This week I have been responding to a detailed series of questions from Federic Bernal, director of OETEC, one of the most prominent energy think-tanks in South America. He is gathering opinions from 30-50 international multidisciplinary commentators for compilation and publication. This effort coincides with the new nuclear reactor in Argentina beginning to provide power. It will be at full power by November, at which time I look forward to joining Kirsty Gogan, Stephen Tindale and others at a panel meeting, “Nuclear Energy, Energy Security and Climate Change”.
My answers are to be translated and published to the OETEC site soon. Here they are in English for your enjoyment!
Do you agree or disagree with this statement: “There is currently an international drive to build new nuclear power plants, bringing about what is being termed a ‘nuclear renaissance'”. Why? Could you give us some international and local (your own country) examples?
I feel that is premature. Nuclear development is fragmented across the globe. There is some rapid growth and new entrants to nuclear energy, some new build to maintain capacity, some stagnation and some active retreat. Many more plants are being constructed now than just a decade ago, a great many more are planned and proposed and new designs are coming on line. That all looks positive from an industry perspective. There are also a great many plants that are approaching the end of their licensed operating period, and their future is uncertain at this time.
- The share of electricity provided by nuclear energy has been falling. Growth in nuclear electricity generation will be occurring in the context of massive global growth in total electricity consumption. A product whose market-share is falling in a market that is exploding is en-route to becoming a niche product. That’s not what anyone expects of a “nuclear renaissance”.
The loss in share for nuclear coincided with an up-tick in share for coal, reversing a nearly-hundred year old trend of declining share for coal in global energy supply. Had the China boom of 1990-2010 been driven by fission, and it could have been, I could be giving you a very different answer. The fact that it wasn’t has been a terribly costly failure for humanity.
Instead it was driven by coal combustion, plenty of it imported from Australia. Australia continues to both burn and export as much coal as it can. Coal is so plentiful and accessible in Australia that, absent firm and durable policy to reduce coal dependence, there is little economic prospect for nuclear at this time. Both Australia and the world is not about to run out of coal. We need to decide to stop burning it. The best chance of that happening is nuclear energy becoming dramatically cheaper, much in the way gas has done in the US. While the gas example is a short-term trend with a strong element of protectionism, it illustrates the economic phenomenon perfectly. Policy can assist this process by bridging the economic gap. The policy fight will be so much the easier when nuclear comes closer to simply beating coal on cost, making the gap smaller.
I don’t believe we can speak of nuclear renaissance until the first clear sign that growth in nuclear energy is removing global market share for electricity generation from coal, and that this will be an accelerating trend. When the real renaissance is happening, no one will need to double check with me!
2) Which are the main anti-nuclear myths that should be addressed in order to properly inform the community about the benefits of nuclear power in energy security and climate change? Could you explain us why those myths prove to be false?
One of my favourites, or perhaps least favourites, is the idea that nuclear energy is not really a low-carbon energy source “when all things are considered”. What people are referring to in that type of statement is the full life-cycle emissions attributable to electricity produced from nuclear.
I’m familiar with this myth as I once believed it entirely. It goes like this: once all the energy has been accounted for in the mining of the ore, the enrichment, the fabrication, the waste management and all the transport in between, any gains from the generation phase, which produces no greenhouse gas, have been eroded to the point where nuclear is barely worth it, and it may even be as bad as fossil fuels.
There are a few perspectives to see why this is so false. Firstly, it has been positively studied to death and the results are conclusive. When the University of New South Wales undertook a meta-analysis of all global studies, they reviewed forty studies that examined the lifecycle emissions of nuclear. A single outlier suggested emissions in the range of 150 g CO2-e kWh-1. Two suggested from 50g-100g kWh-1 and the remaining 37 studies suggested <50 g kWh-1. For Australia, they suggested a best estimate of 61 g kWh-1. That compared favourably with photovoltaics (106 g kWh-1), and was much less than gas (577-751) and coal (863-1175).
It also defies a test of common sense. If the nuclear fuel cycle was so hungry for fossil fuels along the way, it would be barely profitable at the best of times and the price of nuclear fuel would be highly sensitive to the prices of fossils fuels. Obviously, neither is true. Grasping the energy density of the nuclear fuel helps to see why. Our coal stations in South Australia can consume up to 6,900 t of coal per day. That is delivered in a train that is 2.8 km long with 161 wagons of coal. That quantity of energy in mined uranium oxide would fit inside a carry bag. In fuel pellets it would be barely a handful. Nuclear fuel may take some effort to make, but the return in clean energy is astonishing.
Secondly, it is popularly supposed that nuclear power is terribly slow to roll out. Considered fully, the opposite is the case. Yes, it’s quick to put up solar panels and pretty quick to put in a wind farm, and that’s helpful. However the output is much, much smaller. Yes, it takes time to construct a nuclear power station, but the output it huge and no one said we need to add them one at a time! Over a period of 16 years the French nuclear rollout of the mid-1970’s to late 1980’s and sustained a rate of 0.28 MWh of new electricity, per person, per year, from the new nuclear sector. That’s higher than anything that has been achieved, anywhere in the world, using any technology in any era. A very impressive rate of commissioning is now underway in the UAE. We can make it take forever if we want to, but that’s our choice. History tells us nuclear roll-outs can be very fast indeed. The opposite is just a story some people want us to believe.
Limiting climate change by stabilizing the global temperature requires the near complete phase-out of conventional fossil fuel power generation and its replacement through technologies with low greenhouse gas emissions, such as renewable energy, nuclear power, and fossil fuel power plants with CO2 capture and storage. Can renewables solve by themselves the greenhouse problem? Why?
No, they can’t.
The scale of the challenge is where we need to start to understand this.
This is an energy hungry world. Humans have demonstrated, time and time again, that in a choice between dirty energy and no energy, they will choose dirty energy, every time. The challenge therefore is to provide clean energy, while of course taking smart steps using energy efficiency. Over this coming century, if the future human population were to use energy, on per capita average, at the lowest end of the developed group of nations, we would need triple the amount of energy we do today. That would represent a wonderful humanitarian and energy efficiency outcome, but the quantity of energy we are talking about is staggering.
Next, we have to consider energy density: how much usable energy can we get from a given resource? Since industrialisation began, humanity has been steadily moving toward denser fuels that offer greater return for effort: wood, to coal, to oil, to gas, to uranium. Rather than greater density, renewable energy requires us to gather dilute energy in the form of sunlight, wind, or movements of oceans. We have to catch energy, concentrate it, move it from where it is to where we need it, when we need it, in a usable form. The word for something that does all that for you in the first place is “fuel”!
The notion that we will double and then triple energy provision while using only dilute energy sources and whatever fuel we can grow is, frankly, a delusion. A very dangerous delusion.
4) Economic and environmental advantages of nuclear power vs. renewable energy? Disadvantages?
“Renewable energy” covers many things and they perform differently in different places.
Most renewable energy today is biomass and hydro. Traditional biomass is an environmental and health disaster, killing about a half-a-million children from non-communicable diseases every year. Most purpose grown crops will represent further expansion of agriculture. That is a serious problem for preservation of biodiversity. Biomass is basically environmental bad news, with some clear and important exceptions.
New hydroelectricity inundates vast areas and inherently alters the hydrology of large river systems with potentially serious ecological impacts. That’s a highly relevant concern here in South America. The result is a lot of reliable, but variable clean energy. I hope more nations can choose the full reliability without the landscape impacts by choosing to build nuclear plants.
Wind turbines and solar panels are mostly benign technology in their deployment and have little water consumption. However accounting for variable supply and short lifespans, the comparison with nuclear worsens. Utility-scale solar again co-opts very large areas of potentially valuable habitat. That’s a genuine issue. The largest solar plant in the USA needs about 240 times more land per unit electricity than a small modular reactor design, and the land it used displaced endangered desert tortoises.
Nuclear plants are long lived, with a tiny land footprint. They can be cooled with ocean water, have no emissions of waste and a tiny volume of contained waste that can be recycled. They can be placed close to loads and existing transmission and in areas that are already developed. The mining of the fuel is tiny. In the Integral Fast Reactor system represented by the PRISM reactor, the fuel does not even need to be mined but can be recycled from waste. Since nuclear is also the only technology that is proven to decarbonise electricity for large developed economies, it is clearly the overall winner from an environmental perspective.
Economically, small solar systems and wind turbines have a real advantage in smaller outlays that allow more incremental additions. This is easier to finance and enables swifter, incremental roll-out. That can, over time, add up to quite a bit of capacity. We have seen exactly that in South Australia. The price of electricity from wind is really quite good now, provided it is not at very high penetrations where it must wear high integration costs. So I expect those energy sources to do very well in coming decades, right around the world. Direct heating of residential water from solar energy in sunny climates is an excellent use of renewable energy, both environmentally and economically.
But for large, dispatchable, reliable supply, other renewables just don’t cut it economically. From a system perspective there is simply no advantage in very expensive electricity which is variable, intermittent, and climate-dependent. If we need to slash greenhouse gas emissions then frankly, from a dispassionate energy system perspective, what are these renewable power plants except vastly inferior nuclear plants? Less reliable, dependent on hourly, daily, seasonal and inter-annual variations in climate and weather. You couldn’t sell a nuclear plant that had that type of performance, and these systems are dramatically more expensive than nuclear.
None of that is mounting an argument against development and deployment of renewables. It’s a call for honesty. We have what we need in nuclear power: clean, dispatchable, scalable power without limits. We should use it in partnership with the many renewable technologies that make good environmental and economic sense in each region.
5) According to NGO Environment 360: “While Germany continues to expand solar and wind power, the government’s decision to phase out nuclear energy means it must now rely heavily on the dirtiest form of coal, lignite, to generate electricity. The result is that after two decades of progress, the country’s CO2 emissions are rising”. Do you agree or disagree and why?
I can only agree. It’s a fact. Germany is producing more electricity from wind and solar than ever before, and at the same time burning more coal than they have in 20 years. Suggestions this is some sort of “transition” to a renewable future are laughable. A major new lignite mine has been approved to begin operations in 2025. That’s not a making a transition away from fossil fuels, that’s fostering a long-term addiction to fossil fuels. This has little to do with whether renewables are useful or not; the bottom line is the relevant parties in Germany decided it was more important to close nuclear than to close coal. They could have built more renewables either way. That speaks volumes about traditional environmentalism. They can deny the outcome but they will only be fooling themselves.
6) You attended the International Youth Nuclear Congress 2014 in Burgos, Spain. Could you explain your excellent “A systematic review of the literature exploring 100 per cent renewable electricity”. You stated that “No evidence for 100 % renewable from current supply systems”. Really no evidence at all? How is this possible?
We need only reflect on the question “Can we power ourselves with 100 % renewables?” to see the truth in my statement. In the world today, there is not one single operational example of a 100 % renewable electricity or energy system as popularly perceived (with the exception of some very small outliers). In fact, there is nothing even close. There are many combinations of fossil fuels, renewable and nuclear energy that have been demonstrated to work. We have no real-world evidence and experience, none whatsoever, that the 100 % renewable concept can be done. We have much to suggest that it can’t.
What we do have is a growing body of literature that explores the possibilities in different locations. That is what I am examining in this systematic review. In the absence of operational evidence, can the 100 % renewable case be adequately established in literature? I have reviewed about 15 studies so far, ranging from global to national in scale. There is a range of quality and usefulness from these papers, however some clear themes are emerging.
Many begin from the point of massively reinventing the energy system, by economy-wide energy efficiency, electrification, demand shifting and addition of storage, well beyond the range presented from the major modelling and forecasting organisations. Many of those concepts may be good ideas. But it means the output examines whether 100 % renewables can power a world that the authors have invented for their study, to suit their proposed supply solution. That world does not, and may never exist. That diminishes the value of the evidence.
Others undertake no modelling to demonstrate that supply would meet demand in real time. This is essential. It’s not enough to talk about quantity of electricity generated. That’s relatively easy. The system has to work, accounting for large amounts of supply from stochastic sources like wind and solar.
Several studies model recent actual demand levels, which is helpful. Here we see that hydro is always maximally exploited in the modelling first. Then, many deploy biomass in huge quantities. In some cases the quantity of biomass is utterly unrealistic and the authors acknowledge it. So what we see is strong agreement that systems need a base of dispatchable supply. The studies just propose burning plants, not coal. Pre-fossilised coal, you could say.
Few of the studies articulate the new transmission requirements. None of them articulate the new distribution requirements from high penetrations of decentralised solar PV.
The studies that come closest to technical feasibility come from Australia. They provide a lot of insight. The also leave some very large and important gaps, particularly in relation to managing low renewable resource events that may lie at the statistical tail. What if a record-drought winter with low hydro output merges with very low solar output and very still conditions with no wind for a week? What then? Until such questions are answered, it’s hard to say the system is feasible, which makes costing a system arguably pointless!
So, with all the uncertainty and urgency related to climate change, some stakeholders are demanding we embrace an electricity supply solution for which there is scant evidence and no proof. I think that is insane.
7) You stated Pandora’s Promise is having a major and ongoing impact. What is Pandora’s Promise? Could you explain further this opinion about the film…
Pandora’s Promise is a beautiful and compelling documentary that outlines, for the first time on film, the case for pro-nuclear environmentalism. The narrative is built around the journey of several prominent people who, much like me, have had a profound change in the way they view nuclear power. What I love most about the film is how respectful it is of the anti-nuclear position. Were I still anti-nuclear when I saw it for the first time, I would have felt challenged but not attacked or insulted.
I helped to bring Pandora’s Promise to Australia for a cinema tour and the response was huge with several sold-out screenings. The impact has been clear in the further evolution of discussions around nuclear power in Australia. Pandora’s Promise highlighted the reality that anti-nuclear activists have absolutely no monopoly on caring deeply about people and the environment. The true leaders are those who have been able to look beyond their pre-conceptions and learn anew.
8) Could you explain the ongoing debate in Australia about nuclear energy and climate change? What were the main conclusions of the “100 per cent renewables study—modelling outcomes” paper?
Australia is deeply contradictory in its relationship to nuclear technology. We have one of the dirtiest, most coal dependent energy supplies on earth. We also have the largest known reserves of uranium and we export uranium around the world. We have an excellent modern research nuclear reactor, sold to us by Argentina. At the same time we have a legal prohibition in place preventing the approval of nuclear power stations!
The absurdity of this situation is untenable. As a result, the debate around using nuclear in Australia simply will not go away. Since the time I got involved in the issue in 2010, the level of interest and activity has intensified greatly. A growing diversity of voices from academia, business institutions, government, industry and unions are calling for steps to be taken to allow the use of nuclear power.
Australia had proportionally greater contribution from renewable electricity in 1960 than it does today. Since 1990 our emissions from the electricity sector have soared 45 %, thanks to expanded dependence on coal combustion. The prohibition on nuclear energy has not turbo-charged deployment of renewables, it has simply reinforced our dependence on coal. Nuclear energy is a simple, straight substitute for coal in electricity systems. It offers all the scale and reliability with none of the emissions and other waste pouring out of the stack. So it’s obvious why Australian environmentalists like Barry Brook, Ove Guldberg, Tom Wigley and others are pressing the case for nuclear very hard.
However the anti-nuclear discourse remains prevalent. Partly thanks to that the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) received terms of reference to undertake a study of 100 per cent renewables in the National Electricity Market (NEM). The NEM is the largest geographically distributed electricity grid in the world.
It’s a very useful report with extensive supporting documentation. AEMO took a level of electricity demand for Australia for 2050 that is close to official projections and sought to model whether renewable electricity could meet this demand. The results are “maybe”, with some strong cautions. AEMO suggested such a system would be “at or beyond the limits of known capability and experience anywhere in the world to date”. It would require much higher capacity reserves than the current system, large contributions from biomass, acquisition of up to 5,000 square kilometres of land, and costly augmentation to our transmission and distribution network.
Of concern to me, AEMO’s modelling only works on the assumption that peak demand is shifted from the end of the day, as it currently is, to the middle of the day to match output from PV. Without this change, every single day would have unserved demand. It is strongly implied that this demand shift would be achieved by mass electric vehicle charging at midday. I think this is a serious error. Electric vehicles must be supported in their own right, which means owners should be able to charge them with clean electricity when it suits them to, not when it suits the network. A base of nuclear would facilitate that outcome.
This study is valuable. Australia is arguably the best-case scenario for 100 % renewables, and this study highlights just how challenging it would be even here.
9) Could you explain us the highlights of your article https://decarbonisesa.com/2013/05/16/green-nuclear-junk/?
A prominent Australian anti-nuclear activist (whose name is Green, hence the title) published an article accusing Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen of “junk science”. The claim was in relation to their paper asserting that nuclear power had been responsible for saving around 1.8 million lives through the displacement of coal. In support, the anti-nuclear article published a mortality table suggesting nuclear had as many attributable fatalities per unit electricity as did coal.
A colleague, Geoff Russell, and I were incensed at this attack on good scientists and incredulous regarding the mortality table, so we set out to investigate.
We found both fabrication and error. The author had ignored the many references, including those applied by Kharecha and Hansen, that assert a low fatality record for nuclear power. He used mortality estimates from one low-quality source but left out the figure relating to nuclear as it still showed nuclear as safest.
To make nuclear look dangerous, the author combined three unrelated sources, devising a completely novel methodology for determining the hazard of nuclear energy across the lifecycle. Something like that could only ever be responsibly done through the peer-reviewed scientific process. This author has no relevant qualification, experience or publication record that would support him in doing so. He then merged this mortality figure for nuclear into a table of mortality figures for the other energy types that came from other sources.
In the process, he failed to convert units correctly from terawatt hours to gigawatt years for the other energy sources. Nearly all his figures were incorrect by a factor of 77. His fabricated nuclear fatality figure was still smaller than coal once the maths had been corrected.
After sustained pressure, the author made an apology on my blog. His organisation issued no apology in relation to the article and no formal retraction of the flawed data. While the source material has now been modified, the original article that accuses these scientists of junk science and publishes incorrect information, is still available. The author has been a little more subdued lately but still publishes in the name of his organisation quite regularly.
This is a blatant example of anti-nuclear activists wishing to don the trappings of science but refusing to be bound by its rigour. From their point of view, they are allowed to lie as long as they don’t get caught.
10) Your opinion about Nuclear sector in Argentina (please find attached a short and updated description of our national nuclear sector)…
Like Argentina, Australia has a strong heritage in nuclear knowledge and technology and a strong international reputation in non-proliferation. Unlike Argentina, Australia has rejected nuclear power generation entirely and has allowed knowledge and experience in this sector to erode. The fact that Argentina has arrested and now reversed this same process is certainly very encouraging.
Argentina clearly has a great deal to offer the world in the area of nuclear technology. When I asked an Australian nuclear professional about the OPAL research reactor and where it came from, he described how the Argentinian bid was outstandingly strong, and the willingness to work with the Australians to get the right reactor was greatly appreciated. So I am pleased to see Argentina continue to take a leading role in research reactor development.
At this time, Australians use three-and-a-half times more electricity per person than Argentinians but we produce over ten times the greenhouse gas emissions per capita. It is clear that if nations like Argentina continue their development using fossil fuels, the battle against climate change is simply lost. So I am greatly heartened to know that existing reactors will have extension of life and I am very pleased to see the commissioning of the new Kirchner reactor. Over coming years I would love to see more electricity for each and every Argentine, with emissions from the sector falling. With nuclear technology, you can do this. Australia may have a lot to learn from Argentina in coming years. In particular, if small reactors like the CAREM can be brought to market at a good price, it may assist Australia in making the transition to nuclear. Our long, skinny type of electricity grid will more easily accommodate small reactors than large ones.
Conversely, Australia’s mature uranium mining sector may offer a source of both knowledge and resources for the Argentinian nuclear sector. I see a great deal of potential for both Australia and Argentina to continue our relationship in nuclear technology over the coming decades. Argentina could provide a great example for us to follow.