I have been a long way from home this week in more ways than one. South Australia has a lot to learn from North America and at the same time we are showing the world a thing or two.
Many of us have done it at some time; I have done it twice before. Yet the distance from Australia to North America still manages to surprise me. It’s not actually longer than going to Europe. So why does it feel longer? Perhaps it’s the intimidating expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Or perhaps in Europe they at least have the courtesy to speak different languages than we do. It seems somehow preposterous to travel so many hours and disembark in nations so eerily similar to my own. It’s more like traveling to an alternate dimension than another country.
Take Ottawa for example. While at home it was stinking hot, outside in Ottawa it was freezing cold. We both typify some of the extremes of human settlements, each living near-identical lives of comfort and security despite the environment around us. Yet while I spoke on stage in Ottawa I was powered by electricity at 22 g CO2 per kWh. It blew my mind to think I was delivering slides I had prepared at about 600-800 g in Australia the week before (SA or NEM average, depending what you prefer). A 25-35-fold difference in greenhouse gas emissions for an indistinguishable outcome, and the difference is simply nuclear technology. I was glad to see this was not entirely lost on the Ottwans. They knew they had achieved something and they talked a lot about it… to themselves. It’s a story that needs to get out to the world. Solving a major chunk of the climate conundrum is no mystery whatsoever. The proof is found in Ottawa. The Canadian nuclear industry can offer a lot to the world. One big thing it can offer is the boldness to not get prematurely bored by their own success. When you come from a nation that lives off the teat of coal, Ontario and Ottawa are like a dream come true. Us, without the pollution. It can be done.
Before Ottawa was New York. It’s the city that sometimes sleeps: trust me, my jetlagged-self went jogging with no-one for company but the good folks of the New York Sanitation Department. But it’s the city that basically everyone loves, a template for cities of the new world. Humanity converges upon it and the result is stunning, stimulating and exciting. It’s a city of many villages, with one knowing insider telling me the secret: it’s a small town. Del Amitri sang about somewhere where “every third car is a cab”. In New York, it’s pretty much just cabs. The thought of using a car didn’t cross my mind until an unfortunate subway fail. You walk and use the trains, and for all the locals I met from Jersey and Brooklyn and beyond this was a pleasant and mostly efficient fact of life. I read a quip on Facebook today, that a civilised country is not where the poor own cars, but where the rich use public transport. There’s something in that.
So it leaves me feeling desperate that Indian Point is the latest nuclear plant in the US to hit the crosshairs of what seems to be the United States anti-nuclear establishment. It represents 2,000 MW of badly needed clean energy generation; a dense source of energy to match the dense human settlement nearby. These plants are aging somewhat but the energy maths are simple. Devolving from fission back to combustion will cause more environmental harm when plants are operating normally than Indian Point has ever or could ever conceivably cause in abnormal conditions.
Just as we in South Australia seem to be fighting to expand into nuclear, New York seems to be clawing its way to a backdown. I can’t help but see a parallel in the pushback against vaccinations; when we live with something beneficial for a couple of generations, we seems to wantonly dismiss the benefits it ever brought us and believe we can do without. I am glad to be living through the South Australian situation. We have proven beyond doubt that groundswell change can take place in attitudes to nuclear, in time-frames of great relevance to the challenges we face. This week Government MP Tom Kenyon has hit upon a narrative I have been ranting about privately for the last few weeks: let’s use the used-fuel windfall to rehabilitate our natural environment.
Reading this from afar I was both delighted and frustrated. This type of thinking, surely, should have been the domain of our so-called Conservation Council of South Australia. Yet instead of seeking to potentially extract a once-in-many-generations opportunity to fund conservation to the hilt, they have taken a probably-intractable position of protest. This is based on no science and a seemingly reflexive anti-nuclear stance that should have been left in the last century. It’s both tragic and hopeful. Perhaps a genuine conservation dialogue can open between government and the actual conservation experts (many of whom reside with me in the School of Biological Sciences at University of Adelaide) to fund a roadmap to a richer environment in South Australia. I’ll call some credit here. With Senator Sean Edwards, we flagged this exciting potential in his submission to the Royal Commission. What does it say that the establishment “environmentalists” are the last to think of this?
Successive state governments would have the capacity to support vibrant communities, address poverty and familial dysfunction and support the preservation of nature. Our parks and wild places could receive greater protection, restoration, enhancement and scientific research for the benefit of us, our children and their children
While in New York I traveled to Columbia University where I had the pleasure of meeting Jim Hansen (for the second time) and Pushker Kharecha (for the first). Along with Simon Irish I provided them with an update on the progress of Terrestrial Energy in bringing the Integral Molten Salt Reactor into being. Long story short, it’s going well, with Terrestrial achieving the milestone of formal engagement with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. This coincided with a meeting with Travis Bradford, a Columbia professor whom I met previously in Paris just a few months ago. A published aficionado of solar energy, Travis takes a far more restrained view than I relating to the role of nuclear in future electricity systems. But heat… ah, the heat. As he explained when we met in Paris, industrial heat is a monster in the energy use pie and, aside from fission, there is simply no credible zero carbon answer. My interest was more than a little piqued, having been immersed in electricity for so long and I quickly realised he was dead right.
Heat is the largest energy end use sector and, barring a sliver called “renewables” (which I presume to be biomass with its frequently dubious sustainability credentials), it’s a fossil sector of direct combustion, and guess what? There no answer in the renewables sector. While I argue the renewables-only answer in the electricity sector is woefully undergunned, Travis observes that the heat sector is literally uncontested space. With the IMSR providing outlet temperatures of 700 degrees C, reliably, with 7-year core life, starting at 80 MW thermal and going up to as high as you need, we have the beginning of an answer to a major part of the problem. Add the remarkable safety profile and atmospheric pressurisation that can cascade to an altogether different cost proposition, well… Travis sees the future we need to create.
Terrestrial Energy’s IMSR, a next generation Molten Salt Reactor, is designed to fill one of the most critical gaps – a scalable, clean, carbon-free industrial heat and power solution. Today’s announcement puts the Company firmly on the path to being a significant part of the climate solution within the critical response horizon of the 2020s.- Professor Travis Bradford
We can use that zero-carbon heat to make synthetic fuel to attack the third giant in the energy pie: transport. We will need that fuel for our heavy transport at the minimum however in Vancouver I got another glimpse of the transport future with electric vehicle start-up Electra Meccanica. President and CEO Jerry Kroll is exactly what you imagine (and want) in an EV start-up: enthusiasm bordering on mania underpinned by serious business and technical nous. His company is bringing to market a single-occupant electric vehicle, the Solo, at a reasonable price. This could offer the essential quality of mobility in a package that is lighter on the road, lighter on the planet… and a disgusting amount of fun. I drove the prototype precursor, the Sparrow, and got out with a big smile on my face. It was like tasting the future and goddam, it was fast. Concepts like the Solo provide yet another avenue to getting what we love about modernity at the merest fraction of the impact. An essential pre-condition is the pairing to decarbonised grids: a Solo in Australia’s National Electricity Market is different to a Solo in Ontario’s nuclear/hydro/wind/gas low-carbon nirvana.
However I wasn’t just struck by the car, I was struck by the guy. Jerry Kroll possesses the singular quality of vision and puts his money and effort where his vision is. In that, he reminds me of the team coalescing around Terrestrial Energy. No one intends to fail, yet the potential to fall is internalised as the cost of flying high. For all her faults (and she has many), North America owns that attitude in a way that makes Australian determination seem embryonic in comparison. For example, while there is the scope for a great leap forward in the interim findings of the Royal Commission, we can yet do so much more if only we are prepared to be truly great.
It’s a long way. But with this much to learn from each other, it’s worth the distance.