James Hansen, BA, MS, PhD

I admit to not knowing about James Hansen until I encountered him amoung many other experts over at DecarboniseSA, and subsequently learned of his fundamental contributions to the study of our changing climate. He recently released a draft opinion essay dealing with the required global approach to nuclear power in the context of urgent internalisation of overall carbon emmissions: Renewable Energy, Nuclear Power, and Galileo.

“…my suggestion to other scientists, when they are queried, is to point the public toward valid scientific information, such as the “radiation 101” page written by Bob Hargraves. “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air” by David MacKay lets the public understand calculations as in the footnote above [see essay], thus helping the public to choose between renewables and nuclear power in any given situation – there is a role for both.”

The essay is clear and accessable and ideal for anyone who is still unsure what to think about climate change, nuclear power, or both. It may challenge what you thought you know; by all means investigate further. But be fair to yourself and stay up at the high academic standard from which professional scientists like Professor Hansen profer their knowledge.

…She Found Hope.

We are talking about nuclear in South Australia. This is good. There is a whole lot of work ahead of us. It is vital for people who feel strongly about the issue to expose themselves to information, to ask the questions, to attenuate signal from noise, to dig deeper.

Robert Stone’s film condenses decades of history and every main aspect of the issue into something extremely watchable. Please consider getting a copy from your favourite vendor.

Google Play
Apple iTunes
Fetch TV

The technical accuracy of Stone’s arguments and that of the claims of his subjects has been painstakingly established. Anyone interested in delving further into pretty much anything upon which Pandora’s Promise touched should definitely head over to Pandora’s Back Pages.

South Australia’s current demand for electricity is a bit over 13 GWh per year. About 500 MWh is contributed by rooftop PV systems. Nearly 3.5 GWh, or 27%, is provided by wind farms.

AEMOI for one would like to see most of that dominating 9 GWh of coal and gas capacity replaced by state-of-the-art modern nuclear baseload, such as the Westinghouse AP1000. Just as an example. To illustrate, back-of-coaster style, at a very rough estimate gas contributed 3,183,000 tonnes of CO2 in that period, coal 2,240,000 tonnes, for a total of 5,423,000 tonnes. 5.4 million tonnes of infrared-trapping, ocean-acifidying carbon dioxide.  And the nuclear reactor? My maths says it would emit 144 tonnes.

These are IPCC 50th-percentile rough-as-guts numbers, five orders of magnitude is five orders of magnitude. And that’s one way to be serious about climate change.

It would be in no way simple, cheap or rapid – as I said, there’s still a whole heck of a lot of work ahead of us. But, I’m just sayin’. And I’m just offering some of the information for why I’m sayin’. Because I think a whole lot of people are listening.

In Reply to Every Damn Anti-Nuclear Comment Ever

You’ve seen them in every comment thread. Hit-and-run or determined nay-saying, they will repost the same objections no matter how much breadth of detail is provided by the article author or by follow-up comments. These are my responses; I’ve intentionally focused on aspects of nuclear because it is quite capable of standing up for itself, despite how stark comparisons with certain other diffuse generation methods are. Have I missed any?

1. Yes actually, we have learned a lot from Fukushima, and we can all benefit if we dare venture out of our ideological comfort zone.
– We learned that it takes direct impact by constructively interfering, 15 metre high once-in-a-1000-year tsunamis to cause partial meltdowns in 70s era light water reactors after they survived an unprecedented magnitude 9 earthquake intact and shut down safely as designed.

– We learned a lot about design deficiencies as most countries with nuclear power sensibly reviewed the safety and design of their reactors.
– We learned that a gigantic exclusion zone definitely protects the population from any short term medical effects of radiation release, and probably from any statistically significant long term impacts. We unfortunately learned anew the cost of this caution, as 1605 residents lost their lives as a direct result of the evacuation. Given the questionably strict exposure limits demanded by the Japanese government and the increasingly untenable evidence-base for enforcing them, let us hope we learn that the price in human lives is not worth paying for unrealistic paranoia over radiation (a realistic treatment of exposure limits).
– We learned that the politically opportunistic shut down of a country’s nuclear reactor fleet results in a surge in fossil fuel use, record trade deficits, withdrawal from greenhouse gas emissions targets, and plans to build coal-fired power stations. In Germany – not a country known for its tsunami activity – the reactionary early retirement of most reactors has coincided with rapid expansion in lignite-fueled generation, alongside increasing strip mining, to fill the baseload void which the efforts of Energiewende have failed to do.
– Incidentally, no one likes Chernobyl but there ain’t no plans to build any new RBMK-type reactors, funnily enough. And it turns out that Three Mile Island actually proved the safety of the containment vessel design in the event of meltdown.

2. Not every article, opinion or comment is necessarily obligated to account for the cost, methods, volumes and limitations of disposal of nuclear ‘waste’, and the main reason is that I guarantee the solutions were elucidated by an informed nuclear energy proponent in the very comment thread following the very article or blog post prior to this one. The capabilities of Generation IV reactors are well established, and in particular metal-cooled fast breeder reactor-advanced recycling facilities, such as Argonne Laboratory’s Integral Fast Reactor, are essentially ready to be built and demonstrated. Not even a fool would dismiss the potential danger of spent nuclear fuel remaining highly radioactive for tens of thousands of years, and by reprocessing it and consuming it in breeder reactors we can instead be left with a fraction of the material which will decay to safe levels in mere hundreds of years – and generate ample energy in the process.
Handling, storing, blending and recycling spent nuclear fuel is currently an expensive, unpopular exercise, despite the relatively minor quantities involved. So, if you reject all nuclear power, what exactly is your solution for all the “nuclear waste” which exist today? Not to mention all the really dangerous, extra-enriched stuff still in nuclear weapons which, incidentally, the above-described reactors can also use as fuel?

3. “There’s not enough uranium for more plants”? See above.

4. No, reactors cannot explode like nuclear bombsNor can the fuel be removed and used to make weapons. OK? Hans Blix has possibly more experience in dealing with weapons of mass destruction than anyone reading this blog, and he’s pretty comfortable with nuclear.

5. Insurance for nuclear plants? The 104 viable reactors in the United States are comprehensively covered by insurance as legislated in the Price-Anderson act. A component of this insurance is underwritten by American Nuclear Insurers – a group of “some of the largest insurance companies in the United States”.
Similarly, loan guarantees are not multi-billion dollar handouts to reactor manufacturers.

6. Nuclear reactors are capital intensive, though to what degree depends somewhat on where they’re built. They actually run rather competitively. But if your primary concern is the pricetag, you can always just insist on building more coal or gas plants, right? Heck, many of the same companies who build nuclear and renewables will do it for you. Oh, so it’s not about the cost? Fossil fuels are bad for the environment? It was substantial pressure from self-described environmental NGOs which helped ratchet costs for nuclear up so high over the last few decades, largely with no clear benefit. The demonstrable benefit to humanity and the environment of the nuclear capacity which has been achieved has been determined and peer-reviewed.

7. With all aspects of construction and fuel cycle considered, nuclear is low CO2. Arguments to the contrary rely on erroneous analysis.

8. Yeah, some reactors unfortunately take a while to build. Sometimes not helped by certain organisations, rather than anything intrinsic in the construction and commissioning of sophisticated industrial equipment which, odds are, will supply entirely safe, reliable electricity for decades – possibly up to eight of them! And after all, nuclear became the dominant form of generation in France in only 15 years.

9. While it may occur to terrorists to attack nuclear plants, it’s conceivable that the sensationalised worst-case scenarios of such events is more terrorising to people than any likely reality. Apart from an instance of unilateral action by a soverign country, the only terrorist activity directed towards nuclear plants to date has been from militant “environmental” campaigners.

10. How could I forget the old fall-back of accusing any and all commenters who fail to denounce nuclear power of being shills and members of some manner of funded, coordinated nuclear lobby, if not, indeed, in some way deficient in humanity? I guess it’s not even argument, more so a declaration of refusal to consider any and all presented evidence. If I were to dignify it with a hyperlink, there are quite a few contenders here. It smacks of desperation every time, and distracts suspiciously from the sober discussion which is ever increasingly being demanded.
Advocates are people too!

11. There was approximately one guy who said energy could be “too cheap to meter“, and it’s unclear if he specifically meant nuclear fission. This would have to be the most classic strawman argument used by nuclear opponents.

12. When nuclear power is dismissed as an old technology, I have to wonder what it is old in relation to? In any case, this recent campaign video gives a taste of how innovative the industry has actually become:

13. There seems to be this rare but stubborn notion among some institutional environmentalists that nuclear power is elitist, undemocratic and imperialistic, to the detriment, specifically, of native peoples. I hope I have worded that right as it is hard to rationally grasp. It seems to take nuclear exceptionalism to a whole new, morally indignant level. I wonder if the root cause is at all related to some groups apparent desire to compel developing peoples and nations to choose from only the low-density, intermittent energy sources, plus efficiency and conservation, which are seen as environmentally acceptable.

The Sooner We Start…

As I have asserted elsewhere, I try to be vigilant regarding my own cognitive biases. I want to see reform of the arbitrary prohibition of nuclear power and technology in Australia – an entirely political, populist situation if ever there was one – but I also really like nuclear power itself as a deployable, proven, emissions-mitigating source of energy. If a new, superior alternative presents itself this year, or the next, then I’ll seriously consider backing it over anything else (take heed that this is of course rather different from rejecting nuclear). Perhaps I’m too generous in normally trying to consider the point of view of nuclear opponents when they show up… but there just aren’t any new arguments, and the critical analysis of the ones we’ve heard, repeatedly, reveals where cognitive bias is most prevalent.

No more FUD  c/o David Ropeik

“To be fair, it may be that many of these anti-nuclear advocates are simply not aware of what the evidence tells us about the biological effects of radiation, so they just echo the commonly held beliefs about radiation risk. It is also understandable that some environmental groups, even if they do know what the evidence says, persist in their opposition to nuclear power because it is woven into their very foundations… But neither ignorance nor culturally embedded historic concerns are acceptable excuses for alarmism when that alarmism does real and dramatic harm, as the excessive fear of radiation is doing now in Fukushima, and as it did after Chernobyl, and as it has done to public health worldwide for decades by driving energy policy away from nuclear and toward coal, the particulate pollutants from which sicken and kill tens of thousands of people a year. (And that doesn’t even mention how nuclear fear has led to a fossil fuel-based power generation policy that has drastically increased the threat of climate change.)”

The Nature article

Compare the harm from coal, the world’s dominant energy source.  It is in context that the advantages of nuclear power are stark.

Solar can’t c/o Geoff Russel

“Adding a 3 kilowatt solar PV system to all of Australia’s 7.6 million households (assuming they all have adequate roof or yard space to install them), would deal with about 3 percent of our energy related greenhouse-gas emissions.”

“What does [the WWF World Solar Atlas proposal] one percent look like? One percent of Australia is a bit under 8 million hectares… What does 8 million hectares look like? Consider all the cities and urban areas in Australia. They add up to just 1.6 million hectares, about 10 times more than we use for mining and waste management. So we can get an idea of one percent by multiplying all our urban and city areas by about 5. So drive from the centre of the city of your choice to its outer suburban edge, then start bull dozing trees and levelling ground for your solar panels until you’ve levelled an area about 5 times bigger than the city you just left. Do it for every city and you’ll have one percent.”

“Let’s suppose we manage to find 8 million hectares of good for nothing land. Hopefully, wildlife free and a mere 300 km from our material sources of steel, cement and glass. That’s a 600 km round trip. Note that Sydney-Moree is a 1200 kilometre round trip, and Sydney-Bourke is a 1500 kilometre trip, and Perth-Kalgoolie is 1200 km return, so I’m being ridiculously optimistic. As it happens, our Bureau of Statistics keeps data on articulated truck distances traveled in Australia. Keep in mind that we are rather well blessed with bloody big trucks compared to many countries. Our 81,000 articulated trucks travel around 7,000 million kilometres annually, with rigid trucks doing slightly more. Not all of these articulated vehicles are B-Doubles, so we may actually need more than 50 million loads depending on fleet composition. In any event, the project would keep our entire current articulated truck fleet busy for over four years. If we devoted 10 percent of the fleet, then it would stretch out for 40 years.”

I’ve mentioned this plan to some of the drivers who are regulars to the business where I work. They either don’t understand or think it’s a joke.

Wind can’t c/o nate hagens

The wind is (usually) blowing somewhere, but probably not enough, and transmitting power from windy regions to still regions cannot be economical.

“An estimate for the cost of three 4 GW cables forming a triangle with segments of 700, 1000 and 2000 each between Britain, Spain and Denmark/Northern Germany (Figure 1) arrives at a ballpark of roughly $10-12bn. If we assume an investment of $10bn, a life expectancy of 30 years, an interest rate of 6% (which is rather low and only slightly above 30 year bond interest rates) and maintenance cost of 1% per annum, the cost for each wind kWh usefully transmitted between the three countries would be more than 7 cents, not including line losses and operating energy for the heavily underutilized HVDC equipment (as stated above, utilization would be at approximately 10% of capacity).”

Storage would have to be massively overbuilt and multiply the cost of plant by more than a few whole numbers.

“In order to match one MW of wind nameplate capacity with enough storage to not lose too much of the excess production [in our chosen areas] at high wind time and to be able to bridge all the gaps, we would have to provide capacity worth approximately 20 days of average wind output, which – with a capacity factor of 25% – totals to 120 MWh of storage capacity for each MW of wind power production”

Nuclear is affordable c/o DecarboniseSA

Image prepared by DecarboniseSA

The cost and timescales of projects in the US, or delays in new European reactors is usually pointed to as prohibitive, but this is logically fallacious. If enacted correctly, with rational regulation based on the best modern evidence, nuclear build-out in Australia could use the lessons learned in such cases and others over the last 50 years, in addition to recent success stories such as China’s.

…and most verifiably low emission.

Despite repeated cherry-picking of dubious analyses.

“Independent studies have assessed nuclear energy’s life-cycle emissions and found them to be comparable to wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric generation.”

Advocacy and Haze.

No more than a few days on from the most strident call yet for serious consideration of expanded nuclear industry in South Australia, home of some of the world’s richest uranium reserves, we have just avoided our third heat wave for the year. The elderly and frail are invariably put at risk in this weather by their access, or lack thereof, to adequate relief from the relentless heat. I personally know of a colleague’s parents-in-law who are hesitant to incur the bill for running their AC unit, and must be ferried to said colleague’s house when conditions become extreme.


The other major problem in this weather is right in front of everyone’s face in the morning, though it’s easier to see by commuting from an elevated suburb. The brown smog which is thickening by the day is primarily a build up of NO2, a byproduct of vehicle engines and industry. It is a hazard to the respiratory system, particularly for asthmatics and young children.

So there’s no excuse for energy to be far from anyone’s mind. Some might bemoan the fleeting attention paid to Business SA’s proposals… but I don’t. I understand the furore which dominated headlines over the Adelaide Crows’ attempt to wear the state colours at a Showdown, and it’s entirely appropriate that football supporters voice their opinions on what is undeniably a matter of sports tradition. The fans are quite rightly passionate about the game.

As an example of all that is vibrant and positive about this state, I want them to continue that passion, and be able to continue well into the future without disruption by constrained energy or dramatically escalating climate variation. I want to be able to make it down to a match at our new stadium and see 38,790 people absolutely loving their game… without anyone needing to pretend that the choice between mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and continuing to burn fossil fuels isn’t one we’ll have to face, whether we’re ready or not. Nuclear power’s mitigation capacity is well established. South Australia’s wind generation potential has been firmly utilised, and if more can be effectively added then that’s great, but it is still fundamentally shackled to fossil fuel baseload. But nuclear and renewables are not footy teams – yes, they would compete in the market but both can win by doing what they do best. If anything, we can only win by all being on the same team.

Aside: some of the most polluting electrical capacity on the NEM comes from Victoria… at the risk of being absurdly parochial, shouldn’t our state’s electricity be showing the Vics how to clean up their act?

The same old rejection of Australian nuclear just isn’t going to hold up, as is rather mercilessly demonstrated in the criticisms of this piece at The Conversation. (If you’re interested, definitely have a read through the more analytical comments. The article’s premise just doesn’t stand up.) Advocates will keep advocating with mounting evidence, and though opponents will keep opposing, they will increasingly come to resemble other brands of skeptics.