Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Upside Down Down Under

rube_napkin Nuclear power, based on existing technologies, still has all its original problems: proliferation of nuclear weapons, terrorism, lack of long-term waste management, rare but catastrophic accidents and huge economic costs. All except the risk of accidents are worse now than in the 1970s. In several decades, as high-grade uranium is used up, nuclear power will also become a substantial emitter of carbon dioxide from uranium mining and milling.

All this comes from Mark Diesendorf, the deputy director of the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of New South Wales in Australia. We’ve been following Australia’s to-and-fro on nuclear energy with some interest, as it seems to be where Germany was about two years ago.

For us, Diesendorf’s article represents a stage in the process of finding nuclear energy at least tolerable – noting that it is achieving some traction, however slight, in Australia, he does his utmost (and in a rather elegant understated way – he’s a good writer) to stamp the beast into mush. And the paragraph above represents a lot of stamping.

He grasps that nuclear energy provides carbon-emission free baseload energy, which is a problem for his argument – unless he can make baseload energy irrelevant:

Baseload supply can be provided by a mix of wind, bioelectricity from combustion of residues of existing crops and plantation forests, solar thermal power with low-cost thermal storage and soon hot rock geothermal power.

Peakload power, that can respond rapidly to fluctuations in supply and demand, can be provided by hydro and gas turbines burning biofuels produced sustainably. With the forthcoming growth in electric vehicles, there will be ample electrical storage available in car batteries connected to the grid to smooth out the fluctuations in sunshine and make solar photovoltaic power a reliable source of daytime power.

Well, all right, we kind of admire the ingenuity of the energy contraption Diesendorf constructs here – it shows he dreams big and that should always be encouraged. But it does depend on a lot of things working just so and in tandem and with some sources barely out of the lab much less scaled up. Rube Goldberg would be proud.

It’s a fascinating article in one of the last major beachheads of anti-nuclear zeal.


And here’s why that zeal might feel imperative to Diesendorf and others:

A secure, clean and cheap energy future for Australia in which nuclear power plays a pivotal role is a categorical imperative. Uranium should be recognized in the Rudd Government's carbon pollution reduction scheme bill as the most valuable and cost-effective form of "carbon offset".

That’s from Leslie Kemeny, the Australian foundation member of the International Nuclear Energy Academy. Well, all right, he is obviously an interested party. But the point is: this is playing out in Australian media with unusual intensity. How it will go is anyone’s guess, but recent history does make one of those guesses a better bet.

[Rube Goldberg], was thinking of [a college professor’s] improbable mass of quasi-identifiable parts when he drew his "Automatic Weight Reducing Machine" in 1914, for The New York Evening Mail. It used such elements as a lump of wax, a bomb, a helium balloon, a red-hot stove and a donut rolling down an incline, to trap the overweight individual in a sound-proof, food-proof prison until he loses enough weight to wriggle free. More on Goldberg here.

1 comment:

robert merkel said...

I wouldn't get too excited about this.

What happened was that the local broadsheet paper decided to do a series on the topic, and sought op-eds from the usual suspects - on the pro-nuclear side, Leslie Kemeny, and on the anti-nuclear side Mark Diesendorf.

Both sides trotted out the usual talking points, resulting in e good deal of heat but not much light.

Diesendorf is a little different to most anti-nuclear types; he is an academic who has done real, peer-reviewed research into the systemic issues with replacing Australia's almost exclusively fossil-fuelled energy infrastructure. He's also got a nice paper on the energy costs of uranium mining, which gives results very much like the industry states and not like Storm van Leeuwin and Smith.

When you look into Diesendorf's proposals, they do have something of a Rube Goldberg nature to them, and rely on a couple of big handwaves to make them work. Most notable of them is that he proposes the mass usage of crop waste as a backup power source when intermittent renewables aren't available. Sounds great - until you realize that the technology for collecting and burning crop wastes has existed for well over a century, and nobody bothers. And the reason nobody bothers is simple - collecting and transporting the waste is too costly, except in very special cases like sugarcane or timber waste where it's available in large quantities on site.

The further problem with Diesendorf's analysis is that he posits the use of natural gas backup power. Which is fine - Australia has lots of natural gas. We export a pile of it to Asia, and will export a pile more of it over the next few decades. However, if you're using it for baseload power, the most efficient way to do it is to use a combined-cycle generator. If you're using it for peaking/backup, you put in a cheaper but much less efficient single-cycle plant.

The net result of putting up a bunch of wind turbines, therefore, might well be no reduction in natural gas usage, nor emissions of greenhouse gases.

Nobody has really looked into what the introduction of substantial amounts of wind power to the Australian energy grid would do to the emissions profile. The energy regulators have done studies that show that more gas-fired peaking will be required, but nobody's actually done a study of the likely emissions impact compared to not building the wind and putting in more combined-cycle gas.

That said, Leslie Kemeny's timelines are rather optimistic, to say the least!