For the third year I enjoyed contributing to the discussions on climate and energy for the Governor’s Leadership Foundation.

My sincere thanks to the chair, Sally Wheldrake and her team both for the invitation and for such a well organised session. Thanks also to the participants for their attention and great questions. Thanks also for the patience! This was one of the … spicier panel sessions I have done in quite some time, to my surprise. I fear many participants felt confused by the level, tone and content of some of the discussions. As a panel we can do better next time.

When I step back, a great deal of ground was covered. Having just ten minutes to present, and fulfilling my remit to focus on leadership, opportunities to discuss the role of nuclear in meeting the climate change challenge were somewhat constrained.

Chatham House rules prevent any overly specific discussion from the evening. I would like to reflect in general terms on some of the discussion and provide just a little more detail on my position and how and why I take the position I do in nuclear. I hope this is interesting for participants who may visit the blog, and also as something of a digest for others interested in nuclear.

South Australia is part of the NEM

A high level of focus on the impressive penetration of wind and solar in South Australia can deliver a misleading perspective. At 25%+ of electricity delivered, the South Australian wind story is certainly one of creating the best investment environment for wind and reaping the reward. However, South Australia is part of the National Electricity Market. We buy and sell electricity from the geographically largest grid in the world with over 8 million customers, and we are a small part of that. Wind has prospered on the ability to engage in this trading, and South Australia remains a net importer of electricity from the NEM. So, from a system perspective, the successful “integration” of 25%+ wind into the South Australia needs to be reframed as the successful integration of about 5% wind into the NEM. Before anyone gets too excited, or scoff at those raising concerns of the addition of variable generation like wind, let’s just take a pause. To make that claim we either need to a) cut off the interconnectors or b) give wind the chance to do 10%, 15%, 20%, 25% of the whole NEM and then look again at the system impact and cost. I am happy to see greater levels of wind in the NEM in future.

Rather than just buying, now we buy and sell. SA wind would not work without the NEM

Meanwhile, our beloved solar PV is a runaway success in terms of what we once thought success would look like: solar panels on roofs. The amount of electricity generated remains decidedly modest compared to the wind sector, let alone coal and gas, and sales are collapsing with the progressive withdrawal of subsidy. For more about that please check this post.

Please also consider that the proportion of electricity from zero-carbon generation has plunged since 1960. We need to break the habit of patting ourselves on the back while failing. If our efforts are swamped by other variables like growth, the result is that we lose. That’s why we need more and bigger clean energy, and that’s why we need nuclear. For more on this background of Australian electricity please see this post.

This is not success.

The world needs more energy

No one will get argument from me that Australians are profligate in their energy use. Just as we use too much, others use too little energy. The thing is there are many more of them than there are of us.

If the most profligate energy users in the world slashed their per capita energy consumption by between 20%-60% (depending on where they are starting from) to 4000 kWh per year, and we brought the poor world up to that level of consumption, then by 2050 we would have achieved the most phenomenal success on the basis of both efficiency and equity. We would also be consuming double the current level of electricity. All of that electricity, be it what remains in Australia and what is new in Nigeria, all needs to be zero-carbon to get ahead of climate change. We need LOTS of clean energy. That’s another reason I got behind nuclear. For more on that issue please see this post on consumption and this post on population.

Renewables vs Nuclear is the wrong battle

Climate and energy commentators owe it to their audience to be unceasing in their search for sophisticated understanding and insight into these issues, as impartially as possible, and to then bring what they learn and communicate it to build insight and knowledge more broadly.

All energy sources bring advantages and disadvantages. As a staunch nuclear advocate I will unflinchingly point out that the up-front capital requirements are a real barrier, the size of most reactors are unsuitable for the Australian network as currently structured, and the culture of arch conservatism that runs through most of the OECD nuclear industry has delivered us something that is incredibly safe and also created real barriers to innovation and deployment. For some of my openly published criticism please see this post.

To criticise renewable technology is not to reject it. Criticism ought be perceived as a search for understanding so as to make wise decisions. Renewable technologies have some strengths and they have some weaknesses. The weaknesses are not the nefarious concoction of the coal, gas or uranium industry, they are inherent to the technologies. Most importantly the weaknesses become really apparent if we have lots and lots of renewables in the system.

It’s my informed assessment that the weaknesses of renewables are insurmountable in the face of the urgent need for decarbonisation. It’s also my informed assessment that many renewable technologies will help us get there. That’s why I argue renewables vs nuclear is the wrong battle, which you can read more about in this post to ABC. We have our solar. We have our wind. We will be having more of both and much of last night’s discussion was something of a distraction from the bigger picture. It calls on an extra level of maturity and sophistication to appreciate that it’s possible, and in fact essential, that we return nuclear to the forefront of the challenge of displacing fossil fuels and to do so does not require us to reject renewable technologies.

Australia has deployed fossil fuel and renewables. Denmark and Germany have deployed more renewables, fossil fuels, and are shutting nuclear. Switzerland, Sweden and France have deployed nuclear and renewables (principally hydro power)

Nation Emissions (g CO2-e/kWh) % nuclear Residential price (US$/MWh) Industry price (US$/MWh)
Australia 847 0 $292
Denmark 385 0 $454 $128
Germany 468 23 $285 $127
Switzerland 27 40 $264 $156
Sweden 22 40.5 $246 $103
France 77 76 $159 $104


Nuclear advocates are not leaning on new technology

Pointing out what Australia might achieve with new technology is not to lean on it. To say so is to build a straw man. The table above shows what nuclear technology has achieved to date. So does the health and safety related table below, published in The Lancet, as results of the massive ExternE actuarial study conducted by the European Union. Most nuclear advocates do not lean on new technology. The track record of the nuclear industry to date is extraordinary and poorly understood.

I am not a vested interest

Since become a nuclear advocate, I have continued to earn my living through activities like greenhouse gas assessment, carbon neutral strategies, energy efficiency strategies and modelling, writing grants for commercial solar systems and teaching. Latterly I am under scholarship with the University of Adelaide. There is not one person or organisation who would have held me to account had I not presented or panelled last night. There was not one person or organisation vetting what I said or how I said it. I was not paid to attend and it was not an expected part of any salaried role. Those who are vested interests may find it easier to project that onto others when accounting for the constraints they bring.

Why did I become pro-nuclear?

I was asked this and was able to provide a partial answer. I had the opportunity to revisit this in an article for InDaily last year, published here. I also covered this ground for a debate in Sydney, and the video is here.

Thanks again for having me Governor’s Leadership Foundation.


  1. Nothing wrong with a bit of ‘robust’ discussion. Judging by that Advertiser poll done a few weeks ago it would seem that if you were in a room of 30 people, 18 would have varying levels of support and 12 would have varying levels of opposition.

    I like the summary of your position in this article. It’s beginning to look like a balanced policy document for a low carbon electricity future. Great work.

  2. A thorny problem is that the narrowly re-elected premier is anti nuclear. On other forums much is made of SA’s high penetration wind power, greater than Germany. However SA wind power is gas backed, not coal backed and as you point out needs interstate export assured by the RET. Since BoM is predicting El Nino conditions for late 2014 and solar has lost its main incentives the absolute output of renewables could actually decline. In 2012 renewable electricity was about 13% if I recall 7% hydro 6% wind/solar/biomass. Not good if both wind and hydro are weak next summer.

    Add to that heavy energy demand for desalination and air conditioning. Moomba gas will start to get diverted to export LNG. It’s like a perfect storm. I’m expecting key SA politicians to say ‘nobody could have expected this can we please have lots of gas at the old price?’. Hopefully some who were in the audience will start lobbying for nuclear.

    1. The truth hidden behind the recent political events in Europe is that Ukraine is also very dependent on gas and hoping to get it at a cheap price because they have no money for the normal European price. The difference is they have at least some nuclear. Don’t let anyone forget that after Chernobyl what they did is to *continue using the reactors at the site*, and that reactor 3 next to the broken 4 was only stopped 14 years later, under the very strong insistence of Europe including a large monetary compensation. Belarus next to Ukraine has no nuclear, and received most of the fallout. At the time of nuclear energy, they received only the negative part. What are they doing now ? Well of course, building nuclear since the end of last year :

      The world needs energy, a lot of energy, and fossil energy is progressively fading away. That doesn’t leave much choice.

  3. A map of the NEM confers further insights
    Another major transmission line the Heywood Interconnector is yet to be built, the reasoning given here
    That means SA can export more wind power when the wind is blowing and import more brown coal power other times. That’s the same brown coal for which it took 45 days to extinguish a fire next to Hazelwood power station. Note the NEM appears to be 1,000 km or so disconnected from the WA and NT grids.

    Also note the V shape of 132 kv lines emanating from Pt Augusta. The right branch is Leigh Ck coal field and the left branch is Olympic Dam mine which requires another 650 MW to expand. So far nobody knows how to run mines 24/7/365 on wind and solar power.

    1. Well done again Ben. The premier may well have a closed mind on nuclear power, but he’s going to have to suck up to Geoff Brock. quite a bit. We need to target the now powerful Brock, and teach him about the huge opportunities for SA, especially his beloved regional SA, once we’ve had the sense to introduce nuclear into our energy mix. My next move, will be to arrange a meeting with Brock and begin a nuclear education programme for him. He may already be pro-nuclear. If he’s not, then I’ll do my best to convert him. Anyone want to come with me?

  4. The new SA-Vic transmission line has been approved
    See the penultimate paragraph about easier peak demand imports into SA. Again Germany-lite…use coal rather than expensive gas. My suggestions
    1) next time a brown coal station is about to be incinerated in its own filth let it burn
    2) SA acquires enough low carbon dispatchable power (ie much lower carbon than gas and not weather dependent) so it now exports anytime to Vic through the new transmission.

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