Category Archives: Nuclear Power and Climate Change

Optus nuclear? Conservation Council needs expert reviewers

This week, the Conservation Council of South Australia released a report purporting to provide a road map for 100 % renewable energy in South Australia, achievable in the next 15 years. Here is the summary (version 15 June 8.36 pm).

100-percent-Renewables-for-SA-summary-report

This version of the report is also available here.

As far as the key message goes I’m both interested and nonplussed. As a relatively small part of a vastly larger grid, I find this a barely-relevant pursuit; possibly feasible with sufficient expense and government fiat.  As recently published in Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, we said:

In electricity terms, South Australia is not, in normal circumstances, an island. The
current and future success of integrating variable renewable energy in South Australia
hinges on the reliability provided by the rest of the NEM network. In that context,
pursuing high penetrations of variable renewables in South Australia, as an end itself,
becomes a parochial pursuit more so than a meaningful contribution to decarbonising the National Electricity Market.

I will leave it to my energy-literate readers to offer further critique on this plan.

However this summary report did not limit itself to a positive renewable story for South Australia. It dedicated some space to attacking nuclear energy technologies. I was stunned by the reference to Optus. See the image below, taken from page 10 of the summary report.

Optus

A mistake is not beyond anyone, including me. The Conservation Council is perfectly entitled to make mistakes and it’s not my intention to poke fun.

However, these are serious matters and CCSA is prosecuting these arguments in a serious way. Given a full paragraph of unrelated material made print, I feel entitled to ask: how carefully was this material reviewed for anything prior to publication?

If the Conservation Council of South Australia is publishing nuclear “myth-busting” with reference to Optus, I posit that no one within the organisation is reviewing the veracity or robustness of the “nuclear energy myths” themselves. This may well be because, quite reasonably, no one within the organisation is sufficiently knowledgable to pick a fact from a furphy on these issues.

Take, for example, the last “myth” on this image: “NUCLEAR WEAPONS CANNOT BE MADE FROM THE INTEGRAL FAST REACTOR”.

The headline is an entirely correct statement. Nuclear weapons cannot be made from the integral fast reactor.

I had to deal with this, on the spot, in front of about 60 people yesterday, with Dr Mark Diesendorf, lead author of this work for the Conservation Council, telling an audience that the IFR increased proliferation risk. Yet the text above clearly states that, no matter what, a chemical reprocessing facility, which is nothing whatsoever to do with an IFR, is required to do any meaningful separation of plutonium. So if you don’t build a chemical reprocessing facility… what then? Are we to suppose that material from an IFR hot-cell in South Australia is first processed, then diverted, sent away on a ship to France to a facility that already exists and operates to undertake this process and the world is somehow more dangerous because of the IFR? Given that an IFR is designed around the permanent elimination of long-lived nuclear materials, the whole thing is patently absurd fearmongering.

As I said in panel yesterday, the South Australian community needs to reach a consensus position on nuclear. For that they need basically agreed information on the table for consideration.

So I am glad of the Royal Commission, because it will be hard to move to serious and intelligent discussions when far-reaching NGOs issue publications on contentious topics without seeking adequate review.

South Australia deserves better. Fortunately, there is plenty of time left for CCSA to take a more responsible approach, and there are plenty of people who would be willing to help.

Nuclear events in Adelaide next week

For my local readers, I would like to draw attention to two nuclear events in Adelaide next week.

Firstly, CRC CARE have put together a full-day workshop at the Adelaide Hilton. This is an excellent program of speakers across industry and academia covering a broad range of topics. The day will conclude with a panel discussion (which has the potential to be pretty feisty) and closing remarks from South Australian Senator Sean Edwards. For such an excellent full-day program the event is very well-priced at $300 and now every ticket purchased earns another full-priced ticket, so it’s effectively $150 per head. For those in business, industry and government looking for a day of professional development on what is the hottest political, economic and environmental discussion in South Australia this year, you could not do better than this. The event is being held on Tuesday 16 June in Adelaide. I will be a presenter and panellist.

Secondly, for those who would like to hear my up-to-the-minute thoughts on the nuclear opportunity for South Australia, I will be addressing the Young Energy Professionals of the Australian Institute of Energy South Australian Branch on Thursday 18 June from 12 pm. At $35 for non-members this is great value, and as it is called “lunch and learn” I think you can expect some food J.

I hope to see you there. It’s always great to meet readers for the first time so be sure to say hi if you can.

Beyond wind: furthering development of clean energy in South Australia

It is with pleasure that I introduce my first peer reviewed publication, Beyond wind: furthering development of clean energy in South Australia, co-authored by Professor Corey Bradshaw (University of Adelaide) and Professor Barry Brook (University of Tasmania).

Beyond wind: furthering clean energy developments in South Australia

Long-time readers will see that this analytic essay brings together many of the threads I have explored here at Decarbonise SA over the last several years. It was wonderful to be able to do this under such expert supervision and in the stricture of the peer-review process. I am also appreciative that the editors showed real enthusiasm for what was a fairly lengthy manuscript. It’s an excellent fit as part of a Climate Change Special Edition of this South Australian journal.

I believe the paper provides an excellent resource for understanding how variable energy supplies from one region interact with much larger grids. I hope this paper will further important discussions regarding the likely economic limit of variable renewable supplies, to enable us to get on with the essential thinking and planning beyond wind (and PV), the two variable renewable electricity technologies that have achieved acceptance, notable penetration and declining costs.

We explored the fortunes of non-variable (or, at least, less variable and partly dispatchable) supply from carbon capture and storage, solar thermal with storage and geothermal energy. No amount of sugar coating can hide the truth here. These technologies have not delivered on cost and scale and the prospects are poor. All renewables are not created equal and this paper provides a valuable review of the status of these technologies.

We turned to nuclear technologies as an established and mature technology and explored the global experience, good and bad. Despite the relative global success story, political and economic barriers remain to deployment in South Australia, particularly in light of a weakening climate change policy environment. So we posit a model of self-funded development of integral fast reactors, paired with multinational spent fuel storage, as a political and economic circuit breaker that might propel South Australia to leadership and prosperity, while completing the task of electricity decarbonisation. This concept is gaining some currency including through the vocal advocacy of Senator Sean Edwards, so I am pleased to have the academic origins established in this paper.

Thanks as ever for the ongoing support I receive through this blog and other channels. Enjoy the paper!

Unchained activism diminishes our public discourse: A response to Helen Caldicott

It has been said that people have a right to their own opinions but not their own facts.

Maybe, but in the range of topics that draw disagreement in the healthy public discourse of a modern democracy, it’s not always simple for people to know what is a fact and what is not.

We cannot all be experts in everything. However we can become familiar with the tell-tale signs of false-expertise.

Such familiarity would have been useful to readers of The Saturday Paper who came across SA’s short-sighted view of uranium and nuclear options by Helen Caldicott. It exemplifies writing that ought leave readers in no doubt as to the underlying expertise and motivations of the author.

Use of emotive language:

I use emotive language in blog posts, sparingly, to drive home conclusions that I reach via a process of evidence based analysis.

Caldicott does something different.

“Little” South Australia is being “seduced” by arguments for nuclear. Everything about nuclear, by contrast, is “massive” and “complex” with “huge expulsions” of greenhouse gas, “intensively radioactive” cores, material becoming “a billion times more radioactive”,  with processes that are “extremely dangerous” that leave “toxic corrosive brews”. It is “vastly expensive and dangerous” and “hugely expensive”, it involves elements that are “extremely dangerous” (again) , some “even more deadly” than others. Infrastructure is “dilapidated and dangerous”, the whole process is “disastrous”, the Royal Commission is “flawed” .

Emotive language of this type sheds no light on an issue, only heat.

Fear-mongering

In this piece Caldicott links the nuclear fuel cycle with the following conditions: “varieties of cancer, including lung, liver, bone, testicular, breast, muscle and brain…severe congenital deformities…inherited genetic diseases, including cystic fibrosis, diabetes, haemochromatosis and dwarfism”.

What I found particularly shocking was this statement:

“The South Australian population would be likely to experience epidemics of cancer, leukaemia, congenital anomalies and genetic diseases through future generations as the waste inevitably leaked”.

This statement, made with the merest shred of equivocation and zero evidence, is an attempt to frighten people. As I recently learned all too well, frightening people has consequences more deadly than actual nuclear accidents.

Furthermore the term “epidemic” refers to rapid spread of infectious diseases like flu, SARS or ebola, not congenital abnormalities, genetic diseases or cancers. For someone who makes much of her medical qualification, I find the above statement a blatant, loaded misuse of terminology.

Even taking a more colloquial use of the term epidemic,  evidence is sorely lacking. The sudden, uncontrolled release from Chernobyl delivered no such outcomes beyond the  definite and entirely preventable increase in thyroid cancer[1].

Responsible experts who are looking to shed light, not heat, are sparing in type of language and back it up carefully. When we read such unsupported statements, that is probably because the argument is perched on an evidentiary house of cards.

Absence of referencing and sourcing

In 1700+ words, to how many sources did Caldicott refer in support of her assertions?

One: the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research on the subject the potential build requirements for nuclear power plants.

It was George Monbiot who really blew the lid on such referencing errors in his legendary encounters with Caldicott[2]. Following a bruising television interview he simply and clearly requested sources for statements made. The sources provided were weak. The actual evidence was either absent or misrepresented, and consistently in opposition to the broad scientific consensus.

Appealing to authority

In the absence of referenced evidence,  Caldicott  appeals to her own expert authority, primarily her medical qualification. That entitles the rest of ask to ask: who is she? Does she warrant a hearing on nuclear matters on the basis of her expertise?

Caldicott was a doctor. From what I can discern, she was an excellent one. She was a teacher at Harvard Medical School, specialising in cystic fibrosis. On returning to Australia she established the cystic fibrosis treatment unit in Adelaide that brought the leading, effective treatment practices to Australian patients, with considerable success. She deserves recognition for this. She ceased practicing medicine in 1980 at which point she took on full-time social activism via Physicians for Social Responsibility. That was 35 years ago.

Thirty five years is virtually a whole career. So it’s credible that an outstanding paediatrician might then become a genuine nuclear expert. This is not the case. Caldicott has virtually no publication record on nuclear matters, or anything else, in peer-reviewed science. She has an h-index[3] of 1. That’s the lowest possible.

As a new doctoral candidate I hope to have an index of 1 shortly[4]. Other experts raised and dismissed by Caldicott for being associated with the “flawed” Royal Commission include the South Australian Chief Scientist, the biochemist, geneticist and biologist Leanna Read, with an h-index of 28. Professor Barry Brook of the University of Tasmania has an h-index of 39, with 6755 citations of his work. Professor Ian Lowe has a more modest h-index of 3, however he has been cited nearly 1000 times.

Caldicott is famous for her non-peer reviewed books, her articles in popular press and her public persona. Otherwise she occasionally has letters published in journals[5]. It appears that when Caldicott ceased practicing medicine, she also detached from the scientific establishment as a professional environment, in preference for full-time activism and popular engagement.

Now, there may be merit and value in that decision and that pathway. But if activism is all one does, there are important implications: Helen Caldicott is not an expert in nuclear matters in her own right within the strictures of the scientific process .

Naturally, an h-index is not the only measure of relevant expertise. There will be teachers in recognised institutions who are up-to-date in knowledge, exposed to and involved in professional development, but not publishing original research. Other people will be accumulating the knowledge and expertise that comes from being part of an industry and/or profession year-on-year. Neither of these cases apply to Caldicott for nuclear science, technology, or specific matters pertaining to radiation and health.

I can’t know with certainty what level of professional engagement Caldicott has retained with the medical establishment. I see that in 2011 Caldicott offered webcast instruction[6] to other doctors to enable them to:

  • Treat and counsel patients with regard to the medical hazards of nuclear power.
  • Dsign (sic) practice strategies to lessen environmental destruction caused by nuclear power.

Insulation and isolation from criticism and peer review is risky. For Caldicott, it appears to have led to complete distrust of any source in disagreement with her opinion[7], a distinct drift toward ever-more extreme statements and positions[8], and a consistent rhetorical fallback: appealing to the authority of her own, non-existent expert status.

Attempts to discredit

In the article Caldicott describes Senator Sean Edwards as a “real estate agent”.

Edwards ceased work in real estate eighteen years ago[9]. He is a Senator, chairs one Standing Committee (Economics) and is a member of another (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade).

Caldicott called me an “occupational therapist”.  No one calls me an occupational therapist anymore. In the both cases, Caldicott sought to define people not by what they are, but by what they were. Why might that be?

I have not worked as an O.T. for ten years. I am not accredited. I am not registered. I have not engaged in ongoing professional development as an O.T. I would never represent myself as an O.T. either to a client or the world at large[10].

Caldicott does the opposite. She concludes a 2007 letter to Medscape General Medicine[11] with the following statement:

“That’s my opinion. I’m Dr. Helen Caldicott, MD, pediatrician and President of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute”.

I fear that sums it up. Caldicott defends her opinions on the basis that she is (was?) a doctor. Her progressive relegation to the margins of debate and publication suggests the reality of her inadequacies have broadly sunk in over time. She openly acknowledged in a recent interview that she is not regarded as credible in Australia, yet lacked insight as to why that might be[12].

Factual errors

It is to be expected that this article will contain factual errors. I will cover four as briefly as possible.

“Enriching uranium also requires the enormous expense of energy, as in Paducah, Kentucky, where two huge coal-fired plants provided the requisite electricity for uranium enrichment for atomic power and weapons”.

Note the use of the past tense. This facility is closed, has been closed since 2013, and will remain closed. The modern techniques for uranium enrichment demand about 5 % of the energy of Paduch[13], making modern facilities approximately 95 % less useful for this line of argument.

“But this ignores the huge[14] expulsion of greenhouse gas that goes into producing nuclear power.” 

Related to the first point, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change[15] reflects the overwhelming consensus that nuclear power is as low in emissions, across the full-fuel cycle, as are renewable technologies. Reference to outlier studies and out-of-date technologies is misleading. End of story.

“(Senator Edwards) said that South Australia could create a special economic zone, thus eliminating $4.4 billion in taxes, including payroll tax, motor vehicle taxes and the emergency services levy, if it became the world’s radioactive waste dump”.

No, he didn’t propose a waste repository in any sense. Senator Edwards proposed an integrated project including an approved multinational storage facility for used fuel, with full retrievability, as an economic cornerstone to developing the infrastructure needed for the full recyclability of this material with plentiful electricity being the beneficial side effect. This information was available in press releases and discussed in some detail in a speech to The Sydney Institute[16].

“Heard is advocating the reprocessing of radioactive fuel. This involves dissolving intensely radioactive fuel rods in nitric acid and chemically precipitating out plutonium, which would then fuel small, modular, fast-breeder reactors”.

This is incorrect. She is either confused or wants to confuse the reader. I have expressly recommended against reprocessing of radioactive fuel via the conventional aqueous reprocessing Caldicott describes[17]. I was referring to the very different electrometallurgical processes required for complete recycling of used nuclear fuel, known as pyroprocessing. These processes are very different in economic outcomes, fuel outcomes and waste outcomes. A tiny amount of short-lived waste is separated and encapsulated in mineral and glass, requiring management for just 300 years[18]. Everything else is fuel until it, too, is short-lived waste after giving abundant energy[19].

“a loss of coolant (in a fast reactor) could induce a huge nuclear explosion scattering deadly plutonium”

No it can’t. But she is not the only person saying this, so it is worth some explanation.

The TREAT facility, with EBR-II in background

The TREAT facility, with Experimental Breeder Reactor II (background)

The inherent safety characteristics of an integral fast reactor are increasingly well-known, with metal fuel that swells when over-heated and shuts down the chain reaction, and metal coolant that removes decay heat indefinitely with no mechanical intervention. In the extremely low probability event that these mechanisms are overcome, the low melting point of the metal fuel “provides a passive mechanism for dispersing the fuel so that it cannot resemble a prompt critical configuration”[20]. This “low temperature dispersal” of the fuel “provides a massive negative reactivity injection, overwhelming all other reactivity effects” and as a result “there is no prompt criticality[21].  This is not just theoretical. The fuel was tested in the Transient Reactor Test Facility, an experimental reactor that subjects reactor fuel to massive overpower events that are well-outside of normal operating conditions. In this case the fuel was taken from zero power to greater than 4 times the nominal peak power in just 5 seconds. The result was as described above but better than expected: the behaviour of the fuel serves to “terminate over-power transients no matter what their cause”[22],[23].

No sooner does an expert decide to recommend, with some passion, a course of action based on her-or-his knowledge than this can be construed as activism. I am grateful to those who do this. Climate scientist James Hansen (h-index 62) takes an activist line on climate change and nuclear power. Economist Jeff Sachs takes an activist line in his books (h-index of 45). Professor Geraldine Thomas puts in the time to see to it that the science of radiation and health is not abused for ideological purposes (h-index 11 and global authority on the health impacts of Chernobyl).

Contributions from such experts, whether one describes it as activism or not, enhances our public discourse. It should be honoured; in fact it should be actively sought. Activism of the unchained, unreviewed, inexpert variety puts quality public discourse at risk, often by deliberately frightening and misinforming the public.

The South Australian government is now considering  deepening its involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle. It is doing so via a credible, transparent public process. Anyone can make a submission.

It will be evidence, not appeals to authority,  that will matter. For the authority is already sitting on the Expert Advisory Committee, and the commission has the power and resources to seek guidance of other experts as required.  I am confident that I speak for a growing number of South Australians when I say that we do not want inexpert, emotive fear-mongering to drive this discourse any longer.

Is everyone entitled to an opinion? Perhaps, but the rest of us only have to care about positions that can be robustly argued.  That’s what this Royal Commission is all about and I welcome it. “Little” South Australia has outgrown Helen Caldicott.

Protesters at a rally against nuclear power outside Parliament House in Adelaide, Wednesday, March 11, 2015. It's just possible that opposition to nuclear in Australia is not what it used to be.

Protesters at a rally against nuclear power outside Parliament House in Adelaide, Wednesday, March 11, 2015. It’s just possible that opposition to nuclear in Australia is not what it used to be.

[1] For detail please review the report of the Chernobyl Forum http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2005/pr38/en/  and the special Annex from UNSCEAR  http://www.unscear.org/docs/reports/2008/11-80076_Report_2008_Annex_D.pdf

[2] Documented in his blog post Evidence Meltdown http://www.monbiot.com/2011/04/04/evidence-meltdown/ and follow-up here http://www.monbiot.com/2011/04/13/why-this-matters/ and here http://www.monbiot.com/2011/04/04/correspondence-with-helen-caldicott/ and here http://www.monbiot.com/2011/04/04/interrogation-of-helen-caldicotts-responses/

[3] A good article to learn about h-index is this one http://conservationbytes.com/2015/04/24/lomborg-a-detailed-citation-analysis/

[4] Should I be honoured to received citations for Heard, B., Bradshaw, C.J.A & Brook, B.W. (2015), Beyond wind: furthering development of clean energy in South Australia, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, Vol. 139, No. 1, 57–82, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03721426.2015.1035217

[5] For example a 1979 volume of The medical journal of Australia (Uranium: Health risks from a nuclear power industry). More recently she had a letter published in Medscape General Medicine (2007) headed “Use of Depleted Uranium is a Form of Radiologic Warfare”.

[6] http://www.allkids.org/body.cfm?id=615&action=detail&ref=206

[7] For example, insisting that the work of the Chernobyl Forum is a “whitewash”

[8] Many of which are catalogued in this movie https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qaptvhky8IQ

[9] Personal communication, Wade Laube, office of Senator Sean Edwards

[10] If you want to know more about me you might like this piece http://decarbonisesa.com/2014/06/20/am-i-an-environmentalist/  and here is an up-to-date CV Ben Heard CV June 2015

[11] Use of depleted Uranium is a form a radiologic warfare. Medscape General Medicine, Volume 9, Issue 2, 2007, Article number 45

[12] Interview with Helen Caldicott for One Plus One, ABC News 24, April 16 2014

[13] Table 3, page 14, Specific energy consumption (kWh/SWU) http://fissilematerials.org/library/ornl05a.pdf

[14] I’m not allowed to use words like “huge” in my writing. I get a slap if I write “very”. I am, correctly, taught to quantify everything, for otherwise it has no meaning.

[15] I recommend this analysis that covers the changing relationship of the IPCC to nuclear energy http://thebulletin.org/timeline-ipcc%E2%80%99s-shifting-position-nuclear-energy7975

[16] I published the speech here http://decarbonisesa.com/2015/04/08/we-must-act-and-we-must-act-now-speech-from-senator-sean-edwards/

[17] You can watch the words come out of my mouth in this video of a 2015 presentation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fdjIdjS9Sf4

[18] As discussed in lay terms in the book Prescription for the Planet and in considerable detail in the book Plentiful Energy.

[19] Oops, there I go using an adjective without quantifying. About 1 ton of material per year is transmuted from longer-lived plutonium to shorter-lived waste products in the process of providing 1000 MW of generation . That’s AMAZING.

[20] Plentiful Energy, page 153

[21] Plentiful Energy, page 154

[22] Plentiful Energy, page 156

[23] For more discussion here is an excellent post from Rod Adams http://atomicinsights.com/how-do-fast-reactors-respond-to-rapid-reactivity-insertion-events/

Not humbled, angered. The response to Fukushima is an ongoing mistake. Part 1

When I knew I would be visiting the site of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants, I prepared myself to be humbled. I expected to learn that things were worse than I realised. I expected sombre reflections on how we need to manage the great power that is nuclear power.

That isn’t what happened. The accident was a very serious one. But the disaster? The disaster was the response. That disaster continues to this day and as we approach the next round of international climate negotiations, it may cost us all more dearly than we could have ever imagined.

In part 1 of this post I will discuss the experience of visiting Nahara town and hearing from local officials. In part 2 I will cover the visit to deep in the exclusion zone and the Fukushima site itself.

While I travelled with a group, heard information from local officials and discussed many of the concepts raised below with the experts who joined me, these thoughts and conclusions are my own. I am speaking for no one else.

From 17-20 May, 2015, I was privileged to join an international delegation to Japan to participate in a nuclear symposium, meet relevant Japanese organisations and undertake a site visit to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station.

I officially changed my tune about nuclear power in November 2010, but really went public with it at a presentation on 8 March 2011. That was just three days before the great eastern Japan earthquake, tsunami and subsequent triple reactor meltdown. Like many others I remember watching the horrible footage of that black wave rolling inland and following the news that the Fukushima Daiichi reactors were stricken. It was a test of my revised stance to say the very least, and it took effort to prepare my initial article calling for rationality in the response. This happened on our watch, in an OECD nuclear nation. This was just about as bad as nuclear could possibly get.

So I approached the prospect of a site visit with great interest and also professional trepidation. It’s one thing to comment from afar. It’s quite another to visit a location to learn and see for yourself. I prepared myself to be humbled by the experience. I expected my support for nuclear technology to be tempered. Part of me thought that’s what should happen.

It didn’t turn out that way.

The group left Tokyo early by bus to reach Fukushima prefecture by lunchtime, where we were briefed by local officials at Naraha town. Naraha was a town of about 7500 people, sitting at the southernmost coastal boundary of the exclusion zone, approximately 20 km from the Daiichi nuclear power plant. The 10.2 metre tsunami exceeded the local 6.2 metre seawall and inundated 2.5 % of the town area, killing 13 people. As the situation at Fukushima Daiichi worsened and emergency was also declared at the nearer Daiini reactors, Naraha town gave its own evacuation order about 10 hours earlier than the central Japanese government.

The evacuation was undertaken in a situation of limited information and, presumably, considerable haste. The use of private vehicles led to serious traffic jams. About 5000 people were moved from this town to become refugees in nearby Iwaki City and Aizumisato Town, during late-winter conditions that were still very cold. Given the great strain the nation was already under from the quake and tsunami, it is evident that this was a high stakes decision with considerable risks involved.

It is easy to understand why this decision was made: the town officials wanted to protect people from harm. They regard the fact that their decision pre-empted that of the central government as partial vindication that it was the right one; at least they got moving earlier than they would have otherwise been forced. There is another possibility of course: both levels of government were altogether wrong. It’s an unpleasant line of enquiry. I don’t wish to criticise decisions made under great pressure. But criticise we must for how else do we learn? Was this the right decision?

(Lengthy) Aside: Units of radiation. What are they? What matters and what doesn’t?

To understand the following, readers will need to understand a little about doses of radiation. 

Different types of radiation, exposed to different parts of the body, provide differing “equivalent doses” i.e. the raw dose adjusted for the relative biological impact. To account for this I am using the unit “Sievert”. This unit takes account of the various factors that determine whether a dose is harmful and weights it for the potential for damage to be caused to the body. So it’s the right comparison unit to talk about health effects from lower levels of radiation received from the environment. In summary, Sievert measures the “dose equivalent”: the raw dose corrected for the biological effect.

For radiotherapy purposes, the unit used is the Gray. This is a more direct, raw unit of the energy received per kilogram of tissue. This is appropriate when much higher doses than are found either in nature or in occupational exposure are being targeted to specific parts of the body for the purposes of treatment. In these situations specialists know exactly how much of exactly what type of radiation is being targeted to exactly which part of the body. It’s typically a very large amount compared to environmental radiation. So I won’t be referring to Grays.

One Sievert all at once is a heck of a big dose. A sievert in a short amount of time will make you sick, 2 Sv will make you very sick, 8 Sv will kill about half of all people and 20 sieverts will kill anyone unless they get serious help, pronto. So mostly, you hear talk of millisieverts (mSv, one one-thousandth of a Sievert) or even microsieverts (µSv, one one-millionth of a Sievert).

When we are in circumstances of using mSv and µSv to consider health risks we will almost always be talking about stochastic risk, not deterministic risk. Stochastic risk refer to an increased likelihood of a future outcome (in this case, the development of cancer) from exposure to a hazard(in this case, radiation). But the outcome (cancer) will be no different in type, or severity, than might occur anyway i.e. there is a background rate of cancer in humans, influenced by a great many factors, varying hugely with location and lifestyle all over the world. Should a cancer occur, there is no way of attributing it to a single hazard factor. Deterministic risks  come from much larger exposures causing direct effects very close to the time of exposure, and the size of the effect can be clearly related to the size of exposure e.g. exposure of unprotected skin to UV light will result in sunburn, and more time in the sun will worsen the sunburn in a direct way.

It’s not just the equivalent dose that matters for human health but also the equivalent dose-rate. That’s the time period over which you receive the dose. Consider the difference between a bucket of water being tipped over your head, and the same amount of water being misted onto your head over the course of a week. The impact is very different. Our bodies have multi-layered mechanisms to respond to cell damage from radiation (and other causes) that are in use all the time.  Problems can occur if our cellular defence mechanisms are overwhelmed by too much damage in too little time. So for that we need to talk about mSv per hour or µSv per hour.

The largest cohort of evidence relating to human health impacts from low doses of radiation comes from survivors of the atomic bomb explosions in Japan. This evidence suggests that at a dose of 100 mSv, in a short period of time, an increase in cancer risk can begin to be detected. This finding is published by the International Council of Radiological Protection (publication 103) and reinforced in work by Zhang et al. At less than this level, there is no empirical evidence of increased risk of cancer. Any possible effect is lost in the noise in a world where we are bathed in natural levels of radiation, and we have background rates of cancer from a wide range of causes.

Furthermore what we can see is that the age-corrected rates of cancer vary markedly from country to country, and the variation has nothing to do with the differences in low-level radiation. Lifestyle and dietary differences appear to affect baseline cancer outcomes in a measurable way. 

Nonetheless, in setting guidelines and regulations, the major radiological protection agencies continue to apply assumptions that exposures below this 100 mSv level result in an increased stochastic risk of cancer, all the way down to near-zero exposure. This model of harm (and it is a model, not a body of evidence) is known as linear, non-threshold (LNT). The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effect of Atomic Radiation has recently made clear that the LNT model does not have application in determining population-wide impacts of exposure to low-levels of radiation.

So, finally, what are normal rates of exposure? Global average radiation exposure is 2.4 millisieverts per year. However the background rate varies a lot depending on location and occupation. International air crew receive an extra 4 mSv per year. Occupational exposure limits are 20 mSv per year. Doses from nature have been recorded of up to 202 mSv per year in Ramsar, Iran. Despite no epidemiological evidence of harm, some authors still prosecute the case for the protection of people in such areas, well, just because! Fortunately other authors push back against such notions, highlighting the lack of empirical evidence supporting the LNT model. End aside.

During this trip I was lucky enough to have the ear and attached brain of Professor Gerry Thomas of the Imperial College in London, one of the world’s foremost experts on the impacts of radiation on human health. She has long been one of my credible hulks, so I did the sensible thing and asked Gerry. What was the right response? She gave a sensible answer.

In light of the situation at the nuclear plant being out of control, Professor Thomas suggests it is hard to argue against the evacuation in the first instance. From there, Professor Thomas argues that it would be worth maintaining exclusion for the three months required for radioactive iodine to decay to harmless levels, and instituting other known, effective measures to prevent uptake of radioactive iodine.

I contend that, if clearly communicated, three months is a period of time away from home that most people can steel themselves for and manage, with appropriate support and compensation.  I also contend that an evacuation in such circumstances can and should be calm and orderly in order to protect people from the direct risks of evacuating. Since the risk being avoided is a stochastic one that requires prolonged exposure for even theoretical increase in risk of harm, running away from it at great speed and in large numbers is just far more dangerous than it’s worth.

During that three month period, some remediation should occur and physical infrastructure needs to be repaired and replaced. Areas identified as being in need of further specific remediation should be cordoned off and dealt with in due course. Citizens should have the opportunity to return to their homes with all appropriate support and information.

This is NOT what happened

The radiation plume from Fukushima Daiichi concentrated to the north-west of the plant, with Naraha Town on the very southern border. This early map of contamination (May 2011) suggests even at the outset, Naraha was in the range of 1-2 microsieverts per hour (8-18 mSv per year). A more localised map provided by the officials in a handout suggests the town was in the range of 5-10 mSv per year by November 2011. These levels may have be higher than prior to the accident, but it is an entirely harmless level of exposure with no evidence of ill effects; in the range of the occupational dose of an international pilot. Furthermore, as shown in the subsequent figure, thanks to the behaviour of radioactive half-lives, this swiftly declines with the passage of time. Recall that there is evidence of some small increase in the background risk of cancer at 100 mSv equivalent dose, received in a short amount of time. A declining dose rate of 5-18 mSv per year would have harmed no-one.

Radiation map from May 2011

Radiation map from May 2011

Comparison of radiation levels, showing decline over a 12-month period

Comparison of radiation levels, showing decline over a 12-month period

Yet total exclusion was maintained for nearly 18 months to August 2012. At this point, daytime entry was for residents permitted. This year, officials from the town have received permission to stay, and are doing so in a bid to give confidence to other residents. But the radiation exclusion zone has resulted in a failure of timely remediation of the essential infrastructure that would have been damaged by the tsunami. A terrible, self-reinforcing spiral is underway. Failure to be rational in the face of low levels of radiation has led to prolonged absence. This prolonged absence has excused a failure to repair the infrastructure upon which the settlements depend. This in turn reinforces the absence. In absence, decay sets in making return ever-less appealing. Vermin have infested homes and shops. Looting and robbery occurred. With people unwilling to return, there is little pressure to repair the infrastructure, and so on…

Now, the dose rate in the residential areas of Naraha is 0.3 µSv per hour (2.6 mSv per year). That’s bang on globally normal. Yet former residents remain anxious about radiation.

Naraha has been a victim of fear and the perils of over-protection, not radiation. This seems to be a product of the way the nuclear industry itself has regulated itself for decades, and the way nuclear opponents amplify this approach to spread fear.

Nuclear risk management faces as perfect storm of acronyms. Firstly there is LNT, or the linear, no-threshold model of harm for radiation. This model posits that any level of radiation will do some harm, no matter how low the level. There is “no threshold” beneath which radiation is harmless. It is by this logic that some authors seriously consider “protecting” people from the environments they have occupied for centuries despite no epidemiological evidence of harm. It’s nuts, in other words, or at least it’s a nutty basis for decision making.

To LNT we can add “ALARA”, which stands for “as low as reasonably achievable”. This is one of the guiding principles for radiation protection: make exposure as low as you can. Note, at this point evidence-based safety has gone completely out of the window. We are not undertaking protective actions because we know it matters, we are not attempting to meet a regulated limit, we are doing it because LNT says we should.

The kicker in all of this is the nature of radiation itself as a brilliant tracer. We can detect radiation down to incredibly small levels, and we can even tell where it came from. So, if you can see something down to a very fine resolution and the rules say you have to keep lowering wherever “reasonably” possible it even though there is no evidence of harm, then you have a problem. Suddenly, you are neck deep in a professional culture with the potential to protect people to death.

I wish I was exaggerating.

Naraha Town lost 13 people in the tsunami. To date, they have recorded 110 premature deaths as a result of the dislocation caused by the prolonged evacuation, or as they said, “attributed to life in shelter”.

This is all willingly aided and abetted by our environmental ENGOs who expend much time and energy putting a megaphone on the message of the radiation protection industry that radiation is the most terrible hazard imaginable. This is led by some individuals who are particularly unhinged (Helen Caldicott) or outrightly venal (Chris Busby), but let’s be frank: there is no serious pushback from industry and Government. There is little courage to stand with the data about what does and doesn’t hurt people. Four years on from March 11 2011 and the results have been severe. As well as the deaths, the town and region continues to suffer from the effects of “unfounded rumours” impacting their food production and tourism. Once more it is fear, not radiation, that is preventing a return to normality.

I hope for a successful and prosperous future for Naraha Town. I applaud the courage of the officials who have made the return and shown the way. It was a pleasure to visit, eat good food and learn about the situation first hand.

However I am angered that such a situation was allowed to happen. Great pain, suffering and tragedy could have been avoided.

We have to be honest and smart about this. Delivering decarbonised energy for a large and growing world is going to require a massive build-out of nuclear power. Even acknowledging the vast improvements in reactor design and nuclear regulation, it’s just wise to assume that something will go wrong again in future.

It’s not enough to obsessively focus on lowering the likelihood of an event through design, defense and regulation, only to completely ignore the nature of societal response when something does happen. For it appears to be the response, not the radiation, that is killing and hurting people. In Naraha no one died from radiation and likely no one will. Fifteen people died from a tsunami and 110 people died from the consequences of evacuation, relocation and forced estrangement from their homes.

We have to learn and plan together, globally, based on evidence. We may be subjected to radiation events in future. It won’t be of our choosing, however we will get to choose how to respond. I hope we learn from Naraha and choose wisely.

As I will discuss in part two where I recount my visit to the nuclear site itself, we can punish companies for doing the wrong thing. But we must take care to avoid the folly of punishing ourselves in the process.

Thanks for having me EA, see you soon Japan

Here’s a bit of a catch-up blog as I wait to fly to Sydney airport where I will meet Barry Brook and fly to Japan. More on that later.

Early this week it was my pleasure to be the guest of the Electric Energy Society of Australia, a division of Engineers Australia, at a special event for their members in Melbourne, Electric Energy Security and the Role of Nuclear Energy in Australia.

My fellow panellists included my now old friends Mr Martin Thomas AM and Dr Tony Irwin of SMR Nuclear Australia. New acquaintances were Mr Neil Greet and Ms Gaye Francis.

Neil, an engineer of defence background now focussed on national energy security, spoke of the need to take a holistic point of view of the nature of energy security. Gaye, a risk engineers, spoke of her personal and professional experiences in the Finnish community that is home the Olkiluoto power stations and now the Onkala waste repository and just how and why this community has come to embrace such a strong connection with nuclear.

We were privileged to have and opening address from Senator Sean Edwards, who then remained for questions.

The event was completely full with around 100 in attendance. I have great appreciation for Engineers Australia. This organisation has taken an increasing interest in this matter over the last few years, from smaller state-based events, to a session at the 2014 national conference and now this special session in Melbourne. I am delighted to see one of our major professions determine that their members ought be informed and active in these discussions. This is an invaluable broadening of the nuclear conversation in Australia and, as I said in closing, I ask them to please have an opinion on nuclear. Such essential professionals should not be on the sidelines of national policy discussions on our energy future.

The presence and participation of Senator Edwards added to the seriousness with which discussions were entered into. The Senator again spoke glowingly of the opportunity that has been afforded via the South Australian Labor government in the form of this Royal Commission. He reiterated that a “bi-partisan sentiment” exists, for the first time ever, for these discussions and investigations. I have seen many senior politicians open events and then leave. Not many stay for all presentations and then actively participate in Q&A. The impact of the sincere leadership that is on display from Senator Edwards is palpable.

So, my thanks to EESA and EA for hosting me at such an excellent event. I look forward to sharing video of the presentations in due course.

As I mentioned in opening I will shortly be boarding for my first ever visit to Japan. I, along with Aussies Barry Brook and Tom Wigley, will be the guest of The Breakthrough Institute, IEE Japan, International Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia and the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. We will be joining a global group for an International Nuclear Energy Symposium.

The trip will include a visit to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, meetings with Japanese Government officials and media engagements. I am especially looking forward to a full-day conference exclusively examining women’s interface with nuclear technology. The symposium theme is “Discussions on Nuclear Energy from the Female Point of View ― Why is it necessary? Why is it safe enough? Why is it irreplaceable?”

We seem to be experiencing one of those global-collective penny-drop moments, where everyone involved in nuclear is suddenly saying “Hey… women… we should really look at that…”.

We really should. As my wife Dr Gemma Munro from Inkling Women recently observed, “The nuclear industry is led, in the main, by white middle-aged men. Discussions about nuclear are dominated by white middle-aged men fighting about who’s right”.

Urgh… I know she’s right. The way so much of the nuclear energy discussion is conducted leaves many women cold. Yet we know from independent survey data that it is women we still need to reach if we want strong social licence for an embrace of nuclear technologies.

Maybe… we should ask women what they think? And maybe… take proactive steps to enable greater female leadership, messaging and communication about nuclear? Because maybe… that would work and then we would get what we want? We could stop the fighting and get on with the winning?

So to say I am thrilled with this symposium agenda is an understatement, not least because I am not involved, I just get to listen to some of the world’s best. I have a suitcase full of AV and plan to get lots of photos, audio and video to share. It’s the least I can to do repay my hosts.

In closing, watashi no hobokurafuto wa unagi de ippai desu, and I look forward to sharing the experience.

 

Cancel Paris, Tesla released a battery

When Tesla made their little product announcement last week it caught me in a moment of ebb rather than flow. I had just handed over some work, done a presentation, had some important meetings… It was Friday and I had no interest being first out of the blocks with analysis. All I could muster was a bit of crystal-balling Twitter sarcasm:

I promptly received a warning in return:

Then, in a moment of life-imitates-sarcasm, Mark Cojuangco proved that he was the prescient one, not me.

This article contains what will probably stand as the most intellectually feeble, thus outright dangerous, bit of hyperbolic overstatement about climate change solutions I will ever read:

Assuming the Tesla system comes anywhere near meeting its announced specifications, and noting that electric cars are also on the market from Tesla and others, we now have just about everything we need for a technological fix for climate change, based on a combination of renewable energy and energy efficiency, at a cost that’s a small fraction of global income (and hence a small fraction of national income for any country).

John, pardon my language, but you must be fucking joking.

Quiggin delivered on my own intended absurdity: “Down tools folks. Pending a bit of market tweaking, we are now on the downhill run to climate stability and energy prosperity for all. Cancel Paris, Elon Musk announced a battery”.

This is more than irritating, it’s dangerous. It’s repeating the pattern of decades past, that an imminent technology breakthrough will wipe out fossil fuels like sunlight on so many vampires. He didn’t merely underplay but outright avoided any examination of complexity. He didn’t even consider the product itself!

This is not what we need. We need hardworking pragmatists who will do the work in helping global society to understand and benefit from technological innovation, across the board, in order to tackle challenges that are gnarlier than any handful of technological breakthroughs can possibly “solve”.

That’s not how Quiggin saw it.


Happy about Tesla? Unhappy about Tesla? What kind of false dichotomy is that? I was happy when my son took home a ribbon from sports day. I’m not interested in happy-clapping technology announcements. I want to understand how they might all hang together into the biggest, deepest, fastest and most effective response to climate change. That means variously criticising nuclear announcements, criticising solar projects, criticising renewable naysayers, and proposing policies that might lead to effective integration and deployment of all useful energy technologies.

So, what do I think will be the impact of the Tesla product? Let’s look at the product alongside Australian household electricity consumption for a start.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics tells us that in 2012 Australian households were using around 125 kWh per week. The Tesla unit will store up to 10 kWh, or about 60 % of the consumption of one single day of use at the Australian average daily consumption.

It is immediately apparent that this battery-plus-panels offering is not the product that is going to take Australians off-grid in droves.

Consider that a great deal of daily consumption occurs overnight even in the long days of summer, especially the very hot nights where air-conditioning will run overnight. In the shorter days of winter plenty of daily consumption is morning and evening lighting and heating where no production will be occurring from rooftop solar, not to mention possibly some overnight heating. Several consecutive days of low solar insolation are simply a given in winter. So, a typically sized household system would not be able to both meet daytime demand and keep that battery full for dark times in a whole variety of conditions and circumstances.

Consider then that we all want electric vehicles charging from our home. That’s more load. Consider that lots of Australians space-heat with gas and heat water with gas. We want to electrify that with clean sources. That’s more load. Pushing in the other direction is general improvement in efficiency of appliances and lighting and insulation improvements in older houses that put downward pressure on load. But to be frank, if those efficiency improvements help household demand even remain static as we electrify the other services, I would regard that as very impressive. To achieve all of this while going off-grid with combinations of solar and batteries would require over-sizing of systems to levels that are completely unrealistic and unaffordable.

So it’s not a matter of liking or disliking the product. It’s just patently clear that this is not the dawn of the off-grid revolution in Australia. It’s not that product (yet?). So what product is it?

At the end of 2014 I wrote:

(We must) Vary our emphasis on solar PV away from electricity supply and toward network management, especially management of peak demand.  The coming of cost effective home energy storage should be emphatically embraced as a potential network service. Consumers should be encouraged to take up small amounts of storage and remain grid connected into the future. An appropriate financial reward should be provided for residents to use and sell their solar power late in the day in response to peak times rather than as –and-when it is generated. This will hold down network costs for each and every consumer, instead of raising them as solar PV does now. The “death spiral” of retail electricity will be averted.

Depending, critically, on how nimble and intelligent our electricity retailers and distribution operators are in response to this product, I believe it could be the solid beginning of this product: smart solar network management. That would be something I absolutely welcome.

Achieving high penetration of embedded solar PV has real challenges, particularly relating to the potential for local over-voltage events in feeders that were never designed to accommodate them. I’m not inventing a problem here; it’s real, it’s recognised, and a lot of literature is dedicated to how these challenges might be overcome. Here’s a summary of some of my recent draft research:

A 2011 review of solar integration in seven nations representing 70 % of the global market share revealed the extent of the challenges (Braun et al. 2012). In nations with higher penetrations such as Germany, voltage overloading is leading to expensive grid-reinforcement requirements and the implementation of a technical code governing voltage rise criteria, active power control and reactive power control (Braun et al. 2012). Photo-voltaic integration in Germany to 2020 is expected to cost €21-27 billion (E-bridge consulting cited in Braun et al. 2012). These costs might be mitigated in the future by the introduction of inverters with active and reactive power control. However of the > 17 GW of photovoltaics installed, more than 90 % do not have these capabilities (Braun et al. 2012). Such inverters are commonly applied at 30 KW and above, and not in the residential range of 1-5 kW, with no apparent technology trend in that direction.

In Belgium, recent strong photovoltaic growth has meant distributed photovoltaic systems “regularly experience disconnection due to overvoltage…in several cases expensive grid reinforcement is required in order to avoid congestion of cables or transformers” (Braun et al. 2012).

Solutions are needed to reduce the overvoltage and other network challenges caused by embedded photovoltaic systems if increasing penetrations are to be accommodated while stable systems and compliance with regulations is maintained (Alam, Muttaqi & Sutanto 2012; Lewis 2011; Samadi 2014). Suggested remedies include intelligent operation of distributed energy storage (i.e., batteries) (Alam, Muttaqi & Sutanto 2012; Samadi 2014), grid reinforcement (Samadi 2014); active power curtailment (i.e., preventing export from the photovoltaics to the feeder, representing a loss of income to the photovoltaics owner) (Samadi 2014), and active and reactive power control from the photovoltaic unit itself, demanding more advanced inverters (Braun et al. 2012; Condon 2011; Samadi 2014). The potential remedies are summarised by Constantin, Lazar and Kjær (2012):

Overall, it has been found that applying standard voltage control techniques in the LV networks helps to increase the PV penetration by approximately 30% from 1.5 kW to 2.0 kW per residence. For higher PV penetration levels, additional solutions must be applied: more complex voltage control schemes, increased self-consumption, storage solutions or active power curtailment.

So, if things go well, I think in Australia the impact of this product could be a grab-bag of mutually reinforcing trends in consumer behaviour and market regulation:

  • Increasing the number of home solar systems, with consequent falls in greenhouse gas emissions
  • Increasing the average size of home solar systems with consequent falls in greenhouse gas emissions
  • Offering distributors a possible solution to the network challenges of increasing PV penetration
  • Pushing retailers and distributors into more intelligent pricing models for households that reward peak-demand management
  • Downward pressure on peak demand leading to appreciable cost-control in operating the distribution network
  • Potentially weighting water and space-heating decisions back towards electricity and away from gas

But it isn’t the end of baseload or centralised generation into transmission networks. It isn’t, then, the end of coal. Hence, isn’t the end of the need for nuclear and wind (funny, actually, how no one seems to suggest this innovation has negated the role of wind turbines connected to the transmission network).

Let’s be clear-headed about what the real potential of this innovation is so that we can work with the relevant stakeholders to make those benefits materialise as soon as possible. Unthinking hyperbole just serves to muddy the water and leads to false hope, false starts and bad policy development. This is a job for analysts*, not cheerleaders.

Alam, MJE, Muttaqi, KM, Sutanto, D, Elder, L & Baitch, A 2012, Performance Analysis of Distribution Networks under High Penetration of Solar PV, CIGRE (International Council on Large Electric Systems), Paris, France.

Alam, MJE, Muttaqi, KM & Sutanto, D 2012, ‘Distributed energy storage for mitigation of voltage-rise impact caused by rooftop solar PV’, IEEE Power and Energy Society General Meeting, pp. 1-8.

Braun, M, Stetz, T, Bründlinger, R, Mayr, C, Ogimoto, K, Hatta, H, Kobayashi, H, Kroposki, B, Mather, B, Coddington, M, Lynn, K, Graditi, G, Woyte, A & MacGill, I 2012, ‘Is the distribution grid ready to accept large-scale photovoltaic deployment? State of the art, progress, and future prospects’, Progress in Photovoltaics: Research and Applications, vol. 20, no. 6, pp. 681-697.

Condon, D 2011, Grid Connected Solar PV and Reactive Power in a Low Voltage Distribution Network, Ergon Energy, Queensland.

Constantin, A, Lazar, RD & Kjær, DSB Voltage control in low voltage networks by Photovoltaic Inverters: Case-study Bornholm, Danfoss Solar Inverters, Graasten, Denmark.

Samadi, A 2014, ‘Large Scale Solar Power Integration in Distribution Grids: PV Modelling, Voltage Support and Aggregation Studies’, Electrical Engineering, Doctoral thesis, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden.

*I strongly recommend this piece of analysis of the Tesla product announcement