Friday, 4 July 2008

Ross Garnaut's report

I was happy to see nuclear power discussed in the report. The section on nuclear power concludes as follows:

In Australia, as well as in most other developed and developing countries, public acceptability is an important barrier, that would need to be recognised as a constraint and a source of delays and increased costs by any government committed to implementation of a nuclear power program. The Australian Government is firmly against Australian nuclear power generation, and the Coalition parties retreated quickly from nuclear advocacy in the face of community antipathy during the 2007 federal general election. It would be imprudent, indeed romantic, to rely on a change of community attitudes as a premise of future electricity supply for the foreseeable future.

Given the economic issues and community disquiet about establishing a domestic nuclear power capacity, Australia would be best served by continuing to export its uranium and focusing on low-emissions coal, gas and renewable options for domestic energy supply. However, it would be wise to reconsider the constraints if:

• future nuclear costs come in at the low end of the estimates provided above
• developments in technologies reduce the need for long-term storage of high level radioactive waste
• there is disappointment with technical and commercial progress with low emissions fossil fuel technologies, and
• community disquiet eases.
Many who support nuclear power already believe the third bullet's criteria are a foregone conclusion for the next several decades at least. High level nuclear waste is a political and public acceptance issue [merging it with the fourth bullet] and ongoing growth in new plant constructions and innovative designs are working to address the first.

This leaves public acceptance as the overwhelming issue within Australia. Acceptance may be swayed by dramatically increased energy costs, failures to achieve desired reductions in emissions or energy quality and reliability issues [increase in power interruptions / blackouts].

In the near-term, I hope WA and Queensland reconsider their positions on uranium mining.


  1. I'm sure public opinion will turn around quite soon on nuclear power as it has elsewhere, even though we need it less here. Another relevant consideration is that, if CO2 emissions are so harmful to Australia, then we really need the rest of the world to get its nuclear act together. In particular, India has an ambitious plan to implement a thorium-based nuclear power industry. However currently thy are burning coal for electricity because of a shortage of uranium [their plan requires them to have uranium power running first]. We can also see that a thorium is much safer than uranium and a potential Australian export. So there are multiple reasons for Australia to work with India to move the world to thorium-based nuclear power. The question is: when does the pressure of these concerns and opportunities trump our annoyance with them for not signing the NNPT?

  2. Good question.

    Myself, I wonder when India's energy requirements will become so great that they will move to become more in line with international non-proliferation goals. A lax approach could set a poor global precedence.

    Some of the points you raise are also discussed in this post.

  3. If they have to give up their bomb then it isn't going to happen. It's not as if the pre-existing nuclear weapon states have made any effort to disarm.

    On a completely different subject: To deploy the amount of nuclear energy that seems to be needed it seems to me that it can't be done by the current process of building huge one-off reactors with specialists to design and experts to run. There are proposals floating around to mass-produce smaller reactors that are identical and fail safe and can't sensibly be used for real weapons (and can't be tampered with even by the owner without raising alarms). Is this a pipe dream?

  4. Yeah, I agree. But some sort of compliance and declaration to the IAEA is a must [remember many countries - including Iran - are watching]. I also realise Israel is a significant outlier in this regard as well.

    I believe utilities around the world have learned from the first wave of nuclear plant deployments. The comments you've made reflect many of those lessons and from what I know all are being pursued to varying degrees in different countries. Certainly not a pipe dream.

  5. I am one of the pipe dreamers who believes that factory produced atomic power plants can become a reality in the near future (less than a decade).

    I also happen to believe that India is perfectly within its rights to have an independent nuclear capability. The Non-Proliferation Treaty is an discriminatory treaty. In addition the five acknowledged powers have never even pretended that they would actually take the promised steps towards full disarmament.

    rks - your first comment implies that there is some magical way to use thorium instead of uranium. Technically, that is impossible - before thorium is useful in a reactor it has to be exposed to neutrons and converted into U-233. When a thorium reactor is first started, the initial fissile material is normally U-235, but it can be U-233 (if some has already been manufactured) or Pu-239.

    Thorium is not "much safer" than uranium. How can you improve a lot on a safety record like that amassed by the uranium based nuclear power industry?

    Rod Adams
    Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.

  6. Thanks for the comment Rod.

    Factory produced 'plants'? Quickly ramping up heavy industry infrastructure is within the realm of possibilities, but whole plants? I assume you're referring to smaller plants or nuclear batteries as they are sometimes referred. Believe me, I'd love to see them; but considering the current and future regulatory review burden in many countries [including the NRC in the USA, but others as well] for new-build initiatives as well as the time it took to get the approval of advanced plants such as the AP600 GE's BWRs, etc. I find that 10 year time-frame a bit hard to fathom. But I would love to be wiping the egg from my face in 2018 or sooner.

    Regarding thorium - I agree. How does one get safer than currently deployed, western designed nuclear plants? It just ain't out there.

    BUT, I think it would be possible to achieve the same level of safety [no decrease in safety margins or increase in predicted core damage frequency] with considerably less expense, complexity and related risk - through for example significantly simplified downstream waste handling.

    It is my understanding the Thorium fuel cycle is one of several innovations offering some or all of these advantages. The only reason I don't blog more about Thorium is that others are doing such an excellent job already, and I like to focus on technologies that are deployable at the moment.

  7. The disappointing aspect of Garnaut's consideration of nuclear energy issues is that he has ignored the potential of Australia's uranium exports to avoid potentially thousands of millions of tonnes of carbon emissions overseas.
    The proportionally tiny section on nuclear energy reads like a belated response to the UMPNER report. It misses the point.
    Garnaut received submissions (e.g. from the Australian Uranium Association) looking beyond the domestic nuclear energy issue, arguing that Garnaut should recommend that Australian State Governments must remove their political bans on uranium mining and exploration, because restricting uranium exports is actually putting a barrier between energy-hungry emerging nations and Australia's clean, low-carbon fuel.
    Garnaut says Australia must lead the world in taking the low-carbon initiative - so why does he ignore the one measure Australia can take immediately to encourage emerging nations to take up low-carbon energy options? Deny India, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam etc. access to Australian uranium and they will surely 1) go elsewhere (Kazakhstan, Namibia) or 2) continue to rely on coal.
    Come on, Ross! How can you ignore the most practical carbon-abatement option when it's right under your nose?

  8. I wouldn't count too much on Australian uranium clout. Uranium just isn't in that short supply.

    In fact if we don't start locking in some long-term supply contracts for the easily extracted stuff soon, the Japanese may well trump us with seawater uranium extraction.

  9. Professor David MacKay has a good look at uranium from sea water. Actually I think it all got there by being washed down in rivers and so (some) rivers have higher concentrations. Incidentally the nuclear industry should encourage everyone to read Prof MacKay's book ( He is head of the Inference group in the Physics Dept t Cambridge Uni. He is very left wing/pacifist, and when he started his investigation of sustainable energy for Britain he was quite anti-nuclear. He still hates being identified as pro-nuclear. But his calculations convinced him that Britain couldn't survive without a significant amount of nuclear energy.