In Part 1 we used information from Australia’s own independent electricity grid operator (and other authorities) to compare wind, solar and nuclear of similar nameplate capacity. We weren’t interested in playing favourites or getting distracted by barriers (real or imagined), but instead in seeing how they would all slot into our power supply as we know it.
Now we must look at why we need it – wind, solar, and nuclear too. Polling has revealed how popular renewable energy is – particularly solar – and that the prospect of using nuclear energy still has much ground to make up. The gender difference is the most striking factor. Only 14% of female respondents were in favour of nuclear energy (compared to 45% for males). It was less popular even than coal and coal seam gas! This seemed to be reflected in SACOME’s nuclear survey, too, which framed the technology as a tool for climate action. The distinct, comparative lack of overall support from women respondents clearly affected what was still a resounding result for nuclear, but suggested that outreach efforts are not connecting with a substantial proportion of women.
The science is clearer than ever that nuclear power will be needed in our future clean energy mix. What is it about standard efforts to communicate this which is turning women off? I’d really like to explore some possibilities on this without just being another privileged anglo guy telling you all how necessary I think it is, or mansplaining radiation and modern reactor safety. I’d like to find the appeal I know it has, that it shares with towering wind turbines and gleaming solar panels. I’d prefer to achieve this without pretence or rhetorical tricks, just straight-up communication about the things which matter when we think of electricity.
What matters when you think of electricity? Apart from the hole it leaves in our budgets every few months, maybe you only think about saving it when it’s obviously being wasted, like lights on in empty rooms, standby power for the TVs when they’re off, old inefficient fridges, etc. You probably also look at how many kilowatt hours (kWh) you have to pay for. Is it higher or lower than the average for your size household? And what is using the lion’s share of it? When I run the dishwasher, I cancel the program before the drying cycle and let the dishes air dry, and it uses only slightly more than 1 kWh that way. I try to run it around lunchtime when the rooftop panels are generating… but I’m sure you understand I still need to clean the dishes even on rainy days.
Same goes for clothes. I don’t know how some stay-at-home mums make it look so easy. There always seems to be another load of the kids’ unpaired socks to wash. Washing machines have become incredibly efficient machines, ubiquitous and commonplace. As the entertaining Swedish doctor and statistician Hans Rosling pointed out, even the “hard core” members of the environmental movement, who do without the convenience of cars, still won’t wash their jeans and sheets by hand like everyone had to less than a century ago.
And by everyone, I mean women.
I have 2 vacuum cleaners. Do you? A big model for getting the house really clean, and a small cordless one for quick tidies? Did you know that in a couple of years, any machine more powerful than 900 watts – less than a small microwave oven – will be banned in the EU? Anything above 1600 watts already is. What is your vacuum cleaner rated? Do you think you could get your carpet clean enough if you had to downgrade to less power? I do most of the vacuuming in my house and I know I couldn’t. I like my labour-saving appliances; I’d need to see some pretty overwhelming reasons to start giving them up.
So, without labouring the point, we clearly need electricity when we need it, and when we need it, we’ll pay for it. The difference between watts and kWh isn’t so important – one essentially being the “strength” of the motor or heater, the other being the amount of electricity it ends up using – compared to the incomparable service of always having a sufficiently powerful one there to use.
Let’s relate that back to the task of decarbonising this electricity, because while we’re saving it or paying for it, we’re rarely appreciating the hundreds of grams of carbon dioxide per kWh we also get as a byproduct. In South Australia this is of course cut significantly in high wind periods. Commissioning the Ceres wind project would enhance this. Getting all those treatment ponds covered in solar panels would provide somewhat more regular carbon-free electricity. Building the next generation of nuclear plant would permanently replace a large proportion of our fossil-based generation. The more clean generation we have going, the more we’ll be exporting across the border – as it stands, we currently import six times what we export, and it’s some of the world’s most emissions-intensive electricity. Sounds good, right? So what concerns are keeping so many Australian women from giving nuclear a fair hearing?
“We don’t need it.”
If we keep expanding what has worked so far – wind and solar – we’ll someday, soon, have enough to replace coal and gas – that’s the theory, at least. But remember that availability-to-match-demand which AEMO estimated? Really low for wind, not much better for solar… If this is all we had, the numbers say we’ll end up importing even more electricity from the eastern states, for most of the time that we really need it.
OK, so now that we’ve demonstrated wave power works, why don’t we add it in? I definitely want to see more of this technology… but see what we’ve already done – we’ve invoked something else to make up for the holes left by wind and solar. “We don’t need it” has become “we need something, just not nuclear“. This disguised rejection is the same whether we propose grid-scale batteries, biomass combustion, geothermal, concentrating solar or a combination of all of the above. It isn’t obvious unless we keep those AEMO availability percentages in mind.
It also pervades every “~100% Australian Renewable Energy” proposal that we’ve seen. “Professor such-and-such has shown we can go 100% renewable” is a tantalising notion. These plans are never 100% wind and solar: they do demand a complex mix of technologies, some of which are far from proven. They involve “cascading assumptions” to support the desired result of simulated success.
What assumptions do they make about the electricity you use at home? To be frank, they need you to use less, not more. This efficiency-drive is certainly helped by LED light bulbs and efficient heating/cooling – things most of us will probably do in time. But remember the European vacuum cleaners?
Ever consider that your next car might be a fully electric model? Dramatically reducing our overall fossil fuel use will naturally include less petrol consumption. So if most of us end up driving EVs, that’s hardly going to be less demand for electricity.
And what about businesses? Your workplace? Your partner’s and your friends’? Clearly, they are bigger users of energy, and efficiency initiatives work well to cut what’s being wasted. But there’s a paradox involved because for, say, a 10% saving through efficiency, the business now has more capital available to use to increase productivity. Doing so will tend to use further energy. You’ve maybe heard of Rebound or Jevon’s Paradox; until recent times its influence has been largely underestimated.
Recent analysis by energy policy researchers in the US compared how much efficiency was required for a selection of global 100% renewable plans. The graph shows how this requirement is roughly double the historical best improvements in energy intensity ever achieved (denoted by the lower red bar). Moreover, it would need to be achieved without any rebound.
So these are really plans for electricity decarbonisation which need more than just wind and solar while needing less demand from you and me – instead of including nuclear. Are such plans more popular with women because of this? And why?
“It’s too risky.”
What if you don’t want one in your backyard… because you don’t have one in your backyard?
I developed an untested hypothesis: the more contact you have with people who work at a nearby nuclear plant, the less you fear nuclear and the more you appreciate the benefits of clean electricity. It’s easy to informally ask your neighbors “what’s the truth?” about things that worry you. And you learn the people who operate the plant are just as devoted to their children as you are.
Although every watt coming through our wires is indistinguishable from the other, its source is familiar. Natural gas is a ubiquitous alternative for cooking and heating, and there’s charcoal in the Weber. Virtually anyone can put solar on their roof. You get the picture. But even if Australia had nuclear power plants twenty-plus kilometres outside our cities, and even if you went on a tour, how much of the underlying science could you be comfortable with? (Of course, we have just one such facility in NSW, which runs regular tours, but it makes medicine, not power.) If you don’t have an interest in nuclear physics, then nuclear physics will remain unfamiliar, which is an understandable barrier to letting it into your home.
Shouldn’t they? Exhaustive UK research has concluded that rates of diseases like leukaemia are normal around their plants – which are many decades old. Normal, functional plants just aren’t a health risk.
The concern is when they don’t function normally, of course, but even then, why do some people assume that contamination risks trump any other impact? Sarah Laskow is a journalist who lives in New York – a region which is 31% powered by nuclear energy. As she recently observed:
The compelling policy question around this risk and impact and things like that is, on a policy level, how do we make decisions about dealing with these risks? So, I live in New York, it’s pretty close to Indian Point. I know that if there was an explosion at Indian Point or some sort of terrible nuclear incident, I’m not going to get cancer tomorrow, or in ten years, whatever. But, there is this question of, how close to my neighbourhood would the evacuation zone be? Would I be evacuated from my house? And how do we make those decisions? To me it’s a really scary thing that we’re making these decisions based on not-totally certain science. If someone’s going to say ‘Hey Sarah, you need to change your whole life’ it would be nice to know that they knew exactly why. And that I could weigh the risks of health impacts against the impacts social, psychological, financial and again on your health of uprooting your whole life and moving somewhere else. I think that’s part of what people in Fukushima are dealing with.
I won’t address the consequences of the accident four years ago at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant – that is better left to knowledgeable professionals like Geraldine Thomas:
The sort of perpetuated misunderstandings which retard acceptance of energy technology are hardly specific to nuclear power, of course. How often is “wind turbine syndrome” cited in opposition to wind farm planning? And every time, experts must tirelessly push back against the rubbery interpretation of the science, while public perception is altered in subtle ways.
And remember: in Part 1, the nuclear plant we looked at, the one which would be required for the recycling of the nuclear fuel we would save up in the Spent Fuel Bank, would be a modern design which would shut itself down in accident scenarios. This is unequivocal. Assertions about the risks of operating PRISM reactors are put forward publicly by various groups, but, crucially, these are groups who refuse to consult with the scientists and designers of the system. It is the ultimate irony that they are not more open to the prospect of safe reactors which would solve another big issue they have with nuclear power – the high level waste, the spent fuel which PRISM runs on.
They might not want any part of it, but the rest of us stand to enjoy guaranteed low-emissions electricity around the clock. I see South Australia becoming a hub for modern energy technology, and much besides, all with a competitively low carbon footprint. How good will it be to run my dishwasher, washing machine, coffee maker or high-wattage vacuum cleaner “guilt-free”, as it were? What if one of my children decided to be a nuclear engineer in our home state?
I hear a lot made of the terrorism risk. While nuclear would slash emissions, surely the stations would be eminently tempting targets? Well, there are 438 operable reactors worldwide, with 253 planned or already under construction in countries which have judged that the benefits outweigh the risks. I bet the only articles you’ve seen which emphasized the terrorism angle were penned by members of the above-mentioned nuclear opposition groups.
Doctoral researcher Suzy Waldman examined this late last year, stressing a broader perspective:
[W]e must seriously consider that an associated risk of not using nuclear power to produce carbon-free energy on a large scale is climate change itself, with the hundreds of millions of climate refugees that are projected to be engendered by it in the coming century. These hazards—we need not look at probabilities, because these patterns are already in motion—are apart from the millions of respiratory and other deaths already caused by fossil fuel burning and generation every year.
At the end of the day, nuclear still has a popularity problem. Hopefully a bit of perspective and genuine discussion can convince enough people – men and women – of the need to consider it. As Agneta Rising, director general of WNA and co-founder of Women in Nuclear, said:
We should put more emphasis on why people should choose nuclear energy. We have plenty of energy sources, plenty of ways of making electricity and heat and so on. But there are very few that have a lower impact on the environment and nuclear has really good environment characteristics – and people would choose nuclear if they had access to better information about these benefits.
Rising also had this to say with regard to South Australia’s move to investigate the potential for nuclear:
It is only natural that a technologically sophisticated country like Australia should seek to make expanded use of the nuclear fuel cycle as it attempts to address its climate and energy challenges. The country is already home to at least one of the most advanced nuclear research and medical facilities in the world, not to mention being one of the largest suppliers of uranium.
So let’s keep mounting those solar panels and erecting wind turbines. This renewable energy capacity is helping to mitigate the need for commitment to further fossil fuel infrastructure. It is relatively affordable and popular. Let’s also keep those AEMO availability-for-peak-demand estimates in mind, and realise intermittent renewables can be built quickly but cannot substitute for essential dispatchable generation in the long run. Licensing, regulating, building and commissioning the first nuclear reactors will take time in which climate action needn’t be delayed. We can decide now to support clean, safe, decarbonising, modern nuclear power – if the full historical record is anything to go by – and we can get involved to ensure Australia becomes the first nation to do so as part of an effective, firm climate strategy. It will be like the tortoise and the hare, but this time they can cross the finish line together.
& Part 3