Saturday, 31 May 2008

Nuclear energy for mitigation as well as adaptation

In an article titled Squaring up to Reality in Nature Reports, an online outlet of the journal Nature, Martin Parry, Jean Palutikof, Clair Hanson and Jason Lowe discuss the risks, realities and likely outcomes of different emission reduction scenarios.

Nature is a well respected scientific magazine. Martin Parry, Jean Palutikof and Clair Hanson led the impacts assessment for the IPCC, as co-chair, head and deputy head, respectively, of the Technical Support Unit of Working Group II. Jason Lowe is a climate scientist in the UK Met Office and provided the underlying scenarios used in the report.

When they discuss countries most likely to be impacted by climate change...?
We are now probably witnessing the first genuinely global effects of greenhouse gas warming. The steep increases in food prices around the world are the result of rising costs and demand aggravated by drought in food-producing regions — in the case of Australia, probably due in part to global warming — and by a poorly conceived experiment in climate policy that has converted cropland to bio-fuel plantations. This should serve as a wake-up call: impacts of climate change can surprise us, especially when they act in combination with other pressures.
Carbon emission reductions of 50–80% below 1990 levels are considered, but what interests me most is their call for a blend of mitigation as well as adaptation - specifically to meet global water needs. Even with a 50% reduction by 2050, 1 billion people will be without water. 80% cuts will half that number, but clearly adaptation measures are needed as well as those to mitigate, or achieve the cuts in the first place.

I have invested a large quantity of keystrokes discussing nuclear power's potential role to help Australia satisfy no/low carbon energy demands and, with other technologies and programmes, meet the relevant emission reduction targets. However, I have not spent much time on nuclear power's role in adaptation.

Nuclear desalination is the first application that springs to mind. According to the WNA, there are currently around 12,500 desalination plants operating today producing 30 million m3/day of potable water. Most of these energy intensive plants rely on fossil fuels, but there are nuclear desalination plants operating in Kazakhstan, India and Japan. In total these plants have over 150 reactor years of experience.

Sydney Water's desalination project in Kurnell, NSW is promoting itself as 100 percent renewable powered. But if you watch their promotional video you will see this argument is made by saying new wind-farms will be built with at least as much capacity as that required to operate the desalination plant. These wind turbines will supply energy to the national grid and the desalination plant will draw energy from this grid. I don't want to bash wind. However, the potential for energy executives and politicians to 'double-dip' may be too tempting to resist. For example: if, during the new windfarm's ribbon cutting ceremony the turbines are heralded as boosting the countries commitment to emissions reductions - but then all this capacity is required to operate the new desalination plant down the road - which emissions have been reduced?

Reverse osmosis [the technology being implemented by Sydney Water] draws 4–6 kW per cubic metre of water produced. Per the project approval document, the capacity is to be 500,000 m3/day. That's about 100 MWe per hour of electrical power. This power could be supplied by around 50 largish wind turbines if/when the wind is blowing at the design velocity. More turbines [or other sources of energy] would be required when the wind is light. I believe this is the plan being promoted by Sydney Water.

An alternate approach would be to co-locate nuclear power and desalination plants on the Australian coast. In this case the desalination plant uses the excess power available during off-peak times of the day/week since most if not all nuclear plant operators prefer to run the plants at full capacity around the clock. It's another energy strategy for consideration. The wind turbines would still be built and together with nuclear power, they could actually displace some carbon emissions while improving overall energy [as well as water] quality and reliability.

One-hundred MWe is about 6–10% of a large modern nuclear power plant's capacity. Water generating capacity could go well beyond the planned capacity for Kurnell should Australia need significantly more water to, for example, shore up the beleaguered agriculture industry.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Sane perspective from the media

Today, the Sydney Morning Herald contains a very sane opinion piece from Michael Duffy.

Duffy puts forward many arguments that can be found repeatedly in this blog and several others concerning nuclear power's role as a mitigating technology to address the challenges associated with carbon emission reduction in the context of increasing global energy demand.
The clash between symbolism and substance affects a lot of the environmental debate, none more so than where nuclear power is concerned. The almost blanket rejection of it by most political and environmental leaders in Australia is puzzling. I know nuclear power is risky, but those risks need to be compared with the risks posed by climate change.

And these risks are being objectively compared in numerous countries around the world. Nuclear programs have been taking off for some time now in China. However, the acceleration of the global shift toward nuclear power has been continuously increasing. Projects have been kicked of in the USA, the UK is looking at new build programs, just weeks after announcing a move to 'clean coal' the Netherlands is now also looking to nuclear, and finally just days ago, Italy announced plans to reverse a public referendum against nuclear power on following the high profile nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

Meanwhile, in Australia, we are grappling with the conundrum of life where all of Kevin Rudd's [and the Labor party's] environmental related campaign promises have been fulfilled; but still falling well short of meaningful emissions related targets. We've signed up to Kyoto, it looks as if we will achieve a 20% renewables target [although this is not certain] and a carbon trading scheme should be a reality by 2010. BUT, all these together will fall well short of the 60% [now being upped to 80%] cut in global emissions by 2050. There's also been considerable chatter of real-world challenges that could seriously dilute benefits of the aforementioned plans [protection to fossil fuel plants, whether to include petrol emissions in the scheme, etc.]. The magnitude of these challenges in a mutually inclusive, broader context is considerable.

We are making strides in the right direction. If we remain on the current course, we will still fail; albeit not so pitifully. If we are lucky we may be able to achieve 1990 emission levels once again, but any real decrease from those levels - as we are told is required - is a pipe dream - even according to government.

The sane consideration of nuclear power within Australia - as well as dramatically increasing exports of uranium; and even possible domestic enrichment, fuel fabrication and waste management industries - could have a significant impact on global goals to reduce emissions. These are all do-able projects. General Electric's development of Australia's own innovative laser enrichment technology is progressing very positively within the United States. A joint business adventure between GE and an Australian firm here, is not so far-fetched. Nuclear plant licensing times could be shortened in Australia - particularly if our licensing process is linked with other regulatory bodies in nations much further down the nuclear path [UK, USA, France, etc.]. Again, there is precedence within the recent ARPANSA approval of the OPAL restart submission. ARPANSA contracted external expertise to peer-review the technical details of the submission. The fuel and waste management industries could also be developed following objective reviews of the available technologies and risks. While Yucca Mountain looks to be dieing a slow death - other repositories are either in service, or progressing with very favourable public support. The lesson learned with Yucca Mountain being to let the science decide the location as opposed to taking a convenient location and trying to make the science fit. This challenge is described quite well by Cravens.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Four Mile uranium mine a step closer

An application has been lodged to develop the Four Mile uranium deposit in South Australia, The Age reports.

South Australian Premier Mike Rann said a mine at Four Mile would not rival the Olympic Dam (polymetallic) ore body in size, but the grade of uranium ore was up to 10 times better.

"The Four Mile deposit, which was discovered just back in 2005, is considered one of the most significant uranium discoveries anywhere in the world in the last 25 years — the biggest find since Olympic Dam," he said.

A huge increase in Australia's uranium exports is expected in coming decades if the world accepts greenhouse gas reduction targets endorsed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Under conservative emission targets, Australia by 2030 could be selling almost three times more uranium than now, with the number of nuclear power reactors worldwide growing from 439 to 960.

The mine at Four Mile would be about 10 kilometres north-west of the Beverley mine and use the same processing facilities. It is planned to be working by 2010 and employ 200 people.

Uranium exploration has boomed in the past year, driven by higher world prices and federal Labor's decision in April last year to abolish its three-mine policy.

The Queensland and West Australian governments have retained a ban on uranium exploration.

A fourth Australian mine, Honeymoon in South Australia, is expected to start production this year and there are plans to expand the existing Olympic Dam and Ranger uranium production operations.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

ANSTO Chief Executive to leave the organisation

Dr. Ian Smith - ANSTO

In a statement released today by ANSTO, Dr. Ian Smith announced that he has not accepted an extension to his four year contract and will instead return to New Zealand to pursue a non-executive career.

Dr. Ron Cameron, currently Chief of Operations, has been appointed interim Chief Executive Officer while the board conducts a worldwide search for Dr. Smith's replacement. That process is expected to take some months to complete.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Vietnam progresses down the nuclear path

In regional news, Vietnam is looking to install several nuclear plants in the coming decades. An investment plan is being developed for submission later this year. Construction of Vietnam's first nuclear plant is planned for 2012-14 with operation to commence prior to 2020 in the central Ninh Thuan province. In parallel the government is working on legislation to create legal foundation for the construction of the plant.

The national electricity body, EVN is planning to construct 3 nuclear power plants with a total capacity of approximately 4,000 MWe. In addition to the 3 nukes, 25 other large plants are planned by EVN to add a total of 33,200 MWe.

Vietnam is already in the midst of an energy expansion program. 45 power stations are currently under construction around the country. The output of these stations, all to be operational by decade's end, is 14.6 MWe.

More information may be found here.

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.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

OPAL submission approved by ARPANSA

Australia's OPAL reactor

After a reactor shutdown of just over 9 months, ARPANSA, the nuclear regulatory body within Australia, has issued a press release announcing the approval of the submissions package provided by ANSTO the operator of the recently constructed and commissioned OPAL research reactor near Sydney.

The approval is only for fuel supplied by the French fuel supplier CERCA - a subsidiary of the nuclear behemoth AREVA.

ANSTO staff will be required to perform additional tests and inspections on the fuel. They have six months to develop a program of work to characterise more fully the vibrational and other forces acting on the fuel plates and other structures in the core. This program is to be submitted to the regulatory body for approval.

ANSTO shall complete a detailed design review of the fuel within two years.

ANSTO has to amend the fuel specification to include a test of 1 in 20 fuel assemblies for longitudinal strength.

Additional information

The ARPANSA press release is here.

A significantly more detailed ARPANSA document - their official reply to ANSTO may be found here.