Australia’s blinkered vision in China’s commitment to reduce global warming
By Robert Parker
President, Australian Nuclear Association
Two of the most powerful nations on earth have concluded an agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Included in that agreement is reference to nuclear power being used to limit those emissions. Yet in Australia even discussion of nuclear power is taboo. We continue to frame the control measures through a very narrow and parochial lens defined by domestic politics. We luxuriate in a self delusion that despite glaring evidence to the contrary global warming can be addressed solely by renewable energy.
I was motivated to write this piece by the frequent errors and omissions I noted in the reporting of China’s recent commitment to cap carbon dioxide emissions around the year 2030 or earlier if possible. China also announced a target of expanding the share of non-fossil zero-emission sources in primary energy, namely renewables and nuclear, to 20% by 2030.
In Australia China’s commitment has been widely and erroneously reported as a commitment to 20% renewable energy by 2030 with all reference to nuclear being excluded from the reports. Journalists fell into line with Jared Owens in the Australian, Tom Iggulden from the ABC’s Lateline, the opinion piece from the Sydney Morning Herald and even Paul Bongiorno in the Saturday Paper all reporting that China had committed to 20% renewable energy.
Also excluded from comment is China’s commitment to a reduction in “primary” energy as opposed to electricity generation. Primary energy is an important concept and refers to the basic energy resources such as coal, gas, oil, wind, solar or uranium. Electricity on the other hand is a transfer medium, it’s what we get after we use a primary energy source. This means that in addition to reductions in coal consumption China may have to address its use of gas and petroleum products. As reported by the U.S. White House on the 12th November, to meet their commitment will require an additional 800 – 1000 gigawatts of zero-emission generating capacity by 2030, about the same as all their current coal-fired capacity. It’s also nearly as much as the current total installed capacity in the U.S. energy sector.1
The commitment is so large that to meet their target, construction of clean energy would need to start immediately. Any criticism that the target is too modest fails to grasp the enormity of what is proposed. Even if obtained exclusively from nuclear power it would mean the completion of one 1200 megawatt Westinghouse AP1000 reactor each week for the next 16 years.
Using wind or solar is more problematic. While the nuclear reactors work day and night, in good weather or foul and only require 10 percent down time for refuelling, wind and solar cannot be relied upon. Wind, in such a diverse environment will generate less than 25% of its rated capacity and solar not much more than 14%. Even then solar fails to deliver for 16 hours of the day and at times wind fails almost completely. The fossil fuel backup required to support such a system together with an extensive interlinked grid all point to the clarity of a nuclear powered supply system.
As a precedent France built an entire nuclear generating system of 58 reactor units over 22 years from 1977 to 1999 which produce fifty percent more power than Australia’s output. They produce electricity with only 75 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour which is less than a tenth of our emissions. In the laboratory of real life the French example proves that nuclear power reduces emissions while across the border the German experiment with a massive roll out of wind, solar and biomass has resulted in more brown coal power stations being built, rising emissions and cost blowouts in power supply.
Another measure of the benefit of nuclear power versus wind and solar is the energy society invests in the system compared to the energy obtained. Known as the Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROI) the calculation of these numbers can be somewhat subjective however nuclear performs very well in most comparisons. One well documented German study by Weissbach and others found that nuclear power’s EROI of 75 units shows a clear benefit over the lower returns for wind of only 16 for and 4 for solar for each unit invested.2
Coal under the same study had an EROI of 30. So we see that society obtains more energy for an equal resource allocation from nuclear power than just about any other power system. The lower values for wind and solar reflect what we intuitively expect for diverse low energy intense sources of energy.
Returning to what the Chinese are actually doing to achieve their commitments, on the nuclear front they have the largest reactor construction and development programme in the world by far. Mainland China has 22 operating nuclear power reactors, 27 under construction, and 60 more planned and 82 proposed. The capacity of these reactors totals 270 GWe compared to Australia’s total generating capacity of about 60 GWe.
The Chinese ongoing commitment to nuclear power is clear. They are leaving no stone unturned in their investigation of all nuclear technologies including thorium fuels, molten salt and metal cooled fast reactors, high temperature reactors and even accelerator driven reactor systems. Chinese reactor technology is already building Generation III reactors such as the Westinghouse AP1000 which offer increased safety. In the future they plan to recycle nuclear waste products in a new fleet of Generation IV fast reactors which will become the dominant technology by 2050.
The payoff in all this low carbon electricity generation is the strategic advantage China gets by weaning itself off imports of petroleum products. In large population dense cities and towns small electrified cars and bikes are an obvious alternative as are electrified public transit systems. Freight can increasingly be hauled by electrified rail and high speed passenger services negate the use of oil hungry air travel.
And so we return to those two key words left out in the Australian media, “nuclear” and “primary”. The Chinese 20 percent reduction of primary energy is a far greater per capita commitment than Australia’s 20% Renewable Energy Target. It affects the 90 percent of their primary energy sector that uses fossil fuels whereas our RET only impacts on 40 percent of our sector which is less than half China’s commitment.
Nuclear will be the corner stone technology in achieving international success in the battle against global warming. Neither the United States nor China are fearful of its use and frankly Australia’s anxiety is self indulgent. Like the Abbott government’s refusal to take action on global warming Australia must face up to what works and what doesn’t. We must embrace nuclear power with all urgency and join with the major powers in using the right tool for the job.
2. Energy intensities, EROIs (energy returned on invested) and energy payback times of electricity generating power plants by D. Weissbach, G. Ruprecht, A. Huke, K. Czerski, S. Gottlieb, A. Hussein
The above article was first published online at https://newmatilda.com/2014/11/26/nuclear-power-australia-has-more-one-blind-spot-tackling-climate-change. It was republished here with permission from the author, who holds all copyrights.
What a well written article!
Robert, why is there such an aversion to nuclear power in Australia in the first place?
I thought Australia placed great importance on preserving it’s diverse and vast pristine environment: land, sea and air. Windmills and solar farms destroy take up large areas that create eyesores and hazards to fragile Austrailian ecosystems. Without nuclear, Australian will be forced into using dirty fossil fuels for it’s primary energy source just like Germany. How does that help preserve clean air, water and lands throughout Australia and how does it’s use of dirty fossil fuels affect neighboring countries?
The status quo is comfortable.
Coal is cheap and very close to the generators. With a small population Australian manufacturing is not competitive and so we have become a mine-site for China, Japan and Korea. It has suited our major political parties to support coal extraction and suppress nuclear development. Our Labor Party even enacted legislation banning the nuclear fuel cycle from Australia. Helen Caldicott was icing on the cake.
Australians are fearful of nuclear power largely through our lack of education. However events and our global competitiveness have conspired against the technology.
That’s why a price on carbon is so essential, especially for our country. It’s also why our current government in league with the mining industries destroyed our fledgling scheme.
Australian’s do love our wilderness but in a country the size of the United States but with only 7.3% of the population we can make a really big mess before anyone notices.
It was really the Democrats (more left than US Dems) and Greens (more left than Aus Dems) back in 1998 that put the nail in the coffin for Nuclear in Australia. Ben Heard’s blog has a great post detailing the prohibition of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Plants:
The ALP (Labor party) and Liberals at the time didn’t stop it or went on record to oppose it. For the non-Aussies, in the Australian parliament when a Bill is voted on it can pass on voice vote alone, however what usually happens is a MP or Senator yells “divide” and all votes go on record in Hansard. In this instance no one shouted “divide” which is only done for inconsequential motions and minor legislative fixes.
“Robert, why is there such an aversion to nuclear power in Australia in the first place?”
National pride. Australia was used by the U.K to test it’s nuclear weapons. Many Australian servicemen were involved and there are claims of illness because of this. The anti-nuclear movement was galvanised by French atmospheric nuclear tests at Moruroa and Fangataufu atolls from 1966-1974, the last subterranean test in 1996. The anti-nuclear movement does not discriminate, all associations with nuclear are tarnished. Power generation, uranium mining even food irradiation is a contentious issue!
I’m a NZer, if nuclear is unpopular in Aussie it’s the Great Satan here in NZ. A lot of the same nationalistic hubris, NZ sent frigates to protest the French tests. Then there was the french bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour, that effectively sanctified Greenpeace and the anti-nuclear movement here. NZ’s anti-nuclear legislation bans nuclear POWERED vessels and NZers from manufacture and possession of nuclear weapons. I’ve always wanted to get a job in the U.S military-industrial complex that might involve nuclear weapons. That way I could claim political refugee status in the U.S 😉
Thanks for reminding us of the anti nuclear weapons campaigns. I remember that time in Sydney and participated in them.
I’m not sure this it fully explains the aversion to nuclear power. After all, the British, Germans, Canadians, French and definitely American citizens were all nuclear targets. Apart from the Pine Gap facility near Alice Springs, we never were.
Yet, at the time of greatest weapons tensions during the cold war, all these societies built nuclear reactors – this was probably the high point of construction. Was it because they didn’t have options? NZ had hydro and Australia went to coal – global warming didn’t exist.
“British, Germans, Canadians, French and definitely American citizens were all nuclear targets. Apart from the Pine Gap facility near Alice Springs, we never were.”
Fear is not rational. In the 80’s I remember lying in bed at night hearing to the drone of a distant turboprop and imagining it was a Soviet Tu-95 about to bomb me. I knew that was a ridiculous thought even as I imagined it, but that’s the irrationality of fear.
I think there is a big Elephant in the room that never seems to get discussed here at Atomic Insights. Why are most people afraid of nuclear power?
It starts with images of mushroom clouds, reinforced by the horrific photos of Japanese bomb victims. Then there’s every bad Sci-Fi film that ever had atomic mutants or post-apocalyptic scenario. Nuclear terror is just an ingrained part of the culture now.
One thing that is happening now is that the cold-war nuclear terror is seen as old-fashioned and funny by the young today. Here in NZ we have ‘Atomic Coffee’, the word atomic has become retro-cool. The PC game Fallout satirises the ’50s kitch of the cold war.
Humour may be best counter to irrational fear, perhaps Homer Simpson has been doing the pro-nuclear movement a favour all these years.
In my office, we have a nice large scale whole world map. Looking at all those small island in the middle of Pacific, I suddenly began to realize and strongly wonder exactly how far Mururoa was from Australia compared with South America.
It happens that the Peruvian shore is nearer from Mururoa than the Australian one. The nearest point in Peru between Piura and Chiclayo is 4000 km away from Mururoa, and the nearest in Australia near Brisbane is 4200 km away.
That Mururoa became really important for Australia after the massive Rainbow Warrior screw up is understandable. But before that, it’s very hard to understand.
Interesting what you say about New Zealand. As a kiwi myself I remember clearly the national indignation in the 1970s against the nuclear antics of the French in the south Pacific. And the Rainbow Warrior incident absolutely put the tin hat on it, as you mention.
Also, NZ has, or had, a cachet as the one of the very few Western-style places in the world you could live in which was perceived unlikely to be dropped on with an A-bomb. Visits of US atomic-powered navy vessels which might (no-one was saying) also be carrying nuclear warheads, were hotly opposed as something that would make us a nuclear target, and anyway clean contrary to Ban the Bomb. In response, the government said IIRC “very well, since you won’t guarantee you’re not carrying nuke bombs, no-one is sailing a nuclear *anything* into our waters”.
Interestingly though, unlike Australia, the NZ government did *not* outlaw nuclear power stations as such. I do think it would be possible to win friends for the noble cause of a greener NZ with modern, clean atomic power. The Huntly coal power station, NZ’s biggest of any type, is getting old, and imports coal from Indonesia of all places. Natural gas reserves are running down fast. The coalies are actually seriously proposing a *lignite* powered station in Southland! Further development of hydro (~65% of toal generation) is now limited to smaller schemes. Geothermal is being further developed but has its own challenges.
Thinking a bit further, maybe someone could start up a decarbonisenz.com, inspired by Ben Heard’s sterling efforts at decarbonisesa.com. I’m sure I could summon up an article or two.
Very interesting insights discussed in this thread on the reasons for the aversion to the peaceful and beneficial use of nuclear power by Australia and NZ. Although not as extreme, they would also seem to apply to the same aversion to nuclear energy throughout the world.
Most bizarre is the schizophrenic ideology of the anti-nuclear activists in these countries. Presumably, people in Australia and NZ wouldn’t give a second thought to having a chest x-ray, radiation treatment for cancer and any other nuclear medical procedure to save their life. Yet they strongly fear an infinitesimal radiation dose that is thousands of times less than one nuclear medicine procedure only because it comes from a nuclear power plant. What an incredible disconnect in their thinking!
“They are leaving no stone unturned in their investigation of all nuclear technologies…” with the curious exception of BWRs–boiling water reactors. Some of the most authoritative voices on pro-nuclear blogs think the GE ESBWR is the “best in class” of light water reactors available today. Perhaps now that the NRC has finally certified the ESBWR, we might expect to see China building a few. That GE bought (some of) France’s Alstom, which has a large market penetration in China for nuclear power steam turbines, might be an indicator of GE interest in selling ESBWRs there. Also, China has, until now, relied on certification of foreign reactors by the host country before building them. And maybe China thought the ABWR is a clunker in comparison (seems so). And/or maybe GE is reluctant to provide the degree of “technology transfer” that China requires. This, to me, would be silly. It would be like being afraid of giving up the secrets to the Apple II, when the MacIntosh (read: molten salt reactors) were obviously going to supercede PWRs and BWRs (and HWRs), and not just in the distant future.
GE’s top management – particularly Jeff Immelt the CEO, have not been supportive of their own companies efforts in nuclear. Rod has written about this before. They are very far behind Westinghouse at this point. Westinghouse will probably have orders for 50 reactors before the first ESBWR is built.
The Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROI) metric that you discuss is vitally important to consider, particularly if a country wants to get a large portion of electricity from renewable sources. The intermittent renewables are going to need a large amount of storage also built into the system. Depending on the technology used, that storage could cause the EROI of some renewables to go so low, it just wouldn’t be worth the effort, no matter how much money is spent.
For those interested, the link below from Brave New Climate discusses the EROI issue in more detail, and the problems that large scale storage introduce.
Interesting article, this is the reason anyone pushing renewables will in the next breath push conservation. The focus is also often on net cost per kilowatt hour and EROI is sometimes forgotten. In the chart, nuclear (PWR) is listed with an EROI of 75.
Are there any theoretical projections for what the EROI what be for Gen IV and V reactors?
Are there any theoretical projections for what the EROI … for Gen IV and V reactors?
People like Dewan & Massie, or Kirk Sorensen could answer the question better than I can, but some of the next generation reactors potentially have much higher EROIs than existing light water reactors (LWRs). Many of the molten salt reactor designs will not require enrichment of the fuel, which is a big energy cost for existing plants. They will also not require the fuel to be fabricated and put into highly engineered fuel bundles, as today’s fuel is. Lastly, since many of the new designs operate at low pressures, construction costs in terms of the amounts of steel and concrete that go into the plants should be somewhat less.
But much depends on the specifics of which kind of next generation plant we are discussing. There are many different ways to make a fission reactor.
I have not seen an EROI calculation for say a PRISM reactor but if we assume that fast reactors have the ability to get a 60 fold improvement in the uranium utilisation then two benefits accrue;
The first is a major improvement on the EROI if we use land based mining.
The second would be the reduction in uranium cost as a proportion of the electricity price. This becomes so low that sea water extraction may be viable. Couple this with laser isotope separation and the energy inputs for uranium supply become miniscule.
We are still left with the construction, fuel fabrication and operations but fast reactors look like having a great potential to increase the EROI and reduce carbon emissions.
I would guess that electrorefining of IFR fuel could be somewhat energy intensive……..but not even close to enough to drop the EROEI to an undesirable level.
Thorium MSRs will also have energy requirements for their processing loops, so IFR-type reactors and Thorium MSRs may end up being comparable overall in terms of EROEI of their whole fuel cycles.
With all of Australia’s coal and all of Australia’s oil imports, nuclear would fit well in Australia if it were used to provide superheated steam to get a barrel of oil per ton of coal using the Karrick process (then the residual char could be sent to existing coal-fired power plants).
Thanks for mentioning the Karrick process. It’s one more thing for my database.
The Karrick process requires steam well above the critical temperature, which means either reactor technology beyond PWR/BWR or some tweak like compressing superheated (but subcritical) steam to achieve the necessary temperature. Isolating the process’s steam supply from reactor coolant seems like a necessary measure to prevent the fuels from being stigmatized by measurable radioactivity. Last, one barrel of liquids per ton seems like a rather small yield compared to what’s really needed to cut CO2 emissions as much as required. The USA consumes more energy as petroleum than coal, so Kerrick plants would be unable to replace petroleum.
I suspect that something like the Karrick process, fed with biomass (including garbage) instead of coal, might be able to both eliminate most of the organic stream going to landfills and replace a substantial amount of fossil fuels. Designing plants for dual use, especially converting off-peak heat into liquid fuels rather than electricity, is an engineering issue that obviously merits much more attention than it seems to be getting. A chemical engineer of my acqaintance mentioned something like this to me welll over a decade ago, so the idea is obviously nothing close to new.
I have heard from someone who proposed value-adding coal processing to one of the relevant companies. They had no interest whatsoever. With Business As Usual, it’s profitable enough just to burn the stuff.
Yes, the Karrick process is 1930’s tech and there are probably better techs around. But a criticism of the Karrick process (and reason that it was never widely employed) is the high cost of superheated steam — and nuclear power changes that equation. Yes, isolating the process’s steam supply from reactor coolant is a necessary measure to prevent the fuels from being stigmatized by measurable radioactivity. Simple solution: a PWR with the secondary coolant superheated with some of the char produced in the Karrick process. Finally, while one barrel of liquids per ton may be a rather small yield compared to what is desired by many to cut CO2 emissions, it would certainly help towards that objective (the elimination of the energy expended to import the oil is a factor, too).
Cal Abel submitted a patent application that might apply here.
That’s going to take a fair amount of char; per Wikipedia, the Karrick process uses steam at 450-700°C, whereas most PWRs operate closer to 300°C. You also need a paying customer for the excess char, and the current effort to replace coal with natural gas works against that. I don’t see this going anywhere with coal. MSW, on the other hand, costs money to get rid of so converting it to a more stable and compact form plus salable byproducts might be profitable.
All true, EP. It really isn’t a solution to what we have going on in America — my thinking was directed at Australia. I suppose that the best place for it would be China: they would get to replace residential coal use with smokeless char (England actually mandated char-for-coal substitution back in the mid-20th Century — “Rexco” was the brand name as I recall) and they would get a good quantity of oil from their abundant coal resources.
Just today our state’s peak business lobby group has reinforced the call for legislative change and in a display of unprecedented boldness has proposed that our first reactor should be the IFR.
Credit to the journalist for not resorting to quoting misinformed “environmentalist” opponents, but the dismaying comment from our federal opposition regarding cost – which I somehow expect our peak state’s business representatives just might have considered – shows that some are still lagging behind the conversation.
I wonder how Mr. Parker feels about Australia PM Tony Abbott’s recent remarks about nuclear energy which indicate he is not opposed to it.
See my report at my blog Neutron Bytes
As an Australian who voted for Tony Abbott, I have no problems with his statement that a proposal for nukes would be fine. Indeed I’d like to see him use the ‘direct action’ money that he proposed to reduce greenhouse gases to build nukes. At least the money would be spent on building real infrastructure in Oz instead of on renewable energy certificates printed by foreigners, as the price on carbon implied. However, since he doesn’t control the Senate, and is having lots of trouble trying to get his budget through, I’m sure he won’t pick a fight on this one. No doubt it’ll be business as usual.
Tony Abbott’s position is quite clear. He has stated very loudly that “coal is good for humanity”. Electricity generated from coal and gas is cheaper than that from nuclear sources. He can therefore state without any risk to the coal industry that nuclear power proponents are free to put up any alternatives – but don’t ask for government support.
Under our current economic model their alternatives will fail just as renewable energy schemes fail without feed in tariffs and targets. The greatest subsidy provided to fossil fuel industries and ourselves is to allow free disposal of greenhouse gases without cost.
Removal of the legislation preventing the Minister’s consideration of implementing the nuclear fuel cycle is necessary. But it is not the fundamental enabling device that is required. That was taken away when the Abbott Government abolished the price on carbon.
How do I feel about Abbott’s remark? He has poisoned the pond that we are invited to drink from.
Well, yes, I wondered about how PM Abbott could on one hand remove the carbon tax and on the other say, fine, go ahead of try to build nuclear power plants. Stopping global climate change will require action forcing mechanisms.
AS I pointed out at my blog Neutron Bytes, total market share in Australia for fossil sources, coal & gas, exceed 80% of energy sources for electricity generation.
No one in their right mind is going to try to build a 1000 MW NPP. However, I also pointed out that there might be room for small modular reactors, in the range of 50-300 MW. Indeed, I cited a comment by Australian mining giant Rio Tinto that said these kinds of units might be right for them in remote areas of the country.
That doesn’t get at the issue of baseload demand for broad swaths of the population, but it might be a start.
Australia still has to change its law on the books regarding nuclear reactors. Also, it would have to staff up both commercially for nuclear engineers and for regulatory and safety oversight. Both processes could take some years.
Even if the government removed the ban today, it’s not a case of add water and microwave, but it would be a start.
If PM Abbott is serious, and not just providing window dressing for the climate conference taking place in Peru, he’d also need to switch from just saying something to doing something.
I sugest looking at Terrestrial Energy and their IMSR. Its still a paper reactor, but their approach is the most market focused approach of all MSR projects. If they don’t succeed I will be very pessimistic about all other MSR efforts in the west.
If you’re truly interested in finding out the best balance between Marketing, plus “Sovereign Protection” (essenciál for *Tôda* Truly Disruptive téc) for the MSR, please PM-me at either klawrence (at) gmail or thru G+, conferindo http://bit.ly/ms-sci e reaching me thru my About e/o Post pages.
Where are you currently located?
Thanks John Galt. SPV efficiency improvements are indeed welcome, though somewhat secondary to the net $/kWh generated and the eroi. The three can be related, and SPV can be quite useful, particularly in applications where short-term energy storage is available and longer-term reliability is not required, such as AC, heat pumps, some battery recharge scenarios, and possibly some fuel generation or conversion schemes.
So where it makes economic sense to use unreliable power, it makes economic sense to use it. I’m not suggesting you have done so as you haven’t, but as a general remark it does not make economic sense to confuse intermittent power e.g. wind or solar of any type, with baseload demand, the most immediate role for nuclear power.
James Conca briefly explains the distinction between “raw” energy cost and system energy cost in Net Energy Metering: Are We Capitalists or What?. (Conca writes for Forbes 🙂
You forgot environmentalists. Fossil fuels have a fairly small spread of carbon intensities per BTU, so EROI works better than many other metrics as a measure of their impacts.
Only by Levelized Cost of Energy, and LCOE is a badly flawed metric. Energy when you don’t need it is worthless; no energy when you require it can be fatal. The EIA is switching to Levelized Avoided Cost of Energy (LACE), a metric that tries to see how well various supplies can meet demand. Solar does poorly where I live.
The system must be sized for the peak demand, not the average. If you want to change billing from per-kWh to peak power plus a near-wholesale energy charge, fine… but you’ll destroy the economics of net metering. Which is the point: net metering does not reflect the cost structure of the grid, and gives massive undeserved subsidies to PV generators. Net metering SHOULD and MUST be destroyed.
If they are not actually putting firm capacity on the grid, why should they be paid anything but the avoided cost?
The neighbors are asking for and getting firm capacity. They should pay for it. If they are willing to get power only when the sun is shining, they can go off-grid and “eat their own dog food”.
Because they are doing nothing to cut the required size of either the generation or transmission system, and the cost of having it available.
I agree: net metering is definitely bogus accounting.
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