Monday, 31 March 2008

New Zealand - Are we ready to join the nuclear family?

A fairly objective report examins the question.

Full report from Stuff by Nikki MacDonald.

As demand heats up for climate-friendly energy solutions, there are growing murmurings in favour of at least reopening the nuclear debate.

Moral and environmental objections aside, three key components would be needed for New Zealand to produce nuclear energy, [French nuclear expert Bertrand] Barre says:

* An appropriately sized national grid - generally at least 10 times bigger than any one nuclear plant. That could be a problem here, given increasing reactor size. As at the end of 2007, New Zealand's total electricity generation capacity was 9350MW. At 1435MW, Huntly is the largest existing power station.

* A strong monitoring agency: "Nuclear power can only be safe if there is complete certainty that the regulatory authorities are independent and can have real power to shut down a plant."

* A skilled, trained workforce.

At the moment, taking into account all the costs from uranium importation and reactor installation to waste disposal and decommissioning, [Engineer and Sustainable Energy Forum member John Blakeley ] doubts that nuclear would stack up financially. But if the choice comes down to nuclear or relying on imported liquefied natural gas (LNG), that may change. Contact and Genesis power companies are applying for resource consent for an LNG plant in Taranaki, but it would be a last-ditch option.

[S]hould we at least give it more than cursory consideration?

Comments to this article are still open for those who may be interested in a polite response. As usual I left a response - captured below for posterity.

Thanks for a fine report.

The claims made by Bunny McDiarmid are false and misleading. Eliminating every nuclear power plant on Earth would have a negligible, if any, impact on nuclear weapons proliferation. For example, no one is denying Iran their right to nuclear power, only the sensitive technology to enrich uranium that could be linked to weapons technology. And in North Korea, nuclear power plants are being offered by international negotiators as a reward for abandoning their weapons programme.

Conversely, expansion of nuclear power poses a similarly minimal risk. Claims to the contrary are principally rhetorical, emotive fear mongering.

Also, nuclear subsidies exist on par ($/kw generated) with subsidies for other technologies such as renewables and coal. But, in the UK, a massive nuclear expansion programme is underway with no such subsidies.

Maybe nuclear power has a role to play in New Zealand, maybe it does not. But if seriously considered, it should be done so objectively, with credible facts and peer reviewed science.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Expansion at Olympic Dam means increased energy inputs (of course).

Apparently, some people out there are shocked with new projections that expanded operations, proposed to be completed around 2013, at BHP Billiton's Olympic Dam facility will entail significant expansion of the mine's electricity consumption - projected to be an average of 690 megawatts per year, or around 40% of South Australia's total electricity consumption, when the expansion is complete.

Here's the complete story, from

(As an aside, I'm quite pleased to note, when reading the comments on the above-linked webpage, just how much pro-nuclear-energy sentiment seems to be out there.)

Olympic Dam is a copper mine. When the expanded production reaches full capacity in 2015 or so, 450,000 tons of copper metal will be produced annually.

There is a little bit of uranium, gold, and a couple of other things mixed into the orebody which are valuable too, so they extract them as well when the copper ore is processed.

It's a homogeneous orebody - the uranium and copper and things are all mixed together, so it is impossible to mine the copper without mining uranium, too.

For that 450,000 tons of copper metal that will be produced, only about 14,000 tons of uranium oxide will be produced. The uranium is only a byproduct.

Remember - without copper being mined out of the ground, no electricity of any kind, clean, green or not, can be generated, distributed or used. Without production of aluminium metal, a popular target of so-called environmentalists, electricity transmission over overhead cables cannot be done.

Even since the stone age or the bronze age, mining has been integral to the existence of our technological civilisation. Even as we move to clean sources of energy to power our technological civilisation, such as geothermal and nuclear energy, mining will always be essential.

Now, the expanded mine will consume 690 megawatts of electrical power, on average.

A typical nuclear power reactor generating 1 gigawatt of electricity requires an amount of uranium fuel corresponding to about 200 tons of natural uranium in the form of uranium oxide per year.

So, Olympic Dam will consume 690 megawatts of electricty - and it will produce enough uranium in one year to generate 70 gigawatts of electricity for one year -
over one hundred times the total power consumption of the mine.

Yes, you might be thinking that this ignores the other energy inputs into the nuclear fuel cycle - but it also assumes an extremely inefficient once-through fuel cycle using low-enriched uranium in current light water reactors, without recycling of fuel.

Of course, one must remember that the vast majority of the energy input at Olympic Dam goes into the extraction and smelting of copper metal - the overall "energy gain" typically associated with actual uranium mining operations are typically much higher than 100.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

South Africa - we can't say we weren't warned

Robert Gottliebsen spent his Easter holiday in South Africa. Could Australia suffer a similar fate with respect to electricity availability?

Keeping the lights on

Full report from the Business Spectator.

While we celebrate Earth hour once a year [and yes, I meant to use the term celebrate - with our kids and picnic gear in tow]; South Africa enjoys unpredictable and unavoidable Earth hours as they are forced to come to terms with inadequate energy policies sustained over several years.

Kevin Rudd and his climate change minister Penny Wong are playing a dangerous game. I have just returned from spending Easter in Johannesburg and have experienced first hand the damage that can be caused to the community when governments don't understand the consequences of their power generation actions.

Australian coal fired power stations believe they should be compensated for the potential destruction of their value caused by the effective carbon tax, but their arguments are not gaining traction. The government argues that the environmental damage they have been doing has been well documented and should have been incorporated into their value. Australia has rejected the nuclear power generation option. While there will be considerable investment in solar and wind, Australia will need major investment in large base load stations. So in the absence of nuclear, we will need to rely on gas including coal gas, perhaps enhanced by solar. It is likely to be more expensive than coal, although coal is really the most expensive power source of all once you include the cost the carbon emissions.

But gas prices are anything but historically stable.

Coal shipment blocked in NZ

Greenpeace acts against NZ coal exportation.

See report from Scoop.

I don't want to give any undue credibility to Greenpeace. I have never had confidence in their technical capabilities, objectivity, assessment of credible risk or the tactics they employ to pursue various ends.

However, I would like to note how the focus is shifting to action against global consumption of coal. This ongoing shift is very interesting and tends to support what some are saying about backdoor conversations ongoing within such organisations.

Will the Rainbow Warrior be delivering transpacific spent nuclear fuel shipments?... Not likely. But I do believe it is very reasonable to expect the anti-nuclear rhetoric to slowly decay away.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Climate and Nuclear to test Rudd and Labor

Some tough decisions coming in the near future related to actions to address concerns about climate change as well as current government's stand on the NPT and Additional Protocols.

First Tim Colebatch filed a report in The Age noting government's tough decisions related to climate change. The report includes some interesting facts, such as arguments of the coal based generators for free emissions permits and why such 'give-aways' would do much more harm than good. Colebatch explains a bit of the obvious - that clean coal is in Australia's [and the world's] best interest. But Colebatch is an economics editor, and, sadly, no matter how much economic sense something may make, there has to be further consideration; such as previous technology performance, current state of development, realistic development horizon and the subsequent overriding risk to any reasonable deployment schedule.

Colebatch also mentions renewables, but fails to go the extra distance and mention their performance as currently deployed in Australia and overseas and how [as in required resources] that performance may be further expanded to address the greater issues of power quality, reliability and availability.

The report is a step in the right direction, but the discussion must be taken further. I am confident those in office are considering all options and agree with Colebatch's main theme - the upcoming decisions will be tough.

Another tough decision lies in government's stand on nuclear non-proliferation. In the Sydney Morning Herald, Anne Davies reports the USA may be asking Australia to provide assurances that it will not block potential nuclear power deals with India.

[T]he Bush Administration is expected to seek a promise from Australia that it will not vote against the Indian agreement in the Nuclear Suppliers' Group, in which it is one of 45 member states.

Given that the Indian Parliament has stalled signing the agreement for internal political reasons, Mr Rudd may stop short of giving a firm undertaking now.
I suspect this would be a particularly touchy subject for government at the moment; particularly if one examines Chapter 5 of the Labor party's National Platform and Constitution, 2007. Specifically, in clause 95 it states:

Labor will work towards:
  • tightening controls over the export of nuclear material and technology;
  • universalising of the IAEA additional protocol making it mandatory for all states and members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group to make adherence to the additional protocol a condition of supply to all their transfers;

Perhaps if someone can convince government to ignore or amend clause 95, some type of similar revision could be considered for clause 97 - just the second bullet only; a simple swap of the word 'prohibit' for 'facilitate'.

Friday, 21 March 2008


Provided you 'believe' emissions are a threat and should be cut; what does a 60% reduction of 1990 levels mean?

According to the Nation Master Database, current worldwide CO2 emissions are 22.8 billion-tonnes [excluding land use] per year. Discussing individual, national or state emissions does not seem to make much sense. If they go way down in one country, but shoot up on another, not much good will come of it.

The estimated global population is in the neighbourhood of 6.68 billion.

So the worldwide average annual per-person emissions are about 3.41 tonnes CO2 per year. I don't know what this figure was in 1990, but let's see what it would take to cut emissions worldwide by 60% of this more recent value.

To achieve this reduction, global emissions would come down to 9.04 billion-tonnes per year. However, the population is predicted to grow, and by 2050 should be about 9.40 billion. This means our per-person emissions must be around 0.96 tonnes per year.

So, on an individual basis that averages out to a 71.8% reduction.

At the moment [all in tonnes CO2 per person per year]

  • The USA spews 19.5
  • Australia is sitting pretty at 16.5
  • Russian Federation 10.7
  • Denmark 9.44
  • France 5.99
  • Sweden 5.4
  • China 2.66
  • India 0.93 (pretty much on target)

So to do our fair share - we'd have to cut from 16.5 down to 0.96 tonnes per-person per year. In per-person terms, that equates to a 94% reduction [from current levels]. The population of Australia is about 20.1 million but is estimated to be 28.2 million near 2050. So we have to achieve these cuts while accommodating 40.3% growth. It's an even greater challenge if one considers cuts from 1990 levels.

So, what does this work out to in bulk, Australian emissions cuts?

My math is:


The result is a 91.8% cut in total CO2 emissions. This is our fair share. I beleive this is why experts are calling for such aggressive cuts - includidng complete carbon neutrality.

This does not mean we will have to reduce our energy consumption by nearly 92%; only that we must dramatically cut our emissions and still maintain the same energy quality, reliability, safety and affordability. Efficiency, conservation, renewables [where the technologies are demonstrated and make sense to deploy], clean coal [I am being kind, but not hopeful], investing the emissions trading 'windfall'* into some aggressive emission reduction infrastructure such as no/low carbon public transport, and a lot of nuclear power can help achieve such an ambitious goal.

In case you were wondering; based on the numbers I've collected for this post, if Australia achieves a 60% reduction in bulk emissions, that will put us at about 4.7 tonnes per-person in 2050.

But we had better get started. Orders are backing up.

*[This 'windfall' is nothing more than a not-so-cleverly-disguised tax. All costs will be passed on to consumers by energy generators, farmers and other large commercial emitters required to purchase emissions credits.]

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Being the 'lucky country' won't save us from climate change

The Rudd Government must resist pressure to delay action on emissions.

Nice report from Kenneth Davidson in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Based on the most recent science, this [feasible time scale for clean coal] is too late. A report by the Australian Climate Group released this week, which was sponsored by the Insurance Australia Group, concluded immediate government action is needed. The situation is so grim that the Rudd Government should adopt measures to "stabilise national emissions by 2010".

The actuary of the group, Tony Coleman, is quoted as saying: "Insurers are familiar with managing risks to our community that are often quite uncertain and sometimes potentially catastrophic. Yet Australia is tolerating a level of climate change risk that would be unthinkable if the nation was held to the same standards that we apply to safeguard the survival of the insurers, banks and superannuation funds that we all depend upon in our daily lives. These levels of risk — 0.5% p.a. or less — are completely dwarfed by the risk levels to our way of life that are now reliably attributable to potentially catastrophic climate change impacts, unless we act with urgency to rapidly reduce greenhouse emissions."

Australia must face up to phasing out coal-fired generators. Geosequestration will be too late, [15 to 20 years reported] even if it can be done. Two proposed plants in North America have been scrapped before construction started, which suggests it can't.

Risk is something the nuclear industry knows a lot about. It's in the safety submissions, licensing documents, design documents, factored into transient analysis and cross-cut in more ways than I care to get into. In the late 1990's for example, the American nuclear industry and regulator implemented 'The Maintenance Rule'; a risk-informed approach to maintenance that did not treat all maintenance issues equally - but rather assessed them according to their impact on overall facility risk. This is just one example.

One other note on risk; the level of risk quoted above 0.5% per year [or 5 failures, losses, claims, etc. in every one-thousand years] would be totally unacceptable for a nuclear safety system. From my own experience, acceptable risk levels [core damage frequency] were on the order of 10^-6 per year [or one in a million years]. If 0.5% per year is "dwarfed" by climate change related risks, the math regarding nuclear - at around 0.0005% per year - is not too difficult.

As I've said before, once these issues [climate change, energy security, sustainability, etc.] get the serious attention of insurance companies and their actuaries, another advantage of nuclear energy will be put into perspective - risk awareness, assessment and management.

Look at the recent news; 'reliable baseload must be assured', 'price escalation foreseen', 'emissions must be cut', but how, how to get there? They are dancing all around it.

White elephant indeed.

"Nothing is more terrible than active ignorance."
- Goethe

Critique to the ABC

Sure politicians can spew hot air, but that doesn't mean it has to be reported.

Copy of a letter I sent to the ABC about this report on their website.
I am often disappointed by the ABC's recent reporting of nuclear power issues. The report (linked above) is an example. The statement from Greens MP Mark Parnell does not appear credible or relevant. Reputable scientists and engineers around the world have been pointing out for considerable time that Western designed reactors are not susceptible to Chernobyl-like accidents. To give this argument equal validity to the presentation of Prof. Lincoln is irresponsible journalism and does little to help Australia overcome the monumental energy related challenges that lay before us. Serving up Parnell as the reader’s the last word, further punctuates the claim – albeit erroneously.

Let the other guys worry about popularity, hit frequencies and revenue. Australia needs someone to be responsible. Maybe Nuclear can help Australia, maybe it can't - but at least do some homework and report on real opportunities and risks.

Holster the bias and stick to objective facts and credible opinion.

"Fear always springs from ignorance"
- Emerson

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Coal stations paid through emissions trade??

Coal stations table a scheme to keep them in business in the midst of a programme aimed at putting them out of business.

Not long at all after Federal Climate Change Minister Penny Wong announced the 2010 implementation of an Australian emissions trading scheme, Coal Stations from the Latrobe Valley [Victoria] extended their hands to the federal government for handouts that would be required to keep them viable.

The chief executive officer of Loy Yang Power, Ian Nethercote says if compensation is not provided, some of the smaller coal generating companies may become non-viable.

[Sorry, but I thought the whole point of an emissions trading system is to shift generation away from sources that contribute large emissions to those that don't.]

Maybe you believe the government should invest the funds collected through some type of trading programme into no/low emissions power production technologies. Or perhaps you prefer investing in research [into, say, clean coal, advanced solar thermal, geothermal technology, biomass, etc. But that research won't pay off in power production any time soon so there is risk that most of these monies will be essentially flushed]. Perhaps energy efficiency and/or conservation programmes float your boat. But to direct it to keeping coal stations financially viable [basically subsidising their purchase of more emissions credits]?? All those in favour?

I believe, according to plan, the market will work to ensure the resulting electricity is reliable, high quality, safely generated with minimum life-cycle costs and risks. And the government will not be picking any winners so long as we all agree not to mention the N-word in civil conversation.

Items of interest over the next 12 years:
  • cost of electricity
  • quality of service [frequency, magnitude and duration of power interruptions due to infrastructur stress]. Will we follow South Africa's lead or learn from their hard lessons?
  • total emissions from Australia and other countries [One must keep in context - other countries may have options Australia does not such as hydro, or importing no/low emissions power from neighbouring countries. Also, they may not have our 'vast solar and geothermal resources' either. All will be revealed in the fullness of time.]
  • planned / actual nuclear plant deployment around the world and the impacts on all of the above.


According to this report efforts to introduce seabed emission storage are to be pushed through federal government. Never mind the technology has not been demonstrated... but wait... the best part??

"Liability [against future leakage] is one of the key issues to be resolved," he [federal Energy Minister, Martin Ferguson] said.

The insurance industry has repeatedly said only the Federal Government can cover potential future liability of such a massive venture, a view shared by the NSW Energy Minister, Ian Macdonald, a strong supporter of clean coal.

"My personal position is it should be undertaken by the Commonwealth given the length of storage time," he said.

[Hold on a sec. I thought federal insurance guarantees were a bad thing?]

And finally...

"The design of the [emissions trading] scheme is the most important challenge, I consider, of the Government's first term," Mr Ferguson said, "My portfolio is the most exposed if we don't get this right."

Meaning the federal Energy Minister is personally, heavily invested in the Australian coal industry? Wouldn't that be a conflict of interest?

Monday, 17 March 2008

Energy 'collapse' will force nuclear use, says expert

A professor of geology has warned there will be no option other than embracing nuclear power in Australia when other energy sources collapse.

Full Report from the ABC.
Professor Ian Plimer from Adelaide University predicts a rapid change of opinion towards nuclear.

"If people start dying in hospitals because there's no electricity, if people can't get water because there's no electricity to pump water from dams, if people can't keep their food cool because there's no electricity for refrigeration, then I think there'll be a very, very, very rapid change of opinion."
He's making these comments during the Paydirt 2008 Uranium conference in Adelaide.

But it that's what it takes to turn Australia on to nuclear power, it could end up being a very stressful time. There's precedence already in South Africa - where after years of inaction, rolling blackouts are doing just what the professor states above - changing minds on a spot.

Nuclear's not suited for reactive, populist policy making. It performs much better through deliberate, interim- to longer-term planning [ex. the approaches taking place in several European nations like the UK, Finland, France and most probably several others].

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Comment on an ABC report

I posted the below comment to this ABC News report about the UK's consideration of a new coal station.

Australia could work to further educate itself and embrace the nuclear fuel cycle. Exaggerated hype and outright hysteria have prevented the objective consideration of a technology that is deployable today. Western designed nuclear power plants have demonstrated themselves capable of producing massive amounts of reliable, 24-7, high quality and safe electricity at per-kilowatt lifecycle emissions capable of achieve significant reduction targets. The complete elimination of all nuclear power plants on earth would have little impact on nuclear non-proliferation. And there is no data to suggest that new nuclear power programmes in Australia would detract from ongoing global non-proliferation activities in any way. It is impossible to make a nuclear weapon from the enrichments used in commercial nuclear power.

Australia may only emit less than 2% of total global emissions, but we are still one of the top emitters. However, per person, (as Garnaut rightly portrays) Australia is at the top. This fact, combined with our generally comfortable lifestyle, make it difficult to convince other top emitters (India and China who already have per person emissions well below Australia) to forgo opportunities to improve life for their citizens for the sake of global emissions reductions others seem unwilling to make. Therefore we have a moral imperative to lead this effort beyond being significantly vulnerable to the physical phenomena predicted to result from climate change itself.

With the intelligent deployment of renewables (wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, tidal and hydro if more hydro is feasible), aggressive energy efficiency and conservation programmes, forward looking policies to optimise land use and public transport; nuclear power can work in Australia to achieve the goals that are being discussed in, for example, Garnaut's preliminary report. Without it (in fact without applying all available solutions) we don't seem to stand much of a chance. The IPCC and other scientists and organisations are consistently under predicting climate change, ice melts, impacts on food prices and general resource availability. It may be time for Australia to start thinking (and acting) outside the box.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

The NationMaster Database

Another fantastic source of data and statistics.

The NationMaster database has just found its way onto my favourites list. The statistics page is the best I've seen for country to country comparisons in a variety of categories and draws its data from such sources as the CIA World Factbook, UN and OECD. Users can generate maps and graphs on all kinds of statistics with ease.

The data can be cross-cut in just about any way imaginable; per-capita, per unit GDP, imports, exports etc. The people behind this site have obviously put in considerable effort to produce a powerful tool. Another set of data that I enjoy is nuclear power capacity per person, or who has wrapped their arms around nuclear power the most. My guess would have been France... but alas, no. They've been just nosed out by the Swedes.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Political Alignment

The week before last, Brendan Nelson announced the Opposition was abandoning its support for nuclear energy in Australia. But did this announcement achieve its intended goal?

Well, it got the Opposition in the news. Not much can achieve that goal more effectively in Australia than making a policy announcement including the 'N'-word.

Ziggy Switkowski called the decision pragmatic and with this I agree. As long as there is an active pro-nuclear party; irrational arguments against the technology are able to find some purpose. Now that Australia has practically no pro-nuclear political advocates, those anti-nuclear arguments can work their course and Australia can get down to the serious business of proving aggressive emissions reduction targets are impossible without nuclear energy. I see no other way to educate the Australia public. Now that both sides of the political spectrum are aligned on nuclear power's future in Australia, we can come to our collective senses together.

Look for 'loud and proud' announcements of wind farms, solar voltaic / thermal plants, geo-thermal projects, bio-fuels plants and investments in clean coal research. But don't be surprised to learn of quietly commissioned coal stations to provide the reliable, high quality energy Australia needs to sustain itself - coupled, of course, with international scrutiny from organisations tracking the subsequent emissions.