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Climate Change Nuclear

It’s nuclear power or it’s climate change

I was asked to reflect very briefly (<400 words) on the implications of Fukushima Daiichi to my local city newspaper, The Adelaide Advertiser. The focus was on what it means for Australia, but the basic message resonates for any number of other countries.

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If you study the history of modern energy, there is only one conclusion you can reach. You can have fossil fuels, or two alternatives: nuclear power and hydroelectricity.

A number of countries in Europe rely almost exclusively on either nuclear power (France), hydro (Norway), or an even mix of the two (Sweden, Switzerland). These are truly low-carbon economies.

What of Denmark, which has taken the wind route? It only gets 20 per cent of its electricity from wind, but must also sell it cheaply to the rest of Scandinavia when production is higher than demand, and buy in coal-fired electricity when there is little wind.

Even with 20 per cent wind, Denmark has among the highest greenhouse gas emissions per person in Europe. France has among the lowest.

Australia has no access to large-scale hydro. We do have abundant uranium, and a high technology society in a geologically stable region, all perfect for the deployment of nuclear power.

Or, we can burn more coal and gas. It’s nuclear power, or it’s climate change.

What of the solar and wind dream? I sure hope they work out, and can provide a lot more energy for us in the future. But history is not on their side. No country has displaced its fossil fuel fleet in the past by using these energy sources, for a number of practical engineering and economic reasons.

One has to be an extreme optimist to imagine that this reality – this lesson of history – is going to miraculously change in the coming decades.

I try to address these issues from a scientific perspective. I get no money from nuclear, uranium, coal, gas, solar or wind industries. I talk about these issues in public because I think the public debate ought to be based on real-world evidence and robust analysis – not hype, spin and ideology.

Prior to the Fukushima Daiichi accident, caused when a 14 metre tsunami crashed into a 40-year old power station in Japan, no member of the public had ever been killed by nuclear power in an OECD country.

As of today, that record remains unchanged. When small risk is weighed against great and proven benefits, nuclear power is an obvious choice.

I wonder why Australia still isn’t taking it seriously.

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I’ll have a lot more to say on this in the coming weeks.

Oh, and for those who didn’t see it, you should also read George Monbiot’s decision: How the Fukushima disaster taught me to stop worrying and embrace nuclear power. His conclusion:

There are no ideal solutions. Every energy technology carries a cost; so does the absence of energy technologies. Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.

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.

133 replies on “It’s nuclear power or it’s climate change”

@Randal

Fusion has been said to be 10 yrs away from being achieved for the last 50 yrs. They have gotten to scientific breakeven, but are still very far from a pratical design that would produce any power. Research is on going, but they actually have to prove it can effectively work. Sure more money for the research, but I think it would be at least 30 more yrs before fusion would contribure anything, given even an optimistic evaluation of their chances.

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William, this is a non-answer to the question. It is stating the as-isness of things- we get that. Why is there no will to push it forward? That 30 years could be dropped to 10 if there was sufficient shoving to get it done- but instead there is so much peer derision of attempts at this (“junk science’, correct?) but the H-Bomb worked, fusion does in deed work it’s just not efficient- yet.

Why are scientists not pushing for this ‘clean’ energy in the same way they are backing fission? It just doesn’t feel right.
[deleted personal opinion on motives ]

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DvD

Though you might want to mandate scientific and engineering breakthroughs by pushing money at them, that is far from guaranteed. These are very large undertaking that take a long time to develop and build. Each one of these experimental fusion reactors cost billions to build. You want to actually do some research with them, before you go rushing off to build the next, without knowing what things you should be trying next. We could speed it up, but we still don’t know if these things will ever be pratical. How much resources do you want to put into something that may never work?

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@William Fairholm. Thanks. If we only rely upon innovation in the US, you are right. In fact with the US regulatory environment, according to Jon M. Huntsman Jr., the American ambassador to China: “it would take decades just to certify the design.’’ It is no wonder he is pushining for a joint US/Chinese effort to develop and commercialize fusion reactor design. (January 18, 2011)
http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/18/pushing-the-energy-envelope-with-china/
The Chinese, however, don’t need the US, and will likely own the intellectual property rights to a clean nuclear future as a result. (February 1, 2011)
http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/02/china-thorium-power/
The United States is in no way serious about our energy future, climate change or the dependency on fossil fuels. If it was, the famed SUV Tax Loophole (Hummer Loophole) would have been closed long ago. Believe it or not, it’s still there, while most hybrid and automotive fuel efficiency incentives have expired or are non-existent. http://www.section179.org/section_179_vehicle_deductions.html
“Certain vehicles – with a gross vehicle weight rating above 6,000 lbs but no more than 14,000 lbs – qualify for expensing up to $25,000 if the vehicle is financed and placed in service prior to Dec 31st and meets other conditions.”

[deleted personal opinion presented as fact. Please re-submit with refs/links]

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DvD

Also go look at that link I provided. Fusion has radioactivity problems as well, though not nearly as great as fission. And it can not “blow up” in even the limited sense you can say a fission reactor can “blow up”.

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William, for the sake of future discussion please assume that if you have taken the time to post something I have read it. In fact I had read that link many moons ago. It still does not get to the core question- and I am just using fusion as an example. I am personally far more interested in carbon or graphene nano tubes used in improved capacitors.

But getting to the question… if there were a will wouldn’t these technologies provide more bang for the buck? Why must it be fission or the highway?

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Oh and William:
http://tidbit77.blogspot.com/2011/03/fusion-achieved.html

I understand that you say commercial but maybe commercial thinking is messing up design and research. It is not just about pushing money at them, because as we have seen in the US we can invent enough money to do just about anything. It is about a will power- that is what got us to the moon and what got us the fission bomb before anyone- it was hardly ‘money’ per se.

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DvD,

I wouldn’t say it is nuclear fission or the highway. There are lots of promising technologies that are being developed. I wouldn’t even say I’m a nuclear advocate. I started to be turned off by the cost of building and maintaining nuclear power plants. However, the cost of using fossil fuels is enormous. Right now, with the technology we have now, nuclear can’t be rejected. But even then I don’t know if it would be enough to reduce our carbon footprint that much. That is a much harder problem, which is getting worse not better. Conservation, energy efficiencies, and a reduction in our profligate lifestyle are going to be needed to make a major impact. The world is having and will continue to have human driven climate change. How far it will go is what we are struggling with right now.

I have no way of evaluating the table top fusion reactor you linked to. This is so extremely unlikely I don’t know what else the say, but if you believe in it I suggest you invest as much money as you can in it.

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It never ceases to amaze me that nobody ever talks about using less. Living more simply so we may simply live.

We have everything here (except a swimming pool). Two laptops, a fridge, a freezer, hot and cold running water, lights in every room, a TV, stereo, and a constantly comfortable temperature all year round from simple good design. We live on 3 kWh/day. Oh and we produce ~12 kWh/day of solar power, hail rain or shine, which we sell to the grid for money to spend on luxuries!

And we hardly ever shop… we grow 80+% of our own food, even meat, milk, cheese etc.

If everyone lived like us, we wouldn’t be discussing building nukes, we’d be talking about which coal fired power stations we should shut down…

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@ mikestasse
I agree in principle however, I am sorry to say it is idealistic.Not everyone can follow the self-sustainability path. Too many people live in places crowded cities (high rise, small terraces etc) where there is no possibility of growing their own food. Houses have already been built (many of them unfortunately) which are not well designed and have no extra money to radically alter them. If you are able to live on a country block (BTW where do you live) it is much easier to follow those principles. What about people in developing countries – how are they going to access modern conveniences without baseload power which has to be nuclear or hydro to cope with the demand and stop using fossil fuels. Nowhere, so far, in the World have reductions in CO2 been achieved through energy efficiency and new design and nowhere in the World has a fossil fuelled power station been replaced by any renewable souce except hydro power – and that has another set of drawbacks as we know.

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It never ceases to amaze me that nobody ever talks about using less. Living more simply so we may simply live.

It never ceases to amaze me just how Western-centric statements like this are. Tell the 50-80% of the world who live in poverty that they should use less. Then tell them that they should never have access to sufficient energy because a select few groups in the developed world are strongly opposed to the only viable, non-fossible fuel baseload energy source available to them.

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See…. who’s western centric? If WE used a lot less, then THEY would have more for themselves.

And my prediction is that as soon as oil gets short and very expensive, supermarket shelves will go empty and cities will be largely abandoned….. This will happen well before any of your wet dream nukes are ever built, I expect Australia to be totally out of oil before 2020.

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See…. who’s western centric? If WE used a lot less, then THEY would have more for themselves.

Typical uncreative zero-sum thinking. With sufficient energy, the vast resources of this planet can be endlessly processed and re-processed into the forms we need.

And my prediction is that as soon as oil gets short and very expensive, supermarket shelves will go empty and cities will be largely abandoned….. This will happen well before any of your wet dream nukes are ever built, I expect Australia to be totally out of oil before 2020.

What you are describing is mass starvation. What can I say? I hope you’re wrong. I also believe that you’re wrong in your timescale (but right about the long term non-viability of fossil fuels for powering our civilisation, and of technosolar renewables to replace them). But I doubt the oil will run dry in the sudden manner you believe. Gas and coal will be used as substitutes for a while, before we transition to synfuels produced with nuclear power.

It’s also clear from material you’ve posted on BNC previously that you are actually looking forward to this disaster you’re predicting with considerable anticipation, and possibly impatience. If you’re going to speak of wet dreams, look first to your own lust for catastrophism.

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I think this discussion has gone into the realm more suitable for the open discussion thread.
MODERATOR
I agree William. Comments are not moderated until morning, Australian time, so it seems a little harsh to delete comments that have been posted on the wrong thread overnight.
Please move this conversation to Open Thread.

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Stasse, if your long-desired gottedamerung ever occurs, you’re in for a very nasty shock. In the final extremity of the crisis there will be no way that you will be permitted to enjoy the security which you think your little lifeboat in the country offers you. All such assetts will be taken over by whatever passes for the state. The elite will expend its resources to secure those assetts for themselves. You wouldn’t stand a chance.
MODERATOR
Please move this conversation to Open Thread.

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@mike interesting blog. I have some totally off-grid neighbours here in SW Tas who are sanguine about nuclear. When it all gets too hard perhaps they hope the old folks home will have cheap heating instead of having to go out to chop wood. I wonder how many people in Australia are into both PV and permaculture? Thousands perhaps and growing.

Good point about Australia effectively running out of oil within a decade yet nobody seems to care. Too busy worrying about a temporary hiccup.
MODERATOR
Please move this converation to Open Thread.

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mikestasse
I don’t think many on the BNC blog would disagree with you about oil running out. It has been discussed at length here. It is just another reason why we will need to provide more electricity not less to run those machines etc that now use oil. So your ideals are just that ideals. Using less/energy efficiency doesn’t/won’t work.

MODERATOR
Please move this conversation to Open Thread. Further like comments posted here will be deleted.

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this is a hard choice but I have to agree with the pro nuclear side. We arent on any fault line, we have no active volcanoes, it would be simple to build a bush frie and cyclone proof plant. We should go for the idea we could even become self sustainable I think its a great idea.

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You forgot the third and fourth options – wholesale slaughter of most of the human race, or a return to a subsistence economy.
Of course, an extensive slaughter is almost inevitable, if we don’t adopt one or more of the other options.

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