Welcome to part two of my review of the nuclear debate between Monbiot/Grimstom and Levitt/Parr. If you missed part one where I drew on the first two speakers to reflect on the nature of anti-nuclear environmentalism, gave a detailed assessment of the performance of solar PV in South Australia, and contended that absent nuclear power all the good ideas in the world will not bring down South Australia’s emissions sufficiently quickly (phew!), it’s not too late, here’s the link. Today though, time to move on to our third speaker, second speaker on the side of nuclear, Malcolm Grimstom. He’s Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London.
What I particularly enjoyed from Malcolm was these two quotes:
“There’s plenty (of) energy in renewable… but unfortunately they are incredibly high entropy, they are very low grade they are dilute, they are low temperature… we are continuously bashing our head with renewable against this problem of intermittency.
The laws of physics haven’t just been got up by a right wing plot involving the nuclear industry and the oil companies, …the limitations of renewable are inherent, not just a matter of somebody having decided to kill them off.”
It seems that many people are simultaneously expressing frustration that the problem with renewable technology is not the technology, or even our support of it, but rather our expectation of it. There are great technologies in development, but they are going to take time. Instead of acknowledging this, we tell ourselves stories of conspiracy, neglected research and development and the wonderful impact of creating “economies of scale”. It speaks of an appalling intellectual immaturity. I regret the derogatory nature of that description but I readily apply it to myself 5 years ago. James Hansen is even more upfront, suggesting we have, en masse, drunk the renewable energy Kool-Aid (for those fortunate enough not to understand the reference, it refers to the tragic events of the Jonestown Massacre, where cult leader Jim Jones’ followers were so uncritically believing of him, that they drank Kool-Aid laced with poison. Nearly one thousand died. Hansen, as you can see, appears to have grown weary of pulling his punches).
Otherwise, Malcom’s seven minutes are a pretty good scientific discussion of the nature of nuclear power including the safety advantages of nuclear plants that could be built today. I won’t go into detail there; there has already been much discussion on this site about those issues, and you can certainly find heaps of great information on this over at Brave New Climate.
Which brings us to our final speaker, Doug Parr, Chief Scientist from Greenpeace.
What can I say? That question is not as rhetorical as you might think because seriously, what did he say? I don’t want to overdo it, but even expecting as I was to disagree with him, I was astounded by the dearth of meaningful comment in this seven minutes. If it were on offer, I would take a refund for whatever proportion of my donations ever went to Doug’s salary.
Doug reflects another little piece of the old Ben Heard: “Studies show that X is possible”. You know what? I don’t really give a damn anymore what a “study shows” is possible, until a bunch of other people have seriously put it through its paces and determined that what is on the paper has a snowflake’s chance in hell of actually transpiring in the real world. It is that type of thing that Barry Brook and his various guests do so very, very well over at BNC. To quote Doug:
The way to deal with the long-term energy system is not to carve out individual little blocks like the UK, but to actually look at it as a European system, and then you have places which are strong on solar like the south of Europe, and places that are good on wind, like northern Europe, places that are good on hydro, places that are good on bio-mass, and you integrate it all together, and you have a system which is capable of delivering perfectly acceptable, similar standards of supply security, to the existing ones.
Right. The secret ingredient I presume is a pinch of fairy dust. Seriously I would (and did) very nearly fail a student for taking such an uncritical approach to what a “study shows” is possible, but it would appear to get you a good gig at Greenpeace. I’m not sure the exact study he is referring to but he mentions PWC, so here is a recent one of theirs. It’s the one where they say that reaching just 20% renewables for Europe would require the equivalent of over a million wind turbines, or solar panels over an area twice the size of Belgium.
Back to the quote. It’s worth knowing that the “individual little block” known as the UK houses over 62 million people. Just because it is taken for granted, providing electricity on demand all day every day to 62 million people is no mean feat. For another thing, the next time the UK does this…
…would we really wish to be reliant upon an elegantly perfect combination of wind, hydro, wave, biomass and solar to keep the heating on for weeks on end, thereby averting loss of life in the thousands? Or would this be one of those times where we accept the performance is “similar”, but not the same, as a system with a strong component of non-intermittant power? You would have to hope that conditions are not cloudy across Spanish Adalusia on a day like this, and there is some biomass to spare as the rest of northern Europe endures similar conditions.
Likewise, the next time Adelaide does 10 days in excess of 40 degrees C, how are we going to be sure we keep the air-conditioners running? It’s not a luxurious question I am afraid; the excess deaths we already experience in such times is significant. To put solid data around my hypothetical, on the peak demand day in the last 12 months, which was 31st January 2011, Adelaide set a new record for demand of 3,433 MW with a peak temperature of 42.9 C. At that time, the 1,150 MW of installed wind capacity delivered just 60 MW, 5% of its capacity (all data from the Australian Energy Market Operator). On the winter peak day? 3%. This is the technical way of saying that on the day in each peak season when we needed the most power, the wind was not blowing…anywhere. Despite South Australia being a pretty big place, it’s not big enough to provide balance in our wind system. It’s little wonder that despite 1,150 MW of wind, we have not closed a single MW of fossil.
Reliable energy is a major factor that separates those of us fortunate enough to live with it from our pre-industrial peasant ancestry and today’s chronically poor. We would want to be pretty damn sure of ourselves before we turn our backs on dense energy sources and instead bet a grand scale of human life on complex interactions of different intermittent and limited baseload renewables dispersed across whole continents. A system like Doug proposes needs the intermittent renewable backed-up by either fossil of nuclear. We virtually need to build two energy systems; the one we supposedly want (nearly all renewables), and the one we use at those times when the one we want fails to deliver. Combined with cost of the generation technology itself and the extensive level of new interconnection required over very, very long distances to effectively share power between, you know, northern and southen Europe or all of Australia, this quickly becomes a financially riduculous proposition.
Locally, the good people at Beyond Zero Emissions have provided such a road map for Australia. You can read all about and you can read its critique here and another here. It’s another in the club of studies that refuses to consider nuclear power as a decarbonising solution. This time, the reason given is that gorgeously self-fulling little chestnut of “because we don’t already have it, nuclear power will take us more than 10 years (so, you know, best not give it any thought or analysis that might help people learn about it, break down misconceptions, and build social acceptance that would facilitate its uptake. Then, the next time someone raises it we can say “Well, the thing with nuclear is that it will take 10 years…)”.
Over time, I’m honestly growing less interested in the question of whether such grand and complex plans might work as I am in the question of why the hell we would bother trying in the first place??? If we actually are more interested, as we should be, in resolving climate change than promoting certain energy sources, then the very last thing we should do is jettison the best baseload zero-carbon energy solution currently available. It doesn’t make sense. Unless of course one is where I used to be; intellectually stuck around the seven predjudices and misunderstandings, which I break down in my presentation , that kept me an opponent of nuclear for so long.
I’ve said it that many times before, but once more can’t hurt. I love renewable energy, both in concept and, for the most part, in practice. But it encapsulates merely one of the means to decarbonisation, and not the end itself. I might as well quote myself:
To reach that goal (rapid decarbonisation), we demand the simple, commonsense maturity from our government and fellow citizens to consider all zero-carbon generation options on a level playing field basis. That includes the one that has been delivering for over 50 years, currently provides 15% of global electricity across 30 nations, has an outstanding record of safety and environmental performance, and has a strong future of even better technology. As my friend Barry Brook often remarks, he doesn’t actually care what does the job, only that it is done, and done quickly. He just happens to know, based on his research, that nuclear will perform extremely well if only it is given the chance for a fair fight.
But alas, no. For Doug and others like him, it seems to be renewables only or death. At the moment, I know which is winning.
Doug then moves on to specify one of the barriers he perceives as intractable, the long term management of nuclear waste. Completely ignoring Generation IV technology, as is Greenpeace’s want, he says this:
“…its one of those things where would have to explicitly accept, and make a values judgement that that’s something we are prepared to live with”.
Well, yep, that’s about right. I say much the same thing in my presentation. It’s a process broadly known as informed decision-making, and it happens all the time. Those of us who are concerned about waste but have the courage to challenge our prejudices very quickly realise that for the incredible benefits of nuclear power, the short-term waste management trade off before the commercial introduction of Generation IV is a very good deal indeed.
Doug then makes the point that “if you feel comfortable with nuclear power here [read UK or expand your reading to OECD if you like], then you have to feel comfortable with it across Africa..”. Well firstly, bollocks, as it remains well within our power to decline sales to basket case nations. Secondly, where we do engage in this trade, is the use of a modern nuclear generation facility to provide reliable, clean power somehow supposed to be bad? Somehow more concerning to us and more destabilising to the region than the myriad nightmare scenarios that play out every year in areas of that benighted continent due to a lack of development? Seriously, is it the nuclear power plants in South Africa that are supposed to concern me when, as I write, millions are displaced and starving in Somalia? Couldn’t we sleep even easier if the developed world had the brains to accepts high level waste in return and supervise the whole fuel cycle? Words fail me.
Finally, Doug manages to muster something approaching passion and conviction to tell use that nuclear-centric energy policy in the UK is “undermining support for renewables”. Oh well. Balances out Australia I suppose…
In matters of energy, it seems clear that Greenpeace have given over any pretence at logic a long time ago in preference for a dogmatic adherence to the renewable Bible. They achieve this in complete wilful detachment of the urgency of the climate crisis. Kool-Aid indeed.
Well dear readers if you have made it this far in the debate I will leave you to enjoy the final one minute summations from each of the speakers and make up your own mind. But I hope that as I build these posts it is growing clearer that in my home state of South Australia, as around the world, if we want to want to respond to the science of climate change with courage, with our eyes open, and with a socially just example the rest of the world might emulate, we must open ourselves to the outstanding technology that is nuclear power. It’s that or fail, and failure, in my mind, is not an option.