Nuclear and renewables in the name of national interest

Australia retains one of the most coal dependent electricity supplies in the world. How can proponents of renewables and nuclear power respectively get out of our trenches and pull together for the national interest in a responsible path for decarbonisation?

Some time ago I wrote for ABC’s Environment Blog that Renewable versus nuclear is the wrong battle. With the review of Australia’s Renewable Energy Target taking up so much air time, it’s important to reflect on how far Australia has come with renewables and decarbonisation and think about where we should go next. Renewables versus nuclear may be the wrong battle, but what might the right one look like?

Much of the current commentary on the Renewable Energy Target resembles trench warfare between two fundamentally opposing sides. What we know about trench warfare is it’s a lot easier to spend all day shooting at each other if you have completely de-legitimised the opposing point of view and the evidence supporting it.

To this observer and commentator it seems that both the naysayers and boosters of renewable energy each have a lot to answer for. Continue reading

“What can I do?” I have three things for you!

One of the questions I am happiest to be asked, and I am asked it a lot, is “What can I do to help?”.

Being able to answer that efficiently and effectively is one of the reasons I started this blog over three years ago.

Upon reflection, I suggest actions pretty rarely. That’s because I don’t want to waste people’s time, I don’t want to burn people out and … I want you to respond when I do ask!

Today, I have two important actions for the Australian readers and a third for all readers. Here they are.

  1. Respond to the gazettal from the Department of Industry in relation to siting a low/intermediate level waste repository

Currently, the Federal Department of Industry has released a notification of intent to open the process of siting a low/intermediate level waste repository to a nation-wide, voluntary process. This notification is open to feedback and the feedback really does matter. So, if you support the notion of a bottom-up, voluntary process where land with clear title can be brought forward for consideration in hosting this facility then please, follow the link and say so.

As I have argued this year both in on-line print and on radio, a facility such as this is both essential and safe. That being the case, I believe a bottom-up, voluntary process is absolutely the correct way to proceed. It provides the opportunity to do this right, with realistic reflections on the need for the facility, the negligible hazard it represents and the serious opportunity is may represent for a region, without the encumbrances of real-or-perceived imposition by Government.

Please consider, Australia is a nuclear nation. We have been for the long time. We have one of the world’s most important research and medical reactors. Our inability, thus far, to licence and operate a LLW/ILW repository, something that is a non-issue in about 30+ countries is a major gap in our maturity as a nuclear nation and it must be resolved. This is a strong step in the right direction so please, tell the Department. They need it on the record. This process closes on 11 November 2014, so set some time aside and make sure you do it.

2. Respond to the Energy Green Paper

The Energy Green Paper has been released and you can make a submission. Now, the paper is not a tub-thumping march toward nuclear energy in Australia. Nor is it a total cop-out on the nuclear topic, as was the case in the work done by the previous Labor Government. There are important signals of intent in relation to the removal of arbitrary legislative barriers for uranium mining and nuclear energy, and the discussion of nuclear energy is fair and shows that the informed pro-nuclear voice has been heard.

Don’t let the opportunity pass. Make a submission that supports these directions. It’s clear, to me at least, that these potential changes are more about a desire to improve regulation across the board, and less (if at all) about unshackling nuclear for its decarbonisation potential. But the result is the same.

Please, if submitting, do so in the format that is called for, and refer directly to the questions asked by the submission tool to which you wish to respond. You don’t need to respond to every question. Your responses can be short and to the point. Often that will be preferred. Make it easy for the people at the other end. Green Paper processes are not the time for essays and dissertations; they are generally not appreciated and don’t really help. Save your energy!

This process closes on 4 November 2014 so again, set some time aside and make sure it happens.

Update: Here is an example submission. Brief, clear, to the point, and the author chose not to address every question. The author is also energy writer Martin Nicholson. Feel free to use this as an idea of how to respond. It really won’t take much time.

Example response

3. Sign up to Energy for Humanity!

Many of you will have noted the arrival on the scene of Energy for Humanity. This new organisation is the first global, civil, independent organisation for the promotion of nuclear power for environmental and humanitarian reasons. It is the product of Robert Stone (Director of Pandora’s Promise) and Kirsty Gogan (CEO) with philanthropist Daniel Aegerter. I am delighted to have been invited to join the advisory committee of the organisation, a role I have accepted.

EfH in many ways represents exactly what I would have created if I thought I could, except better than I could have done it J. It’s an organisation so many of us can support with our hearts, our time and our wallets when the need arises. I had the honour of meeting Irene and Simon Aegerter yesterday. I remarked that I feel like I have a home again. I have been in the wilderness for years since I felt no option but to withdraw my support for the ENGOs that had been with me since my early twenties. No longer. EfH puts humanity back in to the middle of environmentalism, where it belongs. It has joined the dots on how we can create and preserve the greatest possible version of both Earth and humanity, with our inextricably linked futures, in the 21st century. It is eco-modernism, taking up the climate fight with the brains and compassion that environmentalism seemed unable to muster.

So, visit and sign-up to be a part of it. A few years ago now I called for pro-nuclear to stop being an opinion and start being a movement. Energy for Humanity brings that reality within reach, let’s get on board and make it happen!

One last thing: share this page! Movements need numbers on actions, and that needs networks to pull together.



Thanks for having me Women in Nuclear, Sydney 2014

It was my absolute pleasure to join the Women in Nuclear Conference in Sydney today to join their panel discussing communication with Government and Community. For those familiar with my material, I delivered a slightly modified (less practice, more swearing) version of the presentation I delivered to the ATSE Nuclear conference in 2013. That presentation has been professionally animated and narrated and is available here.

I was delighted to be joined by Nadia Levin of ANSTO and Irene Aegerter of Energy for Humanity. I spoke third, and a better lead in I could not have asked for with two excellent presentations. Both Nadia and Irene covered themes of great relevance to my message, particularly the need for branding in the very positive sense of the word: creating a compelling vision of what nuclear technology has to offer.

[Aside: I felt a bit of a fan-boy sitting next to Irene. Founder of Women in Nuclear, physicist and now integral to Energy for Humanity, an organisation I am proud to be associated with. She’s also hilarious and delightful. I tried to play it cool for about five seconds then gave up]

There was a strong response to the presentation and some extremely gratifying feedback. This related particularly to some of the simplicity of the message: gain trust first, educate and inform later. Both your warmth and your competence matter, but use warmth before expecting competence to be of value in discussing nuclear. I give a big nod to Suzy Hobbs-Baker for bringing the warmth/competence literature to my attention, it was a valuable enhancement of this content. I was particularly moved by a question and later discussion from South African delegates. How are we supposed to talk about nuclear being better than coal when these people don’t even have electricity? It’s a very good question and I was glad to help suggest some new approaches. To paraphrase the feedback: “We have been doing this all wrong. We have been going in and talking about atoms when these people don’t even have electricity. They need to trust us and know that our priority is bringing them what they need”.

Something I believe in very strongly is that the role of young nuclear professionals as rule-breakers and game-changers for a conservative industry is huge. For young women professionals as a subset it is even more important. Nuclear is a powerfully gendered issue. Bringing forward and up our women professionals is more than gender politics: it’s of critical importance to the future of an industry that needs to build much greater community acceptance. That makes it very, very good business and the nuclear industry needs to urgently embrace and developed young professionals and especially young women.

That being the case, it was a privilege to join WiN today, a pity to leave so quickly, and I hope the beginning of great things to come. My special thanks to Jasmin Craufurd-Hill for the invitation and coordination.

Inexcusable disinterest: Fudging Australia’s per capita emissions

I have worked hard, over time, to ensure this is a non-partisan blog. By that I mean, the messages I have are for all players, and I don’t actually care who is running the country.

However it is not, and never will be, a politically disinterested blog. I care, very much, how the country is being run, no matter by whom.

I have made strident criticisms of Labor, Liberal and Green parties as and where they deserve it. I have expressed my intention to seek climate advantage from the current Government. Today however, criticism again flows to the Liberals.

Today, it has been reported that Treasurer Joe Hockey gave a scathing dismissal of a question relating to Australia as among the highest GHG emitters in the OECD. This from The Guardian

“The comment you just made is absolutely ridiculous,” the treasurer said in an interview with the BBC when it was suggested to him that Australia was among “the dirtiest, most greenhouse gas-emitting countries in the OECD group of developed countries”.

“We’ve got a small population and very large land mass and we are an exporter of energy, so that measurement is a falsehood in a sense because it does not properly reflect exactly what our economy is,” Hockey said.

“Australia is a significant exporter of energy and, in fact, when it comes to coal we produce some of the cleanest coal, if that term can be used, the cleanest coal in the world.”

The Treasurer is wrong and there is no need for nuance in saying so.

Australia’s ranking in the OECD excludes the emissions from our energy exports, in the same way that they exclude the embodied emissions in our imports from China.

If we counted that thermal coal export in our emissions… as you can see below, we export five times the energy in black coal than we consume domestically

As Australia’s Treasurer, this type of mistake can only come from inexcusable disinterest in the topic.

It may be true that those who care not at all about climate change can still build nuclear power plants and slash greenhouse gas emissions.

But it makes it a damn sight less likely.


When good men do nothing

Your regular climate, energy and nuclear programming will return shortly

I have some questions for Australia’s men.

If you were there when Jill Meagher was being dragged down an alley by Adrian Bayley toward her rape and death, would you have done something?

If you were there when Darcy Freeman was about to be dropped to her death by Arthur Freeman, her own father, from Melbourne’s Westgate Bridge in an act of twisted revenge on the child’s mother, would you have done something?

If you were there when Mayang Prasetyo was being murdered by her boyfriend Marcus Volke, who went on to dismember her remains, would you have done something?

What if you were there, in my childhood community, when the mother of two of my school mates was murdered by her partner? She was assaulted so violently she was found pinned to the mattress with a knife where she bled to death, the man having fled and driven himself to his death under the wheels of an oncoming truck. I’ll never forget the faces of the boys when they came to school, having been robbed of the most important thing in their world. Her name, ironically, was Joy.

I’m pretty sure I know the answers, for most of you, to these questions. You would have acted to stop it. Because the fact is, most Australian men are good, brave men when we are called to be. Most of us simply are not there when this is about to happen. Brendon Keilar and Dutchman, Paul de Waard, proved it on our behalf when, in 2007, they intervened to save Kara Douglas from a violent assault. It cost Keilar his life. De Waard and Douglas were maimed.

This stuff is hard to write about. I hope it’s hard to read about. The sickening fact is I could go on because at a rate of about one per week, an Australian woman loses her life to the man in her life. We men, we who are meant to be the protectors of the vulnerable and the weak, we who are meant to stand in defence, we are killing the ones who chose to trust us and the ones born into our care with stupefying regularity.

I’m not going to call it domestic violence. That simpering term serves to set this class of violence apart as somehow less serious, less the business of others. I’m with Charlie Pickering. When we say domestic violence, what we mean is men’s violence against women. To stay one step ahead of the trolls, yes, men are also subjected to domestic and sexual violence. Less than one percent of the violence experienced by men occurs in the domestic setting. For women? It’s one third. Men are predominantly impact by violence committed by, that’s right, men.

So for my regular readers I’m going to talk about men’s violence against women for the same reason I talk about nuclear power versus coal more than I do about LED light vs incandescent: we are morally and pragmatically obligated to tackle our biggest problems first and hardest, and our biggest problem here lies with men. Anyone saying differently is a coward.

Let’s also be clear, the difference between good men and bad is a matter of degree. There is a long pathway of behaviour and choices that men can explore that determine the sort of society we create and accept for our women. For every act that demeans, degrades and undermines our girls and women that some men choose to ignore, permission is implied to some other men to move to the next step. And the next. And the next. Make no mistake, at the end of that road lies violence, terror and death for our girls and women.

Society is a bell curve. We will, sadly, always have with us men who are capable of terrible acts. But how many men, how often they will act, how easily they are permitted to pass through those gateways of increasingly dangerous behaviour unchallenged, unpunished, reading our implied permission, developing a taste for, and a level of comfort with, the notion that women can be treated in these ways… that is a societal choice. It’s a choice we all need to take a damn sight more seriously.

And what about when the man himself is struggling? What about when he needs help? What about when he is not ok, when he is hurting? When he is playing out his own history of abuse in strange ways? We men need to be there for each other and our boys to offer safe, supportive outlets. These demons will not be contained, and too often their release will be directed at vulnerable people… behind closed doors… when no one else is there.

Speaking of demons, this is not the preaching of an angel. I’m a man in this society too, complete with my own shortcomings and failings. Maybe it’s something to do with raising a daughter, but I’m now choosing to live with my eyes wide open to the realities of the society we men are choosing to make, and my part in it. Open your eyes with honesty and you won’t believe the things you see.

Only so very rarely will we good men be there when violence is about to happen. So if we can’t be there?

We need to be here, at one of the many White Ribbon Day events coming up in November.

If I’m right about you, if I have read you truly, and you would step in if you were there, visit the site, find your local event and take part.

In 1867 philosopher John Stuart Mill said “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing”.

If we are the good men, then doing nothing dishonours us. It’s the choice we must stop making.

Like what you see here? Please subscribe to the blog, Like Decarbonise SA on Facebook and follow @BenThinkClimate on Twitter. Read more about the potential for nuclear power in Australia at Zero Carbon Options

Special thank you to my friends Scott and Jaz for exploring this issue with me over the last little while, and to my wife Gemma of Inkling Women who’s amazing work brings me such incredibly valuable perspective and insight on gender issues.

Let’s tell it straight: discussing a waste facility for Australia

Today I was invited to join ABC Bush Telegraph to discuss an issue of ongoing challenge for Australia: the siting of a centralised facility for low-and-intermediate level radioactive waste.

As a factual starting point, the current situation is, in technical terms, what we call a “dog’s breakfast”. This material is currently stored in over 100 sites around Australia. Most nations involved in nuclear science, medicine, engineering and energy have licensed, operating sites for this type of material. That Australia doesn’t is really not a good thing.

That’s particularly true since we now have arguably the best reactor in the world for the production of critical nuclear pharmaceuticals. Our production will expand to serve growing markets as other nations in the Asia-Pacific develop the modern medical systems that countries like Australia take for granted.

The show opens with an interview with an entirely pragmatic pastoralist, John Armstrong, who is considering applying to host the facility. He’s eloquent and well-informed; I was feeling a little redundant as I listened to him! His response to the question of health impacts (at 5.15 “…………health???”) was priceless. Voices like his have the potential to be very important in these discussions

I was joined by Peter Karamoskos. Peter is someone I would regard as a determined nuclear misinformer. I have never seen him lie, however he uses the truth in a particular way, principally to make everything sound as bad, dangerous, scary and poorly managed as he possibly can. That he also serves as the “Person to represent the interests of the general public” in the ARPANSA radiation health committee is disappointing. That role should indeed be questioning and sceptical one, but there’s a line and, in my opinion, Peter is way past it.

So, in this interview, I was pleased to challenge Peter both on points of fact, and also on process. For example, his use of terms like “trench”, “storehouse” and “shed” are used very deliberately to make Australian authorities and experts sound like lazy idiots in the way they will go about this, when they are nothing of the kind. This type of conduct, particularly from someone who knows better, needs to be called out.

When asked about the risk of the facility itself, he (perfectly factually) speaks about the possibility of migration of the radio-nuclides and the role of weathering processes, saying “wind and water are the enemy”, but never get’s around to committing to a position about the risk to the hypothetical pastoralist (e.g. John Armstrong). In that case I was happy to drive home the fact that, as Peter well knows, the material will be conditioned to vitrified (glass) and synroc (rock-like) form before being packed in robust containment and transported for interim storage in a properly engineered facility. So the risk? Fundamentally nil.

Finally, Peter speaks about the need for international best practice and a bottom-up approach to site a geological repository for final disposal of the intermediate level waste, as though he is a champion of this approach. In this case I really was pleased to ask him “What do you want???”. Peter seemed to be proposing that nothing can be done until that bottom-up process has been delivered and the final solution is established for the intermediate level waste. That serves absolutely no-one in the Australian community, except those who actually benefit from the continued perception of nuclear as being riddled with intractable problems.

Make no mistake, the Peter’s of the world don’t want solutions to nuclear challenges because then they lose their greatest fear-mongering weapon. A properly delivered bottom-up approach will take time. That’s the nature of voluntary, consultative process. That’s doesn’t diminish our need for a centralised facility in the next few years. We can use such a facility to greatly improve our management of the material while a good process is undertaken.

The supreme irony is that while we need to consolidate our legacy material into one location, the main ongoing waste stream will be from the production of high-tech medicine, the type of life-saving diagnostic pharmaceuticals and treatments that are an indispensable part of modern health care.

Peter is a representative of the Medical Association for the Prevention of War. Perhaps they should re-badge to Medical Association for the Prevention of Medicine.

Here is the link to listen to the show.

The Myth of the Myth of Baseload

A popular discussion point for the 100 % renewables set over the last three or four years, particular in Australia it seems, has been the declaration that the need for baseload power is a “myth“.

It goes something like this. We don’t actually need a system based on electricity generators that can supply electricity 24/7, 365 along with peaking plant and enough back-up for when things goes wrong (“contingency events” being the lingo). That’s baseload, and that’s so passé.

The most important thing is to have enough electricity generators with supply that is “dispatchable”, meaning the power can be sent out in response to demand. With enough different types of dispatchable supply in the mix, supply can meet demand at all times. The dispatchable supplies can be wound up or wound down to accommodate the non-dispatchable suppliers. To put that last bit in lay terms, when the wind is blowing and/or the sun is shining on PV panels, we can turn the other stuff down (or off). When the wind is not blowing and/or the sun is not shining, we can turn the other stuff up. Ergo, “baseload” is a myth.

From there, it is possible (and in some circles it seems, encouraged) to get a little conspiratorial about baseload. “Baseload” is really just a ruse to maintain centralised power generation. Consumers are lulled into providing load for electricity by cheap over-night prices.

So that’s the baseload myth. Its chief purveyor in Australia is probably Dr Mark Diesendorf of the University of New South Wales (though honourable mention goes to Prof Ian Lowe). You may have enjoyed Mark and I having a bit of argy-bargy on these matters on the recent episode of “Awaken” on NITV. It’s largely the work of Mark and his team that I will be referring to from here, from their first in a series of related papers, Simulations of scenarios with 100% renewable electricity in the Australian National Electricity Market. I’ll be saying EDM (Elliston, Diesendorf, MacGill) for short.

So… is baseload a myth? Or is the myth of baseload a myth?

I’m going to start with those key terms: “baseload” and “dispatchable”. Continue reading