Category Archives: Nuclear Power and Climate Change

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

Critiquing “Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project”

Earlier this month my friend James Brown (analyst, economist and co-author of Zero Carbon Options), drew my attention to a new report: the Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project Interim Report, Australia Chapter. The project is international, and is being run with some connection to the United Nations. This all sounds rather impressive, important and right in my area of interest. However James was concerned that some of the assumptions were peculiar. He had emailed the international project head to raise his concerns.

I took a look at the report. The closer I looked, the less comfortable I felt. While the ostensible goal is one I wholeheartedly embrace, I was concerned this report would potentially send the national conversation backward, rather than forward. I brought it to the attention of a few other parties including my friend Professor Tom Wigley. He, James and I committed to drafting a critique of the report and we got to work.

Late in the piece, a strange thing happened. While approaching some other parties for their review of the critique and potential endorsement, the draft critique was leaked to the authors of the Australia Chapter. Email communication was incoming immediately. To cut a long story short, we declined an offer of personal engagement to instead finish the draft and submit the critique as planned, which was a matter of days away. Our suggestion to the authors was that the critique should be published, along with their response, in the interests of transparency and following the example set by the IPCC.

The authors would not commit to this. They instead reserved the right to respond as they saw fit.

For that reason we have decided to publish the Interim Report and our critique here at Decarbonise SA.

We note here, as in the critique, that this is only an interim version of the report that we are commenting on and more information and a final version will be forthcoming in the near future. We note also that in the main report (as opposed to the Australia Chapter) we find much to agree with in terms of the value in developing deep decarbonisation pathways as part of a decisive response to climate change. As will be apparent in the reading, we have many and serious concerns about the Australia Chapter and we think a published written critique is the correct step. We were not, and are not, seeking explanations relating to the report. Rather, we believe reports like this should not require explaining. This distinction matters a great deal.

We don’t take the decision to critique this version lightly. A great deal of effort went into it. Nor do we take lightly the decision to publish our critique.

James, Tom and I share a conviction: achieving meaningful action on decarbonisation in a politically and economically complex world demands, as a starting point, work that is balanced, fully cognizant of the many complexities and uncertainties, and of the highest quality to underpin arguments and decision-making processes. Anything less and we are destined to repeat the past: environmentalists talking to themselves while the world heats up for another generation.

This is the Australia Chapter of Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project.


This is our critique.



The final version of the report has now been released. We have noted two changes.

1. Correction of the error relating to electricity making up two thirds of Australia’s emissions. This sentence has been eliminated

2. The contingency scenario with nuclear now has less nuclear. It has been lowered to 14 %.

There appears to be no other change of material significance whatsoever.

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

Nuclear Q&A with OETEC

This week I have been responding to a detailed series of questions from Federic Bernal, director of OETEC, one of the most prominent energy think-tanks in South America. He is gathering opinions from 30-50 international multidisciplinary commentators for compilation and publication. This effort coincides with the new nuclear reactor in Argentina beginning to provide power. It will be at full power by November, at which time I look forward to joining Kirsty Gogan, Stephen Tindale and others at a panel meeting, “Nuclear Energy, Energy Security and Climate Change”.

My answers are to be translated and published to the OETEC site soon. Here they are in English for your enjoyment! Continue reading