Followers of this blog will be aware that Melbourne’s major newspaper, The Age, has been running something they have called “The Climate Agenda”. A process of posting and voting on questions related to climate change by the readership has produced ten questions to which The Age will respond.
Well this week, nuclear’s number was up. Here is the question in full, and a link to the full response from The Age.
QUESTION: ”If the government is so serious about reducing CO2 emissions, why do they keep ignoring the single most effective method for doing so: nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is far cheaper than ‘renewables’ and kills less people per unit of energy produced than even solar or wind. New generation reactors improve safety significantly and render the long-term waste storage issue moot, and thorium fast-breeder reactors cannot melt down accidentally at all. France has shown how easy and effective nuclear is at reducing greenhouse emissions. Why doesn’t the government spend some of it’s enormous ‘clean energy future’ research and advertising budget to help educate Australians about the facts around new forms of clean atomic energy?”
I have one or two things to say about this…
What the originator of this question may not have realised at the time (and nor did I, by the way) is that he gave The Age an easy out on actually presenting the facts on nuclear. By posing his question “why do they (the Australian Government) keep ignoring…” and “Why doesn’t the government spend some money teaching people…” The Age were actually able to give a pretty honest answer: 1)because it is a political nightmare, since 2) otherwise reputable people seem to delight in obstructing any useful dialogue on nuclear power by creating and propagating myths, nonsensical memes, and uncritical evaluations of the risks and benefits of nuclear. This clouds the issue so much that most Australians, at best, do not know what the hell to think about it all.
That’s pretty much the outcome I would anticipate for any Australian of average knowledge around nuclear power as as result of reading this article by The Age.
Let’s break a few things down.
PRO-NUCLEAR and anti-nuclear advocates agree on one thing and one thing only – that politics in Australia would need to change before we see atomic energy as part of our power mix
I’m with them all the way on that one, and the following paragraphs of the introduction do an excellent job of illustrating the amazing depth of this problem, finishing with this little cracker:
when Treasury modelled the energy options for Australia in 2050, it bluntly stated: ”Nuclear is assumed to remain unavailable.”
Such is the supposed political minefield of nuclear in Australia, we have reached a point that serious energy and climate policy planning that looks ahead to 2050 no less arbitrarily rules from consideration a power source that provides 15% of global electricity. One word springs to mind.
UPDATE: For an outstanding analysis of what this ridiculous decision will cost Australia in terms of both money and efficacy of the plan, see this post by Martin Nicholson.
So on to the issues. The first they tackle is cost. In a classic case of answering the wrong question, we are told that nuclear power would be expensive to build. This is true, perfectly true, and I have never heard a nuclear proponent say otherwise. But I’ll add two points.
Firstly, whatever we build next in Australia for baseload is not going to be what you call “cheap”. We have been lazy in this country, relying on infrastructure that was built two or more generations ago. We seem to have forgotten the necessity of occasionally spending large sums of money to build our nation. We need to get ready for price tags in the billions, regardless of the technology. Which is all the more reason why we need to explore all options to make the right decision.
Secondly, we don’t actually want power plants. What we want is low cost, reliable power. So the right question is “can nuclear power provide low cost, reliable power, with all costs considered?”. Had they done their homework they would have found the answer to this questions is a simple and decisive “yes”.
The levelised cost of electricity (LCOE, basically the price at which power needs to be sold by the generator for the generator to be viable) for nuclear power is reliably low, nearly as low as that of coal generation with the inclusion of a low carbon price. A recent peer reviewed paper in the journal Energy explored just this question with a meta-review of 15 global studies. Not a bad reference I would have thought, but it did not get a look in here.
It’s a different source, but here’s a table illustrating this concept.
For the counter argument to this, we hear from Dr Mark Diesendorf of the University of New South Wales (if you are seeing a pattern forming with The Climate Agenda, so am I; I had a few words to say about Mark in my previous review). From Mark we hear this:
He says that, where they operate, nuclear power stations benefit from large hidden subsidies, including taxpayers taking on the burden of insuring and decommissioning power stations and of liability for their breakdowns.”There would never have been a nuclear power station built in the world without limited liability on accidents, so the public and taxpayers suffer the risks of rare but devastating accidents,” Diesendorf said.
I was moderate in my criticism of Mark last time, but this is just ridiculous, deliberately uncritical thinking from a blatant nuclear obstructionist, designed to create false “knowledge” about the nuclear industry.
If people including Mark are concerned with energy subsidies, there are three areas toward which I might direct attention. Firstly, there is the Government simply handing over around 30% of the capital cost of the technology, then subsidising every drop of electricity with Renewable Energy Certificates, as will be occurring for two solar projects under the Solar Flagships Program. Secondly, there is State Governments legislating feed-in tariffs for rooftop solar panels of up to 60c per kWh, as well as these panels being subsidised with Renewable Energy Certificates when a nuclear power station can produce electricity for around 6c per kWh. I rather suspect that in those two cases, subsidies are just tickety-boo in Diesendorf land. Thirdly, there is the little matter of our global fossil fuel addiction being subsidised annually to the tune of over $400 bn, according to those raving lefties, the International Energy Agency. In Australia we seem poised to buy out the closure of 2,000 MW of fossil generation. Nice little earner for simply going away.
Next to that, the so called “nuclear subsidy” we are told to fear is not upfront cash handouts, not cash bonuses above the market rate for the electricity produced, not certificates from the mandated purchase of expensive power by electricity retailers, but… limited liability on accidents.
Now, insurance of the nuclear power industry is a deeply misunderstood issue, so I’ll divert into it a little.Plenty of people believe that nuclear power plants “don’t have” or “can’t get” insurance for their operations. Until just earlier this year, I was not clear on this issue myself. However this is incorrect. Straight up and down, no ifs or buts, incorrect.
For example, here is the group of 20 insuring organisations that make up an insurance pool for the United Kingdom. Here is the basic equivalent organisation in the United States, a nation where every single plant carries $250m of insurance, with an industry pool of around $13bn available if needed. As Luke Weston put in in a great post first published to Brave New Climate:
If the commercial insurance industry will not provide any coverage for the commercial nuclear energy industry, as anti-nuclearists often claim, then would they care to explain what it is exactly that these nuclear-specialist insurance corporations actually do?
So this notion of limited liability and Governments picking up the tab for nuclear is a bit of a nonsense. It is a reality that Governments all over the world serve as the insurer of last resort to all sorts of horrible situations. The rebuilding of Christchurch and Japan after their respective natural disasters is going to be an exercise involving plenty of public expenditure for all sorts of industries and infrastructure that ought to have had their own insurance. Most notoriously, global Governments found themselves as insurers of last resort for their collapsing banking systems. The nuclear industry by contrast has a very good record of covering its own costs from its own insurance, and will continue to do so. Because they are adequately insured.
The discussion moves on to safety. Here, again, nuclear wins on the facts. The Age quotes a very clear finding in favour of nuclear and some renewables , against coal, oil and biomass. They note, quite astutely, that excellent finding is not taking pollution related deaths or greenhouse gas related harm into account, which would worsen the case for those other sources dramatically. So far, so accurate.
They then sow confusion and a false sense of uncertainty in the Chernobyl discussion by looking everywhere except to the peak body for investigating and reporting on this incident, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation. In short, these people represent the peak of knowledge on this issue, reviewing and making determinations on all available evidence. They are the IPCC of radiation if you like. I have discussed their findings on Chernobyl at quite some length for an earlier post, but the headline finding is this:
- 28 deaths from acute radiation sickness
- 15 excess deaths from thyroid cancer, from around 5,000 excess cases
- No other detectable radialogical impact.
Now, the World Health Organisation leaves the door ajar for a higher attribution of mortality from radiation. I am guessing that it is from this source that The Age has got the figure of “as low as 9,000”. But you really have to read what WHO says in full to realise just how guarded they are at making even that determination. You should know me well enough by now for what comes next… here is the source, repeated in full, link supplied. Sorry it’s a bit long, but I wouldn’t want you to think I was being misleading on something as important as this. After all, I’m not a big newspaper.
An increased number of cancer deaths can be expected during the lifetime of persons exposed to radiation from the accident. Since it is currently impossible to determine which individual cancers were caused by radiation, the number of such deaths can only be estimated statistically using information and projections from the studies of atomic bomb survivors and other highly exposed populations. It should be noted that the atomic bomb survivors received high radiation doses in a short time period, while Chernobyl caused low doses over a long time. This and other factors, such as trying to estimate doses people received some time after the accident, as well as differences in lifestyle and nutrition, cause very large uncertainties when making projections about future cancer deaths. In addition, a significant non-radiation related reduction in the average lifespan in the three countries over the past 15 years caused by overuse of alcohol and tobacco, and reduced health care, have significantly increased the difficulties in detecting any effect of radiation on cancer mortality.
Although there is controversy about the magnitude of the cancer risk from exposure to low doses of radiation, the US National Academy of Sciences BEIR VII Committee, published in 2006, a comprehensive review of the scientific evidence, and concluded that the risk seems to continue in a linear fashion at lower doses without a threshold (this is called the “linear no-threshold” or LNT model). However, there are uncertainties concerning the magnitude of the effect, particularly at doses much lower than about 100 mSv. (Author’s note: you will find in the WHO link that the exposure for residents of the most contaminated areas is listed as “>50mSv”, over 20 years, with natural background being 48 mSv over 20 years)
The Expert Group concluded that there may be up to 4 000 additional cancer deaths among the three highest exposed groups over their lifetime (240 000 liquidators; 116 000 evacuees and the 270 000 residents of the SCZs). Since more than 120 000 people in these three groups may eventually die of cancer, the additional cancer deaths from radiation exposure correspond to 3-4% above the normal incidence of cancers from all causes.Projections concerning cancer deaths among the five million residents of areas with radioactive caesium deposition of 37 kBq/m2 in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine are much less certain because they are exposed to doses slightly above natural background radiation levels. Predictions, generally based on the LNT model, suggest that up to 5 000 additional cancer deaths may occur in this population from radiation exposure, or about 0.6% of the cancer deaths expected in this population due to other causes. Again, these numbers only provide an indication of the likely impact of the accident because of the important uncertainties listed above.
Ok. If you made it that far, you should be on board with what I say next. The determination of possibly 9,000 excess deaths is in the shadow of a major life expectancy impact from booze, smokes, and a stuffed health care system, and relies on:
- A theory of extrapolated impacts from very high dose sudden exposures (A-bomb survivors), modelled to assume the same rate of harm for very low dose, long-term exposures
- Even this model struggles to suggest any effect at below 100mSv. The residents of the most contaminated “strictly controlled zones” (SCZs) get less than 100mSv
- The other 4,000 assumed deaths rely on this model then branching out beyond the SCZs and into areas where the radiation levels are dramatically less again
Is it any wonder UNSCEAR just went with “no other radiological impact”? For The Age however, this finding of 9,000 is proposed as something really, weirdly low. Finding, reading and accurately presenting the two most obvious sources on this issue in UNSCEAR and WHO, should not have been beyond them. They did however note that “Some estimates are as high as a million”. Well, “some estimates” have been shown to be crackpot lunacy and have no place in a reputable paper.
None of this stops Diesendorf from playing the fearmonger on Fukushima, an event with radiological risk that doesn’t come close to the total catastrophy that was Chernobyl.
I should move on…. We then enter discussion of the new generation of reactors (Generation IV). Here, The Age again takes comment from Diesendorf, yet takes nothing from Australia’s resident expert on Gen IV, Professor Barry Brook. That’s disappointing, and either lazy or cagey. It’s not as if Barry has a low profile for God’s sake. On matters of climate change and energy in the media he’s the proverbial bad coin.
The article focusses on the potential of throrium reactors, which are more commercially distant and technically challenging than Gen IV uranium reactors. This focus lets them slip this quote in from our resident obstructionist:
The new technology doesn’t exist. It’s all talk, it’s all plans. India has been trying to build an incredibly complicated three-part system for thorium and if it ever works it will be much more expensive than existing reactors and even more dangerous.
Firsty, to suggest that an eventual thorium reactor will be “even more dangerous” (than effectively zero risk, but I digress…) is, again just plain wrong. Unlike uranium, thorium is unable to sustain a chain reaction without some sort of external priming, making a runaway chain reaction of any kind plain impossible. It is an easy fact to check.
As for technology that doesn’t exist…
Spooky…. Hey, what’s this?
As long as I’m overdoing things, here’s a link to a one hour documentary on the history of the Intergral Fast Reactor, featuring extensive interviews with the lead designer, Dr Charles Till, one of the imaginary people in the first photo.
In short, the technology is real, very real, and it is amazing. An international group of very amazing people calling themselves The Science Council for Global Initiatives are doing everything they possibly can to restart the development and deployment of this technology. A great educational opportunity for nuclear was neglected.
Finally, they cover another common misconception, one I used to spruik myself: that nuclear power is not a clean energy solution across the lifecycle. That’s wrong and has been repeatedly shown to be so. Here are a few sources you can check:
- A 2006 study by the University of Sydney
- The lead report from Beyond Zero Emissions (they are not nuclear proponents, but they reported this information factually)
- The afore-mentioned paper in the journal Energy by Nicholson, Beigler and Brook
Once again this meme is pure obstructionism from people who ape concern about climate change. It makes me angry. Solving the climate crisis is going to be hard enough without people just making things up.
There is truth that lower grades of ore require more production inputs, and this ought increase emissions. However:
- There is so much daylight between nuclear and the fossil fuel we are trying to replace that there is a lot of headroom for increased lifecycle emissions with nuclear still being an effective solution
- Increasing the nuclear power uptake itself will put downward pressure on those emissions, as more of the process electricity will be zero carbon
- Having only recently reversed a virtual stagnation of exploration that lasted for decades, Australia’s knowledge of the uranium resource is poor, and “the size of Australia’s known uranium resources significantly understates the potential resource base, and there is great potential for new and significant discoveries” (Australian Government House Committee report).
- Generation IV reactors like the Integral Fast Reactor will derive power from all current nuclear waste and all stocks of depleted uranium, eliminating the need for energy mining all together.
The Age answered the question correctly, as it were. Australia is not doing nuclear because it is “too politically hot”. But in the process of giving that answer, it neglected to draw on essential sources in the form of both local experts and pre-eminent international organisations. Rather than building knowledge and moving the discussion forward, this article will sow yet more misunderstanding, doubt and confusion about nuclear power. They lacked courage, and they lacked integrity.
I lack the circulation and readership of The Age (to put it mildly), but here’s hoping that DSA can fill the void a little in honest brokerage of information.