News, opinions and activism regarding our energy future, and local solutions for Perth, Western Australia.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Nuclear Debate Blows Up

Updated 6/06/06 (below)

Apologies for the lack of fresh content, I have been working on a Hubbert Linearisation of Australia's oil & gas production which has required a lot of number crunching... stay tuned (but not till next week I am on the road for the next 5 days). In the meantime, the Nuclear Debate has been intensifying in Australia, Britain, and all over the blogosphere. The terms of the debate are nicely framed at The European Tribune.

In Australia, John Howard kicked off the debate:
"I want a full-blooded debate in Australia about this issue and I want all of the options on the table," Howard told a news conference in Canada on Friday.

"I have a very open mind on the development of nuclear energy in my own country and that includes an open mind on whether or not Australia should in fact process uranium for the purposes of providing fuel for nuclear power in the future," Howard said in a transcript made available on Saturday.

"The pressure for change is driven in part by environmental considerations, it's driven in part by the soaring price of fuel, it's driven in part by a realisation that confronting the challenge of high energy pricing is one of the big economic challenges."

Australia is one of the world's top coal producers and the Howard government has steadfastly supported the industry in the face of calls for more renewable energy, but until now it has not openly raised the idea of nuclear power.

Treasurer Peter Costello, heir apparent to the prime minister, said this week that nuclear power would cost twice as much as coal power, adding that nuclear energy was not economically right for Australia at the present time because it had such large resources of gas and coal.

This article troubles me on a number of levels, firstly stating that the Howard government favours the Coal Industry over renewable energy, and secondly Peter Costellos preference for burning gas and coal, considering two recent reports conclude that up to now we could have been underestimating the future effect of global warming. So, from a greenhouse and peak-oil viewpoint nuclear energy would be a Good Thing (TM).

However, nuclear power is not so much of a Good Thing (TM) if it
comes at the cost of wind power:
IT WAS May 2004 and John Howard was looking for an exit clause. A Federal Government scheme to kickstart Australia's renewable energy industry had proved successful beyond anybody's expectations. Wind, the cheapest and most viable source of renewable energy, was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the mandatory renewable energy target.

Giant wind turbines were sprouting all over the country, turbine blade and engine manufacturers were setting up shop, and cash was pouring in from foreign and domestic investors. It seemed Australia was finally tackling its greenhouse gas emissions by getting some clean electricity.

But not everyone was happy with the mandatory target. Leaked minutes from a meeting in the chilly confines of Canberra's political corridors show the Prime Minister had called on some of Australia's biggest contributors to global warming - including the coal and uranium miners Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton - to help the Government devise a way to pull the rug from under the wind industry, but still be seen to be tackling climate change.

Two years on, it has become clear just how deadly that meeting was for wind power. The Government's refusal to extend the mandatory target has left hundreds of renewable energy projects unable to secure contracts. One developer last week cancelled two wind farm proposals worth $550 million, while the future of another $250 million project is in doubt.

This article literally has me seething. Wind power is clean, already close to economic versus coal (some reports say nuclear is twice as expensive as coal) and can be distributed at the site of use, perfect for Australia's long coastline and isolated communities. Perhaps that is the problem - less large companies with large political donations, and less opportunities for government control as recently discussed by DeAnander at The European Tribune: "Megaprojects vs Micropower":
Technologies shape the societies which adopt them. What shapes may the adoption of nuclear power encourage our societies to take? What are the policy and governance implications of increased reliance on this source of electricity?
The industry remains tightly coupled to the military and to weapons manufacturers; plants are considered part of the "Security State within the state" for this reason as well as for their manifest vulnerability to terrorist attack. Secrecy, coverups, and obfuscation continue to be the normal working methods of the industry when dealing with errors, near-mishaps, and actual mishaps at nuclear facilities (which I hope to discuss in subsequent diaries). Moreover, nuclear power has an appeal to the kind of government/elite cadres who prefer an autocratic or repressive Security State model for their country.

Tony Blair, for example -- a fan of Panopticon type public surveillance, national biometric ID cards, increased police powers and support for US military adventurism -- is also a fan of nuclear power. After years of preparing the ground while he pretended to vacillate (for example by suppressing a government study showing nuclear to be uneconomic and then issuing a total re-write, ignoring warnings from the waste management committee, and preparing one secret plan and then another), he has most recently attempted to impose the nuclear power option by fiat as UK energy policy.

The Australian Labour Party, on the other hand, is implacably opposed to nuclear power with Kim Beazley stating:
"The economics don't stack up," Mr Beazley said. "We have abundant sources of alternative energy, waste disposal issues are unresolved and there are important national security issues to be considered.

"For these reasons Labor doesn't support nuclear power in Australia."

Mr Beazley said that if Mr Howard was serious about developing nuclear energy, he should reveal which suburbs would host new nuclear reactors and how he would ensure the safety of surrounding homes and schools.

This is a shrewd move by Labor to climb on board the inevitable NIMBY backlash, especially after the left-leaning think-tank the Australia Institute published a list of favourable nuclear sites. However in my view Labor's statement is not constructive as they have not enunciated what Australia should do instead, they have no clear alternative energy policy, which leaves the status quo of burning Coal as the unstated policy.

To finish with a positve example, Jerome a Paris, a French energy investment banker wrote a good overview
Nuclear energy in France about a year ago, which appears quite successful and uncontroversial:
France is happy with nuclear energy and intends to continue using it on a large scale. It has workes so far because it has been run in a highly centralised way, with one operator with the full backing of the State under a very long term plan. Both the operator and the public supervisory body have a strong engineering culture with an emphasis on technical excellence and safety, and they are generally trusted, despite occasional lapses in transparency which are increasingly corrected nowadays.

Update 6/06/06
Three of the six panel members in the Aus Federal Government's Nuclear Review have been announced. The panel is headed by former Telstra chief executive Dr Ziggy Switkowski and includes nuclear physicist Professor George Dracoulis and Professor Warwick McGibbon of the Australian National University.
"I am not persuaded as yet, although in my bones I think there has been a fundamental change," he [Prime Minister Howard] said.
"But I want to see the evidence."
Mr Howard also says he thinks the Australian public is warning to nuclear power.

Personally, I have cooled to nuclear power recently, after reading a detailed article about Nuclear Power at the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability, which considers the life cycle energy & greenhouse gas costs of nuclear power. It is well worth reading as it describes all aspects of the nuclear power cycle from mining, enrichment through decommissioning of power stations (which has not been carried out anywhere in the world as yet).

Mr Howard says if nuclear power stations are built in Australia, they will not be built by the Commonwealth. He says any decision on sites would largely be down to the businesses building them.

This is something that I disagree with. I think the economic, safety and disposal aspects of nuclear energy require strong oversight, and a common design and engineering culture, as has been the case in France.


Anonymous technofreak said...

Probably the most obvious thing to become painfully clear during the onset of climate concerns and energy woes is the long time but well masked greed that drives politics and industry. More than ever the intent of industry and politics which is near-sighted, old and soon to be exposed to even Joe Average as we head towards our date with destiny which will see us pay our environmental debt (which our children will have to pay).

Its an interesting tactic use by Howard to play the nuclear card as 'the alternative' energy solution. He knows full well that many will reject it on the grounds of fear that has been fed over years of propaganda. This will be taken as a rejection of alternative energies in general and a move back to the tried and true gas/oil/coal based system that has supported everyone so well.$$$

Only it will become clearer and clearer over time that this course of business as usual will prove very unfavourable by our society as they endure more environmental hardships and start to see more obviously what is really at stake.

The micro-energy map is the only one that will work in the future and it will take truly smart businessmen to drive this future and turn it into the new industry that will power the future. If the current powers-that-be could see past their wallets they would jump at the chance we now face and capitilise on it and replace their un-sustainable future with a sustainable one.

Pity they are too old and stupid to see past it all....

29/5/06 10:50

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike, your NewScientist links didn't work for me.
via the energy bulletin... lets not get too carried away with the nuclear advocacy... although it may have a role to play.
Don't get too caught up with the HL plot... what does it mean to plot on the y axis the instantaneous x divided by the sum of x? For one it means y is not independant of x
There is also the assumption that k (TOD page), a rate constant, is in fact constant over the production cycle...
In my field of study, similar linearisations of for eg Michaelis-Menten equation can produce dodgy results.

4/6/06 06:34

Blogger mike said...

@technofreak: I too am suspicious of Howard's motives. However I am not so sure that he is banking on it being rejected - a nuclear industry for Australia would involve megabucks with the opportunities for megaprofits and mega-tax revenues so I am sure there are some large corporations 'encouraging' him down this path.

5/6/06 23:46

Blogger mike said...

The newscientist links seemed to work for me? Can you email me which specific ones you mean.

I read the energy bulletin article you linked recently, and the more extensive article it links to at FEASTA Why Nuclear Power Cannot Be A Major Energy Source. This has really affected my thinking about Nuclear Power and I'm now more on the con side... the one thing missing from that article which would be the clinching argument for me was an actual quantification of the energy balance / EROEI.

I'm sure I probably found the link at TOD or EuroTrib or elsewhere I browse... you wouldn't have posted it there by anychance?

Your comments on HL are intrigueing, I fear I may not be able to follow them up for some time though as am about to change jobs & city, with a European vacation inbetween... yes I am selfishing taking advantage of cheap petro-travel while I have the chance!

I fully intend to backup my post about the Austrlai's HL with a brief statistical justification of the method. I agree it has its flaws but it has been quite accurate for many nations and regions. (I have already down some graph work and it is not so accurate for Australia, but that is not suprising given Australias small production base such that individual projects have a large effect on the overall profile)

Feel free to drop me a line at mike dot energy at googlemail dot com about any of the above, I promise a reply but not necessarily a speedy one at the present moment.

6/6/06 00:02


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