Mark Diesendorf’s new book on renewable energy – ‘Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy’ is likely to receive plenty of comment if the last few days are anything to go by.
I think it’s important that his work is put under the spot light as it is often, I feel, rather dogmatic and driven by conspiratorial notions of how government works. Certainly his survey of an area I know a something about, nuclear power debates, is rooted in 1970s style anti-nuclear rhetoric.
Last week my University convened a two day conference on nuclear matters, Mark addressed a session and I had the opportunity to critique his views and debated a few points with him during one of the breaks. I am researching the area and have two critiques of the anti- nuclear movement out to review with journals and am at the happy to forward these to anyone interested (the more feed back the better!).
Mark claims that the nuclear fuel cycle underpinning nuclear power is highly carbon emitting, especially the mining and milling stages. This is largely fanciful and, likewise, his assessment of the latest designs for reactors as somehow just “theory” albeit, unpleasant theory for the anti-nuclear power camp, given its promise of ever greater safety features and nuclear fuel efficiency, ie. some of these designs would see reactors require far less nuclear fuel than is currently the case with Generation 3 reactors.
Mark argues that high grades of uranium ore are likely to be depleted soon and thereby the carbon emissions entailed in processing uranium for nuclear fuel will increase considerably in coming decades. I think this misses two rather vital points –
1] While nuclear power was unpopular during the 1980s and 1990s and the price of uranium remained low there was little by way of investment in exploration. 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 Mark’s line of argument is this rather fundamental aspect of mining.
2] Uranium usually occurs with other ores, notably copper and gold. BHPs mine in northern South Australia, at Roxby Downs, is a copper mine – that’s why BHP bought out Western Mining, for the copper and gold. Yes, the mine will soon become the biggest uranium mine in the world, but BHP would still be there at Roxby 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! 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.
As for reactor designs it is rather disingenuous to maintain so confidently that future science regarding reactors design and safety features ( making meltdowns impossible and securing against ‘worst case’ terrorist attack scenarios) is just theory nor likely to happening with sufficient speed to be a major contributor to relatively carbon free power generation. With the growing interest in nuclear power it is highly likely that so-called Generation 4 reactors will be built in the next two decades, in fact many of them will be built as their designs are not foolhardy constructs but arguably realistic – ie. nuclear physicists have not been designing them just for fun and investors are likely to find the great safety angle reassuring.
There are a number of designs (for info on this go to http://www.uic.com.au/nip77.htm) one of particular interest is the so-called, ‘pebble bed modular’ reactor. Contrary to Mark’s view that no Gen 4 reactors exist today a pebble bed modular, is operating in China (some readers may have seen this featured on ABC TV’s ‘Catalyst’ program a couple of months ago). This design is remarkable because meltdown is claimed to be impossible and this was the key point of the ‘Catalyst’ report where a mock ‘accident’ proved the point – the reactor’s systems enacted shut down, rather than meltdown, in what was a convincing display in front of a swag of Western nuclear physicists and experts.
The problem for many anti – nukes environmentalists is that they just don’t bother to note that much has changed since the 1970s. The second big problem is that unless nuclear, along with other suitable renewables, cannot replace, at a reasonable rate, the introduction of ever more coal burning power stations in countries such as China and India then projections on climate change may well fall more readily into the alarmist category.
Obviously, the emerging Chinese and Indian middle classes 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 and 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 one of my favourites, geo thermal – ‘hot rocks’) will fill the bill here – thus my concern that too many environmentalists remain so dogmatically opposed to nuclear power.
Sure, in a perfect world uranium should be left in the ground…alas, who sees a perfect world?
Notwithstanding my misgivings sections of Mark’s book are very interesting.
His case for wind power being able to produce base load electricity generation argues for windmills stretching over 600 or so kms and is quite convincing and ‘rational’ but only if you take the politics out. Point is, just how many federal and state electoral boundaries would they cross? And then there’s the potential disgruntled mayors, councilors and community groups – arguably an investor’s and Premier’s nightmare!
Mark complains of ‘the treble’ of opponents to wind power, namely the coal and nuclear lobbies and the NIMBies; it is largely their fault that the Howard government shuns backing wind power. For mine the ‘equation’ here is mainly about simple politics of uncertainty surrounding such widely spread structures and how this may translate into potential investor reluctance to commit. Given that I teach electoral politics and political/electoral behaviour such matters do tend to readily come to mind and suggest there must be better options than Mark’s favourite.