Sunday, 16 September 2007

My Q&A with Blake

With his permission, here are the questions and my crack at the answers. Any feedback, corrections, omissions etc. from others out there would be most welcome.

Hi Blake,

I take it from your hypothesis that you may arrive at a different conclusion from my own. However, it appears you are attempting to complete a fact-based assessment, which is fundamental [on a broader scale] to addressing the many energy related issues facing different countries today.

And to that end, my answers are below. I hope you find the information helpful. If you have any further questions please let me know. I've changed the order a bit, but they should all be there.

On 9/14/07, blake [surname & Email address removed] wrote:
Hey, sorry for the wait, have been swamped with work in other subjects falling this week. Okay, back into the swing of things.

I am going for a subjective definition of 'environmentally safe', as it will allow more room for discussion in my opinion. I am using alternate power sources as a focus question in my assignment (as you suggested) as i believe it is important to consider why Nuclear power is a more attractive option and will shape a better understanding to why nuclear power is being used and its benefits also.

Okay here it goes, feel free to elaborate or disregard any questions. Ill just be quoting you on various lines. If there’s anything you think I should know or that I’ve missed, let me know (I have found it surprisingly difficult to get a clear understanding of the current power situation in Australia as information is scattered and not readily available).

The hypothesis of my essay is:

"The implementation of Nuclear Power stations in Australia will have a negative impact on the environment due to an increase in environmental pollution"


What is wrong with the current power systems in place?

Power systems [to me] includes all systems involved in the generation and distribution of energy [including transport, electricity, home heating, etc.]. It's important to keep the definitions clear or a lot of confusion can enter into energy related discussions. Some people seem to muddy these waters intentionally [not very helpful to achieving a genuine solution in my mind]. For the remainder of this discussion - let's focus on electricity generation.

The answer to this question differs from one country to another. Some countries, Korea and Japan are two examples, have limited domestic energy resources and are therefore very dependent on imports [i.e. energy security concerns]. Others are struggling to control emissions linked to climate change. Some are wrangling with both [China, the USA and most of Europe are good examples]. Nearly all are facing these challenges within the context of significant projected demand increases over the coming decades.

Also, additional energy generation capacity is a critical prerequisite to addressing much of the world's severe poverty. If this deployment is not done in a sustainable way - the above challenges could become more difficult. Conversely, as the developed world wrangles with its own energy problems, countries in the developing world may just get ignored, leading to worsening poverty and greater conflict in the affected regions [some of which are not too far away from Australia or Australian interests]. I recommend a read of this blog. It may be a bit long - but I think the author makes some very good points that you don't hear too often from either side of the nuclear debate. To read more from the same author, follow this link.

Finally, some countries lack modern electric infrastructure [transmission lines, etc.] to adequately and reliably distribute energy as required. Even in the USA, several high profile brown-outs and black-outs over the past decade or so [2003, 1996, etc.] are indications of this challenge.

What are the current environmental dangers / benefits of current coal power plants?

The benefits are fairly easy to list [but none are environmental]; for countries with rich coal reserves it's cheap, reliable power. There is little economic justification for Australia to use anything but coal to power the country into the foreseeable future. Some type of carbon surcharge, tax or other abatement programme could change this in years to come.

Also, large coal generation stations have high and predictable reliability, giving more weight to the economic benefit [maximum, reliable output for minimum financial input]. It’s not rocket science. Hence, power hungry China’s current deployment of about two large coal stations a week. [This was a shock to me as my understanding before I did the search was that it was only one plant per week. So the rate is increasing – not good!]

The dangers of coal are numerous. There are many links, references and resources in this blog and many others highlighting the reality of climate change – and most experts and environmentalists alike are pointing at coal/fossil plant emissions as one of the principal contributors. Furthermore, the emissions from coal/fossil stations today, will be impacting the environment for millennia as the Earth works to restore balance – according to the IPCC.

Mining coal is dangerous and responsible for the death of roughly 7,000 miners a year in China alone. Coal emissions contain fine particulates and other pollutants resulting in the premature death of 15,000 people a year, just in the United States.

What are the environmental Dangers/Benefits of the introduction of Nuclear power ? which of these are specific +/-'s to Australia?

Water consumption is pretty much a break even with any other type of power plant that employs a thermal steam cycle [and most do, except, for example combustion turbines, wind turbines and photovoltaic cells]. Some hype has been made about French reactors having to reduce power in hot weather due to thermal discharge limits on their effluents. This has nothing to do with the fact that they are nuclear, but rather where they are located. Had similarly sized coal plants been in their place, the same result would have occurred. Had these nuclear plants been sited on the coast, the high temperature would not have been an issue. So if Australia decides to construct a nuclear plant near the coast – no issue.

Nuclear waste is a challenge, but more a political issue than technical. The deep repositories being developed, for example in Sweden and the USA, are – in my opinion – technically sound, but also a waste of a valuable resource, the potential energy remaining in the fuel. The recently rekindled interest in spent fuel reprocessing using the UREX process looks to recover significant energy from this ‘pre-irradiated’ or ‘used’ fuel, significantly reduce the volume of residual waste and dramatically reduce the time that waste must be stored to decay to the activity level of the uranium originally mined from the ground.

Interim storage of irradiated fuel as well as all aspects of fuel handling through the second half of the fuel cycle must be respected due to the activity of the material involved. Again, in my professional opinion, the robust engineering that has gone into developing multiple protective barriers to address public safety has worked well to minimise this risk. Have a look at the testing of a fuel shipping cask as an example.

Physical security [theft, sabotage and acts of terrorism] must also be addressed when considering nuclear power‘s environmental impact. In modern plant designs robust measures have been engineered into the design to minimise these risks. Beyond the design, plants maintain hardened perimeters and employ highly trained security teams – all further reducing the risk.

Some environmental groups point to the entire fuel cycle including mining, conversion, enrichment, fuel fabrication, decommissioning, final fuel processing and disposal etc. as nuclear power’s Achilles heal with respect to lifecycle emissions. But this does not make sense from even – I think – a everyday bloke perspective. Consider that one 10-gram nuclear fuel pellet produces as much energy as 20 tonnes of coal or 20,000 litres of oil [even more if the nuclear fuel is reprocessed]. Yes, [assuming the power comes from coal plants] the processes to make that pellet consume energy and result in emissions. However, if say 20% of the electricity involved in those processes is nuclear generated, even those emissions begin to fall. What about the mining, processing and transport of all that coal [have you ever seen a coal train?], or similarly drilling, refining and transport of all that oil, the decommissioning and waste processing of those facilities, etc.? What are the emissions associated with those processes? Formal comparisons have been completed – repeatedly it seems – consistently arriving at the same results. [University of Sydney, Oko Inst., University of Wisconsin/NEI to quickly site just a few]. From an emissions perspective, nuclear looks very attractive and is the principal environmental benefit for the technology – at a competitive cost to other options.

The demonstrated high [and consistently improving] capacity factor of nuclear plants and high reliability also play a key role in this positive impact.

I would say that all of the above apply to any country considering or currently using nuclear power – perhaps to different degrees depending on how much of the nuclear fuel cycle is employed in their countries. Australia, for example may decide not to enrich fuel, but deploy nuclear plants and purchase fuel from other countries. I have tried to sum up Australia’s options here and again here.

Why is nuclear power needed?

Nuclear power can address – again depending on the country – energy security and environmental challenges faced by many nations around the world. Significantly lower fuel costs can reduce a country’s dependence on fuel imports in an increasingly [energy] competitive world. Also full lifecycle analyses consistently show nuclear’s advantages to address present day environmental challenges through very low emissions [none in fact through energy generation], high capacity and high reliability.

Examples of countries looking to nuclear to minimise their exposure to energy security risks associated with imports may be found in Europe – specifically Eastern Europe where over the past several winters, Russia has used their energy supply lines as a tool of economic foreign policy. I believe in each case the ‘customer’ countries had no choice but to pay what was being asked. Many of these countries are looking to nuclear to increase their options, subsequently reducing their exposure to this risk in the future.

Nuclear power is capable of significant bulk power generation with demonstrated reliability. This energy is generated with minimal emissions over the entire nuclear lifecycle as demonstrated in study after study [see above].

From Australia’s perspective, I believe nuclear power is needed to address our embarrassingly high emissions. Yes, China and the USA contribute significantly to the problem and therefore must be part of the solution, but I like to look at this from three perspectives, the country whose emission are increasing the fastest in absolute terms [China], the most emissions under the control of one government [USA – soon to be passed by China if not already] and the highest per-capita emissions [Australia]. I think that any policy that does not try to address the problem from these three perspectives is going to produce some very unbalanced outcomes. The argument that ‘Australia only produces 1.5% of global emissions and is therefore only a minor player’ is not sustainable as I say here.

There are those that claim we can get there with renewables, but the ‘full throttle’ deployment of renewables – massive subsidies or not – will not be enough to achieve what is necessary in Australia. Hydro is by far the only renewable energy source with demonstrated capacity around the globe in sufficient quantities to displace big-coal and Australia is just too flat and dry to expect that much more hydro to be added any time soon. That leaves us with solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear and a few fringe technologies like tidal. Furthermore if you look around the world, you will find individual solar thermal plants coming up, new wind farms here and there, etc. However, read for example this post about a wind project in Poland. Note in the section titled ‘The Good Energies coming’ the total price will be Euro 350 million [AU $575 million] and the combined ‘capacity’ will be 240 Megawatts. Consider though that typical wind projects achieve only about 30% of that capacity or about 80 Megawatts on average annually. Spend about four times as much money and you could end up with about 320 Megawatts from wind, or one 1000 Megawatt nuclear reactor. Using this example, it may be easier to understand the lifecycle analyses linked above. The bottom line is that nowhere – not a single country on the planet – are renewables [other than hydro] being used to displace fossil fuel electricity generation capacity to the extent required to meet emissions targets. Denmark is one example of a country that is trying, and failing despite huge subsidies to renewable technologies.

So that leaves nuclear. If Australia is serious about reducing emissions we must keep nuclear on the table. If you’re OK with a calculator, pen and pad, check this post.

How will nuclear power stations affect Australians?

Nuclear operations and stations typically bring with them highly skilled jobs [including a significant number of trade jobs during construction as well as periodic maintenance outages], boosts to the local economies through tax revenues, boosts to local business [several hundred staff have to eat lunch, buy their groceries, get their cars serviced somewhere, correct?] and help sustain local industries such as machine shops that typically support plant maintenance activities, etc.

In addition to the local effects, operating nuclear power stations will of course help Australia meet our energy needs without adversely impacting the environment.

Nuclear plants make good neighbors. I have lived near them in the past and would gladly do so again in the future.

What are your personal views on Nuclear Power / why?

In addition to what I have said above, I don’t really think it’s a matter of ‘will’ Australia go nuclear, but when. It is noble to promote significant and broad lifestyle changes to reduce emissions and to deploy renewables where it makes sense to do so. While these efforts certainly do help – the impact falls well short of what is required to make a real difference.

My own approach is similar to what is recommended in the wedge analysis completed by Princeton University. It’s not so much a nuclear vs. renewables discussion [although such debates work well to distract the attention of environmentally minded people away form the coal industry to – I would imagine – their extreme delight], but rather what will it take to reduce global emissions in absolute terms. In other words, it’s no good to displace one 1000 MWe coal plant in the USA if China commences operations at three of them the next month.

I support the deployment of all no/low emissions technologies that have a demonstrated capacity to displace emissions linked to climate change, in a sustainable way, while improving global energy security. I do not believe we will achieve the relevant goals without considerable nuclear technology deployment in many countries around the world. Certainly the relevant risks will have to be carefully managed – but that challenge pales in comparison to the very real projected impacts from climate change – for which Australia’s portion appears to be severe.

No comments:

Post a Comment