Until You Read It

On a Tuesday in June, in Adelaide, coinciding with a major conference looking at the potential of nuclear energy, the Conservation Council of South Australia announced an ambitious 100% renewable energy plan for the state. It was intended to show that nuclear energy was not merely unnecessary, but unwelcome and indeed a burdensome and unequivocally nasty prospect in every conceivable way.

It comes at a time when educated scepticism of such exclusive energy visions is finding its mainstream voiceIf nuclear energy is only to be feared and not considered, it insists, you renewable-energy-only advocates are far from convincing us.

June

The first curious thing was the near dearth of actual renewable energy available on the chosen day (the third set of peaks in the above chart). Is it too bold to suppose that these nuclear opponents would have made quite a point of all the wind and solar had the day been a cloudless gale? The second was the pamphlet which accompanied the announcement. It made no bones about reinforcing a collection of misinformation regarding nuclear power. It was also set out in the promotional formatting of a major telco, and the inclusion of irrelevant residual technical details on “Ethernet reliability” and “application-awareness” made it clear how much proof-reading was involved. Thirdly, the background paper itself (left uncited in the pamphlet) could only be described as a missed opportunity. In a process for gathering and assessing serious, detailed knowledge and perspective (namely, a royal commission) the case for expanding South Australian renewable energy to 100% in place of any further consideration of the nuclear fuel cycle has received the most cursory of efforts. Considering the calibre of the other submissions I have seen so far, I see this as a shame. Furthermore, the intrinsic anti-nuclear slant of the report actually distracts from the plan’s overall ambition, rather than reinforcing it.

Throughout the report there are many statements and anecdotes but no justification based on actual results from robust research, for example CCSA says that a 100% renewable energy plan will:

  • create jobs – no figures presented
  • reduce greenhouse gas emissions – no figures modelled
  • reduce air pollution – no discussion other than the assertion

Also according to CCSA, compared to nuclear their proposal:

  • is equally reliable – no modelling is presented, it is just stated to be so
  • is much less dangerous – not mentioned in report at all, without quantification. See ENSAD or ExternE for detailed comparisons of risk
  • emits less life-cycle CO2 – no figures cited
  • offers wider range of environmental and health benefits – no quantification
  • will be implemented much more rapidly – no quantification or examples used other than nuclear delays in Finland, France and US (rapid builds in China, Korea and other countries are not included)

Just stating it and referring to forthcoming modelling or an anecdote is not enough to justify commitment to an entire energy policy. This would not be a sufficient report to justify to investors to pursue such a plan. If a similar proposal for nuclear power in South Australia noted the above categories with no accompanying justification, would the CCSA accept that report in full?

The current status of South Australian renewable energy has received detailed, impartial and peer-reviewed analysis. For anyone wanting to extrapolate its future potential, I recommend beginning there. In his blog article regarding CCSA’s contribution, Ben Heard invites further critique on their plan, and I feel the following document provides at least the level of energy-literacy necessary to oblige.

An Analysis of “100% Renewable Energy for South Australia”

 

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Material Inputs and Emissions – Insisting on Context

Copper Deficit_06This infographic caught my attention, as it so clearly illustrates the sort of resource scarcity the world should be taking steps to avoid. Copper is in literally every modern convenience we enjoy. Scarcity pushes prices up. In the absence of conjectural polymer conductors or the like, there’s no real substitute for copper.

If you ever visit Moonta area, swing past the old mine sites. The green of residual copper ore is practically oozing out of the soil. Across the gulf, the new Hillside copper mine is already going ahead. And yes, I’d have one in my backyard. It’s called Kanmantoo, actually.

Isn’t it interesting that the infographic includes the copper required for the average megawatt (MW) of wind turbine capacity? 3.6 tonnes (t) per MW. Is this a lot? How does it compare to other material inputs? What about the greenhouse gas emissions that are involved?

The emissions intensity range of Australian copper mining was reviewed in Mudd et. al. as 2.5 to 8.5 tCO₂/t. Mudd, along with Diesendorf, also studied uranium mining emissions, and assigned an intensity of 10.3 tCO₂/t* to yellow cake produced at the Beverely in-situ leaching mine. The very thorough 2006 Australian nuclear power study by Lenzen (cited often by Diesendorf) estimates a requirement of 165 t of yellowcake annually per gigawatt (GW, 1000 MW). Therefore:

Australian copper in 1 GW of wind turbines = 9000 – 30600 tCO₂
Australian uranium in a 1 GW nuclear reactor = 1700 tCO₂

Accounting for the average modern capacity factor of annual generation (29% for Australian wind, 90% for nuclear, with ~8760 hours in a year):

3.54 – 12.05 tCO₂ per gigawatt hour per year (GWh/yr) of wind
0.22 tCO₂ per GWh/yr of nuclear

Of course, the wind turbines are erected once and should last for 25 years, while the uranium must be reloaded into the reactor effectively every year (in reality, refuelling occurs at 18 to 24 month intervals, and doesn’t involve the whole core). Yet these results indicate that a nuclear reactor would consume at least 16 years worth of uranium before equaling the mined metal emissions in a wind farm of equivalent capacity. At worst (50 years) the farm would potentially need to be replaced for a second time, while a modern nuclear plant is likely to have decades of life remaining.

And, of course, this is comparing apples and oranges. Apart from the fact that copper and uranium are both mined from the earth, they are clearly used for different purposes. So how much copper is needed for a nuclear plant? An answer is provided in a publication by Sovacool, another frequently cited name in these circles. A typical 1 GW plant apparently requires 729 t, which equals emissions of 1823 – 6197 t for Australian copper. That’s 20% of wind’s copper-related emissions, on nameplate capacity alone.

Now, I support wind and nuclear, both where appropriate, and I will stress that these figures, viewed as part of the comparative life-cycle assessments by reputable organisations such as NREL and the IPCC, are a negligible component – especially next to fossil fuels. The magnitudes don’t bother me, and indeed I don’t have any particular confidence in the source material. But when it comes to nuclear energy, and certain vocal critics, the context tends to get stripped away and various environmental impacts are presented as if they are exceptionally onerous. This is particularly galling when we consider that in Australia so much of both copper and uranium come from one place – Olympic Dam. In Mudd et. al., the authors propose a farfetched plan to power such sites with concentrating solar thermal plants, slashing the carbon intensity of the resulting copper. This would also reduce them for the recovered uranium!! Indeed, why not simply evaluate the best option for remotely and cleanly powering any given mine site, without being exclusive?

smr-160-rendering_sm

This small modular reactor design is being aggressively pursued by Holtec. It can be configured to be cooled by air instead of water.

 

*The authors provide a very questionable emissions estimate for uranium from Olympic Dam based on value rather than tonnage. Going by the estimated emissions rate of 0.11 tCO₂/t of ore from the 1997 environmental impact statement, and a proportion of tonnage (3,952 t yellow cake/187,000 t ore) of 2.1%, the share of emissions for uranium concentrate from Olympic Dam is 2.3 kgCO₂/t.

Further related analysis – cement and steel used in:
Wind – Can You Make a Wind Turbine Without Fossil Fuels?
Nuclear – Metal And Concrete Inputs For Several Nuclear Power Plants
Land area requirements, analysed fairly: How Much Land Does Solar, Wind and Nuclear Energy Require?
BBC Elements Podcast on Copper for materials and electricity.

 

Clarity

Given that the global peak body on the science of climate change has indicated the need for a dramatic increase in nuclear energy production,

and that the potential for this scale of rapid expansion has been historically demonstrated,

as well as recently proven to entirely replace coal – the most concentrated source of greenhouse gas – at a regional scale

20150519ONhalf

all while demonstrating an astounding net benefit to human life and health,

kandH

and with the advantage of inherently safe fast reactor designs, not only ready to be demonstrated at full scale, but proposed as part of a federal senator’s unprecedented nation-building plan for the economic revitalisation of South Australia (home to a quarter of the world’s uranium),

Four Mile uranium mine

it is time for Australia’s incongruous and completely arbitrary prohibition to be lifted. Furthermore, the traditionally vociferous nuclear opposition would be well served by finally acknowledging the quality and volume of science which is stacked against it, rationally reconsidering its position, and ideally re-entering the conversation as an informed, responsible stakeholder.