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 Proposed designs were variously outdated, unimaginative iterations of existing reactors.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.

logo only

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.

21C Nuclear for South Australia

Back in 2012, Barry Brook and I wrote a series of 6 accessible articles, with some great images, on various aspects of nuclear energy and how South Australia might benefit from the nuclear fuel cycle.

In light of the recent announcement of the Royal Commission, I am republishing the PDF here.

Nuclear_21C_for_Beginners_SACOM papers

It’s a great resource so please share!

A Royal Commission to investigate expansion of nuclear in South Australia

Media release from the office of the Premier, Jay Weatherill, here https://twitter.com/alpsa/status/564225203031388160/photo/1

In press conference the Premier made these highly encouraging remarks:

“The Royal Commission is traditionally used to look backwards at things that have gone wrong.

“We will use a Royal Commission in a different way”.

“It needs to be a mature debate, it will be a robust debate, but it’s a debate we believe has its time.”

“We need a clearer understanding of the nature of energy demands around the world and indeed in this country.

“We also need to ensure that this debate is carried out in a way that understands the potential economic benefits for our state and our nation.

“Most of all we want SA to explore this issue in a way that allows them to grapple with the practical, ethical and financial considerations involved”.

http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/sa-announces-royal-commission-into-nuclear-power/story-fni6uo1m-1227211998976

This is great news and I look forward to following this exciting development.

To think people said Australia can’t change on nuclear…

Mr Weatherill said in the past he had been opposed to nuclear but “I now have an open mind about these issues.

Welcome to 2015… the year dispatchable electricity became redundant???

Hello! I took a long, much needed break for Christmas and New Year and I’m back, refreshed and ready to go for 2015.

It’s going to be another huge year for nuclear. I think I have said that for the last two years in a row, and each time I have been right! We live in exciting times, and the efforts of a lot of hardworking and talented people worldwide are yielding much needed change in the nexus of energy, climate and nuclear technology. For what I think is an outstanding wrap-up of the state of eco-play, do take in this summary piece from The Breakthrough Institute.

The new thing for me this year is I can already see nearly the whole year in advance! I have so many exciting commitments and some big upcoming events that it seems 2015 is already full! Now, that’s not quite true of course but it’s full enough that it will be big stuff indeed that gets a seat at my table this year, and the word “no” will be my new friend. Dial back to my beginnings in around 2011 and I was hard at work drumming up opportunities to bring the nuclear message. That situation has inverted and I could not be happier. This change in fortunes speaks of both serious changes in the social and cultural environment around nuclear in Australia and also the in-roads my work has made over a period of years. For that latter number in particular I have you, my readers, to thank. You share my work and the regular feedback I get behind the scenes does wonders for morale and energy!!!

My first peer-reviewed publication should see press in a matter of weeks, and I intend to back that up with two further publications this year as part of my thesis under the watchful, expert and (let’s face it) occasionally smug guidance of my supervisory team of Conservation Bytes and Brave New Climate. I’m honoured to add to that team Professor Tom Wigley, with whom I co-authored a critique last year (along with James Brown) of the Australian chapter of the Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project. Tom and I will be picking up where we left off there with some original work to bring what we feel is some much-needed improvements to that concept. That’s a dream-team of supervisors and I am honoured to have them in my corner. I have great research in development, and I’m gagging to get my teeth back in and bring them to print.

I am pleased to have accepted a position on the Public Advisory Panel for the siting of Australia’s low and intermediate level radioactive waste repository. Run through the Department of Industry, the panel will be meeting approximately monthly for the next year or so. I am really heartened by what I have seen so far vis-à-vis the intent of the Department to take a different and very positive and pro-active approach to this process. That I have the opportunity to contribute ongoing is an honour.

I will likely be out of the country with exciting nuclear commitments twice in the first quarter of the year (more details on that as I am able), I look forward to assisting my friends at Energy for Humanity as they advance their own exciting agenda, and I will be assisting several other parties who are doing what they can to advance a sensible discussion of climate change and energy for Australia. Yep, a big year and I can’t wait.

If I had to forecast I would say you can expect fewer posts from me this year, but hopefully they will be high quality and impactful when they come. For a great nuclear fix, get stuck in to The Actinide Age and Nuclear Layperson: two of the better new nuclear blogs that are really hitting their stride. In the meantime, here’s a little something that got my goat…

Late last year, Barry Brook and Corey Bradshaw co-authored an outstanding paper that presents the broader eco-case for nuclear energy. The upshot of the findings is this: in an energy-hungry world of what will soon be ten billion people, energy planners need to start presenting a much expanded role for nuclear energy in scenarios of potential energy mix. That’s if we care about biodiversity, that is. To protect and preserve the most habitat, we need to both use more energy (to intensify activities like agriculture for example), and to use energy that takes up the least space. That’s nuclear, most especially advanced nuclear. The paper was so impressive that 75 leading conservation scientists from around a dozen nations signed an open letter in support of the general conclusions.

I was able to get my hands on some of the “expert response” provided to media. Here’s some of what Professor Mark Diesendorf, of the University of New South Wales, had to say:

“In promoting a ‘key role’ for nuclear energy, Brook and Bradshaw claim to have performed an ‘objective’ analysis of seven electricity generation technologies according to seven criteria. However, their choice of criteria, their values and weightings are all subjective and biased. For instance, they chose dispatchability [the ability to adjust power output on demand] as one criterion, thus disadvantaging wind and solar PV. But, that criterion is redundant…

Firstly, Brook and Bradshaw do, indeed, use dispatchability as a criterion. That will, indeed, work against the rating of technologies like wind and solar PV. But is this decision “subjective and biased”? This inference is quite the double-standard from Diesendorf. His mini-canon of papers on this subject are predicated on the up-front exclusion of nuclear power in the design and modelling of a low-carbon energy system, before any modelling, assessment or weighting is even undertaken. Brook and Bradshaw do no such thing: the low-carbon technologies or wind and solar PV are included for due consideration across the same criteria as all others.

Diesendorf says the inclusion of dispatchability is a mistake and that this criterion is “redundant”(meaning, to be quite clear, not or no longer needed; superfluous).

As the great Saganism goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. So what is the evidence? Diesendorf cites two studies: his own, and work from the Australian Energy Market Operator. I happen to like the papers by Elliston, Diesendorf and MacGill, in that I think they are good, useful contributions and they are well-written. What I really dislike is that Diesendorf in particular leverages the results in ways that are completely out of proportion to the findings themselves. In this case, he says:

because hourly computer simulations of the Australian National Electricity Market with 100% renewable energy, by separate teams at UNSW and the Australian Energy Market, show that combinations of several variable and dispatchable renewable energy technologies can be just as reliable as the existing polluting system.

Mark, I’m going to have to stop you right there because you seem to have contradicted yourself in the space of a single sentence. The evidence cited appears to suggest that a combination of both variable and dispatchable sources was required to deliver a satisfactory result in both studies. So… redundant? It would seem not.

Maybe if the dispatchable sources were bit-players in the modelled systems this would strengthen the case. Are they? Let’s check Diesendorf’s own study.

This passage is from page 609 of his 2011 paper Simulations of scenarios with 100% renewable electricity in the Australian National Electricity Market, published Energy Policy 45 , 606-613.:

4.6. Generation mix summary

The generators in the baseline scenario, including their location and capacity, are summarised in the list below. The generators are dispatched in this order:

(1) Wind: existing wind farm output scaled to 23.2GW

(2) PV (14.6GW total):

(3) CST (2.6GW per site, 15.6GW total):

(4) Pumped storage hydro (2.2 GW)

(5) Hydro without pumped storage (4.9 GW)

(6) Gas turbines, biofuelled (24.0 GW)

In the above generation mix, gas turbines, pumped storage hydro and hydro without pumped storage are dispatchable power sources. Concentrating solar thermal (CST) in this study has “15 full-load hours of thermal energy storage” making them also dispatchable for the most part.

Of the 84.5 GW total installed capacity to make the system work, 46.7 GW are dispatchable. Fifty-five percent of the available capacity. In a previous piece, I have outlined just how dependent the system is on these sources.

On the basis of Diesendorf’s own work, I would say dispatchability is about as redundant to reliable electricity supply as oxygen is to reliable cellular respiration. Which is to say, not redundant at all. Meaning this expert response falls utterly flat, having tripped over subjectivity and bias of the sort that leads to fatal over-reaching. The work of Brook and Bradshaw stands with no solid response.

Troublingly, some in the academic and environmental community pig-headedly stand in opposition to robust science that may point us in the direction of the most sustainable, most biodiverse planet we can achieve come 2050 as our 10 billion fellow humans seek to meet their needs and fulfill their aspirations.

We deserve better than that.

“Dear Giles…” A letter to the editor of RenewEconomy

Dear Giles,

Some friends brought to my attention that a recent article at Reneweconomy provided, shall we say, a rather creative review of my presentation to the Brisbane Global Cafe on November 12, 2014 at Brisbane City Hall (Memo Coalition: If you want to talk nuclear, talk about its costs)

What really delighted me about your piece is how familiar it is. I have experienced this kind of criticism before. It’s craven, lilly-livered, sniping, over-worked and under-cooked. I know exactly where it comes from. It comes from people who, despite every determined effort and expectation to the contrary, found themselves compelled by an argument in opposition to their own. No sooner have the clanging alarm bells of cognitive dissonance subsided than the pant-damaging realisation sets in that if you found it compelling… imagine what the audience thought.

Oh no…oh no…whatever will I do now? I know… I’ll attack the person. I’ll spin them and their message so hard and so fast that my audience will come to associate him and his name with everything they hate. I’ll contest his contentions with my own Ouroboros of references that are to peer-reviewed literature what cow dung is to caviar. That’ll do the trick.

Well Giles, perhaps it will but on this I’m sure we can agree: it’s a lot harder to pull off when the cameras are running and I am wearing personal voice recorders now, isn’t it?

So let’s revisit your article and compare the assertions with the footage. You said:

In a recent presentation to the Peabody Coal-sponsored energy seminar in the lead up to the G20 meeting in Brisbane, for instance, nuclear cheerleader Ben Heard blamed everyone from lefties to greenies for the current state of the nuclear industry.

Goodness me… did I? Perhaps I dozed-off during my own boring presentation but… I didn’t actually provide any commentary whatsoever on the fate, fortunes or current state of the nuclear industry. I had 15-20 minutes to speak to about 200 guests from around the world and… no, just reviewing my scripts, not a cracker on this topic.

Perhaps you mean question time? Just checking the voice file…no. Sorry, no questions on that topic, and no discussion. What are you talking about? Were you thinking of this article perhaps? You better believe I sheet home some serious responsibility to the environmental movement. But it wasn’t mentioned in this session.

On that topic of responsibility, I like the way you linked me to session sponsor Peabody Coal. I saw what you did there!

I was the guest of event organisers Brisbane Marketing. I didn’t know who was sponsoring this or any other session and nor did I care. The first I knew of Peabody Coal in this event was when I ferreted through my showbag in the hotel room the night before to find their malodorous marketing material.

The fact is I don’t give a monkey’s whether it’s Peabody Coal, Anglo Coal or Old King Cole sponsoring an event. I say what I want to say because I represent myself. So, what did I have to say about coal on this day? Check in at 2 m 20 s.

At 820 g per kWh, we will be spending this week enjoying our time with one of the dirtiest electricity supplies in the world…This brown coal power station is responsible for 19 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year… In the fight against climate change, places like Loy Yang are ground zero. If we aren’t succeeding in driving plants like that out of our economies, we aren’t succeeding at all… we can see the machines simply raking away strip after strip of land. Never to grow trees, never to grow food, never to host biodiverisity. Just sacrificed in our addiction to coal.

Did you see the Peabody execs fist-pumping at that bit? No? Me neither. Funny, I don’t know about you but I did not score an invite to to the Peabody-sponsored lunch after the session… do you think it was something I said?

But back to what you said:

Heard, meanwhile, did the usual pro-nuclear thing of attacking renewables – criticising their “intermittency” a disingenuous meme we hear often in the government and conservative commentariat.

Wha… the Government and conservative commentariat? The last public thing I had to say about the Government was this piece chastising Treasurer Joe Hockey for not understanding our greenhouse accounts. In an earlier piece I criticised the climate policies of the Coalition, Labor and Greens all at once.

As to attacking renewables… did I? That would be a little bit split-personality of me since in two recent and highly viewed pieces I have argued for policy that would all-but-ensure renewables meet 20-30 % of Australia’s electricity requirements.

No, what I did was point out accurate and relevant limitations to what renewable technologies can deliver us in the face of the epic scale of the challenges we face. “Intermittency” is not a conservative political value, it’s an operational reality.

Heard, for instance, argued that wind farms take up too much space – omitting to note that the land can and is used for grazing, crops and other farming activities.

Did I? Have a look from 9 m.

We can look at the size it takes to provide 1320 MW of wind power. It’s 13 kilometres squared of the best windy territory.

This is correct. I didn’t talk about other land use because I wasn’t talking about land use! I was illustrating an issue about energy density and the area required to provide 1320 MW peak wind power. Sure, use the land in the middle for grazing, crops and other farming activities. It still takes that much room in prime wind country to provide that much peak wind power and that’s a real concern when people argue for 100 % renewables. What else did I say, that you omitted to report? 9 m 40 s

I’m a supporter of renewable energy. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. Am I prepared to bet the climate on it? No. Am I prepared to bet the provision of reliable electricity for those who need it, on it? No. No I’m not.

That’s the divider. I’m behind renewables without being so myopic as to imagine they will do it all, with lives of the global poor as my chips on the casino table.

Meanwhile the “pot shot” I took at Ivanpah is a simple and troubling fact and one you acknowledge in your own circular referencing: they, the proponents of the project, do not control the weather. What did I actually say? 10 m 25 s

That is the risk in building a 100 % renewable energy system based on climatic systems.

If you have a few of these systems it doesn’t matter much. It’s a low level of penetration, so a crap year of output hurts the investors, primarily. The existing system reserves can deliver when the renewables fail. Like for South Australia’s successful integration into the NEM of wind. It has piggy-backed on the robustness of the existing system which, I might add, is quite ok by me. The issue here is the notion of 100 % renewables based on climatic variables. That’s an entirely different proposition that you seek to downplay or simply ignore. It’s a challenge that former US Energy Secretary Steven Chu was quite clear about this week in Canberra for the launch of the World Energy Outlook (see my Twitter feed from the day). Was he taking “pot shots” too?

You then seek to use the example of Hinkley to big-up the cost challenge of nuclear.

Mate, I beat you to it. No sooner were the costs announced than I criticised it as too expensive to get the job done on a global scale, a piece that was then republished and widely read. In it I concluded:

Nuclear power is clean. It’s safe. It’s efficient. It can make a big difference, fast. Waste can be managed until we use it as fuel, and fear of radiation can be defused. It is, as I have said, great value. What advocates cannot do is make it cheaper than fossil fuels when it isn’t, in a world with weak consensus on climate change action and lackluster energy planning.

We need to keep working for that climate consensus, for sensible long-term policy to support massive clean energy and to overcome the ill-conceived objections to nuclear. At the same time we urgently need a stronger and more visible vision and plan for better nuclear prices and faster roll out, and this needs to come from the industry.

Is that the conduct of a nuclear cheerleader? According to you “what they – and the pro-nuclear advocates – never mention is cost”. I mention cost all the time. Like in this article with Barry Brook. Cost is a real issue for nuclear. It’s not some fairy tale of the rusted-on anti-nuke. It’s real and it’s something I want to see people talk about more, not less, provided the discussion is well informed and in context of our options.

That the cost-problem is the same, but much worse, for dispatchable renewable technologies is why we called for a technology-neutral policy to reward firm capacity from zero-carbon sources in a competitive way. If nuclear loses that fight, fine, I really don’t care. What I care about is decarbonisation.

So Giles, please work harder. This type of writing is garbage. You deliberately and blatantly misrepresented me and the session and, in so doing, kept your loyal readership in the dark.

If nothing else mate, a tip: next time check for cameras?

Kind regards,

Ben Heard; Director: ThinkClimate Consulting; Doctoral candidate, University of Adelaide; blogger and commentator through DecarboniseSA