Not humbled, angered: The response to Fukushima is an ongoing mistake. Part 2

This is the second part of my recount of my visit to Fukushima from earlier this year. For part 1 see here. It has been a long time between part 1 and part 2. Apologies, much important work has come up in the meantime.

A word on Australia’s domestic waste responsibilities

The OPAL research reactor, Lucas Heights, near Sydney. This reactor produces much of the global supply of diagnostic nuclear medicine, dopes silicon for the high-end electronics industry, and uses the neutron beams to undertake a wide range of research.

The Adelaide Show podcast, coming tonight!

Last night I had a blast with Steve and Nigel from The Adelaide Showa long-running local podcast.

We chatted about climate change and a little bit of my journey on that subject, before I blew their minds with some of the possibilities of nuclear energy in South Australia.

I did the Is that news? quiz, where Steve and I had to guess the fake nuclear-themed news story from Australian history, sat on the Visa Council, where we decide whether someone can come to Adelaide or not based on a disparaging tweet, and helped polish off the Drink of the Week, a 2010 Gramps shiraz from the Barossa.

Here is a promo video, the podcast goes out tonight, listen in and share widely!

Where we can spare land, we must. A response to Ramez Naam

Earlier this year author Ramez Naam took me to task for what he calls a lack of context in a piece I wrote comparing the land footprint of solar thermal with that of small modular nuclear.

It’s an interesting discussion. He’s not arguing with my numbers. I’m not arguing with his. Both of us support deployment of nuclear and renewable technologies.

The disagreement appears to be based on whether the land use issue for solar is even an issue.

The context knife cuts both ways on that one.

Naam puts the land use required for a solar United States in the context of the area of the whole United States, coming to a figure of 0.6 %.

This figure is low because Naam uses (as did I) average electricity output per unit land for a system with no storage. It was suitable for my comparison of one facility with another. It is not suitable in a comparison of powering the entire US. In that case, average output and no storage is irrelevant. The worst possible period of output will govern the size and economics of the solar thermal requirements. As Naam says he doesn’t believe 100 % solar is going to happen. Nonetheless, it pays to understand this as many commentators expect a big role from solar with storage.

In the same article, Naam reminds the reader that agriculture roughly uses 30 % of the land of the United States, the built environment is using 166 % of the area that would be required for solar and coal mines are using about the same area as would be required for solar (an interesting quantification, to be sure, which I won’t dispute). National defence areas are raised as another example, and one could go on and on.

There is a serious flaw in this reasoning.

The point was never that the world is literally too small for solar. The point was that land is scarce in the economic definition of the word: it is subject to many competing uses and demands and it must be allocated efficiently. The use that most often gets shafted in our human civilisation is biodiversity. Put another way, we get amazing biodiversity outcomes when we make land near-valueless to humans for anything else. For example Naam highlights disused farm land in the US to assert that the size required for solar is relatively small. The interesting question, surely, is what should we do with this disused land? Give it over to energy production of some form like energy cropping? I would hope not. I would hope it might be returned to habitat as has been the case for New England forests.

Lurching from one land-intensive energy supply to another does not further the land-sparing outcome. The way coal consumes country is horrible as I pointed out in this video. Naam asserts that solar uses the same amount of space, with lesser disturbance. I regard that as faint praise.

Solar thermal won’t work on just any old land. Naam acknowledges that the efficiencies of the system matter. A first-order consideration for economic output from solar is the right area with the best solar resource.

That’s why Ivanpah is in the Mojave Desert, where it displaced an endangered species, not on disused farmland in the eastern United States. Naam’s quantification that a solar USA would require half the Mojave is getting closer to the point. That’s also the reasons why it is on a flat area, not the mountainous Mojave terrain which is much of the terrain. Again, the suitable area is constrained and the relative pressure rises for scarce space.

Pointing out the other (often destructive) ways humans have used land, and the amazing scale of this use, is an argument for constraining our footprint in everything we do from here: agriculture, human habitat and energy to name the big three. Leveraging it to say “therefore this impact doesn’t matter”, well… that’s the sort of corporate, environmental impact assessment logic which time and time again drives the death of a thousand cuts of one area after the next. When an option for massively smaller disturbance is available, as there is in the comparison of nuclear with solar thermal, we should take it. To assert the difference doesn’t matter is a blind spot.

Two friends. Two journeys. Two worlds

I am glad to know that I live in a world where poverty is declining.

While that is true it remains a world of haves and have nots. Those of us who “have” can barely conceive the lives led by those of us who have not. We can scarcely grasp the diabolical choices they face. Our position of astounding privilege can lead to badly warped perspectives.

Two friends of mine recently took two very different journeys. An Australian, Gary Davies, went to Germany. An American, Michael Shellenberger went to Indonesia. They both met locals, and their journeys both involved rivers.

In Indonesia, Michael met a family who live in the concrete undercarriage of a busy road bridge. They live there because that’s the best option they know of. Reaching their home required a precarious crossing of a polluted river. Once a two-year-old child was dropped, and died. Their living involves fishing recyclable rubbish from the dirty water. They are periodically evicted. They dream of a job in a factory. In their current economic conditions, these people live on the margins of harm from extreme weather events that are expected from a changing climate. It’s a problem of global environmental commons to which they scarcely have the income to contribute.

Per capita electricity consumption in Indonesia is 733 kWh per year.

In Germany, Gary and his friends were accosted by locals protesting nuclear energy. These people doubtless lived in secure homes. These people had the economic security that permitted leisure time to protest against facilities that provide electricity with no greenhouse emissions, no air pollution, and that have never hurt a German person by virtue of the nuclear fission process. Not only that, their economic security enabled a remarkable conversation starter: a free glass of champagne. So wealthy are they, they can provide alcohol to strangers in the name of delivering their argument to an audience. Such wealth results from several centuries of exploitation of energy for economic development.

Per capita electricity consumption in Germany is 7,270 kWh per year. So wealthy is Germany that in the last four years she has, by simple dint of policy, forced closure of over 50 TWh per year of nuclear electricity generation. That’s 28 % of the total annual electricity generation of Indonesia, junked.

Meanwhile on the Rhine, Gary didn’t see families living under bridges, fishing rubbish to make a living. He saw a barge called Privilege moves masses of polluting coal up-river, to power an economy that keeps the locals in champagne.

Running to stand still

Germany’s Energiewende seems to be the global litmus test for all renewables, no-nuclear future. Whatever the final suite of outcomes, no one will be able to say the Germans didn’t try very hard.

They have been trying, very hard indeed, to eliminate their dependence on nuclear electricity, maintain a stable and reliable grid with affordable electricity, and meet targets for reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

For a while there it all seemed to be going pear-shaped. Greenhouse gas emissions were rising, year on year.

Then, in year ending 2014, emissions from the electricity sector dropped, sharply, by 16 megatonnes CO2-e. Victory is being claimed in some circles for the Energiewende. This is highly premature to say the least, and disgustingly perverse to say the most.

What was behind this sudden drop? It was profound, and strongly breaking from the developing trend of the previous four years.


It helps to take matters back a step.

Since year ending 2010 to year ending 2014, (the period of sudden nuclear closure) Germany has reduced output of electricity from the nuclear sector by about 43 TWh per year.

In the corresponding period they have increased output from the overall renewable sector by 55.8 TWh per year. So they have more than covered it in terms of simple output. In principle (if closing nuclear is what you care about) so far so good.

In that same period, to year ending 2014:

  • Brown coal is up 9.9 TWh
  • Black coal is down 8 TWh
  • Gas is down 31 TWh
  • Fossil oil down 2.7 TWh

That’s 55.8 TWh added in renewables, and 75.3 TWh lost in nuclear and fossil.

But a huge amount of that decline in fossil happened in the year-ending 2014 alone. When you look at just the change from year-ending 2013 to year-ending 2014, you can see Germany put on a new 8.2 TWh in renewable generation, and dropped 28.4 TWh across fossil (and a tiny bit in nuclear) compared with 2013. That leaves 20.2 TWh that has disappeared, handily, from fossil fuels, giving a drop in emissions of about 16 Mt CO2-e in the electricity sector for year-ending 2014. Why?

The 2013/2014 winter was Germany’s fourth warmest winter on record, a record stretching to 1881, and 2014 was Germany’s hottest year on record. This is broadly acknowledged as the source of the decline in energy demand. That was the source of the decline in emissions.

It’s an anomaly, in other words, though one that may recur more frequently with climate change. It’s not victory to Energiewende; it’s respite for advocates who finally get some figures to lean on.

But that is where the perversity of all this really comes in. No matter how you slice it this is nothing to be proud of. Germany has been going full speed on renewables and in the process has displaced 43 TWh of clean generation. In climate terms, it has spent four years running to stand still.

The same Teutonic fervour directed against Germany’s seemingly entrenched lignite sector would mean we could all now be grateful for more than just a weather-driven dip in emissions from the electricity sector.

We could be celebrating a permanent cut of an extra 50 megatonnes per year of CO2-e from the German power sector that has nothing to do with the weather. We could be watching a new model of mixed-technology decarbonisation take shape from which the rest of us could learn. A new case study to add to places like France, Sweden and Ontario.

Instead, it’s Atomkraft? Nein danke! Policy by platitude. We can look forward to more of the same for 2015, as new renewables fill the gap left by the prematurely closed Grafenrheinfeld 1275 MWe reactor. The new renewable capacity required to replace it could be instead permanently cutting another 10 megatonnes CO2-e per year from Germany’s electricity sector, were it closing dirty brown coal. Germany decided to piss that opportunity up a wall.

Nein Danke
Anti-nuclear activists in Germany. Note the empty bottles of sparkling wine in the bottom left. They were opening discussions by offering passers-by a small champagne. Photo by Gary Davies

As for the renewables, 25 % of the new capacity since year ending 2010 is biomass, which is now running as baseload. That is not a model of decarbonisation that can be sustainably scaled-up.

Where the Energiewende ends remains to be seen. However I will say this with confidence: the decision to embrace lignite above fission, at a juncture where we needed strong action on climate change, was and will forever remain a monumental travesty, perpetrated by people of privilege.

The coal barge Privilege. Photo by Gary Davies
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