Responding to George Monbiot’s attack on Ecomodernists

When my favourite thinkers publicly disagree with one another I regard it as a sign of a progressing debate.

I was not surprised that George Monbiot chose to speak against Ecomodernism. I have been reading his work for ten years or more. However the tone and substance of the critique left me not merely surprised but dismayed.

I expressed as much via Twitter, and George asked “what exactly did I get wrong?”. I offered to write him my thoughts and promptly did so.

I received no response; in itself no problem at all. However I was further let down when the same post subsequently re-ran at his own blog, now labeling the Ecomodernists “brutal”.

Thus I have decided to publish a modified version of my correspondence. I am glad some of the authors have already pushed back  on the evidence. As someone who knows several of the authors I am glad to further respond to an attack that was ill-formed and counter-productive.

What exactly did you get wrong, you asked? Very little in point of fact from what I know. It’s not factual grievances; it’s the lenses applied and your characterisation of the authors and the effort that I take issue with. Continue reading

South Australia with Nuclear and Worlds Without

Here is a quick post to update you on some recent work of mine.

I am thrilled that the office of Senator Sean Edwards has prepared a professionally designed version of our submission to the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission.

The document is complete with a brand new forward from the Senator himself, outlining how the process came to this point and how nuclear fits into his view for a new, dynamic and prosperous South Australia.

Submission cover

It’s a great looking document so please, download here and share away! Let’s build a worldwide buzz that South Australia can’t ignore. We are not joking about this: our placement in Asia at this time, our suite of advantages, really does mean South Australia could become a hub of nuclear progress.

On that global topic I recently returned from the World Nuclear Association 2015 Symposium in London. While there I delivered an updated version of my presentation World’s Without Nuclear: A review of the 100 % renewable literature. This has been work in development for some time now, rudely interrupted by a Royal Commission. In this updated slide deck you will see some additional scenarios have been captured, a version of scoring is applied and there is some additional comparative discussion of hydroelectricity vs nuclear power in the context of South America. I am hopeful that a video of the presentation will be available soon, however there is a detailed write-up of my presentation here.

The presentation was well-received, with many complimentary discussions that followed. I think that in particular the audience found the hyrdo realities to be something that had not really been considered before. I used the language of decoupling, freely piggy-backing on the recent Nature Unbound report from The Breakthrough Institute.

Four Amazonian tribes have united in protest over the Teles Pires hydroelectric dam. Where is the western activist voice on this issue. Silent it seems; probably ignorant.

Four Amazonian tribes have united in protest over the Teles Pires hydroelectric dam. Where is the western activist voice on this issue? Silent it seems; probably ignorant.

The next step is to work with my supervisors to bring this research to the literature as a paper.

My hope is that stakeholders like me and presentations like this will help the actual nuclear industry to continue to appreciate their vital role and stimulate more action as a result. I want a more externally competitive, internally collaborative nuclear industry that goes about aggressively taking market share, driven not only by economic rewards, but by a firm foundation understanding that every nuclear plant we build is coal unburned, forest unflooded, wilderness uninterrupted, land unploughed as we seek to bring energy to 10 billion people.

It’s a long road however I am pleased to report that the sentiment at this symposium was the best I have felt to date. A big hat-tip to the leadership of Agneta Rising of WNA, whose theme for the closing gala was “harmony”.

Thanks as ever for the ongoing support. We have achieved much, with much in front of us. Onwards!

The Adelaide Show podcast, coming tonight!

Last night I had a blast with Steve and Nigel from The Adelaide Showa long-running local podcast.

We chatted about climate change and a little bit of my journey on that subject, before I blew their minds with some of the possibilities of nuclear energy in South Australia.

I did the Is that news? quiz, where Steve and I had to guess the fake nuclear-themed news story from Australian history, sat on the Visa Council, where we decide whether someone can come to Adelaide or not based on a disparaging tweet, and helped polish off the Drink of the Week, a 2010 Gramps shiraz from the Barossa.

Here is a promo video, the podcast goes out tonight, listen in and share widely!

How long does it take to build a nuclear plant? Another look at The Australia Institute

The submission by The Australia Institute (TAI) to the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission includes discussion of time taken to build nuclear power plants. The mean time shown is 9.4 years. The conclusions drawn by TAI are:

“If Australia begins to develop a nuclear power industry, build times are likely to be long enough that renewables and storage will be well established long before completion, invalidating any realistic business case which is, if European nuclear power profitability and current levelised cost of energy is any guide, already tenuous”.

This analysis is flawed. The given mean, 9.4 years, is mathematically correct based on the data shown. However TAI have not interrogated and analysed the data adequately in order to provide a robust conclusion about potential nuclear build time for Australia.

The data set for this finding is shown by TAI in Table 1 on page 8 of the submission. I have reproduced it here.

Country Units Mean time Min. time Max. time










South Korea








































Useful research needs to clearly define the question under investigation and then both interrogate and analyse the available data set. Let’s assume the question here is “How long does it take to build nuclear reactors?” in the context of informing discussion in South Australia.

In this data set covering 40 reactor builds in nine nations there are six obvious outliers at the high end with builds of 24-years or greater. There is a gap of 13 years build time between the lowest of these outliers and the next longest reactor build (11.2 years). These outliers will skew the mean to the high end.

What should be done with them? They could be excluded. Given (a) the gap between the outliers and the rest of the data set (b) that they are relatively small in number and (c) three of the data points are the only build in a given nation, exclusion seems reasonable prima facie.

It would be better to interrogate the outliers, understand what caused them, and either exclude on a clear justification or attempt to correct the data for any identified confounding factors.

What are confounding factors? Borrowing a definition from epidemiology:

“Factors that can cause or prevent the outcome of interest, are not intermediate variables, and are not associated with the factor(s) under investigation. They give rise to situations in which the effects of two processes are not separated, or the contribution of causal factors cannot be separated, or the measure of the effect of exposure or risk is distorted because of its association with other factors influencing the outcome of the study“.

In this data, understanding the outcome of interest (nuclear build time) from the available data may well be confounded by factors that have nothing to do with nuclear build time (i.e. not associated with the factors under investigation). Could that be the case in this data? Let’s look at the outliers.

  • Argentina: Like many economies in South America, Argentina has experienced repeated economic and social upheaval. I discuss this example further below
  • Romania: Romania was part of the Warsaw Pact, under dictatorial rule for over forty years, which ended in violent revolution in 1989,
  • Iran: No comment required. Including Iranian nuclear build in this dataset without question is clearly untenable.
  • Russia: The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 was probably the greatest social, political and economic upheaval of the second half of the 20th century

In all of the outliers, the metric of build time, measured from start of construction to end, has been grossly confounded by social, political and economic upheaval. These data points tell us very little about nuclear build time. They may tell us something about the impact of such upheaval on large infrastructure projects. It would be an interesting question to examine, separately.

One might try to correct this data for the confounding factors. One way might be by specifically measuring time in active construction as opposed to calendar time between start and finish. Take the Kirchner reactor in Argentina (Atucha 2). It was not a 33 year build as suggested by the data used by TAI. It started in 1981, in the last days of a military dictatorship. It proceeded slowly due to lack of funds until 1994 when it was suspended. The Argentine economy collapsed in default in 2001, began recovery a few years later and has been quite strong since then. Atucha 2 was revisited in 2006 as part of a strategic plan for the nuclear sector in Argentina, and reached full power in February 2015.

So, with all that interesting history one could attempt to apply a corrected figure for Atucha 2 and the other outliers. However for the sake of simplicity I will exclude these data points as too confounded to inform the question being asked. When these six data points (of 40) are excluded, the mean drops from 9.3 years to 5.8 years, a 3.5 year difference. With those exclusions and the relevant justification, the data set now appears to me to be more informative and representative of the potential Australian situation: a stable nation that may embark on a nuclear build program.

No one could seriously contend that a mean time of 5.8 years works against the argument for nuclear as a deployable source of clean energy. This is particularly true when considering the quantity and reliability of that supply.

In a metric pioneered by Geoff Russell and further developed at The Breakthrough Institute, nuclear has been decisively shown to be the fastest pathway to adding new energy anywhere, ever. For example South Australia’s wind sector (which I support) has incrementally (but, by most observations, quite aggressively) developed over a 12-year period to now provide a variable supply of about 3,000 GWh per annum. A single CANDU reactor would deliver about 5,500 GWh per year in a reliable, dispatchable form. They may deploy differently however one cannot form a “time to deploy” argument against nuclear without forming the same argument against wind.

In coming years there will be more data. Most of the builds coming from China and South Korea will pull that mean down. The current builds in Europe will pull it up. The current builds in the US will hover around the current 5.8 year mean.

The build program of the UAE will pull the mean down and that’s interesting for Australia. That is a new nuclear nation, not an established nuclear nation, delivering outcomes among the best in the world.

All of this information provides important guidance for Australia, provided we look not only at the numbers but also behind them.

Numbers are useful and they can also be misused. The role of the researcher and analyst in nuclear remains a crucial one. TAI need to apply more rigour to be taken seriously in this space.

What Stephen Chu actually said.

I have been flicking through submissions to the South Australian Royal Commissions, and the submisison from The Australia Institute jumped out

 P181 SA nuclear royal commission submission FINAL_0 (2) 

The submission references a page on this site. It also goes to quite some effort to sow doubt regarding the themes of the submission from the office of Senator Sean Edwards, a submission I was chiefly tasked with preparing.

The argument posited, mainly via rhetorical questions, is a neat little circle that goes something like this:

  • If the market for used fuel storage is real then recycling the material for energy isn’t.
  • If the recycling technology is real, then the market for used fuel storage isn’t.

Here are their words:

However, despite being based on technology piloted decades ago, at commercial scales these reactors are still at the concept stage, and no fourth generation power plants yet exist (from page 9)…Additionally, the same fourth generation technology that Australia might hope to build which turns spent fuel into a resource would invalidate any business case for high-level waste storage. If Australia can profit from waste by generating electricity, why can’t everyone else? If reprocessing can be profitable, wouldn’t it be more profitable if sited next to existing stockpiles and existing reactors? If waste can be profitably turned into electricity, as fourth generation reactors appear able to do, why would anyone pay us to take their waste? (from page 13)

As a doctoral student working under three highly-published scientific supervisors, I don’t write in questions. As a researcher, my job is to seek understanding and provide answers based on evidence; a standard I took to the work with Senator Edwards. What this passage says to me is that The Australia Institute doesn’t want answers; questions will be just fine.

In attempting to discredit the readiness and safety of used fuel storage, the submission quotes Stephen Chu, former Secretary of Energy to the United States government. Under a section headed “Technical problems of nuclear waste storage” this quote regarding Chu appears:

In 2009 Steven Chu, then US Secretary for Energy, said, “Yucca Mountain as a repository is off the table. What we’re going to be doing is saying, let’s step back. We realize that we know a lot more today than we did 25 or 30 years ago.

If you think that ends abruptly, well, so did I. So I did this really clever thing I learned from my times arguing with climate change deniers.

I read the source.

Here is the quote in full:

Steven ChuYucca Mountain as a repository is off the table. What we’re going to be doing is saying, let’s step back. We realize that we know a lot more today than we did 25 or 30 years ago. The NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] is saying that the dry cask storage at current sites would be safe for many decades, so that gives us time to figure out what we should do for a long-term strategy. We will be assembling a blue-ribbon panel to look at the issue.

[We’re] looking at reactors that have a high-energy neutron spectrum that can actually allow you to burn down the long-lived actinide waste. [Editor’s note: Actinides include plutonium, which can be dangerous for 100,000 years.] These are fast neutron reactors. There’s others: a resurgence of hybrid solutions of fusion fission where the fusion would impart not only energy, but again creates high-energy neutrons that can burn down the long-lived actinides.

This practice by The Australia Institute is called cherry-picking. The quote from Chu is not only desperately incomplete, but contradicts the positions put forward by The Australia Institute and supports the positions put forward by Senator Sean Edwards. That is, that dry-cask storage has proven remarkably safe, will be an effective solution into the future and the use of fast-neutron reactors is under active consideration.

The Australia Institute’s motto is “research that matters” and their philosophy includes “through a combination of research and creativity we can promote new solutions and ways of thinking”.
Sounds nice. My suggestion would be that the “creativity” comes after the research. Not during.

Where we can spare land, we must. A response to Ramez Naam

Earlier this year author Ramez Naam took me to task for what he calls a lack of context in a piece I wrote comparing the land footprint of solar thermal with that of small modular nuclear.

It’s an interesting discussion. He’s not arguing with my numbers. I’m not arguing with his. Both of us support deployment of nuclear and renewable technologies.

The disagreement appears to be based on whether the land use issue for solar is even an issue.

The context knife cuts both ways on that one.

Naam puts the land use required for a solar United States in the context of the area of the whole United States, coming to a figure of 0.6 %.

This figure is low because Naam uses (as did I) average electricity output per unit land for a system with no storage. It was suitable for my comparison of one facility with another. It is not suitable in a comparison of powering the entire US. In that case, average output and no storage is irrelevant. The worst possible period of output will govern the size and economics of the solar thermal requirements. As Naam says he doesn’t believe 100 % solar is going to happen. Nonetheless, it pays to understand this as many commentators expect a big role from solar with storage.

In the same article, Naam reminds the reader that agriculture roughly uses 30 % of the land of the United States, the built environment is using 166 % of the area that would be required for solar and coal mines are using about the same area as would be required for solar (an interesting quantification, to be sure, which I won’t dispute). National defence areas are raised as another example, and one could go on and on.

There is a serious flaw in this reasoning.

The point was never that the world is literally too small for solar. The point was that land is scarce in the economic definition of the word: it is subject to many competing uses and demands and it must be allocated efficiently. The use that most often gets shafted in our human civilisation is biodiversity. Put another way, we get amazing biodiversity outcomes when we make land near-valueless to humans for anything else. For example Naam highlights disused farm land in the US to assert that the size required for solar is relatively small. The interesting question, surely, is what should we do with this disused land? Give it over to energy production of some form like energy cropping? I would hope not. I would hope it might be returned to habitat as has been the case for New England forests.

Lurching from one land-intensive energy supply to another does not further the land-sparing outcome. The way coal consumes country is horrible as I pointed out in this video. Naam asserts that solar uses the same amount of space, with lesser disturbance. I regard that as faint praise.

Solar thermal won’t work on just any old land. Naam acknowledges that the efficiencies of the system matter. A first-order consideration for economic output from solar is the right area with the best solar resource.

That’s why Ivanpah is in the Mojave Desert, where it displaced an endangered species, not on disused farmland in the eastern United States. Naam’s quantification that a solar USA would require half the Mojave is getting closer to the point. That’s also the reasons why it is on a flat area, not the mountainous Mojave terrain which is much of the terrain. Again, the suitable area is constrained and the relative pressure rises for scarce space.

Pointing out the other (often destructive) ways humans have used land, and the amazing scale of this use, is an argument for constraining our footprint in everything we do from here: agriculture, human habitat and energy to name the big three. Leveraging it to say “therefore this impact doesn’t matter”, well… that’s the sort of corporate, environmental impact assessment logic which time and time again drives the death of a thousand cuts of one area after the next. When an option for massively smaller disturbance is available, as there is in the comparison of nuclear with solar thermal, we should take it. To assert the difference doesn’t matter is a blind spot.