Sunday, 6 April 2008

Australia's uniqueness

Why am I always going on about climate, when this is supposed to be a discussion about nuclear power in Australia?

Simply put, I see no reason for Australia to adopt nuclear power except as part of a broader set of solutions to address high emissions linked to climate change.

I was reminded of this once again as I perused the slides that will frame the upcoming 2020 summit, of particular relevance to this blog is that of Population, Sustainability, Climate Change, Water And The Future Of Our Cities. Our coal reserves are 9% of the world total (pg.6, slide 5). My understanding is that this coal - particularly for domestic, mouth-of-the-mine applications - is dirt-cheap and enough to last us for quite some time. With the possible exception of some limited hydro applications that have already been exploited, there hasn't been nor isn't now, much economic justification for the deployment of any other power source.

Enter an emissions restrained world.

Now, if we are to meet the emissions targets being discussed, some significant change is required and in all likelihood that change looks to be expensive.

While many technologies are being promoted as such, I see no silver bullet - but I see a role for each.

Solar hot water, home/building insulation, CFLs/natural lighting, improved automobile fuel economy, improved efficiency for major appliances and industry are the no-brainers as far as I am concerned.

Wind has been demonstrated as a credible energy option, but there are related intermittency and overbuild requirements [If you want to generate 100MWe on average over a year, you must construct about 300MWe capacity] that must be factored in to any consideration. I believe many more wind generators will be commissioned in Australia and around the world where it makes economic sense to do so and where locals don't become upset over view obstruction or other impact such as that on birds - arguments that I do not comprehend. Windmills have existed for ages in the Netherlands. Tourists flock there to photograph them with the tulips in the foreground and they still have birds there...

Solar thermal plant construction and operating and maintenance experience is being accumulated and - I understand - looks positive for future applications. However, I do not believe this is certain and again there are the intermittency and overbuild constraints shared with wind. These again will be deployed where it makes sense to do so. However, this technology is behind the curve with respect to wind.

Bio-mass is there, especially for transport, but must be weighed against any possible impact on the global food supply-chain as well as any land use constraints which could partially negate some of the derived value.

Geothermal is in use elsewhere around the world, but some development work remains to be completed for its large/industrial scale use in Australia.

There are other technologies that are very early in the development stage or otherwise have limited deployment in Australia [algae based bio-mass, tidal]. Carbon-capture is the great hope, but there are no assurances the technology will work or most importantly be economically justifiable.

Photovoltaic solar involves toxic heavy metals and is - to date - prohibitively expensive.

Nuclear power is demonstrated around the world. It is safe, reliable and continuous. But it involves an enormous infrastructure, resource and time commitment.

How do 21 million [and increasing] people justify such a commitment?

On this same slide I reference above, the summit topic is framed as follows:

Australia's creativity, strong science base, agile economy and renewable resources, including sunshine, "hot rocks", wind and bio-resources, provide enormous capacity for a shift towards a lower greenhouse footprint.

Clean coal technology could have a profound impact on Australia's emissions and economy. Further development of carbon, capture and storage (CCS) technology will enable us to reduce our carbon footprint and to maintain our significant coal exports in a carbon constrained world.

Many countries are re-thinking the acceptability of nuclear power in light of climate change. Australia has a large share of the world's uranium and a role to play within appropriate safeguards.

I note with some reserved delight that the nuclear related comments are fairly lukewarm. I believe there could be a role for nuclear power in Australia. But many challenges with respect to the resource and infrastructure development prerequisites are uniquely Australian.

Many other countries can back each other up on a regional basis. So when the wind in one country ebbs; nuclear, hydro and unfortunately fossil fuels from neighbours can [and do] back them up. Conversely, when demand drops the nuclear plants can 'dump' power to their neighbours at next-to-nothing prices to avoid shutting down. See the transmission flows from the EU below. The EU has the highest nuclear density [NuclearMWe/squar km] of any region in the world. [Fat arrows mean greater energy flow]

European annual electricity flow (imports and exports)

Australia however must be fully self-sufficient. The references made to France [at least from within Australia] are not completely relevant. While French references do make several good cases for nuclear power in general [safety, closed fuel cycle, more standardised design, etc.] - and France does well with respect to per-capita emissions compared to their peers, Australia would be quite challenged to approach the 80% nuclear electric capacity enjoyed by France.

Nuclear plants are designed to operate at 100%. They are not load following facilities but are suited for baseload applications. They should be started and operated continuously for about 2 years and then shutdown for a month or two for maintenance. There are sometimes unplanned maintenance outages or plant trips during such a cycle that can have a plant down for a few days to a couple of weeks - but these are typical of any generating facility anywhere.

A related danger is that if one country [in the European case above] fails to develop their electricity generation infrastructure, again they have neighbours to come to the rescue [consider Italy above - all the big arrows point IN]. South Africa would be a much better case study for Australia in this regard. They are lacking this backstop option and - having failed to ensure adequate capacity reserves are undergoing considerable strife.

I do not see us achieving France's level of nuclear commitment, but several reactors around each of the major urban centres is feasible. I also believe our elected and industry leaders are fully aware of the events in South Africa and seeking feasible options to avoid an Australian repeat of the situation. So, after all this; is there a role for nuclear in Australia? I still come to yes - provided we are serious about reducing emissions.

I am confident that the discussion above [and much more] was investigated to a significantly more detailed level in the 2007 UPNER report. The results seem fairly consistent. It seems as if similar discussion may take place during the upcoming Summit. I certainly see more uranium mining in Australia's future - but I suspect that's just the start.

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