Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Our impressively nuclear neighbours

Last week Reuters reported the start of the 912 megawatt Tomari-3 reactor in Japan's far north. According to the IAEA PRIS database, construction of this reactor began on 18-November-2004. So the duration of this project was roughly 5 years. The reactor went critical back in March and has been in commissioning since that time according to WNN. Different media reports state that this is the first new reactor to come into service in Japan for 3 years, that it will cut Japan's carbon-dioxide emissions by 20% of 1990 levels and that this is the last Gen II reactor planned. All future reactors are to be Gen III or beyond. This plant has received approval to irradiate MOX fuel.

Also in the news is Korea's win of a UAE power reactor project (US $20 bn for 4 reactors, with the possibility for $20 bn more in the future) as well as a US $173 million new research reactor project in Jordan.

Seems as if the nuclear business continues to thrive in Asia - and is quite lucrative at that.


Australia's total coal exports for 2008-09 were $54.6 bn (~ US $50 bn) according to DFAT. This was an increase of 123.6% from the previous year. [Regarding the politicising of efforts to cut emissions and the impact on Australia's coal industry, I would be thrilled if we could just get to zero growth.]

Our uranium exports totalled $990 million, up 11.6% from the previous year. Ranking number 28 of all Australian exports, uranium sales contribute 0.4% of our total export revenue. [Coal is ranked number 1 and accounts for 23.7% of all exports.]

An endless coal train (~100 tonnes per car)

In 2009, a growing number of high profile media reports highlighted Australia's high per-capita carbon emissions.

Australian emissions were fairly unfazed by the GFC due to increasing demand and the decline in renewables generation with falling Snowy Hydro output (the result of prolonged drought). [The growth in other renewables sectors, efficiency or conservation programmes will have to accelerate to account for the fall in hydro generation before they will displace any emissions from fossil generation.]

4,000 MWe of fossil fuelled generation in being progressed in NSW.

sus·tain·able (sə stān′ə bəl) adjective
1. capable of being sustained
2. a) designating, of, or characterized by a practice that sustains a given condition, as economic growth or a human population, without destroying or depleting natural resources, polluting the environment, etc. sustainable agriculture
2. b) governed or maintained by, or produced as a result of, such practices sustainable growth

Friday, 11 December 2009

OECD - Nuclear Energy in Perspective

The OECD has released an informative nuclear energy summary, Nuclear Energy and Addressing Climate Change. The document is only 8 pages (with figures and tables), but it efficiently addresses the following questions:

  • Does nuclear power produce CO2 emissions?

  • To what extent is nuclear energy used now?

  • Can nuclear power capacity be expanded quickly?

  • Are supplies of nuclear fuel adequate?

  • What about safety, waste and proliferation concerns?

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Action (and nuclear) still required

As reported by the ABC, a typical Australian emits more carbon than any other person in the developed world. We are setting a very dangerous example and worse providing very low hanging fruit for any country or political leader seeking justification to strive for our comfortable lifestyle via increased emissions. We have a moral and ethical obligation to take significant action to reduce our emissions, in addition to the climate signals repeatedly knocking on our door.

From an April 2007 UN meeting (What's happened since then?)

The ABC report does contain some seemingly good news; that emissions have dipped slightly due to the financial crisis. However, this may provide a false sense of security and is certainly no cause for celebration for anyone expecting serious cuts by 2020, 2030 and/or 2050.

Emissions per unit GDP (carbon intensity) is another relevant metric. According to the US Government, Energy Information Administration, Australia / New Zealand’s carbon intensity ranks third in the OECD (behind Canada and South Korea). One wonders how Australia’s ranking would move if we were judged on our own. Carbon intensity is dropping, but if tangible action is not completed to reduce it further along with emission cuts per capita (i.e. if ‘real’ emissions are not cut considerably), any economic recovery will stress the climate via emissions increases.

If one reviews the two tables within the EIA page linked above, it can be seen that emissions per unit GDP continue to decrease – China and India are the best performers, as one would hope. However, emissions per person actually increase out to 2030 – here China is the worst performer and Australia/New Zealand only drops by 0.2%. However, both GDP and population increase over that time. Therefore, real emissions will increase in Australia and around the world; which in turn will lead to climate disaster according to Hansen, Brook and many, many others.

And there is tangible evidence that our real emissions will indeed rise. It can’t be any clearer than the two large fossil energy projects currently proposed in NSW. If these plants go forward, it will mark a significant failure to seriously cut Australian emissions. Their mere proposal should be a wake up call to anyone genuinely interested in climate change, emission cuts or Australian leadership in the upcoming climate negotiations. Australian energy policy falls short of delivering the energy security our economy requires and emission reductions we are obligated to achieve; for Australians at home and the world at large.

A serious national debate on holistic approaches to significantly cut our emissions is desperately needed. The debate must go beyond the fulfilment of campaign promises and it must recognise and address the risks posed from climate change – particularly for Australia. These risks must be compared in an objective and balanced context against those of nuclear power.

For example, climate scientist and blogger Prof Barry Brook is linking recent weather events to climate change. Consider that just one Australian bushfire resulted in over 3 times the fatalities than the immediate impact of the worst ever nuclear accident at Chernobyl (a flawed design that would never be built today). Furthermore, within a typical 5 year period, deaths from coal mining accidents in China alone exceed the projected long term death count from Chernobyl. One must question the true aim of modern anti-nuclear campaigners who seemingly care about public safety at home or abroad.

Nuclear waste issues are indeed a challenge that must be addressed, but the world has repeatedly demonstrated the ease of storing high level spent waste in interim facilities until permanent solutions can be implemented. The good news here is that there is really no rush, unlike action to curb emissions which is becoming more urgent with the passage of time. There is also the very real possibility that spent nuclear fuel could be consumed as a fuel source in fourth generation reactors.

Certainly, proliferation must be managed. This need has been recognised by both the Rudd and Obama administrations, among others. Collaborative efforts have been stepped up in recent years as has the IAEA budget in line with calls for enhanced nuclear security by IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei. Again, fourth generation reactors include a prerequisite design criteria to mitigate proliferation risk through either the consumption of plutonium or the blending of high radiation fission products into the fuel to make physical protection an inherent property of the fuel.

Economic anti-nuclear arguments (too expensive, too long) often conviently assume nuclear as a stand-alone emissions reduction technology as opposed to one of a suite of technologies deployed in parallel between now and 2050. In Australia, we have been led to believe we are ‘blessed’ with renewable, conservation and efficiency options that are more rapidly and more cost effectively deployed. Great! Then deploy them and let’s get those two fossil projects in NSW cancelled.

Without tangible evidence that non-nuclear actions will achieve the necessary cuts, the allocation of additional resources to the problem is justified. There is evidence from, say large renewable deployment efforts in Europe, to suggest a non-nuclear strategy challenges the ability of a nation to achieve significant emissions cuts (see this story on anti-nuclear Austria’s Kyoto target performance vs. its EU peers).

With respect to the timing, there is additional evidence that nuclear project implementation performance improves with experience. Citing the current projects in Finland and France is counterproductive since they are early implementations of a First-of-a-kind third generation design. As experience is gained, the implementation of this design will improve just as second generation design project performance has over the past few decades, particularly in Korea and Japan. For more details on modern nuclear plant construction – refer to this post.

The justification to keep nuclear power off the table in Australia is simply not there. In fact there is considerable, objective evidence to the contrary.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Non-proliferation and the US nuclear waste fund


Australia continues to refuse to export uranium to India, citing a longstanding policy that any country wishing to import Australian Uranium must, as a prerequisite, be party to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). This policy and the NPT are manifestations of the universal acceptance of the risk posed by the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Conversely, Australia freely exports coal to India among other countries. We are the world's #1 coal exporter (fossil fuel based emission proliferator?) - by far.

Share of coal exports (Australian Coal Association)

Why the double standard? Obviously there is no universally accepted acknowledgment of risk posed from the ongoing reliance on fossil fuels.

What is that? "If Australia doesn't sell the coal, then Indonesia or some other supplier will?"

But North Korea has been accused of assisting Syria in its attempts to develop non-peaceful nuclear technologies. If that is so, shouldn't the US, Russia, France, the UK and/or China be rushing into the nuclear weapons market? Aren't we all just in this for the economic sustainability??

Certainly NOT. At some point, something must trump raw and unmitigated financial gain.

The nuclear waste fund

In the USA, a fraction of one cent per KW of nuclear generated electricity consumed is applied to a nuclear waste fund. This scheme was developed to ensure customers of utilities relying on nuclear generation technology assume responsibility for the final disposition of that industry's waste. It is one of many examples of a user-pays solution to a technical problem.

One could make the 'no solution yet' point with respect to nuclear waste, but first consider my post on nuclear vs. fossil waste. At least nuclear power in the USA has a reserve of cash to apply to the challenge (and my hope is that this 'waste' is recognised as a valuable fuel for the next generation of reactors).

But no such approach yet exists for the minimisation, control or disposition of fossil fuel waste; despite the massive external costs society is shouldering from our reliance on it, according to consistent studies in Australia, the USA and Europe.

Consistent, objective quantification and management of risk

As I interpret Prof. Jim Hansen's recent presentation, the risks from our use of fossil fuels exceed those of nuclear weapons proliferation. This is because even if nuclear weapons proliferate to every corner of the globe, there is no guarantee they will be used. In such a perverse hypothetical, one could even make a large scale deterrent argument. Let me be clear, I am not advocating any reduction in global nuclear non-proliferation efforts. My point is that scientific consensus assures us that a certain degree of climate change is already 'in the pipeline' due to the inertia from past and current emissions. And if the use of fossil fuel technologies is allowed to continue - or worse - to proliferate further; the world will suffer the following consequences according to Hansen:

  • Ice Sheet Collapse,
  • Mass Extinctions,
  • Methane Clathrate Instability
  • Economic and Social Chaos
  • Runaway greenhouse warming

I read Hansen's presentations, letters and other writings as a call for a global fossil fuel technology non-proliferation treaty, in particular coal (zero new plants without co-deployed carbon capture and storage). Considering the magnitude of the risks, how can one attempt to justify lesser actions, to postpone action or to greenwash the status quo?

In his presentation, Hansen cites the need for a modern day Winston Churchill. This reminds me of the James Freeman Clarke quote, "A politician thinks of the next election. A statesman, of the next generation." ( Australian, the next poll?)


Nonsense. What about the jobs worldwide related to the production, maintenance and security of nuclear weapons? Does anyone want to step forward to defend them as a counter argument for the NPT? What about jobs in the global tobacco industry (farmers, tobacco product manufacturers, the global supply chain, retailers, vending machines, etc.)? Do we consider them when taxes are applied to the sale of tobacco products to offset external (healthcare) costs or laws are passed to restrict the ability to smoke in public places? Probably, but the offsetting risks are far more significant.

Fossil fuels are a carcinogen for our planet; literally as described in the studies linked above.

Furthermore, if all coal plants not employing CCS are to be completely phased out by 2030, a massive infrastructure development program will be required, especially in Australia with our 80% reliance on coal based electricity production had heavy reliance on non-sustainable, fossil fueled transport. We are already seeing job creation in the renewable energy market (solar hot water, home insulation, and wind farm deployment). This will have to continue and be significantly accelerated toward a scale that will allow the shift away from fossil fuels. And that means Australia's serious consideration of nuclear power as part of an internationally binding legal commitment to cut emissions as required to support a global 350 ppm scenario.

Fee and Dividend

Hansen's advocacy for a fee and dividend strategy can be compared with America's nuclear waste fund. Critics are quick to mock Hansen's idea and fear monger voters by labelling it a 'tax'. Okay then, let's cart out the bogyman, call the nuclear waste fund a 'tax', eliminate it and allow the market to subsequently solve the problems related to nuclear power's external costs since the example set to date by the fossil industry is so stellar.

Far from a simple tax, fee and dividend is a user pays system. Where those whose lifestyle is more carbon intensive, pay for the impact of the subsequent waste. Those with a leaner carbon lifestyle will be financially rewarded for their efforts and encouraged to further develop their good habits.

I don't want to repeat the detailed mechanism of fee and dividend. See the links above and below for that information. To understand the differences between fee and dividend and cap and trade, please see the video below. I do prefer fee and dividend to cap and trade because it applies a significant price incentive directly at the consumer level, helping motivate the large scale behavioral changes necessary to achieve aggressive emission reductions worldwide.

I will repeat Hansen's warnings about cap and trade. His concerns include the flow of money to carbon permit traders and the virtual locking in of the status quo / business as usual scenario - particularly if free permits are issued. In such a situation, permit traders have a cash incentive to prolong the transition to low emissions and ensure emissions never fall below the caps (else the permit market could collapse). This concern was echoed in a post by Steve Kirsch at BraveNewClimate. That post included the below video made by two attorneys working for the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Prof. James Hansen - back online

Following a few surgeries to address prostate cancer, Dr Hansen has returned to the online community. On November 6 he posted a summary of his activities over the past few months. He remained impressively active during his recovery; finishing a book, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity to be released December 8. He also gave a presentation in the Netherlands last month. As is his style, the full presentation and elaborated commentary may be found on his website. It's 18 pages in total and includes persuasive climate data and calls for action that include:

  • No new Coal Stations without carbon capture and storage.
  • Total phase-out of coal by 2030
  • Putting a price on carbon (fee and dividend approach)
  • Setting / improving energy efficiency standards
  • Deploying more renewable technologies (solar, wind, geothermal, biomass)
  • Deploying 3rd and 4th generation nuclear
  • Carbon capture and storage (used aggressively with biofuels)

Hansen also discussed his planned participation in a student led public action in Boston, USA. In this case, the action was a 'sleep-out' outside the Massachusetts State House, by students who refuse to sleep in dorms/apartments powered by coal-fired electricity. They weren't blaming the State government, but are looking for government leadership to solve the problem. Hansen, a world renowned scientist and author anticipated the possibility of getting into a bit of trouble with the law (a minor misdemeanor) and possibly paying a US $50 fine.

A few comments on the above summary.

First I'm delighted to learn the surgery went well, that Hansen is cancer free and his post-op recovery is complete. I wish him all the best and many more years to enjoy the company of his grandchildren and to defend their future.

Next, I note the inclusion of 3rd generation nuclear in Hansen's list of energy deployment options. I believe this is somewhat new compared to, say; his letter to the Obama's where he advocated the expedited development and deployment of Gen-4 designs. This is more evidence of the increasing trend of prominent environmentalists' calls for increased nuclear energy technology deployment. Stuart Brand's recent book being another.

Also, a comment on what I did not include above. Hansen lists a number of serious challenges to achieve the technically feasible - 350 ppm scenario. Most of these are linked to the significant influence of lobbyists and special interests (i.e. the large amount of money spent by the fossil fuel industry to sustain the status quo). He also criticises political green-washing and rhetoric, noting the significant divide between what he believes must be done and reality (for example, consider various Australian political and 'green' leaders who make claims about Australia being 'blessed with plentiful renewable resources' while coal stations continue to be deployed). Shameful - and worse - harmful distractions to tangible action toward real solutions.

Finally, I applaud Hansen's passion and full-throttle action; participating in the public action mentioned above, as well as his defence of the UK protest by the Kingsnorth 6 among others. I give him at least partial credit for my own participation in the day of action last month. I think I surprised the organiser who walked buy with a pamphlet asking if I understood what the action was about. Needless to say, he saved the material for another participant. It wasn't much, but it seemed noticeably more significant than sitting here, authoring a simple blog post.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Fossil fuel waste vs nuclear waste

Joseph Romm's recent post at the Energy Collective references this report from the National Research Council on the impact of fossil fuel use. The report works to monetise the impact and Romm quotes US $120 Billion annual cost from the use of fossil fuel in America. And that does not include damages from climate change, harm to ecosystems, effects of some air pollutants such as mercury, and risks to national security, which the report examines but does not monetize.

US $120 Billion annual impact - just in the USA. And it's supposed to get much worse by 2030.

Comparing this to - say - the cost of the Yucca Mountain project, or other back-end fuel cycle management options such as the Integral Fast Reactor or other Gen-IV designs being developed to consume rather than sacrifice the energy remaining in nuclear waste - the cost of nuclear waste management appears to be a much easier pill to swallow. This NY Times article quotes the current cost of Yucca Mountain at just over US $10 Billion and the entire nuclear waste fund at US $22 Billion (after 40 years of commercial nuclear power in the USA).

One can imagine the thought of 100% internalisation of waste costs to the fossil fuel energy industry is just a bit unsettling to a fair few boardrooms around Australia and around the World. Perhaps some corporate attention will be (is being?) invested to resist calls to internalise such costs.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

4,000 MWe Fossil for NSW

Hat tip to Rising Tide Australia.

Further evidence that saying no to nuclear, results in more fossil fueled power plants. The NSW Planning website contains project concepts for 4,000 MWe of electricity generation capacity in the form of:

2,000 MWe Bayswater B Power Station

2,000 MWe Mount Piper Power Station Extension

The above links will direct you to the online submission web pages. If you've got something to say, submissions close October 26.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Dr Jim Green's reply

Precisely 30 months and 1 day ago, I published my thoughts about Dr Jim Green and Friends of the Earth. Today, I am very please to have received the below reply.

Jim Green said...

hi, the point about Patrick Moore is that his connections to and payments from the Nuclear Energy Institute are too infrequently acknowledged by Moore, by other nuclear advocates (e.g. Hore-Lacy/UIC) or by the media.

As for pro-nuclear environmentalists, I think you have named most of them. More on that at

I can think of quite a few nuclear advocates turned opponents - indeed there are quite a few in the EnergyScience Coalition alone.

As for trends in the industry, the annual World Nuclear Industry Status Reports are

cheers, Jim

I decided to bring the discussion up to the front of the blog to more publicly thank Jim for his comment and in particular his willingness to engage in some type of dialogue. In the time that has passed since I began this blog in early 2007, no anti-nuclear campaigners or even people slightly skeptical of the technology have posted a reply or critique of a single post.

We still don't agree. I won't complain about that so long as we are communicating. Too often, issue based blogs and web pages are visited only by those who endorse the author's opinion. But without some sort of civil dialogue, the blog or site becomes a micro-culture's echo chamber of limited value. Barry Brook's BraveNewClimate blog has done an excellent job of avoiding this pitfall and I note that Jim has commented there as well.

So, on to Jim's comment.

Thanks for not highlighting me for going easy on Patrick Moore. I took what I think was a fairly hard opinion - similar to NNadir at DailyKos - that putting too much emphasis on Moore's current opinion gives unjustified credibility to Greenpeace. Rather than focus on one person, I prefer to note the more recent trend.

As for pro-nuclear environmentalists - several others have come on to my radar since my post in 2007. These include, Australia's Prof Barry Brook [mentioned above]; (UK) Stephen Tindale, former director of Greenpeace; (UK) Lord Chris Smith of Finsbury, the chairman of the Environment Agency; (UK) Mark Lynas, author of the Royal Society’s science book of the year; and (UK) Chris Goodall, a Green Party activist and prospective parliamentary candidate. [See this post for details]. Then there are the calls for nuclear from the AWU's Paul Howes and American author and former anti-nuclear campaigner Gwyneth Cravens, who now regrets her support of the anti-nuclear power movement. Ms Cravens describes her 10 year transition from anti-nuclear campaigner to nuclear advocate in a recent book and a related video linked here.

If anyone knows of others, please add them in a comment (with links please) so I may update the list.

I regret that Jim did not list any specific transitions in the other direction in recent years (say, that last 4). The energyscience website was not working (i.e. I was unable to access it).

I read the 2007 World Nuclear Industry Status Report. I was disappointed to see wind discussed with nuclear in terms of 'capacity' as opposed to actual energy generated (pg 6). I believe such discussions contribute negatively (i.e. add confusion rather than clarity) to policy discussions. There have also been a number of plant life extensions granted in the US alone to challenge the discussion of anticipated plant life on pg 9 and in the conclusion. However, I do agree with concerns expressed with respect to financing, human resource needs and supporting infrastructure / construction capability. However, none if these challenges significantly threaten the expansion of nuclear power's use over the coming decades.

I note the the OECD/IEA has just released an excerpt from the 2009 World Energy Outlook. In the excerpt, the IEA forecasts the required contribution from (and investment in) an array of technologies to achieve energy related emission reductions in support of a 450 Scenario. In this report, nuclear plays a significant role globally (obviously, to varying degree within different countries), despite being challenged to maintain the current level of generation in the context of an ageing worldwide operational fleet. This is shown in Figure 3 of the report by comparing the relative change in abatement between 2020 and 2030 (increase by a factor of 2.8) vs the required investment (an increase by a factor of 3.9). This reflects the need to build new plants to replace older facilities that will be shutdown at the end of their design lives. So the investment is necessary to maintain the same abatement level.

WEO 2009 Excerpt - Figure 3 World energy-related CO2 emissions abatement

Recent reports indicate more nuclear phase outs are being reversed. Belgium and Germany are now working to reverse their phase out programmes. Just in Europe, the list now includes these two countries plus Sweden and Italy. In the UK, a more indirect / passive phase out policy has been replaced by the investment of considerable resources into a new build program. Even a small training reactor at the Imperial College of London is being 'un-decommissioned' to support the development of human resources to support that effort. Those who doubt the reemergence of genuine interest in nuclear power are ignoring a constantly increasing amount of data.

I hope that Jim's comment reflects a more forward looking perspective; one that acknowledges an increasing role of nuclear technology over the coming decades as the marginal risks from nuclear power's use are weighed against those of other issues such as climate change, peak oil, and the threat of energy supplies being used as an instrument of foreign policy (e.g. Russia's repeated demonstration of their willingness to cut gas supply to Europe). There is an opportunity for Jim and other anti-nuclear campaigners to remain engaged on a proactive and productive level; contributing real ideas to ensure safety levels continue to improve, non-proliferation measures are made more resilient, acceptable interim and long term waste management programmes are implemented, transparency is enhanced, etc. Maybe I'm dreaming a bit here; but the opportunity is certainly there. Just look at the void Barry Brook as filled.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Seal the Deal - UN Copenhagen Climate Change Conference

Seal the Deal - the UN Worldwide Campaign on Climate Change is an online information and petition campaign.

From the webpage:

The UN-led Seal the Deal Campaign aims to galvanize political will and public support for reaching a comprehensive global climate agreement in Copenhagen in December.

Climate change affects us all. Nine out of every ten disasters recorded are now climate related. Rising temperatures and more frequent floods, droughts and storms affect millions of people’s lives. This is set against a backdrop of financial and food insecurity.

On December 7, governments will gather in Copenhagen, Denmark to respond to one of the greatest challenges facing humanity. The main question will be how protect the planet and create a green economy that will lead to long-term prosperity.

Reaching a deal by the time the meeting ends on December 18 will depend not only on complex political negotiations, but also on public pressure from around the globe.

The United Nations has launched “Seal the Deal” campaign that encourages users to sign an online, global petition which will be presented by civil society to governments of the world.

The petition will serve as a reminder that our leaders must negotiate a fair, balanced and effective agreement in Copenhagen, and that they must seal a deal to power green growth, protect our planet and build a more sustainable, prosperous global economy that will benefit all nations and people.

Yesterday was the last day of Global Climate Week. With just over 70 days remaining, various organisations are working to build support through momentum and demonstrated consensus. If you have not done so already, please consider taking one minute to add your voice to the 65,000 plus who have done so already.

Want to do a bit more still?

Take a few more short minutes to forward the link to contacts, add it to your webpage, blog, or social network account.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Can nuclear power plants be expected to load follow?

In the spring / summer of 2003 FirstEnergy, a utility in the US State of Ohio, was supposed to trim trees away from high voltage transmission lines, but failed to do so. In the afternoon of 14-August, demand (or load) began to rise sharply on the electrical grid. The high voltage wires became heated and sagged into the untrimmed trees, initiating a sequence of events that resulted in the shutdown of more than 100 power plants, loss of electrical service for 55 million customers in the US and Canada, and spread so quickly that it took an international investigative panel 6 months to issue a findings report. (before / after satellite photos)

The delicate balance of generation and load on an electricity grid continuously fluctuates, often significantly and on varying timescales as industrial and household demands ebb and flow throughout a day, a week, or a season. Generation must adapt where and when required. Morning and evening demand swings generally occur over a few hours; but there are also significant plant trips to deal with (well over 1000 MWe in a single instance). Without getting into a discussion of ‘operating’ and ‘spinning’ reserve, it is evident that utilities have developed plans to account for a number of potential scenarios - the case above notwithstanding.

Utility operators can vary the electrical output from some power plants quickly to adjust total generation to total demand. Hydro power is an example. In generation mode the water falls through a turbine generating electricity. In nearly all cases, power can be quickly changed by reducing or increasing the amount of water passing through the turbine. Some hydro stations can work in reverse; taking power from the grid to pump the water back up into a reservoir. Demand can be added by increasing the pump speed or total number of pumps in operation. Such facilities give operators the flexibility to manipulate either side of the load / generation balance. This mode of operation is referred to as load following.

A load following generator’s principal attribute is responsiveness. With respect to nuclear power plants (NPPs), responsiveness of currently available light water reactors (LWRs) is challenged by neutron poisons – in particular the isotope xenon-135 (xenon). Xenon is a powerful thermal neutron absorber (poison) and will capture neutrons otherwise available for fission of the reactor fuel. It is produced directly and indirectly from fission in all reactors.

Xenon production and removal in thermal reactors has been well understood for decades [1]. However, nonlinearities related to the xenon equilibrium equation challenge the control of power swings required to support a load following mode of operation. Xenon transients have the negative impact of significant reactivity addition or removal over the time periods required by many load following scenarios (i.e. periods of several hours). The operational challenge of an in-progress xenon transient is further exacerbated by increasing or decreasing reactor power as the terms of the xenon equilibrium equation are each impacted by neutron flux (reactor power level) to varying degree.

Xenon transients

The neutron flux or power level of a reactor determines the production rate of xenon, iodine and tellurium (xenon precursors) as well as the xenon burn up. Xenon decay and tellurium / iodine decay into xenon are purely time dependent but are constrained by different half lives. Xenon concentration will reach equilibrium after a period of steady state operation or shutdown; in the later case following an initial spike in concentration due to the decay of the remaining iodine and zeroing of the xenon burn up term following the shutdown. Xenon equilibrium is not directly proportional to reactor power level. For example, the equilibrium concentration at 25% power is more than half the equilibrium concentration at 100%.

Reactivity is the parameter used to measure and control reactor power changes. As a simple analogy, reactivity to a core is like heat to a kettle full of water. Assuming the core is already critical, adding reactivity increases power (neutron flux) just as adding heat to a kettle increases the water’s temperature inside.

Withdrawing control rods increases core reactivity. As a poison, xenon absorbs neutrons and therefore reduces core reactivity with increasing concentration. Xenon transients challenge reactor operation due to continuously changing reactivity addition or withdrawal depending on the nature of the power history and attempted manoeuvre. For example, consider a reactor start-up about one day after a reactor trip from full power where xenon concentration had been at equilibrium. At the time of start-up, xenon concentration would have already peaked from the decay of iodine in the fuel at the time of the trip. The concentration would be decreasing steadily (adding positive reactivity to the core). This is not a safety concern since the control and safety rods add more than enough negative reactivity to maintain the reactor in a safe shutdown condition.

[In some cases high post-trip xenon concentrations add enough negative reactivity to prevent operators from commencing reactor start-up until adequate xenon decay time has passed.]

Post trip Xenon-135 transient [1]

As the reactor start-up progresses, the remaining xenon continues to decay but the concentration reduction is accelerated by the increasing reactor power’s impact on the xenon burn-up term of the equilibrium equation. As xenon concentration is reduced, positive reactivity is added to the core (equally accelerated). Operators must closely monitor core reactivity and take any required mitigating action to ensure the reactor is not shutdown automatically by reactor protection systems designed to limit the rate of power increase. Adding to this challenge, many reactor designs and license commitments require discrete hold points during power manoeuvres to calibrate instruments, perform reactor physics checks, synchronise the generator to the grid and perform other tests or surveillances.

Alternatively, if power is quickly reduced from 100 to 50% the resulting xenon spike, due to reduced burn up but continued iodine decay, will add negative reactivity for several hours and then reverse, adding positive reactivity as a new equilibrium is approached. As with the start-up example above, close operator monitoring and adjustment are required to ensure plant control remains within acceptable parameters.

Xenon-135 transients from power changes between 50 - 100% [1]

Returning to load following, the time periods, frequency of adjustment and response time required are in direct conflict with the nature of xenon transients at NPPs. For this reason, most NPP operators choose not to subject their facilities to load following operating modes.

NPP economics

Other economic realities further dissuade NPP operators from subjecting their facilities to load following manoeuvres. The principal financial outlay for an NPP’s lifecycle costs is the initial capital expenditure of construction. NPP operation is typically not sensitive to fuel price. Contrary to hydro plants that are able to store sometimes scarce water for peak periods or fossil stations subject to high fuel costs, NPPs do not benefit from fuel cost savings by reducing power. NPP revenue is typically directly linked to generation. Therefore the economic case for NPPs is strongest as a base-load facility, operated at 100% power.

The designs of core fuel loading for operating cycles are planned well in advance and based on assumed fuel burn-up over several fuel cycles (typically 1 to 2 years per cycle for PWRs and BWRs with any given fuel assembly remaining in the core for 3 or more cycles). Load following operating modes would add another layer of complication and financial risk to this planning.

The reactor suppliers

The economic interests of reactor design and supply organisations favour a marketable, load following design. If a load following NPP can be made available, additional nuclear generation share can be justified for a given electrical distribution grid. However, currently available designs continue to be constrained by xenon transients and the economic business case for nuclear power.

Modern designs have incorporated technology improvements to mitigate many operational challenges, such as the reduction or elimination of the hold points described above, ability to complete anticipated maintenance tasks at full power and core designs with strong neutronic coupling [2]. These improvements simplify operations during power reductions for unplanned maintenance activities and are highly desirable regardless of an operator’s willingness to load follow.

Potential for advanced and fast reactors

Xenon is a poison for thermal (slow) neutrons only. Therefore as fast reactor systems are deployed in the coming decades, the operational challenge from xenon will no longer be relevant.

Economic and other fuel cycle challenges are currently being assessed for fast reactor design concepts [3].

The World Nuclear Association is optimistic in this area. [4][5] The WNA's Ian Hore-Lacy contributed to the Encyclopedia of the Earth. His submission explains in some detail how advanced reactor designs will better accommodate load following.

In practice

Despite the challenges identified above, operators in France - with its high nuclear share of electricity generation - do elect to load follow [6].


[1] United States Department of Energy, DOE Fundamentals Handbook: Nuclear Physics And Reactor Theory Volume 2 of 2, website:, accessed 12-September 2009.

[2] AREVA, The Path of Greatest Certainty: EPR a Generation III+ Power Plant, website:, accessed 12 September 2009.

[3] OECD/NEA, Nuclear Fuel Cycle Transition Scenario Studies, ISBN 978-92-64-99068-5, Paris, France [2009].

[4] World Nuclear Association, website:, accessed 13-September 2009.

[5] World Nuclear Association, website:, accessed 13-September 2009.

[6] World Nuclear Association, website:, accessed 13-September 2009.

Posts by others

I was able to find a few posts (one, two) by Rod Adams (Atomic Insights) that mention the topic. Also thanks to Edwad Kee below for this post by Joe Romm at The Energy Collective / Climate Progress.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Modern nuclear plant construction techniques

Some numbers are presented in the post below regarding nuclear power's expansion in Asia over the past 25 years. Achieving such consistent and sustained project implementation improvement is the result of considerable effort, innovation and investment.

Peruse the IAEA's website and you will find the results of a June 2009 meeting on Construction Technologies for New Nuclear Power Projects. Participants include Toshiba, Korean Hydro, Westinghouse, AECL, Sargent and Lundy, TEPCO, Murray and Roberts, and PMBR. Scroll down the page and you will find links to a number of informative presentations made during this event. Just a few details are included below.

Slip Forming
Slip forming is Reported to cut the concrete construction phase of a reactor building from 6-9 months down to 13 to 20 days. In this innovative technique, concrete is poured continuously between two climbing wall faces. Multiple platform levels allow for preparatory work, concrete pouring and curing to take place as the form 'slips' upward at a rate from 2.5 to 15 cm per hour. In addition to being faster, the elimination of 'cold joints' makes the resulting structure safer (improved resistance to leakage).

Slip forming - start

Slip forming - near completion

Open Top Construction combined with modularisation
The Reactor Building is partially completed and left 'open'. Very heavy lift (VHL) cranes are then used to install large components from above. Mechanical and electrical systems are installed from and through building openings in parallel. Open top construction permits more activities to be progressed in parallel compared with construction techniques of the 1970's.

Modular construction reduces field work and, because the modules are fabricated in the controlled environment of a fabrication facility or a covered assembly area near the main site, quality is improved. The challenges include increased front-end engineering and planning effort, increased rigging and transport costs, and early material requirements.

Modular component - RB base slab rebar mat

Modular component - large bore piping module

Modular component - Integrated plant, large bore pipe and structure

Modular component - Upper drywell (BWR)

Modular component - Control room

Advances in system assembly and fabrication have also added the double advantage of reduced time and improved quality.

Automated large bore pipe joint welder

Advanced planning and detailed engineering
Modern nuclear plant construction techniques - in particular open top construction, slip forming and modularisation - require considerable planning. For example, detailed engineering must be complete long before construction initiation to support the fabrication and assembly of large modules like those shown above - to the timeline demanded by the project schedule. Modern procurement processes receive the final engineering design documents and develop detailed estimates, determine material and component lead times, and pre-qualify potential suppliers. Experienced planners and schedules develop installation plans that are often referred to as 'choreographies'; developed so well that costly support equipment, such as heavy lift cranes, practically never come to a rest.

However, design standardisation reduces the engineering burden considerably from First of a Kind (FOAK) out the the n-th construction project. For example, once a complex module has been engineered for a standard plant design, very little engineering effort is required to reproduce the same module for the 2nd, 3rd,... n-th plant to be constructed.

Laydown plan

In addition, activities are planned to run in parallel, non-stop, regardless of weather conditions.

All weather construction roof - removable roof staged to the side (4 sections in blue)

All weather construction roof - mounted in position

Continuous feedback and incorporation of lessons learned
Any competent company will incorporate the lessons of one project into the next. Another good practice is to draw from the experience from a cross-cutting of industries. As one might expect, experience is being drawn from all aspects of modern, large scale construction, such as experience from South Africa's Murray and Roberts.

Finally, the meeting included a presentation on the progress of the inaugural AP1000 project (China). The presentation includes examples of the techniques mentioned above.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Nuclear data source - IAEA

Per it's statute, The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has a single objective:

The Agency shall seek to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world. It shall ensure, so far as it is able, that assistance provided by it or at its request or under its supervision or control is not used in such a way as to further any military purpose.

IAEA Headquarters - Vienna, Austria

A function or means to achieve this objective is the collection, collation and dissemination of relevant data. Items of interest include:

The PRIS database - Containing recent plant construction project initiations, plant startups, shutdowns as well as lists of facilities by country and World Summary information such as nuclear power's percent share of total electricity generation, etc.

The Fast Reactor Database - as one would expect, but also including recent and upcoming meetings.

The Integrated Nuclear Fuel Cycle Information System - information relating to fuel cycle activities (mining, milling, conversion, enrichment, fuel fabrication, etc.) throughout the world.

Planning and Economic Studies (webpage) - home to many statistics about nuclear power's role in sustainable energy policy planning.

And there are many more.

It's important to consider the data in an integrated context. In isolation, they can be easily misinterpreted - or worse, misrepresented. For example, the PESS site shows China at the very bottom of the % nuclear share of total electrical generation (1.9%). However, looking at the PRIS entry page alone will quickly reveal that China's current nuclear build program is unparallelled: five project starts already in 2009 and six in 2008. That's quite a leap from only two project starts in both 2007 and 2006, one in 2005 and none in 2004.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

25 GWe by 2050? Show me.

Is it even possible Australia could get itself organised and construct up to 25 nuclear power plants by 2050?

Let's make a liberal assumption and then look at some regional data compiled from the IAEA's PRIS database.

First, the assumption. Even those sceptical of nuclear power's role in Australia claim it will take 15 years to construct even one power plant. Alright then, let's better that and assume it takes us 15 years to even begin construction of the first plant. Therefore, we'll assume the first construction project begins on 01-January 2025. Can we average one plant a year for the remaining 25 years?

Now to the region.

Since 1984 (25 years ago). India has begun and finished 9 nuclear plant projects (over 2,300 MWe of net capacity). Over this time, construction project durations have been cut in half. The three most recent projects (all commencing operation after 2005) were brought in at just over 5 years.

Since 1984, China has begun and finished 11 nuclear plant projects (over 8,400 MWe of net capacity). There is not much difference over these 11 projects. The minimum construction time is 4.5 years, the maximum is 6.7.

Since 1984, Korea has begun and finished 11 nuclear plant projects (over 1o,ooo MWe of net capacity). Korea has had consistently short construction durations, but have still managed to improve over time. Only 2 of their 11 projects exceeded 5 years (5.1 and 5.2). The minimum time is 4.0 years.

Since 1984, Japan has begun and finished 21 nuclear plant projects (over 20,000 MWe of net capacity). The project performance in Japan is impressive. Only 2 of the 21 plants were connected to the grid 5 years or more following the beginning of construction (maximum time is 5.2 years). 14 of the plants were connected in less than 4 years and the minimum construction time was just 3.2 years.

And those were not times of energy / environmental crisis.

25 GWe nuclear capacity in Australia by 2050 is certainly within the realm of possibility.

Japan and Korea: Improving construction project durations
(Source: IAEA PRIS Database)

Sunday, 5 April 2009

USA: celebration and pause for reflection

Oyster Creek - Lacey Township, New Jersay- USA

Of the 104 operating nuclear power plants in America, only three were connected to the Grid in 1969: R. E. Ginna, Nine Mile Point - 1, and Oyster Creek. All plants connected before that year [most of them much smaller demonstration facilities] have since permanently shutdown. Of those three, only two received their full commercial operating license within that year: the two GE BWR's [boiling water reactors] - twin plants in fact - Nine Mile and Oyster Creek. Both licenses are listed in the PRIS website as having been issued on December 1, 1969. However, Oyster Creek was connected to the grid in September and Nine Mile in November. This makes Oyster Creek the oldest operating nuclear plant in the USA. Worldwide, only two operating gas cooled reactors in the UK are older.

1969 is a significant year in the USA for many reasons [something about an Eagle landing, etc.*]. With respect to nuclear power, '69 has relevance because operating licenses issued to US nuclear power plants extend for 40 years. Many facilities have applied and received license extensions for an additional 20 years. Nine Mile and Ginna already received their extensions, but Oyster Creek's application was aggressively fought by local environmental groups and some notable celebrities [literally, a cause célèbre]. But the technical review of all issues has concluded the plant remains safe and last week the Oyster Creek application was approved by the NRC, paving the way for another 20 years of operation. Congratulations are in order to the staff who operate and maintain the facility as well as the original engineering design and construction teams.

According to the NRC webpage [and assuming my math is correct], the number of approved license extensions is 51. Updating that page for Oyster Creek, will bump the total to 52 units - exactly half of the current US operating fleet.

But that's not all. Oyster Creek is now part of Exelon. However, way back when, Oyster Creek was the responsibility of Jersey Central Power and Light [JCP&L] - a part of General Public Utilities [GPU]. Another company within GPU was Metropolitan Edison or Met.Ed. Met. Ed. also worked to deploy nuclear power plants, but instead of electing for the GE BWR, went to B&W for a PWR [pressurised water reactor]. They located their two units on a decent size island in the middle of the Susquahanna River in south-central Pennsylvania; a three mile long island to be precise.

The Three Mile Island Unit II accident occurred 30 years ago last week [March 28, 1979]. No deaths or injuries directly resulted from the accident, but the resulting hysteria - fanned by an uninformed and sometimes blood thirsty media - did harm some people. The financial impact to Met. Ed. and GPU was much more significant. GPU's stock plunged to pennies per share. A spin off company, GPU Nuclear, was created to manage the nuclear assets including the Unit II cleanup, Unit I restart and of course ongoing operation of Oyster Creek [itself challenged as resources were diverted to TMI]. An in progress project to construct a sister plant to Oyster Creek on the same site in the state of New Jersey was cancelled in the wake of GPU's financial meltdown. The accident had effects on other nuclear projects and existing plants throughout America and beyond.

Diagram to explain the TMI-II accident (

Those who claim nuclear plant employees, their managers, or owners purposefully and irresponsibly accept safety related risks for the sake of profit are ignoring the significant lessons learned from the TMI-II accident.

While a financial disaster, technically the plant's safety systems performed to perfection. Had it not been for erroneous plant operator intervention, even the financial consequences would have been nil. The facility would have very probably been easily restarted. During the event, control room operators purposefully isolated emergency cooling water - that the protection systems had automatically started - due to the operator's misinterpretation of a single indicator on the control room panel. But even DESPITE this action - the luxury of hindsight reveals that this was in fact about the WORST possible action to take given the true scenario - [I'll say it again] DESPITE this action, the multiple redundant, multi-barrier protection systems performed their function to protect the surrounding environment and population by controlling and containing the resulting mess. Credit must also go to the engineers and operators within the organisation. Once the above indicator was cross-checked against other indications [at the rear of the operating panel], the subsequent actions were well managed; courageously managed is probably more accurate. We should all ask ourselves if we would have the guts to do it. But I doubt their confidence was derived from some 'battler's bravado'. They knew the plant's technical capabilities and in particular those of the safety systems. They were informed by frequent contamination surveys and omnipresent radiation monitoring.

As Patric Moore has said, from the prospective of nuclear safety, the Three Mile Island Unit-II accident was and remains a phenomenal success, a testament to Western nuclear engineering design, construction and enduring quality.

I doubt there are many, but to all those who have worked for GPU, GPU Nuclear, then AmerGen and now Exelon over this entire time period - congratulations, well done and enjoy your well deserved retirement.

* Just as there were two fully commercial nuclear power plants licensed in 1969, there were also two moonshots. Both Apollo 11 and 12 took place in 1969.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Scare tactics - effective, but shameful

Wayne Errington, a lecturer in political science and international relations at the ANU submitted this report to the Canberra Times about the role of 'Think Tanks' in Australian policy debate. In it, he explains how the Australian Institute used scare tactics to manipulate public opinion away from nuclear energy during the most recent federal election campaign.

Fear, the Australia Institute research fellow, recounts a very effective public intervention by his organisation when the Howard government was toying with the idea of nuclear power as a way of reducing greenhouse gases.

With the parliamentary opposition looking flat-footed, the Australia Institute quickly released a list of the federal electorates containing the locations most suitable for a nuclear reactor. This well-aimed missile killed political debate over nuclear energy stone dead as backbencher after government backbencher publicly assured constituents there would be no nuclear plant in their backyard.
I will interpret the 'well aimed missile' comment to imply that the AI custom developed that report specifically [and solely] to kill the nuclear debate at the time. Heaven forbid we engage the public in an informed, civil, objective discussion on the subject.

Has the AI ever claimed to be objective or unbias? Well, almost. From their website:
"The Australia Institute is an independent public policy research centre..."

"...the Institute reasserts the place of ethics in making public and private decisions."
I wouldn't consider a political "missile strike" built on a foundation of fear mongering exactly ethical.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Reports, critiques and expertise

Over the past few days, I noticed another article from Leslie Kemeny in the Canberra Times. It was filled with more arguments in favour of Australia considering the introduction of nuclear power. While I agree with the article, I didn't notice too many new arguments and would not have normally mentioned it here.

Not long thereafter, Geoff Davies submitted a reply in the Canberra Times as well as in his recently initiated Blog, Better Nature. I posted comments to both, but in addition to those, I'd like to take an opportunity to look at the McKinsey Australia report referenced by Davies.

First, I'd like to point out the McKinsey Global report: The carbon productivity challenge, Curbing climate change and sustaining economic growth. It was a precursor to the McKiney Australia report and seems to be considerably more robust - albeit not specific to Australia's chellenges and options. It is interesting to compare the two together as well as with the comments of Davies.

Davies points to the Australia study as reason for why nuclear is [economically] unnecessary. He also blasts Kemeny's claims about nuclear's economics stating, "Most energy experts agree nuclear power will be Expensive."

Davies also references nuclear power's timeline, "We may have only a few years in which to get our emissions down."

Finally, he summarises nuclear's potential impact, "Nuclear power would be Insufficient because it generates electricity only, which accounts for around a third of energy use."

First some general comments on the Australian McKinsey report.

Unlike the Global report [which specifically states two goals of reducing emissions as well as sustaining economic growth] the Australian report does not appear to encompass the same scope. For example, abatement technologies are deployed by cost only, without regard to supply reliability or energy quality. This seems to ignor the intermitancy of wind and solar which will impact grid stability as their contributions continue to increase. This is stated on page 19 where the authors clarify
"Note that we have not investigated whether the resulting power mix match energy demand profiles, nor the question of whether the location of renewable sources can be aligned with energy demands of the different states."
Next, regarding the scope of the Australian McKinsey report:

"The scope of the measures considered were those requiring deployment of present-day technologies. Speculative technologies or those requiring significant future breakthroughs were not included in the scope..."

Interesting how CCS has been included, but advanced nuclear fuel cycles, including a closed fuel cycle - which eliminates deep geological repository stability for hundreds of thousands of years, but instead require storage for several hundreds of years - have been excluded. Multiple fast reactors and fuel reprocessing facilities exist. Even as I type, a shipment of MOX fuel is being prepared to ship to Japan where a power reactor [or reactors] will relieve the world of some of its plutonium - forever. The introduction of fast reactors, with integrated fuel processing facilities will further improve waste issues and - by breeding fuel - massively extend the viability of nuclear power technologies. The use of alternative fuels such as thorium could achieve similar results. The point being that many of these alternative nuclear options are significantly further developed than CCS and are yet [unfortunately] out of scope. I understand why CCS is in scope, just not why advanced nuclear fuel cycles are out.

On page 17, the report speaks of nuclear power's environmental viability. I am unable to comprehend this concern. Fuel from existing power reactors is either being safely reprocessed or stored on existing reactor sites. No industry has a footprint of zero, but I do not see the evidence of nuclear power's impact. Regarding the need for a geologic repository for the storage of processing products for a few hundred years - my understanding is that few geologies are superior to Australia. Australia's low population density only strengthens this argument.

The costs presented for participation in the UNFCCC Clean Development Mechanism [CDM] - allowing Australia to claim an equivalent emission reduction credit in exchange for money we provide to developing countries to deploy their own low emission technologies - appear so low, I can't understand why Australia would consider any other option. I have assumed [and will continue to assume] that Australians are serious about cutting Australia's emissions - above and beyond any 'good' we do via the CDM.

The report analyses various alternative scenarios: first, adding nuclear; next, unlimited CDM credits and finally no CCS [all replaced by renewables]. It would have been interesting to analyse the scenario where the absence of CCS was replaced with nuclear or perhaps a mix of nuclear and additional renewables.

Back to Davies' claims.

Regarding the economics of nuclear, in both the Australian [nuclear scenario] and Global reports, nuclear is among the cheapest energy production technologies to deploy. Nuclear is even cheaper than Australia's least expensive renewable, onshore wind [Australia report, Exhibit 7 - you have to compare closely with Exhibit 5]. Globally, nuclear is the only cost neutral abatement technology [Global report, Exhibits 5 and 10].

Regarding the timeline to reduce emissions, the goals and scenarios reported and studied are out to 2020 and 2030 as well as out to 2050 for the two reports. It is unreasonable to claim that Australia is not capable of deploying nuclear power plants over a 21 to 41 year period. Even the Australia report considers nuclear in only the 2030 scenario. I have no argument with that based on my own personal experience [meaning I would not suggest nuclear be included in the 2020 study].

On nuclear's potential impact, the Australian McKinsey report [p.11] states that the power sector is Australia's greatest opportunity for future abatement [39% of the total]. Therefore any technology to help achieve this, would seem to be very attractive. Also in both reports, nuclear power's impact is among the most significant [the bar is among the widest on the graphs].

Finally, the Global McKinsey report contains some information and recommendations which I believe are relevant. Their descriptions of the magnitude of the effort are worth consideration [comparison of 10 fold increase of carbon productivity now to the 10 fold increase in labour productivity during the industrial revolution - in one third the time: 41 vs 125 years [Exhibits 2, and 4]].

But, the world has done it before [see Exhibit 7 and related discussion on CFCs and SO-2].

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Lowe's appointment - a bad thing?

A friend recently forwarded a link to Andrew Bolt's blog on Prof. Ian Lowe's appointment to the ARPANSA Safety Advisory Council as the "representative of the public interest".

Very interesting. But why?

Bolt and many others [via comments] have expressed concerns from disappointment to downright conspiracy accusations. But I don't necessarily think this is a bad development; challenging, but not bad.

Nearly two years ago, I drafted a post on Prof. Lowe titled Running some numbers. In the post I allowed myself to go 'prompt technical' - grabbing [seemingly] every credible reference and number available to cast an objective light on the professor's claims. I stand by that post and - nearly two years later - Australia's reliance on renewables remains totally inadequate to address our emission reduction targets.

Moving on

As I've posted in the past; if Australia is to embrace nuclear power, it will only happen with the support of a broad political base. The most direct path to that end is through the engagement of those with opposing views. It does little good for nuclear advocates [for or against] to discuss their arguments in the echo chambers of closed communities.

So Prof. Lowe's appointment may be a challenge in the short term; but could prove to be a tremendous opportunity. It may take more work than otherwise expected to convince Prof. Lowe on any given proposal, but if you consider this effort as an investment in building Prof. Lowe's confidence, the potential dividends could be well worth the effort further down the track.

I'd like to give the guy a chance; objectively appeal to his intelligence and sense of reason, provide him the data, patiently explain the technical bases, and let him come to his own terms with what has been presented.

You can not 'spin' physics. I am not worried.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

High-profile pro-nuclear converts

From the UK; yesterday's Independent contained a report detailing a 'kind of like religious conversion' of four high profile environmentalists who now support nuclear power.

The four are:

  • Stephen Tindale, former director of Greenpeace;
  • Lord Chris Smith of Finsbury, the chairman of the Environment Agency;
  • Mark Lynas, author of the Royal Society’s science book of the year, and
  • Chris Goodall, a Green Party activist and prospective parliamentary candidate.

Tindale ran Greenpeace from 2000-2005. “It was kind of like a religious conversion. Being anti-nuclear was an essential part of being an environmentalist for a long time but now that I’m talking to a number of environmentalists about this, it’s actually quite widespread this view that nuclear power is not ideal but it’s better than climate change,” he added.

"Renewable sources of energy, such as wind, wave and solar power, are still necessary in the fight against global warming, but achieving low-carbon electricity generation is far more difficult without nuclear power", Lord Smith said.

“The thing that initially pushed me was seeing how long and difficult the road to going to 100 per cent renewable economy would be, and realising that if we really are serious about tackling global warming it the next decade or two then we certainly need to consider a new generation of nuclear power stations.”

“In retrospect, [anti-nuclear activism] will come to be seen as an enormous mistake for which the earth’s climate is now paying the price. To give an example, the environmentalists stopped a nuclear plant in Austria from being switched on, a colossal waste of money, and instead [Austria] built two coal plants.”

In a separate report, Goodall sums it up well. "This country’s current and past emissions are far more than our share of the world population. Unless we reduce our carbon pollution urgently, we will be in breach of our moral, as well as EU and UN, obligations." He adds, "Every option is strongly opposed: the public seems to be anti-wind, anti-coal, anti-waste-to-energy, anti-tidal-barrage, anti-fuel-duty and anti-nuclear. We can’t be anti-everything, and time is running out. Large projects take many years to construct."

Finally, Goodall concludes, "Germany provides a useful cautionary tale. Despite huge subsidies for solar panels, photovoltaics have not yet replaced one per cent of fossil fuel electricity generation. Indeed, because Germany – under pressure from well-meaning environmentalists – is phasing out nuclear power, it is inexorably turning back towards dirty coal: 30 new coal plants are planned, including four burning lignite (brown coal), the dirtiest fuel of all."

Plenty of parallels with Australia in this article. Relatively high per-capita emissions, the need to increase generation infrastructure to satisfy current and future demand, and the need for civil and objective public discussion to name a few.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Australia and GNEP

A few days ago the Australian ran a story on Government's potential not-so-transparent role in the George Bush / US initiated Global Nuclear Energy Partnership [GNEP]. The article did not provide much detail other than a review of Australian election rhetoric and Australia's apparent ongoing engagement.

I can't really understand what the fuss is about myself. Even if Australia never initiates a nuclear power program and never even ponders enrichment, reprocessing or waste storage; Australian research could do much to aid the peaceful use of nuclear technology - Silex being just one example.

But Platts contributor Daniel Horner has released a report in Nuclear Fuel [subscription required] that echos a concern I and some other Platts contributors had expressed some time ago about GNEP: that it looks - in the USA at least - to be headed the way of the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative [mostly cartooned websites that do not contain many dates nor receive frequent updates - never a good sign].

DOE's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership is likely to survive only in a pared-down form and in particular, without an emphasis on near-term deployment of commercial-scale reprocessing facilities, several observers have said in recent weeks.

A future GNEP could look a lot like the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative did before the Bush administration launched GNEP in early 2006, these sources said. GNEP, which aims to promote the growth of nuclear power in the US and around the world while developing new types of reprocessing plants and fast-neutron reactors, is largely an expanded and accelerated version of AFCI. DOE budget documents refer to AFCI as GNEP's "technology development element."
Specific challenges to ongoing US significant support to GNEP include a less enthusiastic US Executive Branch, the retirement of Senator Pete Dominichi [who, according to Horner, was not a 'wholehearted' supporter of the program.]

But GNEP [remember the 'G' is for 'Global'] may or may not be America's to scale down. Since my post almost 16 months ago, several countries including nuclear middleweights Canada, Korea and heavyweight the UK have jointed GNEP. Closing the nuclear fuel cycle makes sense to a lot of people - including many in the US according to Horner. Depending on the interest of the other program participants, the overarching goals of the GNEP could still be achieved.

So what's in store for Australia? No idea.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Australia should go nuclear: poll

Most Australians generally support the idea of the country having nuclear power, a new poll has found.

The study found two-thirds of the population either support nuclear power or don't have an opinion.

More at the Age

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Government rejects Science and Engineering Academy call for a nuclear Australia

In a recent report, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) puts forth a role for nuclear power in Australia's energy future - particularly if Australian carbon emissions are to be significantly reduced.

Like many before them - including UMPNER as well as other reports to be found in the lower right margin of this blog - ATSE points to nuclear as one prominent option within an array of deployed technologies including efficiency improvements and conservation.

And again, like many times past, government - this time federal Energy Minister Martin Ferguson - reiterated a firm position opposed to nuclear power deployment in Australia.

"It is the government's view that nuclear power is not needed as part of Australia's energy mix given our country's abundance and diversity of low-cost renewable energy sources," he said.

Of course the report called for more than just nuclear power, including a recommended $6 million investment in emission reduction technologies.

The report's author, Dr John Burgess said he was not disappointed by the minister's comments on nuclear power.

"I guess what we're slightly concerned about is that without nuclear energy the other technologies have to work [to achieve Australia's recently announced emission reduction targets]," he said.

Recently Australian protesters as well as public officials challenged the announced emission reduction targets of between 5 and 15 percent by 2020. Also, NASA chief Dr. James Hansen highlighted Australia's targets as inadequate in a publicly available letter to US President-elect Obama and his wife Michelle.

The Academy (ATSE) is an independent, non-government organisation dedicated to the promotion in Australia of scientific and engineering knowledge to practical purposes. It is an association of professional men and women who are elected as Fellows of the Academy on the basis of their achievement in the application of science, technology and engineering to Australian life.

SBS report

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

An interesting new poll

Recent poll results being reported by The Australian have 20% of Australians looking to nuclear power to provide the most of the nation's electricity by 2028.

The poll was conducted by UMR Research, reportedly a pollster for the Labor Party.
The full spectrum of the poll results are:
  • 26% see solar supplying the bulk of electricity
  • 23% tapped coal
  • 20% nuclear
  • 10% wind
  • 9% gas
  • 1% other

I will assume the other 11% were not sure.

Ziggy Switkowski and Leslie Kemeny both commented favourably. Switkowski sees progress toward a civilised discussion of nuclear technology. Kemeny notes an increasing awareness of nuclear's unique role in Australia's energy future.

Friday, 2 January 2009

James Hansen sends the Obamas a personal appeal

Back in March 2008, Professor [and chief NASA scientist] James Hansen sent a letter to Kevin Rudd asking for Australia's leadership in the fight against climate change. The June 5 reply may be found here.

The below correspondence is being transmitted to Barack and Michelle Obama. Much of its contents are relevant to Australia, our economy and our own struggles with respect to emissions control and climate change.

Everything has been copied below. The relevant links are here and here. [The enclosure may be found at the second link.]

Note to Jim Hansen's peers who commented on his draft letter

Thanks to the people on my e-mail list for all the suggestions (more than 100!) about my draft “Tell Barack Obama the Truth – the Whole Truth”. Most frequent criticism: the need for an executive summary. Two people suggested: put a summary in the form of a letter to Michelle and Barack Obama. I like that idea. They are equally smart lawyers, and if we can get either of them to really focus on the actions that are needed, the planet has a chance.

The letter turned out to be four pages. Sorry. But I wrote a note to John Holdren, which can serve as an executive summary. John has promised to deliver the letter, but cannot do so prior to the inauguration. That delay is a problem for one of the three recommendations: tax and dividend. Thus I am making the letter available at
and the revised “Tell Barack Obama the Truth” at
in hopes of getting the information to people who continue to push for “goals” and “caps”.

“Goals” for percentage CO2 emission reductions and “cap & trade & dividend” are a threat to the planet, weak tea, not commensurate with the task of getting CO2 back to 350 ppm and less. Note:

(1) There must be a tax at the mine or port of entry, the first sale of oil, gas and coal, so every direct and indirect use of the fuel is affected. Anything less means that the reduction of demand for the fuel will make it cheaper for some uses; e.g., people will start burning coal in their stoves. Peter Barnes’ idea to push the cap upstream to the extent possible is not adequate nor is a ‘gas tax’ suggested by NY Times and others. A comprehensive approach is needed.

(2) “Cap & trade & dividend” creates Wall Street millionaires and complex bureaucracy. The public is fed up with that – rightly so. A single carbon tax rate can be adjusted upward affecting all activities appropriately. With 100% dividend the public will allow a carbon price adequate to the job, i.e., helping us move to the postfossil-fuel world.

(3) Supply ‘caps’ cannot yield a really big reduction because of the weapon: ‘shortages’. All a utility has to say is ‘blackout coming’ and politicians and public have to cave in – we are not going to have the lights turned out. Will the public allow a high enough tax rate? Yes, dividends will exceed tax for most people concerned about their bills.

(4) A tax is not sufficient. All other measures, such as building codes, are needed. But with millions of buildings, all construction codes and operations cannot be enforced. A rising carbon price provides effective enforcement.

(5) Wouldn’t it be cheaper to let people burn the dirtiest fuel? No. The clean future that we aim for, including more efficient energy use, is not more expensive. For example, you may have read about passively heated homes that require little energy and increase construction costs only several percent. Such possibilities remain the oddball (with high price tag), not the standard construction, unless the government adopts policies that make things happen.

Some of you suggested that I should only explain the urgency of the climate crisis, the need to get back to 350 ppm CO2 and less. Politicians are happy if scientists provide information and then go away and shut up. But science and policy cannot be divorced. What I learned in the past few years is that politicians often adopt convenient policies that can be shown to be inconsistent with long-term success, given readily available scientific data and empirical information on policy impacts.

Jim Hansen

The referenced note to John Holdren

Dear John,

A few weeks ago in London, where Anniek was running after me from one meeting to another, she had a heart attack (fortunately we were near a very good hospital -- the problem should be permanently fixed via the stent they inserted plus a better diet). As we waited a week for her to be able to fly I wrote the attached letter to the Obamas. Could you possibly forward this letter to them?

I realize that it is a long letter (4 pages + a page of footnotes). But global warming likely will be, eventually, the problem of their lifetime. His presidency may be judged in good part on whether he was able to turn the tide -- more important, the futures of young people and other life will depend on that. So four pages may not be intolerably long.

My hope is that he (even better they) will want to understand the matter, not just rely on advisers. I refer not to the details of climate science, but rather what needs to be done. The danger is that the compromises and special interests inherent in Kyoto-style targets and cap-and-trade will be accepted because of bureaucratic momentum. Other intolerable aspects of current approaches are the escape hatches (plant a tree somewhere, reduce some other gas, etc.). Carbon dioxide is special because of its strange lifetime (eventually exceedingly long) and the fact that it acidifies the ocean. Also it needs to be recognized that forestation can not be traded for more fossil fuels because the forests are needed to help bring down the current amount of CO2.

The three points that I raise concern: (1) coal, (2) carbon tax, and (3) nuclear power.

(1) The critical need to cut off the coal source soon must be recognized. I was surprised that in 90 minutes I could not get the German Environmental Minister to understand that their proposed "carbon cap" would not allow them to build 20 more coal-fired power plants. I kept saying "if you burn more coal you must convince Russia to leave its oil in the ground" and he would say "we will tighten the carbon cap". Japan thinks that it did fine in meeting its Kyoto obligations, even though its coal use and CO2 emissions increased. [Japan used Kyoto allowed escape hatches. The Earth has no escape hatch.]

(2) A carbon tax (across all fossil fuels at their source) is essential, I believe, for effectiveness. Any less comprehensive cap will reduce the price of the fuel for any other uses.

A rising tax (with all the other needed measures such as building codes, vehicle efficiencies, renewable energies...) will help constrain demand for the fuel. When gasoline hits $4 - 5/gallon again, most of that should be tax staying in the country and returned as dividend, providing the consumer the means to purchase more efficient products and incentive for entrepreneurs to develop them. A rising tax will help keep the price paid for the oil itself (or other fossil fuel) lower, thus making it unprofitable to go to the most extreme places on the planet to extract the last drop of oil. Instead we can move on sooner to the energies of the post-fossil-fuel-era.

A carbon cap that makes one more stinking millionaire on the backs of the public is going to infuriate the public. Me too. There is no need to support lobbyists, traders, and special interests. The tax should be proportional to the carbon amount and the dividend calculation will only require long division, which even a civil servant can do.

100% of the tax should go into the dividends. However, if some countries do not apply an equivalent tax, a duty should be collected on fossil-fuel dependent products imported from that country. Such import duties might be used, in part, to finance reforestation, climate adaptation, or other climate or energy related needs.

(3) Nuclear power: it would be great if energy efficiency, renewable energies, and an improved ("smart") electric grid could satisfy all energy needs. However, the future of our children should not rest on that gamble. The danger is that the minority of vehement antinuclear "environmentalists" could cause development of advanced safe nuclear power to be slowed such that utilities are forced to continue coal-burning in order to keep the lights on. That is a prescription for disaster.

There is no need for a decision to deploy nuclear power on a large scale. What is needed is rapid development of the potential, including prototypes, so that options are available. We have to avoid a "FutureGen" sort of drag-out. It seems to me that it is time to get fed-up with those people who think they can impose their will on everybody, and all the consequences that might imply for the planet, by putting this R&D on a slow boat to nowhere instead of on the fast-track that it deserves.

I hope that you will be willing to forward this to the Obamas. Wishing you the best for the holiday season, and especially success in your new job!

Best regards,
Jim Hansen

Letter to Michelle and Barack Obama

29 December 2008
Michelle and Barack Obama
Chicago and Washington, D.C.
United States of America

Dear Michelle and Barack,

We write to you as fellow parents concerned about the Earth that will be inherited by our children, grandchildren, and those yet to be born.

Barack has spoken of ‘a planet in peril’ and noted that actions needed to stem climate change have other merits. However, the nature of the chosen actions will be of crucial importance.

We apologize for the length of this letter. But your personal attention to these ‘details’ could make all the difference in what surely will be the most important matter of our times.

Jim has advised governments previously through regular channels. But urgency now dictates a personal appeal. Scientists at the forefront of climate research have seen a stream of new data in the past few years with startling implications for humanity and all life on Earth.

Yet the information that most needs to be communicated to you concerns the failure of policy approaches employed by nations most sincere and concerned about stabilizing climate. Policies being discussed in national and international circles now, which focus on ‘goals’ for emission reduction and ‘cap and trade’, have the same basic approach as the Kyoto Protocol. This approach is ineffectual and not commensurate with the climate threat. It could waste another decade, locking in disastrous consequences for our planet and humanity.

The enclosure, “Tell Barack Obama the Truth – the Whole Truth” was sent to colleagues for comments as we left for a trip to Europe. Their main suggestion was to add a summary of the specific recommendations, preferably in a cover letter sent to both of you.

There is a profound disconnect between actions that policy circles are considering and what the science demands for preservation of the planet. A stark scientific conclusion, that we must reduce greenhouse gases below present amounts to preserve nature and humanity, has become clear to the relevant experts. The validity of this statement could be verified by the National Academy of Sciences, which can deliver prompt authoritative reports in response to a Presidential requesti. NAS was set up by President Lincoln for just such advisory purposes.

Science and policy cannot be divorced. It is still feasible to avert climate disasters, but only if policies are consistent with what science indicates to be required. Our three recommendations derive from the science, including logical inferences based on empirical information about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of specific past policy approaches.

(1) Moratorium and phase-out of coal plants that do not capture and store CO2.

This is the sine qua non for solving the climate problem. Coal emissions must be phased out rapidly. Yes, it is a great challenge, but one with enormous side benefits.

Coal is responsible for as much atmospheric carbon dioxide as the other fossil fuels combined, and its reserves make coal even more important for the long run. Oil, the second greatest contributor to atmospheric carbon dioxide, is already substantially depleted, and it is impractical to capture carbon dioxide emitted by vehicles. But if coal emissions are phased out promptly, a range of actions including improved agricultural and forestry practices could bring the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide back down, out of the dangerous range.

As an example of coal’s impact consider this: continued construction of coal-fired power plants will raise atmospheric carbon dioxide to a level at least approaching 500 ppm (parts per million). At that level, a conservative estimate for the number of species that would be exterminated (committed to extinction) is one million. The proportionate contribution of a single power plant operating 50 years and burning ~100 rail cars of coal per day (100 tons of coal per rail car) would be about 400 species! Coal plants are factories of death. It is no wonder that young people (and some not so young) are beginning to block new construction.

(2) Rising price on carbon emissions via a “carbon tax and 100% dividend”.

A rising price on carbon emissions is the essential underlying support needed to make all other climate policies work. For example, improved building codes are essential, but full enforcement at all construction and operations is impractical. A rising carbon price is the one practical way to obtain compliance with codes designed to increase energy efficiency.

A rising carbon price is essential to “decarbonize” the economy, i.e., to move the nation toward the era beyond fossil fuels. The most effective way to achieve this is a carbon tax (on oil, gas, and coal) at the well-head or port of entry. The tax will then appropriately affect all products and activities that use fossil fuels. The public’s near-term, mid-term, and long-term lifestyle choices will be affected by knowledge that the carbon tax rate will be rising.

The public will support the tax if it is returned to them, equal shares on a per capita basis (half shares for children up to a maximum of two child-shares per family), deposited monthly in bank accounts. No large bureaucracy is needed. A person reducing his carbon footprint more than average makes money. A person with large cars and a big house will pay a tax much higher than the dividend. Not one cent goes to Washington. No lobbyists will be supported. Unlike cap-and-trade, no millionaires would be made at the expense of the public.

The tax will spur innovation as entrepreneurs compete to develop and market low-carbon and no-carbon energies and products. The dividend puts money in the pockets of consumers, stimulating the economy, and providing the public a means to purchase the products.

A carbon tax is honest, clear and effective. It will increase energy prices, but low and middle income people, especially, will find ways to reduce carbon emissions so as to come out ahead. The rate of infrastructure replacement, thus economic activity, can be modulated by how fast the carbon tax rate increases. Effects will permeate society. Food requiring lots of carbon emissions to produce and transport will become more expensive and vice versa, encouraging support of nearby farms as opposed to imports from half way around the world.

The carbon tax has social benefits. It is progressive. It is useful to those most in need in hard times, providing them an opportunity for larger dividend than tax. It will encourage illegal immigrants to become legal, thus to obtain the dividend, and it will discourage illegal immigration because everybody pays the tax, but only legal citizens collect the dividend.

“Cap and trade” generates special interests, lobbyists, and trading schemes, yielding non productive millionaires, all at public expense. The public is fed up with such business. Tax with 100% dividend, in contrast, would spur our economy, while aiding the disadvantaged, the climate, and our national security.

(3) Urgent R&D on 4th generation nuclear power with international cooperation.

Energy efficiency, renewable energies, and a “smart grid” deserve first priority in our effort to reduce carbon emissions. With a rising carbon price, renewable energy can perhaps handle all of our needs. However, most experts believe that making such presumption probably would leave us in 25 years with still a large contingent of coal-fired power plants worldwide. Such a result would be disastrous for the planet, humanity, and nature.

4th generation nuclear power (4th GNP) and coal-fired power plants with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) at present are the best candidates to provide large baseload nearly carbon-free power (in case renewable energies cannot do the entire job). Predictable criticism of 4th GNP (and CCS) is: “it cannot be ready before 2030.” However, the time needed could be much abbreviated with a Presidential initiative and Congressional support. Moreover, improved (3rd generation) light water reactors are available for near-term needs.

In our opinion, 4th GNPii deserves your strong support, because it has the potential to help solve past problems with nuclear power: nuclear waste, the need to mine for nuclear fuel, and release of radioactive materialiii. Potential proliferation of nuclear material will always demand vigilance, but that will be true in any case, and our safety is best secured if the United States is involved in the technologies and helps define standards.

Existing nuclear reactors use less than 1% of the energy in uranium, leaving more than 99% in long-lived nuclear waste. 4th GNP can “burn” that waste, leaving a small volume of waste with a half-life of decades rather than thousands of years. Thus 4th GNP could help solve the nuclear waste problem, which must be dealt with in any case. Because of this, a portion of the $25B that has been collected from utilities to deal with nuclear waste justifiably could be used to develop 4th generation reactors.

The principal issue with nuclear power, and other energy sources, is cost. Thus an R&D objective must be a modularized reactor design that is cost competitive with coal. Without such capability, it may be difficult to wean China and India from coal. But all developing countries have great incentives for clean energy and stable climate, and they will welcome technical cooperation aimed at rapid development of a reproducible safe nuclear reactor.

Potential for cooperation with developing countries is implied by interest South Korea has expressed in General Electric’s design for a small scale 4th GNP reactor. I do not have the expertise to advocate any specific project, and there are alternative approaches for 4th GNP (see enclosure). I am only suggesting that the assertion that 4th GNP technology cannot be ready until 2030 is not necessarily valid. Indeed, with a Presidential directive for the Nuclear Regulator Commission to give priority to the review process, it is possible that a prototype reactor could be constructed rapidly in the United States.

CCS also deserves R&D support. There is no such thing as clean coal at this time, and it is doubtful that we will ever be able to fully eliminate emissions of mercury, other heavy metals, and radioactive material in the mining and burning of coal. However, because of the enormous number of dirty coal-fired power plants in existence, the abundance of the fuel, and the fact that CCS technology could be used at biofuel-fired power plants to draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide, the technology deserves strong R&D support.


An urgentiv geophysical fact has become clear. Burning all the fossil fuels will destroy the planet we know, Creation, the planet of stable climate in which civilization developed.

Of course it is unfair that everyone is looking to Barack to solve this problem (and other problems!), but they are. He alone has a fleeting opportunity to instigate fundamental change, and the ability to explain the need for it to the public.

Geophysical limits dictate the outline for what must be donev. Because of the long lifetime of carbon dioxide in the air, slowing the emissions cannot solve the problem. Instead a large part of the total fossil fuels must be left in the ground. In practice, that means coal.

The physics of the matter, together with empirical data, also define the need for a carbon tax. Alternatives such as emission reduction targets, cap and trade, cap and dividend, do not work, as proven by honest efforts of the ‘greenest’ countries to comply with the Kyoto Protocol:

(1) Japan: accepted the strongest emission reduction targets, appropriately prides itself on having the most energy-efficient industry, and yet its use of coal has sharply increased, as have its total CO2 emissions. Japan offset its increases with purchases of credits through the clean development mechanism in China, intended to reduce emissions there, but Chinese emissions increased rapidly.

(2) Germany: subsidizes renewable energies heavily and accepts strong emission reduction targets, yet plans to build a large number of coal-fired power plants. They assert that they will have cap-and-trade, with a cap that reduces emissions by whatever amount is needed. But the physics tells us that if they continue to burn coal, no cap can solve the problem, because of the long carbon dioxide lifetime.

(3) Other cases are described on my Columbia University web site, e.g., Switzerland finances construction of coal plants, Sweden builds them, and Australia exports coal and sets atmospheric carbon dioxide goals so large as to guarantee destruction of much of the life on the planet.

Indeed, ‘goals’ and ‘caps’ on carbon emissions are practically worthless, if coal emissions continue, because of the exceedingly long lifetime of carbon dioxide in the air. Nobody realistically expects that the large readily available pools of oil and gas will be left in the ground. Caps will not cause that to happen – caps only slow the rate at which the oil and gas are used. The only solution is to cut off the coal source (and unconventional fossil fuels).

Coal phase-out and transition to the post-fossil fuel era requires an increasing carbon price. A carbon tax at the wellhead or port of entry reduces all uses of a fuel. In contrast, a less comprehensive cap has the perverse effect of lowering the price of the fuel for other uses, undercutting clean energy In contrast to the impracticality of all nations agreeing to caps, and the impossibility of enforcement, a carbon tax can readily be made near-global.vii

A Presidential directive for prompt investigation and proto-typing of advanced safe nuclear power is needed to cover the possibility that renewable energies cannot satisfy global energy needs. One of the greatest dangers the world faces is the possibility that a vocal minority of anti-nuclear activists could prevent phase-out of coal emissions.

The challenges today, including climate change, are great and urgent. Barack’s leadership is essential to explain to the world what is needed. The public, young and old, recognize the difficulties and will support the actions needed for a fundamental change of direction.

James and Anniek Hansen
United States of America

i Given the brilliant scientists Barack has appointed to his team, is there need for a National Academy of Sciences meeting? Yes, his team surely would welcome not only clarification of the urgency of the climate situation, but also interdisciplinary (economics, engineering, physics, biology…) discussion and evaluation of policy options. Barack’s first year or two in office is almost surely our last best chance to get the climate and energy strategy right in time to save the future of our children and grandchildren.

ii I am not referring to the DOE’s “Generation-4” nuclear program, which is a diffuse program that will not yield rapid payoff. Instead, as discussed below, there would need to be a Presidential directive to pursue a path(s) with the potential to contribute to decarbonization of global energy systems as rapidly as practical.

iii 4th generation reactors can include automatic shutdown in case of an earthquake or other interruption. It is noteworthy that, even with the presence of poorly designed nuclear power plants in the past, and in some cases demonstrably sloppy operations, the waste from coal-fired power plants has done far more damage, and even spread more radioactive material around the world than all nuclear power plants combined, including Chernobyl.

iv Urgency derives from the nearness of climate tipping points, beyond which climate dynamics will cause rapid changes out of humanity’s control. Concern about such behavior derives not from theory or speculation, but from improving knowledge of how the Earth responded to past changes of atmospheric composition and from observations of ongoing changes.

Tipping points occur because of amplifying feedbacks. Feedbacks include loss of Arctic sea ice, melting glaciers and ice sheets, release of ‘frozen’ methane as tundra melts, and growth of vegetation on previously frozen land. The surface changes increase the amount of sunlight absorbed by Earth. Added methane reduces heat radiation to space, amplifying the warming effect of carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels.

Analysis of Earth’s history helps reveal the level of greenhouse gases needed to maintain a climate resembling the Holocene, Creation, the period of reasonably stable climate in which civilization developed. That carbon dioxide level, unsurprisingly in retrospect, is less than the current 385 ppm (parts per million). The safe amount for the long-term is no more than 350 ppm, probably less. Pre-industrial carbon dioxide amount was 280 ppm. Precise definition of a safe range requires better knowledge of all climate forcing mechanisms.

What is clear is that continuing fossil fuel emissions will put Earth on an inexorable course toward an icefree state, a course punctuated by increasingly extreme disasters with hundreds of millions of climate refugees. A large fraction of species on Earth face certain extinction, if we burn most fossil fuels without capturing and storing the carbon dioxide. New species may come into being over many thousands of years, but all generations of our descendants that we can imagine will live on a far more desolate planet than the one we knew.

v Total carbon in conventional fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal), if released to the air, is enough to initiate a dynamic transition to an ice-free climate state, a transition that would be out of humanity’s control. A large fraction of the carbon dioxide emitted in burning fossil fuels stays in the air many centuries. Thus the climate problem cannot be solved by only slowing the rate at which we burn the fossil fuels.

Solution requires that a large part of total fossil fuels is left in the ground, or the carbon dioxide captured and stored. In addition, the unconventional fossil fuels (oil shale, tar sands, methane hydrates) must be left largely untouched or the carbon dioxide captured and stored.

vi Now, with oil prices down, is when a hefty carbon tax should be added. In the future, when the price of gasoline again reaches and passes $4/gallon, most of this cost will be tax, staying in the country, spread among consumers, and driving our economy to a clean future. The public can understand this, if Barack explains it, and they will accept it, if there is 100% dividend.

vii A carbon tax requires agreement of only several major nations. If any given nation does not apply the tax, an equivalent duty can be applied to their products at ports of entry