Clean. Reliable. Affordable. The role of nuclear technology in meeting the challenge of low greenhouse gas electricity supply in the 21st century.

Ben Heard, Ph.D, for Bright New World

This is the introduction to my recently completed thesis. I have been inspired to post it here after reading ‘Enlightenment Now’ by Stephen Pinker. In examining the plight of the environment, Pinker identifies that in so many ways we are either seeing environmental improvements or can have reasonable confidence that environmental improvements can be achieved.

Except, that is, for climate change. When it comes to addressing climate change, we are in terrible, terrible straights, and Pinker astutely recognises the essential role of nuclear technologies in changing that.

Pinker makes a remarkable statement, one I endorse.

‘The team that brings clean and abundant energy to the world will benefit humanity more than all of history’s saints, heroes, prophets, martyrs and laureates combined’.

When anyone joins the the family that is Bright New World, it’s because, in whatever modest way, we want to be part of that team.

My thanks to my friends at Third Way, who’s image series ‘Nuclear Reimagined’ adorn this post.

‘It is better to be vaguely right than exactly wrong’.

-       Carveth Read, Logic: Deductive and Inductive (1920).

 ‘Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to be pro-nuclear or anti-wind. I’m just pro-arithmetic’.

-       Sir David J. McKay

 ‘I spent twenty years campaigning against nuclear power and then I realised I was wrong. Because I am not a politician, I said so’.

-      Stephen Tindale

 ‘No reason to get excited,’

The thief, he kindly spoke,

‘There are many here among us now

Who feel that life is but a joke,

But you and I, we’ve been through that

And this is not our fate

So let us not talk falsely now.

The hour is getting late’.

-       All Along the Watchtower, Bob Dylan (1967)


Energy underpins human civilisation. It is “… the only universal currency” (Smil, 2017) and “… the master enabler” (Hall, 2017). For everything from our basic survival to our grandest and most complex enterprise, we exploit and deploy energy in myriad forms. Sociologist Johan Goudsblom acknowledged that civilisation, as an observable phenomenon and process, has been a transitional process of energy exploitation: from using sticks and stones as tools and weapons to the point where “… today, there are none living without the products of agriculture and large-scale industry” (Goudsblom, 2012).

 Desalination and nuclear energy - perhaps the most crucial technological pairing for the 21st century?

Desalination and nuclear energy - perhaps the most crucial technological pairing for the 21st century?

This transitional process of increasing energy exploitation (Table 1) has been ‘good’ for humans. Since around 1800, average life expectancy has risen from 30-40 years to 71.5 years in 2015 (Gapminder, 2017; World Health Organisation, 2017a). The world is now less violent than at any other point in our history (Pinker, 2011)global vaccination coverage of newborn children is now 86 % (World Health Organisation, 2017b), and the global rate of population growth is now 1.1 % and has been in steep decline since peaks of approximately 2 – 2.3 % around 1963-1970 (Worldometers, 2017). These historical trends point to energy as an enabler of peace, technological advancement and human longevity. However, our energy consumption has externalised costs. The price of modern civilisation could prove dear indeed if our energy consumption seriously disrupts the vital natural systems on which our well-being also depends.

Table1 Evolution of power outputs of machines available to humans. Source: Modified from Hall (2017)

Table1.png

 Such disruption is well-underway. The energy consumption that has raised human longevity and standards of living to unprecedented heights has also contributed to rapid changes in the Earth’s climate. Our energy consumption, based almost entirely on the combustion of fossil-carbon fuels, results in the emission of the long-lived greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. Emissions of carbon dioxide from the combustion of oil, coal, and gas exceed 33 million metric tonnes per year (BP, 2017), and global average temperature is estimated to be 0.99 °C above the 1950-1981 average (NASA, 2017). If we continue to use fossil fuels as our dominant source of energy, best-estimate modelling suggests that temperatures could rise to between 2.6 and 4.8 °C above the 1986-2005 average by the end of this century (IPCC, 2013), with associated increases in the acidity of oceans through the absorption of additional carbon dioxide (IPCC, 2013). Such increases in global average temperature and changes in ocean chemistry might be well-beyond our adaptive capabilities, potentially impacting our settlements and food production systems at a scale that may be comparable to the deindustrialisation of civilisation (Lynas, 2008).

As a consequence, humanity faces a paradox. Our historic conditions tell us that departure from an energised civilisation will lead to catastrophic outcomes for humanity. Yet our energy consumption drives us toward risks of climate disruption on a catastrophic scale. How can we break this paradox not only to continue to enjoy the benefits of our energised civilisation, but also extend it to eliminate poverty? How can we subsequently enhance our civilisation using energy — the universal currency and master enabler — to protect, conserve, and then enhance and restore our natural world? How can we do these things without fatally undermining that most vital of all our natural support systems — a stable, dependable and hospitable climate? The search for answers to these questions is the motivational underpinning of my PhD thesis. I begin by examining how energy consumption has changed in the era of global awareness of climate change. 

From 1990 to today — energy in the age of climate change awareness

In 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change handed down its first assessment report (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 1992). From then to now (2018) represents nearly three decades of increasing scientific understanding of, and policy focus on, anthropogenic impacts on the climate. But the energy-and-climate paradox remains unbroken. In the age of climate change awareness, our consumption of energy has appreciably altered in one major way: it has grown (Figure 1), along with increasing human population and rising standards of living. Human population growth once led to cries of alarm in environmentalist literature (Sax, 1960). This moderated in subsequent generations as the process of demographic transition became more broadly acknowledged (Aaseng, 1991; Ehrlich and Ehrlich, 2006; Ehrlich, 1971; Shah, 1998). The large growth in population that was witnessed from the dawn of industrialisation to the last quarter of the 20th century was a result of greater survival. The subsequent prosperity that has resulted in greater resource consumption is strongly correlated with lower population growth rates, enabling humanity to move toward population stability. That process that might be additionally accelerated with targeted, anthropocentric policies: extension of family planning services and healthcare, greater provision of education, extending economic opportunities (i.e. jobs and income) that delay the age of primagravida etc. (Bongaarts, 2009; Bradshaw and Brook, 2014; Ehrlich and Ehrlich, 2006; John Hobcraft, 1993; Robin Maynard, 2012). These realities of human development only heighten the paradox. A larger number of consumptive, prosperous humans assuredly, numerically, increases pressure on the natural environment and increases the challenge of achieving something that might be reasonably called ‘sustainability’(Bradshaw and Brook, 2014; Bradshaw and Brook, 2016; Robin Maynard, 2012). Yet constraining human population is most effectively achieved through the energy-intensive process of development and poverty alleviation; two outcomes where impressive progress has been made since 1990 (Martínez and Ebenhack, 2008). Unfortunately, our dependence on fossil fuels across this period was has been virtually unaltered (Figure 1). There has been no transition away from fossil fuels of sufficient size to offset overall growth. 

1990 to 2016.jpg

Figure 1 Global consumption of primary energy, coal, oil and gas, and global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion in 1990 and 2016. Source: Adapted from BP (BP, 2017).

Much recent commentary has highlighted rapid growth in installed capacity and generation of electricity from non-hydro renewables (Carrington, 2017; Frankfurt School-UNEP Centre/BNEF, 2017; REN21, 2017) (principally onshore wind and solar photo-voltaics), with suggestions that these technologies might break the paradox. While this rapid growth is inarguable, it also needs to be placed in appropriate context to establish the overall impact in reducing dependence on fossil fuels. Globally, growth in electricity generation from non-hydro renewables was just over 16 % year-1 for the ten years to 2015 (BP, 2017). In 1990, non-hydro renewables (solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and waste) generated 121 terrawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity. By 2016, the non-hydro renewable contribution to electricity generation had grown fifteen times (1,854 TWh)(BP, 2017). In 2016, global investment in renewable generation was larger than global investment in fossil fuel generation for the fifth year in a row (Frankfurt School-UNEP Centre/BNEF, 2017). New electricity generation in 2016 from all renewables (approximately 353 TWh) was greater than new electricity generation from fossil fuels (approximately 247 TWh), with non-hydro renewables adding approximately the same amount of new electricity generation (234 TWh) as fossil fuels (BP, 2017).

Conversely, from 1990-2016, total global electricity consumption more than doubled (11,914 to 24,816 TWh). New hydro-electric generation contributed 1,730 TWh of that increase, while nuclear generation increased output by around 615 TWh (BP, 2017). Compared with 1990, in 2016 the additional electricity generated from fossil sources (8,686 TWh year-1) was slightly higher than the total electricity generated from non-fossil sources (8,494 TWh year-1). All other non-electrical energy (principally heat and transportation) remained dominated by fossil fuels. 

In markets that have adopted non-hydro renewable electricity generation early and fast, there are challenges in exceeding certain amounts of penetration and supply (Australian Energy Market Operator, 2016; Martin, 2016). Meanwhile the use of fossil fuels shows minimal signs of abatement. In 2016, 79 GWe of new coal capacity was added globally (EndCoal.org, 2017). While that is a notable decline from a record 104 GWe (2015) it is only slightly below the 10-year average (2006-2016) of 84 GWe (EndCoal.org, 2017). China might be reducing the energy intensity of its economic growth, leading to a downturn in growth in coal consumption (Qi et al., 2016), but 1.2 billion people globally had no access to electricity in 2016 (International Energy Agency, 2016). The global human population is expected to continue to grow to the end of this century (Bradshaw and Brook, 2014; Gerland et al., 2014) and total energy consumption is expected to grow with it (Clarke et al., 2007). It could be that optimism regarding a meaningful overall ‘transition’ to renewable energy is at best premature, and at worst, altogether misguided. Growth in consumption of non-hydro renewables has not halted growth in consumption of fossil fuels, let alone led to a net reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions from overall energy use. This sobering reality is generally not appreciated by the general public or even non-specialist scientists, nor is it commonly discussed in the major media.

One of the limits to the public discourse relating to the recent rapid growth in renewable electricity generation is a tendency to focus primarily on cost of electricity generation, rather than focus on the overall value provided to a system by different technologies. This is prevalent in discussions of the Australian National Electricity Market (Baldwin et al., 2017), which I examine in detail in this thesis. The National Electricity Market operates as an ‘energy only’ market, where generators price bids at five-minute intervals, with dispatch to market based on the price of these bids determined each half-hour (Australian Energy Market Commission, 2018). In the case of renewable electricity-generating technologies that are now being added to a mature grid (most notably, wind turbines and solar photovoltaic cells), the levelised cost of electricity generation has fallen sharply in recent years (Finkel et al., 2017; Gerardi and Galanis, 2017). This provides such technologies with a distinct advantage energy-only markets. However, the energy-only approach overlooks several valuable characteristics of electricity-generating assets that are required to create and maintain a reliable and affordable electricity system. These include the amount of firm generating capacity that is added to the system (being the capacity that will reliably be available during periods of highest demand); any effects on constraining transmission and distribution asset costs, and maximising the benefits of existing assets; energy security benefits; environmental benefits; and reliability benefits such as the provision of essential ancillary services like frequency control.

What appears ‘cheap’ in electricity generation might be of low value to the system overall, and what appears costly in electricity generation might be of high value to the system overall. However, as this thesis examines in more detail (Chapter 1 and Chapter 2), this broader value might be obscured in the early stages of an energy transition where new energy sources are added to a mature, functional system. However, they must eventually be accounted for in full. Thus, the transition from electricity grids based on centralised, synchronous generation (fossil fuels, nuclear and large hydro-electricity) to distributed, variable (e.g., solar thermal) and asynchronous generation (e.g., solar photovoltaic and wind) is likely more difficult, and costly, than many realise.

Nuclear technology — can it break the paradox?

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There is another non-carbon energy source available to us alongside hydroelectricity and non-hydro renewables: nuclear power. In nuclear technology, humanity developed the first, and still only, fuel-based energy source that does not rely on the process of combustion (rapid oxidation) of carbon-based fuels, but rather the wholly different physical process of fission. In fission, chemically combining oxygen and carbon plays no role whatsoever. In other words, it is the only form of greenhouse-gas free energy production that has been proven and demonstrated beyond doubt as reliable, fully transferable and completely scalable to the demands of developed nation economies.

The difference is not merely qualitative, but also quantitative. Human civilisation advanced with the exploitation of fuels of higher energy density (Huffman, 2015). Where dry firewood holds ~ 16 MJ kg-1, good-quality coal has nearly double the density (30 MJ kg-1) and crude oil approximately triple the density (45-46 MJ kg-1) (World Nuclear Association, 2012). Natural uranium, deployed in a typical light-water reactor, offers ~ 500,000 MJ kg-1— an energy density five orders of magnitude higher than crude oil (World Nuclear Association, 2012), therefore potentially opening avenues for unexpected and beneficial progress in human civilisation. As shown in Table 1, the process of nuclear fission represents a major departure in energy density that Hall casually refers to as “… much more intense than we are used to.”(Hall, 2017)

With these compelling characteristics, it might appear self-evident to the empirical mind that nuclear technologies must play a crucial role in meeting humanity’s interrelated challenges of poverty alleviation and climate stability in the 21st century. Yet, as we near the completion of the first 20 years of that century, the role and reputation of nuclear technology remains highly contested, controversial, and contradictory. In nations where nuclear has been deployed in decades past, it has proven potent in displacing fossil fuels from electricity supply (Qvist and Brook, 2015). Yet, during the era of climate-change awareness (1990-2016), the world increased nuclear electricity generation by only 600 TWh year-1 (less than 5 % of the new total new generation added), and growth in the ten years to 2015 was -0.7 % (i.e., it shrank in absolute terms) (BP, 2017). Despite being demonstrably the safest energy source in the choice of coal, oil, gas, hydroelectricity, or biomass (European Commission, 2005; Kharecha and Hansen, 2013; Markandya and Wilkinson, 2007)(Figure 1), it carries a perception of great risk (Ho et al., 2013; Kılınç et al., 2012). Where it has been deployed, electricity costs are generally low and stable (Boccard, 2013; Kidd, 2011; Zink, 1998)to the extent that in Sweden a tax on nuclear electricity made up one-third of the operating cost (Wagner and Rachlew, 2016). However, today one hears from nearly anyone who cares to comment that it is too expensive to play a meaningful role in dealing with climate change (Damian, 2016; Romm, 2015; Schneider, 2015; Smith, 2017), somehow it is “… too costly to matter”(Ahmad and Ramana, 2014). 

Mortality and morbidity.jpg

Figure 2 Comparison of mortality and morbidity, normalised to units TWh-1, between brown coal, black coal, oil, gas and nuclear power. Source: Adapted from Markandya and Wilkinson (2007)

Nuclear technology has the singular distinction among fuel-based energy sources of capturing its operational waste as well as planning and funding responsible disposal as a matter of normal operations; this distinction is presented as a flaw when eventual solutions are delayed, unpopular or otherwise problematic (Jacobson, 2012). Without exception, it is rejected by the oldest major environmental groups (Friends of the Earth International, 2016; Greenpeace International, 2016; WWF International, 2003), with Greenpeace International declaring it “… has always fought — and will continue to fight — vigorously against nuclear power”. Yet a growing number of new environmental groups (Bright New World Limited, 2016; Energy for Humanity, 2016; Environmental Progress, 2016), joined by climate and conservation scientists, are vocally speaking out in favour of nuclear power as not merely important, but an essential component for addressing climate change (Brook and Bradshaw, 2014; Energy for Humanity, 2017; Follet, 2017; Hansen et al., 2015; Shellenberger, 2016; Staff, 2013). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change includes growth in nuclear power as a necessary component in scenarios that achieve lower greenhouse-gas emissions, while simultaneously focusing on “… a variety of barriers and risks” (Edenhofer et al., 2014). There seems to be little consensus on the likely, possible, or the essential role of nuclear power in global electricity supply this century.

What is the role of nuclear power in combatting climate change?

 Distributed nuclear power can decarbonise our transportation systems

Distributed nuclear power can decarbonise our transportation systems

My thesis explores this as-yet unbroken climate and energy paradox, to examine the possibility that nuclear technologies can be the foundation of a portfolio of solutions that can help humanity to move rapidly beyond the carbon-fuelled, climate-disrupting externality of our civilisation. In Chapter 1, I explore the potential role of variable renewable energy by examining the energy transition in my home state of South Australia (Heard et al., 2015). This jurisdiction has had one of the deepest, most rapid uptakes of non-hydro renewable energy in the world. I identify the beneficial outcomes of this transition as well as emergent risks to energy costs and reliability. I argue that South Australia will eventually need to move away from variable renewable energy sources to eliminate fossil fuels fully from its electricity supply. I argue that nuclear technology will be an appropriate candidate for this task and that early adoption of advanced nuclear technologies could provide a socially and economically achievable pathway to nuclear technology deployment.  

In Chapter 2, I turn my attention globally to examine the possibility that nuclear power is notrequired in the task of decarbonising electricity supplies. I review the evidence for the proposition of 100 % renewable electricity supply across twenty-four published studies, and assess their feasibility using a novel scoring framework (Heard et al., 2017). I identify gaps in evidence for the basic feasibility of these proposals, as well as the likely serious environmental and social consequences that could arise from their implementation.

In Chapter 3, I examine the Australian National Electricity Market in 2030, and via hourly modelling of supply and demand, identify firm directions for establishing reliable, cost-optimal, low emissions-intensity electricity supply using combinations of nuclear fission, solar photo-voltaics, onshore wind hydro-electricity, and open-cycle gas. Here, I seek to understand whether nuclear power can contribute to a cost-optimal electricity supply system given the emergent marginal cost differences between variable renewable (on-shore wind and solar photo-voltaics) and nuclear electricity. In this process, I identify a cost-effective range for penetration of variable renewable-energy sources. I also identify a size range for a nuclear power sector in Australia that could underpin a cost-effective transition away from fossil fuels, were nuclear technologies legally permitted to be included in planning from this point forward. 

In Chapter 4, I assume nuclear is not included in planning, and instead determine the electricity net load in Australia that must be filled to achieve a clean supply, if intermittent-electricity supply continues to increase in line with current projections to 2035-2036 (Australian Energy Market Operator, 2016). With this net load, I examine afresh (i) whether nuclear power is needed for the decarbonisation challenge of electricity supply in the Australian National Electricity Market, and if so, (ii) whether it could be viably deployed to such a highly modified supply system.

 In Chapter 5, I examine the controversial issue of used nuclear fuel, which is euphemistically and, I argue, erroneously referred to as ‘nuclear waste’ (Heard and Brook, 2017). I examine the potential of an advanced nuclear technology (sodium-cooled integral fast reactor paired with full-fuel pyroprocess recycling), appended to an international service in used-nuclear fuel custody as a means of (i) boosting the prospects for accelerated investment in currently commercially available technology in fast-growing economies, and (ii) bringing forward the commercialisation of newer and better reactors. I identify and recommend a pathway where revenues from accepting used nuclear fuel are committed to the development of advanced nuclear technologies that decrease the volume and longevity of the nuclear-waste stream. 

 Small, distributed nuclear energy is virtually our only hope for decarbonising industry - and how great that will be for our health, wealth and well-being.

Small, distributed nuclear energy is virtually our only hope for decarbonising industry - and how great that will be for our health, wealth and well-being.

I conclude my thesis with a review of the changes and upheaval that have beset the nuclear-power sector in the years over which I prepared my thesis, paired with an initial consideration of the vital role of advanced nuclear technologies in providing not just electricity, but heat. Heat is required to power industrial processes and generate the synthetic fuels and feedstock that might be required to complete the non-electrical energy decarbonisation challenge.

Having written this thesis, my hope is a decidedly immodest one: to influence what it means to be an environmentalist. I hope this thesis will serve as one of many forces that can unify the notion of environmentalism with humanism, being the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to our own lives in an ethical and fulfilling way and based on reason, scientific methodology, and solid evidence. For when I fight for the environment, I do it principally for my human children. Might we be so fortunate as to one day live lives of prosperity as a civilisation that has transitioned its relationship with the natural world from exploitative to restorative? We might. But only humans can make that happen, and we can only make it happen with abundant, affordable, and low-carbon energy.

In memoriam

-       Sir David J. McKay You taught us all to do the numbers.

-       Stephen Tindale You cut the path I walked.

-       Juan Alberto Gonzalez Garrido I had a terrific feeling we would be friends for life. I am still hurting that Life had other plans.

Gentlemen, this is my best effort, and I dedicate it to you. 

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