Dogma and delusion over renewables

Last week my university convened a two-day conference on nuclear matters. Diesendorf addressed a session and I had the opportunity to critique his views and debate a few points with him during one of the breaks.

One of Diesendorf’s main claims against the nuclear fuel cycle is that, contrary to the “consensus”, it is not relatively low in terms of carbon emissions. This he argues is evident from the highly carbon intensive mining and milling stages of the cycle and will worsen as ore grades diminish. This is a fallacious claim rooted, I believe, in the worst of the “limits to growth” approach to environmental issues and resource availability. His critique misses two rather vital points about the uranium ore’s availability.

The price of uranium remained low during the 1980s and 1990s due to nuclear power unpopularity and it followed that investment in exploration all but disappeared. This has changed remarkably over the last few years and given that uranium is one of the most abundant minerals, there is every reason to believe high grade ores will be found. Indeed, the extent of current exploration in Australia, and also where high grades are appearing in Africa, suggests the nuclear power industry’s claim to low carbon emissions, compared with other reliable base load power, such as coal and gas, remains as convincing as ever.

But worse for Diesendorf’s line of argument is this rather fundamental aspect of mining.

Uranium usually occurs with other ores, notably copper and gold – and if it doesn’t then it has to be of very high grade to be worth the effort. True, the current high spot prices temporarily qualify this, but as supply increases over the next two decades it will only be the solo uranium mines with very high grade ore bodies that will survive.

BHP’s mine in northern South Australia at Roxby Downs is a copper mine – that’s why BHP bought out Western Mining, primarily for the copper and gold (and other non-uranium mineral product). Roxby will soon become the biggest uranium mine in the world, but BHP would still be there even if there was not an ounce of uranium to be extracted.

This is commonplace with uranium mining because uranium seems to like bobbing up with other valuable minerals! The point is the mining and separation of various minerals, all carbon intensive activities, would be happening anyway. How convenient to neglect this very obvious aspect of the equation and, in the process, trump up the charge that nuclear power is high on the carbon emitting front.

Diesendorf’s assessment of the latest designs for reactors, (the type likely to be built in Australia should we ever decide to introduce nuclear power) as being just “theoretical” designs and unlikely to be viable, represents a profound scepticism toward scientific advancement. The fact is the theory underpinning a host of “Generation 4” reactor designs is rarely read, I believe, by opponents of nuclear power. In Diesendorf’s case it may have been read, perhaps cursorily, but his critique fails to convince one that he has genuinely come to grips with these new designs which would see reactors require far less nuclear fuel than is currently the case with Generation 3 reactors.

As for reactor designs it is rather disingenuous to maintain so confidently that future science regarding reactor design and safety features (making meltdowns impossible and securing against “worst case” terrorist attack scenarios) is just theory and unlikely to contribute quickly enough to be a major player in forging less carbon intensive electricity generation.

Against this background nuclear power blossoms as part of the answer to energy security. Generation 4 reactors will appeal to governments keen to mollify public concerns and memory of Chernobyl. Contrary to Diesendorf, I believe many will be built in the next two decades. Nuclear physicists have not been designing them just for fun and investors are likely to find the improved safety angle reassuring.

There are a number of designs clearly outlined, in my view objectively, at the Uranium Information Centre’s website.

Of particular interest is the so-called, “pebble bed modular” reactor. Contrary to Diesendorf’s view that no Generation 4 reactors exist today, a pebble bed modular is operating in China – some readers may have seen it featured on ABC TV’s Catalyst program. This design is remarkable because it is claimed that meltdown is impossible. This was the key point of the Catalyst report and a mock “accident” proved the point. A technician flicked a switch or two to “cause” a core malfunction, and witnessed by a group of Western nuclear physicists and experts – who appeared a touch on edge, the reactor’s systems enacted shut down, rather than meltdown.

A convincing display indeed for this one-time anti-nuclear activist!

Many anti-nuclear environmentalists overlook the fact that much has changed since the 1970s. If nuclear, along with other renewables (of which hydro is the only current option), can not replace the introduction of ever more coal burning power stations (estimated to be one a week in China) then projections on climate change may well fall into the alarmist category by mid century.

A point I discuss with my students, derived from my time teaching environmental politics over a number of weeks in Bejing, Tianjin, Jinan and Kuming, concerns the emergence of the consumerist middle class in the booming Asian economies. It is quite surreal to be driven in a Toyota Prado by Chinese students through the throngs of pedestrians, cyclists and clapped out taxis – it sheets home the value of “wheels”. While estimates vary, the middle class is 100 million and growing, and they demand energy and care not if they crawl along in their cars, because it’s increasingly “all about me” and social status.

The Chinese and Indian middle classes (not to mention the Indonesians) are not going to forgo Western-style consumerism, in particular the purchase and use of cars. One can only hope that the future of transport lies with electric cars. Or possibly, in decades to come, hydrogen will play big role in “driving” transport. Heavy duty base load power is required for this future and I fail to see how wind and solar, or even my beloved “hot rocks”, will fill the bill.

Notwithstanding my misgivings, sections of Diesendorf’s book are very interesting.

His case for wind power to produce base load electricity generation argues for windmills stretching for about 600km and is quite convincing and “rational” – but only if you take out politics. For example, just how many federal and state electoral boundaries would they cross? And then there’s the potentially disgruntled mayors, councillors and community groups – arguably an investor’s and a premier’s nightmare!

Diesendorf argues the opponents to wind power, namely the coal and nuclear lobbies and the NIMBies, are largely to blame for the fact the Howard Government shuns backing wind power.

I believe the “equation” here is mainly about the politics of uncertainty surrounding such geographically wide-spread structures and how this translates into potential investor reluctance to commit the amounts of capital required.

As for the coal lobby, it is certainly powerful, but why wouldn’t it be with so much export income and so many jobs resting on its fortunes? It’s not rocket science, nor a case of conspiratorial machinations, to recognise the simple fact that no democratically elected government can afford to ignore “Big Coal’s” interests.

The nuclear lobby, last time I looked, was hard to find. It certainly pales alongside the power environmental NGOs (Friends of the Earth, Australian Conservation Foundation, Greenpeace, Wilderness Society, World Wildlife Fund, and so on). There is no nuclear lobby of consequence because there is no nuclear industry. All there is, is a rational case for considering nuclear power here and in countries where lower carbon options for energy security are difficult to come by.

And as for the NIMBYies, I can hardly blame citizens (and even members of wilderness type societies) for not sharing Diesendorf’s love of windmills, especially where they despoil seascapes.

The challenge for advocates of nuclear power lies with critiquing past dogmas and being open to nuclear power’s limitations. But, in the end, with demand for electricity likely to double in Australia by mid century, and heaven knows how much in China and India, the option nuclear power becomes increasingly compelling.

Hoping to draw a response from ACF President, Ian Lowe, or Diesendorf at last week’s nuclear matters conference, I quipped during the question time; “you just cannot power up Beijing, Mumbai or Shanghai with wind!”. Not a “punch” was thrown in return, much to my puzzlement, because this is such a fundamental problem for the anti-nuclear lobby to grapple with. Thus, I remain a heretic among the ACF brethren.

In a perfect world uranium should be left in the ground, but alas, who sees a perfect world?

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