How the Climate Council is failing our future...and the simple way that can change.

Dr Ben Heard for Bright New World

Nuclear power has been our most powerful global tool for decarbonisation to date. The inclusion of nuclear power is absolutely essential for the decarbonisation task ahead.

The effort by the Climate Council to dissuade Australians from supporting the inclusion of nuclear technologies in their energy mix was an insidious blend of misrepresentation and distortion. They can do so much better, at no cost and great gain.

 A Bright New World supporter drew to my attention the article from Climate Council Nuclear power stations are not appropriate for Australia – and probably never will be. I was astonished by what I read. The Climate Council has never supported nuclear technologies, and nor has it gone so far out of its way to block them.

 The opening sentence of the article delivers a strawman:

Periodically, as with the changing of the seasons, various individuals appear in the media extolling the virtues of nuclear energy, promising a panacea of clean and reliable electricity to solve Australia’s energy crisis.

 This just isn’t true. No one, and certainly not I, promise a panacea. This is a big, complex challenge, and that’s precisely why we need all technological options at our disposal to tackle it. If there is any consistency to the message from those of us supportive of nuclear, it is seeking the straightforward removal of a 20-year-old prohibition that has served only to slow Australia’s decarbonisation journey.

The energy crisis Climate Council refers to is substantially based in an inability to reach consensus over energy policy, in an era where decarbonisation simply must be a priority. Were stakeholders such as Climate Council to merely suggest the removal of a prohibition on the grounds that climate change is an urgent, intergenerational challenge that should be above politics, we would take a giant leap toward that essential consensus. Instead, on the day before Adelaide broke an 80 year temperature record, they took out their shovels and deepened their trench.

The article then segues into outright misinformation, as once enraged me about the climate change denial movement. They say:

 Greenhouse gas pollution associated with nuclear power could be similar to a gas power station, with estimates ranging from 80 – 437 kg/MWh.

The link in support is an article at The Conversation, citing a single paper by two authors, updated in 2008 which ‘was a continuation of a study done during the 1980s at request of the Dutch government’.

When I used to spend a lot of time tackling climate change denial, (before I gave up on that and decided to go positive instead) my first question on the sleuthing was always ‘How good is that source? Have they used the right one? The best one? The meta review of the evidence?’

In this case, what Climate Council didn’t cite was the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the United States Life Cycle Assessment Harmonization, which was cited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The remit of this study is ideal for this purpose:

 NREL reviewed and harmonized life cycle assessments (LCAs) of electricity generation technologies to reduce uncertainty around estimates for environmental impacts and increase the value of these assessments to the policymaking and research communities.

 That sounds good, and it gets better.

Hundreds of life cycle assessments have been published, with considerable variability in results. These variations in approach hampered comparison across studies and the pooling of published results. NREL harmonized these data to:

·      Understand the range of published results of LCAs of electricity generation technologies

·      Reduce the variability in published results

·      Clarify the central tendency of published estimates.

Wonderful!

By ‘clarifying the central tendency of published estimates’ they give a great facsimile of ‘the truth’ if answering ‘How much greenhouse gas emission does nuclear produce across the life cycle?’. Their answer?

Twelve (12) grams. Not 80-437 g. A median estimate of 12g. The 75th percentile is only 23g.  

When the Climate Council moves that far from being honest brokers, they move that close to being liars. That bothers me, because it green-lights the Australian community to disregard anything they say about climate change, whether they are using that science correctly or not. 

Then they tell readers:

 ‘But nuclear energy is not “renewable”. Uranium is a finite resource just like coal or gas’.

Actually, it’s a finite resource altogether unlike coal and gas. Firstly, it’s not based on carbon, so it’s our only fuel that doesn’t undergo combustion -  we create energy with fission (this part of their article was correct). Secondly it has energy density (accessible energy per unit mass) that is (wait for it) ooohhh…about 20,000 times greater than coal. That’s before we recycle the waste[1], which makes it more like 2 million times the energy density. Which makes the concept of ‘finite’… seriously approaching redundant[2].

What the Climate Council tried to do there is create a negative association – ‘it’s the same as the thing you are committed to eliminating’. Except it isn’t. At all. 

The Climate Council then has the temerity to inform us of the legislative barriers to nuclear energy in Australia.

If there were any politically active advocacy body with the clout to catalyse change in that prohibition, its Climate Council. It would be a momentous step toward consensus in energy policy for decarbonisation.

In citing ‘significant community, health, environmental, and cost risks associated with potential impacts from extreme weather events and natural disasters, such as occurred in Fukushima, Japan in 2011’ , Climate Council 

·      leverages one of the worlds largest natural disasters;

·      that killed 16,000 people;

·      pitted against one of the world’s oldest operating reactors;

·      resulting in a radiological accident that killed no one;

·      to argue against an entire family of technologies for use in the future;

·      at the same time as arguing that climate change action is urgent;

·      and the same time as air pollution kills 7 million people per year; 

This is utterly disingenuous and, again, gives any Aussie with an inclination the excuse to disregard the message that climate change is urgent.. 

We are then told nuclear power ‘make no sense’ in our sunny windy nation. In our sunny, windy nation, we run about 20 GW of coal power, with our total energy consumption being 94% fossil fuelled.

At this point, I could deviate into the wonkish discussion that is needed to explain why ‘cheap’ wind and solar becomes very expensive indeed when we lean on it too heavily (which, incidentally, is exactly what is already happening). I could move into a discussion that wind turbines and solar panels do not make industrial heat, or petrol, or jet fuel or diesel which is two-thirds of our emissions from energy, and will demand massive clean heat and electricity to synthesise from recycled carbon. But I will resist and say instead this:

If the Climate Council is confident in their position, please simply step aside and advocate the removal of Australia’s pointless prohibition. Same goes for their discussion of nuclear costs. They have nothing to fear. If this technology is really still-born, the removal of the prohibition will be meaningless in practice, but their concession will be a massive step toward political peace in climate and energy policy, earning them huge credibility for their message.

I will save my word-count instead for the matter of time frames. Climate Council tells us ‘nuclear power stations take a decade to build’ and:

 Australia cannot wait this long to replace our ageing fleet of coal power stations.

Tim (yep, I’m talking to you now, Dr Flannery, Chief Councillor), you published The Weather Makers in 2005. I bought it. I read it. I shared it, I quoted it. You were one of the heroes in my journey. In 2005 I was 26 years old, passionate about climate change, anti-nuclear, and telling people what your contemporaries were telling me – that nuclear power would take too long. 

Did that help? Did it lead to furious and determined action to implement renewable technologies instead?

We all know the answer. 

Now it’s 2019. I’m 40. I have two children, a Masters in Sustainability and a doctorate in clean energy modelling that I lacked in 2005. Global CO2 concentration is rising.  Global emissions are rising. Global energy consumption is rising. Renewables are not even coping with the growth, let along eating the balance. I just sweated through the hottest day in a 130-year record for the city of Adelaide (46.6 deg C, a full 0.5 degree blow out). And now you tell me ‘nuclear will take too long’ as though our deadline to fix this is 2029 - before my kids are both through high-school.

That’s wrong.

It’s your Inconvenient Truth. You, me and anyone who cares have our whole careers and lives in front of us fixing this mess. You are a good enough scientist to know that I am right. Those false deadlines that we are always forced to move…they don’t engender consensus, trust, or an inspiration to act. They engender burnout, distrust, and apathy. 

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Organisations like yours and mine have a responsibility to offer credible, deliverable, serious plans of action because this is urgent. We have a responsibility to point to projects like Barakeh in the UAE. That project signed contracts four years after I read The Weather Makers and will this year switch on 1400 MWe of clean power, and another 1400MWe per year for the next three, with 95 % capacity factor and 60 year design life. We have a responsibility to say, ‘here is an example of decarbonisation success. How can we make this happen here?’.  

We have a responsibility to look to the future and include small modular reactors in our thinking, and advise our government on laying the ground work to introduce them to our grid. We have a responsibility to investigate the potential for synergy and complementarity among clean energy technologies, to inform policy development and maximise consensus.

But of course, if Climate Council wanted to do those things? I would have joined.

Instead, I started Bright New World.

 

An offer, I will debate any one of the Climate Councillors on the following proposition:

 Australia should lift its prohibition on nuclear power technologies.

Speaking for the affirmative, I will get to anywhere in Australia for that. 

 

About me

In case you are a new reader…Climate Council opened their article with the straw-man that those asking for consideration of nuclear technologies in Australia are just vacuous talking heads.

That’s not me.

I have given my professional life to sustainability, leaving a career in health care to study it at Masters level and then consult in climate change, eventually running my own consultancy for this purpose. My interest in climate change led me to energy, and my interest in energy led me to depression…we were failing so badly. That led me to nuclear technologies which led me to hope.

I took a PhD on the topic to earn my stripes and make sure I understood energy and markets properly. I support the use of renewable technologies where they help us get to where we need to go (and there is plenty of space for them) and I am also a critic of using them beyond their sensible application. I am also a critic of nuclear power when it needs it. In my professional working life I continue to support renewable energy projects, with solar yield modelling and wind firming are two areas in which I have been assisting in my 9-5. 

The Weather Makers really was the first book I read about climate change. 

[1] For more about the technology that recycles used nuclear fuel to unlock vastly more energy, enjoy this highly readable and carefully researched submission

[2]For more on the issue of uranium availability, please see my discourse with Dr Tom Brown, published at 4thGen Blog https://4thgeneration.energy/response-to-brown/

Ben Heard11 Comments