HOW dare anyone pretend to be surprised by Japan’s reduced emissions target? This was a foregone conclusion with a global element of responsibility and important lessons for Australia.

The frightening loss of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors precipitated the withdrawal from service of Japan’s remaining, largely undamaged nuclear generators for stress testing and additional protective measures. The only feasible result was a dramatic increase in consumption of fossil fuels.

As The Breakthrough Institute reported: “In January 2012 … Japanese utilities increased imports of fuel oil by 165 per cent, crude oil by 174 per cent, LNG by 39 per cent, and coal by 12 per cent.”

This pathway has pushed Japan’s emissions about 100 million tonnes higher per year. Importantly for the 2020 target, the political consequences of the nuclear accident have prolonged this shutdown and also seen about 18 gigawatts of planned and proposed new nuclear build suspended or deferred. With more than 90 per cent of Japan’s emissions coming from the energy sector, expanded nuclear power has undergirded its global commitments from the very beginning.

How did the international community respond to these signs? Did it recognise both the significant challenge and vital importance of the nuclear sector in Japan and the longer term imperative of climate stabilisation?

Did it provide political and diplomatic support for safely restarting the nuclear fleet and resuming planned investments to help Japan meet its target?

Like heck it did. What Japan received was a massive collective dose of radiation freakout. Germany began shuttering nuclear plants, and opening coal with a newly commissioned 725 megawatt coal plant and a further 8000 MW to come online in the next two years. France’s socialist candidate promised to cut nuclear generation from about 80 per cent of supply to 50 per cent.

The US responded to a low-risk failure (authors note: here I refer to San Onofre, not Fukushima!) by regulating 2.2 gigawatts of Californian nuclear generation out of existence, driving electricity emissions up by 35 per cent. Environmental organisations peddled tales of “the end of Japan”. The Australian Greens remain largely unable to form a sentence that includes “nuclear” without including “cancer”.

Even when four of the world’s leading climate scientists, including Australia’s Tom Wigley, issued a public plea for environmentalists to support deployment of advanced nuclear power, they remained unmoved. No matter which nation, when nuclear generation contracts, fossil generation is the winner, and our greenhouse emissions rise. Where nuclear power expands, fossil combustion is displaced. It is a simple game. Until we build huge quantities of clean energy to replace huge quantities of dirty energy our emissions will grow.

No amount of buck-passing in the form of emissions trading can change that. Facing a profound economic and energy security impact, Japan had no honest choice but to change target. It has taken the slow road to nuclear restart and expansion with our global blessing, facing instead a doubled trade deficit running at $10.8 billion for October on the back of soaring fossil fuel imports (NB This has been corrected from the print version). Its stumble on climate change lines the pockets of its energy-exporting trading partners. Curiously, this raises no complaints and elicits no suggestions of sharing the responsibility for the emissions.

Which brings us to Australia. In 1960, we derived 19 per cent of our electricity from renewable sources, compared to 7 per cent today. Growth in renewables has been outstripped by growth in fossil fuels. Prohibition of nuclear power in 1999 left us without a heavy-lifting competitor to coal and gas.

We legislated renewable energy targets, not clean generation targets. In response, wind and solar now provide 3 per cent of electricity in the National Electricity Market. We applied a market-based carbon pricing mechanism while excluding a low-carbon technology from our market. We sell both coal and uranium and refuse to use the latter, while our electricity remains among the dirtiest in the world.

Is it any wonder many Australians suspect our policies are not fair-dinkum attempts to tackle climate change?

Decarbonising Australian electricity by 2050 demands the addition of a whopping 10 terawatt-hours of new clean generation, every single year, from 2015. Attempting that with everything except nuclear will be like attempting the Tour de France with everything except a bicycle.

If Labor prefers a market solution and the Coalition favours direct action, I have a suggestion for both: bipartisan action to dismantle the barriers preventing nuclear power from entering our market. Permit us the solution with the grunt to take on coal and gas. Put processes in place to enable the greatest, most effectively and efficiently regulated nuclear power sector in the world.

Position us to lead with incredible new technology, providing stable, consistently priced, dispatchable zero-carbon generation to do the job properly in partnership with a strong renewables sector. Clean our air of the particulates and toxins from coal burning. Preserve our land from the spread of fossil fuel mining. Build high-technology knowledge and jobs. Give us a credible clean energy vision that will meet the challenges of this century.

Ben Heard is director of ThinkClimate Consulting.

Author’s note: This op-ed was originally published by The Australian as Let’s get real: nuclear is the only option. My thanks. NB the heading is an editorial decision and in my opinion open to some misinterpretation. My thanks also to Rod Adams of Atomic Insight for re-posting this so promptly.

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16 comments

  1. Hi Ben! Good post — Japan let it be known last January its pre-March 2011 emissions goals were toast. Less certain of the $10.9 billion/month gain from fossil-fuel imports; that appears to be Japan’s total monthly trade deficit.

    Haven’t found the exact figure for new fossils, but in Trade figures reveal cost of Japan’s nuclear shutdown (Jan 2012), WNN estimated Japan’s fossil imports increased by $55 billion over 2010, or only about $5.5 billion each month for the ten months following the Sendai quake and tsunami.

    That’s still a lot of dollars for want of nuclear power. For perspective, here in the States, South Carolina Gas & Electric has two Westinghouse Gen III+ AP1000 in early stages of construction at its VC Summer facility, for which it expects to pay $10 billion the pair. AP1000 are 1.17 GW nameplate, or about 1 GW net. Construction time is about 5 years after site preparation, which can take two more,

    1. Yes, to be losing that quantity of dollars per month buying more of the problem instead of building the solution tells us everything that is insane about our current management of this issue

    2. Ed,
      Take care, as these nuclear projects turn out far more expensive as published.
      The new Hinckley Point UK, nuclear power plant will start at 2023 with inflation corrected strike price. Take 2% inflation then the strike price in 2030 will be: $210/MWh. In addition tax-payers pay for loan guarantees ~$35/MWh, decommission help ~$10/MWh, insurance subsidies ~$40/MWh (regarding accidents, and waste).
      So the real price for new nuclear is: ~$295/MWh in 2030.

      Present whole sale prices in UK ~$70/MWh (much higher than Germany).

      PV solar Feed-in-Tariff in Germany which includes ~6% profit: $123/MWh. All experts expect the long term trend going down with 8%/a. So in 2030:~$30/MWh.
      Wind now ~$114/MWh long term going down with ~1-2%/a. So in 2030: ~$90/MWh
      So including storage costs the price of renewable electricity will be 100GW renewable installed (grow rate ~30%), ~1GW nuclear (grow rate small or negative).

      Denmark will have 100% renewable for electricity generation in 2040 (now ~40%).
      Germany 80% in 2050 (now 23%).
      Many German studies conclude 100% renewable electricity feasible. E.g. http://www.umweltbundesamt.de/sites/default/files/medien/publikation/add/3997-0.pdf

      No country with even 80% nuclear target.
      France new targets reduce nuclear to 50% in 2024.

    3. Ed,
      Take care, as these nuclear projects turn out far more expensive as published.
      The new Hinckley Point UK, nuclear power plant will start at 2023 with inflation corrected strike price. Take 2% inflation then the strike price in 2030 will be: $210/MWh. In addition tax-payers pay for loan guarantees ~$35/MWh, decommission help ~$10/MWh, insurance subsidies ~$40/MWh (regarding accidents, and waste).
      So the real price for new nuclear is: ~$295/MWh in 2030.

      Present whole sale prices in UK ~$70/MWh (much higher than Germany).

      PV solar Feed-in-Tariff in Germany which includes ~6% profit: $123/MWh. All experts expect the long term trend going down with 8%/a. So in 2030:~$30/MWh.
      Wind now ~$114/MWh long term going down with ~1-2%/a. So in 2030: ~$90/MWh
      So including storage costs the price of renewable electricity will be ~$100/MWh in 2030.

      This implies the rate- and tax-payer has to pay ~3times more for nuclear than for renewable. While nuclear adds also a lot of extra heat to the atmosphere, generates some danger (exclusion zones) and leaves a burden for next generations.

      And renewable is a real option. Last year ~110GW renewable installed (grow rate ~30%), ~1GW nuclear (grow rate small or negative).

      Denmark will have 100% renewable for electricity generation in 2040 (now ~40%).
      Germany 80% in 2050 (now 23%).
      Many German studies conclude 100% renewable electricity feasible. E.g. http://www.umweltbundesamt.de/sites/default/files/medien/publikation/add/3997-0.pdf

      No country with even 80% nuclear target.
      France new targets reduce nuclear to 50% in 2024.

      *) corrected as greater than sign delivered deleted text

  2. “NB the heading is an editorial decision and in my opinion open to some misinterpretation.”

    Thanks for clearing that up, it did seem a little contradictory with your other articles e.g. Renewables vs Nuclear the Wrong Battle, personally one of my favourites.

  3. Great to get that exposure Ben – you’ve come a long way, quickly!

    I do fear however that the Australian is the wrong venue. It has basically become a Tory rag with zero credibility – it prints any old tosh from denialists, and has a nasty habit of just making shit up, running vendettas, being totally partisan. It’s truly no longer fit to be considered a newspaper (well its rugby coverage is excellent). The problem is that I fear that nuclear power is becoming weirdly partisan in Australia, in the same way that climate science already has. There’s no great logic to this happening, the ETU and CFMEU should be on side (well so should the Greens, really), but if it does happen that way, then I fear for the future of nuclear power in Australia. We need bipartisan support or it simply will not happen, not ever. The legislative processes will take multiple terms of government to go through, it can only happen with the support of both major parties.

    1. You criticisms of The Australian are fair and reasonable IMO.

      There is a reason to speak through it, which is to reach those who are less persuaded about the urgency of climate change, largely because the solutions proposed by those screaming about urgency are patently not serious.

      Give those people rationality in the proposal of nuclear power as a central platform of the response, and there is often a reciprocal shift in position to one of greater acceptance of the scientific messages about the climate. There are many people for whom the science has become the target, when what they really don’t buy is the solutions.

      Brian Carlton on 2UE exmplified this rhetoric and approach in my interview yesterday. Is he deeply concerned by the climate science? I suspect not quite, however he is concerned enough to expect real, credible responses. There are lots of people this approach speaks to.

      Using nuclear power I got a strongly pro-climate change action, pro-clean energy, pro-environmental op-ed prominently position in a paper that often delivers the opposite. I can’t fix media. Being in this to influence I have to use it. Like I use climate concern at ABC blog to deliver a strongly pro-nuclear argument. This is how I hope to further bipartisanship. Expecting everyone to think the same is not sound. Appealing to the way people think is the way to go.

  4. Here’s a random thought I had after investigating ‘all in one’ desktop PCs in which incorporate the tower box hardware into the back of the monitor. The sequence could be
    A heavy technology … desktop PCs, Gen III reactors
    B lite technology …. laptops, SMRs
    C evolved technology … all-in-one desktop PCs, quick build gigawatt Gen IIIs

    That’s why I think Australia’s first commercial NPP should an SMR that does a needed job like mine power or desalination. When seen to do a good job perhaps by then big machines (eg to replace Hazelwood) will have become both quicker to construct and accepted by the public.

    1. An example of a possible mining application for SMRs is the 180C Bayer process heat to convert bauxite into alumina. Since the first SMR is not expected until 2022 it will be too late for some
      http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-11-26/rio-tinto-gove-refinery-doubt-upscale/5116936
      The current fuel oil heat source is too expensive and a gas pipeline doesn’t look like a good investment. I guess the work will go to those countries (not mentioning China or India) that don’t have those pesky carbon taxes. Shame about the 1,500 jobs to be lost.

  5. “[…]bipartisan action to dismantle the barriers preventing nuclear power from entering our market. Permit us the solution with the grunt to take on coal and gas. Put processes in place to enable the greatest, most effectively and efficiently regulated nuclear power sector in the world.

    Position us to lead with incredible new technology, providing stable, consistently priced, dispatchable zero-carbon generation to do the job properly in partnership with a strong renewables sector. Clean our air of the particulates and toxins from coal burning. Preserve our land from the spread of fossil fuel mining. Build high-technology knowledge and jobs. Give us a credible clean energy vision that will meet the challenges of this century.”

    This. This is the policy directive.

    World Class Regulation (politicians love world class stuff)
    Advanced Manufacturing/High Tech jobs (ANSTO practically invented Gen 4 enrichment, SILEX)
    Reducing Pollution (appeals to a wider audience, including climate deniers)
    Sustainability (in vogue at the moment)
    Clean Energy targets

    Bravo. Nice job of getting it in the Australian. I need to go overseas more.

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