Saturday, 3 May 2008

Players and prophets - where are coal and nuclear headed in Australia

Over the past weeks there has been much ado about the future of carbon capture/clear coal in Australia; recently a world nuclear strategist made predictions about Australia's nuclear future; and despite domestic and international efforts to prevent it, coal exports are set for a massive increase.

First, some thoughts on the many recent articles about domestic carbon capture technologies and projects here and abroad. Please don't get me wrong. I hope they succeed; hope they bring much deserved accolades and even some profits to the Aussie researchers labouring on the technologies; hope they permit the continuation of massive profits for the Australian coal industry and in particular those relying on it for their daily sustenance; hope they result in massive worldwide carbon emission reductions while facilitating improved living conditions for many developing countries around the world.

But - to me - actions speak volumes over words. When I consider ongoing claims of economic ruin and pleas for exemptions or some other type of mitigating action, I realise my hope is not manifested in the general economic confidence of the Australian energy industry. The entire point of an emissions trading scheme is to put financial pressures on these facilities to either clean up their act or shut down.

With respect to political policy. I note the public promotion of carbon capture/clean coal by many public officials. However, I don't hear anyone proposing a moratorium on new fossil stations that do not bring carbon capture technologies online with them, as suggested by NASA chief, James Hansen, in a recent letter to Kevin Rudd.

So, let's focus on the problem. Provided one accepts the science that strongly [and getting stronger as time passes] suggests human generated emissions, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels, must be dramatically cut; considerable action is required. We must also achieve significant progress related to the contributing challenges of optimising the removal of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere today as well as developing and implementing climate change mitigation strategies on an international scale, put particularly in Australia.

So what are we doing to address these issues? We're building some wind farms. We're building some solar plants and smaller scale household hot water heaters. We're looking into geothermal power and as discussed above we are working to develop carbon capture/clean coal. But there are also new fossil stations on the books. With all these plans our emissions, in the best case scenario, will not decrease by any percentage from 1990 levels, but will remain flat at 108% of 1990 levels to 2020.

The intentions seem noble and the efforts considerable. But they are simply not enough to address the problem.

Can nuclear play a role? I think so. Should nuclear play a role? I think so. However, looking at the facts [unfortunately the most relevant of which are subjective/political] - I must concede the opinion of Steve Kidd, Head of Strategy and Research at the World Nuclear Association. Considering all the constraints, Kidd notes a 'less promising' future for nuclear in the near term under Labor, but hedges, saying the true policies remain to be seen.

Kidd does see a favourable environment for expanded uranium mining [OK, that's an easy one], but also conversion and enrichment in Australia. One route suggested in the article could be for an Australian joint venture employing ANSTO developed laser enrichment technology with General Electric and an Australian company or companies. This makes sense on many levels, not least significant of which will be the dramatic reduction in handling and transportation energy inputs to the fuel supply chain through conversion and enrichment facilities located relatively close to the uranium source.

Finally, one last look at Australian coal. Where is it headed? The below line from the Courier Mail says it all.

RIO Tinto Coal Australia believes it can double its Queensland coal production to 40 million tonnes a year within seven years, thanks to booming demand and planned new rail and port capacity.
I doubt this will solve any problems. Again, looking at actions [or, in this case proposed actions] it seems clear to me; we are not doing enough to address the relevant technical issues.

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