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].