Hypocrisy on Hansard

I recently sat in on a session of the Joint Committee reviewing the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission. Speaking to the committee this day was Dave Sweeney, Nuclear Free Campaigner of the Australian Conservation Foundation and Jim Green, National Nuclear Campaigner of Friends of the Earth. The transcript of the session is now available.

I was stunned by some of the hypocritical and contradictory messages put forward by these spokespeople. Truly, the arguments about issues of used nuclear fuel will be manipulated into whichever directions serves the goal of nil progress. They do not want a solution because they like the problem. The problem is good for them and their cause. Consider the following assertion:

 Dave Sweeney: The ACF view is that we don’t have a moral responsibility as a uranium exporting nation to bring stuff back. There is no other mineral product that we are asked to do that with, so we don’t accept that line.

Yet just a few short months earlier, when writing for The Guardian, Dave Sweeney said this:

Ancillary wha? Ancillary services

Just because something is cheap to buy, does not mean it will be cheap to own, and just because the sticker price of some renewables is coming down does not mean we can keep adding them without costs. A reliable electricity supply is more than just electrons, and most of our reliability is provided by the dirtiest generators that we need to retire to deal with climate change. We can clean up our electricity supply and maintain reliability  provided we use all the technology available to us. Understanding more about ancillary services and the great concentration of greenhouse emissions in a relatively small number of generators in Australia illustrates a likely sensible floor for a nuclear sector in Australia. There is more than enough space for that, as well as a strongly growing renewables sector. We desperately need a sensible centre in our energy discussion that respects the way our system actually operates.

Ancillary adjective : providing necessary support to the primary activities or operation of an organization, system, etc.

Suddenly it seems like everyone is talking about ancillary services.

Ok, that’s an exaggeration. I am sure there are more people talking about the colour of the diving pool in Rio. In my little world of energy though, ancillary services have seemingly gone from nowhere to very interesting.

What the heck are ancillary services? You can read this piece to get a little idea, you can read this from AEMO to get much more of an idea or you can go with this…it’s all the important ingredients in running a reliable electricity system that you don’t know about. It is only one part of the game to provide the right number of megawatt hours in a given hour. The system needs to run at the right frequency, the voltage needs to stay within limits and the system needs to be able to get back up and running again in case of serious failure. That’s all called ancillary services.

So why are we suddenly talking about them?  Like most necessary support services, we acknowledge their necessity when they start to go away. In the Australian National Electricity Market, all of the ancillary services for the control of frequency are provided by 116 connected generating units that bid to provide that service; a mixture of coal, gas and hydro electricity units. No solar or wind generators are bidders to provide this service because, at this time, they can’t: they are non-synchronous, non-dispatchable generators.

South Australia has taken on a very large share of wind generation which has contributed to the exit from the market of several dispatchable, synchronous generators. The availability of ancillary services has declined, and our dependence on the rest of the NEM to provide those services has gone up. The latest 2016 Electricity Statement of Opportunities for the National Electricity Market (Australian Energy Market Operator 2016) has led with this issue:

You’re doing it right: impressive consultation for nuclear in South Australia

En route to work I stopped at the opening of the community consultation road show in Rundle Mall, Adelaide. This will  be visiting dozens of locations around South Australia as part of the discussion on whether to advance plans for a multinational repository. Here are some pictures and a short video. 


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The unfolding energy crisis in South Australia was foreseeable… and foreseen

This last week has seen extraordinary events in South Australia’s energy market make front page headlines nation-wide. In an unprecedented move, South Australian business and energy leaders demanded the re-start of a moth-balled power station to provide relief from suging and variable wholesale energy prices… and the Minister complied. 

As reported in the Australian Financial Review, prices in the state have been “frequently surging above $1000 a MWh this month and at one point… hitting the $14000MWh maximum price”.  The Australian Financial Review reports that average monthly prices have been three to  four times higher than in the eastern states during the month of July and new contract prices in South Australia are nearly double the prices in the eastern states.


Image from Energetics.

Let’s be clear: the South Australian electricity supply is the cleanest it has ever been and it is the most vulnerable, volatile and fragile than any time in recent history with no signs of relief in the short-term. As much as many people, including me, want the former (clean power), we are shooting ourselves and our wishes in the head if we keep contributing to the latter. There are few worse advertisements for clean energy than the current market in South Australia. Short-sighted over-development of variable generation without compensatory planning and policy has driven consequences that were entirely foreseeable. Suggestions that the renewable sector is now merely a “scapegoat” for our problems are absurd, stemming from an ideology of nil criticism for some technologies. While those sectors are not alone in the frame as contributing to this problem, the Pollyanna  group-think that insists that no line can ever be drawn to the obvious shortcomings of variable generators is starting to positively stink.

Around 12 months ago we published our paper Beyond wind. Since that time I have observed nearly everything we flagged coming true only faster than I anticipated, with the biggest surprise being that we did stand by as reliable generators left the market rather than coughing up to keep them in the game. 

I have re-produced an extract of this paper below. As you can see both we and the sources we cite were paying attention to problems in the pipeline. These problems were foreseeable and foreseen. Maybe we just needed more pain to make us pay attention.

Since 2003, the contribution of wind power to electricity generation in South Australia has grown to around 27 % of total annual electricity supplied to the State (Australian Energy Market Operator Ltd. 2014b). This increased wind generation has come mainly at the expense of generation from existing coal and gas generators which are now run less frequently (Australian Energy Market Operator Ltd. 2014b). Yet despite the rapid increase in wind-generated electricity in the State, South Australia still depends on participation in the National Electricity Market for a reliable supply of electricity.

“What a croc of shit!”. Praise for my latest podcast

Well it was my pleasure to spend some more time with Nigel and Stephen from The Adelaide Show podcast to prepare what one listener endorsed as “a croc (sic) of shit!”.


The croc(sic) is available in full from the website of The Adelaide Show.  Here is the blurb for the show:

Ben Heard is an environmental professional. He has worked on a number of major environmental initiatives in South Australia for government, private and not-for-profit clients, through a business called ThinkClimate Consulting. He was once a strong opponent of nuclear power until he underwent a Road To Evidence-Based Damascus experience about five years ago and since then has been a strong proponent. Last year, Ben joined us in episode 106 to talk about nuclear power but tonight we have him on the topic of the royal commission into the nuclear fuel cycle and our first taste of having a citizens jury review the findings.

We discuss

  • Why a citizens’ jury is needed after spending money on a royal commission
  • How South Australia is positioning with mining for the nuclear fuel cycle
  • The reasons for not enriching ore
  • Our almost-missed opportunities for nuclear power generation
  • Our safe and lucrative options for nuclear waste storage (and energy extraction)
  • Where the royal commission stopped too short on science and technology
  • The myths and truths of background radiation

Also appearing with our Nuclear Fuel Cycle citizen’s jury

In the musical pilgrimage, we have a band with a lead singer from Kimba

The SA Drink Of The Week is from winemaker Simon Parker of Vinify

In IS IT NEWS, Nigel tests Steve and the boys on atomic stories, including the revelation that Yankalilli has a rich radioactive mineral source just upstream!

We announce a new way to be part of our podcast; join our Inner Circle. It’s an email list. Join it and you might get an email on a Sunday or Monday seeking question ideas, guest ideas and requests for other bits of feedback about YOUR podcast, The Adelaide Show.

Liars or bullshit artists? I call bullshit. The truth about Diablo Canyon

There is a well-understood difference between a liar and a bullshit artist. Liars lie and you can confront them with a lie. Bullshit artists just talk with no regard for the truth one way or the other. You can hardly confront them because they are simply not attached to the concept of truth. They will just keep talking about what they want to talk about and pay no attention to the bullshit. Lying is actually relatively rare. Bullshit artistry is epidemic. Environmentalism here in the United States appears to have become a continual string of bullshit.

Yesterday, Pacific Gas and Electric announced plans to close California’s last remaining nuclear power plant at Diablo Canyon. Reading the announcement of this plan that came with the blessing and quotes from environmental organisations here, you could be forgiven for thinking this was good for clean energy.

whale diablo

As James Hansen is want to say, this is pure, unadulterated bullshit. There is no intellectual, numerical or evidentiary framework in which closing clean energy is good for clean energy. The amount of clean energy to be lost is slightly bigger (and far more reliable) than the ENTIRE wind and solar sector in the ENTIRE nation of Australia. If you want to build some renewables and strong-arm some energy efficiency from the utility, do it… while keeping the existing clean energy generators open. Not for the first time, I am ashamed and angry that organizations like this had so many years of donations from me, beginning when I was literally still a child.

The dirty rules behind clean energy: How UNEP quietly hurts nuclear and protects fossil fuels

I have attended my share of conferences and similar events and while they all differ, one thing is constant: the need for, and importance of sponsors. Big events cost big dollars, and even with sometimes hefty attendance fees, the role of sponsors remains a big one. Conference organisers are constantly seeking and soliciting event sponsorship from companies with whom they can identify potential alignment. In return for their support (and depending on the size of it), sponsors get massive visibility at the events. They have prominent visual branding. They will often have senior staff deliver addresses, introductions, sit on or moderate panels and the like, as well as a level of access to other conference attendees. The principle is that everyone wins, which is the way it needs to be or nobody would sponsor.

When the Canadian reactor company Terrestrial Energy (for whom I provide an advisory role) told me they were thinking of sponsoring the Sustainable Investment Forum, an event organised by Climate Action on behalf of the United Nations Environment Program, I was delighted and very supportive. I have, loudly and clearly, told the nuclear industry they must be less insular and get their message out into the clean energy mainstream. This move by Terrestrial Energy was just what I was talking about. Naturally, the event organisers would be pleased to secure another sponsor.


Or so I thought.

Nuclear was fun, just for one afternoon. Thanks for having me NEI

This week I attended the Nuclear Energy Assembly, the US nuclear industry national conference organised by the Nuclear Energy Institute, in Miami, Florida.

I was invited to join a panel with fellow outsiders Rachel Pritzker of the Pritzker Innovation Fund and Matt Bennett of Washington D.C.-based think-tank Third Way, company I could not be more privileged to keep. We three have common foundations and perspectives. None of us were pro-nuclear 5-10 years ago, all of us have changed our position profoundly, all of us are supportive of the industry for what it offers in terms of clean energy and development and, critically, none of us are of the industry. We are the invited Shakespearean fools as it were, with the ability to speak truth to power or in more common parlance, to call matters as we see them. This week we were all more than willing to rise to the occasion.

There is a certain heavy malaise that seems to beset nuclear conferences which, as an outsider, perplexes me. I am in wonder of the potential of this technology which Matt remarked he considers to be “literally the technology which can save the world”. Yet come our session late on Tuesday afternoon you could say everyone was a little tired and certainly wearing “conference face”.

Location, location, location: why South Australia could take the world’s nuclear waste

Ben Heard

South Australia’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission has recommended the state investigate an international storage site for intermediate and high-level (spent fuel) nuclear waste.

This coincides with the shortlisting of South Australia’s Barndioota Station as the federal government’s preferred site for storing domestic low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste.

Two years ago, Barry Brook and I argued that “nuclear waste is safe to store in our suburbs, not just the bush”. Based on the knowable hazard and established management techniques, we argued that storage and even disposal of radioactive materials does not demand the use of the remotest locations Australia has to offer.

Fast forward to today, and our nation, with its well-earned reputation for hypocritical antipathy to nuclear technology, is taking serious steps toward hosting used nuclear fuel from the global market.

So how is our “don’t avoid involving our cities” argument holding up?

As a member of the independent advisory panel assisting the federal government in the siting process for the domestic facility, I have learned a lot about how the waste challenge can both succeed and struggle with the tools available to us.

Getting community buy-in

The indefensible: A response to Jim Green as published in InDaily

Jim Green is a career anti-nuclear activist who attacks people who effectively challenge his position. For the most part I choose to ignore this. Today he is published in my local news outlet to whom I have previously provided articles. His article names me as holding an “indefensible” position regarding the health outcomes of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. On this occasion I choose to respond.

Green, under the banner of Friends of the Earth, maintains cheap, plainly libellous pages related to people discussed in his article including me, Barry Brook and also Flinders University Professor, Haydon Manning. Rather than seeking to meet in the middle for reasoned discussion, Green encourages readers to form negative opinions of reputable, honest and well-qualified commentators.

Green’s determination to make nuclear energy look bad led to him publish an utterly fallacious table of mortality figures for energy sources based on mathematical error and truly butchered methodologies. Along with Geoff Rusell I exposed this. After considerable delay this forced a retraction. Yet his fatally flawed work remains published in the original article and elsewhere; he never saw fit to insist that these errors and fabrications were removed.

In this article published to InDaily, Green presents himself as a reasoned, independent arbiter of the uncertainty relating to the health impacts of radiation; one who is qualified to guide readers throught this issue. Everything about that premise is patently absurd. Green applies tactic after tactic to push possible death tolls higher and higher in the mind of the reader.

Green makes the remarkable claim that epidemiology, while important, is “not much use in estimating the overall Chernobyl death toll”. As “the study of the distribution and determinants of health-related states or events” epidemiology is in fact the primary means of determining health impacts. The problem Green has is that the epidemiology undermines his desired conclusion. So he opens by attempting to knock it out based on nothing but his say-so.

He then promptly moves on to his own, preferred approach: that of collective low-dose radiation. He crafts a paragraph with two big numbers for death: 60,000 and 30,000. Whose numbers are these? Read the paragraph carefully: they are Jim Green’s numbers. Not the IAEA, not the UN, not the WHO: Jim Green.

Green then moves to misrepresent the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation. As quoted, UNSCEAR states that the Green-approach leans on “unacceptable uncertainties”. Note that first word: unacceptable. The outputs of this approach are so uncertain they cannot be accepted. UNSCEAR acknowledges the use of the linear, no-threshold approach “for the purposes of radiation protection”.  That refers to the completely different situation of planning guidelines and protections, not estimating health impacts after the fact. In case this was not clear, UNSCEAR clarified in this 2012 statement:

The major findings are: Because of the great uncertainties in risk estimates at very low doses, UNSCEAR does not recommend multiplying very low doses by large numbers of individuals to estimate numbers of radiation-induced health effects within a population exposed to incremental doses at levels equivalent to or lower than natural background levels. Those organizations performing activities related to the Fukushima accident might benefit from the findings of these reports.

 Bottom line: the globally expert committee’s most recent recommendation is: what Jim Green did? Don’t do it, because it is irresponsible and unacceptable.

Then comes the area of credible uncertainty: the possibility, based on modelled impacts, that some additional thousands of fatalities may be attributable based on the most exposed populations. Here, I am quite satisfied to permit the discussion of evidence to proceed. Green claims that my approximate position, that the modelled fatalities remain merely modelling, is indefensible.

I don’t agree. I consider that my position is both arguable and readily defensible. It is not merely held by Green’s stylised “nuclear industry supporters” but reflected by experts like Geraldine Thomas who have worked on the epidemiology. The work of UNSCEAR over the last 30 years has been exhaustive and has uncovered no compelling evidence of other health impacts beyond serious psychological harm, largely attributed to a misplaced fear of physical harm from radiation. On the other hand, earlier reports from the authoritative bodies reference the possibility of harm in the ranges of 4,000 to 9,000 people based on modelled outcomes rather than observed impacts. I don’t find that compelling; others do. Let the discussion of the evidence in this matter proceed. Let it proceed without personal attack. This is largely the position put forward in this recent, excellent article published to The Guardian

The bottom line is that even taking the most conservative possible approaches, as did the ExternE actuarial study by the European Union, nuclear power remains one of our very safest power sources. Provided it is the numbers we are interested in, Green can have his and it would not alter the iron-clad argument for nuclear on a strict safety basis.

But Green seems disinterested in helping people understand the numbers, the science, the epidemiology, the uncertainty, the impacts or the relevance on our decision-making. What he seems interested in is making a suite of commentators look like science-deniers to keep people as frightened as possible of nuclear power. The sick irony is that the biggest residual harm of Chernobyl, about which there is no uncertainty, stems from the psychological trauma wrought by this fear itself. His tool is their pain.

This, for me, is indefensible.

Featured image is creative commons, by Stefan Kasowski.

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