Regular readers of Decarbonise SA will be aware that last week I had the priviledge and pleasure of joining a panel of speakers for a function in Perth titled “The Cost of Carbon; Nuclear Energy: Australia’s Clear Energy Future?”.

It was my first visit to Perth. If I had to describe it in just one word, “shiny” would be the one. It looks rather like the CBD was erected ten minutes before I touched down. None of the locals actually denied this either, so I do wonder… I didn’t get much of a look around but I enjoyed the generous opening hours and fantastic selections at Elizabeth’s Second Hand Books.   Aside from that it was mostly business, so hopefully I get the chance to go back for a proper look. I certainly do see the appeal of the place.

The event was well attended, with 70 guests enjoying five very different perspectives on the role of nuclear power in Australia. With no prior planning or collaboration, the speakers delivered a stunningly uniform message to the room: Australia simply must begin engaging in open debate and discussion of nuclear power if we are to make wise energy choices for our future national and global interests. CEDA have informed me that they received “an overwhelming amount of positive feedback” from this event.

As a speaker but also a guest, I enjoyed hearing from my fellow panellists, and I would like to report back to you some of the main messages I took away from the day.

From L-R Tony Owen, Haydon Manning, Ben Heard, Andy Lloyd, Paul Hardisty

Anthony (Tony) Owen, Academic Director and Santos Chair of Energy, UCL School of Energy and Resources, gave a very important discussion of how nuclear power might fit in the Australian energy landscape and the barriers to its uptake. I have shown below two slides in particular that tell an important story. The first tells us something most of us already know: the construction costs of nuclear, in comparison with fossil sources and on shore wind, is high.

 The second tells us something fewer of us know/appreciate/understand, which is that the first chart is not the whole story at all. With nuclear, almost all the money is spent up front. Once constructed it is highly reliable and requires virtually no inputs of fuel. So it then generates electricity at very low cost. This is shown in the next table, which compares the actual cost of the electricity being produced at discount rates of 5% and 10%. The costs shown include a carbon price. Even at the steeper 10% discount rate, the price of nuclear electricity remains either superior of highly competitive across the board. Nuclear, of course, brings that little advantage of being zero carbon and producing no other filthy pollution.

So you might think that’s good news, and I suppose it is, but Tony laid out the cold hard facts of the situation. I’m paraphrasing but here’s what he said:

If the CEO of, say, Origin Energy said to the board “I’ve got a great idea. Let’s spend $5bn of the company’s money, for which we will not start seeing a return for at least 5 years” he would be laughed at. In fact he would probably be sacked.

Tony’s point is a deadly serious one. He was not saying it was difficult for the private sector to conceive of investing in nuclear, he was saying it was impossible. It will not happen. The only energy investments going ahead under private arrangements in Australia are wind and open cycle gas because they are relatively cheap, they arrive as prefabricated modules and so start delivering a return more quickly.

I can’t overstate the importance of this information. There is a clear and sizeable gulf between what serves the national interest in energy investments, and what is palatable for private interests in energy investments. Clearly, with high reliability,  zero greenhouse gas emissions,  well priced electricity and baseload capability, there is nothing wrong with the nuclear technology itself… except the amount of time that will elapse between money being borrowed and return beginning to flow on the investment. But in a wholly private system that is fatal, the country misses out, and we keep building gas and failing to close coal.

Clearly what is required, as Tony pointed out, is some sort of bridging arrangement to allow those larger investments in energy to be made, and that means a degree of government intervention. Now, any nuclear opponent worth their salt will at this point scream “SUBSIDY!!!”. Well, if you care to look at the upfront cost of any renewable proposals for baseload power, I think you will find a similar problem, so here’s my call. We need a system of bridging finance arrangement that should be available to any zero carbon power source that is capable of providing baseload power at a good price but is hindered by the high up front capital cost. That levels things out nicely. The respective power systems will still have to be able to demonstrate that they are good value in order to secure finance and that’s where nuclear will do well: high certainty, high reliability, after construction the revenue will flow. Of course, an alternative is to simply hand out very large sums of money, as is happening under Solar Flagships (“SUBSIDY!!!”). Maybe they should just open that to nuclear? I prefer the bridging finance idea myself.

Haydon Manning, Head of Politics and Public Policy from Flinders University then gave a great talk on where nuclear currently resides in the political sphere in Australia (locked in the basement and told to shut up, basically). It’s telling from Haydon’s presentation that the Australians with the most positive regard for uranium mining are South Australians because guess what? We do it, have done so for some time, and have a better perspective than other Australian’s that it’s not much different to other mining. We really need to build the presence of nuclear power in the debate to start getting people familiar with it, and normalising it a bit more. There would seem to be a lot to gain in the realm of acceptance from simply demystifying nuclear.

I spoke third and concluded the presentation with the Sustainable Choices Video I made with Barry Brook. It was well received.

Presenting to the CEDA audience, Perth, September 2011

I was followed by Andy Lloyd, Chief Development Officer, Uranium, Rio Tinto Ltd. Andy gave the room a chuckle when he disclosed that he was under orders “not to create a headline”. Rio Tinto had created a nuclear headline in WA just a couple of weeks previously, stating an opinion that nuclear needs to be up for consideration in the energy supply. the political response was all too predictable, disappointing and lacking in leadership, vision , and any appreciation of the severity of climate change. So true to his remit, Andy focussed on the international situation for nuclear and spoke of a strong future for the power source that ticks so many boxes, with the notable exceptions of Germany, Italy and Switzerland.

Our final speaker was Paul Hardisty, Global Director, Sustainability and EcoNomics for Worley Parsons. Paul gave a frank opening, saying he was not especialy pro-nuclear, but simply believes we have to look at the facts of energy to drive our decision-making. Paul’s presentation was based around the concept of the “social cost of carbon”, being the damage that unabated carbon emissions will do to society. His all to important point is that this cost is not given due attention, all attention is focussed on the “price” we choose to place on carbon. One without the other is not good ground for decision making.

I was deeply appreciative that in Paul there is another speaker who is quite unafraid to lay out in no uncertain terms both the seriousness of the climate crisis, and the rank inadequacy of our current energy strategies to deal with it. I really, really believe more Australians need to hear this undiluted message, and take some time to make peace with it. It takes you to a low place, but you emerge with a new sense of vision and determination, and a whole lot less tolerance for nonsense solutions and myopic arguments. As Paul said in his opening, he believes in attending to the facts to determine what is best.

A fairly brief panel discussion followed. Being in such agreement as we were it was pretty mild, though one audience member queried the need for storage of HLW, which Paul advocated and I appeared to poo-poo. This gave me a good chance to introduce Generation IV technology to the discussion and make the point that burying the waste forever would be a bad idea. But Paul’s actual meta point was a very good one: people need to see a solution to the waste problem or nuclear simply will not be accepted. It’s not enough to say “Current storage is really safe, it’s less dangerous than A,B,C,D”. He’s probably right.

At the end of the session, I worked through a couple of Little Creatures Pale Ales with the local Nuclear Free Campaigner for the WA Conservation Council. Having never spent any quality time with an anti-nuclear activist it was eye opening to say the least. I really don’t wish to mock or belittle anyone so I will leave the person’s name out of this. However I take what I do here very seriously so my review of the discussion is going to be pretty frank. In case she reads it, this is both nothing personal, and something highly personal. While I’ve no interest in giving anyone a bad day, it’s my future and that of my kids at stake. That, you could say, is personal.

What I found most staggering was this little gem:

“I don’t buy into the whole playing nuclear off against coal argument”.

Sorry??? In case you missed the implications, what my interlocutor was doing was excusing herself from the need to make any decisions based on a comparisons of these two energy sources. Good and bad are no longer relative concepts that need to be worked through in a complex world of poverty, pollution and climate change. Nuclear is just bad, end of story. Therefore the answer to “should we consider nuclear is?” is “No. Bad.”

What a wonderful intellectual luxury. Imagine how easy it would be to get through life with no need to think in relative terms, no need to make the cold calculation that lots of deaths is worse than few or none, but instead demonise the source of the few or none. I think I could take any aspect of the modern world (paper, glass, concrete) and conclude that it is horrific if I gave myself permission to consider neither the implications of a)what we would do without it, or b)what we would use instead of it.

Another interesting statement was this:

No nuclear power station has ever closed a coal power station.

That may be perfectly true, but is it not incredibly obvious that nuclear would have displaced one or two (or 440)? It’s a lovely example of the sort of nonsensical half-truth that the anti-nuclear movement needs to rely on to press their case.

Worst of all (for me), yet again I saw that, despite protestations otherwise, it is the person of steadfast anti-nuclear disposition who is quite untouched by the urgency of the climate crisis (a point I made in part one of my response to the debate between George Monbiot and Greenpeace). This “world without nuclear” vision requires decades of delay that we simply do not have while renewable energy sources are improved. I’m sorry, but the two positions don’t gel. If you acknowledge this as a crisis, you demand rational consideration of all solutions. If you reject outright the biggest potential solution on the basis of ideology, it invariably follows that you haven’t actually grasped that it’s a crisis.

Where I’m sure my brief drinking buddy had some sounds points and knowledge were some of the corporate behaviours of the uranium industry. I’m quite capable of believing some of this to be true. I’m simply not persuaded that it could possibly be the element uranium that distinguishes whether or not a big business is socially responsible. As I recently highlighted the consortia that will deliver the two largest solar projects in Australia are headed by BP and Areva, an oil company and the world’s biggest nuclear company. I wouldn’t bet on them being teddy bears for those billion dollar investments.

The experience has improved my typology of nuclear opponents. The decision making centres of environmentalists like myself should be able to be accessed in discussions of relative good and harm. Most environmentalists like to think somewhat hollistically, and concepts like “least net harm, greatest net good, 99% improvement on current situation” carry some weight. The anti-nuclear activist/ nuclear free campaigner would appear to be an altogether different beast. Their raison d’etre is disagreement with, and opposition to nuclear. I have quoted above the extent to which they can closet themselves from critical thought to maintain this position.

Perth was an extremely valuable experience, and I’m so glad of the opportunity. My thanks to Toro Resources, without whom I would have had to decline; they generously took care of my expenses. I have high hopes that this is only the beginning for CEDA providing a platform for nuclear power to get a hearing in Australia, and I will keep you all abreast of developments on that front. Later this week I will have some good news about a soon to be released series of articles. More on that next time…

11 comments

  1. On nuclear financing the Federal govt can find the money several times over for joint strike fighters or national broadband rollouts. They’ve set money aside for 2GW of coal generation replacement by gas but that may not be spent. We’ll soon approach a situation whereby small modular reactors won’t be enough since we’ll need multiple GW of baseload replacement. Some kind of soft loan arrangement will be necessary whereby the Feds carry the initial risks but then get a healthy dividend when it all works out.

    We also hear stuff like 6,000 construction jobs in the Qld coal fields. Nobody says thousands of jobs followed by megatonnes of CO2. A nuke build should stress thousands of jobs followed by virtually nil CO2.

    1. Well, exactly. It shouldn’t be hard, should it? The national interest case is clear as crystal; these large investments are needed quite soon and the private sector is not equipped for the risk. Hopefully we can remember soon that Governments actually still have a role in building nations.

      Hopefully though the SMR will play a role in breaking nuclear ground by not having that financial hurdle, and make the next stage easier.

  2. “I don’t buy into the whole playing nuclear off against coal argument”.

    What does that even mean??? Did you push her to clarify this statement? Using terms like “buy into” and “playing off” suggests she thinks comparisons that are made between coal and nuclear are somehow just spin. Why would she think that? Unless… that’s what she is so used producing that she imagines that is all anyone produces. Has she forgotten it’s possible to verify a claim, to check references and read the source material and that if we follow these steps we can make informed evidence based choices? If there is available scientific literature on a subject, no-one has to “buy into” anything.

    1. You better believe I pushed her, it was quite an animated discussion. The result of my pushing all fed into the other point I made about anti-nuclear activists seeing less urgency around climate change than is the case. Where it was truly hard to take was the other health impacts of fossil which are constant and so pronounced. Thing is, I think she realised this problem but felt quite stuck, for obvious reasons. Change her mind and she can’t do her job.

      When thinking critically the facts are so clearly on the side of nuclear that I think it leaves people in her position with no choice but to be very intellectually blunt in the approach. I did feel sorry for her because she feels attached to all the personal stories of harm she has heard in the course of her activism and work. Some of which may be true with the nuclear industry to blame, who knows? But there would be stories no less horrible and in far greater number from fossil fuels. But she couldn’t let go and make that leap.

  3. It’s not enough to say “Current storage is really safe, it’s less dangerous than A,B,C,D”

    Why not? This is basic risk assessment, isn’t it? Doesn’t it depend on what “A,B,C,D” are? What if “A” was climate change and “B” was the waste fossil fuels pump straight into our atmosphere every day? And as you say Ben, we’ve already solved the long lived waste problem with the IFR so it is perfectly true that our current waste capture and storage options are less dangerous than any other energy option we have.

    It sounds like Paul Hardisty had a lot of good things to say so perhaps his above statement just needs more context, but I must say I find it very strange.

    1. Why not? Because we don’t get to decide what satisfies people on an issue, they do (much the same point you have been making to me about operation safety off-line), and Paul’s point is that people will not be satisfied with anything less than a proper solution beyond our current storage approach.

      And yes, we have such a solution. Where Paul was coming from was a position of not factoring in Gen IV, and rather reflecting that the point of view that “high level waste is safely stored” just will not cut it. Make a proper story of short period of storage followed by fuel for IFR, and I suspect Paul would find that a great deal more compelling for the wider audience. He’s not talking about convincing himself, but rather everyone else. He’s trying to be realistic about people’s regard for HLW.

      1. Ah, there is the extra context I needed. The way I read it first time round, it sounded like he had rejected IFR recycling as a solution – as opposed to simply being unaware of it. Thanks Ben

  4. The economies of scale involved in old nuclear designs bring this disadvantage. Costs per kWh might fall, but the total investment sum gets higher.
    I found this article about the General Electric “Power Reactor, Innovative Small Module (PRISM)” design. They basically replace the scaling with replication of many small units.
    http://is.gd/1E0l6w
    One advantage of that of course is that the individual unit won’t cost $5 billion.
    Another advantage is that the smaller the unit, the smaller the anti-nuclear activism directed at it.

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