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.