My Secret Valley

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The house of my childhood. Half hand-built of riverstone by my father. Some trees are gone, while many have grown. It sits at the foot of a hillside property in a quiet valley in the Adelaide Hills, merely a few minutes drive from our major highway.

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One of the myriad paths I would set out on, filling my young days with exploration. It parallels a creek. The road is seldom used. Trees, clean air and calm.

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The creek is clear, flowing sedately. Insects flit across and above its surface.

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The water sustains a sheltered lushness.

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There are open, shallow, undisturbed and accessible spots like this all along this creek. This was a ford but local vehicles use a bridge further up now.

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Tadpoles. Frogs are always a good sign. This creek had trouble with effluent some years ago but I think residents are now taking great care.

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Back across the road, in what might have originally been a quarry. A short trail ramps upwards to meet nearly impenetrable scrub and the back of the property at which I lived. I climbed this countless times.

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The discreet power supply infrastructure. The valley regards stobbie poles merely as something to grow on.

My childhood was intertwined with the ecosystems of this valley. Countless adventures and day-long exploration let me experience it all – and it, me. It instilled in me a preconscious environmental awareness, which now as an adult and a father is balanced by an appreciation of the structure and services of the advanced industrial society that enabled my idyllic youth. It’s from this perspective that I embraced Ecomodernism when I found it.

The concern that this new environmentalism will dictate a wholesale movement of people to cities, divorced from nature, borders on disingenuous; there is no prescription in clearly stating the demonstrated ecological benefits of concentrated populations which save nature by default. There is no sharp city-nature delineation, and there will always – increasingly – be secret valleys which remain uneconomical for development yet valuable to conservation efforts.

If, after these years of study and consultation, I felt that any of this could be endangered by the potential expansion of the nuclear energy fuel cycle in South Australia, I wouldn’t be an advocate. The opportunities before us offer an assurance of a broader horizon for my children, while I make every effort now to provide to them as much of the unrestricted nature as I took for granted. And with the uncertainties of climate disruption we will need concentrated, plentiful energy with which to reliably ensure the needs of this state are covered: water, air conditioning, clean transportation, and responsible usage of our natural resources.

I’ll gladly consider alternatives to Ecomodernism, especially ones which republish every criticism. Similarly, I’ll take claims about alternative energy sources seriously, but I’ll demand the same high standard of evidence that modern nuclear energy meets. My childhood was ineffably fortunate, but even in such a location would have instead been hardship without the underpinnings of reliable energy. Is it up to us to improve upon that, or disrupt it? I choose the former and reject the latter.

 

The Millwrights

In the early nineteenth century my home state had been freshly colonised by the British. Despite the establishment of agriculture the land owners and pioneers were reliant on essentials like flour bought from New South Wales. One pioneer, John Dunn, brought with him the knowledge of milling.

John Dunn’s Steam Mill.

His first mill, a wind-powered affair was rapidly superseded when the Watts beam engine was brought out to Australia. The steam-powered mill he built in what would become the town of Mount Barker was able to produce flour around the clock. It would have used wood, a fuel in plentiful supply. Similar engines helped modernise the fledgling mining sector. More steam mills were built by Dunn, who’s business grew to employ hundreds and benefit the entire state as reliance on the eastern states diminished.

I now live in this town, and I look out my window and see none of the environmental devastation this historical economic growth may imply to some people. There’s the odd old quarry and plenty of cleared cropland; there’s also sizeable wetlands and bushland corridors.

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I do see solar panels on roofs, though. Church roofs, especially – coated with them like doped silicon frosting. Electranet and the grid operator, AEMO, last year assessed the implications of continued expansion of solar and wind capacity in South Australia.

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The impression that it is technically feasible for South Australia’s grid to be fully renewable is undoubtedly appealing for many people. (If this is concurrent with effective decarbonisation – a much less emphasised detail – then it certainly appeals to me.) But to seriously consider it will force them to wrap their heads around what is meant by “system security”.

Anyone who has operated a household appliance should have noticed there’s a silver sticker with numbers on it. Among them will be stated the input frequency of alternating current (AC) – 50 Hertz in Australia. It turns out that that is crucial – the people whose job it is to balance demand and supply on the power grid need to keep this frequency constant or it means, at worst, damaged generators and blackouts. So where does this frequency come from?

From the generators themselves, the physically spinning turbines which rotate (effectively) fifty times per second.

This is why AEMO stresses that SA’s Northern, Torrens Island or Pelican Point fossil-fired stations would need to be retained for “ancillary services”. Solar generates direct current (DC) that is transformed to AC by the inverter – but this relies on the established grid frequency. For their part, wind turbines are rotating masses generating current which must also be electronically matched to 50 Hertz. (You won’t see a wind turbine spinning that fast!)

Relatedly, the inertia of these stationary, dispatchable spinning masses is vital for stabilising every addition and subtraction of load and source on the grid and the attendant pressure on the frequency.

So in the best case scenario, we have a fossil fueled plant combusting away just to provide grid frequency and inertia, even on bright sunny days and windy nights. Or South Australia decommissions its coal and gas generators (which decarbonisation somewhat implies) and relies entirely on the rest of the NEM, through the Heywood AC interconnector, for these ancillary services so that we can safely use, well, everything we already have.

If this turns out to be the best way to cut Australia’s carbon intensity, so be it. But if Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria want to “follow SA’s lead” and substitute fossil combustion for renewables – while avoiding relying on climatically sensitive hydro generation for grid stability – I can envision a few problems.

In the meantime, not for bread but high quality energy – grid stability and electricity to run our refrigerators, power our hospitals and charge our future electric vehicle fleet when renewables are not generating – will we once again be reliant on the eastern states?

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Without steam, it can be a long day at the millstone.


Whenever we use energy
it is to free ourselves from some natural condition: to be warm in winter and cool in summer, to stay up after dark, to eat out of season, to escape hard labor, to leave the local patch of terroir where we sprouted and see the world. These are all acts of liberation, and they require abundant power and technical ingenuity.

Maybe John Dunn could not fully appreciate what he wrought for his new home state, but we can. Will we end up limiting our liberation by limiting our energy options?

 

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.

 

I Could Be Arguing In My Spare Time

This morning on Seven Network’s Weekend Sunrise my friend Ben Heard went opposite radiologist and treasurer of the Medical Association for Prevention of War’s Peter Karamoskos, ostensibly to debate the merits of starting to move ahead with nuclear power as part of Australia response to carbon emissions.

Ben was allowed to summarise some of situation first, but unlike the previous encounter, his opponent seemingly had no interest in the matter at hand, instead citing international estimates from the IPCC (which calls for an end to fossil fuel use by 2100) of global proportions of electricity use. He even argued with Andrew O’Keefe who tried valiantly to rerail the context: electrical power in Australia. The unstated implied doubt was obviously that addressing the carbon emissions from electrical generation may not be worth the effort, but when Ben was allowed the opportunity to disagree – and explain that this logic also undermined any reason to switch to renewable energy technologies as well – his opponent interrupted with flat-out umbrage, and continued to interrupt at every opportunity. It was becoming clear what his agenda was. Decarbonising Australia’s electricity, as is the aim of every proponent of every ultra-low carbon energy source, will cut a third of our nation’s carbon footprint. It is ridiculous for anybody to downplay that, especially with the potential future demand (and necessity!) for desalination and rechargeable electric vehicles.

This leads to the other point of contention, what we could call a classic, and it was raised purely to run down the clock: lifetime emissions. Ben’s opponent’s organisation flatly opposes nuclear power – unlike the previously cited IPCC:

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But of all the excuses provided, lifecycle emissions were stressed the most, on the basis of debunked studies. The IPCC source does not cite them. They were widely criticised years ago, with far better studies now available, plus in-real-life experience – and nuclear opponents know that. It was when “Sovacool! Sovacool!” was being hollered across the studio link – which would mean nothing to almost everyone out in TV land – that it became crystal clear that only one guest was there to engage in mature debate.

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Read that caption again.

The patient hosts were genuinely interested in the perennial issue of nuclear waste, which is of course fuel for future reactors, as South Australia’s peak business lobby group understands far better than the sort of NGOs who worry loudly, publicly and incessantly about it. But Ben was interrupted on that one, too.