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).


Fukushima – Jim Green’s distractions and James Hansen’s warning

Yesterday, Jim Green, anti-nuclear spokesman for ‘Friends of the Earth’ in Australia, published an opinion article on Climate Spectator entitled “Fukushima apologies and apologists“. This piece included an attack on Geoff Russell and me, in which he demanded that we make an apology. Today they published our response, which I reproduce below.


It’s been interesting to see the media response to the third anniversary of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Has the focus been on mourning and commemorating the 18,000 deaths or on kicking the anti-nuclear can over the triple meltdown at Fukushima which killed nobody?

Jim Green’s recent Climate Spectator article neglected any mention of the 18,000 deaths caused by the quake and tsunami and chose instead to fiercely debate whether the meltdowns had killed anybody. Of the 18,000 actual deaths, many were due to engineers or penny pinching local officials designing or building protective sea walls for a much smaller tsunami than the one which actually arrived. They were wrong and thousands died. Green is predictably silent about these engineering failures which killed thousands and only has eyes for the nuclear failures which didn’t.

This is classic Green. Always trying distract people from thinking about the big issue. The big issue is climate change and whether nuclear power should be part of the global response. The way to come to a rational decision is to weigh up the pros and cons.

Pick a number from Green’s estimates of the number of cancers that might be caused over the next 30 years by Fukushima radiation and write it down as a con along with whatever figure you’d like to put down for the Chernobyl toll of premature deaths. On the other side you should note the 1.8 million premature deaths already prevented by nuclear power by reducing the toxic pollution from coal fired power plants. You should also write down about 64 gigatonnes of CO2 saved by current nuclear plants.

At that point, it’s pretty much a slam dunk, you could stop writing. Any negative impacts of nuclear power have been swamped by the positive impacts.

But it’s useful to build another list of pros and cons which represent the impacts of the anti-nuclear movement over the past few decades.

On the pro side of the ledger will be the accidents we didn’t have because we built coal power stations instead of nuclear. Until very recently, the anti-nuclear movement has protested any nuclear construction vigorously and been totally silent about coal, so this is a fair comparison.

So what if we had continued the nuclear rollout of the 1970s and now had 10 times as many reactors producing all of our electricity? We’d have had a few more accidents, how many? Let’s say 10. So write down however many premature deaths you think is reasonable on the pro side and now on the other side write down the saving of 18 million premature fossil fuel related deaths together with the saving of 640 gigatonnes of CO2. Note that this anti-nuclear consequence of some 640 gigatonnes of CO2 has single handedly delivered us into the gaping jaws of a horribly elevated risk of dangerous climate change. What do you write down for that?

But let’s go back to that 1.8 million premature death saving estimate. The authors were NASA climate scientists Pushker Kharecha and living legend James Hansen. It was a very conservative estimate. In places like China and India, nuclear has been displacing not just coal, but wood fires in people’s living areas. Wood cooking stoves annually kill about half a million children under 5 years of age with an added illness toll much larger. Hansen has recently written an opinion piece with the striking title of ‘World’s Greatest Crime against Humanity and Nature’.

What’s he talking about?

Hansen wants the US to assist China with its nuclear rollout because he thinks it’s blindingly obvious that without nuclear, there is simply no way to avoid dangerous climate change. As part of the argument Hansen charges those who believe in a non-nuclear 100 percent renewable response to climate change with the major responsibility for the rise of both gas fracking and the exploitation of tar sands and other unconventional oil technologies. This is supported by falling natural gas production during the US nuclear roll and the subsequent resurgence after the anti-nuclear movement got spurred on by the Three Mile Island meltdown and Chernobyl.

But we suspect Hansen may be wrong about one thing … which is that given the astonishing Chinese progress in nuclear technology in recent years, we’d be thinking that it might be the US who need Chinese production engineering assistance, but that’s another issue.


Geoff Russell is an author with qualifications in mathematics and philosophy. Barry Brook is an environmental scientist and director of climate science at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute.

Scott Ludlam’s viral video

Guest Post by Geoff Russell.

Scott Ludlam is a Western Australian Senator with a last minute reprieve after losing his seat at the last Federal election. Ludlam will get a second change when WA has a fresh Senate election next month after the now infamous electoral office bungle which saw some 1,400 ballot papers lost. This makes him a very lucky boy.

A few days ago Ludlam rose to an empty parliamentary chamber in the nation’s capital and delivered a speech that has gone as close to viral as serious politics ever goes. When I say “empty”, I’m just rounding down from the one person present. But when I say “viral”, I don’t need to round up because his you tube clip is at 461,698 views and rising … with thumbs up dominating the thumbs down.

It’s a great speech and I share Ludlam’s contempt for our compassionless Government. But one small section sticks out as being just plain ill-informed. Unfortunately many Greens take their beliefs as a package deal and don’t respond well to criticism of particular components, but that’s the thing about the real world, it’s full of exceptions to rules and cases where general principles need to be put aside in favour of actually thinking through the problem. Energy production is one such area and Scott would do well to follow is own advice and dump his anti-nuclear slogans. They don’t work as policy.

Consider the way Ludlam lumps gas fracking in with the nuclear electricity industry without understanding that the two are inversely related, meaning that the reason we have fracking is because nuclear power got blocked by the anti-nuclear movement. If the nuclear roll out of the 1970s had continued, there’d be little or no gas fracking today.

It’s not complicated, you just need a little history.

Gas fracking and the whole grab back of unconventional oil technologies (shale oil, tar sands, coal-to-oil conversion, etc) have exploded during the past couple of decades on the back of the US struggle for energy independence. Natural gas production in the US fell during the decade from 1973 to 1983 and then it began to rise. Thirty years on, and it’s at an all time peak. Consider the dates. That decade of gas decline was when the US was building it nuclear fleet. And the minute that fleet roll out got scuppered by the anti-nuclear movement … gas production was back in business. Prior to the nuclear roll out of the 70s, the US burned bucket loads of oil for electricity. The nuclear roll out stopped that and it never restarted because oil got priced out of that market. But when the nuclear builds were stymied, and conventional oil supplies became more expensive to find, then unconventional oils got their chance. Australia mirrors these events except that we never had nuclear.

By rejecting both gas and nuclear as a package, Ludlam is throwing the baby out with the fracking bath water.

And what does he want in it’s place?

Quote … “infinite flows of renewable energy”,.

This from someone who claims to value “education, innovation and equality” in addition to biodiversity and (presumably) minimising the destruction to the natural environment.

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There’s lies, damned lies, statistics and then there’s carbon accounting

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff is a computer programmer, vegan, environmentalist, and more generally, a ‘by-the-numbers’ polymath. For a list of all of his posts on BNC, click here. He also has collections here and here.

It’s February and the September quarter 2013 National Greenhouse Gas Inventory figures have just been released but are getting rather less coverage than in the heady days when Kevin Rudd pronounced climate change as the greatest moral challenge of our time … etc.

The big issue at present is of course whether (or should this be “weather”) the carbon tax has done anything. Peter Hannam in The Age sketches the position of the players. Christine Milne pointing to the cuts in electricity emissions to claim yes, and Greg Hunt using the same figures to belittle the impact. Of course, we have an academic Frank Jotzo pointing out that what matters is what the emissions would have been without the tax. Ah! That’s obviously correct but rather tougher to estimate.

In total, our emissions have increased by 1.2 percent and Hannam singles our land-clearing as the culprit, because its gone up.

What the hell is land clearing? It’s easily the most complex of all the emission categories and it’s worth considering in some detail, because almost nobody ever does.

Land clearing is the sum of some other categories. Cutting stuff down is called deforestation and growing stuff is called either afforestation or reforestation depending on whether there was ever anything there before you started to grow stuff. The three terms are formally defined in the September Quarter document with afforestation and deforestation being formally defined as: “new commercial and environmental forest plantations by direct human action on land not forested in 1989.” It notes that net emissions are typically negative because growing stuff exceeds cutting stuff.

It all looks rosy until you go digging through the actual data. At which point things get very murky. The formal spreadsheets Australia submits to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are extremely detailed … as they should be. And we find that rather more categories are used to generate the three subtotals.

Basically, land is considered to be in one of a few states: Forest Land, Cropland, Grassland, Wetlands, Settlements, and two categories of Other. In each category, land can either be entering the category or remaining in it. If Forest becomes Grass (via clearing), then typically it stores less carbon so we get a positive carbon emission. That’s easy. That same land might emit carbon for some time after the initial clearing, so there is a category of “Grass remaining Grass”. That’s not so easy. And what about Forest remaining Forest? Well that’s also easy, if you don’t do anything, Forests accumulate carbon so you get a negative emissing … a gain. Gains are good.

Are you still with me?

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Book Review: “Energy in Australia – Peak Oil, Solar Power, and Asia’s Economic Growth”

Guest post by John MorganJohn 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.

You can follow John on Twitter @JohnDPMorgan

Let’s get one thing out of the way – the parochial title.  Graham Palmer’s Energy in Australia is not about Australia, any more than, say, David MacKay’s Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air is about the UK.  Both books make use of local case studies, but they are both concerned with fundamental aspects of our energy system that will interest readers regardless of nationality.

Likewise, peak oil and Asia’s economic growth are minor players in this story, characters that don’t really warrant top billing.  So, what is this book really about?

EiA is an extended discussion of the high level issues in energy system transformation, in particular, energy return on energy invested (EROEI), intermittency, and electricity grid control.  A short, punchy book of only 80 or so pages, it is broken down into many bite-sized pieces and is an easy read for the non-specialist, despite being published under an academic imprint.

The book argues that solar and wind exist within the existing fossil fuel / synchronous grid framework, and have a role to play in abating emissions from those plants, and in network peak load support, but that they do not allow us to break out of that system.  That would require an energy source with high EROEI driving synchronous generators that can progressively replace those driven by coal and gas in the existing grid.

The system level issues are summarized by Palmer in the figure below, as they relate to plans for renewable energy.  Many proposals for 100% renewable energy systems put together some combination of wind, solar, biogas, etc. that meets historical demand.  As Palmer puts it,

The underlying theme of 100% renewable plans is the assumption that through increased complexity, an optimal set of synergies can be discovered and exploited.  The difficulty is that the plans operate solely within the shallow “simulation layer” … With few exceptions, little consideration is given to the deeper first- and second-order layer issues.

The first half of the book explores those deeper issues, and is a fascinating description of the operation of the grid, its control schemes, the role of baseload, peak demand management, storage, capacity factors, availability and so on.  This really should be compulsory reading for anyone serious about a transition to a low emissions electricity grid.

Fig3-1PalmerA startling figure from this discussion is the world’s electricity generation mix expressed, not as contributions from coal, gas, hydro, wind etc. as we usually see, but as the fraction from “synchronous rotary machines” – that is, mechanical generators with rotating shafts which are synchronized to the electrical frequency of the grid.  96% of global electricity is provided by such machines.  In a sense, we have almost no diversity in electrical generation.

These machines are ubiquitous because they offer a solution to the historically difficult problem of grid control – making sure that electricity generation exactly meets demand at any instant.  This is done by frequency stabilization – the rotation of all the generators on the grid is synchronized, and as loads are connected to the grid, the rotational frequency drops, which is the signal used to bring on board new generation.

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