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Nuclear: Here we go again with toxic ideas that just won’t die

Photo by Johannes Daleng on Unsplash

It’s no surprise really that the federal government is exhuming the idea of nuclear power for Australia from the grave the technology dug itself.

The signs have been there – pressure on NSW to overturn its ban on uranium mining, WA’s ban ending, and the eve-of-election fast-tracked approval for the Yeelirrie uranium mine by former environment minister Melissa Price.

We’ve also had abundant evidence the government will steadfastly ignore market signals, science and other rational evidence – including advice from leading economists – when it suits a policy agenda. The steadfast refusal to raise Newstart is a case in point.

So, this week, we get the announcement from minister for energy and emissions reduction Angus Taylor that there will be a federal inquiry into the feasibility of nuclear power for Australia. It will be chaired by the LNP member for Fairfax on the Sunshine Coast, Ted O’Brien.

O’Brien made the expected motherhood statements about investigating the potential for nuclear to provide secure, clean and affordable energy.

Cue deep sighs. Maybe a few frustrated groans too.

Public feedback is now open, with comments open until 16 September 2019. You all know what to do – read the rhetoric and have your say here.

Quick facts you need to know about nuclear

Just to first recap the facts the government is probably ignoring. Firstly, the market for uranium from mines like the new WA megamine has flatlined. That’s because world-wide nations are mothballing their reactors and putting a halt on new projects.

Not only did Fukushima make it clear that nuclear comes with the highest and longest-lasting risks of any energy technology, the cost-per-watt and emissions footprint of nuclear does not stack up.

It’s a claim cited frequently by advocates for the toxic tech that it’s low emissions, but the proof of that claim is flimsy.

Research published recently by Sanford University engineering, emissions and climate change expert Professor Mark Jacobson stated that new nuclear power plants “cost 2.3 to 7.4 times those of onshore wind or utility solar PV per kWh, take 5 to 17 years longer between planning and operation, and produce 9 to 37 times the emissions per kWh as wind.”

“There is no such thing as a zero- or close to zero-emissions nuclear power plant.”

There’s emissions due to extraction and processing of the uranium, there’s emissions due to operation, and there’s emissions in managing the waste. There’s also the transport emissions associated with the supply chain itself. And the waste does not make a friendly neighbour.

The wait time for plants coming online also means more emissions are consumed due to use of existing grid power for a decade or more that could have been abated if wind or solar had been installed instead. Jacobson saw this occur in China, with national CO2 emissions rising 1.3 per cent in 2016-2017 because a choice was made to invest in nuclear plants rather than rapidly deploy more wind and solar.

So, it’s no quick fix for lowering emissions and mitigating the climate catastrophe. It just adds another potential catastrophe to the mix, including the downstream risks associated with having the ideal material for bomb-making as a waste stream.

Another thing to think about is we know what happens when a builder or developer goes into liquidation – owners and occupants are left with little redress in event of a major building defect. And there often are defects.

Imagine this happening with a nuclear reactor development. It’s enough to cause nightmares. It’s already been seen with cowboy solar PV installations, where ongoing maintenance falls down when the installation company goes bust or vanishes.

Yale 360 reported in 2017 that three of the world’s largest nuclear technology operators all hit the wall financially – casting a cloud on the future of assets and their safe operation and upkeep. Just another risk to consider.

Meanwhile, somewhere at a wind farm, there’s a bovine ground crew busily contributing to maintenance by keeping the grass down. No hazmat suits required.

 

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Comments

5 Responses to “Nuclear: Here we go again with toxic ideas that just won’t die”

  • Preston Urka says:

    Quick (corrections of) facts you need to know about nuclear

    > [Nuclear produces] the ideal material for bomb-making
    Civilian plants do produce plutonium, but the Pu isotope needed for bombs is hopelessly contaminated with 3 other Pu isotopes that are unsuitable for bombs (not merely inefficient for bombs, but completely unsuitable for bombs).
    A civilian nuclear high-power plant optimized to produce power on a 2-3 year refueling cycle is a much, much, much, much more expensive method of producing Pu-239 than a military low-power Pu-239 factory optimized to produce Pu-239 on a 2-4 month refueling cycle.

    I suppose it is doable in the sense that if you don’t mind bankrupting an entire nation-state you might eventually be able to use a civilian reactor waste stream. Several decades worth of Australian GDP should do it. (Note the cheapest method for bomb material is to enrich uranium, no reactor needed at all!)

    > what happens when a builder or developer goes into liquidation
    Yes, investors and financiers around the world would completely ignore a multi-billion dollar asset.
    In the case you present, you make it sound like the engineers who designed these plants might die and their blueprints go up in smoke upon bankruptcy. My guess is they are reasonably healthy and able to take the blueprints with them to a new employer if the old one goes belly-up.

  • Preston Urka says:

    Quick (corrections of) facts you need to know about nuclear

    > [nuclear is] low emissions, but the proof of that claim is flimsy
    Let’s rely upon hundreds of respected scientists, shall we?
    IPCC 2014 report, Table A.III.2, Lifecycle emissions.
    https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/ipcc_wg3_ar5_annex-iii.pdf
    > emissions due to [uranium mining, operations, managing waste, and transport]
    IPCC shows median _lifecycle_ data
    11 gCO2/KWh for Wind
    12 gCO2/KWh for Nuclear
    27 gCO2/KWh for Solar CSP
    44 gCO2/KWh for Solar PV
    Do you not respect the scientists at the IPCC? Are they shills for the nuclear industry? These same issues of mining, operations, etc add up for all technologies.

    > Professor Mark Jacobson stated that new nuclear power plants “cost 2.3 to 7.4 times those of onshore wind or utility solar PV per kWh, take 5 to 17 years longer between planning and operation, and produce 9 to 37 times the emissions per kWh as wind.”

    >> cost 2.3 to 7.4 times
    Yes, nuclear plants cost much more, in nameplate capacity.
    Also a nuclear plant depreciates over a 60 year timeframe,
    and a wind or solar farm depreciates over a 25-30 year timeframe, so you need to build the same farm twice vs a nuclear plant once.

    After we take the actual, real world capacity factors and depreciation into account, we see that nuclear plants have same or better value, despite costing more:

    c.f. | technology | multiplier needed to equal nameplate
    92% | nuclear | 1.1 | #needed really | with depreciation
    35% | wind | 3x | ~2.6x nuclear | 5.2x nuclear
    25% | solar PV | 4x | ~3.7x nuclear | 7.4x nuclear
    22% | solar CSP | 5x | ~4.2x nuclear | 8.4x nuclear
    https://www.eia.gov/electricity/monthly/epm_table_grapher.php?t=epmt_6_07_b

    So nuclear costs 2.3-7.4 times more, but you have to build 5.2-8.4 times more wind and solar. Value-wise (vs cost-wise) that is 2.2-1.1 times more value.

    >> 5 to 17 years longer between planning and operation
    >> produce 9 to 37 times the emissions
    Jacobson calculates the ‘opportunity cost’ of the emissions to arrive at this much, much different value from the IPCC (which shows nuclear the same as wind). Notably, the IPCC doesn’t include an ‘opportunity cost’. Opportunity cost is essentially ‘costs because we could not build in 1 day’.

    a) However, a feature of all mega-projects is that they take time. Look at the Gansu Wind Farm, which also has taken about a decade to build.
    b) The 5-17 years is heavily weighted by US experience in the 60’s-80’s where nearly every plant was a unique design. The French, Chinese, and South Koreans have build times between around 5-6 years because they have standardized designs. When you use that, the emissions are not 9-37 times, but just a bit more, and still below solar (the typical solar plant takes 2-4 years so we are not even looking at 5 years delta, but 1-4 years delta).

    > [Emissions] could have been abated if wind or solar had been installed … in China, … because a choice was made to invest in nuclear plants
    Again, look up Gansu Wind Farm. Wind energy has been dumped because it is generated out in the desert, but no transmission exists to the cities. The problem was not new wind and solar capacity, but transmission. Nuclear plants can be build nearly anywhere and so don’t need massive transmission improvements.

  • Preston Urka says:

    Quick (corrections of) facts you need to know about nuclear
    > world-wide nations are mothballing their reactors
    * 55 reactors (~56,000 MW) under construction as of Dec 2018
    * 80 reactors (~80,000 MW) planning to start construction
    (i.e. not being planned, but planning to start actual construction) as of Dec 2018
    * https://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/Publications/PDF/RDS-2-39_web.pdf

    > nuclear comes with the highest and longest-lasting risks of any energy technology
    Coal, Natural Gas and fossil fuels clearly outpace nuclear in this regard; both in current damage to human health and future climate change.
    https://www.ipcc.ch/

    > the waste does not make a friendly neighbour.
    High-level nuclear waste is stored in massive casks that are guaranteed for 100 years. The waste is not exactly a time-sensitive pressure-cooker of an issue. Even if we procrastinate for 99 years, we just transfer it into a new cask.

    > [Nuclear is] no quick fix for lowering emissions and mitigating the climate catastrophe.
    Unless you are Ontario. https://www.ontario.ca/page/end-coal#section-3

  • Adrian Needham says:

    This line of argument completely ignores the fact that the growing manufacture and deployment of “renewables” is a significant factor in the continuing rise of carbon emissions in countries such as China and increasing aggressive mining throughout the world to acquire the necessary exotic and potentially dangerous raw materials for this technology.Equally, disposal and replacement of today’s wonder products will constitute a greater problem than management of the quite small quantities of radio-active waste generated by nuclear power. It is extremely naive to believe that this transition is without environmental cost. A tunnel vision approach to solving the existing problem will inevitably produce even greater problems in the long run.
    The people with responsibility for solving this problem know that it is not that simple or easy.

  • Kevin Cobley says:

    Let’s see Ted O’Brien promising to build a Nuke in his own electorate.

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