Nuclear energy: the debate Australia has to have

On July 28, I (Barry Brook) was an invited participant in a public discussion and Q&A session on the future of nuclear energy for electricity generation in Australia. It was organised and hosted by the Inspiring Australia initiative, and ran at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. The moderator (who did an excellent job) was ABC radio 666 presenter Genevieve Jacobs. The two other panel members were Prof. Ken Baldwin (ANU) and Ian Hore-Lacy from the World Nuclear Association (who writes and maintains their excellent information archive).

Below is the video of the event — a high-quality professional recording.

The session starts with about 30 minutes of direct discussion among the panellists, led by the moderator. This is followed by an hour of Q&A with the audience — over a dozen questions covered overall I think, typically with in-depth answers by multiple participants.

I hope you enjoy it, and if you have feedback or further questions, please comment below! (I know that quite a few regular commenters from BNC were in the audience, because they either asked questions or came and spoke to me after the event).


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  1. Have to add in relation to connecting nuclear in Australia, it’s not quite as easy as plug right in. We have regulated limits state-by-state based on the size of the demand and the size of the existing largest single generating unit. Being a long, skinny grid, it does not easily accomodate very large single generating units. For example, in South Australia the regulated limit for SGU is about 260 MW. The modelled limit for SA is about 500+ MW but that is not yet in the regulations. QLD and NSW in particular have higher limits, I think 700+ MW.

    Bottom line, smaller reactors will have an easier run from a network perspective in Australia. The other solutions are new demand sources (i.e. a new large mine) or a stronger network.

    This pales in comparison to the network challenges of 100 % renewables.

  2. It is an excellent video programme. I got the impression that most of the audience were familiar with the topic and had adequate domain knowledge. The questions were specific and the answers covered many areas. Quite unlike what I am familiar with in my country (India), there was no effort to overwhelm the audience with too much detail. To begin with, I was surprised to note that there were no questions on Fukushima till the last few minutes. I am happy to note that Fukushima was referred to briefly. If no questions on Fukushima were asked I get the impression that most of the audience are pronuclear and the entire attempt is just to convert the converted.

  3. The answer to the concern about lifetime carbon intensity through use of lower grade ore

    It’s not hard to imagine the immediate reaction by some will be to wonder where the opposing team is in this ‘debate’. Which gives me an idea: follow this up with a public discussion regarding what would obviously be the focus of such an opposition, i.e. “100% renewables”. Get an objective, attentive MC, a knowledgeable and interested audience, and have this team answer the questions which are begging for scrutiny.

    ~ Why is intermittent renewable capacity still referred to by its nameplate megawattage when it usually doesn’t supply such at any given time? Is this deceptive?
    ~ If France could decarbonise within fifteen years, why can’t Germany twenty years later?
    ~ What are the details of the full supply and waste chains for biomass turbine backup in the renewables plans?
    ~ Who in the real world is going to actually pay for Port Augusta Solar Thermal?
    ~ What happens in a grid when the proportion of wind capacity exceeds its capacity factor?
    ~ What does the single figure (at best) capacity credit of Australian wind power mean for its realistic potential in replacing coal-fired stations?
    ~ Given that a fast growing proportion of experts are promoting nuclear as a response to climate change, as well as the IPCC working group III itself, what are your justifications for rejecting it, and in some cases relying on debunked studies (StormSmith?) in doing so?
    ~ Recent robust analysis points to a PV EROI of between 2:1 and 3:1 ( If rooftop and utility solar is truly going to defeat coal and save the day, as some media outlets have recently so celebrated, do you think it would be wise to very carefully check these numbers?

    I could go on, but I will instead reiterate that I fully support both renewables when utilised appropriately, and further vigorous research into more of them.

  4. This is a fine discussion, very calm and polite, without that nastiness we are accustomed to from German TV. In these and other European discussions nuclear science and technology seem not to have made any progresses since 30 years, and the energy treasure lying in nuclear waste and the potential of new modular safe reactors is virtually unknown.

  5. @actinideage:

    What happens in a grid when nuclear capacity goes above minimum load?

    Look at France: minimum load is ~35GW, maximum is ~70GW, but nuclear capacity is 63GW.

    In summer they’re dumping power on their neighbours because they can’t ramp down their nukes, but in winter they massively import electricity from Germany, which has a lot of flexible fossil fuel capacity (which France lacks).

    Nuclear proponents are of course blind to these problems and act as if they don’t exist.

    As far as question “What happens in a grid when wind power exceeds it’s capacity factor?” is concerned, the answer is quite easy: it is exported, unless noone is willing to buy it at a positive price. In this case turbines can be shut down in a matter of seconds.

    It’s not possible to do that with nuclear plants.

  6. ppp251: You are wrong. New nuclear can load-follow. It is economics that makes the utilities run nuclear at 100%.

    Wind and solar are so intermittent that they are worse than useless because the required energy storage is not possible. Adding mandatory wind and solar forces the price of electricity to multiply.

    1.07 gigabytes is too much to download. Please transcribe it now.

  7. @Asteroid Miner: you are wrong. All nuclear plants, old and new, can load follow ONLY in one part of fuel cycle.

    And what happens if nuclear power plant doesn’t happen to be in that part? What happens is what France is doing: dumping their power on neighbouring countries.

    You are also wrong about storage: storage is possible via biomass and power-to-gas. But you don’t need it anyway for low penetrations. You only need it for high penetrations, which no country in the world is at just yet.

  8. Spinning reserve is an option for nuclear with its cheap and non-polluting fuel. Just the opposite of coal.
    Renewables aren’t even in the hunt with their requirements for expensive storage,sprawling collectors,massive grids and.more likely,fossil fuel backup.
    Seems like a no brainer to me.

    Seems like a bit of a no brainer to me.

  9. @ppp “In summer they’re dumping power on their neighbours”

    This phrasing betrays the difference of perspective involved here (apart from how much nuclear opponents love the word ‘dump’). Exporting high grade energy, with negligible carbon emissions involved in its generation, is actually desirable, especially when supply is predictable. The reasons are bleedingly obvious.

    We are far from blind to the problem you have here. I don’t expect you to consider the potential benefits, but for casual readers the possibility of “spare” electrical capacity from nuclear baseload being used for reliably charging EVs and for flexible desal should seem like sensible use of resources.

    Your attempt at an answer to a single question out of 8 would have been called out for the obfuscation it is in my imagined public discussion. Feel free to save yourself any further effort unless there’s decent analysis behind it.

  10. ppp251 sermonizes:

    You are also wrong about storage: storage is possible via biomass and power-to-gas. But you don’t need it anyway for low penetrations. You only need it for high penetrations, which no country in the world is at just yet.

    Thank you for proving, beyond any doubt, that you are innumerate (and probably scientifically illiterate).  You just hand-wave with talking points you don’t understand.

    Biomass is not “storage” in the sense that it can be cycled.  You get a given amount of energy in a growing season, and that’s it.  You can’t put away today’s surplus for tomorrow’s need.

    Power-to-gas is not economic anywhere.  You will find it touted extensively, but none of the breathless prose ever dares to mention what it costs.  That’s because only the rich will be able to afford it.  They will afford it using power fed to the grid on FITs, purchased at a far lower wholesale price (subsidized by fees levied on ordinary consumers), and then used to run their luxury vehicles.

    Both nuclear and renewables can benefit from storage, but nuclear’s duration of storage is roughly overnight and becomes economic at costs an order of magnitude higher than wind and solar.

  11. A minor addenda to Barry’s remark concerning relative safety-of-plant (at about 44 min). Current Gen III+ light-water reactors are typified by Westinghouse AP-1000. Probabilistic Risk Assessment (PSA) puts AP-1000 TMI-type core-damage-frequency (CDF) at 5×10-7 per plant per year, Fukushima-style large release frequency at about one tenth this. Mean time between failure (MTBF) would be the inverse, or 2 million years for core damage — I think Barry mentioned 500,000 years — and 20 million years for large radiation release.

    Of course, the world isn’t going to build just one. A typical estimate of world-wide yearly electric demand mid-century is 40 PWh, which if all baseload (and it isn’t) might be satisfied by 4600 such plants with a CDF of 2.3×10-3, core damage MTBF of 435 years, and large-release MTBF of 4,350 years.

    That’s for the planet, assuming the Gen III+ reactors being built today. (I haven’t EPR figures available, they’re likely similar to AP-1000. ESBWR is a bit better.) “Walk-away safe” Gen IV designs are a bit different, as these are not pressurized and are not water-moderated so there is no mechanism to generate explosive hydrogen. Core damage could hypothetically occur in an IFR type reactor only if one could somehow drain the liquid metal coolant from the reactor vessel, which has no openings save at the top. Even if this were possible, there is no pressure or explosive mechanism to propel a large radiation release: any such accident would be fully contained.

    Molten salt reactors go one better. Left unattended with cooling disabled they simply heat themselves to the point the passive freeze plugs at the bottom of the reactor vessel melt and the molten salt core drains into a large puddle whose geometry is too flat to sustain criticality, where it will eventually freeze — end of story.

    Last, there is steady progress being made replacing structural zirconium in LWR cores with Silicon Carbide. Hydrogen is generated by reaction of Zr with super-duper-heated steam during a core melt. Fukushima happened because loss of standby battery power prevented that hydrogen from being properly vented. In Gen III+ designs such venting is passive, hence the very small LRF. But in absence of zirconium and hydrogen, large radiation release would go down still further, in both frequency and magnitude.

  12. actinideage: Overbuilding nuclear means either dumping power on neighbours or lowering capacity factor and therefore more expensive power. France is struggling with both.

    They’re encouraging wasteful demand (electric boilers, electric heating), they’re dumping power on neighbours whenever demand is too low, and they’re importing German coal electricity in the winter, because they don’t have flexibility to cope with winter demand.

    Suggesting desalination plants in France to solve inflexibility problem is a lunacy. Just as one would expect from a nuclear proponent.

  13. @ppp251,

    You refer to “wasteful” electrical space heating in France. How else do you suggest to do space heating with low(ish) emissions? Some sort of micro CHP burning biomass or natural gas? We should really, really stop burning stuff.

    If you read the UK Committee on Climate Change “Renewable Energy Review” and in particular the section on renewable heat, its quite plain that the only truly scalable pathway to low emission heating is electrical – preferably by heat pumps or resistive heating where heat pumps are not feasible. District heating via CHP from nukes is feasible but practicality is highly site dependent.

  14. @quokka1: the problem is not electrical heating, the problem is that nuclear overcapacity encourages inefficient use of electricity.

    Minimum demand in EU is in summer. There is overcapacity (particularly overnight and weekends) and France is dumping power on their neighbours as is evident from your link. But in winter France lacks capacity to meet demand. Every 1°C lower temperature adds 1GW more demand because of inefficient resistive electrical heating. Then they import German coal fired electricity to meet demand.

    Building new nuclear plants will not solve inflexibility problem.

    French must stop using resistive heaters and start using heat pumps and heat storage. District heating with seasonal thermal storage is also an option.

    Germans are doing it:

  15. @quokka: Thanks for those links! The first’s parent for UK is equally illuminating, graphically illustrating the problem with wind. Admittedly UK is small, her reach from Plymouth to Inverness being less than 900 km. But also illustrates the interconnectedness of the European grid: while useful to talk of generation and demand per country, one should also look at the big picture. Italy and Denmark for example have no native nuclear power, but draw on that from their neighbors. France tries to limit load-following for her nuclear via exports, but will import German wind if available during demand peaks.

    @Barry Brooks: Thanks for the clarification!

  16. ppp251 not only can modern nuclear load follow, but it has been doing so, quite brilliantly, by steam bypass to the condenser, for over 10 years & is instrumental in bringing the north american grid up following ice storm damage to transmission lines. CANDU reactors in particular can hold at 100% power for up to 2 days while disconnected from the grid, ready to

  17. One member of the audience asserted that large numbers of people would continue to die in the presence of old fallout, but the death toll would be spread across the categories and therefore too low an increase anywhere to be detected. Or words to that effect.

    One might answer that the benefits of a stimulated immune system would also be spread across all categories, so the improvement in health would be similarly buried in the statistical noise.

  18. the problem is that nuclear overcapacity encourages inefficient use of electricity.

    The “efficient” use of electricity is much like the “efficient” use of sunlight.  If you truly cared about the efficient use of insolation, you would demand that something be put on every rooftop, roadway and snow-covered expanse to capture it and put it to use.  None of these things matter.  Losing that energy creates no pollution.

    You are the sort who’d demand that nuclear generation be cut to what can be used “efficiently”, then handle the peaks with fossil-fired units.  The result would be far more carbon emission than the “inefficient” scheme you decry.  In short, you are totally messed up in the head.

    Minimum demand in EU is in summer. There is overcapacity (particularly overnight and weekends) and France is dumping power on their neighbours as is evident from your link.

    And if this is displacing fossil-burning generation, is this not a good thing?

    But in winter France lacks capacity to meet demand. Every 1°C lower temperature adds 1GW more demand because of inefficient resistive electrical heating. Then they import German coal fired electricity to meet demand.

    It sounds to me like this is cause to put SMRs underground in most cities, and use the low-pressure steam to provide space heat instead of just dumping it to condensers.  During summers you’d route the heat to rivers, oceans or cooling towers.  Possibly, low-pressure steam could drive absorption chillers for any required air conditioning.

    French must stop using resistive heaters and start using heat pumps and heat storage.

    The French have per-capita carbon emissions far lower than the Germans.  You get the lesson of who needs to learn from whom completely backwards.  That’s typical of you.

    Nuclear “overcapacity” is an incentive to use its carbon-free generation to decarbonize something else.  We need less of this like we need another hole in the head.

  19. @EP: While I agree on the “dumping” point (what is meant by “dumping” in this context? Do others want the French power or not? At what price?), ppp has a certain a point about resistive vs heat-pump efficiency: If France hasn’t nuclear capacity to meet load during peak winter demand and the recourse is coal, then heat pumps might make sense. Certainly for new build in absence of low-carbon CHP. Anything to shave load peaks is beneficial regardless of generation source. Retrofitting heat pumps to existing resistive structures would be more difficult and costly. But ppp is right: burning fossils to power resistive heat is highly inefficient use of fossils. Its also highly inefficient use of hydro or nuclear unless there is excess capacity, which doesn’t appear to be the case and population will grow even if it were.

  20. Nuclear resistance heat is better than fossil-fired furnaces.  Building out nuclear capacity to more than the base load allows more fossil-fired capacity to remain unused, and resistance heaters work wonderfully as dump loads.  “Heat batteries” are much cheaper than electric batteries and allow time-shifting of demand for both space heat and DHW.

    The most likely upgrade from resistance heat is an air-source heat pump.  They aren’t bad, but at low OATs they lose capacity and must fall back to resistance heat anyway.  It would be best to retain the combustion furnaces for that.

  21. Ian Hore-Lacy pointed out that an increasing number of EVs acts to increase baseload demand (relative to peak), as they charge up on cheap night-time electricity. That would favour nuclear or coal generation as opposed to renewables-and-gas.

    A question from the floor asked, then wouldn’t a distribution of small reactors make for dispersible generation? The question is quite relevant to the long skinny grid along the Australian east coast, whether we need massive long distance EHT lines if baseload can be supplied locally. Ken Baldwin replied that the grid is still needed for peak demand. Presumably because the peaking demand could be distributed over time and the slower responding peaker supply could be distributed over space – across the larger grid. A similar (and how much larger?) need would be created by the peaking supply due to wind or solar.

    Early in the video, Ian Hore-Lacy had said that system costs should be added to LCOEcalculations, because the costs of distribution (the pattern of interconnecting power lines) varies with that type of generators. It would then be the question of just how massive the trunk lines would have to be for the various scenarios of small nuclear, large nuclear, renewables-and-gas etc.

  22. A question from the floor asked, then wouldn’t a distribution of small reactors make for dispersible generation?

    Transmission (220 kV + etc.) is about 5 times the cost of distribution so relative dispersement would deliver only a modest benefit, if any. It is only through embedding generation in the low voltage sections that potentially significant cost benefits would be achieved, and this wouldn’t apply to SMR’s.

  23. Thanks Graham. In addition, up to a certain point e.g. availability of cooling, there are economies of scale to be gained by siting multiple reactors — small or large — at the same site. Common staff, common fuel storage, common “spent” fuel storage, common fuel recycling if IFR, common security, fewer back yards not to be in.

    The panel frequently mentioned coastal siting as being ideal for a nuclear facility for just those reasons: the overall scale of the plant is not limited by cooling. But there’s also the possibility that in some cases some Gen IV SMR’s (liquid metal, molten salt, HTG) might substitute directly for the steam generators at existing coal plants without needing to swap out the turbines and generators as well. And at least up to the capacity of the existing site, cooling has already been provided for. (Which doesn’t mean someone else mightn’t have better use for the water.) But it isn’t simple and there are caveats: a LWR for example doesn’t run hot enough to feed a turbine-generator designed for the super-heated dry steam generated by coal, and higher-temperature designs would need be analyzed for turbine compatibility on a case-by-case basis. The regulatory/licensing agency would probably need be involved, and this would be expensive. See AR’s comment at“.

  24. Regrettably, IFR is not commercially available. You cannot go out and buy one. For the simple reason that PRISM’s design reviews have not been completed by the US and UK regulatory agencies. And they won’t be for at least several years. Is this a travesty? Depends on one’s POV. Certainly gives the anti-nuclear contingent (fossil) fuel for hope.

    One reason PRISM is delayed is that GEH has suspended its NRC license application here in the States, and UK isn’t likely to proceed without a joint licensing effort ‘cuz why should they duplicate effort over there that GEH has to pay for here anyway?

    And the reason GEH has suspended its PRISM process here is because its license application for ESBWR got bogged down in a technical modelling dispute with NRC and GEH decided to focus 100% of its resources on getting that thing complete and out the door and on the market soonest before Toshiba-Westinghouse eats any more of its rightful lunch.*

    And you simply cannot fault them. Gen III LWR’s load follow as well or better than most fossil plants save OCCT, and they have a far more certain near-term market than Gen IV where permitted by statute. Which no nuclear is at present in the U.S. — though Gen III LWR faces a much lower hurdle than IFR, by a long shot.

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m as excited about IFR and NuScale and TAP and LFTR as the next guy, but I try to maintain focus on the most pressing goal: soonest possible reduction of the most CO2 emission on a global basis possible. Shortest term that’s still Gen III LWR. They are big, they are powerful, they have proven reliability, cost structure, and fuel cycle. Sure, there’s all sorts of gaps for SMRs of whatever flavor to fill in and more power to them! But we’ve got to get this show on the road.

    • GEH hopes to have ESBWR design license finalized sometime this fall.
  25. Dead right Ed Leaver. We have to get this [nuclear for Australia] show on the road. In all of the discussion, debate etc which has started again after a thirty year hiatus [Australia was a world leader back in the 70's and 80's in nuclear technology] we should ask ourselves just one question.If all of the negatives about nuclear expounded by the anti nuclear ideologues still worry us, then why are 32 countries continuing to generate nuclear, 17 countries are building reactors now and at least 25 other countries propose to include nuclear in their energy mix? It’s a no brainer.With probably a third of the world’s uranium in South Australia and the best waste disposal site [Officer Basin] also in South Australia, we should have been nuclear years ago. As James Lovelock said in 2007 at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas ,”It doesn’t make sense that Australia hasn’t already gone nuclear.” It would be good if all of the technical experts commenting on this blog got stuck into our largely visionless,timid, uninspiring politicians especially Labor and the Coalition [Australian Greens will never be persuaded] and insisted that they reach a bipartisan pro nuclear position asap ,legislate for and get on with development over coming decades, of the full nuclear fuel cycle here in South Australia. I’ve been spruiking and writing for nuclear now for the past 16 years. It would be helpful if a few more people concentrated less on the technical side of the issue and more on badgering the politicians. We’re never going to get nuclear power without the politicians waking up to the potential it offers for getting a clean,green,safe, economically competitive emissions-free,secure base load supply of electricity. Come on guys. Give me a hand – PLEASE .

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