Radio National’s Ockham’s Razor

Well before the surprise announcement of a Royal Commission into the further opportunities for South Australia – with its substantial uranium reserves – in the nucelar fuel cycle; before strident calls for federal legislation to “get out of the way” of such potential; before foreign minister Julie Bishop’s bold call for consideration of nuclear in the climate change conversation… I recorded a segment for Ockham’s Razor on ABC Radio National. It will be aired this Sunday, but it is available at the program website.

PRISM (model by Midwest Studios)

The idea of accepting and storing recyclable nuclear fuel here in South Australia in a Spent Fuel Bank, and directing the proceeds to establishment of the power reactor technology with which to annihilate the long-lived material while producing emissions-free electricity is Ben Heard’s idea. Much thanks to him for considerable feedback and encouragement. Thanks also to the production crew who were just awesome to work with, and Robyn Williams for his words of support for this continuing discussion.

Sodium-cooled fast reactors don’t come flat-packed. This is what we could call aggressive decarbonisation. The idea is quite optimistic about many aspects of deploying modern nuclear technology, especially in a country that has so far banned it. Well, I like optimism. I like electricity which potentially emits close to zero emissions over its life cycle.


<1 gCO2eq/kWh. Compare other technologies.

I like fundamental infrastructure which can work for half a century or more. I like keeping all our tools in the chest, and using them for their designed purpose. I like to stay informed by the science, while staying away from the stale rhetoric, which our opposition is kicking into overdrive, rather than rethinking. I like energy, whether its from clean sources or from the professionals I meet who see a bright, empowered future.

I hope you like it.


The Millwrights

In the early nineteenth century my home state had been freshly colonised by the British. Despite the establishment of agriculture the land owners and pioneers were reliant on essentials like flour bought from New South Wales. One pioneer, John Dunn, brought with him the knowledge of milling.

John Dunn’s Steam Mill.

His first mill, a wind-powered affair was rapidly superseded when the Watts beam engine was brought out to Australia. The steam-powered mill he built in what would become the town of Mount Barker was able to produce flour around the clock. It would have used wood, a fuel in plentiful supply. Similar engines helped modernise the fledgling mining sector. More steam mills were built by Dunn, who’s business grew to employ hundreds and benefit the entire state as reliance on the eastern states diminished.

I now live in this town, and I look out my window and see none of the environmental devastation this historical economic growth may imply to some people. There’s the odd old quarry and plenty of cleared cropland; there’s also sizeable wetlands and bushland corridors.

I do see solar panels on roofs, though. Church roofs, especially – coated with them like doped silicon frosting. Electranet and the grid operator, AEMO, last year assessed the implications of continued expansion of solar and wind capacity in South Australia.

The impression that it is technically feasible for South Australia’s grid to be fully renewable is undoubtedly appealing for many people. (If this is concurrent with effective decarbonisation – a much less emphasised detail – then it certainly appeals to me.) But to seriously consider it will force them to wrap their heads around what is meant by “system security”.

Anyone who has operated a household appliance should have noticed there’s a silver sticker with numbers on it. Among them will be stated the input frequency of alternating current (AC) – 50 Hertz in Australia. It turns out that that is crucial – the people whose job it is to balance demand and supply on the power grid need to keep this frequency constant or it means, at worst, damaged generators and blackouts. So where does this frequency come from?

From the generators themselves, the physically spinning turbines which rotate (effectively) fifty times per second.

This is why AEMO stresses that SA’s Northern, Torrens Island or Pelican Point fossil-fired stations would need to be retained for “ancillary services”. Solar generates direct current (DC) that is transformed to AC by the inverter – but this relies on the established grid frequency. For their part, wind turbines are rotating masses generating current which must also be electronically matched to 50 Hertz. (You won’t see a wind turbine spinning that fast!)

Relatedly, the inertia of these stationary, dispatchable spinning masses is vital for stabilising every addition and subtraction of load and source on the grid and the attendant pressure on the frequency.

So in the best case scenario, we have a fossil fueled plant combusting away just to provide grid frequency and inertia, even on bright sunny days and windy nights. Or South Australia decommissions its coal and gas generators (which decarbonisation somewhat implies) and relies entirely on the rest of the NEM, through the Heywood AC interconnector, for these ancillary services so that we can safely use, well, everything we already have.

If this turns out to be the best way to cut Australia’s carbon intensity, so be it. But if Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria want to “follow SA’s lead” and substitute fossil combustion for renewables – while avoiding relying on climatically sensitive hydro generation for grid stability – I can envision a few problems.

In the meantime, not for bread but high quality energy – grid stability and electricity to run our refrigerators, power our hospitals and charge our future electric vehicle fleet when renewables are not generating – will we once again be reliant on the eastern states?


Without steam, it can be a long day at the millstone.

Whenever we use energy
it is to free ourselves from some natural condition: to be warm in winter and cool in summer, to stay up after dark, to eat out of season, to escape hard labor, to leave the local patch of terroir where we sprouted and see the world. These are all acts of liberation, and they require abundant power and technical ingenuity.

Maybe John Dunn could not fully appreciate what he wrought for his new home state, but we can. Will we end up limiting our liberation by limiting our energy options?


Stale Narratives Need Not Apply

We’ve already had the nuclear debate: why do it again?

The Olympic Dam copper mine in South Australia. By a factor of nearly 50, weightwise.

Since you ask – because we haven’t, actually. This is called begging the question.

Thousands of tonnes of spent fuel rods and radioactive waste are held near nuclear power stations and weapons facilities around the world, with no agreement on long-term storage.

Yet if we dare listen to experienced operators of nuclear power plants, concern over “waste” is completely overblown. It is stored securely, and nobody’s ever been hurt by it.


All the waste from 110 000 000 000 kWh worth of electricity.

As for proliferation, it has been an important issue managed through international cooperation for decades, so it’s well past time for us to discuss it with considerably more sophistication, such as here-in.

The opinion piece continues:

South Australia leads the mainland states in its harnessing of solar and wind energy. Together they supplied more than one-third of the state’s electricity for the whole of last year and all of the state’s power for one working day in September.

Noting the muggy stillness of the evening of February 10th, I happened to check the state-by-state NEM output:

Queensland and New South Wales were burning their dispatchable black coal;


Victoria was doing its baseload proxy with dispatchable brown coal;

And perhaps just as the above sentences were being typed, South Australia’s wind capacity was largely failing to meet the nightly peak in demand, which had to be filled by gas combustion.



And depleted but dispatchable Tasmanian hydro.

Victorian and Tasmanian wind output certainly wasn’t negligible, which indicates a beneficial geographical diversity in the resource. But the fact remains, even if SA wind were greatly expanded as proposed, negligible supply will fail to meet demand on afternoons like February 10th, 2015. It still wouldn’t save hydro capacity, and it would still necessitate the combustion of fossil fuels.

Does it make me “anti-renewables” if I highlight a period of negligible supply in response to this article? Alex Trembath’s piece on technology tribalism examines this question with diligent reference to the climate change challenge:

Tribalism is the biggest problem with clean energy debates today. Support for one technology is often automatically interpreted as opposition to another, and attempts to grapple with any technology’s challenges are dismissed as trolling. Getting past this unproductive tribalism will require civil and honest engagements on the promises and perils of different technological pathways.

The difference is that I focus on what SA wind power positively achieves to mitigate emissions, rather than being some end in itself. I honestly hope for more windy September days – but hope isn’t a plan. The Conversation article carefully avoids any mention of climate change. Are nuclear opponents now downplaying the messages of climate experts, just as they always have for nuclear science experts? This similar party-line opinion piece seems to paint climate change as an excuse used by nuclear advocates. I stress opinion, and I can’t put it clearer than from this 2012 article (with over thirty thousand shares, for what its worth):

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

The government’s own focus on carbon reduction should be applauded and we can expect the demonstrated and quite necessary abatement potential of nuclear energy to be a prominent consideration in the Royal Commission – at least for those who actually welcome the process.

No, the debate deserves to be elevated beyond entrenched opposition and rhetorical questions. For further reading, I cannot more highly recommend Luke Weston’s brutal follow up here. There will be a lot of genuine questions for the feet-draggers.


Worse The Devil You Know

South Australian will have a Royal Commission into the nuclear fuel cycle. If this speaks to something in you, whether it is interest or apprehension, my best advice is to get a copy of this ebook:

For the price of saving one large takeaway coffee cup from landfill you can enjoy an accessible primer on attitudes to nuclear power and the actual hazards of reactors and radiation. Geoff Russell’s central premise is the valid comparison between nuclear energy (mistrusted and considered exceptionally dangerous) and passenger aircraft (commonplace and used by almost everyone in developed nations, despite considerably more accidents). Why is it that a plane crash can dominate the news but we still board our flight the next day, while the mere thought of a reactor going wrong somewhere – whether it’s even been built or not – leads some folks to reject essentially every aspect of commercial nuclear power?

But, says the nuclear opponent,

Almost all air travel is after an individual’s own choice. Therefore, people choose to accept or reject the risk, personally. In the unlikely event they are otherwise harmed by a plane, the operator will pay compensation, and there will be little doubt whether they were harmed. Airports are good neighbors, with convenient parking, restaurants, displays, artwork, places to observe take-offs and landings, etc.

Few people have a choice of electricity source or what kind of power plant will be built near them. Therefore, most people cannot choose to accept or reject the risk, personally. In the unlikely event they are, or believe they are, harmed by a nuclear power plant, the operators are unlikely to pay compensation,* and there will be much legal debate over whether or not they were harmed. Nuclear power plants may have a visitor center, but good luck getting close enough to observe operations.

Gotcha? No, because the distinction is illusory and just serves to perpetuate nuclear exceptionalism. We can treat the idea of everyone deciding not to board their flight after the fifth (Sixth? Tenth?) plane crash for the year as totally unrealistic. More fundamentally, though, the comparison dishonestly focuses on only one aspect of energy production – living near a plant and using its electricity – which applies equally to technology other than nuclear, with the tacit implication of exceptional hazard.
Thus, if we let it, it avoids the actual point: to compare the hazards we accept with the ones we don’t, and explore the actual risk involved. After all, the risk of your particular plane meeting a fiery end is tiny. So what might be the risk of a nuclear accident actually harming you? What is the nature and magnitude of that hazard? And what are the hazards of the alternatives?

In August 2012 41 people died and 80 were injured as an oil refinery blazed away in Venezuela.[1]

In July 2013 a 74-car run away freight train carrying crude oil derailed in Quebec. 47 people were killed and the town was half destroyed.[2]

In May 2014 a Turkish coal mine collapsed and 301 miners died.[3]

In January 2015 a propane gas tanker exploded outside a Mexican hospital. The building was utterly destroyed, 2 infants and a nurse were killed. Another nurse died in the act of rescuing babies, and a fifth victim died later from injuries.[4]

All of this happened because of one mundane fact: hydrocarbons are inherently combustible and dangerous. People are pretty careful with them most of the time, but we use so much of them. We effectively have no choice about it.

Every one of these deadly disasters has occurred since the March 2011 Touhoku earthquake devastated large sections of Japan and led to a series of nuclear accidents. No one was killed by radiation and it is not expected to effect the public at all. But in the time since, Japan has relied heavily on expanded imports of the very fossil fuels at the heart of the accidents listed above.

Their use and hazards are so thoroughly normalised that I bet you didn’t remember even one of the location names in which they occurred.^




* Compensation is quite forthcoming for the last accident.

^ Neither did I.

(What if the oil industry had to take the sort of global action as we expected from the nuclear industry?)