Nuclear Opponents Hate Perspective

In march of 2011, in the immediate aftermath of an earthquake of intensity unprecedented in modern history, several reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant were heavily damaged due to loss of adequate cooling. The tsunami which knocked out the poorly-located diesel generators also killed a pair of young plant workers as they sheltered in a turbine room basement. Leslie Corrice’s authoritative book The First Five Days provides detail of the decisions, delays and interference that resulted in loss of containment and hydrogen explosions which allowed release of the radionuclides which largely prompted large scale evacuation and remain of great concern to many people.

Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant is seen in Onagawa town

Onagawa Nuclear Plant. By all measures, representative of standard nuclear robustness.

For perspective, cooling of reactor cores was maintained at Fukushima Daini and Onagawa Nuclear Plant, the latter surviving practically unscathed despite being closest to the epicentre. Several hundred townspeople of Onagawa sheltered in the plant’s gymnasium.

UNSCEAR has unequivocally stated that no one will likely die due to the release of radioactive contamination.

Yet the hysteria continues. Google “Fukushima” and instead of links to information about an idyllic rural prefecture, famous for sake rice, strawberries and other agriculture, the first hits are NaturalNews or Enenews – sites founded primarily to promote radiation fear. Unrelenting pressure to avoid release of radioactive water has required vast numbers of tanks to be built, and recently another worker died from a fall from one of these tanks. The treated water retains only tritium, an isotope that would not conceivably impact anyone’s health when diluted by undrinkable seawater. It would not effect fish, but the associated, perpetuated fear would impact the fishing industry.

Yesterday, in Mexico, a maternity hospital was destroyed in a gas explosion, killing a nurse and two infants. Where are the anti-gas protests? Where are the demands for the exit of gas power and heating? In late 2011 Mexico dropped plans to expand its perfectly unremarkable nuclear energy capacity and rely instead on abundant shale gas. Maybe the sustained hysteria over Fukushima influenced this, or maybe it was primarily the recent expanded gas reserves. But just try to imagine a world in which those terrible deaths were somehow caused instead by nuclear energy – with the same brief news coverage, and no activism involved.

Gas has a definite place in our current energy mix. Where it replaces coal fired power, emissions are distinctly lowered. It is currently abundant and convenient. It is also inherently explosive and incredibly dangerous, and must be handled with respect and a relevant degree of training. Clearly, safety lapsed at that hospital, with tragic consequences.

Though we can expect technological improvements, the resultant waste from gas is left uncontained and accumulates harmfully in the atmosphere for centuries. The fuel pool and dry cask “waste” at Fukushima Daiichi was all contained and weathered an earthquake and tsunami. The point is that the hazards of gas are so successfully normalised in our society that when it destroys a maternity hospital, we would be right to expect the news to drop off the front of the BBC (for example) by the next day.

It is likewise futile to demand consistency from Fukushima fearmongers. Despite the lack of any reason to expect radiation-induced cancers in Japan’s surviving evacuees, we can be sure that nuclear opponents will wait it out on the basis of a delay of onset – perpetuating their paranoia the whole time, and paying no mind to the real dead people and destroyed families. Is it just as insensitive to point at a deadly maternity hospital gas explosion to highlight their inconsistency? No, because I am relieved that survivors are being pulled from the rubble. I have more than my fair share of experience with midwifery, but the very real trauma of the event for the surviving workers and families is unimaginable.

KIBITAN

I am also deeply connected to Japan, and want to see normality return to an inexcusable situation. This is Kibitan.

 

No, Dig Up

“If nuclear lobbyists want environmentalists to support nuclear power, they need to get off their backsides and do something about the all-too-obvious problems such as the inadequate safeguards system. Environmentalists have a long record of working on these problems and the lack of support from nuclear lobbyists has not gone unnoticed.”

So says the response to last month’s Open Letter to Environmentalists on Nuclear Energy, which was alluded to briefly in some coverage. Notably, many other outlets boldly elected to exclude such belligerent, opposing opinion, such as The Independent UK, The Morning Bulletin, The AustralianBustle and ZMEScience, plus this deservedly proud piece from French Ekonomico. The full response was in fact an embellished email sent to the 75 signatories in an attempt to have them retract their stated support.

These academics, experts and professionals are not “nuclear lobbyists” – which is a bit of lazy polemic when their credentials are what you want furthest from your readers’ minds. As the Open Letter addressed concerns around nuclear waste through specific support of ready-for-demonstration fast breeder reactor designs, the response instead focused primarily on proliferation safeguards. A quote is chosen from George Stanford which reads very much like a warning – however, he was entirely in favour of commercialising the IFR without delay.

If we want to be able to influence safe [sic] the spread of nuclear technology, we will rapidly do a commercial-scale demonstration of the superior IFR technology, including pyroprocessing of the fuel, and share the technology— with appropriate safeguards. …although thermal reactors consume more fuel than they produce, and thus are not called “breeders,” they inescapably create a lot of plutonium, as I said. And that poses serious concerns about nuclear proliferation. And proliferation concerns are even greater when fuel from thermal reactors is recycled, since the PUREX method is used. IFRs have neither of those drawbacks.

You are supposed to stay scared of the proliferation potential, and certainly, despite the desensitising saturation of films and video games with fictional nuclear annihilation, nobody would welcome more bombs in the world. But the dearth of context and conflation of technologies is intentional: commercial reactors are hardly ideal for making bombs, and alternative methods are no less straightforward. Expansion of nuclear generation in established countries cannot be expected to add to these concerns, nor would adoption of same in stable candidate nations. While groups who egregiously misrepresent the drawbacks of nuclear energy certainly spare no expense in protesting nuclear weapons, it’s complete rubbish to paint international safeguards as somehow crumbling at their foundations from any lack of effort on the part nuclear energy advocates. What are our modern examples? Iran, which has received constant yet superficial coverage for the last ten years, to the extent that President Rouhani himself is pretty sick of the sanctions and is challenging the remaining hardline element that still appears to hold WMD aspirations. As for North Korea… they are the international pariah and the butt of jokes which get made into movies. That’s what a nascent rogue state can look forward to if they can somehow cover the effort and risk of pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

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Pictured: at least 6 nuclear power plants supplying emission-free electricity to millions. And a failed nation.

An anti-nuclear response to this letter is sadly to be expected, but is it futile to hope for something anchored in science and research, as was the original peer reviewed material, let alone to acknowledge climate change? “Climate” and “emissions” appear only in excerpts from the letter, while “carbon” is absent. Mentioning anything about climate change, let alone nuclear’s serious potential for addressing it, would dilute the fear of course.

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“Nuclear power ranked third overall and was credited for reducing 2.2 billion tonnes of C02 annually.”

Here’s an alternative: instead of treating these distinguished professionals like dupes, or like they were negligent in their own research, try looking past the emotional investment and maybe finally ask, “What if..?” You know – like many normal, unsalaried environmentalists are no doubt doing now.

Hydro

Dam1
Hydroelectricity supplies a small proportion of power to the national market, but the lion’s share of renewable energy. In recent times, South Australia is sometimes touted as the leader in renewables (it is quite sunny and windy here) but in fact Tasmania’s responsive, reliable hydro generation has kept it far out ahead. If it was operated as baseload supply, along with Snowy Hydro as well as Victorian and Queensland capacity (all 60 Twh per year – deemed feasible by BREE), on paper hydro could meet around a fifth of normal peak demand and 31% of average demand based on 2013-14. But it is not and cannot be utilised this way.


With due consideration given to rainfall forecasts, environmental flows, irrigation and drinking water, Australian hydro capacity factor was limited to 19% in 2011-12. Somewhat higher levels of generation were rewarded under the carbon price. Further perspective can be gained from reservoir data supplied by Snowy Hydro and Hydro Tasmania.

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Hydro remains the bulk of the world’s non-combustion electricity generation. Its effective expansion is welcomed by populations in developing countries. However, concerns regarding biological emissions may mean climate action and alleviation of poverty will require an alternative to shoulder the burden of providing reliable and plentiful electricity.

Competition for water resources will also affect the availability of water for hydroelectricity generation. Demand for water for urban and agricultural uses is projected to increase. It is likely that these uses for scarce water resources will take precedence over hydroelectricity generation. Generators face increasing demands to balance their needs against the need for greater water security for cities and major inland towns. The maintenance of environmental flows to ensure the environmental sustainability of river systems below dams is also an important future consideration which may further constrain growth of hydroelectricity generation.
pp 234

Environmental flows as well as supply to Australia’s food bowl regions may not be sexy headlines these days but Australia should be focusing on ensuring their security. Coupling reliable nuclear-powered desalination on the lower east coast with either large-scale offset of coastal and metropolitan water demand, or physical transport up to the hydro reservoirs themselves could achieve this on a scale not seen since hydroelectricty was initially expanded last century.

When the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme was built in the later part of the last century… it was seen as a wonder of engineering. A young country, calling on skilled people from around the world, to complete a massive project that would deliver water for agriculture, and be paid for by supplying electricity to a growing nation.
~ Steve Liebmann

I wonder if similar words will be said, decades after Australia adopts reliable, ultra-low emission nuclear energy?

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A week from last year that I noted for high, somewhat sustained winds. Consider the contributions of wind and hydro to overall NEM demand, the way hydro more (at low wind) or less (at high wind) follows that demand.

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A close-up of the dance.

Nevertheless, hydro appears to be a considerable factor in demonstrated low-emissions regional grids: