Anti-Nuclear Climate Inaction: Taiwan

As of 2012 Taiwanese annual electricity demand was 250 billion kilowatt hours (kWh), an average somewhere in excess of ten thousand kWh per capita. Non-combustion sources delivered 20% of this, of which the Chinsheng, Kuosheng and Maanshan nuclear plants comprised 16%. Although earthquakes are not uncommon in this part of the world, the reactors have proven resilient.

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Of what remains, the Taichung coal station generates a substantial fraction. It is also apparently among the most polluting coal plants in the world. This site reports an output of 39 billion kWh and well over 36 million tons of CO2 in 2009 (expecting substantial increase). If there are any street protests against this in Taiwan, they don’t get reported abroad.

Taichung coal power station (photo credit)

Taichung coal power station (photo credit)

In 2014 intense anti-nuclear activism forced the government to halt the Lungmen nuclear plant project before it could be commissioned. Lungmen consists of twin Advanced Boiling Water Reactors (ABWRs), the same “generation III” design which was delivered very competitively for units 6 and 7 at Japan’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, and which has remained intact, as designed, through several major earthquakes, and with satisfactory inspection by the IAEA.

With a total net capacity of 2600 MW, Lungmen stood to provide an annual average of 20.5 billion kWh (at assumed 90% capacity factor).

Taiwanese politics is obviously complex, but the essential result of the post-Touhoku earthquake anti-nuclear frenzy was perpetuation of the status quo. Lungmen could effectively abate over half of Taichung’s emissions if it were to replace its generating capacity. Despite construction uncertainty, delays and resulting cost overruns, replacing massive chunks of fossil fuel use IS action on climate.

Maanshan Nuclear Plant, Taiwan.

Lack of effectual challenge to the anti-nuclear narrative of exceptional danger and threatening fear might as well be climate inaction.

 

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.

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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?

 

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.

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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;

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Victoria was doing its baseload proxy with dispatchable brown coal;

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Worse The Devil You Know

South Australian will have a Royal Commission into the nuclear fuel cycle. If this speaks to something in you, whether it is interest or apprehension, my best advice is to get a copy of this ebook:

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For the price of saving one large takeaway coffee cup from landfill you can enjoy an accessible primer on attitudes to nuclear power and the actual hazards of reactors and radiation. Geoff Russell’s central premise is the valid comparison between nuclear energy (mistrusted and considered exceptionally dangerous) and passenger aircraft (commonplace and used by almost everyone in developed nations, despite considerably more accidents). Why is it that a plane crash can dominate the news but we still board our flight the next day, while the mere thought of a reactor going wrong somewhere – whether it’s even been built or not – leads some folks to reject essentially every aspect of commercial nuclear power?

But, says the nuclear opponent,

Almost all air travel is after an individual’s own choice. Therefore, people choose to accept or reject the risk, personally. In the unlikely event they are otherwise harmed by a plane, the operator will pay compensation, and there will be little doubt whether they were harmed. Airports are good neighbors, with convenient parking, restaurants, displays, artwork, places to observe take-offs and landings, etc.

Few people have a choice of electricity source or what kind of power plant will be built near them. Therefore, most people cannot choose to accept or reject the risk, personally. In the unlikely event they are, or believe they are, harmed by a nuclear power plant, the operators are unlikely to pay compensation,* and there will be much legal debate over whether or not they were harmed. Nuclear power plants may have a visitor center, but good luck getting close enough to observe operations.

Gotcha? No, because the distinction is illusory and just serves to perpetuate nuclear exceptionalism. We can treat the idea of everyone deciding not to board their flight after the fifth (Sixth? Tenth?) plane crash for the year as totally unrealistic. More fundamentally, though, the comparison dishonestly focuses on only one aspect of energy production – living near a plant and using its electricity – which applies equally to technology other than nuclear, with the tacit implication of exceptional hazard.
Thus, if we let it, it avoids the actual point: to compare the hazards we accept with the ones we don’t, and explore the actual risk involved. After all, the risk of your particular plane meeting a fiery end is tiny. So what might be the risk of a nuclear accident actually harming you? What is the nature and magnitude of that hazard? And what are the hazards of the alternatives?

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In August 2012 41 people died and 80 were injured as an oil refinery blazed away in Venezuela.[1]

In July 2013 a 74-car run away freight train carrying crude oil derailed in Quebec. 47 people were killed and the town was half destroyed.[2]

In May 2014 a Turkish coal mine collapsed and 301 miners died.[3]

In January 2015 a propane gas tanker exploded outside a Mexican hospital. The building was utterly destroyed, 2 infants and a nurse were killed. Another nurse died in the act of rescuing babies, and a fifth victim died later from injuries.[4]

All of this happened because of one mundane fact: hydrocarbons are inherently combustible and dangerous. People are pretty careful with them most of the time, but we use so much of them. We effectively have no choice about it.

Every one of these deadly disasters has occurred since the March 2011 Touhoku earthquake devastated large sections of Japan and led to a series of nuclear accidents. No one was killed by radiation and it is not expected to effect the public at all. But in the time since, Japan has relied heavily on expanded imports of the very fossil fuels at the heart of the accidents listed above.

Their use and hazards are so thoroughly normalised that I bet you didn’t remember even one of the location names in which they occurred.^

 

 

1. http://decarbonisesa.com/2012/08/27/venezuela-oil-refinery-explosion/
2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lac-M%C3%A9gantic_rail_disaster
3. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-05-17/turkey-coalmine-collapse-fire-delays-rescue-work/5459882
4. http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/mexico-hospital-orderly-dies-raising-gas-blast-toll-28775844

* Compensation is quite forthcoming for the last accident.

^ Neither did I.

(What if the oil industry had to take the sort of global action as we expected from the nuclear industry?)

Who’s In?

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

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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.

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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.

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