Go Fast, Do More

I never dreamed less than a year after I set out to describe the potential benefits of new reactor technology to power sector emissions, South Australia’s economy and the future of abundant, reliable clean energy on Radio National’s Ockham’s Razor, that we would be in the midst of a royal commission into the nuclear fuel cycle, let alone witnessing a federal senator proposing a business case for a lucrative spent fuel bank and the power plant with which to consume it.

The full proposal has been announced at DecarboniseSA. I’m proud to say I modestly contributed.

With the right impetus and involvement, SA could start banking the foreign spent fuel in a purpose built facility relatively promptly. This would likely be in the form of dry casks containing used fuel assemblies, the safe handling and secure storage of which has been achieved in numerous countries. The fees for this service are potentially very large.


So. Casks on the pad, money in the bank. But what about the next step – the fast reactors that are needed to disposition this material? Not to mention provide zero carbon, potentially zero-cost electricity for the state, and significant employment.

The question is, how long will it take?

At this stage, the answer is it depends on who you ask.

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On the one hand the Generation IV Forum considers sodium-cooled fast reactors to be the most promising modern design, with full deployment beginning after 2030. Commissioner Scarce himself was recently quoted as not expecting fast reactors to be available before 2040.

On the other hand, Dr Eric Loewen is the Chief Consulting Engineer for GE Hitachi, and he was asked about this in April at the Columbia School of International Public Affairs.

So again, on schedule… you have to see me the month after I get my licencing. That licencing effort is an unbounded risk, because I can’t tell you the time and the amount of resources we need to get through. …So if you look at what we did as a company in Japan with Advance Boiling Water Reactors – first-of-a-kind technology – we built those in thirty-six months.

As far as the engineer who’d like to build fast reactors in the UK is concerned, the uncertainty comes from the associated licensing process. With that complete, building the units should be as straightforward for his company as were the first ever Advanced Boiling Water Reactors in Japan.

On the gripping hand, Barry Brook is arguably this country’s foremost expert on the IFR, the Argonne fast reactor project that GE Hitachi now offers as PRISM. In Sustainable Technologies and Materials, April 2015, he and his co-authors observe:

It is imperative that we seek to displace our heavy dependence on fossil fuels over the coming decades with sustainable, low-carbon alternative energy sources that can provide reliable, economic baseload electricity and heat, and thereby mitigate the environmental damage of energy production and underpin global energy security and prosperity for a growing population and. So how best to proceed?

Here we argue that without an economically viable closed fuel cycle, there will be no dominant nuclear future. Modern technology is already capable of building fast reactors, but we do not have all problems solved on the fuel cycle side. Given this reality, there is now a pressing need to demonstrate a credible and acceptable way to safely deal with used nuclear fuel in order to clear a socially acceptable pathway for nuclear fission to be a major low-carbon energy source for this century.

The culmination of the Senator’s proposal – building the first standardised commercial fast reactors, which is still a step short of “full deployment” after all – would certainly “provide reliable, economic baseload electricity” for South Australia – as a potentially cost-free byproduct, no less. Yet the value of providing the full scale demonstration of a Generation IV fast reactor which runs on conventional used fuel reaches far further. Like potentially getting us on track to avert major climate disruption far-further.

All of which prompts the next big question: why isn’t another country doing this?

Why not the US? Well that’s relatively easy – the whole regulatory framework is still inflexibly built around conventional pressurised water reactors. Maybe this would be different now if the IFR programme had been saved from needless cancellation in the 90s. The NRC expects to see a customer committed to PRISM commissioning before it begins the certification process for the design.

Canada? A more flexible licencing regime by many accounts, and nuclear waste management money already put aside. But the conflict, if Canada were to pursue SFRs, is apparently between federal spent fuel management regulations and the provision of electricity supply, which is a province-level concern. Moreover, Canadian technology supports a somewhat competing approach in DUPIC.

The UK? Well, PRISM remains a contender for the job of dispositioning Sellafield stockpiles, and a final decision is expected this year after years of waiting. GE Hitachi originally offered to bankroll the reactors themselves. The UK might well be where it happens first, but it hasn’t happened yet.

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France’s Superphénix 1200 MW fast reactor.

France? France had her own demonstration fast reactor, Superphénix. It suffered from years of technical issue-prone operation, and for this it is often dismissed as a costly failure. However, translation of articles from the time (1996), which cite various French nuclear experts who were involved, reveal that SuperPhénix was entering full revenue-positive operation just as environmental political pressure succeeded in shutting it down. Progress has been glacial ever since.

This doesn’t necessarily “leave it up to us”. But it does bring the opportunity into sharp focus. In an aggressive scenario, that lucrative recyclable fuel is being loaded into reactors freshly built by Dr Loewen’s team, along with numerous major local contracts, by early next decade. Essentially overnight, much greenhouse gas-emmitting infrastructure is displaced from SA’s grid. Carbon intensity and power prices are slashed.

Despite this technology representing the solution to the traditional concerns of nuclear risks and waste, established opposition has dug in its heels – truth be damned. It’ll “break the grid” they claim, or “it doesn’t exist yet”. What might have happened if Orville and Wilbur Wright had been forced out of the nascent aviation industry because their glider was first-of-a-kind, unproven technology? Commercial flight is now a multi trillion dollar industry and underpins the modern world. Fast reactor technology is dramatically more proven than the first planes were, and will provide an even more fundamental product.

What about SA wind and solar? We hear all the time how renewables will be disruptive – can we get any more disruption than what has been described above? It would also be good to get as dramatic about dropping carbon intensity. Yet renewables are part of this effort, not competitors. Indeed, recent analysis has looked into the integration of renewables and nuclear, together with flexible cogeneration such as desalination. Well, it so happens that South Australia has an idle desal plant. Together with the demonstrated load following capability of fast reactors, and NEM interconnection, a well balanced and low carbon grid seems – even if still a ways off – at least worth seriously thinking about.

 

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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.

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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”

 

No Alarms and No Surprises

The announcement of a Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission for South Australia surprised practically everyone. Should it have? When this state sits on a significant portion of global uranium reserves? Wasn’t something like this inevitable?

Protestations from traditional Australian nuclear opponents were immediate and shared a common theme: the inquiry is unnecessary. This is our first hint that they are worried. It most certainly is necessary, given:

  • South Australia’s current role in the global fuel cycle;
  • last year’s independent survey indicating a large support base and dwindling opposition in the wider community; and
  • the recommendations of global peak bodies which involve substantial increase in nuclear capacity.

They hurried to reiterate their favourite objections: nuclear’s not low-carbon enough (it is); the Japanese exclusion zone is uninhabitable (it isn’t); nuclear is a failed, ailing technology (it’s flourishing, though not enough); there’s no room for both it and renewable energy (what the heck?). And so on.

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Hasn’t France’s reputation held up pretty well..?

Then, the announcement by Senator Sean Edwards of an ambitious vision for a revolutionised nuclear fuel cycle centred in SA – reminiscent of my Radio National talk – with the potential to revitalise our region, promote the growth in nuclear energy recommended by the IPCC, and slash our state electricity emissions and rates, and which directly addresses the concerns over costs and waste. The senator spelled out the errors of stubborn nuclear opponents. Variations on the stale objections dutifully followed.

Predictably, Karecha and Hansen‘s analysis of lives saved and emissions abated globally by convectional nuclear power was carefully ignored – even the published attempt at rebuttal was left uncited by its own author. It was a bit of a disaster last time, after all. As Ben Heard observed:

The study quoted by Kharecha and Hansen is “Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions from historic and projected nuclear power”, published to the journal “Environmental Science and Technology”… When academics resort to cheap shots in a comment thread, it is symptomatic of a weak underlying argument.

So what the heck is going on?

A recent evaluation of related attitudes to climate change action presented to the Canadian Nuclear Association by Dr Matt Nisbet may provide a framework.

Clearly, the potential contribution of advanced nuclear energy has been neglected and its rejection is part of the identity of renewables+efficiency academics and anti-capitalist downwingers. Ecomodernism strives to transcend this and other limitations and fearlessly illuminate the optimum path. It’s about dialogue… which is hard when the other guys refuse to engage.

Let them submit their objections to the Royal Commission. Let the evidence be weighed. If they sincerely believe they are doing good work, that the drawbacks of nuclear are overwhelming, they should be more excited by this inquiry than we are as it will prove them right. Right?

 

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:

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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?

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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.^

 

 

1. http://decarbonisesa.com/2012/08/27/venezuela-oil-refinery-explosion/
2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lac-M%C3%A9gantic_rail_disaster
3. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-05-17/turkey-coalmine-collapse-fire-delays-rescue-work/5459882
4. http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/mexico-hospital-orderly-dies-raising-gas-blast-toll-28775844

* 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?)

Who’s In?

The South Australian Labor government has announced a Royal Commission into our nuclear future.

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While this is wonderful feedstock for speculation and cause for hope in effective future climate action on Australia’s part, some vital points must be examined.

Royal Commissions are a trusted and reliable means to establish the facts with which the people of South Australia can engage in this important debate… It is now time to engage in a mature and robust conversation about South Australia’s future role in the nuclear industry.

Calling for an elevation in sophistication of the debate was going to be the subject of my next article. There’s probably no better framework with which to ensure precisely this than a royal commission. The response from Greens leaders is a sterling example of the rejection of such sophistication.

In an unstable world, where one person with a suitcase of radioactive material could make an entire city uninhabitable with a so-called dirty nuclear bomb, we should not be enhancing the chance of that happening.
(Mark Parnell MLC)

Throwing around paranoia about dirty bombs is a dreadful start.

“Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.” ~ General George S. Patton

When confronted by one who rejects the science of climate change, we naturally cite the work of recognised experts in climate science to refute erroneous beliefs, ideally to persuade our opponent but additionally to ensure the most reliable knowledge is on record so non-participating onlookers may judge for themselves. Likewise, authoritative information from experts in radiation and nuclear energy is easily sourced these days; many of them are approachable via email, forums or personal messaging. Yet Greens leaders and similar environmentalists flatly refuse to consult what is, no more and no less, another set of experts. They have disempowered themselves as leaders, and have left themselves only two other choices.

This royal commission will also look at the opportunities and risks associated with this sector. Some people describe the potential economic benefits as enormous while others describe the risks as unacceptable.

While the economic benefits of supplying fuel for nuclear energy generation, safe disposal of nuclear material and even future technology uptake will doubtlessly be assessed by the Royal Commission, alternately describing the risks as unacceptable – even in the face of committed climate disruption linked, in part, to our carbon-intensive energy use – is fundamental to the above-described failure of leadership. Unacceptable is a big call. On what is it based? To hazard a guess, Helen Caldicott‘s efforts over the decades probably had something to do with it. As made clear in a recent interview she has no radiation science qualifications and avoids listening to anyone who does. Her unsupportable position was most famously exposed by the UK’s George Monbiot.

To provide another famous example, Arnie Gundersen is looked to as an expert-rejecter’s expert on nuclear matters. He is not an engineer, let alone a nuclear one, but never corrects the record and exploits all the authority it tacitly bestows. His dire predictions regarding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident also turned out to be wrong and misguided, yet helped fan damaging fear and panic.

The scary pronouncements of such ideologues surely provide profitable click bait but are atrocious for informing environmental leadership.

Industry and business – who, after all, provide employment and investment  – entirely support this announcement, and so do I. I’m confident that the majority of South Australians also do, at least as a way to achieve its intention: [to] explore the opportunities and risks of South Australia’s involvement in the mining, enrichment, energy and storage phases for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. And yes, that would include a whole lot of Greens voters.

A note on renewable and distributed energy

The other unfortunate objection has been to declare this royal commission a threat to renewable energy in our state. Framing the discussion as a contest is and always has been a mistake. The effective limits of variable renewable energy are entirely independent of what nuclear power – were we to eventually adopt its use – can provide. The technologies do different things, and no serious commentator I know of is suggesting nuclear replace renewables. Look at it this way: could you replace a wind farm with a solar PV plant of similar capacity and expect the same rate and duration of electricity production? Adding nuclear’s potential expands the variety of capabilities, and all towards the decarbonisation of our electricity supply.

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Sunday evening in South Australia and Ontario, Canada. Roughly equivalent share of renewable energy, but eight-fold difference in carbon intensity.

Of course, there are some who even reject solar and wind farms, along with coal and gas plants (not to mention nuclear, of course) as undemocratic, centralised energy sources. I’m sure such idealists, to whom the narrow way forward is in decentralised, local energy production, will not be excluded from the consultation process. For a critique of this naïve approach, see here (I do not endorse the dualistic political framing, but it’s an incisive article). What I’d really like to know, amoung other considerations, is how centralised factories in foreign countries for mass produced solar panels, batteries, microelectronics, and so on, fit into this philosophy.

A note on thorium

Thorium, as a purely fertile nuclear fuel, does not require enrichment, and its contribution to the potential benefits of pursuing an expanded nuclear sector are limited unless it is eventually utilised in heavy-water moderated reactors or the popular thorium-fueled molten salt reactor. However, by developing experience with radioactive waste storage as part of a nuclear sector expansion in South Australia, the thorium by-product of rare earth mining could be inexpensively secured. This would potentially aid the domestic production of sought-after rare earth elements and enable further development of value-adding industry. Rare earths are used in virtually all electronics, and diversifying their market abundance will only improve the rate of technology development.

A few notes on energy numeracy

Energy policy wonks tend to use a framework of technical terms, and a considered, informed discussion around nuclear energy benefits greatly from a basic understanding of said terms. Although actual power production has so far been flagged as unlikely, if I’m going to join the call for an informed discussion, the least I can do is try to explain some of the more frequently used terms:

  • Capacity factor and capacity credit: capacity factor is a function of a technology’s output over time. For example, solar power output is limited by night and clouds, so exhibits an annual capacity factor in Australia of about 15%. If a natural gas-fired plant is only operated in summer to meet demand for air conditioning, it might have a capacity factor of 10%. Capacity credit (or availability factor) is the proportion of an intermittent generator’s output (such as wind) which can be relied upon to displace another generator’s dispatchable output (like natural gas combustion) and evenly meet demand. Calculating it is more involved, but a good discussion can be found here-in. It is necessarily less than the capacity factor for a given generator.
  • Life Cycle Analysis (LCA): these analyses estimate the carbon emissions involved in the full life cycle of an energy producing technology. It is on this basis that the IPCC calls for more renewable and nuclear energy (page 92).
  • Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI): There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and the technology providing energy to us uses energy in the production of steel, aluminium, concrete, fuel etc. in the first place. While different assumptions can yield widely varying results, EROEI can provide an indication of how well our preferred technology is contributing to supplying us in the long run (obviously, we want to see a better result than 1:1!) . A fairly comprehensive example is discussed here.
  • Levelised Cost of Electricity (LCOE): In a country like the US where all methods of generation have been used, comprehensive dollar costs for different technologies, levelised by what is produced (kilowatt hours: what we ultimately pay for) can be calculated. In Australia, many more assumptions and estimates must be made, but these are provided by the government. Recently, more sophisticated analysis has been used to provide the System LCOE of intermittent generators like variable renewable energy, which provide the same product (electricity) but not necessarily the same demand-meeting service.
  • Deaths per Kilowatt hour: This morbid metric has become regrettably necessary for demonstrating the safety of nuclear energy when appreciated in the context of meeting energy demand at nation and global scales. Despite the handful of spectacular accidents that everyone has heard of, when all sources of electricity are levelised by the unit of their product (as with LCOE) it is clear that, regardless of the urgency of climate change concerns, it is use of fossil fuels (and not nuclear) which results in an appreciable death toll.

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There’s further discussion at DecarboniseSABrave New Climate and Need More Power.