The Ecomodernist Manifesto: The view from a lapsed sustainability professional

A couple of years ago I was called in to deliver a unit called Sustainable Development: Concepts and Applications for the Master of Sustainability at the University of Adelaide. Being late notice (the semester had already commenced) I took some necessary liberties with preparing content that suited me. I asked myself: “If this is the core unit of a sustainability Masters, what do I believe these students absolutely must think about?”.

Population. Trade Reform. Land Reform. Urbanisation. Biodiversity Preservation. Energy. Water. My conviction was that speaking to all these issues intelligently and with evidence, in the context of a ‘10 billion humans’ world, was a prerequisite to presuming to work in sustainability in the 21st Century.

I loved it. Near as I could tell, the students did too. Some of the tutorial presentations were simply outstanding and the international nature of the student body was an asset to everyone’s learning.

Though I could not have named it at the time, I delivered a semester of Ecomodernism, as captured in a staggering manifesto published last week. The manifesto is a tour-de-force of thought leadership at a crucial juncture for humanity. For this sustainability professional it presents a meaningful framework within which to act and I gladly endorse it.


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Federal Labor backs Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission

In this Sky AM interview with Mark Butler, federal Labor Member for Port Adelaide, we see that the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission has been backed by Federal Labor. If this is the “right process” enacted by a Government from the same party, a “proper enquiry” headed by an “eminent South Australian”, and this is the view of party leader Bill Shorten, it will be nigh-on impossible for Federal Labor to reject supportive findings taken to a national level at a later time. We now have bi-partisan support at a state and federal government level for the coming enquiry. That’s twelve months of evidence-based investigation free from political conflict. With the

Fact Check: Antinuclear Australia blog post

In the blog post Senator Sean Edwards spruiks for the South Australian nuclear lobby the following statement is made in relation to integral fast reactors:

They “deliver abundant energy without any mining”. Hey – he doesn’t count the mining required for the conventional reactors to produce the wastes to put into the reprocessing reactors that he is touting!

That material has already been mined, in some case decades ago. It is stored above ground at dozens of locations around the world. Nearly all of that material can be used again for energy in the advanced reactors Senator Edwards has referred to. Lots of energy. Perhaps the author thinks the material can only be used once in an IFR and needs a completely fresh feed of material every time from old reactors? I’m not sure what the author thinks, however that is not the case.

Via the recycling process, when a fuel core has completed a cycle, the fuel is cleaned up and re-formed into new fuel for another cycle, with a small amount of “make-up” material added to take the place of the one tonne of material per gigawatt per year that is removed as true waste. As Senator Edwards recently pointed out, the equivalent energy production from brown coal emits 8.5 million tons of carbon dioxide. That one tonne of material has a far shorter half-life of around 30 years. That, combined with the tiny amount, makes it suitable for temporary storage followed by much simpler disposal.

I would expect a site like this to be relatively familiar with this material, as it has been the cornerstone of opposition to nuclear power for decades. Integral fast reactors present a solution to that problem.

Over time, we might reasonably expect (hope) these type of reactors to become the norm and displace the reactors using the once-through fuel cycle. Instead of mining fuel, we might collectively meet out clean energy needs with the material we already have available and we could do that for many hundreds of years, removing the need for energy mining

I am sure the anti-nuclear community in Australia will become more familiar with this technology as the year proceeds. I am confident many will be prepared to draw a line in the ideological sand and get behind a solution that makes sense on so many levels.

“We must act and we must act now”. Speech from Senator Sean Edwards

If you don’t weary of politics from time to time, in my opinion you aren’t paying attention.

We all cry out for “leadership”. Rarely do we get it.

So I am excited to publish this speech from South Australian Senator Sean Edwards, delivered last night (7 April 2014) to the Sydney Institute. This, for me, is leadership.

As is evident from this speech, the office of Senator Edwards has taken full ownership of the nuclear issue, particularly and specifically the potential application of the Integral Fast Reactor. I am deeply impressed at the non-partisan character of the speech vis-à-vis the Labor Party. The direct criticism of the Australian Greens on this matter is, in my opinion, long overdue and welcome.

I have spent several years in “push” mode on the issue of nuclear energy in Australia. It is quite a remarkable thing to now find events being pulled along by a politician who has taken a committed stake in the issue. He speaks sincerely to the economic future of my home state, and sees the gains to be made in matters of environmental and human health and well-being.

It’s just a fact that no matter how effectively I and others like me work to have influence on such matters, we need our political class to get things moving. So the onset of this Royal Commission from the Labor government of Jay Weatherill and the rapid follow-through from Liberal Senator Edwards is a game-changing development.

Enjoy this speech and please, take time to give some feedback to the office of Senator Sean Edwards. If you support him, he deserves to know. 


The Nuclear Opportunity

The Sydney Institute, 7 April 2015

In Australia the nuclear debate has generally occurred on three fronts. They are the scientific, economic and political dimensions.

Discussion of Australia’s place in the nuclear industry has been in hibernation since the Switskowski report of a decade or so ago when a change in government stopped progress in its tracks. However the South Australian Government’s Royal Commission into the nuclear fuel cycle, announced in February this year, has raised the prospect of this already nuclear-nation of ours capitalising on an expanded embrace of the nuclear opportunity.

I reiterate that point, ladies and gentlemen: we are very much a nuclear nation already, given we stand here tonight not 40 kilometres from the very fine OPAL research reactor at Lucas Heights.

This evening I will speak about the nuclear opportunity; what it offers Australia economically and what hurdles must yet be overcome in order for us to realise it.

I am a Senator for South Australia in the Federal Parliament and so I broach this topic from the perspective that it provides a platform that would rescue my state from its economic doldrums.

That’s how significant an opportunity this is; the economics are truly transformative.

I’ll spend half an hour or so addressing these matters and I look forward very much to discussing them with you afterwards.

* * *

The science
Let us start with the science, which is inherently an argument about safety.

Ladies and gentlemen, the science is settled. In fact it’s so settled that the scientific case behind the merits of nuclear technology barely need defending anymore in a serious forum like this one. But I will take the opportunity to debunk a few of the more stubborn myths anyhow.

The evidence over six decades is that nuclear power is among the very safest means of generating electricity. It’s certainly safer than coal and you can even argue it’s safer than wind; enough people die falling off of windmills each year to make this a statistical truth!

In the 15,000 cumulative year history of nuclear power in 33 countries, there have been just three major incidents at commercial nuclear reactors and at only one of those did nuclear fallout physically harm members of the public.

That incident occurred at Chernobyl in 1986, a facility completely without containment and subject to what I think we can reasonably call world’s worst practice. The death toll there stands at less than 70.

Suffice to say, the former USSR will never be an example to Australian regulatory authorities.

You may not know that the Three Mile Island facility in the US continues to operate to this day, less one damaged reactor which was deemed uneconomical to repair after the incident there in 1979.

That leaves Fukushuma, where radiation release hasn’t caused a single death. In fact what Fukushuma proved is that even when an earthquake, a tsunami and human error conspire against it, a nuclear power plant struggles to do physical harm while coal kills thousands every year.

Ladies and gentlemen, the truth is that nuclear power saves lives. Thousands of them if we consider workers who are alive today because they spend their days at nuclear plants and not amongst the coal industry, which kills thousands of workers annually.

Nuclear technology saves millions of lives if we consider the impact of reduced air pollution on the planet.

Former NASA climate scientist Professor James Hansen says nuclear power has prevented 1.8 million deaths. He said it could save 7 million more on this basis in the next four decades.

If the historical safety record of the nuclear industry isn’t confidence inspiring enough, then consider the future.

The main measure of reactor safety is “Core Damage Frequency”. This represents the likelihood of an accident that would damage the reactor core by indicating the number of years that a reactor would remain statistically accident-free. It’s like the “days since last safety incident” sign in a warehouse or factory.

Today the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires reactor designs to meet a 1 in 10,000 year Core Damage Frequency standard.

But US reactors commonly meet a 1 in 100,000 year Core Damage Frequency standard and the best modern reactors already achieve a 1 in 1 million year standard.

Reactors likely to be built in the future will achieve close to a 1 in 10 million year standard.

Ladies and gentlemen, per kilowatt hour there is no safer form of base load power than nuclear power.

The economics
The economic dimension of the nuclear opportunity is more compelling now than it’s ever been. I’ll offer you a case study.

In his book Prescription for the Planet, environmentalist Tom Blees writes about the potential of Integral Fast Reactors (IFRs).

These are nuclear power stations capable of running on what old nuclear plants have left behind. Conventional nuclear power can use around 0.6 per cent of the energy contained in mined uranium, wasting more than 99 per cent of the resource. IFRs can use almost all of the remainder. There is already enough so-called “waste” on earth to meet the world’s energy needs for many hundreds of years.

IFRs are so efficient they can be supplied with a lifetime inventory of fuel and raw material at commissioning. From then on, they progressively make their own new fuel from what was once regarded as waste, producing plentiful electricity all the while.

The recycling process removes the tiny amount of true waste for disposal, and that waste has a half-life of tens rather than tens of thousands of years. For example, getting base load electricity for a year from 1,000 megawatts of IFR produces around just one tonne of shorter lived waste.

To get that much energy from Victorian brown coal produces around 8.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, with an atmospheric life of around a thousand years.

Throughout the past two or so years I’ve been developing a business case for a South Australian intervention into the global spent nuclear fuel recycling industry. The global stockpile of spent uranium stands at around 240,000 tonnes and in simple economic terms it represents a whole lot of demand for which there is presently limited supply.

That’s because the nuclear powered nations, which in many cases are importing our uranium, are thereafter encumbered by it and their problem is growing by 12,000 tonnes each year.

As Blees explains, the latest generation of nuclear facilities, the generation four technology such as GE’s PRISM IFR, can take that spent fuel and do much more with it. While we reduce the waste burden by volume by a factor of twenty times or more compared to the uranium they started off with – a service for which we can charge very good sums of money – the real beauty of this model is the power is generated as a by-product of that process.

This is power we can use in the manner that nuclear powered economies traditionally do – by supplying domestic customers and industry with cheap energy.

So consider these nation states, encumbered with their pre gen-IV technology and their ever increasing burden of spent fuel. Consider that some of them are legally, politically or technically restricted from reprocessing it themselves even if they wished to.

Consequently what we have is an economic equation with a great deal of pent up demand. South Australia, in the context of the Royal Commission, has the opportunity to position itself on the supply side of that equation.

To give you a sense of the scale of that demand, one prospective client state I have been in discussions with, which is in the position of being unable to reprocess their own spent uranium for geopolitical reasons, has such an appetite for a solution they have indicated an in-principle willingness to meet our capital costs, were facilities to be built in Australia to cater for them.

That means nil start-up costs and lucrative fees from a global market thereafter. You’ll forgive me for providing no more detail about those discussions at this point, except to say they have been elevated to ministerial level.

This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, offering a stake in an industry worth billions annually and which, as a by-product, produces abundant cheap energy.

Ladies and gentlemen, while the fees might be significant, it’s the implication of cheap energy on our economy that I believe is the centrepiece of this model.

In that respect, there is a range of possibilities starting with cheap power, scaling up to free power for all. That is, if a decision were made to take a stake in this industry of sufficient scope and scale, that industry could generate enough power to supply each and every domestic and business customer in the state of South Australia with all of their power needs met at no cost above that of the poles and wires.

I invite you to imagine the competitive pressures this would place on other clients supplying our National Electricity Market.

You might also imagine the economic impact of abundant cheap power on employment, on consumer spending, on disposable income, on business investment and on State Domestic Product.

Many of those Arab states with abundant energy reserves today don’t need to imagine this at all.

Nor do we.

This is the implementation of a quasi-special economic zone by stealth.

In a former life I was a businessman and those instincts die hard. This is a business opportunity that passes every scrutiny I’ve subjected it to for the past two years.

The politics
Ladies and gentlemen, we know the science is sound – this is a safe and reliable technology to the satisfaction of expert intellect many ranks above mine.

I’ve also laid out to you what is a once in a life time business opportunity, an economic case with clients actually willing to meet our financial barrier to entry and pay service fees thereafter, as we all the while produce electricity nearly too cheap to meter with a transformative effect on our economy.

Science and economics are not the challenges here. It’s politics where the fight lies.

If there’s one party in Australian politics morally and philosophically compelled to support advanced nuclear energy it’s the Greens.

The Greens insist they want the best for our environment but in opposing nuclear power, it’s the Greens who are standing in its way.

That they so actively oppose it is an act supreme hypocrisy.

Try as they might, they simply can’t meaningfully do so on environmental grounds.

Nuclear reactors produce no emissions that contribute to global warming, acid rain or smog. In fact, the life-cycle emissions of nuclear energy rank alongside those of renewables but unlike renewables, nuclear energy can actually provide base load power. The lifetime emissions from an IFR, with all the fuel already mined, will make this easily the lowest-emission energy source available to humanity.

Renewable energy sources today require substantial tax payer subsidy. But they might one day provide reliable baseload power source. However informed estimates say that’s 40 years away and even the most strident advocates must acknowledge the need for an interim measure, if you call forty years ‘interim’. And our most rigorous scientists tell us the scaling challenge of renewables may remain insurmountable.

Consider, the two largest “renewable” energy sources globally, by far, are hydroelectricity and biomass. The first sacrifices valleys, forests and watersheds on the altar of renewable energy. While Australia has no further capacity to exploit, the same cannot be said of South America and Africa, where the planned and proposed hydro developments are frightening in scale for anyone who wants to preserve our wild spaces.

Biomass is a fancy word for the polluting practice of burning plants. Those plants need to be grown and harvested, collected or chopped down. They may brand it renewable, but above niche uses it’s anything but sustainable.

Large scale solar-energy is also greedy for land. The largest in the world, 392 megawatts in the Mojave Desert, took over 3,500 acres of wilderness land. In the process, an endangered species, the desert tortoise, had to be relocated in large numbers. Can you imagine that being permitted for a nuclear plant? Well, you don’t have to worry. The IFR would produce three times the electricity, more reliably, on about 1/100th the land, and that land can be just about wherever you want it to be, rather than in prime wilderness.

So the anti-nuclear campaigners’ argument moves swiftly onto safety. But as I’ve argued, assessed against the historical record, nuclear energy is as safe as wind power and far safer than coal.

“But what about Fukushima?” they plead, where as we noted, to this day radiation release has not resulted in a single death.

That brings us to the question of managing waste, which is where nuclear opponents reliably go next. We’ve already discussed the impact IFR technology will have on spent nuclear fuel management, however let’s get this completely clear and on the record: this technology represents the solution to what the Greens have told us, for decades, is the problem. Yet they cannot draw a line and support even this leading technology.

No wonder the Greens generally aren’t inclined to subject themselves to a proper debate on this matter. They prefer to stack panels and orchestrate anti-nuclear love-ins, as per the one conducted in Adelaide on April Fools’ Day.

The Greens stacked that event, omitting to include even a single voice for the affirmative which allowed them to peddle all manner of fabrications to their audience unchallenged.

Now I may not have been invited to this Greens love-in but it’s entirely possible I have an insight into what was and wasn’t said at that meeting (along with six pages of detailed notes).

I can confirm it was an ideological echo chamber full of misinformation, groupthink and political theatre which is a neat example of how the Greens will campaign against the nuclear Royal Commission.

Now I say “theatre”, because in the theatre there are scripts, there are lines and there are rehearsals, right?

During the fifteen minute Q&A session, the MC, Greens’ MLC Mark Parnell, just happened to know every one of the questioners by name.

Theirs was a Simpson’s inspired version of the nuclear industry, complete with Homer asleep at his desk at the power plant, spilling coffee on his control panel, triggering a full-scale nuclear emergency.

In fact I’m advised there were so many references to the Simpsons it does give rise to wondering about the Greens’ constituency. But I am not being harsh on environmentalists. One of my top consultant advisors on this very project is one of them by heart.

Anyway, if the Greens are so confident that the facts are on their side why lock out anyone who might disagree? Why won’t they organise a debate of expert opinion and appropriate rebuttal?

And why not trust the Royal Commission process? They call for Royal Commissions all the time when it suits them.

The Greens have asked for Royal Commissions into offshore detention, onshore detention, church abuse, abuse of the disabled, the Commonwealth Bank, Manus Island, our intelligence services’ efforts before the Bali bombings, the Tasmanian forestry industry, the 2004 Palm Island riot, the Reserve Bank of Australia, domestic violence, the Iraq War and the Shen Neng 1 incident in 2010.

But they don’t trust a Royal Commission into the nuclear issue?

I believe that’s because deep down, they know that objectively the facts are not on their side.

Something else occurred in recent days highlighting the selectiveness of the Greens and also how untenable their position on nuclear power really has become.

During the most recent sitting of Parliament Senator Milne saw cause to move a motion congratulating US President Barack Obama for his recent Executive Order requiring the reduction of greenhouse gas pollution from US Federal Government activities.

That motion applauded the US for its suite of renewable energy projects, productivity improvements, raised vehicle efficiency standards and increased ethanol use across the US Federal Government. That sounds fair enough.

But the Greens conveniently left out five very important words that also appeared on that same Executive Order:

‘Small modular nuclear reactor technologies’.

Ladies and gentlemen, US Government climate change policy, which the Greens formally and enthusiastically commended in the Senate, openly relies on nuclear power.

Professor Hansen who I referred to earlier has seen the light. When he (and others of similar stature) implore anti-nuclear environmental organisations to revise their position, it’s clear that environmental science has diverged sharply from Greens-style anti-nuclear activism.

However, elsewhere this activism is not without its successes. Germany not so long ago succumbed to political pressure and began the closure of its seventeen operating nuclear reactors. It will close all of them by 2022 and that move alone will produce 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide before the shutdown is complete. The Germans are now buying nuclear power from the French, by the way.

While polling last year indicated 68% of South Australian respondents either favoured or felt neutral in respect to nuclear power, empty vessels do make the loudest noise and the Greens have had a lot of practice.

While we’re in possession of a compelling argument that is simply beyond them, political theatre is not constrained by facts, argument and reason. The Greens know this.

The good news is that by virtue of the South Australian Labor Government’s Royal Commission, for the first time ever, there is a bipartisan sentiment attached to an impartial, evidence-based consideration of the nuclear issue.

There you have it.

The science is beyond serious rebuttal.

The business case is strong and a highly profitable one at that.

But if it’s so good, I hear you ask me, why aren’t others lining up to beat us to it?

What’s restricting other players in this space at least for now is the inherent conservativism of the nuclear industry. It’s slow moving and it’s cautious. For countries to move from older reactors to Gen-4 technology takes time. When you are firmly committed to the physical, legal and regulatory infrastructure of the current generation of technology, the cost of change is high, and the appetite for innovation is low.

Having a clean slate to start with as Australia does will help but should a decision be made to embark upon a programme to develop a nuclear industry of the nature I have outlined, it will take time to develop a regulatory framework, to carry out all necessary studies, to pass relevant legislation and to construct the necessary facilities: no less than five years, I would say.

Energy is at the heart of modern society and efficient energy is at the centre of a prosperous economy. Consumers and business alike stand to prosper and both need to express their views to the Royal Commission if this is a course they want to see us take.

The Prime Minister has announced the Government’s support for the Royal Commission, calling it a “gale of common sense”.

“If it’s right to mine it, why can’t it be right to use it?,” the PM rightfully asked.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve seen the latest science, I’ve questioned the experts and I’ve consulted internationally. This industry has a very strong future and I firmly believe South Australia should be a part of it, and so I will be proposing as much to the South Australian Royal Commission.

The recycling of spent fuel is a substantial commercial opportunity. But that pales in comparison to the wider economic benefit of power almost too cheap to meter.

This is the economic game changer South Australia needs. The path ahead could reap great economic rewards. We must act and we must act now, and so I urge you all to support me in this important venture.

Response to Mark Diesendorf regarding IFR proposal from Senator Edwards

Professor Mark Diesendorf of the University of New South Wales offered a 7 point response to the piece published yesterday by Senator Sean Edwards at the ABC Environment Blog. I have replied in the comments of the blog and re-post my reply here.

In response to Mark Diesendorf

“1. Life-cycle emissions from nuclear energy are greater than those from most renewables and are increasing as uranium ore-grade declines and more diesel has to be used to mine and mill uranium”.

This statement is an evidentiary furphy. Everyone from the IPCC outward knows and acknowledges that nuclear power is a low-carbon energy source across the lifecycle, comparable with renewable technology. Known and economic resources of uranium have been increasing over the last few decades. And finally, one must ask whether Diesendorf read this piece: the reactors under discussion use material that has already been mined to extract another 99 times the energy. If Diesendorf is familiar with the methodologies of the studies to which he refers, he will know what this means for nuclear: by scrubbing to zero the greenhouse inputs of all those early stages like mining, milling and enrichment, and by increasing the energy value by nearly two orders of magnitude, advanced nuclear will easily be the lowest-greenhouse energy source available to humankind.

“2. Climate scientist James Hansen admits in his book that he is ignorant of energy matters and takes his advice from people who support nuclear energy. He is poorly advised.”

I think these assertions would come as a shock to Dr Hansen, a scientist of far higher global standing than Prof. Diesendorf, and I will see whether he would like to offer a reply. The study quoted by Kharecha and Hansen is “Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions from historic and projected nuclear power”, published to the journal “Environmental Science and Technology”. If Diesendorf wishes to dispute the findings, his responsibility as an academic is to publish a response in a journal of similar quality. When academics resort to cheap shots in a comment thread, it is symptomatic of a weak underlying argument.

UPDATE from reader Tom Keen:

“Diesendorf actually did coauthor a critique of the Kharecha and Hansen paper, published in the same journal: comment is full of erroneous statements and misleading information, as the response to the comment by the original authors plainly illustrates:

It seems Diesendorf has followed the correct pathway here. My apologies on that point of process. But yes, I encourage all readers to look to those links for the issues at hand. That is vastly inferior work on the topic. 

“3. Those who claim falsely that nuclear energy is safe avoid counting the principal cause of fatalities associated with nuclear accidents: cancers. Estimates by reputable bodies for fatalities from Chernobyl range from 4000 to 93,000.”

I invite Diesendorf to read the paper from Kharecha and Hansen, along with the “Externalities of Energy” study from the European Commission and “Electricity generation and health” by Markandya and Wilkinson, published to “Lancet” in 2007. He will find full and accurately sourced accounting of that single incident in all these sources that deliver the same finding: nuclear power is safe.

“4. The Integral Fast Reactor was only built many years ago as a prototype and may never become commercially available, for good reason. It doesn’t have to be used to burn up some of the spent fuel. It can actually make it easier to separate plutonium-239 for nuclear weapons. Its development was terminated in the USA for this reason.”

The technology prototyped as the Experimental Breeder Reactor II/Integral Fast Reactor is now commercially available as the PRISM reactor from General Electric-Hitachi. I quote “From GE’s founding innovation, Thomas Edison’s light bulb, to developing the first civil nuclear power plant connected to a commercial power grid in 1957; everything that we have learned from 130 years of experience has helped GEH to create PRISM. We believe that innovation often comes by taking existing technologies to create something new. And that is exactly what GEH has done to create PRISM, building on the EBR-II reactor, which operated successfully for 30 years.”

Deisendorf’s nuclear history has a selective cut-off at 1994. Fortunately we have politicians who are up-to-date.

As to separation of plutonium, Diesendorf is, again, incorrect. The IFR was designed expressly for proliferation resistance. Plutonium is never separated in a way that is useful for anything other than fuel. To achieve any worthwhile separation, material would need to be removed from the IFR facility and taken to an entirely different aqueous reprocessing facility such as those in use in France. This process already exists, is already in use, is already safeguarded, and IS NOT proposed by Senator Edwards. The removal of material itself would be extremely challenging as once in the IFR recycle process, high levels of radioactivity within the hot cells provide inherent protection. There is nothing about the IFR that raises proliferation risk and much that lowers it. Remember, the IFR can get rid of all spent nuclear fuel, permanently. All this information is documented in both “Prescription for the Planet” and, for the technical specialists, “Plentiful Energy” by Till and Chang, the designers of IFR. These sources have now been available for many years.

“5. Global demand for spent fuel is low, except for countries that are interested in extracting plutonium for nuclear weapons.”

Diesendorf can perhaps be forgiven for confounding the current global nuclear fuel cycle with what is proposed by Senator Edwards, which is leadership in the next generation nuclear fuel cycle. His deliberate confounding with weapons is less forgivable. The demand that is of interest to South Australia is that for the storage and recycling (with simultaneous material downgrading and electricity production) of existing and committed flows of spent nuclear fuel. This demand for service is indisputable and likely runs to value in the tens and possible hundreds of billions of dollars. In successfully demonstrating that new fuel cycle, South Australia would then be ideally placed to sell fabricated nuclear fuel for advanced reactor developments elsewhere, made from the spent fuel raw material.

“6. Hourly computer simulations of the operation of electricity supply systems by research groups at UNSW, the US National Renewable Energy Lab, Stanford Uni, Aarhus University and elsewhere have shown that baseload power stations are not necessary for meeting baseload demand, thus refuting one of nuclear’s few alleged selling points.”

Diesendorf and his team do quality work, however the overreach in interpreting the implications of the findings are extraordinary. Diesendorf’s own work suggests such a future does not eliminate baseload power plants at all, but is dependent on the utterly wasteful use of them to back-up the variability of wind and solar, fuelled by biomass. All in the name of rejecting nuclear. This is inefficient, polluting, unsustainable and subject to various assumptions Diesendorf selectively never discloses.

“7. Mr Edwards’ notion that South Australia could have the full nuclear fuel cycle is economic fantasy. He should consider the huge subsidies the UK government is offering potential developers of the proposed Hinckley C reactors.”

One has to wonder if Diesendorf read the article. Senator Edwards appears to have foreign partners ready for direct foreign investment in the infrastructure. The recycling infrastructure would necessarily include a plant for fabrication of new, metal-alloy fuel rods for fast reactors. South Australia would cover the whole fuel cycle: the new fuel cycle for the 21st century.

Australia and Argentina: Divergent histories, convergent futures?

It has been a busy start to the year, however I am always happy to assist my friend Fed Bernal of OETEC in Argentina. This piece will be translated into Spanish and published by OETEC soon.

Towards the turn of last century, the High Flux Australian Reactor (HIFAR) was beginning to show its age. For Australia to continue into the future with nuclear research activities and the production of vital medicine, a new reactor was needed.

Australia, home of such physics pioneers as Oliphant and Bragg, had early, longstanding involvement with nuclear science and technology. Yet it had never developed nuclear power reactors. With no nationalised nuclear technology provider, the job of building Australia’s new reactor went to global tender. Four pre-qualified providers were to tender with Australian companies; from Germany, France and Canada along with what many considered to be a rank outsider… Argentine company INVAP.

As the story goes, the major players didn’t seem to be taking Australia’s needs very seriously. Proposed designs were variously outdated, unimaginative iterations of existing reactors.

INVAP took a different route, working carefully from the ground up to tailor a reactor in response to Australia’s needs. The technical assessment team were highly impressed and put forward a clear recommendation that they be awarded the tender.

To the last minute, the technical assessors did not believe that the Australian Minister would accept a recommendation to steer away from the more traditionally favoured nations. As the story goes, when the Minister awarded in favour of INVAP, the Australian assessors applauded.

Fast forward to 2015 and the Open Pool Australian Lightwater (OPAL) reactor is well-recognised as among the very best research reactors worldwide. With world-leading availability, OPAL provides medicine for Australian hospitals and export, high-grade silicon doping, and neutron beams for thirteen scientific instruments. The production of nuclear medicine from OPAL will shortly be tripled to meet burgeoning demand in the Asia-Pacific region.

It is clear that in the global nuclear technology industry, Argentina has a strong role to play, so it is with pleasure that I welcome the full commissioning of the Atucha II Nuclear Plant. This, along with recent landmark agreements with China for five new nuclear reactors, technology sharing, and potential on-selling to other global markets signals what will hopefully be an exciting and empowering phase of growth, development and stability for Australia’s great friend in South America.

The parallel yet divergent paths of our two nations over the past hundred years have been the subject of much scholarship. Our large, frontier, new world nations in the southern hemisphere seemed to have the world at their respective feet in the early 20th century. Yet while Australia prospered under strong institutions, Argentina languished, falling into a prolonged period of conflict and instability. Now, the economic gap is stark.

Yet this can change. Hopefully it will do so rapidly as Argentina seeks to regain and sustain economic stability. Growth in the nuclear sector serves as a wonderful harbinger of such change. But any economic or environmental historian will know that as the income gap closes, so too will the energy gap. While every Argentine deserves to enjoy the prosperity that comes with more electricity consumption, production of electricity is one area in which Australia must not serve as a model. At this time, Australian emissions per kilowatt hour of electricity are nearly three times that of Argentina. The dark side of Australian prosperity is a grievous crime against our shared climate.

Nuclear technology offers Argentina a path to energy security and prosperity that is clean, safe, and future-proof as the world moves to stronger action on climate change. As Australian conservation scientists Barry Brook and Corey Bradshaw recently established, the compact nature of nuclear power could also prove a saviour of South American biodiversity. Should proposed hydro-electricity developments across South America come to fruition the result will be massive further loss and fragmentation of vital habitat. It does not need to be so. We can split atoms instead of splitting ecosystems.

To do this at a meaningful scale, nations need to cooperate with nations. The sovereign nature of nuclear power must be broken down in favour of greater sharing of knowledge and technology in the pursuit of greater outcomes. Nuclear prowess is no longer a proxy for international prestige. It is a product, a commodity that must be efficiently traded so that growth can be clean and development can succeed. One need look no further than the OPAL reactor to see that when the right customer can find the right supplier, with the minimum of political interference, great things can happen.

In South Australia, a Royal Commission has just been launched to investigate the potential for further developments in the nuclear fuel cycle. Australia may yet embrace nuclear power technology and if it does? It will be a customer looking for the right supplier, one that can deliver reactors to suit our needs, on time and on budget. We could also benefit from learning from a nation that has recovered and re-built their standing in nuclear technology.

Who knows? Perhaps the story of Australia and Argentina does not just belong in history, but also in the future.



Zero Carbon Options: An economic mix for an environmental outcome

In 2012, my friend James Brown and I self-published Zero Carbon Options: An economic mix for an environmental outcome. We wrote it in response to the frustration expressed by many that the argument for renewables to replace coal was seeming to go largely unanswered. Despite our efforts at the time, what we considered relevant corporate bodies within Australia were unwilling to help us fund the effort. So we did it anyway, gratis, as a contribution to the debate because it needed to be done.

We launched the report publicly with the generous support of a crowd-funded campaign. At the time, some attention was garnered. With the advent of the South Australian Royal Commission into the nuclear fuel cycle, this seems an opportune time to draw attention to this report again.

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Prepared over about six months, the report compares two options for the replacement of coal power from Port Augusta in South Australia: a reference renewable case, based entirely on the report RePower Port Augusta, and a reference nuclear case that applies a single Enhanced CANDU 6 generation III reactor. The options are compared against thirteen criteria. For what seems such an obvious methodology, I am unaware of this approach being applied before, or since, Zero Carbon Options. It also features some wonderful graphics and production values, thanks to artist Jeff Pang and James’ talented other half, Melissa.

In the nearly three years since publication the results have never been challenged. I am not surprised, given the scrutiny we applied to our own work and the expert review from Professor Barry Brook and Mr Martin Nicholson. The issues we raised are as relevant today as in 2012, as Australia remains without any serious plan to move away from our extraordinary level of dependence on fossil fuels in our electricity supply, and so many commentators remain (deliberately?) ignorant regarding the very basic limitations of expecting to rely on variable renewable energy sources alone.

The report is available in PDF below:

ZCO Final Report 21112012

Here is the two-part video the report launch from 2012, with a discussion of the methodology and key findings. At the time of launch we had several hundred hard-copies which we distributed. Given the arrival of the Royal Commission another print-run would be great, however this is not cheap (about $1000). If anyone would like to fund a new print run, please get in touch.

I hope you enjoy Zero Carbon Options and I encourage you to share it widely.