3 things more important than climate action*

But it’s the climate! Extreme weather events, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, Venus Syndrome… What could be more important than acting right now to mitigate these potential impacts?

The conversation around welcoming nuclear energy into the mix of measures to address this, and other challenges such as energy access in developing nations, has engaged a huge number of people in just the last year. But if you ask an anti-nuclear campaigner – despite all their online petitions to urgent climate action and umbrage towards deniers – then you’ll hear about different priorities.

1. Nuclear Waste

The waste left over from the generation of nuclear electricity is insidious and toxic. It can’t be stored safely enough, it will somehow be made into bombs and distant future generations will be poisoned when they unintentionally dig it up.

FukuCasksAfter the tsunami rolled over the Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011, campaigners made great mileage over the potential danger of the spent fuel pools. But as expected by actual experts, the material was unloaded and moved elsewhere without incident. Less was said about the long term stored fuel in dry casks, which got pretty wet but survived the worst earthquake and inundation in thousands of years.


Other sorts, like France’s separated final waste from decades of powering the whole country without emissions, is encased in cylinders and stored under one floor, of one room, in one building.

By-products from nuclear reactors were already buried underground billions of years ago, and their geochemical behaviour isn’t a mystery.

Actual risk assessment of deep geological disposal puts a big, fat question mark over all the time, effort and money spent by anti-nuclear campaigners:


The reasons that used fuel hasn’t and won’t ever be used to make weapons are technical but worth researching. Anti-nuclear campaigners certainly won’t write about the technical barriers to trying – let alone the fact that commercial nuclear power production has directly disposed of far more weapons than any other disarmament effort to date.

Similarly, storing it until we fission it, taking care of the “problem” completely, is surely the best way to tick everyones’ boxes?

2. Liberalised Market Interference

Western competitive energy markets aren’t interested in nuclear because it costs too much and takes too long. This is why citing France in the past or China today is easy to dismiss – they only have their reactors because of unsustainable government support. There are a few plants being built by monopoly supply companies, but they still need support like loan guarantees. And the huge cost could instead fund renewable energy.

Imagine, just for a second, that rapid and historically-guided climate action was widely prioritised above free market forces, and many Western and developing nations embarked on modern nuclear build programs no more rapid than the average achieved by Sweden last century (with 1960s designs). These scientists did, observing,


Fig 1. Swedish total CO2 emissions and GDP per capita 1960–1990, normalized to the level of 1960.

Replacing fossil-fuel electricity and heat production eliminates roughly half of the total source of anthropogenic CO₂ emissions. Continued nuclear build-out at this demonstrably modest rate (Sweden was not, at that time, motivated by urgent concerns like climate-change mitigation), coupled with an electrification of the transportation systems (electric cars, increased high-speed rail use etc.) could reduce global CO₂ emissions by ~70% well before 2050.

What happens in these sacrosanct liberalised energy markets when nuclear capacity is shuttered? The lesson of Vermont Yankee suggests it’s replaced with fossil fuels. Even in California, with its ambitious emissions targets and renewable portfolio standards, the same occurred with San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. There are now legitimate fears that the lack of recognition of Diablo Canyon‘s climate-friendly contribution will also see it close and replaced with more gas capacity to fill the gap in firm demand.

If opportunity costs were the critical determinant some insist they are, then nobody told Southern Company in the US, who are rolling out new reactors alongside solar and wind plants. This is expensive, first-of-a-kind technology, but nuclear doesn’t need to be prohibitively expensive.

Then there’s the ambitions of Morocco: boasting a vast and expanding concentrating solar thermal facility while also laying the framework for nuclear build-out.


But back in Australia? Interim findings from the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission confirmed that new nuclear energy capacity couldn’t compete in our market. On its own. With assistance – not even direct finance, just loan guarantees to reduce the discount rate – analysis suggests (page 89) building reactors becomes viable “if they were believed to have additional societal benefits, particularly around climate change, that may not be fully valued by the markets”. Even without a carbon price. Even without some sort of large scale generating certificate (though they would ostensibly seem to apply to such a low emissions energy source).

3. Popularity Contests

Not only is nuclear energy struggling to maintain a social license, alternatives like solar and wind are way more popular and have the support of every environmental organisation and numerous governmental energy transition schemes. Trying to build reactors now, either conventional or next-generation, in the face of so much opposition, would be a waste of precious time.

Everyone can point to the Chernobyl accident 30 years ago and say “bad idea”, and no one does this more than anti-nuclear campaigners, with outlandish predictions of up to 985,000 deaths after all is said and done.

Under similar conditions of national despotism and secrecy, the Banqiao Dam collapsed almost 41 years ago. Nobody – especially those same campaigners – cites the 171,000 actual fatalities, the devastation to towns and environment, and demands “No Hydro!”

Nuclear power is a scientifically and technically intensive proposition, without anything like the familiarity of charcoal grills, gas stoves or rooftop solar. Anti-nuclear campaigners have done their utmost for decades to fill that knowledge void and keep genuine curiosity and discussion OUT. But now the converts and the industry itself are raising their many voices, while it is increasingly being realised that clean alternatives have real limitations.


To other people, there are other things more important than climate action. The difference is that most of these folks haven’t adopted climate as their cause, then hogtied themselves from solving it.



The Sums on the Sun

I’m absolutely not anti-renewables. I love renewables. But I’m also pro-arithmetic.

Sir David J C MacKay, FRS, FInstP, FICE, Regius Professor of Engineering, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge


There are two considerations which should be coming to the fore by now when promoting solar energy. And now is the time, because Australia finally has operational knowledge of performance and costs at an appreciable scale.

The first is what role it can realistically play in our energy supply mix (i.e. weather-dependent daytime power). The second is honest appraisal of the necessary enhancements involved in expanding that role – the effort and cost of overbuilding generators and storing energy for later use.

It especially behoves groups like the Australian Greens to shoulder such responsibility. In their recent energy proposal, they present photovoltaic solar as a third (approximately 130 million megawatt hours, MWh) of Australia’s supply in 2030. They also state

Energy storage, while not specifically separated out in this generation forecast will play a significant role in managing the network and matching dispatch times to consumption.


102 MW Nyngan solar farm, NSW

By applying the Rule of Thumb, this planned national solar capacity is the equivalent of roughly 540 Nyngan solar farms. With full operation in 2030, and a demonstrated build time of 1.5 years (leaving 12 years to begin commissioning the first farms if we start building NOW) it means the Greens have proposed the construction of an average of 45 solar farms per year.

For South Australia alone, the equivalent of 30 Nyngans by 2030 are demanded – two or three per year, starting today. This would be in addition to rooftop solar installation kept at last year’s rate.

These are the same campaigners who insist no one will want a nuclear storage facility in their backyard. But, apparently, the consen processt to site thirty 250 hectare solar farms is a non-issue?

Alkimos batteryThis is the Alkimos storage project in Perth.

  • 1.1 MWh capacity
  • Lithium ion
  • $6.7 million

Lithium ion storage has a lifespan dependant on depth and frequency of discharge, but suffice to say such batteries will not last as long as the rated 25 year lifespan of the Nyngan solar farm.

It is also being increasingly realised that the economics of storage at grid scale are predominantly determined by arbitrage opportunities and less so as dedicated support for intermittent generators.

So, if groups like the Greens want to replace the electricity supply with a third solar supported by storage, what would that look like?

aa10ab8c-6937-4961-b3e9-50019122c286On a good day the output profile of Nyngan is a symmetrical flattened peak and almost exactly a third of the 24 hour period by area. Intuitively, the battery capacity must be sufficient for the other two thirds – 16 hours. Since Nyngan is rated at 102 megawatts, this would call for 1,632 MWh.

1,632 ÷ 1.1 = 1,483.6
1,483.6 × $6,700,000 = $9.94 billion

It hardly matters that a further two Nyngan-size farms are needed to charge this battery (which would be a yard of nearly one and a half thousand shipping containers) since their extra cost is dwarfed.

As noted by ARENA, there’s no Moore’s Law for batteries but costs may well fall as production increased in large centralised overseas factories. A recent assessment by DNV GL in Europe included a specific estimate for lithium,

PwC calculations and recent market data indicate that battery costs will be reduced by at least around 55% by 2030.

potentially more than halving the price of this solar backup. However, the Greens expect to be finished building these solar farms by then, with scheduled gas capacity retirement clearly laid out in their document. Storage’s “significant role” isn’t really optional while they wait for the cost to drop from astronomical to merely unaffordable.


South Australian rooftop PV capacity is currently 659 MW, with roughly 60 MW added in 2015. Yesterday was overcast and peak generation reached 238 MW – 36% of of state capacity. Centralised solar farms operate more efficiently but are more prone to dropping out from intermittent cloudiness.

This model is clearly an idealised attempt to provide 24 hour scheduled supply from solar PV capacity (ignoring bad weather), what many would call baseload supply. This comparison is useful where proponents are simplistically proposing that renewable sources like solar should be replacing fossil fuels like coal, which are inherently dispatchable. However, other proponents categorically insist that baseload is a myth and unnecessary in a renewable energy dominated supply system. Much has been written on the subject over many years, but the willingness of such campaigners to sacrifice the baseload aspirations of alternative renewable energy technologies like geothermal and wave power is a grievous ideological lapse.

But there’s one other matter to examine here: the unspoken assumption that the above approach is sufficiently low emissions to be part of a decarbonised future. There is a terrible dearth of research on this. What was recently estimated by a group at Stanford is that the current combination of solar PV and lithium batteries may have a life cycle emissions intensity approaching 200 grams of CO₂ (or equivalent) per kilowatt hour. This would be well short of decarbonised.


This superficial analysis is just an illustration based on recent real world costs. Independent present value analysis would provide much better information. Solar has a large role to play in sunny Australia, which will only be optimised by getting the sums right. Can we love renewables enough to respect their limitations while making the most of their strengths?

Perhaps proponents of renewable energy mixes critically relying on scaled-up storage technology, like the leaders of the Greens, should consider commissioning such thorough and responsible economic studies instead of waving their hands.

We need a plan that adds up. We need to stop shouting and start talking, and if we can have a grown-up conversation, make a plan that adds up and get building, maybe this low-carbon revolution will actually be fun. Thank you very much for listening.


This blog was not originally intended as a dedication to Sir MacKay, who passed away during its writing. His book Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air is an essential reference for energy analysis. It is UK-centric but when I read it the potential for solar in Australia was left unbounded. This blog’s continuing analysis and comms concerning solar energy in Australia is just my amateur effort at supporting the commitment to arithmetic which Sir MacKay taught us is so crucial. As Mark Lynas noted beautifully,

David left us everything we need to figure out for ourselves how to proceed with solving climate change – and other problems, however huge and complex they may appear.


The Waste We Already Accept

Part 1: Nuclear waste in SA

Stewardship of international used nuclear fuel in South Australia is a rare opportunity. The analysis and decisions must include all stakeholders and be informed by the most accurate experience and knowledge.

If it doesn’t make sense to proceed – like we conservatively found with conventional nuclear energy in South Australia under our current weak power capacity and climate policies – then let’s not. But let’s also not give equal weight to fear, misinformation or rejection dressed up as “concerns”. A rhetorical question about speculative safety in ten thousand years time is no substitute for finding things out if one truly feels compelled to have an opinion.

cherenkovIn this vein, let’s look at what’s worth all this money. Used fuel out of light water reactors looks just like fresh fuel, it’s just extremely radioactive. It’s so “hot” that over ten metres of water is used to ensure plenty of shielding, which results in intensely bright Cherenkov radiation. However, it is no longer being irradiated and is already losing its overall radioactivity.

It is secured under water on-site for a few years, and then (at an increasing number of sites) is transferred into dry casks. A cask constructed of several inch-thick steel may be loaded with up to 15 tons of nuclear fuel, still in the form of sealed assemblies. These sealed and cooled dry casks have different outer casings for loading, transport and storage. In some places like Switzerland’s Zwilag the transport casks are simply lined up in a tidy warehouse. Alternatively, dry casks can be loaded into concrete bunkers, or fitted with concrete overpacks.


And there they stay: solid byproducts in the most solid shells ever engineered by humans. The initial conservative findings indicate an international demand for a stewardship service of $1.75 million per metric tonne. This adds up extremely quickly. These funds front-load the finances for the sort of secure facility required – an Interim Storage Facility – while the long term permanent solution is carefully planned.

Part 2: Fossil waste in SA

Why is this worth so much? The responsible handling and storage of this material comes with rather strict international standards and containment must be assured. There are significant costs involved. If it can be performed straightforwardly, the state will essentially be profiting from the custody of massive blocks of concrete.

But what if it can’t? What would a leak mean? Raised levels of radiation in a secure facility staffed by highly trained professionals who understand the hazard. Australia has ARPANSA which is solely responsible for regulating this sort of thing. The IAEA will also be involved.

And what is the fundamental basis of the hazard? It is the radiation being emitted by elements like plutonium, and its potential effects upon DNA. But Bernard Cohen, late professor emeritus from the University of Philadelphia plainly described the actual risks decades ago. He demonstrated clearly how the myth of supreme plutonium toxicity is a falsehood, and cited botulinum toxin – the basis of botox – as substantially more lethal.

Let’s put this in perspective. This dry casked material exists because a nuclear reactor somewhere has already provided substantial and constant amounts of electricity instead of a coal or gas plant – which are what South Australia uses. The carbon dioxide expelled by the latter is not sequestered from the environment. What if it was?

What if fossil fueled power plants contained their byproducts the way nuclear energy does?

Carbon dioxide has a density of 1.977 g/m³, but cool and compress it to dry ice and it increases to 1562 g/m³. Given the interior dimensions of those dry casks (11.48 m³) each could contain 17.9 kg of dry ice.


In the 2014-2015 financial year a 4,557 gigawatt hour share of South Australian electricity was derived from gas. Assuming a 500 tonne per GWh emissions intensity and that this is all CO₂, it resulted in 2,278,500 tonnes. So, to contain just the emissions from gas from last year would demand over 127 million casks, at a rate of many thousands per hour, non-stop.

Dry cask storage for nuclear fuel is what carbon capture wishes it could be.

So once again, what would a leak mean – not of plutonium, or (heaven forbid) botulinum toxin – but of carbon dioxide? These casks are already over-engineered for containing irradiated fuel assemblies; conceivably they could contain this CO₂ even after it has sublimed from solid to pressurised gas. A slow leak in one cask would simply mean a total waste of money and effort. But a sudden release of pressure would be a deadly hazard for anyone in the vicinity, as suffocating gas expands nearly eight hundred times in volume. It would be like a limnic eruption. It couldn’t be so easily detected in trace amounts, like we can do for radiation, until it was too late. Such an accident is probably rather unlikely, but considering that used nuclear fuel is not stored under this sort of pressure, it looks like the better bet.

But if we’re still averse to nuclear energy, containing the CO₂ is the only way to truly eliminate our emissions. Newer renewable energy sources reach inherent limits and “just building more” is yet to succeed anywhere.


AEMO’s official high demand projection to 2025.

In reality, annual use of gas in South Australia will increase by around 75% within a decade. The alternative would be to increase imports from interstate – largely coal-fueled generation. Modelling indicates further expansion of wind or solar in SA just doesn’t replace the need for this firm, scheduled capacity.

This expanded reliance on gas, and the fact that we realistically won’t be capturing and storing the emissions in any form, is grim news for South Australia.

The politics concerning global efforts to reduce emissions  are fluid. It would be wise to plan now for a contingency in which external pressure is applied to Australia to more rapidly decarbonise. Action taken now to settle policy for the delivery and operation of nuclear power would enable it to potentially contribute to a reduction in carbon emissions. While it is not clear whether nuclear power would be the best choice for Australia beyond 2030, it is important that it not be precluded as an option.

Can we really afford to wait to be told we’re on the wrong track? I think it’s time for us to make our own future.