Professor Mark Diesendorf of the University of New South Wales offered a 7 point response to the piece published yesterday by Senator Sean Edwards at the ABC Environment Blog. I have replied in the comments of the blog and re-post my reply here.

In response to Mark Diesendorf

“1. Life-cycle emissions from nuclear energy are greater than those from most renewables and are increasing as uranium ore-grade declines and more diesel has to be used to mine and mill uranium”.

This statement is an evidentiary furphy. Everyone from the IPCC outward knows and acknowledges that nuclear power is a low-carbon energy source across the lifecycle, comparable with renewable technology. Known and economic resources of uranium have been increasing over the last few decades. And finally, one must ask whether Diesendorf read this piece: the reactors under discussion use material that has already been mined to extract another 99 times the energy. If Diesendorf is familiar with the methodologies of the studies to which he refers, he will know what this means for nuclear: by scrubbing to zero the greenhouse inputs of all those early stages like mining, milling and enrichment, and by increasing the energy value by nearly two orders of magnitude, advanced nuclear will easily be the lowest-greenhouse energy source available to humankind.


“2. Climate scientist James Hansen admits in his book that he is ignorant of energy matters and takes his advice from people who support nuclear energy. He is poorly advised.”

I think these assertions would come as a shock to Dr Hansen, a scientist of far higher global standing than Prof. Diesendorf, and I will see whether he would like to offer a reply. The study quoted by Kharecha and Hansen is “Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions from historic and projected nuclear power”, published to the journal “Environmental Science and Technology”. If Diesendorf wishes to dispute the findings, his responsibility as an academic is to publish a response in a journal of similar quality. When academics resort to cheap shots in a comment thread, it is symptomatic of a weak underlying argument.

UPDATE from reader Tom Keen:

“Diesendorf actually did coauthor a critique of the Kharecha and Hansen paper, published in the same journal: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es401667hThe comment is full of erroneous statements and misleading information, as the response to the comment by the original authors plainly illustrates:http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es402211m

It seems Diesendorf has followed the correct pathway here. My apologies on that point of process. But yes, I encourage all readers to look to those links for the issues at hand. That is vastly inferior work on the topic. 


“3. Those who claim falsely that nuclear energy is safe avoid counting the principal cause of fatalities associated with nuclear accidents: cancers. Estimates by reputable bodies for fatalities from Chernobyl range from 4000 to 93,000.”

I invite Diesendorf to read the paper from Kharecha and Hansen, along with the “Externalities of Energy” study from the European Commission and “Electricity generation and health” by Markandya and Wilkinson, published to “Lancet” in 2007. He will find full and accurately sourced accounting of that single incident in all these sources that deliver the same finding: nuclear power is safe.


“4. The Integral Fast Reactor was only built many years ago as a prototype and may never become commercially available, for good reason. It doesn’t have to be used to burn up some of the spent fuel. It can actually make it easier to separate plutonium-239 for nuclear weapons. Its development was terminated in the USA for this reason.”

The technology prototyped as the Experimental Breeder Reactor II/Integral Fast Reactor is now commercially available as the PRISM reactor from General Electric-Hitachi. I quote “From GE’s founding innovation, Thomas Edison’s light bulb, to developing the first civil nuclear power plant connected to a commercial power grid in 1957; everything that we have learned from 130 years of experience has helped GEH to create PRISM. We believe that innovation often comes by taking existing technologies to create something new. And that is exactly what GEH has done to create PRISM, building on the EBR-II reactor, which operated successfully for 30 years.”

Deisendorf’s nuclear history has a selective cut-off at 1994. Fortunately we have politicians who are up-to-date.

As to separation of plutonium, Diesendorf is, again, incorrect. The IFR was designed expressly for proliferation resistance. Plutonium is never separated in a way that is useful for anything other than fuel. To achieve any worthwhile separation, material would need to be removed from the IFR facility and taken to an entirely different aqueous reprocessing facility such as those in use in France. This process already exists, is already in use, is already safeguarded, and IS NOT proposed by Senator Edwards. The removal of material itself would be extremely challenging as once in the IFR recycle process, high levels of radioactivity within the hot cells provide inherent protection. There is nothing about the IFR that raises proliferation risk and much that lowers it. Remember, the IFR can get rid of all spent nuclear fuel, permanently. All this information is documented in both “Prescription for the Planet” and, for the technical specialists, “Plentiful Energy” by Till and Chang, the designers of IFR. These sources have now been available for many years.


“5. Global demand for spent fuel is low, except for countries that are interested in extracting plutonium for nuclear weapons.”

Diesendorf can perhaps be forgiven for confounding the current global nuclear fuel cycle with what is proposed by Senator Edwards, which is leadership in the next generation nuclear fuel cycle. His deliberate confounding with weapons is less forgivable. The demand that is of interest to South Australia is that for the storage and recycling (with simultaneous material downgrading and electricity production) of existing and committed flows of spent nuclear fuel. This demand for service is indisputable and likely runs to value in the tens and possible hundreds of billions of dollars. In successfully demonstrating that new fuel cycle, South Australia would then be ideally placed to sell fabricated nuclear fuel for advanced reactor developments elsewhere, made from the spent fuel raw material.


“6. Hourly computer simulations of the operation of electricity supply systems by research groups at UNSW, the US National Renewable Energy Lab, Stanford Uni, Aarhus University and elsewhere have shown that baseload power stations are not necessary for meeting baseload demand, thus refuting one of nuclear’s few alleged selling points.”

Diesendorf and his team do quality work, however the overreach in interpreting the implications of the findings are extraordinary. Diesendorf’s own work suggests such a future does not eliminate baseload power plants at all, but is dependent on the utterly wasteful use of them to back-up the variability of wind and solar, fuelled by biomass. All in the name of rejecting nuclear. This is inefficient, polluting, unsustainable and subject to various assumptions Diesendorf selectively never discloses.


“7. Mr Edwards’ notion that South Australia could have the full nuclear fuel cycle is economic fantasy. He should consider the huge subsidies the UK government is offering potential developers of the proposed Hinckley C reactors.”

One has to wonder if Diesendorf read the article. Senator Edwards appears to have foreign partners ready for direct foreign investment in the infrastructure. The recycling infrastructure would necessarily include a plant for fabrication of new, metal-alloy fuel rods for fast reactors. South Australia would cover the whole fuel cycle: the new fuel cycle for the 21st century.

28 comments

  1. Anyone can judge the truthiness of the baseload ‘fallacy’ by looking at the Empowerme website. By adding the electricity demands around 4 a.m. for the eastern states on a mild summer night I find it seldom dips below 17,000 MW. Try supplying that with wind and solar. OK ‘too cheap to meter’ was a rash statement so is ‘utility death spiral’ and ‘baseload fallacy’.

    I think Sen. Edwards is muddying the waters talking about IFRs and taking in returned waste at this early stage. SA needs to replace Leigh Ck coal, Vic electricity imports and at 30% wind/solar penetration may be at the sweet spot for intermittent generation. Re-reading the Zero Carbon Options paper I still like EC6. Note the Canadian type fuel cycle can do some higher actinides as well infertiles like thorium. See Section A-11 here
    http://www.nuclearfaq.ca/cnf_sectionA.htm#j
    which suggest Candu’s can clear the decks until fast reactors arrive.

    I think SA should build an EC6/AFCR starting well before 2020 then maybe an SMR for desalination on Eyre Peninsula. if that goes well then consider an IFR and re-imported waste perhaps supplying a national grid that takes in WA.

  2. Nice response, Ben.

    Just so that you are aware, Diesendorf actually did coauthor a critique of the Kharecha and Hansen paper, published in the same journal: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es401667h The comment is full of erroneous statements and misleading information, as the response to the comment by the original authors plainly illustrates: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es402211m

    And factual credibility aside, I think the supposed proliferation concerns are highly disingenuous in this context. Who is actually concerned that South Australia is going to become some rogue state, secretly manufacturing weapons using a technology that is not designed to do so?

    1. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Diesendorf collaborates with Sovacol and Jacobson, two of the most disingenuous commentators (I was going to say ‘scientists’, but that’d be an insult to scientists) on Nuclear energy.

      If I smear a gold nugget in crap it’s going to look bad, nevertheless it still is a gold nugget. Tweaking assumptions to fit your personal agendas is akin to smearing crap on that nugget, while the reality of the situation is still there.

      1. The fact that scumbags (I was going to say people, but that would be an insult to people) like Sovacool, Jacobson and Diesendorf are not being run out of town in tar and feather illustrates that need for much more action in order to counter the anti-nuclear propaganda movement.

        I saw a presentation recently which stated that it would require a budget of 1 billion US dollars per year in order to crush the anti-nuclear movement. This money would be used to implement the broad-based re-education of the entire population in the western world away from superstition based anti-nuclear dogma toward substantial science-based understanding of nuclear. Pro-nuclear activists should perhaps up our game to help try to find these funds. An International Project for Nuclear Education could be financed through the UN perhaps. Or maybe a few Major Doners like Bill Gates and others could be found willing to chip in. As a tax-paying citizen, I would be very happy to contribute, and I know many people who would support it. If anything, such a project has many positive spin-off such as the general increase in productivity, intelligence and happiness which is always the result when people recieve quality education and increased insight.

        Anti-nuclearism is the greatest threat facing humanity today. If it is not stamped out by the force of reason, the future of humanity and the earth will be dire. It will take significant funds to eradicate the anti-nuclear quackery from the public consciousness. People like you are doing incredibly good work, but we need to understand – in my opinion – that it will not be enough. We need more educators, lots more of them, and we need money to pay for them.

        1. “1 billion US dollars per year in order to crush the anti-nuclear movement”
          Not enough. Think about $10Billion/year during ~50years.

          Too much damaging scientific publications such as this one and also publications concerning background such as this one.

  3. “by scrubbing to zero the greenhouse inputs of all those early stages like mining, milling and enrichment, and by increasing the energy value by nearly two orders of magnitude, advanced nuclear will easily be the lowest-greenhouse energy source available to humankind.”

    Warner & Heath 2012 DOI: 10.1111/j.1530-9290.2012.00472.x
    Harmonised LCA of 27 independent assessments of life-cycle emissions intensity median gCO2-eq/kWh:
    PWR: 12
    BWR: 13
    Fast breeder from 12 assessments: 0.87, with a maximum of 7.7 gCO2-eq/kWh.

    I’m not claiming this meta analysis is definitive, just indicative. It is intuitive that a reactor designed to extract nearly the totality of potential energy out of the most energy-dense material on the Earth will boast the lowest life-cycle emissions. To reject this seems to require herculean motivated reasoning.

  4. “…everything that we have learned … has helped GEH to create PRISM. ”
    Where does that PRISM reactor operate? Couldn’t find.
    Or is PRISM still at the paperwork stadium?
    There was discussion in UK about PRISM, but it never resulted in a real option.

    1. There are currently no operational PRISM reactors. GE-Hitachi wants to build and yes, the UK looks among the most likely candidates. I believe it is being assessed by the UK as an option to implement in the management of their unwanted plutonium stockpiles.

      1. So in a desperate try to get rid of the ~$100billion waste stock-pile at Sellafield, may be UK government will pay the big development costs of PRISM.

        1. That’s a mischaracterisation. It is not a question of development, rather commercialisation. There are no “big development costs” in this situation. There are first-mover costs, but that’s different.

  5. I’m writing a submission to the royal commission and I encourage others to do so too. I will be covering a broad range of issues.
    I intend to write a warning page about “the usual suspects”, one of which is Mark Diesendorf.
    I think he can be exposed as a fool by predicting his cherry-picking of reports. For example, one might say “Diesendorf will claim that nuclear is too expensive and refer you to a report from UCS or another anti-nuclear organisation. He will cherry-pick one report on CO2 emissions and pretend that it’s a fact.” Exposing him in advance & even predicting which reports he will cherry-pick will be useful information for the commissioner.
    In my view, the scientific case against nuclear is non-existent. The only way to argue against it is to argue like a politician. Get someone of your ideological ilk to right a report and then quote it. When all else fails, fall back on The Conspiracy.
    I think he can be exposed as the ideological fool he is.

    1. How do you meet responses that point to the Hinkley C agreement??
      Inflation corrected £92,50/MWh in 2012 pounds during 35years of operation. With 2% inflation that implies £115/MWh in 2023 when the new plant would start, and £160/MWh in 2040 halfway the guarantee period.

      Despite additional subsidies such as £10Billion loan guarantee, liability, waste and decommission limitations guarantees, etc.

      Those will sure point to the decades long ongoing price decreases of renewable, which are predicted to go on in next decades. German expert study (Agora) expect €20-€40/MWh for solar in 2050.
      Battery storage, power-to-gas/fuel-to-power expect also great price decreases.

      1. Aside from presenting a somewhat one-sided view of the relevant policy I don’t have much argument on this point. In fact, I called it right at the start http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/programs/energy-and-climate/the-lessons-of-hinkley-point-c

        It does not set a strong example on cost. It seems to me EDF/Areva had far to much incumbent advantage and the process lacked a truly competitive playing field. But that’s speculation on my part.

        As to trajectories for renewable price fall, it all needs to be considered very sceptically. A kWh of renewable electricity is very different to a reliable renewable system. Commentators can be extremely selective in the way they discuss costs of energy technologies. Regardless, the scaling challenges remains, so such prices falls are at once good news and also insufficient to meet the climate/energy challenge.

        1. If the pricing is so high that the deal is very profitable for EDF/Areva, than they wouldn’t have problems to find banks that would give low interest loans.
          But apparently they couldn’t find those in Europe/USA and had to divert to co-invest constructions involving Chinese state companies.

        2. Btw. UK government asked for the Hinkley C deal permission at the EU (Brussels). So EU accountants researched the deal.

          Those concluded that the projected costs of £16Billion (also stated in your link) were 50% too low, as the real costs to build will be £24billion.
          That £24billion was not disputed by UK government, neither by EDF/Areva (EU accountants are smart).

          That 50% higher investment costs, take away near all of the possible high profit for EDF/Areva. It explains the refusal of the banks to loan money for the project (above the £10Billion that UK government guarantees).

  6. From what I can see GE Hitachi really wants to sell its 1600 MWe ESBWR light water reactor as it only got NRC approval a few months ago. No buyers so far I gather. The PRISM won’t be ready for sale until ca. 2025 and there are no orders but they are pinning their hopes on the UK choosing it over Mox fuel or the Candu. Link. I presume such is US ‘soft power’ that Russian, Chinese or Indian fast reactors won’t get a look in for Oz.

    For SA to get a reactor it should start building before 2020 not 2025. Strike while the iron is hot. I think the Scarce Commission will report favourably next year then the big SA job layoffs start after that. If antinuclear Shorten or Plibersek become PM maybe they can won over about federal legislative change.

  7. Well done Ben, excellent demolition of the usual lies. One question though on the IFR proposal. What is the plan for getting the initial fissile load? This needs some separated plutonium or Uranium with fairly high enrichment (20%?).

    1. I do so enjoy a good question!!!

      It does indeed need an initial fissile load, so where from?

      Short answer is that I don’t know, however here are two possibilities.
      1. Vendor supplied. What that supply chain is, I do not know. I have not yet had the opportunity to quiz them about this.

      2. Make our own. As per the mass flow in Brook et al 2014, a one time processing of 700 t of LWR used fuel can provide the necessary ten tons of actinides for start up. So, how? In this circumstance, SA would be investing in an industrial-scale pyroprocessing facility and fuel fabrication facility with some reasonable level of throughput (e.g. >100 t per year of used nuclear fuel). The first priority for the facility would be preparing the starter load for SA’s IFR, which could perhaps cross over with construction time for the IFR. Thereafter, the facility would operate to work through the inventory to prepare material to supply other IFR developments. That process could be hastened by operating the first IFR as a net breeder to increase the rate of actinide production. Here we are talking about SA engaging in the early commercialisation of new technology. Hardly easy or low-risk, however given the potential arguably a great business to get in early and lead on.

      1. Absent local enrichment we’ll need ‘hot’ material even for Gen 3
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Startup_neutron_source
        The Candu option will also require expensive heavy water, by inference $400 million worth (?) though some may be available from decommissioning.

        Politically I think it’s best to talk about replacing coal and gas (i.e, decarbonising SA) then when that is accepted by the public then talk about IFRs and waste from other sources. Make ‘dump’ a nonword.

    2. The UK has a lot of reactor grade Pu. If PRISM gets the nod in the UK, that seems the most logical source. Even if it doesn’t it still may be a realistic possibility.

  8. Yes., A good one Ben. I’m preparing a presentation for the Royal Commission as well and it’s based on my 34 year support for nuclear for Australia and seventeen years of continuous study, writing and speaking for it. It’ll be based on the four talks I’ve given on ABC Radio National Ockham’s Razor since September 2011 and will deal with [1] climate change [formerly global warming] and Australia’s energy future,[2] Nuclear Power – The myths exposed. [3] Nuclear Waste – a profitable new industry for Australia and [4] Australia must include nuclear in its energy future. I’ll be tabling a whole pile of documents as well many of which will highlight our stupidity in becoming too reliant on the renewables, especially wind. There’ll be lots of other back up material mentioned as well, including a reference to the history of nuclear at Lucas Heights [ANSTO]. I’ve been waiting for 15 years for this opportunity. Oh, By the way, I’ll be speaking to the Parliamentary Liberal Party Members in Adelaide on May 4th. And last week, I spoke to the Northern and Western Regional Energy Taskforce alerting them to just how big it’ll be for those regions once we’ve had the good sense to start developing the full nuclear fuel cycle
    in SA. Speaking to a mixed Probus Club on 10th April as well. To quote Bill Lawry, “It’s all happening.” AT LAST.

    Cheers Ben

  9. I think there will be an awkward pause after the Royal Commissions comes up with suitably lukewarm recommendations next year. Neither the mPower SMR or the GEH Prism will probably be on sale until 2025. However in 2017 perhaps up to 13,000 car assembly and component workers will lose their jobs in SA. The ASC runs out of work the year after that year, another 1,100 direct jobs. Still nearly a decade to wait for off-the-shelf nuclear technology off the types that have been discussed. Kind of a Houston-we-have-a-problem moment in slow mo.

    Meanwhile the spot gas price stays under $4/GJ (see box on AEMO home page) but pundits say it will get to $8 by 2018…read the ThisIsPower website. Pelican Point (gas) will run less but Vic imports (brown coal) will increase even more. We have to start pouring concrete within months of the Commission report or the momentum will be lost. if the Feds can find $20 bn for diesel subs they can help find $5 bn for a Candu. There is still an 8 year build time based on Argentina. That takes us to 2017 + 8 = 2025 when IFRs etc may be ready.

    1. That’s the NuScale SMR that will be ready for market by 2025. My idea is build a Candu near Adelaide then when an SMR is ready put one on the west coast to help do the work of the large Whyalla desal that was cancelled.

  10. So far the only existing generator to think aloud about nuclear is Origin Energy but you’d think Alinta must be mulling it over. As the operator of the Northern coal fired power station and the apparently not yet retired Playford station they say the numbers don’t add up for solar thermal at Pt Augusta. True believers insist the numbers work if you fudge them the usual way. Alinta also say the remaining Leigh Ck coal is far too dirty. That doesn’t seem to stop SA imports of Vic Latrobe Valley power from even lower grade lignite as gas gets more expensive.

    An idea has been proposed to connect Alice Springs NT to Moomba SA with a $500m gas pipeline. Both the local gas basins (Mereenie, Cooper) are aged so presumably the extra gas will come from offshore WA via Darwin reversing the prior flow direction. So we have dirty SA coal, dirty Vic electricity imports, solar thermal not up to scratch and gas supply running out. Time for a cleaner but dispatchable power source.

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