The list of obstacles to overcome for the Energy Revolution is long, there is a good reason for this. Energy is what drives our economies and their growth, without it no idea can become reality. This fact is often overlooked because of the nature of energy, without it there nothing, no sun; no plants, no plants; no animals.
Fossil fuels are the reason why the world economy grew to heights not imaginable before we managed to make use of this energy source. Make no mistake, without fossil fuels, man and animals (and a little bit of wind) is the only source of pervasive power to do work. Slavery (in the direct and indirect sense of manual labour) can owe much of its reduction to the use of fossil fuels.
However fossil fuels have a large human health and environmental cost. The scope of the change required to decouple from fossil fuels to clean, cheap and abundant energy is massive. It is no wonder why central command and control has failed to achieve this outcome or even make a dent. With the right incentives, technologies and freedom of action, we can remove a lot of fossil fuel usage in a timeframe that can make an improvement for people and the world.
The Australian fait accompli
Australia is one of the only OECD countries to never have built a nuclear power plant, thanks mostly to our abundant cheap coal reserves, which in the post WW2 era meant we had a stable and secure supply of energy.
However, 60% of the Australian population are on the fence or pro-nuclear power. With the right discussions, evidence and opportunities it is possible to win the undecided and convince some of the opposed. The position that nuclear is decades away from public support is a false and incorrect fait accompli that should not be accepted by anyone with hope of creating jobs and improving the environment.
The last part of this data is the most worrying, as we will see later, the vast majority don’t support nuclear because they have been told that solar and wind can displace coal. This is not the case, coal can only be displaced by nuclear or hydropower.
Not to mention that we are currently running our 3rd research reactor that is critical for research and the production of cancer killing drugs. We are already doing nuclear fission in Australia, we are just choosing not to use it to kill our coal power industry.
The level of fear surrounding nuclear power is not warranted when looking at data and comparing nuclear power to other forms of power generation. In fact even if you ignore climate change, there is a clear moral imperative to remove coal as a source of power and even to remove oil too. They are incredibly dangerous energy sources that we live with every day.
Proliferation and Terrorism
Proliferation is a geopolitical issue, having or not having nuclear power really does not enter into the discussion. There is no example where a country that started a civilian nuclear power program then decided it would become a nuclear weapons nation. In fact we have so much Plutonium in the world that it would be much easier and cheaper to steal it (which is still unbelievably hard) than to make it. Thankfully smart nuclear nations like Russia are burning their weapons Plutonium, in the process getting clean, reliable energy.
This also applies to non-state terrorism, there are much easier and cheaper ways to cause large amounts of chaos and destruction without needing fissile or even just radioactive materials. At the same time nuclear energy is very dense and therefore easy to secure.
NIMBYism and BANANAism
Not In My Back Yard and her big brother Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone are very real problems. There is a lack of give in the community to understand that to reduce our impact on the environment means that we must develop denser urban environments, be closer to our sources of energy, places of work and homes.
There is an odd parallel to NIMBYism and that is anti-immigration. In effect there is no real difference in the 2 stances, they both value the status quo over any benefit to the greater good. To support immigration is to support the greater good. To increase living density improves public transport, increases the return on public infrastructure and is to support the greater good. To build clean, cheap, abundant power including nuclear is to support the greater good.
Cost and speed
An issue often not given enough thought is the cost of electricity production. While renewables are coming down in costs, there is still a lot of variation which is no surprise when the inputs are also variable.
Ivanpah is a prime example of this. It cost $2.2b to build and has a nameplate capacity of 392MW and is producing 652GWh per year. Compare this to the UAEs 4 reactors currently under construction which will have a nameplate capacity of 6,500MW and produce about 54,000TWh for a construction cost of $25b. That is a cost per MWh over 7 times cheaper for nuclear than solar thermal. That’s without the additional cost of natural gas you need to heat up the solar thermal plant each day, which causes emissions, defeating the point of the project to some extent. Once we add in the cost of variable production, then quickly you can see that while on the face it seems that solar and wind should be ‘free’ they are far from it.
The financials are clear, abundant energy is best done by clean, cheap, dense, reliable nuclear fission. Variable renewables are expensive, not just because of construction costs (although that is certainly part of it) but also because they are intermittent, power that is not reliable is expensive because you need more production capacity and you need back up, more often than not this is natural gas, meaning demand for CSG and other gas deposits will remain until batteries can replace it, which is unlikely to be soon or at all.
Often the argument about nuclear cost is not put into balance by looking at the value of the investment. This is a huge mistake, if you applied this to say aircraft and modern airlines, we wouldn’t have any global air travel. The value creation of aircraft has risen much faster than the cost of production. Let’s look at the 747 as an example (it has been built for about the same timeframe as LWRs). So why do airlines continue to buy 747s, not to mention all the other options that compete in that sector? The answer is because the value they create has risen much faster.
- 747-100: US$24 million (1967)
- 747-200: US$39 million (1976)
- 747-300: US$83 million (1982)
- 747-400: US$228–260 million (2007)
- 747-8I: US$351.4 million
- 747-8F: US$352 million
When it comes to speed, all the data we have points to nuclear as the fastest, lowest risk way to decarbonise large modern economy based grids.
The Zero Risk Assumption
Often in this debate, there are assertions, often unspoken, that some courses of action are without risk. This cannot be further from the truth.
All sources of energy need to be assessed for their performance, economics, safety and environmental impact. All sources have issues in all those areas, there is no perfect answer, no simple solution, the assumption that renewables have no issues is the most intellectually dishonest position in this argument but it is one often touted.
Wind and solar have many more unknown risks, but their biggest Achilles Heel is that the input they require to function has inherent risk. Unlike the chemical energy of fossil fuels or the strong nuclear force harnessed in fission reactors, the wind and the sun are not reliable. We hear that these ‘problems’ can be engineered for but just because they can does not mean that it is achievable or cost effective. We should not be willing to bet the environment on this maybe. If it we figure it out, that’s great news, in the meantime we need to have other plans to solve the problems we see ahead.
The Renewable Double Standard
For some reason wind and solar get the R&D tech halo, always getting better, cheaper and easier. Nuclear on the other hand is always assumed to be static or worse, somehow amazingly getting more expensive. These statements don’t match the long term trend and certainly don’t take into account the many new designs that have addressed safety, cost, efficiency.
The data today shows that it is not possible to displace all coal without nuclear. Look at Germany, now look at France, the evidence is clear here. But can these outcomes change in the future? Of course they can, but if you give renewables improvements in economics, performance, safety and environmental impact you ALSO have to give them to nuclear.
This is the first double standard. The second double standard is: that the renewable camp will not allow nuclear as an option, they want a monopoly without competition from nuclear, obviously it would reduce the funding available because of it’s success removing coal. They care more about renewables then they do climate change if they hold this position. Nuclear simply wants the opportunity to compete in the marketplace, it does not ask for renewables to be stopped.
The ‘we don’t need base load power’ fallacy
Meet Ontario, it has roughly the same population as the Australian eastern seaboard. It has no coal power. It has an average CO2 emissions of <100g/KWh while Australia is around 800g/KWh. You can clearly see that on a winters day (1 Feb 2017) that the minimum overnight energy generation was 15,000MW or 75% of the day time maximum output of about 20,000MW. Nuclear provides a constant 10,000MW of generation, or from 50% to 70% of all generation over a day.
A vote AGAINST nuclear is a vote FOR coal
Anyone who will not allow nuclear to be part of the clean emissions solution is ensuring that coal remains a major source of power for the world.
Take France and Germany; France has cleaner, cheaper power than Germany and has had this for decades. Germany has gone backwards in terms of burning more coal while at the same time pushing the price of power to record high levels thanks to its move away from nuclear and towards wind and solar. If it wasn’t for the fact that Germany was connected to many other grids in Europe it would be hard to see how it could survive its failed Energiewende policy for this long.
“Variable renewables (wind/solar) will save the day” risk takers are proposing solutions that are just not viable today nor are they likely to become viable in the next couple of decades. Germany’s Energiewende is clear evidence that wind and solar alone, even with huge political support, cannot overcome economic and physical constraints.