Emissions Nuclear Renewables

The arithmetic adds up to nuclear

Yesterday, The Australian newspaper published an Op Ed piece by Nicholson, Biegler & Brook, entitled Emission reductions are not blowin’ in the wind, which discusses our recent paper in Energy. The print (dead tree) version of the article even had the graph shown here included! However, the editor had to cut down our original version to <1,000 words due to space constraints. As such, I thought BNC readers might be interested in reading the original 1,211 word submitted version, which I reproduce below.

In the next post, I’ll look at some other media reactions to our paper and press release.


The Arithmetic adds up to Nuclear

By Martin Nicholson, Tom Biegler and Barry Brook

The ‘carbon price’ debate rages. The Australian Government, seems genuinely committed to putting a price on carbon. It seems likely, that one of the first industries to be impacted will be electricity generation. This sector is the largest single contributor to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions – mainly carbon dioxide. So, the big questions are: what does the carbon price need to be, where will our future electricity come from, and how much will it cost?

Levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) for baseload electricity generating technologies. Error bars represent 90% confidence intervals for the mean (bar height).

Most of our current electricity generators will be impacted. Less than seven per cent of our electricity comes from carbon-free sources. Reducing the emissions from the generators that burn fossil fuels (the source of the carbon dioxide) means that electricity will be more expensive than in the past – whatever technology is used.

So how will the electric power makers react to a carbon price? If the price is too low they will do nothing; pay the carbon price and just pass the cost onto the consumer, with negligible effect on emissions. On the other hand, if they can replace or improve the technology for less than it costs to pay for the carbon, they will change the technology.

This brings us to the next couple of questions. What is the carbon price that will cause a widespread change to technology and actually reduce emissions? And what technology will the power makers select? These are both questions that are much more difficult to answer, and will depend on whether they take a short-term view to say 2030 or a longer-term perspective to 2050 and beyond.

To help answer these questions, we have conducted a meta-review of 25 authoritative peer-reviewed studies of electricity generating technologies. This review was recently published in the international peer-reviewed scientific journal Energy. We looked at cost and life-cycle emission studies to arrive at the most likely costs and emissions of these technologies. In Australia, over 75 per cent of our electricity is generated by what are called ‘baseload’ generators that operate almost continuously. Our paper focuses on this majority part of the energy demand.

It turns out that technology options for replacing fossil fuels, based on proven performance and reliable cost projections, are much more limited than is popularly perceived. We identified only five proven low-emission technologies that met a set of objective fit-for-service criteria to supply baseload power. These technologies were: pulverised fuel (PF) with carbon capture and storage (CCS); integrated (coal) gasification combined cycle (IGCC) with CCS; combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) with CCS; nuclear; and solar thermal with heat storage and gas turbines. IGCC is relatively new technology not yet in operation in Australia. CCS is still only in pilot stage anywhere in the world.

Some may wonder why wind, solar photovoltaic and engineered geothermal systems (EGS), also known as hot rocks, did not qualify to be fit-for-service for baseload. Wind and solar PV need either extensive gas backup or large-scale energy storage for baseload operation. The associated extra costs will depend on plant location and are difficult to assess accurately. One technical study we covered assessed wind with storage against IGCC with CCS. The wind/storage solution could only compete at a carbon price above $350 per tonne of carbon dioxide, well above anything being contemplated. EGS is a possible future baseload technology, but it is still too early to estimate performance and costs with the degree of reliability we required.

Impact of carbon pricing on levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) for fit-for-service low emission baseload technologies.

Most of Australia’s electricity comes from PF coal and this will be the primary target for emissions reduction. The illustration below (taken from the report) shows how the median costs per megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity vary with the emissions (carbon) price. The technologies included are the five fit-for-service replacement technologies plus, for comparison, new PF coal plants without CCS. With no carbon price (as now), new PF coal is the cheapest technology, but as the carbon price increases so does the cost of electricity from such plants. LCOE in the illustration means the levelised cost of electricity. The LCOE is a good indicator of the average wholesale price the power station owner would need to break even.

The points where the cost line for PF coal crosses the others represents the minimum carbon price needed to make the technology switch worthwhile. Leaving aside nuclear for the moment (it is currently banned in Australia), the cheapest solution is CCGT (natural gas) with CCS, which needs a carbon price of just over $30. To justify building either of the coal technologies (PF or IGCC) with CCS would require a carbon price over $40. Remember these costs are for new plants. Retrofitting existing coal plants with CCS might have different costs.

The problem is, CCS may only make sense if you take a short-term view of emission reductions. Whereas CCS can deliver the probable reduction targets up till 2030, current CCS technology will not deliver the tougher emission targets recommended for 2050. Coal plants often have a 40 year life, so new coal plants with CCS built over the next few decades may still be operating by 2050 and holding us back from meeting those targets, unless they can be modified later.

So what about renewable energy options?

The only renewable technology that met our fit-for-service criteria was solar thermal with heat storage and gas backup for cloudy days. As you can see from the illustration, using solar thermal power to replace coal would require a carbon price over $150. The solar industry is ever hopeful that future costs will fall, but current costs are about twice other low-carbon alternatives so they have a long way to go. Future cost reductions for any technology are inherently uncertain and should not be relied on.

The stand-out technology, from a cost perspective, is nuclear power. From the eight nuclear cost studies we reviewed (all published in the last decade, and adjusted to 2009 dollars), the median cost of electricity from current technology nuclear plants was just above new coal plants with no carbon price. Having the lowest carbon emissions of all the fit-for-service technologies, nuclear remains the cheapest solution at any carbon price. Importantly, it is the only fit-for-service baseload technology that can deliver the 2050 emission reduction targets.

The low cost for nuclear electricity may surprise some. Nuclear plants are renowned for being very expensive to build. But electricity costs are a function of construction costs, running costs (operations, maintenance and fuel) and the total energy generated over the plant’s lifetime. Nuclear fuel costs are relatively low compared to coal or gas (very little fuel is used in a nuclear plant) and these plants typically have a long life and high availability. These factors lead to a low electricity cost over the nuclear plant’s lifetime.

The results of this survey represent the scientific/engineering/economic consensus of the world-wide, authoritative, peer-reviewed energy literature. Given the importance of reducing electricity generator emission, and the economic imperative to keep electricity costs at a minimum, it seems essential that the Australian government rethink its nuclear power strategy – as much of the rest of the world has already done. All the arithmetic adds up to nuclear.

Nicholson M, Biegler, T. & Brook, B.W. (2010) How carbon pricing changes the relative competitiveness of low-carbon baseload generating technologies. Energy doi:10.1016/

[email Barry Brook to be sent a PDF version of the full paper]


By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

35 replies on “The arithmetic adds up to nuclear”

The nuclear industry’s initial success in the post-war era was due largely to public policy designed to promote its growth. Although the industry grew, it became overly dependent on government. This left it vul­nerable to shifts in public policy. When policy shifted toward outright opposition as the activist community convinced the political left that nuclear power was dangerous, the industry predict­ably failed as investors cut their losses and moved capital to opportunities that were perceived as less threatened by increasing regulatory volatility.

Anti-nuclear activists understood that they could kill the industry by turning public opinion – and therefore democratic governments – against nuclear power. This process began in the early 1970s. Although other factors such as rising interest rates, recession, and economic chaos caused by the oil crisis contributed to the nuclear industry’s deterioration, the growing regulatory burden in most countries was paramount.

Unless this regulatory burden is removed, no carbon pricing scheme will drive investors to abandon fossil fuels in favor of nuclear energy. It will however drive them into renewable projects that will generate carbon credits, while doing little or nothing to reduce the total carbon burden.

The only hope for widespread deployment of nuclear energy is to shift public opinion in its favor. There isn’t top-down approach that will not be vulnerable to the sort of organized opposition that brought the industry to its knees once before.


I think the parliamentary committee with come up with a starting carbon tax of $10/tCO2 applying to coal and gas using generators and heavy industries. Liquid fuels will be exempt and there will be huge giveaways to smelters while farmers are urged to sell carbon tax deductible credits. The ARPANS Act will be unchanged for several years. Every year for the next few years one or two medium sized CCGT plants without CCS will be built or expanded and they will gradually take over the baseload role. Renewables will be quietly downplayed. The public will just have to wear high electricity prices.


The public are going to wear high electricity prices in any scenario.What a pity that under the present poitical conventional “wisdom” that extra expenditure will be going into generators which are not going to deliver the goods as far as low emissions are concerned.
As DV82L has pointed out,that needs to be made clear to the public so that their righteous indignation can be chanelled to a productive end.

We need a PR firm who would take this task on.Unfortunately they don’t come cheap.



Can you tell me which part of the ARPANS act, if any, actually says that nuclear power is banned?

I can’t see it, but maybe I’m just not parsing the legal jargon properly.

Certainly it’s true that anyone building a nuclear reactor would need to apply to ARPANSA for a license and have the license granted, but the same is basically true for any facility using radioactivity or ionising radiation. So where in the legislation does it specifically say that a reactor is specifically different?


Luke Weston,

I believe section 10 of the ARPANS Act states the prohibition.

Click to access AustRadProtNucSafety98WD02.pdf

“10 Prohibition on certain nuclear installations
(1) Nothing in this Act is to be taken to authorise the construction or operation of any of the following nuclear installations:
(a) a nuclear fuel fabrication plant;
(b) a nuclear power plant;
(c) an enrichment plant;
(d) a reprocessing facility.

(2) The CEO must not issue a licence under section 32 in respect of any of the facilities mentioned in subsection (1)”

Someone correct me if I am interpreting this wrong.


@Tom Keen

You may well be correct Tom but there is an interesting summary of Australian legislation under the OECD banner at

This states in Section 4 a) that

“All nuclear installations [in Australia] are covered by the Safeguards Act and the ARPANSA Act. While non-Commonwealth installations would be governed by State or Territory legislation, no such installations exist.”

And further (as you have said above) that

“The ARPANSA Act expressly prohibits the construction or operation by controlled persons (Commonwealth Government entities or their contractors) of nuclear fuel fabrication plants, nuclear power plants…..”

I’m no legal expert but this could be taken to mean that a non-government operator could apply for permission to generate nuclear power in Australia so long as any relevant State Acts were satisfied along with any conditions of the two Commonwealth Acts mentioned.


I think we will get nuclear in Australia but only when we can’t really afford it. In a speech yesterday the RBA governor said we shouldn’t be spending the mining boom money on lollies when there are major difficulties ahead. Right now we are enjoying the benign conditions of La Nina, $80 oil and record mineral exports. Change that to El Nino, $150 oil and a world economic slowdown. Then people will take this whole low-carbon business seriously. See in today’s TOD Drumbeat the Brits realise they squandered their gas reserves. I think Australia’s lightbulb moment could be in the next 5 years.


This might be germane to this discussion. The Provence of Ontario in Canada, made a commitment to close all dirt burners in the province.

Ontario’s long-term energy plan, released Tuesday, calls for $33 billion in investments by government and the private sector to build two new nuclear reactors at Darlington and refurbish 10 older units.

It confirms Ontario’s intentions to keep getting half of the province’s electricity from nuclear and to phase out coal-fired generation by 2014 at the latest, with two coal burning units at Nanticoke set to close next year.

Still the plan calls for the average homeowner’s electricity bill to double in that time.

The government admitted last week that green energy programs will be responsible for more than half of the expected 46 per cent increase in electricity rates over the next five years.

The Progressive Conservatives complained the Liberal government’s green energy policies, such as paying 80 cents a kilowatt hour for small solar projects and striking a $7-billion deal with Korean giant Samsung, are making electricity too expensive.

Thus it looks like reality is beginning to bite at Queen’s Park, as the truth about the utility of renewables to replace coal are sinking in. This is also coupled with a great deal of mounting opposition to hydro-fraking for gas in Canada, which was supposed to make methane the cheap option for power generation.

I wouldn’t hazard a guess at there being any parallels with the situation in Australia, however it is of note that this is the first time anywhere that I have seen or heard of any government veering away from as well developed a Green-based energy policy as Ontario has had over the last three years.

It is also of note that they are laying out the cost penalty of renewables, as they will directly impact the consumer.


Just heard Barry on ABC News 24 Afternoon Live – great interview – this new paper is really making WAVES on the air waves -at last government is starting to listen. Go get em Barry!


Follow Finrod’s link to the Labour wants nuclerar on the agenda story and be AMAZED that the vast majority of comments offer support to the nuclear option. Could the tide be turning?


The nuclear debate appears to be gathering momentum in the media in Australia.

Australian Greens leader Bob Brown said this:

“The opinion polls show there may be a majority of Australians who would back nuclear power, but there’s a vast majority who don’t want it in their back yard,”

I’m surprised by the admission that most people might be in favour of nuclear. Is this all the Greens have left in their argument against nuclear?

Also, Tony Abbott said this:

“I certainly concede that nuclear is a low-emissions means of generation but the fact is the Coalition has a very clear policy to bring our emissions down without putting a great big new tax on the Australian public and without dramatically changing our existing sources of energy,”

The Liberals clearly want to keep the dirt-burners.

Perhaps Labor will surprise us all and become leaders in this debate. I think it’s a good time for everyone to be writing to their local Labor MP, or straight to the top to Tony Burke and/or Martin Ferguson.


Just maybe, Martin and Barry’s article in the Australian may be the turning point. Even ABC managed to mention the ‘N’ word in the news tonight without choking on it and without a backdrop of solar panels and wind mills. That is quite an advance. It was a bit disappointing to hear Julia Gillard pour cold water on the likelihood of a change of government policy. But … I reckon …

“There [is] movement at the station
for the word had passed around
Banjo Paterson “The man from Snowy River”


Looking at the news today, and over the last little while, and with Barry’s current media efforts, it feels like the dam may be breaking. I hope thats not misplaced optimism.


“Energy cheaper than from coal” is a theme I have been promoting, believing that all the world (and especially developing nations) will never agree to carbon taxes.

Barry’s paper shows that nuclear power is close to meeting this goal. Personally I am persuaded that the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) can substantially undercut coal economics.

We all need to resist political movements that seek to increase the cost of nuclear power, such as requiring ever more structural costs to resist crashes of really big airplanes into reactors.


Wow, I’m impressed. Maybe it’s time for the scientists and the community and the people to really speak out and get behind this and encourage it with the ALP, and really push it.

But Scott Ludlam and Bob Brown are running scared… their holy ideology could really be falling apart at the seams now.


A collection of every press report I’ve found so far today regarding the ALP’s newfound interest in discussing nuclear energy. I hope this is interesting or useful for other readers – I hope it’s not considered inappropriate spam despite the box full of links.


yeah, but then there’s this:

In its key findings, the UN panel’s report says:

■ A cost on greenhouse gas pollution caused by fossil fuels of $US20-50 a tonne would have a big impact on cutting harmful emissions. “It could lead to a power generation sector with low greenhouse gas emission by 2050.”

■ This would allow renewable energy to have a 30 to 35 per cent share of total electricity supply by 2030.

■ The relative high cost of nuclear power means it would provide only an additional 2 per cent of the world’s electricity supply by 2030, and “safety, weapons proliferation and waste remain as constraints”.

■ Clean coal technology has the potential to make an important contribution by 2030.

■ Improving efficiency of energy supply and use would play a key role in reducing emissions by up to 30 billion tonnes a year by 2030.

from sydney herald.

as long as anti nuclear greens can trot this stuff out,…



that b.s. report is from May 2007, back when such stuff could be said with a straight face.

I blame eclipse. I followed his link to the article and figured it was contemporary.


We still need tipping points like another El Nino and $150 oil. They’re due in the next few years.

I doubt we’ll get anything like a $30 carbon price in 2011, more like some virtually optional scheme starting in 2013. Big Energy can pay what they feel like. By then the facts on the ground could have radically changed. There could be major price increases for gas and coal while desal plants are working 24/7. Even if the future economy is subdued there may be a psychic need for a big project.


Perhaps Labor will surprise us all and become leaders in this debate. I think it’s a good time for everyone to be writing to their local Labor MP, or straight to the top to Tony Burke and/or Martin Ferguson.

I just wrote a short letter to the following three associated with the current push to offer support: (Mark Bishop) (Chris Hayes, House of reps) (Steve Hutchins)

I suggested they visit this site for further information on the matter.


How amazing. All the Green-Labor-ites are happily promoting ther political party’s ideology – and obviously encouraged to do so!!

Tom Keen, @ 1 December 2010 at 3:31 PM said:

The Liberals clearly want to keep the dirt-burners.

To provide some balance, I’d point out (again!) it has been the conservatrives that have been, consistently for 20 years, the political parties that has pushed for nuclear to be allowed in Australia. However, given that every time they do Labor winds up its scare mongering campaigns the conservatives have stated (clearly) that until Labor supports their position, Liberals-Nationals(conservatives) cannot take the lead on this. Labor uses any Conservative statements in support of nuclear to gain electoral advantage and rolls out their well worn scare campaign – every time. So clearly the Coalition cannot take action, and cannot lead, until Labor gets serious about supporting it.

I see Julia Gillard has been pouring cold water on nuclear for Australia – as always!!. How pathetic. Why doesn’t she lead from the front, with guts, like Howard did?

Good leadership would have been to say she is open to it and welcomes the debate, rather than pour cold water on it.


“Gillard tries to extinguish faction’s nuclear push”


“Gillard plays down nuclear power push”

She said some really silly stuff, and that was poor leadership. She said:

Ms Gillard said that in Australia “nuclear power doesn’t stack up as an economically efficient source of power”.

“We’ve got abundant sources of renewable energy. We are very focused on our record investment in solar and renewable technologies. We’ve got abundant energy from those sources.”

Put those two statements together. She says nuclear is not economic and she says we have abundant renewable resources. How do th4ese statements relate to each other? If we don’t want nuclear because it is not economic then why oh why is she arguing for renewables which are about 10 times more expensive than nuclear (i.e. less economic)?

How dumb are these statements? Who swallows this stuff? Less and less people I think!

Of course, I am pleased that at least Labor is starting to discuss it. I expect public opinion can turn quickly on this issue. I’ve been saying this for a long time. As I’ve been pointing out, public awareness can be changed quickly as soon as Labor starts leading on it.

What cannot be changed easily is the economics. That is why I’ve been arguing that the debate on BNC needs to turn to and focus on: what do we need to do to allow nuclear to be cheaper than coal generation in Australia?

Just to remind you, here are some examples of the sort of impediments and regulatory distortions to the market that prevent nuclear being economically viable in Australia – these need to be fixed/removed:

1. nuclear power is prohibited in Australia
2. high investor risk premium because of the politics
3. Renewable Energy Targets
4. Renewable Energy Certificates
5. Feed in Tariffs for renewables
6. Subsidies and tax advantages for renewable energy
7. Subsidies and tax advantages for fossil fuel electricity generators
8. subsidies for transmission and grid enhancements to support renewable energy
9. massive funding for research into renewable energy
10. massive subsidies for research into carbon capture and sequestration (CCS)
11. Guarantees that the government will carry the risk for any leakage from CCS
12. No equivalent guarantee for management of once used nuclear fuel
13. Massive subsidies and government facilitation for the gas industry, coal seam gas and coal to gas industries (despite the latter putting toxic chemicals into the ground water and the Great Artesian Basin water)
14. Fast tracking of the approvals process for wind power, solar power, gas industry, coal industry while nuclear industry remains band from even fair comparative studies by Treasury, Productivity Commission, ABARE, Department of Climate change and more. We can just imagine what the approvals process would be like for a nuclear power plant!

I urge BNC contributors to tackle the issue of : what do we need to do to get nuclear cheaper than coal generation in Australia?


Suddenly Barry is no longer an “alarmist warmist” to the newspapers of the conservative persuasion. Piers Akerman and Andrew Bolt now rate Barry highly and respect his scientific research (when it suits them).


Ms Perps,

More Green-Labor Alliance support I see. Amazing how all the Green-Labor supporters can just keep on posting with impunity.


Ms Perps,

Every one of the recent pro-nuclear pieces I’ve seen written by Bolt consistently has to drop the term “warmist” where Brook is mentioned, even when Bolt is agreeing with Brook’s energy research. He just can’t help himself.


Clearly nuclear power plants are too dangerous to build unless they can withstand the blast of an H-bomb dropped directly on top of them. And a 30m tsunami that arrives five minutes later, followed by an F5 tornado.

Let’s see you bear that modest regulatory burden, nukes. And your electricity had better be too cheap to meter, with no waste at all, or we’ll just call you liars again! Hahahahaha!


(maybe I’m not getting enough sleep…)


Joffan said:

Clearly nuclear power plants are too dangerous to build unless they can withstand the blast of an H-bomb dropped directly on top of them. And a 30m tsunami that arrives five minutes later, followed by an F5 tornado.

You never know. It could happen.

Then again, if that’s possible, what should we do about aircraft flying over suburbs or into capital cities or near petrochemical plants, given the history of aircraft misuse, which is extensive.


Some discussion going on now on Opinion Online over a revised version of our essay “The arithmetic adds up to nuclear”

The new (or revised) material was as follows:

We consider only those low-emission technologies that can provide baseload power which account for more than 75 per cent of the electricity generated in Australia. We used a set of objective criteria to select candidates from present and proposed technologies commonly mentioned in the context of future power generation. For a technology to be considered fit-for-service as a baseload generator, it needed to be scalable, dispatchable without large storage and have a reliable fuel supply, emissions intensity less, and preferably much less, than 300 kg CO2eq/MWh and capacity factor greater than 70 per cent…

…It might come as a surprise to some that wind, solar photovoltaic and engineered geothermal systems (EGS), also known as hot rocks, did not qualify to be fit-for-service for baseload. Wind and solar PV need either extensive gas backup or large-scale energy storage for baseload operation. Use of large-scale electricity storage is prohibitively expensive in most networks. The associated extra costs will depend on plant location and are difficult to assess accurately.

Enthusiastic supporters of various renewable energy technologies have long made claims that all or most of Australia’s future electricity needs could be met with renewable energy. Our analysis point to the costs involved and hence to the reliance on future major advances on that front in order to be competitive with other, low-emission, alternatives. In our view such reliance is highly speculative and risky as part of any plan to secure future energy.

We believe there are good reasons why weak energy sources like solar and wind may never compete on costs. They require large installations covering large land areas, with costs mainly in the realm of civil engineering works and therefore not amenable to substantial reduction through advances in the energy conversion technologies themselves. The technologies are undeniably elegant and innovative; their limitations unfortunately arise from the diffuse and intermittent nature of their energy sources.

One technical study we covered assessed wind with storage against IGCC with CCS. The wind/storage solution could only compete at a carbon price above $350 a tonne of carbon dioxide, well above anything being contemplated. EGS is a possible future baseload technology, but it is still too early to estimate performance and costs with the degree of reliability we required.


[…] Guest Post by Martin Nicholson. Martin studied mathematics, engineering and electrical sciences at Cambridge University in the UK and graduated with a Masters degree in 1974. He has spent most of his working life as business owner and chief executive of a number of information technology companies in Australia. He has a strong interest in business and public affairs and is a keen observer of the climate change debate and the impact on energy. He is author of Energy in a Changing Climate, as well as an upcoming book on sustainable energy systems, and is the lead author of the 2011 paper in the journal Energy “How carbon pricing changes the relative competitiveness of low-carbon baseload generating technologi…“. […]


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