Resource digest: A decade of commentary on nuclear for decarbonisation.
After researching and writing about nuclear technologies, climate change and decarbonisation for nearly 10 years, I have addressed a great many issues in these topics.
Some issues remain a matter of simple fact (lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions; water consumption).
Others, perhaps, are more matters of philosophy and worldview (‘It takes too long. We should just focus on renewables because they are already popular’).
Some of those matters are evolving , most especially cost, with the complexities and diversity of markets worldwide; the changing cost of different technologies; the presence or absence of a level playing field formed by policy; and the world of difference between cheap electricity production and affordable, reliable systems. Addressing that takes a lot of openness, and complexity is easily obscured by populist messaging. I cannot resolve that single-handedly - I am grateful for people like Jesse Jenkins who also embrace the complexity in pursuit of good policy.
Those who disagree with me on fact are dishonest or in denial. Those who disagree with me on cost or timeframes should help Bright New World set a level playing field and permit the evidence to guide us. Those who disagree with me on philosophy disagree with me on philosophy. As a once-ardent, nuclear-opposing environmentalist, who is now a nuclear-supportive ecomodernist, the challenge of philosophical change is not lost on me.
As an active social media user, with some profile, I am regularly asked about matters factual, complex, and philosophical.
As a father of two and a full-time worker, who is interested in doing and learning new things, I hope to make the most of the my existing contributions – and ask others to do the same. I have worked hard to contribute original thought and analysis to this space, and to then create an NGO to bring together those who want to build on our philosophy.
So without further ado, here is a modest digest of my work, arranged by issue. If you are interested in my analyses, or enjoy my particular writing style, this page is here to help you.
If you are a regular reader of mine and I have left something out of my ‘greatest hits’ that you found helpful? Leave a comment and I will be glad to update this post!
What about the waste???
Used nuclear fuel stores easily in dry casks. Pairing a recycling facility called pyroprocessing with fast-breeder reactors allows us to use nearly 100 % of the fuel rod, leaving us only to dispose of material with a 30-year half life. That holds the potential to end energy mining, globally, for a very long time. A readable and carefully referenced submission authored by me describes these technologies. That work went on to be published in a peer-reviewed policy journal.
Several different technologies can come together to manage used nuclear fuel to enormous benefit. My testimony to the Upper House of the South Australian parliament provides discussion of this.
Putting my sustainability hat on, here is a context piece about just what ‘nuclear waste’ is, compared to what else we accept. Waste Expectations.
Discussed in some detail under point 7 of my open dialogue with researcher Dr Tom Brown. The short answer: total non-issue for decarbonisation.
cost of nuclear power
Firstly, here is a straightforward, non-me source, providing current and projected levelised cost of electricity for nuclear power in many different global jusridicitons, for current and forecast future plants, showing a range of discount rates. While LCOE is a really problematic, simplistic metric, it’s also an important starting point for a conversation based in evidence.
I have contributed original evidence to further the electrical grid discussion in the form of network modelling , with our assumptions and methodology disclosed as clearly as possible.
See also point 2 of Response to Brown for how the levelised cost of nuclear is formed, and how sensitive it is to discount rate and amortisation – both fully under the control of our policies and institutions, as well as capital expenditure, which is principally a matter for the vendor.
For more discussion on cost this article from 2014 co-authored with Barry Brook scarcely requires update. We argue for a technology neutral policy environment, and we would expect many technologies to do well in that environment.
For more good modelling and analysis work from people with a strong position on technology neutral decarbonisation, I recommend the modelling from Jessie Jenkins (MIT), Staffan Qvist and Jacopo Buonjuorno (MIT)
I am also frequently asked to ‘prove’ the commercial case for nuclear in my jurisdiction of Australia, where there is none currently operating. I take exception to that request for a few reasons.
Firstly, I am principally in this space as an ecomodernist with a deep, longstanding and public concern about climate change. The ‘proof’ that seems in demand is nothing short of a commercial contract to sell electricity. I can’t provide that - I am, in the literal sense, not selling anything, and I certainly lack the resource to fund the preparation of one merely to explore a hypothesis. Since the historic evidence for affordable decarbonisation with nuclear technology is unassailable, the question seems backwards to me. In one of the most fossil-dependent nations on earth, we must ask ourselves what policies and practices we need to put into place to get this technology deployed, in the most affordable way, as quickly as possible, without forgoing other decarbonisation measures.
Secondly, it’s a red herring - efforts of ‘proof’ in that direction, from any point of view, are speculative, massively hindered by the absence of a business case from a proponent, which is itself an artefact of Australia’s 20 year-old prohibition. The case/absence-of-case hinges on a range of assumptions, including even-handed and long-term policy support for clean energy technologies. At the time of writing that does not exist, and a prohibition on nuclear power does. Commentators are free to arrange assumptions however they wish in service of a pre-existing position.
Thirdly I am only ever asked this in relation to our electrical grid - never mind the ~ 30% of emissions coming from our industrial sector (largely heat from burning gas) where renewables are truly bereft of substitutes, or the ~30% from transportation that might require whopping new primary energy to synthesise synthetic fuels.
My point here is that at least as often as not, a question a posed about cost quickly reveals itself to be a question of philosophy - I have learned the hard way that empiricism on decarbonisation will not be the deciding factor in such a conversation. I cannot ‘prove’ people into a worldview that looks upon nuclear technologies more favourably, into applying their problem-solving attitude even-handedly, into appreciating that it’s not just about electricity, into deciding to adequately value assets that lasts for 60-100 years against those that last for 25 years, into looking across all the evidence instead of the bits they like. I can outline my philosophy, as I did in my response to Tom Brown. It will speak to some and not others.
Those adamant nuclear cannot compete on price can demand the prohibition be removed, to prove themselves decisively correct.
Hinkley Point C
Relating directly to the above, I was among the first to argue that the price for this development would not be the price under which nuclear could expand at the rate required, while appreciating the long-term, decarbonisation benefit this project would bring. I am an analyst, not a cheerleader.
‘Ben Heard is anti-renewables’.
I really do support the use of renewable technologies, from a base of evidence about what helps, when, how and how much. I think I put it best in this duo of articles:
Renewables and Nuclear for the National Interest (in which I criticise all side of the debate)
I included hydro power, rooftop PV, onshore wind, and utility scale single axis tracking solar PV in my decarbonisation modelling (linked above) and gave results suggesting renewables have a great deal of contribution to make.
I speak in evidence-based terms about just what renewable technologies do-and-don’t offer us on the decarbonisation journey (it is decarbonisation, not renewables and/or nuclear per se, that interests me). Here is an awarded, published paper about South Australia’s energy transition. Everything we forecast transpired, just sooner than we expected.
I also made a (now quite heavily cited) contribution to understanding the limits to 100% renewable energy plans, called ‘Burden of Proof’ .
I just hate people mis-using data, whether they are anit-nuclear (Climate Council) or pro-nuclear (Patrick Moore). As proof, here I stick the boot into Moore because my first duty is truth.
Baseload is a relic/myth/redundant/old-school/a conspiracy etc.
No, it really is just a descriptor of a phenomena, and it’s alive and well every day.
Fukushima nuclear accident.
This accident happened three days after the second presentation in Adelaide, to about 100 people, where I publicly declared my support for nuclear technologies from an environmental perspective. I feel this event very personally.
I have visited the Fukushima exclusion zone on three occasions, including filming an interview from within one of the damaged reactors. These articles include discussion of the accident process itself, hazards of low level radiation, managing tritiated water, the harm of evacuation and more. For my impressions please see:
Fear has been our biggest mistake.(recapping my third visit with 60 Minutes) in which I seek to reiterate lessons about risk.
Lifecycle greenhouse emissions of nuclear technology.
This one needs to die a death. Nuclear is a zero-C technology.
On time frames – how long does nuclear take?
This data can be horrifically cherry-picked. The ‘9.4 years’ figure was recently recycled by Climate Council. Here is a piece from 2015 demonstrating why that is total bunkum.
A general piece on the matter of time and cost is here.
But the most important answer is ‘Forever if you never start’… I think I said my piece here in response to Climate Council . Bottom line, we all get to choose to be part of the solution, or part of them problem.
I read widely to understand the interaction of the nuclear power sector and the possibility of nuclear weapons. As a Catholic raised in the 1980s, the peace movement was a big part of my upbringing, and this topic means a lot to me.
Nuclear technologies will have no negative water security impacts. In the Australian setting, they will be strongly positive. Read more in this blog.
If I have left something out, please leave a comment!