Nuclear Open Thread

Open Thread 19

The previous Open Thread has gone past 650 comments, so it’s time for a fresh palette.

The Open Thread is a general discussion forum, where you can talk about whatever you like — there is nothing ‘off topic’ here — within reason. So get up on your soap box! The standard commenting rules of courtesy apply, and at the very least your chat should relate to the general content of this blog.

The sort of things that belong on this thread include general enquiries, soapbox philosophy, meandering trains of argument that move dynamically from one point of contention to another, and so on — as long as the comments adhere to the broad BNC themes of sustainable energy, climate change mitigation and policy, energy security, climate impacts, etc.

You can also find this thread by clicking on the Open Thread category on the cascading menu under the “Home” tab.


A conversation starter: I recently delivered a talk at the Australian National University (ANU) on nuclear energy and climate change. This was the Director’s Colloquium at the Research School of Physics and Engineering (I thank the staff for being such gracious hosts). Further details about the event can be found here.

What I particularly like about this recording is that the slideshow is matched to my speech, so apart from not seeing me (who needs to?), you feel like you are actually at the lecture.

Edit: A high resolution PDF of the slideshow can be downloaded here (6 MB file)

The talk goes for about 50 minutes (plus question time). I trust you will get some useful information out of it.

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.

448 replies on “Open Thread 19”

@John Bennetts, on 27 November 2011 at 11:44 AM said:

Then we switch energy units to MMBtu, for reasons I don’t quite understand

Because the US EIA provides figures as to how many pounds of CO2 are emitted per MMBtu.of coal burned across a wide range of coal grades from a variety of coal mines.

Based on 5,000+ samples there are variances in CO2 emissions by coal grade depending on ‘where’ it was mined. I.E. Within coal grade hydrogen content varies as well which affects heat rates.

Bituminous coal(black) mined in Arkansas has a CO2 emission per MMBtu of 211.6 pounds. Lignite(brown) mined in Washington State has a CO2 emission per MMBtu of 211.7 pounds.

Yes, I cherry picked the lignite with the highest hydrogen content and compared it to the bituminous coal with the lowest hydrogen content to make the case that nothing ‘exact’ can be concluded based simply on coal grade or heat content without knowing the specifics of the mine in question.

As to the efficiency of black coal vs brown coal power stations.

According to this article –

Click to access EfficiencyCoal.pdf

The most efficient operating black coal plant power plant in Europe as of 2005 is 47% efficient and the most efficient brown coal plant in Europe is 45%.

A difference is 2% efficiency in terms of determining optimum costs can easily be offset by rail transportation costs and differences in extraction methods.

As far as determining coal transportation freight rates. In the US the rates per ton mile vary from 1 cent per ton mile to more then 5 cents per ton mile. The rates from a specific mine to a specific coal fired electricity plant are considered ‘proprietary information’.
US EIA report on coal transportation rates –

Click to access waybill.pdf


@Cyril R.

Your assertion that wind won’t be used to produce fuel is falsified by the fact that it already is (references in storage thread).

It will be further falsified if Desertec goes with the limestone option for energy transport (references in storage thread).

And using wind to make gas makes sense, since the alternative is to just shut down your wind capacity whenever there is not enough demand.

Investors love renewable energy, as well they should with feed-in tariffs in place. Look at the real world figures which show that last year’s investment in new renewable capacity has surpassed investment in fossil fuel capacity (no reference since this is open thread and that is common knowledge anyway).

If your opposition to solar and wind is motivated by a desire to help nuclear energy, it backfires. There is no more secure way to make your pro-nuclear advocacy fail than attacking the large and firm majorities supporting deployment of renewable energy world wide.

As to the suggestions in your “final note”, I would support all of that.


Karl wrote:

Investors love renewable energy, as well they should with feed-in tariffs in place. Look at the real world figures which show that last year’s investment in new renewable capacity has surpassed investment in fossil fuel capacity

Investors like to make a profit, it does not matter if it is solar or natural gas, if it is subsidized heavily – ie several times its real market value – they will love it. It is true they like public relations effect from solar and wind, but it is not paramount for them.

Again you’re confusing power with energy. It does not matter how many Watts you install, it matters how many kWhs you generate. Looking at real world figures and you see all that solar and wind are massively improductive compared to fossil generators. I’ve discussed this issue quantitatively here:

As you can see the nuclear kW produces 17x more electricity than the solar kW for my country. So it is massively exaggerating to compare peak Watts of solar with nuclear. And also coal for that matter because coal is almost as productive as nuclear.

I’ve put this in a graph as well with other sources to make an easy comparison of how productive each kW installed is over its lifetime:


@ Karl. Dollars buy you something. In this case, they buy Watts. Your argument is that more dollars are spent in renewables than in fossil. This is because renewable Watts cost a lot and deliver very little compare to a fossil Watt.

That’s my point about not confusing capacity and energy. Certainly dollars should not be the determining criterion for renewable energy success when renewable energy is the most expensive form of energy! This would result in drawing conclusions opposite to the truth.


@Karl-Friedrich Lenz, on 28 November 2011 at 1:19 PM said:

Look at the real world figures which show that last year’s investment in new renewable capacity has surpassed investment in fossil fuel capacity

Did they include Chinese and Indian investments in coal fired capacity?


Karl-Friedrich Lenz — France approaches 100% NPPs @ about 80% with some hydro andd a tiny bit of coal burning.

Do as Gene Preston is: put realistic numbers into a computer program [socalled optimizer] which attempts to find the least cost mixs to met demand and reliability requirements. You will discover that [if all externalities are included — that means subsidies too] then an all NPP solution [puls whatever legacy hydro is around] wins over any other low-carbon mix of generator types.

Of course if there are sunk costs in existing non-optimal genrators those probably ought to continue for there useful life; just don’t add any more.


Commentators have been despairing over the Durban climate conference. I wonder if the news behind the news is that fossil fuels are on the downhill slope which explains the desperation to dig up anything that burns. For example Canada is contemplating withdrawal from the Kyoto protocol to legitimise the use of tar sands. On closer inspection we see at best that will provide less than 4m barrels a day out of current global liquid fuels usage of 87m or so barrels. Ditto coal usage in the world’s biggest emitter China; imports may simply be unable to make up a domestic shortfall. Possibly world oil shortages may reduce coal demand in any case.

Delegates will even question the validity of offsets though I doubt this rort will be disallowed. My gut feeling is that we’ll have ineffectual climate conferences for another decade but then logistic problems for fossil fuels will start solving the problems for us. By mid century the problem will be getting adequate energy supply low carbon or not.



Reference for renewable investment surpassing fossil fuel last year:,0,2421278.story

That includes all countries, but not hydro power.

See also this Bloomberg story that expects 7 trillion investment in renewable energy over the next 20 years (this time including hydro):

7 trillion dollars is not bad for a start, though I would much prefer a commitment at Durban to spending 2% of GDP on renewable, as proposed by President of the Maldives Nasheed last month:

That would work out to $1.26 trillion a year at present levels.


If The Godfather was in charge of feed-in tariffs he might put it this way
‘I’ll make them an offer they can’t refuse’.


@Karl-Friedrich Lenz, on 29 November 2011 at 9:33 PM said:

See also this Bloomberg story that expects 7 trillion investment in renewable energy over the next 20 years

The bulk of the subsidies in the US were part of a trillion dollar economic stimulus plan that ends next year and is unlikely to be repeated(IMHO)

US Wind Association market report…page two is interesting..wind installations peaked in 2008.

Click to access 3Q-2011-AWEA-Market-Report-for-Public-2.pdf


One constant in energy discussions seems to be the assumption by wind and solar interests they should always get subsidies and mandates. Recall in Australia both Garnaut and the Productivity Commission said the MRET and REC subsidy should cease when carbon tax arrives. Didn’t happen of course.

Perhaps the coal export industry has an even bigger sense of entitlement with proposals to double shipments from Newcastle. As we speak those coal buying countries will be making pledges of carbon abstinence at Durban but for some reason they keep buying more coal.

The floods at Moree appear to be in the same fields as the proposed $750m solar flagship. No matter since rain and cloud don’t detract from its real purpose as a symbol.


@David Walters

From the IFR thread

I will note here that while this issue of large vs small reactors is definitely the topic for another thread, people should not *assume* that smaller reactors are somehow more economical than large reactors. That 10 x 100MW reactors will be cheaper than 1 x 1000MW. This is completely unproven.

The issue is financing. It’s hard to make the case that bringing 1,000 MW on line will automatically result in the sale of 1,000 MW worth of demand. Demand projections more then a couple of years into the future are notoriously poor. So if we think 6 years from decision to online(a pretty good pace) then the banks will demand a ‘risk premium’.

If you can cut build time to 2 years the demand projections are firmer so the risk premium goes away.


@ harrywr2, on 28 November 2011 at 3:33 AM:

Hi, Harrywr2. I have enjoyed reading your references re efficiencies of brown Vs black coal stations.

I am left with the feeling that, whilst there may be only a 2% efficiency difference between brown and black coal units, this does not translate into similar carbon dioxide outputs and hence to similar CO2 tax burdens.

Broadly speaking, your second reference states that it takes about 3 tonnes of brown coal to generate the same electrical output as 1 tonne of black coal. Compare this with EIA, your ref#1, which indicates that carbon intensities are similar for brown and black coal.

Assuming that both statements are correct in their own ways, then we must consider where these seemingly different results could come from and what they mean.

Not being familiar with the methods of test and reporting methodologies of your two studies, I can suggest a possible cause.

Has the moisture content in the coals been considered? It appears to me to be likely that the CO2 intensities are based on dry coal samples, yet the burn rates are for wet coal samples.

Surely 3t of brown coal, as received, ie with moisture content above 30%, will contain much more elemental C than 1 tonne of black coal at say 18%, and thus emit a correspondingly larger amount of CO2 when burned? The energy required to boil off the water is about 5 times as much for brown coal as for black coal.

The CO2 generated per tonne of dry coal may very well be similar, but not the usable thermal energy produced – called exergy in Ref #2.

Put another way: 3 t of brown coal will consist of about 2 tonnes of dry matter.

1 tonne of black coal, which you have demonstrated will produce about the same amount of electrical energy, will consist of about 800g of dry matter.

If the ash and hydrogen contents in the two dried coal samples are similar, then the carbon emissions per MWh energy sent out for brown coal will thus be about 2.5 times as great as for black coal.

One MWh of electrical energy sent out from a black coal station will result from burning about 0.5 tonnes of as-received coal, ie 0.4 tonnes of carbon. There will be 3.67 x 0.4 = 1.47 tonnes of CO2 emitted.

For brown coal, that becomes 3.67 tonnes of CO2 per MWh.

The carbon tax on 1 MWh of energy sent out is thus:
Black coal: 1.47t CO2 @ $23 = $33.81/MWh (3.38 cents per kWh)
Brown coal: 3.67 x $23 = $84.41/MWh (8.44 cents per kWh)

Given that the average market price in the NEM for the past 2 years has been less than $50/MWh, the difference is significant.

Can somebody confirm that the carbon tax is per tonne CO2-e, as I have assumed to be the case, and not per tonne of elemental carbon.


JB I’m pretty sure the tax is $23 per tonne of CO2 not C. That’s so they can apply the tax to methane, nitrous oxide, PFCs and so on. The confusion over emissions per tonne of lignite is not helped by a blank entry in the Engineering Toolbox tables.
However the paragraph on coal supply here
suggests in 2003 it took 0.7 t of brown coal to produce a Mwhe. They specifically say Hazelwood generates 1.58 t CO2 per Mwhe, a fair bit higher than other figures I’ve seen quoted..

Engineering Toolbox reckon 370 kgs of CO2 per Mwhe from hard black coal which is a fair bit lower than other figures I seen, more like a whole tonne of CO2 per Mwhe conventional and 750 kg for supercritical, similar to open cycle gas. Now we’re all confused.


Hard black coal is not what is commonly used as domestic NSW steaming coal. The good stuff is sent overseas. The stuff we used here is typically closer to 30% ash and may even be partially oxidised, including some washery rejects and tailings.

I have requested from mates still with a day job a reference where typical NSW data can be found.

The bottom line is, as was the case when I started this string of posts, that I feel that Vic generators have a far larger carbon footprint than NSW ones and that the CO2 Tax will hit them proportionately harder.

This is as it should be. It is logical to chase the worst emitters hardest, especially those who are geriatric assets which are more than 40 years old.

See here for one source’s calculations of CO2 emission intensity for Vic’s power stations, year by year.

Click to access Greenhouse_Intensity_Report_Hazelwood2.pdf


Emissions intensities for the NSW power generation pool, including fugitive emissions from mines, etc:

Click to access FS-Comp-PoolCoeff.pdf

NB this is not directly comparable with the Vic figures above, but indicate that emissions intensity for NSW are less than 1 t CO2-e/MWh. For Victoria, significantly more.

Brown coal is dirtier. We knew it all along. Now we are getting an idea of how dirty.


John Bennetts, on 30 November 2011 at 4:11 PM said:

I am left with the feeling that, whilst there may be only a 2% efficiency difference between brown and black coal units, this does not translate into similar carbon dioxide outputs and hence to similar CO2 tax burdens.

The EIA figures are for thermal units. Power plants convert heat into electricity rather then tonnes.

Here is a report on efficiency vs water content.

Click to access SurveyofBrownCoalDryingTechnologies-Godfrey.pdf

A chart on page two mentions a 500MW Latrobe Valley brown coal plant operating at 27.8% efficiency burning coal with a 60+% water content. The report then goes on to talk about various drying techniques(some using waster heat) to increase thermal efficiency.

The carbon content of a coal with 60+% water is going to be less then 40% and probably closer to 25% by the time ash and other impurities are taken into account.

A comparison of .5/tons of carbon for black coal to .4 tonnes of carbon for brown coal could be quite a bit off. The water/ash content within grades varies quite a bit.

Obviously, old broken down plant vs ‘state of the art’ is a poor comparison.


That’s disgusting. If coal has 60% water, for pete’s sake, leave it in the ground, rather than burning it with 27.8% efficiency!

Somebody tell the Germans this, they’re in so deep in their own shit they need solar panels just to feel better about dirt burners. More like mud burners with 60% water, I guess…


I suspect the Baillieu government in Victoria is planning to chuck a wobbly not long after the introduction of carbon tax. With over 5 GW of brown coal fired baseload all options are far more expensive. The Victorian onshore and Bass Strait gas fields are in their twilight years and there appears to be no plans for fracking; see the map in

I really don’t know what can save them from brown coal dependence if nuclear is prohibited. I suspect the Feds will allow them some inflated concession. Both Vic and SA will need a mystery new power source soon..


The Baillieu government has nothing to complain about.

NSW generators operate at a carbon intensity of high 0.8s to low 0.9s T(CO2)/MWhr. Expected carbon tax = $20/MWh or so.

Victorian brown coal generators operate 1.3 to 1.35.
Expected carbon tax = $30 or so, before compensation from the federal coffers.

What I do not know is the level of subsidy promised to the Victorians. They are reputed to be, after subsidy, in an improved commercial position wrt NSW’s generators than prior to the introduction of a carbon tax.

So, we end up with a reverse incentive. Great work!

NB: No reference to cite this time – the above figures were obtained unofficially.


Our tough-on-carbon Federal government is about as tough as the referee in TV wrestling. However it gives them great bragging rights at G20 meetings and so forth.


Jonathan M. Blackledge, Eugene Coyle & Derek Kearney
(Dublin Institute of Technology)
A Stochastic Model for Wind Turbine Power
Quality using a Levy Index Analysis of Wind
Velocity Data

is a jem of a short paper. A novel approach to understanding wind speed data is develoed and shown to agree with some Irish records of wind speeds. The results have implications for the utilization and control of wind turbines. I opine it suggests thorough consideration of power electronic controls along the lines currently utilized in Spain for that (massive) fleet of wind turbines.

[Site maintenance: this Open Thread is about to fall off the end of the Recent Posts lists. I recommend a new Open Thread in the near future.]


Renewables proponents frequently like to assert that their technology of choice has a long way to travel down the cost curve, and use this as an argument against nuclear (and never mind about the availability issue, but leave that aside for a moment). However, that flies in the face of those same technologies having been around a lot longer than nuclear. Concentrating solar thermal is no exception, as has just been pointed out by this interesting piece in Physics Today:

Desert solar hubs not new but risky.


Congressional Research Service Power Plants Characteristics & Costs (2008)

Click to access RL34746.pdf

lists some NPP projects in the USA, pages 79–81. VC Summer is given as about $4400/kW which seems to still be close to the all-up ‘overnight’ cost.


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