ABC Counterpoint radio on nuclear costs, and new talks

Many have seen/listened to this already, but for completeness, here are the details of my recent interview with the ABC Radio program Counterpoint on the cost of nuclear energy. It is based on a discussion of the recent Energy peer-reviewed paper authored by Nicholson, Biegler & Brook.

Should Australia go nuclear?

Barry Brook argues that nuclear is not only the best way to meet base load power but it’s also the best way to reduce carbon emissions. He also explains how the new generation of nuclear power plants can deliver energy for thousands of years without creating waste problems.

Presenter: Paul Comrie-Thompson

You can download the .MP3 file here (8.5 MB). The interview lasts for 16 minutes. Comments welcome.

It is certainly pleasing that I am now regularly getting the opportunity to discuss these issues to a wide (national) audience.

Some other events: I’ll be talking as an invited keynote speaker (on the general topic of scenarios for future global deployment of nuclear energy as a response to climate change) at the Australian Uranium Summit 2011 (in Perth, April), the 2011 Paydirt’s Uranium Conference (in Adelaide, March), and the GreenCities 2011 Conference (in Melbourne, February). It’s interesting to note that the Perth event will also have Greens senator Scott Ludlum speaking, and at the Melbourne event, I’ll once again be ‘debating’ Ian Lowe (I see that Bjorn Lomborg is also speaking there).

Note that I do all of these presentations gratis, because I think it matters (i.e., I never, on principle, charge speaker’s fees).

Finally (and I think this is a particularly exciting opportunity), I’ll soon be doing a mini-roadshow, presenting a special seminar on the Gen IV nuclear in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. It’s special because of the audience — the engineers of Australia. Indeed, the events are sponsored and organised by six professional societies: the  joint committees of The Australian Institute of Energy, Engineers Australia, the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE), Australian Nuclear Association (ANA), Nuclear Engineering Panel of EA (NEP) and Australian Young Generation in Nuclear (AYGN).

Some details here.  In the talk I will cover the history and technical basis of the IFR and similar “Generation IV” designs, review current fast reactor developments in China, India, Russia and elsewhere, and consider realistic timetables for large-scale deployment and the critical synergies with current reactor technologies.

The Sydney event will also have what should be a fascinating panel discussion after my talk, on what is required to get nuclear power in Australia. It will feature me, Dr David Cook FTSE (Chairman ATSE NSW Division and past CEO ANSTO), Mr Keith Orchison AM (well known media writer on ESI matters and past CEO ESAA), Dr Adi Paterson FTSE (CEO ANSTO and previously with PBNR South Africa) and Mr Matthew Robinson (Worley Parsons Senior Engineer Nuclear Projects).

My sincere thanks to everyone involved in organising these talks, most especially to Martin Thomas (Sydney event; he was the driving force behind this, read this for more on his views), and Glen Kile (Melbourne event). I can’t wait…

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50 Comments

  1. Last year they had a panel session with me and Ian, but it wasn’t mostly about climate change – we both agree on the need for nuclear power, for different reasons obviously.

    Interesting to me was that Ian P also thinks the bolide theory for the K-T extinction is baloney. Seems like he’s throwing out a lot of evidence there, too! I used to be skeptical of that, or at least of some of the more dramatic impacts that had been predicted from a large asteroid or comet strike, but I think the evidence these days is rock solid, if you’ll pardon the pun. Ian the eternal contrarian thinks otherwise.

  2. A comment I added over at the ABC Counterpoint website, in response to various comment there: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/counterpoint/stories/2011/3129888.htm

    ——————

    Barry (10 Feb, 12:51) – I suspect that fusion is some way off yet. That’s okay – we can continue the R&D and in the meantime, run the world for the next 1000 years on the uranium we’ve already mined and stockpiled using fast (fission) reactors. They’ll also handily consume all of the world’s stockpile of accumulated spent nuclear fuel.

    Many of the other commenters feel a need to build straw men and then ignite those. Let’s run quickly through them:

    1. I’m not a nuclear lobbyist, at least not in the paid sense. I’m a university professor who’s not earned a red cent from nuclear energy in his life.

    2. The Energy paper under discussion in this interview is not based on 4th Generation Fast reactors. It’s based on what is currently being built.

    3. Fast reactors do exist outside of drawings. They’ve been fully proven out at the engineering scale, and some countries such as Russia, and now China and India, have/are developing them commercially.

    4. The 250 MW peak solar thermal systems from the 1980s had no associated energy storage. One was destroyed by a fire in its therminol oil heat transfer fluid, and the other was shut down a few years after construction. Neither were followed up with commercial plants. I wonder why?

    5. Dean: you are not the public, you are representative of one small, anti-nuclear segment of it.

    6. Mike: How can Geodynamics provide a cost for commercial electricity from hot dry rock geothermal when there has never yet been an electron delivered to the grid from this technology? I am hopeful that it will come to fruition, but I’m not holding my breath, for climate change’s sake.

    7. Robert – what level of subsidy should be provided by Govt to nuclear? No more (or less) than to any other new energy source that is attempting to compete with established fossil fuels. If that is a carbon tax, fine, it will apply to nuclear and renewables equally and may the best technology(ies) win. As David Arthur said, let the market decide – once a fair and level playing field has been established (and not before).

    8. Noel: Try reading my book, Why vs Why: Nuclear Power (Pantera Press, 2010). Half written by me, half by Ian Lowe. I provide a rebuttal of all of his core arguments therein.

    Thanks everyone for the comments/interest. If you want to know more, feel free to continue the (active!) dialogue at my website, http://bravenewclimate.com

  3. 2011 Is starting out as a great year for our cause !! Wish I could attend some of the “roadshows” . especially the one with Lomborg. Brisbane always seem to miss out on this. :)
    PS : My nomination for Australian of the year for 2011 is
    Professor Barry Brook ( A bit premature perhaps , but I thought I’ll get in early)

  4. Excellent interview.

    I do not have your concerns with CO2. It’s a plant food and the more the better (within reason of course).

    Its the other pollutants that concern me. And the amount of mining etc to extract the likes of coal and oil

    Wind is a poor option. Visually they are awful and not that green with manufacturing and installation.

    But nuclear is brilliant. Without a doubt it seems the best energy option for mankind. Its a fight that we should all get behind if we want a low cost, and the best non polluting green future.

  5. Meanwhile ANSTO is having to front up on some concerning accounts of safety breaches at it’s Lucas Heights facility over ( imho) low level medical isotope incidents. Of course the media are all over it with Greens senator Scott Ludlum feverishly behind, stoking the public’s fear on all things nuclear. Same old, same old it seems.

  6. Barry – in the interview you make an optimistic remark about irrational policy not being able to endure. That is a lovely sentiment but the broad sweep of history suggests you are wrong. Irrational policies, as in policies that don’t achieve what they aim to achieve or create more costs for society than they cure have been able to endure for very long periods. Protectionism is but one example. Price controls another. Every rational argument has to be won through much hard work, and then won again and again. Even when rational policy is achieved the rational argument still needs to be made, again and again and again lest “reformers” lead us off into the woods again.

  7. TerjeP, I think that on non-negotiable — let’s call them ‘mechanistic’ policy issues — like supplying electricity, irrational policies cannot dominate or persist. From a supply standpoint, the current policy of coal/gas is a rational one. If another policy (rational or not, depending on your viewpoint) is put in place to prevent these from being built/replaced, then another rational policy must follow. Brownouts and skyrocketing power bills will guarantee that. So I think I’m right — at least over the medium- to long-term and with respect to policy decisions made on critical infrastructure.

  8. Barry – I understand your point if applied to a good like electricity that is widely used. However a rational supply alternative (rational in terms of restoring reliable supply) is to remove obstacles to more coal (vote out the Greens) and to still ignore nuclear. I could be wrong but I think that is the more likely outcome. Although it would still support the proposition that reason prevails.

  9. @pablo: In response to the ANSTO safety fuss that has been in the media this week, it’s worth remembering that the issues in question have got absolutely nothing to do with the OPAL reactor. These issues occurred during the handling of medical radioisotopes.

    http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/lucas-heights-nuclear-reactor-under-government-investigation/story-fn59niix-1226003280523

    “In one such event investigated by ARPANSA and cited in the Comcare document, a staff member dropped a vial of radioactive molybdenum 90.”

    (Note: I think they mean Mo-99.)

    Now nobody – not Scott Ludlam or Mark Diesendorf or anybody – will stand up with a straight face and say that the use of radiopharmceuticals should be eliminated.

    The closest they might come might be to say that we should close down ANSTO’s research reactor and either (a) import radioisotopes from international reactors, in which case we would still be importing and purifying and repacking the radioisotopes and formulating the radiopharmaceuticals in a facility like ANSTO’s radiopharmacy facility, and incidents like this (which is not a big deal) would still potentially happen; or (b) we would manufacture the radioisotopes using cyclotrons, which is an idea that means taking substantial liberties against the laws of physics, and even if you could practically do it, we would still be we would still be chemically separating and purifying and packing the radioisotopes and formulating the radiopharmaceuticals in a facility like ANSTO’s radiopharmacy facility, and incidents like this (which is not a big deal) would still potentially happen.

    Before anybody uses this incident as an excuse to suggest eliminating the reactor, it’s important to point out that eliminating the reactor would not change the work that is done at ANSTO’s radiopharmacy arm at all.

  10. I heard the show this morning on ABC and was absolutely enthralled. Im a greenie at heart but you raised some hope in me that nuclear power could actually help solve its own waste problem.

    I just have one question and that is around safety. Does this “Fast” nuclear have the same risks associated with regular nuclear energy… the likes of which we saw in Chernobyl?

  11. @ David Mitchell,
    What happened to the reactor at Chernobyl does not demonstrate the risks of ‘regular nuclear energy’. This is because the accident was caused mainly by a bad reactor design that was extremely unstable in during certain conditions, such as those during a night in 1986. The reactor was so unstable that it exploded and then a water-graphite reaction caused a rather large fire. Only 11 of the 442 nuclear power reactors are of this type (RBMK). The rest of the 431 reactors are made mainly up of Pressurized Water Reactors (PWR) and Boiling Water Reactors (BWR), nearly all of which have very thick containment vessels and are also extremely stable. Simply put, in a PWR or BWR if cooling is stopped (or if the water increases in temperature) negative feedback automatically slows the reaction due to the laws of nature. No graphite is used, hence no water-graphite reaction can occur. In other words, what happened at Chernobyl is not possible at the other 431 reactors today.

    The worst that could happen at a PWR or BWR can occur if coolant cannot be supplied to the reactor by any of the numerous safety systems. The reaction will be stopped by the control rods which are held out usually held out of the core by electromagnets. Any problem? Gravity does the work. Then decay heat (heat not generated by a nuclear chain reaction, but by the decay of radioactive elements) will slowly raise the core temperature until it melts if core cooling isn’t established. This is what happened at Three Mile Island, that killed nobody I might add. If cooling is still not added after a longer period it may melt through the reactor pressure vessel and then maybe through the containment vessel (not sure on this one?) where radiation will be released, although it would still be nothing on the scale of Chernobyl.

    Generation 3 and Generation 3+ can lower the probability this either by stopping the reactor pressure vessel from melting, or by limiting the consequences of such. If a melt-down occurs in the AP1000 (or APR-1400), the reactor cavity is filled with water, then convection prevents the core from melting through the reactor pressure vessel. The EPR (and ESBWR) have a core-catcher that catches and cools the core should it melt through the reactor pressure vessel. If should be noted that, as far as I know, no emergency core cooling system has failed when called upon, ever, and most reactors have 2 or more of them. So in all of the 14,000 reactor-years so far, these core-catcher systems would have been useless even if they were equipped in todays generation 2 PWRs / BWRs.

    The type of Fast Breeder Reactor advocated on Brave New Climate is known as the Integral Fast Reactor which uses liquid sodium as coolant, as well as a metallic fuel (as opposed to a Oxide fuel). This type of reactor can have full passive safety, where no active systems are all are required to prevent significant core damage. If the reactor gets hotter, then the laws of nature like the Doppler effect and thermal expansion automatically slow the reaction down. Air circulation keeps the core cool at all times. In fact, air circulation is always running hence the only way to cause a ‘meltdown’ would be to somehow drain the reactor vessel below core height. This is practically impossible since all openings (pipes etc…) are above the core, the reactor pressure vessel is double-walled, and the reactor containment vessel is sized so that even if there is a leak in the reactor, the coolant is always above the core.

    Argonne National Laboratory tested the passive safety of the IFR in 1986, the same month the Chernobyl occurred. Here is a documentary on it:

    (check that youtube channel for more videos on the IFR).

    So basically, Chernobyl did not demonstrate the dangers of existing nuclear power reactors, rather it demonstrated the dangers of graphite moderated light water reactors of which there are only 11. At Chernobyl the reactor was so unstable it exploded, and a massive fire resulted. It has no containment vessel to contain it. Other more popular reactors like the BWR and PWR do not have these design issue as they don’t explode or catch fire under almost circumstance (there is an exception but it’s irrelevant now) and are surrounded by over a meter of concrete containment. The worst possible is a melt-down which goes through the containment building and this would be pale compared to Chernoibyl. Generation 3/3+ designs have much better safety in this regard which helps lower the probability and/or consequences of this happening. The IFR essentially eliminates the possibility of such an incident due to passive cooling from convection.

    Also, there’s another reactor that’s not a fast reactor that basically eliminates the possibility of a melt-down known as the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor. Information on the LFTR here:
    http://energyfromthorium.com/ and http://nucleargreen.blogspot.com/

    Thanks.

  12. @Drongo,

    But it is only Nasa Giss with their adjustable thermometers that is making crazy claims about 2010.

    You are full of it and manifestly not interested in the most complete and accurate representation of the changes in global temperature. Your only interest seems to be in cherry picking factoids to support an ideological position that pays scant regard to the best data and knowledge available. Furthermore, your attempts to cast aspersions on the competence and honesty of scientists whose work upsets your little ideological cocoon is just obnoxious.

    Just to make it absolutely clear, SkepticalScience has compiled a composite temperature record from the 10 major records including GISS and UAH (maintained by none other than Roy Spencer). The composite shows 2010 as the warmest year on the instrumental record.

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/Ten-temperature-records-in-a-single-graphic.html

    Could we please drop the spam that maintains the the planet is not warming? It is a waste of everyones time.

  13. My own calculations suggest that Chernobyl, the only nuclear power plant accident in history that caused death, actually produced deaths at a rate 75% below the world average for coal plants. Coal causes about 160 deaths per Terrawatt hour of energy whilst Chernobyl had a rate of about 38. I’m not suggesting the world build more Chernobyl style reactors but even if we did then so long as they replaced coal plants we would be saving lives.

    http://blog.libertarian.org.au/2010/05/22/safety-and-electricity-production/

  14. TerjeP,

    I looked at your link but think you are not using authoritative sources. I’d suggest you look at the ExternE NEWEXT reports. http://www.ier.uni-stuttgart.de/forschung/projektwebsites/newext/
    This will explain all your questions about how to do these comparisons on a proper basis.

    I don’t think it is valid to say the deaths per TWh for nuclear should be based on the deaths per TWh of electricity produced by Chernobyl. You should divide the total of all the deaths throughout the full life cycle of all nuclear plants by the TWh produced by all nuclear plants over the same time period.

    Charts 1 and 2 here http://bravenewclimate.com/2010/07/04/what-is-risk/ show that nuclear is 10 to 100 times safer then coal. I’d argue that these figures ar about as authoritative as we have available. I’d argue we should use these figures, not make up others, unless they are shown to be wrong or until more authoritative figures are produced.

  15. unclepete,

    What is it about you criticising the people who merely pass on data and not criticising the data itself?

    What Junk Science have done here is show a graph of three suppliers of data, one of which is hotter than the others to the extent that if combined, would tell a different story. [as per that graph of SS]

    Also NASA GISS has lost most of its high lattitude thermometers in recent decades and relies heavily on a couple placed beside black tarmac at busy airports inside the Arctic circle which show warming way above normal. [surprise surprise]

    Not sceptical of results like that?

    Better to insult the messenger, hey.

  16. I don’t think it is valid to say the deaths per TWh for nuclear should be based on the deaths per TWh of electricity produced by Chernobyl.

    Nor do I which is why I have never said that.

    What I have said is that even Chernobyl rates pretty good on death per TWh figures compared to the average for coal.

  17. @unclepete: I’m a little skeptical about SourceWatch, myself.

    They do have some good stuff, but they have a good portion of rubbish mixed in there too. There is a great deal of anti-nuclear rhetoric on Sourcewatch.

    They seem to spend a lot of time attacking, on very, very thin grounds, anyone who is supportive of nuclear energy, eg. Christine Whitman, James Lovelock, Switkowski, ANSTO, etc.

    The actual information they have on any of the people they like to report on is usually very thin in most cases, almost trivial, and they never have any real evidence of anything unusual or unethical – but of course the whole site basically hints, between the lines, that these persons named are simply working for the Big Nuclear Industry Conspiracy.

  18. @Drongo

    What Junk Science have done here is show a graph of three suppliers of data, one of which is hotter than the others to the extent that if combined, would tell a different story. [as per that graph of SS]

    You obviously didn’t read the SkepticalScience piece, before launching into another ridiculous attack on GISS.

    Here are the temperature anomalies (relative to a 1990-2000 baseline) for the SIX datasets available with 2010 figures. Just to make things really simple I have sorted them in order of increasing anomaly in degrees C rounded to 2 decimal places:

    HadCRUT V3 0.24
    NOAA 0.25
    GISSTemp 0.32
    NCEP R1 0.38
    RSS 0.43
    UAH 0.45

    And the winner is …. UAH maintained by contrarian Roy Spencer. Perhaps he’s a double agent or such like in the conspiracy.

    GISSTemp is far from showing the most warming. Furthermore, it is actually lower than the mean of 0.34C.

    In your haste to pursue your mission of spreading FUD, you have just regurgitated the nonsense spread on crank web sites.

  19. TerjeP.

    Sorry, I misread your comment the first time. However, I still worry about the message you are projecting with this sort of statement:

    My own calculations suggest that Chernobyl, the only nuclear power plant accident in history that caused death, actually produced deaths at a rate 75% below the world average for coal plants. Coal causes about 160 deaths per Terrawatt hour of energy whilst Chernobyl had a rate of about 38.

    You are comparing the worst nuclear with average coal. Most people simply wont pick up on what you’ve done. Wouldn’t it be better to stick with the most authoritative figures available, such as ExternE? By the way, ExternE’s figures are in line with the results from serious, authoritative studies that have been done by many groups over a period of 40 years.

    Unless you have authoritative figures to the contrary, why not just stick with “Nuclear is 10 to 100 times safer than coal, and about the safest of all generating technologies,on a LCA basis (remember to include the firming back up generators for intermittent renewables)?

    P.S. How did you derive the figure of 38 fatalities per TWh for Chernobyl?

  20. P.S. How did you derive the figure of 38 fatalities per TWh for Chernobyl?

    The WHO figures of 4000 deaths divided by a conservative estimate of how much energy the plant would have delivered during it’s operating years. I suspect I have underestimated the energy and so the figure of 38 is probably much too high. It’s in my linked article if you reread it.

    I actually think it is relevant to demonstrate that the worst of the worst in nuclear isn’t as bad as the stock standard average in todays coal. At least not in terms of kill rate. People are always saying “what about Chernobyl” but if the stock standard average coal fired power plant is worse than Chernobyl the argument they make isn’t particularly strong.

    I think it is also important to make the cast that Chernobyl was a black swan and other nuclear power plants have a fabulous track record.

  21. TerjeP,

    Thank you. I wonder if the projection of 4000 fatalities from Chernobyl is as reliable as the figuresof fatalities from coal. I thought the projected 4000 deaths from Chernobyl was an intentionally pessimistic projection.

    I wonder if anyone else could comment on the equivalence of the projected 4000 latent fatalities from Chernobyl and the estimates of fatalities from coal generation (LCA in both cases).

    I am inclined to trust that the ExternE project has done the analysis using figures and methodologies that are as fair and equivalent as is possible across the technologies. Therefore, I feel I can trust the ExternE figures as being the fairest and best currently available.

  22. @

    What have the end of year anomalies got to do with it?

    Why don’t you let us all know as you are the one making the claim that end of year (does that mean December mean?) temperatures are being charted, whereas in fact yearly mean temperatures are being charted.

    If you have any evidence to the contrary lets hear it.

    And what happened to your manifestly false claim that GISStemp is dragging the year composite up?

    Your posts on this thread are a textbook example of the Gish Gallop

  23. Peter – I think I probably have been unfair to nuclear in the Chernobyl case. However if the worst of nuclear using unfairly pessimistic figures beats the stock standard average for coal then the safety argument makes itself. At least in my mind.

  24. TerjeP, I understand what you are trying to do. I am just aware how other people then take your figures and, without understanding properly what you’ve done and the point you are making, they quote them and inadvertently people take the wrong message from it. I’d just stick to properly comparable figures quoted from authoritative sites like ExternE. That way they can look it up for themsleves, and so can others as it gewts passed on further and further down the line.

    You’d be aware of the story from the second world war where a message was sent from the field back to headquarters. The message sent was: “send reinforecements; we’re going to advance”. The message that reached headqquarters was: “send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance”.

  25. TerjeP,

    OK. I accept we disagree on this. It’s not a big deal, but just a point for discussion. So I’d like to ask the basis of the calculation (again, sorry). You said:

    My own calculations suggest that Chernobyl, the only nuclear power plant accident in history that caused death, actually produced deaths at a rate 75% below the world average for coal plants. Coal causes about 160 deaths per Terrawatt hour of energy whilst Chernobyl had a rate of about 38.

    I am interested in what figures and assumptions you used to derive the 75% figure.

    1. How did you derive the number of fatalities from Chernobyl?

    2. Are these fatalities calculated on a comparable basis with the fatalities you have used from coal?

    3. What is the time period over which they occur and wah tis the size of the effected population?

    4. How did you determine the TWh to use in the denominator? Is it:

    a) the total TWh produced over the operating life of the four reactors from their start up date until now? or

    b) the total TWh until all of them are decommissioned? or

    c) is it just the TWh produced by the unit in which the accident occurred?

    d) or the total TWh produced by all RMBK reactors until now?

    Anyway you look at it, it doesn’t seem like a very easily defendable calculation to me.

    (The 75% figure is very different to the factor of 10 to 100 figure that can be supported by reference to the ExternE study, so if others are going to quote this figure I suggest it is important to understand the basis of the calculation).

  26. Luke said:

    Barry, is that series of talks (the ones organised by Engineers Australia et. al.) open to the public?

    Should be no problem. I posted some details on the Melbourne event on my Twitter feed – click on this link to register your interest.

    AIE/ATSE/EA Event in Melbourne, 1 March: Advanced Nuclear Power Systems for Long-term Energy and Climate Security: http://goo.gl/1PlSL

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