The Argument For Nuclear Energy In Australia

This is a piece written by me (Barry Brook) and my Ph.D. student, Ben Heard, as part of the “Nuclear Debate” series on the New Matilda news/opinion site. The original article can be read here.


By now, most of you would have heard that the Premier of South Australia, Labor’s Jay Weatherill, has announced a Royal Commission into an expanded future role for the state in nuclear energy. For people like us, who are both strongly focused on tackling climate change by eliminating Australia’s dependence on fossil fuels, and who consider nuclear to be an essential tool, this is real progress.

In a recent article on The Conversation, we explained the types of issues we think the Royal Commission might consider. These obviously only represent our opinions and perspectives, albeit well-informed and researched.

We cover most of the well-trodden ground on radioactive waste management and energy generation. We also explain a number of reasons, ranging from political to economic to geological, why we think South Australia is a particularly good place to kick-start any deeper foray by our nation into the nuclear fuel cycle.

One thing that particularly frustrated us was the immediate condemnation of the news by the SA Greens Party, and disappointingly, also by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.

The whole point of Royal Commissions is the rigorous uncovering of facts, based on solid research and deep consultation with experts, government and public representatives. So why the objection?

Well, the arguments are well rehearsed and endlessly debated. Nuclear is too costly, unsafe, produces dangerous and intractable waste, is connected with weapons proliferation, is unsustainable, and besides, is unneeded.

Such a ‘washing list’ of objections is superficially convincing, and the last one in particular appeals to most people’s sensibilities. Australia is large, sunny and sparsely populated country with long, windswept coastlines. Surely then, we can (and should) do it all with wind and solar, and forget about dirty and technically complex alternatives like nuclear fission?

The thing is, with an issue as serious and immediate as climate change, we can’t afford to be carried away by wishful thinking, nor get trapped into thinking that ‘hope’ is a plan. We owe it to the future to be ruthlessly pragmatic about solutions, and accept that trade-offs are inevitable.

So, in as brief a summary as we can put it, here is the state of play was we see it.

Nuclear is expensive, at least compared to coal. But when coal pays its environmental costs (especially for air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions) nuclear is not expensive at all.

Electricity from some renewables is now comparatively cheap. But when renewables pay their full system costs to overcome variability, a renewable system is very expensive indeed.

In this context, a ‘nuclear intensive’ strategy is still likely to underpin the most viable, scalable and cost-effective pathway to replace coal.

Nuclear is the safest form of large-scale energy production, when evaluated on the basis of deaths per unit of generation.

Nuclear accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima, although awful, are actually far less environmentally hazardous than many claim, and become ever less probable with newer, inherently safer designs.

Chernobyl Reactor 4, which melted down in April 1986. The other three reactors at Chernobyl continued to generate power, with the last reactor decommissioned in 2000.

Nuclear produces radioactive waste, but this is captured almost completely and isolated, and it can be recycled many times.

When fully recycled, its half-life is 30 years, and its already tiny volume is reduced by 50 times.

Nuclear power and nuclear weapons both work by using technology to split atoms, but beyond that the relationship is complex. The international safeguards set up to constrain proliferation are extensive and one has to draw a very long bow to link weapons acquisition to commercial power generation.

Nuclear fuel is not in short supply today, and long before it does become scarce, we will be recycling the waste to produce over 100 times more zero-carbon energy that will last millennia.

To set the goal of a “100 per cent renewables grid” is, at best, logistically and economically ‘courageous’, and at worst, a foolhardy strategy that is doomed to fail.

Either way, it is detached from what we consider the actual goal. If we really want to guarantee that we can rid ourselves of fossil fuels, then renewables come together, in a combined package with nuclear fission.

That last paragraph contains a whole lot of assertions. Yet we stand by all of them, because we have looked deeply at each of those statements. We have probed them critically for flaws, tested them in consultation with experts, exposed them repeatedly to the peer-reviewed energy literature, and debated them with opponents endlessly.

It’s almost all on the public record, in our scientific publications, lectures, blogs (Brave New Climate and Decarbonise SA), books, articles and videos.

Why have we done this? If you could roll back the calendar enough years, you would find one of us (Brook) was perfectly ambivalent regarding nuclear power, and the other (Heard) was an outright opponent.

Change did not come easily, and it did not come without challenge. The biggest challenge always came from within, to make sure we were moving beyond just having opinions, and moving towards having informed and reasoned positions.

The thing is, we still are. We make mistakes and get things wrong. Our positions continue to evolve and, we hope, improve, with greater nuance, understanding and balance.

We keep learning from each other, our “opponents”, our colleagues, our students, our research, from other experts in a variety of fields and, of course, when the facts change. Our position is being tested constantly. Learning does not end.

Moreover, we reckon we’ve heard all of the counter-arguments (slanted from a variety of viewpoints!), and thought carefully about them.

Some we’ve taken onboard, some disputed, some rejected. We understand the failings of nuclear energy, and we acknowledge that it is hardly a ‘perfect solution’. But we still hold that, when balanced against the alternatives, nuclear fission is a real winner.

The biggest win will be found by using everything to get an important job done.

This short essay is definitely not the place for us to try and convince the doubters. We’ve put briefly what we consider to be the ‘key facts’ and we’ve drawn what we think are robust conclusions from them. But you should all be skeptical of our claims — and those of anyone else — until you’ve looked hard at the evidence yourselves, and ideally, tried hard to disprove your cherished beliefs, rather than comfortably prop up the world-view that you already think you ‘know’ to be right.

It’s a fun intellectual exercise to try and show yourself why you’re wrong (on any number of things), and it’s the kind of strategy that scientists use every day to learn about how things work. If you do this and still disagree with us, then that’s fine — we place great value on rigorous challenges and evidence-based rebuttals. For dealing with climate change, the bottom line is, we need a plan that will work!

To conclude, below are some sources of information that we think are particularly valuable if you want to really understand nuclear energy and the plausibility of alternative options.

There is obviously plenty more out there, but please apply critical judgment when you consider the robustness of your source material.

The new Royal Commission is going to be following a similar process of judicious knowledge acquisition, albeit a most exhaustive one. Relish the journey.

Barry Brook is an Australian scientist. He is a professor and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania in the Faculty of Science, Engineering & Technology. He was formerly an ARC Future Fellow in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Adelaide, Australia, where he held the Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change from 2007 to 2014. He was also Director of Climate Science at the Environment Institute and co-ran the Global Ecology Lab.

Ben Heard is an independent environmental consultant. He holds a Masters of Corporate Environmental Sustainability Management from Monash University. He is currently undertaking doctoral studies at the University of Adelaide, examing pathways for optimal decarbonisation of Australian electricity using both nuclear and renewable sources.

Some suggested reading:

21st Century Nuclear (by Barry Brook & Ben Heard) – a 6-part series covering fuel recycling, nuclear safety, radioactive waste, uranium mining, small modular reactors, and economic questions.

• David Mackay. Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air. UIT Cambridge, 2009, 384 p. (free online).

• Tom Blees. Prescription for the Planet: The Painless Remedy for Our Energy and Environmental Crises. Booksurge, 2008, 411.(free online).

• Charles Till & Yoon Chang, Plentiful Energy: The Story of the Integral Fast Reactor, CreateSpace 2011, 406 p. (free online, a book detailing the technology of the Generation IV recycling and inherently safe IFR, written by its the designers and chief engineers).

• Bernard Cohen. The Nuclear Energy Option. Plenum, 1991, 338 p. (free online).

• Gwyneth Cravens. Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy. Knopf, 2007, 464 p.

• Pandora’s Promise (a movie by Robert Stone about environmentalism and nuclear energy).

• Key role for nuclear energy in biodiversity conservation (Barry Brook & Corey Bradshaw, free online). See also Open Letter to Environmentalists, signed by 75 leading conservation biologists & ecologists.

• Ted Trainer. Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society. Springer 2007, 197 p. (free 40 page summary available online).

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48 Comments

  1. Renewable system is expensive only if you assume that storage technologies won’t make significant improvements. But that’s a false assumption.

    Aquion already put their low cost and environmentally benign battery on the market. EOS and Ambri are following with mass production starting in 2016. All of these have significantly improved number of cycles, which is biggest obstacle for grid batteries.

    There is no reason to believe that storage problem can’t be solved. This is an assumption that pro-nuclear people make, but it’s based on wishful thinking (to make the case for nuclear) rather than evidence.

    Anti-renewable arguments will never work to make the case for nuclear. Alvin Weinberg, on the other hand, was fully aware of what is the real problem that nuclear has to address:

    It is only when one projects to an asymptotic nuclear future such as we have attempted that one recognizes the magnitude of the social problem posed by this particular technology.

    http://www.osti.gov/scitech/servlets/purl/5248737

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  2. I think you underestimate the progress in solar and wind.

    In the last five years wind LCOE has gone down by 58%.

    In US interior the 20 year PPA is 2,1 US cent per kWh as has been widely reported in Australia too i assume.

    EIA publicized a study about wind LCOE in 2012 with baseline 2011 forward to 2030. Nine studies was analyzed and not even the most realistic has any baring today because the wind LCOE today is lower than any forecast for 2030.

    You did a brilliant piece on the prospect of producing Synfuel based upon electricity.

    The current PTC is about 1 US cent per kWh, so the real price for wind delivered to the grid is approximately 3,1 US cent per kWh.

    If you imagine a continued drop in wind LCOE you will soon see levels well below what is needed for commercial launch of large Synfuel facilities.

    Australia has large stretches of virtually uninhabited windy coastline with very low land cost.

    My suggestion to you would be to refocus towards your excellent idea of promoting Synfuel.

    My lab and office is at Risoe in Roskilde Denmark, which is one of the important development hubs for wind energy. I do not directly work with wind power but I know what is brewing and many of the technologies that are about to enter mainstream commercialized wind turbines are truly disruptive.

    I do not claim that the next five years will drop wind LCOE with 58% one time over again but I think it is pretty safe to project +60% wind LCOE drop onwards to 2030.

    If you factor this into your excellent Synfuel spreadsheet you will find that the age of fossils could be over sooner than the fossil industry imagines.

    For solar the prospects are very good indeed but I would be reluctant to estimate when solar breeches the Synfuel threshold. On the other hand there are plenty of countries that by themselves possess sufficient wind resources to supply the entire globe with renewable energy. And as the technology march towards ever taller and ever more efficient wind turbines the accessible winds becomes ever more energy potent.

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  3. In the real world, implementing wind energy has driven electricity prices in Austin, TX up by 20%. In the real world, building wind generators has caused electricity prices in Germany to more than double, to levels three times higher than in neighboring nuclear powered France. In the real world, your cherry picked spot market prices don’t matter.

    Every EIA chart on LCOE includes a disclaimer than the LCOE prices do not include the cost of transmission lines and the cost of backup systems required to make the source in question reliable enough for grid use.

    When one factors in the cost of transmission and backup for wind, which means an entire second set of generators capable of carrying the load, plus the ongoing fuel costs such that said backup systems are ready to take over the load the moment wind falters, one finds that wind is at least three times as expensive as other sources of generation.

    Wind could have an LCOE of zero, and it would still cost more than nuclear or natural gas because of the cost of making it usable on a reliable grid.

    Here in Austin, a mere 10% penetration of wind has resulted in a more than 20% increase in the cost of all electricity. That’s right, putting 10% wind on the grid causes 100% of the electricity to see a huge increased rate. We’re paying $.035/KWHr applied to every KWHr, not just the wind generated ones, just to pay for the transmission lines from West Texas. Factoring that back, that translates to a $.35/KWHr charge per wind KWHr, just for the transmission lines.

    The assertion that wind is affordable is at best an ignorant plea from failure to actually read the EIA studies being quoted, and at worst a disingenuous lie designed to line the pockets of subsidy farmers at the consumers’ expense.

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  4. I don’t have anything to add except to provide links to a couple of articles by James Hansen– with a global viewpoint– that debunk the notion that renewables alone can achieve de-carbonization.

    “As an example, the new US solar power plant, Ivanpah, near the Nevada-California border, which cost $2.2 billion (£1.28 billion) and covers 13km^2, will generate 0.82TWh of electricity per year. In contrast, Westinghouse is nearing completion of two AP-1000 nuclear plants in China. These nuclear facilities each require about 1.3km^2 and cost China about $3.5 billion. Each plant will produce 8.8TWh per year. It would take more than 10 Ivanpahs to yield as much electricity and an area of more than 128km^2.”
    http://csas.ei.columbia.edu/2014/08/20/the-energy-to-fight-injustice/

    “Fossil fuels provide more than 85% of the world’s energy (Fig. 1b). One misconception discussed below concerns the fallacy that renewable energy is rapidly supplanting conventional energy. Total non-hydro renewables today offset only about one year’s growth of energy use.”
    http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2014/20140221_DraftOpinion.pdf

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  5. This is the same argument you’ve been using for years and it boils down to this “supporting renewables is foolhardy because a 100% grid has not been achieved yet and some modelling suggests it will be expensive. However, nuclear designs which have never been built and will take 15 years to test will save us”. You give all of the benefit of the doubt to nuclear and none to renewables.

    Your argument can also be used against nuclear; you’ve been working for how many years on nuclear power in Australia? And you have not reduced a single tonne of carbon in that time. Not a single one. I could put solar panels on my roof this afternoon and half my carbon output.

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  6. Proponents of nuclear admit to its problems. Why not focus on energy sources with fewer problems and eventually develop sources with zero deficits? Nowhere is reduction of current wasteful lifestyle discussed, though many studies suggest enormous benefits that could result from reduced speed limits, shipping by rail rather than by truck, building more durably, taxing built-in obsolescence, etc. Nuclear simply exchanges one set of problems for another, both of which jeopardizes our survival.

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  7. Nuclear power has been banned by law in Australia.  Until that ban is lifted, how is nuclear power supposed to do anything?  Tell you what, I’ll chop off your legs and ask you why you can’t beat me in a foot race.

    Nuclear power has almost completely de-carbonized several substantial national and regional electric grids.  Despite decades of firm government subsidies and even mandates, wind and solar have decarbonized precisely… zero.  The bait-and-switch of “renewables” meaning hydro one minute and wind turbines and PV panels the next shows how you are dishonest in your claims.

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  8. @Jens Stubbe,

    According to this Bloomberg piece, tarriffs for wind power in China are $0.08 to $0.10/kWh

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-10-29/china-rushes-to-harness-wind-while-government-still-pays

    This is not so far out of line with CfD strike prices of about 0.09p / kWh in the UK or estimates of the LCOE for wind power in Europe

    https://ec.europa.eu/energy/sites/ener/files/documents/ECOFYS%202014%20Subsidies%20and%20costs%20of%20EU%20energy_11_Nov.pdf

    Among other things, cost of wind power is heavily dependant on the realized load factor. Cherry picking some US examples doesn’t really cut it.

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  9. Yes, it’s the same set of arguments, evcricket. This is because they continue to hold true, and ‘New Matilda’ is a new audience.

    The expanded use of nuclear, now, as a weapon against fossil fuels, does not depend on Gen IV. But Gen IV has extensive, demonstrable experience that it works, and it has intrinsic properties (it is an extraordinary concentrated, naturally stored form of energy) – exactly the features that are required to replace coal. So your comparison is rather disingenuous.

    There is no technosolar version of France. Not close.

    Your argument that because nuclear has not historically been permitted to cut carbon in Australia, it is therefore (implicitly) ineffective, is bizarre. It also fails because we are not arguing against you putting a massive solar array on your roof. If that’s what you want to do, go for it! We are arguing for nuclear + renewables, as appropriate and economic. You are (apparently) arguing for renewables – nuclear, justified on whatever grounds you can think up. That’s a major difference.

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  10. PPP:

    “There is no reason to believe that storage problem can’t be solved. This is an assumption that pro-nuclear people make, but it’s based on wishful thinking (to make the case for nuclear) rather than evidence.”

    The reason to believe it can’t be solved is that it has not been solved and, at least on what you provide, there is no evidence that it is being solved currently. Instead of hand waving about battery improvements – – and we all hope they improve fast – – show us an analyze, like Barry Brook does, i.e., with numbers that shows us HOW this works.

    Another former anti-nuke analyzed the all renewables grid and found that, even with perfect storage, you still need a 5x or 6x overbuild + a full backup system.

    “Do the numbers” carefully, and if you are still convinced, then prepare a paper and show us the numbers. Show us why Mr. Cohen’s analysis is wrong, and Brook’s is wrong and Mackay’s is wrong. With all the numbers – – reliable ones. We are interested to see them.

    BTW the Cape Wind project that Mr. Cohen refers to in his talk is now in another phase of litigation after 15 years of development.

    http://www.capecodtoday.com/article/2015/01/07/28452-patrick-unsure-cape-wind-will-survive

    Oh, and the subsidy for wind was $0.023/kWh, not a penny. It terminated at the end of 2014, and AWEA effectively predicted the collapse of the wind energy industry in the USA without it.

    Here is a thought: how about renewable energy advocates start working actively with nuclear advocates to advance the deployment and further development of the best options in nuclear, renewables and demand management as quickly as possible instead of continuing their alliance with the oil and gas companies?

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  11. Sorry about the long post but I can’t help myself.

    As ever, this discussion about nuclear energy turns into a debate about the prospects of renewable energy replacing fossil fuels. It then descends into the standard exchange of “yes it can, no it can’t”, ad infinitum. Surely we can do better than that. In fact we must. There’s a huge amount at stake.

    Having said that, I fear that there will be no resolution by consensus. In the technology debate it seems clear that the arguments are not conclusive, otherwise the matter would already be settled. Why is it so? Part of the problem is that the debate is muddied by several strongly held subjective or ideological attitudes. Challenging them might promote a degree of closer alignment of the protagonists. However, in the end I fear that it will be left to a majority of the electorate to prevail, leaving a disaffected minority to grumble on.

    First, a comment on the dimensions of the energy challenge. Nuclear energy is utilised largely as electricity, though the chain reaction itself produces heat. Solar and wind energy are also raw materials for electricity. The solar pathway can be via heat or direct (PV). However it needs to be remembered that energy in the form of electricity presently accounts for less than half the energy needs of an industrialised economy. So the problem of replacing all fossil fuels is much larger than electricity. At least twice as large, in effect.

    I suspect that differences in levels of scepticism, and perhaps optimism, are important drivers of disagreement in the energy field. Scepticism is a quality often associated with the scientific way of thinking. Should one be sceptical about claims for renewables?

    The core tenets of popular scepticism are:
    • If it looks too good to be true it probably is.
    • Exceptional claims need exceptional evidence.
    Assessing claims about renewables according to these tests is subjective; they are not the end of the debate. Renewables have a kind of romantic appeal. Many hearts and minds have already been won, even without technical argument. Those hearts and minds won’t entertain scepticism. They don’t see renewables as ‘too good to be true’. Others will disagree.

    As for the full replacement of fossil fuels by renewables, some clearly think the evidence is already in. They are saying that a relatively feeble intermittent energy source that needs to be collected over large two-dimensional areas is competitive, in cost and product quality, with energy derived from fuels with built-in energy storage at high volume or mass densities, capable of releasing that energy in large three-dimensional vessels (furnaces, turbines and the like). This is surely an exceptional claim. It needs exceptional evidence. Is the evidence exceptional? Not to my mind, but I know others disagree.

    Much is often made, including in some comments here, that solar PV is the answer. There are indeed some undeniable attractions, at least here in Australia, of rooftop solar panels for the domestic user. But they are essentially a diversion. They are like an alluring opening gambit but with no endgame in sight as far as the bigger energy picture is concerned.

    Developing sound judgements about the claims made for renewables is a big topic but I hope I have set out some useful principles.

    By the way, the world did once run on ‘short term’ stored solar energy, that is, from current plant life, but once we got to the industrial era the trees soon started to run out and large slabs of forest disappeared. That’s something that needs to be remembered.

    Here are some other examples of how ideology influences the debate:

    • ‘We must lead simpler lives and use less energy’. I regularly scan the daily papers with this notion in mind. But all I see in the news is a torrent of demands for more resources, not less, to be devoted to a wide range of social needs, most reasonably justified. In other words the social trends are in the opposite direction to the wish for simplicity. Even in our rich nation, the underlying demand is for more prosperity and hence energy use, not less. That demand is multiplied many times when the needs of developing nations are included. Of course there will be improvements in energy efficiency but real decreases in usage will require changes in people’s lives that will meet with massive resistance once they are fully understood.
    • ‘Fossil fuels are evil and hateful and must be abandoned’. This common attitude adds another emotional dimension to the issue. But it needs to be balanced by positive emotions based on the simple facts. Fossil fuels provided a bonanza of stored solar energy, intense, easily accessible and easily released and exploited. They are the fundamental basis of prosperity as we know it. We now have to find substitutes. Demonising fossil fuels is unhelpful in that endeavour.
    • ‘Humans are clever and innovative; something will turn up’. Yes, it often does. But this is not the time for wishful thinking about energy. If people do tend towards wishful thinking they should apply direct it towards what they see as the faults of nuclear energy rather than hoping that something better will turn up. There’s always fusion, of course. That’s another big subject.

    What do I see as the energy future? There will be cost pressures and requirements for saving energy. Our living standards may need to decline but not too much or too suddenly. Eventually, nuclear energy will dominate the total supply, largely as electricity but in part as downstream energy products. Transportation will be increasingly electrified, but dreams of cheap large scale electrical energy storage will not come true (and I say that as someone who was responsible for Australia’s largest energy storage program for many years). Some transport will still need the intensity of liquid fuels (and hydrogen is a possible candidate, albeit with huge difficulties) and there will need to be new chemical reductants to replace carbon (metallurgical coke) where electricity might not do the job.

    To do all this, ways will need to be found to make nuclear power cheaper and more acceptable to the public, and to convert it into all the other energy products needed in addition to electricity itself.

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  12. The reason to believe it can’t be solved is that it has not been solved

    That’s a logical fallacy.

    and, at least on what you provide, there is no evidence that it is being solved currently.

    Field testing and mass production of new batteries is evidence.

    even with perfect storage, you still need a 5x or 6x overbuild + a full backup system.

    Making stuff up won’t make it true. There were studies done for high renewables future for many countries including Germany (use google translate if you don’t speak german): http://www.kombikraftwerk.de/100-prozent-szenario/szenarienkarte.html

    http://www.kombikraftwerk.de/100-prozent-szenario/video-leistungsfluesse-in-einem-100-ee-szenario.html

    We are arguing for nuclear + renewables

    These are empty words which don’t reflect real content of pro-nuclear comments. They range from renewables being fickle, inadequate, extension of fossil fuels, expensive, waste of money, and so forth. Pro-nuclear comments are pretty much as anti-renewable as you can get.

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  13. As it happens, I am an electrochemist, so am familiar with electrolytic methods for metal production from both aqueous solution and molten salts. The common processes we see today have evolved as the most practical and economic for each metal but inevitably they will change as the energy landscape changes.

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  14. These are empty words which don’t reflect real content of pro-nuclear comments.

    I think not.

    ppp251, it is true that I think renewables are fickle, inadequate, expensive and, when backed by gas, an extension of fossil fuels. I think this because this is what the facts show.

    However, there is one massive difference between me (a pro-nuclear environmentalist) and the anti-nukes (like you?). I don’t want renewables banned. In fact, I’d love it if they flourished. I want them to be deployed as appropriate and competitive, and if people want to pay to build them (e.g. solar on rooftops), then great! If governments want to give them production subsidies, then great! (provided nuclear and other low-carbon energy sources get access to the same subsidies). If they turn out to dominate the energy scene in the future (provided they don’t encroach too heavily on natural habitats) and large-scale energy storage is solved, then great! I will celebrate any of those wins. But for now, I remain deeply sceptical/pessimistic that renewables alone will be anything like enough to replace fossil fuels.

    Can you say the same, that you’d celebrate the future victories of nuclear energy over fossil, should it indeed occur?

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  15. Thanks Barry for the reminder. I have no doubt that there will be a role for hydrogen in any future all-nuclear zero carbon economy. Heat, electricity and hydrogen will be the building blocks for all fuels but the primary energy source will have to be abundant cheap nuclear power. Unfortunately the hyping of hydrogen around a decade ago was driven by ignorant myths about hydrogen being some kind of inexhaustible fuel when in reality it was an expensive chemical derived from and used in the petrochemical industry. That hype did some damage.

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  16. ppp251, it is true that I think renewables are fickle, inadequate, expensive and, when backed by gas, an extension of fossil fuels. I think this because this is what the facts show.

    The facts also show that nuclear is declining. But we all know that this can be reversed just as we all know that renewables are getting cheaper, can be stored and backed by biofuels.

    But on one hand reversing the decline of nuclear is something you are willing to consider, but on the other hand improvements in renewables is something you are not willing to consider. It’s clear that some cherry picking is going on here.

    I also fail to see how arguing that renewables are fickle, inadequate and extension of fossil fuels is aiming for a mix of renewables and nuclear. Doesn’t make any sense.

    Can you say the same, that you’d celebrate the future victories of nuclear energy over fossil, should it indeed occur?

    I would. I’m not opposed to nuclear and I used to support it back in the 90ies when no other option was available. But things have changed. Climate change is a cumulative problem and we can’t afford to wait another 20 years for nuclear with no guarantee that it would go anywhere. I’m not opposed to nuclear, but I am opposed to made up, meaningless and cherry-picked anti-renewable comments.

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  17. The facts also show that nuclear is declining.

    Quite the opposite.  There are 438 reactors operable and 69 under construction in the world; if all units under construction are completed, today’s crop will raise the total to over 500 (assuming a few retirements), about a 14% increase.  Since the reactors being retired are generally smaller than the ones being built, net capacity will increase more than that (closer to 20%).  That only takes in the window of time from today until completion of the plants now under construction, perhaps 5 years.

    The only thing making nuclear a smaller fraction of world electric generation is the skyrocketing consumption of coal and NG, mostly in Chindia.

    on the other hand improvements in renewables is something you are not willing to consider.

    One cannot improve the availability of renewables unless one is God.

    I also fail to see how arguing that renewables are fickle, inadequate and extension of fossil fuels is aiming for a mix of renewables and nuclear. Doesn’t make any sense.

    It makes plenty of sense to stop trying to force wind and solar into roles that they cannot serve, like running a 21st-century electric grid.  Find uses where their intermittency doesn’t matter.

    It’s clear that some cherry picking is going on here.

    But it’s not clear to you that you’re the one doing it.

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  18. ppp: ” we all know that renewables are getting cheaper, can be stored and backed by biofuels.”

    Numbers would be useful. Renewables do not always get cheaper. In the ’00’s costs for turbines went up because worldwide commodity demands (materials) were going up. If costs have fallen so far, why is the wind industry in the US again facing collapse because of the removal of subsidies?

    There are research, commercialization and other paths to lower costs for all non-carbon technologies, and they all merit massive attention and investment.

    Mr. Cohen’s talk (above) discussed things Amory Lovins failed to disclose when he was discussing NREL’s 80% renewables scenario (discussion in video embedded above, about ~ 13:00). It requires another 40 Hoover Dams worth of hydro, 100 GW biomass, doubling the transmission system, and 100-160 GW of grid storage. Only half comes from variable renewables.

    Do you know the scale and land use of a single Hoover Dam? Renewables advocate seem to be immune to the very notion that scale matters and scaling up will run into trouble, as with, e.g., Cape Wind.

    Lovins-type non-disclosures are common among renewables advocates, as the “devil in the details” can look pretty unappealing when it is exposed.

    As for the German studies you referenced, are you telling me you have nothing credible in the language used for this blog? I suspect the NREL study Mr. Cohen discusses is similar.

    In any case, I translated some of the study, and watched the summary video, but did not see any contradiction to my assertion of the need for a 5x or 6x overbuild for an intermittent-based (e.g., wind and solar) electrical system. I actually suspect now that the estimated level of overbuild was an underestimate. Cohen showed how they needed nearly a full fossil back-up – a system of about the same scale as the current system – – at a 3x overbuild (measured as intermittent capacity versus peak demand).

    The German study you reference specifically confirms the intermittency problem Cohen talks about (~ 10:00 in the embedded video). The projected system deals with intermittence by using electrolysis to convert electricity to hydrogen and then hydrogen to methane, which then is burned to provide electricity when its calm and dreary. It can stay calm and dreary for a good long time.

    You need lots of spare electricity, not to mention a lot of other things, such as technology that does not now exist at scale, and massive infrastructure, to make the hydrogen to convert into methane and to ship it around to balance and make up for the renewables when they aren’t available.

    The spare electricity only comes from overbuild, so your study fails do do what you claim, i.e., falsify my assertion on overbuild.

    If I am wrong about this (I have been wrong before, e.g., I used to be anti-nuclear) instead of just hand-waving and claiming what the study supposedly shows, without showing us, show us where the study you cite falsifies my assertion about needed overbuild. In fact, I would settle for a summary of capacity requirements for solar, wind, biomass, storage, etc.

    But while you are at it, if you could tell us how much agricultural production and wildlife habitat you are prepared to turn over to energy production (new dams and biomass plantations) to provide balance, that would be also useful to round out the competing all-renewables vision.

    I believe the landscape, habitat and air quality impacts would be viewed as problematic by many of the same people who embrace the notion of all-renewables without understanding the implications beyond visuals of wind turbines in the distance (not up close where they are not so appealing [sound, wildlife impacts]) and solar panels.

    Here is a thought: Advanced economies can take out coal plants and replace them with nuclear, connect with the the already existing grid without much trouble, and decarbonize it. This is a good idea. It has been proven to work in an advanced economy. Nuclear technology is great, and getting a lot better. The nuclear genie is not going back in the bottle; opposing its used in advanced “Western” societies just ensures that leadership is ceded elsewhere. The the most you will be able to do is to teach this genie to dance.

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  19. Frank Jablonski, I will be brief because this was already discussed many times.

    If you refer to ‘overbuild’ as to ‘overbuild nameplate capacity’, then yes, solar and wind have to be overbuild 5-6x. But this is irrelevant, because nameplate capacity is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how many times you say it. It’s irrelevant.

    Intermittency: is overblown. Denmark is at 40% wind and it’s not a problem. Biofuels are temporary solution, until we get some sort of solar fuels, or just big enough grids.

    Land use: we have enough rooftops and deserts for solar PV, and the rest are just details. I am in favor of leaving wildlife habitat alone, which means that I have nearly eliminated meat from my diet. Have you?

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  20. Broad, Bipartisan Group Announces Market-Based Solution Preserving Low-Carbon Energy in Illinois

    “A bipartisan group of legislators, along with business, labor and community leaders, today announced their support for legislation creating a state Low Carbon Portfolio Standard that establishes Illinois as a national leader in efforts to reduce carbon emissions with minimal consumer impacts.”

    “Illinois needs an all-of-the-above energy strategy that will help reduce harmful air emissions, grow renewable energy and maintain our state’s existing nuclear plants, which are our leading source of carbon-free energy,” said Senator Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago).

    “This comprehensive legislation balances the need to preserve our nuclear plants while at the same time promoting other low-carbon energy resources such as wind, solar, hydro and clean coal, among others,” said Senator Sue Rezin (R-Morris).

    “This legislation will help ensure Illinois has the low-carbon energy sources it will need to meet its obligations under the U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan,” said Representative Larry Walsh, Jr. (D-Joliet). “There is simply no way Illinois will achieve meaningful carbon reductions and meet the EPA goals without preserving our current nuclear fleet.”

    http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/broad-bipartisan-group-announces-market-based-solution-preserving-low-carbon-energy-in-illinois-300042200.html

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  21. “Intermittency: is overblown. Denmark is at 40% wind and it’s not a problem.”

    Denmark isn’t an island. It is a terrible example to use if extolling wind is the objective: http://euanmearns.com/wind-power-denmark-and-the-island-of-denmark/

    “Biofuels are temporary solution, until we get some sort of solar fuels, or just big enough grids.”

    Big grids. I remember reading some harsh treatment of such notions nearly 5 years ago: http://www.theoildrum.com/node/6957

    Everyone realises they are never going to change your mind on all this, Mr 251. But the claims you make are actually really useful prompts for providing opportunities to cite rebuttals and actual detailed analysis from folks who don’t dismiss inconvenient physical constraints as overblown.

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  22. Biomass electricity generation in the state of Washington.

    Washington state is known as the Evergreen State for good reason. We have lots of forests much of which is managed for forestry production. The forest materials are centralized at about a dozen mills where the products are manufactured. There is a certain amount of waste materials. The wastes are burnt to dispose of them and to generate a modest amount of electricity, but only for about 6 months of the year. The generator I known to most about, north of here, generates 53 MW when operating. As a purely an electricity generator this station loses money but the operation is the least expensive way to remove the wastes since it does generate a modest income.

    Assuming a dozen such all operating, that’s an additional 636 MW during the fall and winter. Not much. Further, the generators cannot possibly load follow even as fast as the weather might change. So these units certainly could not be used efficiently to load balance against wind or solar.

    Biomass is a boutique solution suitable only for niche markets or else has customers willing to pay for such an highly expensive form of generation.

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  23. Indeed, Actinideage has it right.

    Denmark has based their energy economy on exporting waste renewable energy for virtually no income during peak availability and subsequently being bled white as they import from neighbours at peak market prices during production troughs.

    Whether you are an engineer or an economist or an accountant, this is bad business strategy.

    If you still don’t agree, ask an engineer or an economist or an accountant to explain it.

    The end result, as stated above, is that Denmark has not achieved the goal of free electricity from the sun, but has the most expensive electricity in the whole of Europe.

    See here for European comparisons: https://notalotofpeopleknowthat.wordpress.com/2013/10/18/comparison-of-eu-electricity-prices/

    “It is no surprise that the two countries that have gone furthest with renewables are also the ones with by far the highest prices – Denmark and Germany.”

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  24. My apologies for inadvertently linking to an anti-science web site in my last post.

    Here is the same message from a more authoritative and more recent source:
    http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Electricity_and_natural_gas_price_statistics

    Checking Table 1, which is separately available via a link from the main PDF report reveals that Denmark’s and Germany’s situations are more nuanced: they are only most expensive when taxes and charges are included. Before taxes and charges, they are still very close to the top of their league.

    I suspect that the taxes and charges are primarily directed to subsidies for renewables, including dedicated and upgraded transmission grids to accommodate renewables. This is only conjecture on my part, but the politicians would need to justify them somehow.

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  25. Further to David Benson, re woodchip as an alternative fuel for a traditional black coal fired power station, I well remember the day I spent with many others trying to put out a woodchip fire which started due to spontaneous combustion.

    Unlike David’s, my experience was that load following was neither easier nor more difficult using woodchip blended with coal than when using 100% black coal. We never used woodchip above about 10% blend in a 500MW unit. In other words, short term load following would be OK (Evening and morning peaks, etc) but longer term storage of woodchip for use months or years ahead can be very difficult from a safety perspective.

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  26. Singletonengineer — 1. My understanding is that Denmark pays Norway to wheel away excess generation as well as paying for it back when required. 2. The forestry mill wastes here in Washington state cannot be dignified with the term woodchips. Afterall, woodchips can and are turned into particle board. The burners used are specialized for being run flat out for, hopefully, 6 months or so.

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  27. The “woodchips” used where I was employed were chipped waste including damaged wood, leaves, branches. But it was chipped plantation-grown softwood. Certainly not suitable for particle board or paper. It was chipped so that it could be carried by conveyor belt and fed through table crushers before being blown into the furnace as “young coal” as one former manager used to call it.

    Agreed, wheeled through Norway. The selling prices are well below the buy-back price even before the wheeling charges are considered. Denmark virtually gives the surplus away and subsequently buys and conveys hydro power at peaking prices. This applies to western/northern Denmark.

    In Eastern Denmark, the predominant flows are to Germany and back again, so the economies are not identical but still the results are the same: cheap out and expensive back again. If I can locate again my sources I will return here and post a link or two.

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  28. If you here are going to compare countries for costs then do the job properly.

    Denmark
    population 5.6 million
    electricity price 40 interneational comparison cents
    percapita consumption 6000 kwhr
    gross income usd ppp 48,200

    Australia
    population 24 million
    electricity price 30 international comparison cents
    per capita consumption 10,500 kwhr
    gross income usd ppp 51,050

    Conclusion: Danes are not suffering for their electricity price. Nor do they need a nuclear power station.

    Regarding Nuclear power, I have argued, and will continue to do so that Nuclear’s real opportunity is in shipping. That is where the greatest need is. 35,000 by 120 megawatt nuclear power systems.

    Container ships and bulk carriers cannot be powered any other carbon free way. Ships in port can then power most countries with coastal populations. Newcastle Australia for instance routinely has 8 or more ships at anchor waiting to come to dock. That is over a gigawatt of generation capacity available if these ships were nuclear powered. That is significant extra income available for shipping operators.

    The challenge is for the nuclear indystry to give up attempting to bully populations into building land based plants, and prove that their reactors are as cheap and safe as they continually claim them to be.

    By facing the marine nuclear reactor need they will also be able to mass produce the reactors and systems, and learn to make them cost effectively.

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  29. BilB: Shifting marine propulsion to nuclear is a good idea, but wouldn’t it be politically easier to get one country at a time to put in land based nuclear plants to feed into their electricity grid than to get multiple countries to let nuclear powered ships into their ports?

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  30. Nuclear powered ships in ports represent a far lower danger of contamination risk than fixed land based reactors, if only becaused they are moveable and can be quickly towed a distance from shore in the evdnt of an accident. Also the scale of any one potential accident is considerably reduced due to the smaller size of the reactor core.

    Also the number of units that would become active would create an aviation like safety regime sheer any and every accident would energetically drive upgrades for absolute safety, something shich ghe nuclear industry so far has not demonstrated that they are capable of. I point to the hydrogen explosion at three mile island failing to be a warning to the Japanese. Such safety improvement opportunity failings would not be allowed for mass produced nuclear reactors.

    Apart from that, everyone here is totally convinced that nuclear reactors are totally safe and will never fail.

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  31. Ships aren’t very sensitive to weight, so batteries are obvious way forward. Battery powered ships may have lower payload than diesel, but electricity is much cheaper, so the economics shouldn’t be a problem. The same goes with planes.

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  32. @BilB

    Safety is relative. I feel much safer with nuclear reactors then I do with continuing to put co2 into the air, or trusting the future to wind and solar. I have serious concerns about those technologies at high penetrations. Also, there low EROEI is worrisome. You may dismiss all this as not a problem, but it seem like a big problem to me. Pointing to Denmark doesn’t help. Denmark has the considerable capacity of its neighboring countries to help balance its load. What we haven’t seen is large amount of solar and wind stand on their own. Always there is fossil fuel sitting quietly in the background making sure the lights stay on. At any rate I would feel a lot safer with nuclear power. I would be willing to compromise accepting some wind and solar if nuclear power came with it.

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  33. Over the past 20 years,the world has spent $367billion on subsidies for renewables for which it generated 2.8% of its electricity and with a reduction in greenhouse [CO2]emissions of exactly 0. If that’s not the height of fiscal irresponsibility, indeed stupidity, then I don’t know what is.

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  34. Sodacup, Elon Musk is also concerned about keeping those lights on, and to that end he is soon to release his domestic battery pack.

    http://offgridquest.com/news/tesla-motors-announces-a-new-home-batter

    The secure offgrid home is near to reality.

    Thebuilding blocks of a sustainable future are

    PVET, Tesla style batteries with gas fueled Liquid Piston engine backup.
    Efficient (2 L/100k) hybride vehicles.
    CSP hybride with storage grid scale solar
    Nuclear fission powered shipping
    Nuclear Fussion powered industry.

    Biofuels filling gaps and providing local energy prduction for local needs.
    Wind power where viable.

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  35. Renewable energy has a useful niche of applications but appropriate technology and storage system has to be used. It is more useful in distributed generation.
    Solar energy is best converted through photo-voltaic or thermo-electric processes It has to be stored in batteries for use when and where required wind energy on the other hand could be bet stored as compressed air and used via pneumatic motors for pumping of water or running machinery. It could also be used for climate control in conjunction with heat pumps.

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  36. This sort of reflects my own position on nuclear power. I was concerned about that same washing list of negatives. Then in discussions with pro nuclear advocates I heard claims too fantastical to believe. I heard that all of this washing list was trivial, irrelevant, lacking perspective, and in most cases flat out wrong. This was too much for me to swallow so I got back and did research. Real research, so not from websites like Greenpeace, but scientific research. To my amazement all the washing list points indeed turned out to be flat out silly or wrong. This was too much for me again and I went back to study some more. Yet the more I learned the more it confirmed that the washing list was just a list of nonsense and fabricated arguments, a generic talking point list with nothing to back it up. Peel off the onion and there’s nothing there but lies, half truths and massive double standards and favoritism.

    It seems now that my own narrative is the same as many environmentalists, engineers and scientists that have now come to similar conclusions. Some come to more stronger conclusions than others, but all agree that nuclear energy development is fundamentally a good thing.

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  37. “Ships aren’t very sensitive to weight, so batteries are obvious way forward. Battery powered ships may have lower payload than diesel, but electricity is much cheaper, so the economics shouldn’t be a problem. The same goes with planes.”

    I am surprised at the low intellectual level of the discussion thread here. Do any of you guys actually do research on these subjects?

    Weight is important for ships because every ton of weight means one ton less payload. Payload is very important in the economics of ships.

    As for battery powered aircraft… come on that is far worse than the ship. I can’t believe you even suggested this.

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  38. “The challenge is for the nuclear indystry to give up attempting to bully populations into building land based plants”

    There is no such thing as “the nuclear industry”. It doesn’t exist which is probably one of the reasons its not doing a good job on public relations.

    More importantly, no nuclear vendor is “bullying populations” into building land based plants. That is another absurd statement in this thread that is now getting chucked full of nonsense.

    Come on everyone. Shouting silly opinions around is not paying respect to the quality level of bravenewclimate. Could you all please try to come up with some cogent, sensible arguments?

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  39. Weight is important for ships because every ton of weight means one ton less payload. Payload is very important in the economics of ships.

    Of course it is, but so is fuel consumption and operating costs.

    Let’s look at an example. Emma Maersk is one of the biggest container ships in the world. It consumes 3600 gallons of fuel per hour when travelling at 25.5 knots, which is 13600 litres per hour at 46km/h. Cost of ship was $145 million and it travels about 170000 miles per year (according to this source), which is about 314000km. So it burns about 93 million litres of fuel per year. At average price $500/metric ton of fuel that’s $46 million annually just for fuel. Obviously very important.

    How does that compare to batteries? Let’s assume two routes: 1500km and 15000km. Emma Maersk consumes 443000 litres of fuel on shorter route (we’ll look at longer one later). This translates into 4.43GWh of thermal energy, and at 50% efficiency (big diesel engine) we’d need about 2.2GWh sized battery. Today lithium batteries have 200Wh/kg and cost $200/kWh (Tesla). This means battery would weigh about 11000 tonnes. This doesn’t seem to be a problem, because deadweight tonnage is 156000 tonnes (mostly cargo), so batteries are small in comparison. Cost of batteries would be about $440 million, which is a problem because it’s significantly more than cost of ship ($145 million). But on the other hand cost of batteries is falling and also electricity is cheaper than fuel oil. In a decade or two it will obviously be feasible to go fully electric on routes up to 1500km.

    However, for 15000km weight and cost of batteries would increase by a factor of 10, which isn’t feasible. Batteries would have to increase density to at least 1000Wh/kg and drop price below $100/kWh, but this is nowhere in sight at the moment, so it will take many decades (there are no technical constraints, however).

    As for battery powered aircraft… come on that is far worse than the ship.

    Airbus made a small electric powered one-seater E-fan. Obviously it can be done. Version 2.0 will be a two seater, mostly targeted for pilot training and it’s planned to go in production by 2017.

    It’s similar to ships: shorter routes will soon be feasible, but longer routes will take more time to electrify.

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  40. A panel of nuclear experts from Engineers Australia addressed a room full of politicians and policy-makers at a Nuclear Energy panel held at Parliament House on Tuesday 24 March 2015.

    The event was held in response to politicians contacting Sydney Division’s Nuclear Engineering Panel to seek more information on nuclear power, due to the South Australian Government’s Royal Commission into the State’s role in nuclear energy and the Federal Government’s Energy Green Paper stating all energy solutions should be considered for Australia’s energy future.

    Dr Dennis Jensen MP introduced the panel of experts, which included Tony Irwin, Martin Thomas AM and Dr Don Higson.

    “This panel isn’t about convincing people one way or the other on nuclear energy; it’s about providing decision-makers with the most up-to-date facts to make informed decisions,” Mr Irwin said.

    The Public Affairs Team live-tweeted the event so members could follow the discussion.

    http://www.engineersaustralia.org.au/portal/news/nuclear-engineering-panel-parliament?utm_medium=email&utm_source=ExactTarget&utm_campaign=CN_Engage_020415

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  41. @Blib

    “If you here are going to compare countries for costs then do the job properly.”

    I trust everyone saw what he did here.

    In case he is not himself aware of it, I’ll clarify, because I doubt he even opened the linked Denmark analysis. The entire point is that Denmark is not an island, it has fat connections to many other countries, which are part of a vast European electrical grid.

    Australia, and specifically the NEM, does not!!! What we make is what we get/use/waste/curtail.

    “Compare countries properly”! I’ll leave it there because this obfuscation is as beyond the pale as it is obvious… although:

    “Apart from that, everyone here is totally convinced that nuclear reactors are totally safe and will never fail.”

    Better read up: https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/strawman

    Like

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