It’s been fascinating to watch the media reaction to our Energy paper on how carbon pricing changes the relative competitiveness of low-carbon baseload generating technologies. It has certainly stirred a lot of interest, and the timing was admittedly celestial, because two other reports on electricity costs and technology options (an ATSE and EPRI report) were released at about the same time. The politicians are now talking about it all over again.
In the next few posts, I’ll dissect the reactions and try to draw some conclusions on how the ‘nuclear debate’ is progressing in Australia. For those BNC readers outside of Australia who may think this a little parochial, I’ll note two things: (i) the Energy paper is a global study, so the results can be applied — with due care — anywhere, and (ii) for those living in democratic countries which are looking to re-establish a built-out of nuclear energy (e.g. USA, Canada, most of Europe), the situation in Australia is probably not all that different to what you will face/are facing (albeit a few steps behind).
First up, we have this story from the The Age and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers, entitled Call for nuclear plants to combat warming. It was disappointing, to say the least. I spoke on the phone with the journalist for more than 30 minutes about the background material, but in the end our core arguments regarding relative cost and fit-for-service assessment hardly got a look in. But most disappointing was the ‘reaction’ from Ian Lowe (accompanied by his photographic visage looking down upon the piece) — who for those who don’t recall, was my co-author on the book Why vs Why: Nuclear Power. Ian dismissed our paper, being quoted as saying it was ‘deeply flawed’, and he then gave some specious arguments about the rapid time to build of the ‘alternatives’, plus some blah about proliferation. I sent him this email:
I saw you quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald today in response to a paper I and two colleagues have had published in the international journal Energy. You said that you thought the paper was ‘deeply flawed’. Given that it passed peer review by multiple technical referees with no objections, I wondered if you could clarify what parts of the paper you considered to be flawed? I’m always looking to improve my work, and if you’ve identified one or more errors in the piece, I’d be very interested so that I can correct these.
Ian never even had the courtesy to respond. That’s simply not good enough in my book — I consider this to be very unprofessional practice (offering a vacuous critique and then not being willing to back it up). In fact, to turn a phrase, I’m ‘deeply disappointed’! (A wag subsequently said to me that he had this image in my head of Lowe’s phone ringing, a machine answering and asking some questions, including “If your comment is about nuclear energy please press button 3″, at which point the machine responds “This report is deeply flawed …….”).
Edit: Ian responded to me via email, comments reproduced below. Thanks to Ian for the courtesy.
Also, on that final sentence: “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said the security threat from a proliferation of nuclear technology would be ‘colossal’ “. I’ve had a look through the IPCC Working Group III chapters and I can’t find such a statement anywhere — can you? Strange…
My co-author Tom Biegler at least got the following letter published the next day in the SMH:
In attacking our peer-reviewed publication on how carbon pricing affects electricity costs from different generating technologies, with its implication that nuclear electricity could be first cab off the rank when there is a price on carbon, Professor Ian Lowe worries that ”you can’t avoid the issues of … nuclear weapons proliferation” (”Call for nuclear plants to combat warming”, November 26).
Is he seriously suggesting that, say, North Korea or Iran would be more inclined to use nuclear weapons should Australia decide to become the 32nd nation to use nuclear electricity? Give me a break.
Then, today, there is a piece by Paddy Manning, in The Sydney Morning Herald, The cost of nuclear power is debatable. It cites me and my old debating sparring partner Mark Diesendorf, in a kind of side-by-side comparison. Diesendorf’s work was based on an unrefereed (as far as I can tell) spoken paper presented at a solar energy conference (!), whereas mine was a peer-reviewed study published in the international journal Energy. Now look at how the two arguments are covered in the article. Is this a fair depiction of their relative credibility/backing? By the way, this is the second SMH coverage of Diesendorf’s ‘paper’. I don’t know — I can sympathise with Manning, as he’s been looking at this issue from only one side for a long time any any shift will be gradual and cautious — but I have to wonder whether the 1+ hour I spent talking to him on the phone last night, for a yield of 1 weak and partially dissenting paragraph, was a good use of my time. (There is also a cut-down version in The Age, which is even harder on me and more dismissive — I won’t speculated who edited that version…)
In other media, this morning, in Adelaide, I did a radio interview on the topic (listen here). I also did radio slots for some popular drive programmes in Melbourne and Sydney over the last few days (but they were not podcast — at least I can’t find them), and a TV interview on the ABC News 24 channel Afternoon Live (also no video available, alas). The TV slot went for about 6 min, and was really quite worthwhile, I thought. It’s a shame I don’t have a vodcast copy to share. My last line, coming off the top of my head, was something like: “Nuclear power should be part of any rational low-carbon energy plan — and Australia must have a rational energy plan“. Enough said.
Next up, I’ll look at the conservative press reaction, and try to analyse what’s going on there.
Interestingly — and unconnected to the Energy paper — I was also asked a few weeks back to be one of four contributors to a Sydney Morning Herald newspaper piece on: “The question: should nuclear energy power our future?“. It came out early this week. Below is what I said in my 400 words. Click here to say what the 3 others opined.
Should nuclear energy power our future?
THE SCIENTIST: Barry Brook
Yes. Nuclear power uses atomic fission (splitting heavy atoms like uranium and plutonium) to generate vast amounts of heat energy.
This can be converted to electricity, or used to synthesise liquid fuels to replace oil. As an energy source, it is more than a million times more concentrated than chemical fuels like coal.
Today, nuclear power provides about 15 per cent of the world’s electricity, but some countries get far more.
France, for instance, sources 80 per cent of its electricity from nuclear fission, and South Korea gets 45 per cent.
The US has more than 100 nuclear plants, supplying 20 per cent of its needs.
Nuclear energy produces no carbon dioxide emissions when operating. Indeed, if all the world’s nuclear power stations were replaced by brown-coal power, an additional 3.5 billion tonnes of CO2 would enter the atmosphere each year.
Of course, nuclear electricity, like any other activity in the modern world, has some ”carbon footprint”, because we use fossil fuels to generate a large fraction of our electricity and to power our vehicles, industrial equipment, steel smelters, concrete factories and so on. But in a future world powered largely by nuclear energy, its footprint would be reduced to virtually zero.
Nuclear energy also has the great advantages of cheap, abundant fuel and incredibly reliable operation. It is not dependent on the fickleness of natural energy flows (such as wind and solar) and so does not require expensive energy storage.
This energy source is a proven economic way to replace coal. This is why rapidly developing countries such as China are pursuing nuclear energy so vigorously.
Currently, 25 new nuclear power plants are under construction in China, and the target there is for 112 gigawatts online by 2020.
This is the equivalent of four times Australia’s average electricity generation, all built in 10 years and without a price on carbon.
A type of nuclear technology nowbeing commercialised in India, Russia and China, called ”fast reactors”, can be used to repeatedly recycle its fuel and consume old nuclear waste. Because of the incredible efficiency of this next-generation technology, we have already mined enough uranium to power the global economy for more than 500 years. This is truly a sustainable energy option.
Nuclear power offers our best chance – indeed, probably the only realistic hope – of curing our addiction to fossil fuels and eliminating carbon emissions, in time, on budget, and at sufficient scale.
Professor Barry Brook is director of climate science at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute and coauthor of Why vsWhy: Nuclear Power (Pantera Press,2010).