In The Conversation last month, Professor Barry Brook continued a long nuclear industry tradition of spruiking its wares without mentioning all the disturbing facts, says Ludwig Heinrich.
In his article ‘Low-carbon electricity must be fit-for-service (and nuclear power is)’ published in The Conversation last month, Professor Barry W. Brook, Professor of Climate Science at the University of Adelaide, puts forward an argument for nuclear energy that appears disingenuous. At the very least, he draws conclusions that are not warranted by the arguments put forward and are contradicted by reality.
The proponents of nuclear energy, like Brook, are very keen to phrase their arguments in terms of a low-carbon option, as they think that this legitimises it as a response to climate change. But, while nuclear energy is a low carbon technology, it is not a practical solution for a number of reasons. These are made clear below where I address the points that Brook makes.
‘Promoting nuclear power as the solution to climate change is like advocating smoking as a cure for obesity. That is, taking up the nuclear option will make it much more difficult to move to the sort of sustainable, ecologically healthy future that should be our goal.’
~ Professor Ian Lowe, Reaction Time
In the article Brook says:
‘We assessed technologies against a range of criteria intended to determine their suitability as a baseload alternative.’
This is a straw man argument that allows him to say:
‘… for the heavy-lifting job of supplying abundant low-carbon electricity to the always-on baseload market – to displace coal from our grid – we simply can’t ignore nuclear energy.’
However, as the well known economist John Quiggin points out:
‘There is no relevant sense in which baseload power demand is a meaningful concept in our current electricity supply system.’
‘Any electricity supply system likely to exist in the next 40 years and capable of meeting peak power demand will have no problems meeting baseload demand.’
(Others have made similar points, for instance Skeptical Science.)
As for the “always-on” nature of nuclear energy, in the same article Quiggin says:
‘…in our current circumstances, and as regards marginal increments to the system, the far bigger problem is that of supply invariability. It is a positive disadvantage for nuclear that it generates power 24 hours a day rather than solely during the daytime.’
Brook does say:
‘We need to take a rational and holistic perspective on low-carbon energy options.’
However, a ‘rational and holistic perspective on low-carbon energy options’ would surely ask about distribution methods? And nor does obsessing about baseload power – an artifact of our centralised coal-fired generating systems – appear rational nor holistic.
Brook makes the point that:
‘Assessing the “levelised” costs of existing energy technologies is already surprisingly difficult, given the array of assumptions that need to be made …’
And I agree, although I think that the definition of “levelised” costs also needs explication, given that it does not mean: “when all appropriate costs are factored in”.
This is particularly important as negative externalities and decommissioning costs differ by orders of magnitude across technologies.
For example: to decommission a solar PV farm you call in an electrician – for the day – and then the panels are taken away for recycling. It’s not massively and complicatedly high tech, nor is it expensive.
On the other hand, decommissioning a nuclear power plant can be very expensive and time-consuming — just ask the UK Government. According to Wikipedia (I know, it’s only Wikipedia, but you can follow the links):
‘The current estimate by the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is that it will cost at least £70 billion to decommission the 19 existing United Kingdom nuclear sites; this takes no account of what will happen in the future. Also, due to the radioactivity in the reactor structure, decommissioning is a slow process which takes place in stages. The plans of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority for decommissioning reactors have an average 50 year time frame. The long time frame makes reliable cost estimates extremely difficult. Excessive cost overruns are not uncommon even for projects done in a much shorter time frame.”
So how does Brook find it appropriate to say:
‘Yet, it will be the “masked costs” of massive energy storage … or else extensive reliance on the carbon-intensive alternative of open-cycle gas-fired backup … that will be what matters most to Australia’s future decarbonisation plans.’
And from there jump to:
‘Uniquely (at present), it (nuclear energy) is a proven fit-for-service low-carbon “plug-in” alternative for coal.’
Is he saying: “masked costs” of wind bad, but “masked costs” of nuclear good?
He also makes this rather amazing statement:
‘Indeed, I would argue that the principal limitations on nuclear fission are not technical, economic or fuel-related … but are instead linked to complex issues of societal acceptance, fiscal and political inertia, and inadequate critical evaluation of the real-world constraints facing low-carbon alternatives.’
In fact this is wrong on a number of counts: the economic issues confronting nuclear power generation are such that leading figures in the industry have cast doubts on its viability. For example, John Rowe, retiring chairman and CEO of Exelon Corporation, said:
“…let me also state unequivocably that new ones don’t make any sense right now.”
And Jeff Immelt, GE chief executive, said:
“…that nuclear power was “really hard” to defend financially, and most countries were moving to a mix of gas and renewable energy.”
The Economist? Well, their article ‘The Dream That Failed’ doesn’t exactly support the economics of the nuclear option. But there’s really no need to labour the point, it is simply a fact that economic issues are a principal limitation on nuclear fission.
As regards technical issues, the safety of the currently deployed models are being called into question (even in France). While current builds of later generation plants are also experiencing technical and construction problems. For example: The first two generation III EPR plants, in Finland and France, are both facing costly construction delays. And the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, found a number of safety-related design and manufacturing ‘deficiencies’.
Nor, despite what Brook sats, are fuel-related issues non-existent. There may be adequate supplies, although that too is contested, however as Chris A. Lumsden (chief executive officer of Halifax Regional Health System and a member of the Industrial Development Authority of Halifax County) says in the context of proposed mining in Virginia USA:
“The risks of uranium mining are serious and well documented. Independent studies by the National Academy of Sciences, as well as other bodies on both sides of this issue, clearly confirm the risks of uranium mining for public health, economic vitality and the environment.”
Spent fuel storage and disposal issues have not been resolved. For example, storage locations in the UK are still an issue. Also, and significantly, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it would stop issuing licenses for nuclear plants until it addresses problems with its nuclear-waste policy that were raised by a recent Federal Appeals Court decision.
What is also remarkable about Brook’s statement is that he doesn’t mention physical or financial risks. After Fukushima, that seems a bit callous as well being a case of ignoring some other “masked costs”. The Japan Center for Economic Research estimates that the cost of cleaning up and decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi reactors will range from $70 billion to $250 billion.
This includes decontaminating land up to a 20-kilometer radius, but not beyond — even though contamination in some directions extends considerably farther. The cost estimates do not include indirect economic damage caused by the accident — such as loss of agriculture, fisheries, and industrial production. Nor does it include accident-related health consequences.In this context, and even ignoring the human and social costs it is almost certain that that incident will lead to higher insurance costs world-wide.
When dealing with the economics of renewable energy systems, and contrasting them with nuclear systems, we do have to ensure that we are dealing with all costs.
But not only that, we also need to look at safety and moral issues. The proponents of nuclear energy have to show that nuclear power plants, and their waste repositories, do not need to be exclusion zones for centuries to come; they need to prove that the toxicity is trivial, and be able to demonstrate a system of governance that maintains safety for that duration. When choices are made that offend morality, such as the intergenerational injustice inherent in nuclear energy production – i.e. future generations have no say, they are forced to maintain the integrity and security of toxic wastes and sites from which they derive no benefit, then the trade-off in other social goods need to be assured – and very high. The cost of maintaining a system of governance for centuries would, I think, be rather expensive.
As Mark Cooper says:
‘Nuclear power is a complex technology based on a catastrophically dangerous resource that is vulnerable to natural events and human frailties, which suggests that nuclear safety and affordable reactors are currently incompatible and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.’
Meanwhile Brook says:
‘Indeed, I would argue that the principal limitations on nuclear fission are … linked to complex issues of societal acceptance, fiscal and political inertia, and inadequate critical evaluation of the real-world constraints facing low-carbon alternatives.’
I have to agree that “…societal acceptance is one of the principal limitations on nuclear fission”, and so it should be. In a democracy – or any modern state, “societal acceptance” – by which you may read “trust”, does need to be earned. But the nuclear industry has done little to earn that trust.
I also agree that there has been an “inadequate critical evaluation of the real-world constraints facing low-carbon alternatives”, but I think that Professor Brook critical evaluation has also been inadequate. He does not appear to have taken into account Australia’s insolation profile, the flexibility of solar technology deployment, the low decommissioning costs of wind and solar facilities, the low levels of negative externalities, nor the employment prospects and the ready availability of skills that make renewable energy systems such a good fit for Australia’s energy needs.
Nor has that critique been adequate in evaluating the place of nuclear energy — which I also grant is a “low-carbon alternatives”. The evaluation that Professor Brook supplies avoids major issues, such as decommissioning and risk assessments — not to mention moral issues and the impacts of a water intensive process in a constrained water resources environment.
Brook argues that nuclear energy is scalable; that is, nuclear power plants can be built in sufficient quantity to replace significant proportions of existing fossil-fuel generators. On paper, or in the ivory tower, it may be possible to build enough nuclear power plants — but in the real world, where exactly is the expertise going to come from?
The head of France’s Nuclear Safety Authority has estimated that it could take 15 years to build the necessary regulatory framework in countries that are starting from scratch — that’s us, by the way. More problems are on the horizon:
‘Some 40 percent of EDF’s operators and maintenance staff will retire by 2015. As a result, France will likely face a formidable shortage of skilled workers.’
But we won’t? That seems a long reach to me.
Brook also asks: can the generator be installed close to a load centre? I do not believe that, in Australia, there would be a willingness to locate nuclear power plants next to or within our major cities. Nor, after the experience of Fukushima, do I think that is sensible. On the other hand, siting renewable facilities close to, or even within our major centres, is technically and politically feasible.
One of his seemingly plausible arguments relates to energy storage — but this is another straw man argument. The notion that solar can provide no power at night is not true. Solar convection towers actually produce more power at night than in the day. Wind with battery storage is already being deployed (A few percent of the annual subsidies for nuclear could very well find us a better storage solutions. There are many developments in the battery area, see especially the Liquid Metal Battery — which looks a good fit to renewables.)
Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency claims there is a greater technical potential for balancing variable renewable energy output than is commonly assumed. Also Professor Quiggin makes an interesting point that by using timers houses can acts as partial storage systems.
Here, Brook is looking at energy systems in a component rather than a system manner and his point about capacity factors is largely irrelevant. If one looks at wind, solar or wave energy generators then it is clear that the large centralised model of feed-in does not need to apply. Geographically dispersed wind/solar/wave installations can feed into the grid. It’s also worth noting that wind and solar farms are more resilient than nuclear power plants. If one windmill fails there is a power drop but the farm continues to supply power, whereas, industry wide the expected down time for nuclear power plants is about 11 per cent. It would take a large number of days without sun or wind for renewables to equal that.
As for emissions while it is true that nuclear power plants are low-carbon it should be noted that
‘Nuclear power results in up to 25 times more carbon emissions than wind energy, when reactor construction and uranium refining and transport are considered.’
As I said at the start: Professor Brook’s article draws conclusions that are not warranted by the arguments put forward and are contradicted by reality. To reach his conclusion, that nuclear is fit for service, he has constructed a set of criteria that he believes support the nuclear power plant option. However he has selected criteria, not all of them non-controversial, that are not the totality of the system requirements— and, even then, he has failed to address issues that arise from them.
(See part 2 of Ludwig Heinrich’s response to Barry Brook tomorrow: ‘The social and moral issues in nuclear power deployment’.)
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License