Guest post by John Morgan. John runs R&D programmes at a Sydney startup company. He has a PhD in physical chemistry, and research experience in chemical engineering in the US and at CSIRO. He is a regular commenter on BNC.
Energy minister Martin Ferguson has today released the Draft Energy White Paper 2011 (The Australian, ABC). The Government is soliciting submissions , so with a quick review, I’d like to open some discussion on possible material for a submission.
So what’s in the white paper? In short, lots of new gas development, energy market privatization, and “…the Gillard Government unambiguously does not support the use of nuclear energy in Australia”.
But Ferguson does seem to be determined to inject some ambiguity into the matter. Elaborating on this unambiguous position he explained:
Nuclear for Australia is always there as an option. We don’t have to invest in R and D and innovation on that front. Other nations are the specialists. But if we get to the end of this debate some years in the future and we haven’t made the necessary breakthrough on clean energy at a low cost outcome, then nuclear is there for Australia to blow off the shelf after a debate in Australia.
His Opposition counterpart Ian Macfarlane is singing from the same song sheet:
We haven’t had any active consideration of nuclear energy in Australia but the fact remains that nuclear energy is the one base load technology that is clean energy and until we find a better alternatives to clean, zero-emission energy than nuclear, then it’s going to remain on the agenda of other countries.
And of course the Greens are furious.
The white paper itself expresses this unambiguous position in remarkably equivocal terms. The full position on nuclear power is buried right at the back of the document on page 223 in a text box aside from the main text, where it is offered as a ‘contingency’ consideration. I will quote this in full:
• Australia’s plentiful natural endowment of a range of low‐cost energy resources has played a major role in shaping our energy generation base around coal and gas.
• Other countries have chosen to adopt nuclear power often as a way of diversifying their energy mix. As one of the world’s largest uranium exporters, Australia has respected and supported this right through trade under strict safety and security safeguards. Nuclear‐powered electricity generation currently produces around 16 per cent of the world’s electricity – around 10 times Australia’s total annual electricity generation. Undeniably this results in lower global carbon emissions.
• The government has chosen not to permit the use of nuclear energy in Australia and the use of nuclear technology for power generation is expressly prohibited under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. At the Australian Government level, advice on this issue was most recently commissioned in 2006. There has, at different times, been passionate debate on this issue.
• The Gillard Government unambiguously does not support the use of nuclear energy in Australia, noting that at present there is no necessary social consensus over this technology nor is there currently a compelling economic case, even taking into account the need to reduce our national emissions. Australia will invest heavily in renewable and other clean energy technologies such as carbon capture and storage as preferred alternatives to conventional high‐emissions generation.
• However, noting the multi‐decade focus of this draft Energy White Paper, it cannot simply be assumed that future Australian governments will necessarily hold this view. To provide a comprehensive assessment of future possibilities, it is prudent to consider under what circumstances a future government may conceivably wish to revisit this position, and what would be required should such a choice be contemplated. This suggests the following observations:
• Given our diverse energy resource base, there does not appear to be a compelling energy security argument in support of future adoption of nuclear power for electricity generation in Australia.
• The best case supporting future consideration of nuclear power would be the failure to commercialise new low‐emissions baseload energy or energy storage technologies within the timeframe that economic analysis suggests is necessary to meet long‐term global and national emissions reduction objectives (from 2025 onwards). (My emphasis)
• Estimates of future costs for representative electricity generation technologies suggest that nuclear might then represent an economically competitive backstop baseload energy option.
• However, given the long lead times for plant approval and construction and for development of appropriate regulatory frameworks, this would necessitate a decision to move ahead considerably in advance of expected deployment – lead times would be at least 10 years, with 15 years more probable. If this were the case, such a decision would need to be taken by the latter part of this decade if deployment was required by 2030 or 2035.
• This would require the development of new institutional and regulatory arrangements and development of a local nuclear engineering skills base.
• Realistically, such a decision would also have to attract broad community consensus. Australian history suggests that this would require bipartisan political support and, in the wake of the recent tragedy in Fukushima, the prospect of new safer nuclear generation technologies and waste disposal options.
• While there is no intention to change its well‐established position on this matter, the Australian Government continues to support open public debate on all of Australia’s energy options, particularly in light of the desire to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
i.e., We don’t need nuclear for energy security because we have enough coal and gas. But we will need it to meet emissions targets if baseload renewables fail. It almost reads like the alternative white paper the minister would have liked to have written, in an alternative reality where sanity prevailed over the politics.
But if we get to the end of this debate some years in the future and we haven’t made the necessary breakthrough on clean energy at a low cost outcome, then nuclear is there for Australia to blow off the shelf after a debate in Australia.
…namely, how do we quantify the precondition? How do we make it finite and actionable?
How many years do we allow? What specific breakthroughs do we need? What cost do we require? What reliability do we require for clean energy “baseload”? What is the drop-dead date for renewables performance beyond which national policy must commit to nuclear?
For my part I’m satisfied that point in time is in the past. But many obviously disagree. I’m interested in a milestone that a reasonable person would agree that, if not met, its time to pick up the phone, call that supplier in China, and place an order for a bunch of AP1000s. We can’t hold off forever from making that call, on promises of “soon” and “if only”.
Submissions on the white paper are being solicited. Anyone inspired to contribute might therefore focus on:
• the potential, or otherwise, of commercial base load renewable power to be developed,
• any objective milestone that could be set on baseload renewable development, which if not met would trigger a review of the antinuclear position
• strategy for developing the necessary community support should this eventuate.
I’m particularly open to input from those who favour a renewables only strategy: What specific time bound milestone could be set that if met would confirm with confidence the ability of the non-nuclear strategy to decarbonize our energy supply; or if not met, prompt that phone call?