Nuclear power: UDDELI unjustified

Professor Leslie Kemeny’s nuclear spruiking regularly appears in Australian newspapers. Readers might take note of the acronym UDDELI, which stands for Unnecessary, Dirty, Dangerous, Expensive, Late and Insufficient. This can provide some balance to the very narrow view offered by Professor Kemeny, whose undoubted expertise on the technicalities of nuclear power is offset by an apparent near-total ignorance of other options.

“Unnecessary” is the most widely overlooked argument against nuclear power.  The quickest and cheapest way to start reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is to use energy much more efficiently then we do at present.  This is so cost-effective that many actions can save money and emissions simultaneously.  A study byMcKinsey Australia last year concluded that those savings would pay for next-level actions of modest cost, so that Australia could reduce its emissions by 20% by 2020 at no net cost to the economy.

McKinsey constultants are not the only prominent experts pointing this out. Their conclusions give the lie not only to Professor Kemeny’s unstated assumption that we must generate lots of new power, but also to the Rudd Government’s feeble target of a 5-15% reduction of greenhouse emissions. Of course the energy efficiency path implies that we actually burn less fossil fuel, something the Rudd Government is evidently unwilling to contemplate. Curiously, this has left the running on this option to Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull.

The potential energy efficiencies do not require rocket science. They can be as simple as using larger pipes, air ducts and electrical wiring. Present practices are determined by safety requirements and up-front costs, rather by than lifetime costs. Also we have known for decades how to build houses that require very little heating and cooling, we just need to do it. The constraint is not cost, which is small, it is design, which is hampered by old, wasteful practises and regulations.

Professor Kemeny is happy to recite the “Dirty” drawbacks of coal burning, but neglects to mention the problems that accompany his “4.8 cubic meters” of spent nuclear fuel. That material is both highly radioactive and chemically highly toxic. No-one knows how to safely sequester it for 100,000 years until its radioactivity declines. Any system of storage is unverifiable. We simply pass the problem to our descendants, and who can know if the required knowledge will be preserved for such a vast span of time?

“Dangerous” is commonly taken to refer to meltdowns like Chernobyl, but more immediate dangers would be involved with the transport of large amounts of nuclear material around the world. In a global nuclear industry the probability of accidents during transit becomes significant, if not likely. Terrorists would be perennially tempted by nuclear shipments. The proliferation of nuclear weapons would become a far greater concern, as Western agitation over Iran’s nuclear developments illustrates.

Most energy experts agree nuclear power will be “Expensive”. Professor Kemeny’s claim that the cost of nuclear power would be only half that of coal power certainly needs to be substantiated. It is unlikely to include the full costs of safe decommissioning and cannot include the unknowable cost of waste storage. Professor Kemeny dismisses renewable energy sources in the most superficial and ignorant terms. Serious studies demonstrate the large contribution they can make even with the present challenges of storage.

An efficiency-plus-renewables strategy has one great advantage over other strategies. It is the only approach that can limit household energy bills. If renewable energy costs twice as much but you only need half as much energy, then your bills are no larger. You’d think politicians would be all over that one.

Nuclear power will be much too “Late”. This is in spite of Professor Kemeny’s provocative implication that the Commonwealth override objections of Canberrans and place a nuclear power station on Commonwealth land in the ACT. That would be the airport planning fiasco times one hundred.

The latest global warming science indicates that its effects are developing much sooner than anticipated. The possibility that is alarming many scientists is of a series of climate dominos that tip us into uncontrollable and irreversible warming that could reach six degrees, with catastrophic consequences. Thus the loss of Arctic summer sea ice, which is happening now, could trigger the melting of Arctic tundra and release of vast amounts of greenhouse gases trapped there, which in turn could trigger other warming mechanisms. The great fear is that the climate is tipping now. We may have only a few years in which to get our emissions heading rapidly down.

Nuclear power would be “Insufficient” because it only generates electricity, which accounts for around a third of energy use, transport and space heating being other large categories. Why build a nuclear plant to heat your house when the sun will do it for you? The technology for making new liquid fuels for transport is not well developed, and as it develops it could be as well used in the renewables option as in the nuclear option.

Nuclear advocates are fond of urging us to debate the option calmly and rationally. They would serve Australia better if they took their own advice.

 

 

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20 responses to “Nuclear power: UDDELI unjustified

  1. Mark Diesendorf

    Hi Geoff,

    UDDELI is indeed an appropriate description of nuclear power. Many of your comments are supported in more detail by chapter 12 of my book ‘Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy’.

    Some additional comments:
    1. It is questionable whether Leslie Kemeny is entitled to call himself ‘professor’, since he only has at best an honorary position (where?). He was once a lecturer or senior lecturer in nuclear engineering at UNSW, but never professor there.

    2. As we run out of high-grade uranium ore over the next several decades, CO2 emissions from the fossil fuels used for mining and milling uranium will become significant. I’ll be circulating a review paper on this and other nuclear energy issues soon.

    Cheers,
    Mark

  2. Andrew Glikson

    Nuclear energy plants, even the safest, are inherently subject to human error.

    Recent history equally shows the N-power plants are potential factories for further development of N-weapon technology.

    Here-in is the blueprint. In a world with thousands of N-power plants and no fewer than 30,000 N-missiles, probability law requires that with time accidents – minor, major and catastrophic – are bound to occur.

    Possibilities become probabilities become certainties.

    Look at Pakistan!

  3. You’re wrong in spades on this one, Geoff.

    http://bravenewclimate.com/integral-fast-reactor-ifr-nuclear-power/

    Otherwise, good to see you join the blogosphere!

    • Barry I looked at the fourth link on BNC, “Integral Fast Reactors for the masses”. Based on that quick look, IFR seems to be less Dirty, considerably less Dangerous, Expense not clear, but fairly high, Later than efficiency, and still Insufficient, though energy storage would help.

      The post-reactor Dirt and Danger are considerably reduced, but you still mine a lot of toxic, dangerous material. The potential for accidents and the temptation for terrorists would be lower, but you still have to get fuel to the reactor (and I’m looking at long term, after present stocks are used up).

      It’s still Unnecessary, and nobody here is discussing that. It’s less bad, but efficiency has good spinoffs. See my post below.

  4. I wonder where nuclear energy would be if the initial driver for producing it was not the production of a lot of energy very quickly. What if we had put the same amount of resources into building a nuclear industry that was based on producing heat without producing toxic by products?

    I don’t know enough about it but perhaps there is some form of nuclear reaction that is benign. Solar and geothermal are both nuclear so perhaps there are some other ways of producing heat without producing unfortunate by products. How about an underground power plant where we could leave the waste in situ?

  5. There is a detailed account of the causes – minute-by-minute, step-by-step of the Chernobyl disaster. Reading through it, anyone with a little imagination can see how a similar sequence of events could arise in any other nuclear plant. For example:

    “One operator rings another and asks: What shall I do? In the programme there are instructions of what to do, and then a lot of things are crossed out. His interlocutor thought for a while and then replied: Follow the crossed out instructions.”

  6. Would you please point to a country with limited hydro resources and no options of importing energy from elsewhere; where a nuclear free energy policy has resulted in a vibrant, developed economy with living standards near our own and low per-capita emissions?

    It will take some time to develop a nuclear industry in Australia, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t proceed immediately.

    Many bank on technology breakthroughs for renewables (energy storage) and coal (CCS); but then refuse to consider the existing knowledge and experience related to advanced fuel cycles / fast reactors. These technologies exist in facilities around the word and if further deployed could reduce, if not eliminate, concerns related to proliferation and waste.

    It is also important to note that unlike the technology breakthroughs of energy storage or CCS, the deployment of advanced fuel cycle facilities may proceed at more measured pace without sacrificing any impact. Uranium reserves are vastly understated (see the IAEA newsletter lead story linked below), so current, licensed designs can continue to be deployed at an accelerated pace. The fuel from existing light water reactors may be stored safely on-site (as is done now) for decades if not longer to eventually be used as feedstock for fast reactor fuel. Integrating fuel processing and power production into a single facility is the natural evolution of an advanced, closed fuel cycle as discussed by Barry Brook.

    http://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/publications/PDF/Newsletters/NEFW-04-02.pdf

    • Ed, you want to see someone else do it before we take advantage of obvious, cheap opportunities? (See my post below.) Anyway I think you’re talking about renewables, not efficiency PLUS renewables.

      I’m no advocate of coal and CCS. CCS and “clean coal” are a con. Coal has to go, and soon.

      • I thought I was talking about renewables, efficiency as well as aggressive conservation programmes. I am looking for any non-nuclear comprehensive effort to significantly reduce emissions that is applicable on a large scale to an Australian context.

        As I say in another post, Germany is doing very good work, but is poised to negate it all via a nuclear phase-out. [BTW, my money is on that phase-out going the way of the dodo as Sweden's and Italy's have.]

        If it is that obvious, that cheap, that easy, someone must be doing it.

        If one pauses to evaluate available data on this topic, there is a notable trend around the world; numerous scientific experts and environmental activists moving to favour a nuclear role, phase-out plans being reversed, the initiation of new construction programmes [USA, UK, Finland, France just to top the list] and acceleration of existing programmes [China being the most obvious].

  7. One of the problems with large fossil and nuclear plants is “storage” of electricity. That is, it is quite difficult to slow down the production of electricity and much electricity is wasted through grounding it. We need ways of storing energy and storing excess heat is simpler than storing electricity. There are answers like converting both excess heat and electricity into liquid fuel through taking CO2 and water and turning it into hydrocarbons or breaking water into its components or pumping heat into geothermal power plants etc. That is, solutions for storing energy from renewables will make both nuclear and fossil burning plants more efficient.

  8. Nuclear reactors can load follow quite effectively, Kevin. But I agree that solutions for storing energy should be actively pursued, since they’ll be useful to both renewables and nuclear.

    Thermal storage in molten salts, pumped storage (even of seawater, such as is done in Okinawa), and chemical storage in ammonia, hydrogen or purified metals (the most promising), are all feasible.

  9. The discussion so far has been about supply and big-tech. We can dramatically reduce energy DEMAND, starting now. And keep it low and steady if we sensibly reform our economic systems.

    Whenever I write that Efficiency has ALREADY SAVED BILLIONS OF DOLLARS while dramatically reducing greenhouse emissions, NOTHING HAPPENS. It doesn’t compute. People don’t seem to register it at all. I’m baffled as to why this is. It seems to me to be really good news.

    So – do you just not believe it’s possible (even though I’m quoting existing achievements), are you just stuck in a supply-side-big-tech mentality, or what?

    Because our energy prices have been very low, and artificially low because of market manipulation and failure to price pollution, our system is extremely wasteful of energy. Simple design changes and very cost-effective retrofits can pick the low-hanging fruit, saving money and emissions. Those savings can pay for the next level of investments in efficiency. Look at the McKinsey study. Look at several large studies by the Rocky Mountain Institute (www.rmi.org). I’ll post a longer piece on efficiency soon.

    But why doesn’t anyone ever hear this message?

    • I hear the message Geoff.

      Note the barriers as discussed in the McKinsey report: The carbon productivity challenge, Curbing climate change and sustaining economic growth. I think that is a good description of the challenge.

      By the way, do you have experience in energy related engineering projects or operations that have displaced significant emissions?

  10. Most, if not all, hardly take the factor of TIME into account.

    At the current rate of CO2 rise at >2 ppm/year by mid century the atmosphere will reach well over 450 ppm CO2, close to the level at which the Antarctic ice sheets begun to develope from about 34 million years ago.

    This does not leave homo “sapiens” more than perhaps 50 years to turn the Titanic around from the melting ice berg!

    Both solar/thermal and nuclear are “on-line” – the first is safe, the latter – human nature being what it is – is more than dangerous, as alerted by Albert Einstein:

    “The splitting of the atom changed everything, except human ways of thinking, and so we drift into unparalleled catastrophies”.

  11. General response to Ed’s comments, above and in Post 4 (Last Call on Climate).

    You mention human nature in your comment on Post 4. I may post on that soon. Current Western human behaviour is heavily influenced by a huge, sophisticated industry dedicated to manipulating our infantile wants and irrational fears. We have become grossly over-materialistic as a result.

    Ed, with your attitude (show me where it’s being done), nothing new would ever be done. Efficiency is well demonstrated at the small scale. The obstacles are political and social, not technical and economic. (Are there any 4th-generation nuclear plants in operation?)

    E.g. vested interests – coal has a stranglehold on our parliament. Read Guy Pearse’s book or the latest Quarterly Essay. It’s corrupt, no other word for it.

    Standard operating procedure – builders hate to change their ways.

    Marketing and habit – must sell and buy more stuff.

    Dysfunctional economic memes – we must maintain growth. No, see Post 3, GDP Shrinks.

    Market failures. Builders minimise up-front costs, not long-term costs. This requires innovative contracts. (And see Post 1, Neoliberalism Was Always Nonsense.)

    Ignorance, habit, laziness, whatever – why don’t industries install fatter pipes, ducts and electrical wiring? It will save them money.

    Outdated local regulations. Bureaucratic ignorance. Political short-termism. Lack of political leadership, aka cowardice.

    And so on.

    Plus, perpetuation of myths and simplistic dismissals of efficiency/renewables by well-paid, numerous lobbyists for big-tech (fossil and nuclear). People like Kemeny. E.g. there are sensible studies on the fluctuations of all power sources and the potential contributions of wind and solar. Ask Mark Diesendorf. As a result renewables are quite falsely perceived by many politicians as having only minor potential.

    I may post in more detail on efficiency later.

    Regarding the alleged economic viability of existing nuclear, the industry has received massive subsidies and does not pay full life-cycle costs.

    And no Ed, I have no “experience in energy related engineering projects or operations”. I read a lot. Can you argue the issues, instead of trying to discredit people, including me. And citing as authorities/gurus other people (sorry Barry, I don’t worship you :-) ), who may be ill-informed, and governments, that may be ill-informed, disinformed, short-sighted or corrupted by their over-riding desire for power?

    I think this exchange is reaching its useful limit.

    • Sorry Geoff, I am not really trying to discredit you. You have a position of responsibility and are speaking on topics of significant importance and potential impact. As I have said elsewhere, on most points I agree, but with respect to the risks vs. benefits of nuclear power – I must disagree.

      With your permission, I’d like to add one more post to this exchange.

      As for me, I have 20 years experience in nuclear energy. I’ve worked in power reactors, weapons and research facilities. I’ve been directly involved in the engineering support of these facilities as well as the design of spent fuel shipment containers and the transportation of spent nuclear fuel. I have received considerable training in reactor accident mitigation and transient response and participated in numerous large scale emergency exercises. I have also managed several medium scale [10's of millions of dollars] capital projects at nuclear facilities. In total I have directly supported the generation of over 75,500 Giga Watt hours of emission free electricity [still extremely low emissions even if the entire lifecycle is considered according to peer refereed papers such as D. Weisser, 2007, A guide to life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from electric supply technologies, in the journal Energy].

      Based on my general experience as an engineer [regardless of discipline], I believe it is wise to look for examples of technology before committing to large scale deployments. There is minimal risk for minor evolutionary advances from one project to the next, but the risks become greater for more revolutionary leaps in technology. Therefore an approach involving prototypes, demonstration projects, etc. to ramp up the experience base are the norm. This is standard engineering risk management.

      So what I am asking for is credible evidence to support Australias decision to move forward without nuclear technology. If, as a democratic society, we agree to continue producing large per-capita carbon equivalent emissions, so be it. But if there is an expectation or expressed demand to significantly cut emissions [e.g. achieve a specific technical outcome by a given date], where is the evidence this is feasible without nuclear? If this were an engineering project, I would expect to be able to confidently forecast and control costs, quality, schedule, human resources and risk. Without objective input and baseline data its all just a guess.

      You have asked for examples of generation IV reactors. I have never mentioned the deployment of Gen IV reactors today; but look forward to the technology in the future as many look to CCS or advanced energy storage technology to permit the extended penetration of renewables with current intermittency issues. But in reviewing the experience of fast reactors, such as the BOR facility in Russia, or metal cooled reactors such as the Phenix in France – I am confident the development will progress to fruition. For a list of all such facilities operating, planned and shutdown; see the Wikipedia site linked below:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fast_neutron_reactor

      There are however numerous examples today of generation II and III reactors in operation displacing massive amounts of carbon equivalent emissions in 30 +1 countries around the world [see Kemeny's articles for the numbers]. In many of these countries, the reactors are located on the coast – so cooling water in an Australian context is a non-issue. There are many other contextual aspects that are easy to transpose to Australia.

      Regarding the citing of guru’s and governments – you introduced Hansan and Germany into your Blog, not me.

      My aim in this discussion is not to convince Australians [of which, believe it or not, I am one] to rush out and demand a reactor be built. My objective is to keep the discussion factual and credible, and – based on my knowledge and experience – your claims with respect to nuclear power are not substantiated by objective facts or presented in a context that gives equal consideration of all available options.

  12. Pingback: The Durban Roadmap to Extreme Climate Danger | Better Nature: commentary by Geoff Davies

  13. Hi Ed,
    The “Risks V Benefits of nuclear power ?…you disagree with Geoff and offer your 20 years experience and superior qualifications in the nuclear industry as an “[ron-clad” assurance that there is a far less risk when we move to proliferate the planet with “nukes”, rather than the options of renewables.
    I guess the “human nature” factor of self-preservation of your role and attachment to the nuclear industry speaks volumes here. Geoff, from my experience of reading his published works clearly demonstrates his detachment from any industry or subservient to any master, perhaps with the exception of world peace and a better safer life for all who share this endangered planet. Merry Xmas to all….Ronald

    • Interesting perspective Ronald. I thought this post attempted to address technical options to reduce carbon emissions; specifically the role of nuclear.

      It remains my opinion that experience in any field brings credibility, but I admire your attempt to spin it precisely the other way – using a tool from the climate change sceptics war-chest, impressive indeed. Following this logic, one would pose (as many have) that James Hansen crafted the Climate Change issue to preserve his career and the leftist agenda of his carbon-bashing cronies, no?

      I’ll remain satisfied that you chose to attack me personally rather than the arguments I put forward.

      If not nuclear, then what? If anyone has ideas, let’s hear them. Just please, build a convincing argument by giving demonstrated examples in a context relevant to Australia (limited hydro expansion capacity and no options to import electricity from neighbouring countries when supply falls short of demand). Small scale examples are fine, but then either show where the technology’s been scaled up, defend why one should have confidence in its scalability, or accept that limited deployment to build this confidence is a wise first step.

      If an argument cannot be built to convince investors and/or policy decision makers, Australia will continue its reign as a top per-capita carbon emitter and in all likelihood our dependency on fossil fuels will continue to expand when emissions must be slashed significantly. For evidence, just consider Australian energy policy, fossil station construction starts and our emission performance since Geoff made this post. Three years on, the quick and easy measures to address emissions have not made the slightest impact on Australian emissions.

      Hopefully, the carbon tax will help.

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