Saturday, 8 October 2011

Dangerous trends with hard evidence and supporting analysis

After one whole week on Twitter, a review of the information I chose to share may make for a blog post of potential interest. So here goes...

There's a concerning, hopefully short-term, trend back to fossil fuel use. Many surmise this is a reaction to events in Japan - and I see no reason to disagree. Specifically:

Based on the evidence above, I am confident that any significant move away from nuclear will result in an emissions increase. So if you agree with the vast majority of respected scientists and their peer-reviewed work; you should also agree that these are steps in a catastrophically wrong direction.

Rolling Stone published an article describing the perverse cosmic-justice faced by Australia. We will suffer greatly - as some say we should, due to our heavy reliance on coal leading to the highest per-person emissions in the developed world and being the world's top coal exporter.

A series of Washington Posts cartoons caught my eye.

Analysis continues to conclude that nuclear is likely to play a key and competitive role on any realistic effort to reduce emissions. And there is plenty of evidence to support the IAEA's recent projection for continued nuclear expansion despite this year's tragedy in Japan. Specifically, nuclear expansion programmes moveed forward in Argentina, Finland, South Africa and Vietnam.

Nuclear essential to cut emissions - UK chief scientific adviser

These trends are consistent with the findings of a recently published OECD report - Carbon Pricing, Power Markets and the Competitiveness of Nuclear Power (purchase required). A few quotes from the conclusions:

[all emphasis is mine]
"...economic competition in electricity markets is today being played out between nuclear energy and gas-fired power generation, with coal-fired power generation not being competitive as soon as even modest carbon pricing is introduced."
"The profit analysis showed that during the past five years, nuclear energy has made very substantive profits due to carbon pricing. These profits are far higher than those of coal and gas, even though the latter did not have to pay for their carbon emission permits during the past five years. This will change with the introduction of full auctioning of permits in 2013 in the EU ETS, which will further increase the relative short-term advantage of nuclear power plants. Operating an existing nuclear power plant in Europe today is very profitable."
"Nuclear energy is competitive with natural gas for baseload power generation, as soon as one of the three categories – investment costs, prices or CCS – acts in its favour. It will dominate the competition as soon as two out of three categories act in its favour."
But the report authors add some caveats to the 'rough and ready synthesis' above. Gas plants for example, may simply opt out of generation when electricity prices are low. Since gas-based generation profits are strongly linked to the cost of fuel as well as the price of electricity, low electricity prices tend to favour gas over nuclear.

But the report conclusions continue...
"The progressive exit from both fossil fuels and nuclear in Germany, Europe’s biggest market, will inevitably push prices higher, which in conjunction with carbon pricing opens opportunities for nuclear energy in other European countries."
"It is thus not unthinkable that risk-averse private investors may opt for fossil-fuel-fired power generation instead of nuclear even in cases where nuclear energy would be the least-cost option over the lifetime of the plant."
So their final projection?
"Risk minimisation implies that utilities need to diversify their generation sources and need to adopt a portfolio approach. ... Such diversification would not only limit financial investor risk, but also a number of non-financial risks (climate change, security of supply, accidents)."
Nuclear has a future. Germany's decision to phase out nuclear there will, ironically, make the technology more appealing to others in Europe who will see increasing profits due to rising electricity prices and fixed generation costs.


  1. A Floating Offshore Nuclear Plant for Australia?
    Key problems with establishing nuclear electricity generation in Australia include:
    1. NIMBY (no one wants a almost anything in their back yard);
    2. Cost and delay of building anything in Australia;
    3. Lack of local expertise;
    4. Access to large volumes of cooling water;
    5. Concern about impact of future natural disasters such as tsunamis and earth quakes; and
    6. The need for a location near to the existing grid.
    To overcome these problems I propose that a plant be built on a large floating concrete vessel and anchored over the horizon, but adjacent to existing coastal coal fired plants and therefore the national grid. Proximity to an aluminum smelter would also be a plus. The cost of connecting to the grid would not be excessive, noting that Tasmania was profitably connected to the national grid. Significantly the location would not be in any politician’s electorate. Workers could be transported by service vessels or helicopters.
    The vessel could be constructed in, for example, Korea and be fully operational before being towed into place and anchored. The technology for constructing and mooring large concrete drilling platforms is well established – the proposed vessel would only differ in scale. Construction in a place such as Korea would be at a fraction of the cost and time. The technology used in the nuclear plant could be sourced more widely if needed. Not having to acquire land for a plant would also be a huge saving.
    The vessel would be sufficiently massive that it would survive any feasible collision from ships, but no doubt authorities would insist on a large exclusion zone. Importantly, a vessel floating on the ocean is immune from earth quakes and tsunamis. Technology for anchoring systems to withstand any feasible storms is well established.
    Finally, nuclear fuel and spent radioactive materials could be transported by ships without ever touching Australian soil.
    Any comments?
    Garry White

  2. Thanks for your comment - my apologies for taking so long to post. I don't have any moderating criteria set, but for some reason Blogger decides to submit some comments for my moderation. I don't check for these as often as I should.

    Regarding your post, the idea of a floating nuclear energy station is intriguing. You've stated many of the potential benefits. Others include a possible fuel leasing arrangement, where the supplier agrees to the spent fuel being returned to them for final disposal or reprocessing. Russia apparently agrees with you. They launched just such such a plant in mid-2010. And it looks like they are going ahead with production plans for at least seven commercial vessels by 2015.

    There's considerable experience to draw upon. It's not like putting a nuclear reactor on a ship is in any way 'novel' technology. the USS Nautilus put to sea in 1955 and Russia's first followed just three years later.

    But we can not discuss nuclear powered ships and Russia without touching on Russia's poor, many would say completely irresponsible, performance regarding the management of spent fuel and other wastes from those ventures. But this should not be linked to the technology (floating Nuclear Energy Station) so much as linked to less than adequate oversight and possilbe corruption within Russia.

    There are still questions to answer. A floating nuclear plant would (by design and intent) remain in one fixed position for years.

    - How would a floating NES be regulated?
    - Who licenses the operators, the design, the fuel?
    - What new emergency planning is required (i.e. how to respond to tropical cyclones and other severe weather)?
    - How would the terrorist threat be assessed and mitigated?
    - How is title/ownership managed?
    - Who is accountable for unplanned costs?
    - Who is liable for accidents and/or mismanagement?
    - Who is responsible for spent fuel, decommissioning and other waste/back-end legacy issues?
    - How will supply security be assured? (i.e. what's to stop the supplier from sailing off to another port where electricity prices are higher?)

    But I don't see any of these as show-stoppers.