of the other submissions I have seen so far, I see this as a shame. Furthermore, the intrinsic anti-nuclear slant of the report actually distracts from the plan’s overall ambition, rather than reinforcing it.

Throughout the report there are many statements and anecdotes but no justification based on actual results from robust research, for example CCSA says that a 100% renewable energy plan will:

  • create jobs – no figures presented
  • reduce greenhouse gas emissions – no figures modelled
  • reduce air pollution – no discussion other than the assertion

Also according to CCSA, compared to nuclear their proposal:

  • is equally reliable – no modelling is presented, it is just stated to be so
  • is much less dangerous – not mentioned in report at all, without quantification. See ENSAD or ExternE for detailed comparisons of risk
  • emits less life-cycle CO2 – no figures cited
  • offers wider range of environmental and health benefits – no quantification
  • will be implemented much more rapidly – no quantification or examples used other than nuclear delays in Finland, France and US (rapid builds in China, Korea and other countries are not included)

Just stating it and referring to forthcoming modelling or an anecdote is not enough to justify commitment to an entire energy policy. This would not be a sufficient report to justify to investors to pursue such a plan. If a similar proposal for nuclear power in South Australia noted the above categories with no accompanying justification, would the CCSA accept that report in full?

The current status of South Australian renewable energy has received detailed, impartial and peer-reviewed analysis. For anyone wanting to extrapolate its future potential, I recommend beginning there. In his blog article regarding CCSA’s contribution, Ben Heard invites further critique on their plan, and I feel the following document provides at least the level of energy-literacy necessary to oblige.

An Analysis of “100% Renewable Energy for South Australia”


Stale Narratives Need Not Apply

We’ve already had the nuclear debate: why do it again?

The Olympic Dam copper mine in South Australia. By a factor of nearly 50, weightwise.

Since you ask – because we haven’t, actually. This is called begging the question.

Thousands of tonnes of spent fuel rods and radioactive waste are held near nuclear power stations and weapons facilities around the world, with no agreement on long-term storage.

Yet if we dare listen to experienced operators of nuclear power plants, concern over “waste” is completely overblown. It is stored securely, and nobody’s ever been hurt by it.


All the waste from 110 000 000 000 kWh worth of electricity.

As for proliferation, it has been an important issue managed through international cooperation for decades, so it’s well past time for us to discuss it with considerably more sophistication, such as here-in.

The opinion piece continues:

South Australia leads the mainland states in its harnessing of solar and wind energy. Together they supplied more than one-third of the state’s electricity for the whole of last year and all of the state’s power for one working day in September.

Noting the muggy stillness of the evening of February 10th, I happened to check the state-by-state NEM output:

Queensland and New South Wales were burning their dispatchable black coal;


Victoria was doing its baseload proxy with dispatchable brown coal;

And perhaps just as the above sentences were being typed, South Australia’s wind capacity was largely failing to meet the nightly peak in demand, which had to be filled by gas combustion.



And depleted but dispatchable Tasmanian hydro.

Victorian and Tasmanian wind output certainly wasn’t negligible, which indicates a beneficial geographical diversity in the resource. But the fact remains, even if SA wind were greatly expanded as proposed, negligible supply will fail to meet demand on afternoons like February 10th, 2015. It still wouldn’t save hydro capacity, and it would still necessitate the combustion of fossil fuels.

Does it make me “anti-renewables” if I highlight a period of negligible supply in response to this article? Alex Trembath’s piece on technology tribalism examines this question with diligent reference to the climate change challenge:

Tribalism is the biggest problem with clean energy debates today. Support for one technology is often automatically interpreted as opposition to another, and attempts to grapple with any technology’s challenges are dismissed as trolling. Getting past this unproductive tribalism will require civil and honest engagements on the promises and perils of different technological pathways.

The difference is that I focus on what SA wind power positively achieves to mitigate emissions, rather than being some end in itself. I honestly hope for more windy September days – but hope isn’t a plan. The Conversation article carefully avoids any mention of climate change. Are nuclear opponents now downplaying the messages of climate experts, just as they always have for nuclear science experts? This similar party-line opinion piece seems to paint climate change as an excuse used by nuclear advocates. I stress opinion, and I can’t put it clearer than from this 2012 article (with over thirty thousand shares, for what its worth):

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

The government’s own focus on carbon reduction should be applauded and we can expect the demonstrated and quite necessary abatement potential of nuclear energy to be a prominent consideration in the Royal Commission – at least for those who actually welcome the process.

No, the debate deserves to be elevated beyond entrenched opposition and rhetorical questions. For further reading, I cannot more highly recommend Luke Weston’s brutal follow up here. There will be a lot of genuine questions for the feet-draggers.


Who’s In?

The South Australian Labor government has announced a Royal Commission into our nuclear future.

While this is wonderful feedstock for speculation and cause for hope in effective future climate action on Australia’s part, some vital points must be examined.

Royal Commissions are a trusted and reliable means to establish the facts with which the people of South Australia can engage in this important debate… It is now time to engage in a mature and robust conversation about South Australia’s future role in the nuclear industry.

Calling for an elevation in sophistication of the debate was going to be the subject of my next article. There’s probably no better framework with which to ensure precisely this than a royal commission. The response from Greens leaders is a sterling example of the rejection of such sophistication.

In an unstable world, where one person with a suitcase of radioactive material could make an entire city uninhabitable with a so-called dirty nuclear bomb, we should not be enhancing the chance of that happening.
(Mark Parnell MLC)

Throwing around paranoia about dirty bombs is a dreadful start.

“Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.” ~ General George S. Patton

When confronted by one who rejects the science of climate change, we naturally cite the work of recognised experts in climate science to refute erroneous beliefs, ideally to persuade our opponent but additionally to ensure the most reliable knowledge is on record so non-participating onlookers may judge for themselves. Likewise, authoritative information from experts in radiation and nuclear energy is easily sourced these days; many of them are approachable via email, forums or personal messaging. Yet Greens leaders and similar environmentalists flatly refuse to consult what is, no more and no less, another set of experts. They have disempowered themselves as leaders, and have left themselves only two other choices.

This royal commission will also look at the opportunities and risks associated with this sector. Some people describe the potential economic benefits as enormous while others describe the risks as unacceptable.

While the economic benefits of supplying fuel for nuclear energy generation, safe disposal of nuclear material and even future technology uptake will doubtlessly be assessed by the Royal Commission, alternately describing the risks as unacceptable – even in the face of committed climate disruption linked, in part, to our carbon-intensive energy use – is fundamental to the above-described failure of leadership. Unacceptable is a big call. On what is it based? To hazard a guess, Helen Caldicott‘s efforts over the decades probably had something to do with it. As made clear in a recent interview she has no radiation science qualifications and avoids listening to anyone who does. Her unsupportable position was most famously exposed by the UK’s George Monbiot.

To provide another famous example, Arnie Gundersen is looked to as an expert-rejecter’s expert on nuclear matters. He is not an engineer, let alone a nuclear one, but never corrects the record and exploits all the authority it tacitly bestows. His dire predictions regarding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident also turned out to be wrong and misguided, yet helped fan damaging fear and panic.

The scary pronouncements of such ideologues surely provide profitable click bait but are atrocious for informing environmental leadership.

Industry and business – who, after all, provide employment and investment  – entirely support this announcement, and so do I. I’m confident that the majority of South Australians also do, at least as a way to achieve its intention: [to] explore the opportunities and risks of South Australia’s involvement in the mining, enrichment, energy and storage phases for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. And yes, that would include a whole lot of Greens voters.

A note on renewable and distributed energy

The other unfortunate objection has been to declare this royal commission a threat to renewable energy in our state. Framing the discussion as a contest is and always has been a mistake. The effective limits of variable renewable energy are entirely independent of what nuclear power – were we to eventually adopt its use – can provide. The technologies do different things, and no serious commentator I know of is suggesting nuclear replace renewables. Look at it this way: could you replace a wind farm with a solar PV plant of similar capacity and expect the same rate and duration of electricity production? Adding nuclear’s potential expands the variety of capabilities, and all towards the decarbonisation of our electricity supply.


Sunday evening in South Australia and Ontario, Canada. Roughly equivalent share of renewable energy, but eight-fold difference in carbon intensity.

Of course, there are some who even reject solar and wind farms, along with coal and gas plants (not to mention nuclear, of course) as undemocratic, centralised energy sources. I’m sure such idealists, to whom the narrow way forward is in decentralised, local energy production, will not be excluded from the consultation process. For a critique of this naïve approach, see here (I do not endorse the dualistic political framing, but it’s an incisive article). What I’d really like to know, amoung other considerations, is how centralised factories in foreign countries for mass produced solar panels, batteries, microelectronics, and so on, fit into this philosophy.

A note on thorium

Thorium, as a purely fertile nuclear fuel, does not require enrichment, and its contribution to the potential benefits of pursuing an expanded nuclear sector are limited unless it is eventually utilised in heavy-water moderated reactors or the popular thorium-fueled molten salt reactor. However, by developing experience with radioactive waste storage as part of a nuclear sector expansion in South Australia, the thorium by-product of rare earth mining could be inexpensively secured. This would potentially aid the domestic production of sought-after rare earth elements and enable further development of value-adding industry. Rare earths are used in virtually all electronics, and diversifying their market abundance will only improve the rate of technology development.

A few notes on energy numeracy

Energy policy wonks tend to use a framework of technical terms, and a considered, informed discussion around nuclear energy benefits greatly from a basic understanding of said terms. Although actual power production has so far been flagged as unlikely, if I’m going to join the call for an informed discussion, the least I can do is try to explain some of the more frequently used terms:

  • Capacity factor and capacity credit: capacity factor is a function of a technology’s output over time. For example, solar power output is limited by night and clouds, so exhibits an annual capacity factor in Australia of about 15%. If a natural gas-fired plant is only operated in summer to meet demand for air conditioning, it might have a capacity factor of 10%. Capacity credit (or availability factor) is the proportion of an intermittent generator’s output (such as wind) which can be relied upon to displace another generator’s dispatchable output (like natural gas combustion) and evenly meet demand. Calculating it is more involved, but a good discussion can be found here-in. It is necessarily less than the capacity factor for a given generator.
  • Life Cycle Analysis (LCA): these analyses estimate the carbon emissions involved in the full life cycle of an energy producing technology. It is on this basis that the IPCC calls for more renewable and nuclear energy (page 92).
  • Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI): There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and the technology providing energy to us uses energy in the production of steel, aluminium, concrete, fuel etc. in the first place. While different assumptions can yield widely varying results, EROEI can provide an indication of how well our preferred technology is contributing to supplying us in the long run (obviously, we want to see a better result than 1:1!) . A fairly comprehensive example is discussed here.
  • Levelised Cost of Electricity (LCOE): In a country like the US where all methods of generation have been used, comprehensive dollar costs for different technologies, levelised by what is produced (kilowatt hours: what we ultimately pay for) can be calculated. In Australia, many more assumptions and estimates must be made, but these are provided by the government. Recently, more sophisticated analysis has been used to provide the System LCOE of intermittent generators like variable renewable energy, which provide the same product (electricity) but not necessarily the same demand-meeting service.
  • Deaths per Kilowatt hour: This morbid metric has become regrettably necessary for demonstrating the safety of nuclear energy when appreciated in the context of meeting energy demand at nation and global scales. Despite the handful of spectacular accidents that everyone has heard of, when all sources of electricity are levelised by the unit of their product (as with LCOE) it is clear that, regardless of the urgency of climate change concerns, it is use of fossil fuels (and not nuclear) which results in an appreciable death toll.

There’s further discussion at DecarboniseSABrave New Climate and Need More Power.


Nuclear Opponents Hate Perspective

In march of 2011, in the immediate aftermath of an earthquake of intensity unprecedented in modern history, several reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant were heavily damaged due to loss of adequate cooling. The tsunami which knocked out the poorly-located diesel generators also killed a pair of young plant workers as they sheltered in a turbine room basement. Leslie Corrice’s authoritative book The First Five Days provides detail of the decisions, delays and interference that resulted in loss of containment and hydrogen explosions which allowed release of the radionuclides which largely prompted large scale evacuation and remain of great concern to many people.

Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant is seen in Onagawa town

Onagawa Nuclear Plant. By all measures, representative of standard nuclear robustness.

For perspective, cooling of reactor cores was maintained at Fukushima Daini and Onagawa Nuclear Plant, the latter surviving practically unscathed despite being closest to the epicentre. Several hundred townspeople of Onagawa sheltered in the plant’s gymnasium.

UNSCEAR has unequivocally stated that no one will likely die due to the release of radioactive contamination.

Yet the hysteria continues. Google “Fukushima” and instead of links to information about an idyllic rural prefecture, famous for sake rice, strawberries and other agriculture, the first hits are NaturalNews or Enenews – sites founded primarily to promote radiation fear. Unrelenting pressure to avoid release of radioactive water has required vast numbers of tanks to be built, and recently another worker died from a fall from one of these tanks. The treated water retains only tritium, an isotope that would not conceivably impact anyone’s health when diluted by undrinkable seawater. It would not effect fish, but the associated, perpetuated fear would impact the fishing industry.

Yesterday, in Mexico, a maternity hospital was destroyed in a gas explosion, killing a nurse and two infants. Where are the anti-gas protests? Where are the demands for the exit of gas power and heating? In late 2011 Mexico dropped plans to expand its perfectly unremarkable nuclear energy capacity and rely instead on abundant shale gas. Maybe the sustained hysteria over Fukushima influenced this, or maybe it was primarily the recent expanded gas reserves. But just try to imagine a world in which those terrible deaths were somehow caused instead by nuclear energy – with the same brief news coverage, and no activism involved.

Gas has a definite place in our current energy mix. Where it replaces coal fired power, emissions are distinctly lowered. It is currently abundant and convenient. It is also inherently explosive and incredibly dangerous, and must be handled with respect and a relevant degree of training. Clearly, safety lapsed at that hospital, with tragic consequences.

Though we can expect technological improvements, the resultant waste from gas is left uncontained and accumulates harmfully in the atmosphere for centuries. The fuel pool and dry cask “waste” at Fukushima Daiichi was all contained and weathered an earthquake and tsunami. The point is that the hazards of gas are so successfully normalised in our society that when it destroys a maternity hospital, we would be right to expect the news to drop off the front of the BBC (for example) by the next day.

It is likewise futile to demand consistency from Fukushima fearmongers. Despite the lack of any reason to expect radiation-induced cancers in Japan’s surviving evacuees, we can be sure that nuclear opponents will wait it out on the basis of a delay of onset – perpetuating their paranoia the whole time, and paying no mind to the real dead people and destroyed families. Is it just as insensitive to point at a deadly maternity hospital gas explosion to highlight their inconsistency? No, because I am relieved that survivors are being pulled from the rubble. I have more than my fair share of experience with midwifery, but the very real trauma of the event for the surviving workers and families is unimaginable.


I am also deeply connected to Japan, and want to see normality return to an inexcusable situation. This is Kibitan.


Work & Play

I’d like to draw attention to a couple of fellow bloggers today. The first is Rod Adams, who I think must be the father of privately-funded nuclear energy advocacy on the Internet. This is a bit overdue considering his gracious welcome for yours truly a few months ago (make sure to check the comments for a wildly unrelated but informative debate regarding nuclear plant insurance). Rod hosts the Atomic Show, the nuclear energy podcast which regularly features various industry professionals and no-nonsense topics.

The most recent guest post from nuclear physicist Patrick Walden brings to light the lack of standards required by institutional environmentalists in their increasingly desperate attempts to maintain the circulation if fear, uncertainty and doubt. How many ordinary folks, concerned about climate change and their kids’ future, get distracted by the radiation hysteria and nuclear conflation and miss the chance to consider energy from modern reactors as safe, clean and plentiful? (Make sure to follow the links to YouTube posts featuring exploration of the Chernobyl exclusion zone.)

The second mention goes to Suzy Hobbs Baker of PopAtomic Studios who is leading an important revolution in nuclear energy outreach over at the Nuclear Literacy Project. We are currently in the midsts of the #Atoms4Earth campaign in the lead up to Earth Day. If you have a good idea for a succinct, educational and factually-sound nuclear-promoting meme, please share it!

Hope you don’t mind I’m using your meme, Suzy!

Oh, and thanks to her, the truth is out, all nuclear professionals are evil.