Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Upside Down Down Under

Ranger mineI mentioned the other day that nuclear energy is not everyone’s best friend – sad but true - and named Australia as having a particularly long-lived animus toward it. That’s been crumbling over the last few years, as Australia has found it difficult to move forward with its carbon emission reduction plans.
According to the World Nuclear Association, in 2009 Australia generated almost 54 percent of its electricity from black coal, 22 percent from brown coal and 15 percent from natural gas.
That’s not the mix that will achieve the country's goal. Hydro is on the list at 4.5 percent, but other renewables barely register. Australia is rich in resources, a net exporter of coal and uranium (more on this below). And of course, it is blessed with considerable sunshine and wind.
In the meantime, the country has taken an exceptionally aggressive stance on greenhouse gasses by passing new energy legislation (think cap-and-trade married to a carbon tax), encouraging energy efficiency and implementing (and incentivizing) wind and solar energy installations.

The Australian Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency – a nice descriptive title – has more on this.

This aggressive effort to rein in greenhouse gasses may be a bit implausible. The Brookings Institute, a Washington think tank, gets to the heart of this about as well as we could:

Although Australia has approximately 23 percent of the world’s uranium reserves, there is currently no political support for building nuclear power stations. These factors highlight that reducing CO2 emissions from the electricity sector will be significantly more challenging for Australia than for the U.S.
Brookings also offers a chart that updates the World Nuclear Association’s chart of Australia’s energy sources to 2011 – and they’re the same as in 2009.

That may help explain why there has been some thaw among the antipodeans regarding nuclear energy.
Neither major political party formally backs domestic nuclear power, but the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bob Carr, has said it should remain an option and the Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson, has insisted it is still ''a live debate in Australia, despite the best efforts of the Greens and non-government organizations to demonize the discussion''.
(The major parties are the Liberals – who are <sigh!> conservative – who names these parties, anyway? - and Labor – who are the liberals. Labor has the majority currently, with Julia Gillard as prime minister.)

Some thaw, I admit, not a full-bore melt. At least this leads to an exceptionally lively debate. Imagine an American anti-nuclear group amping up the message to 11 and you get this:
The report on the catastrophic potential of nuclear warfare has important implications for the ongoing debate over nuclear power. Apologists for the nuclear industry trot out any number of furphies [tall tales] in their efforts to distance nuclear power from weapons of mass destruction proliferation, but the facts are in. There is a long history of ostensibly peaceful nuclear programs providing political cover and technical support for nuclear weapons programs — and an expansion of nuclear power can only exacerbate the problem.
Yes, the facts are in. The human race is doomed. Visit for a full measure of furphies.
In contrast, nuclear energy advocates will rarely tread into panacea or utopia-like territory. Still, the more careful language does have an impact:
Nuclear power should be considered if the carbon tax does not make renewable energy competitive against coal and fossil fuels, former chief scientist Robin Batterham has said.
His comments echoed those of the chair of climate change at Adelaide University, Barry Brook, who said last week that it was ''inevitable'' Australia would be forced to choose nuclear power, most likely by 2020.
''If geothermal doesn't deliver fairly quickly, that takes that off the list,'' Professor Batterham said. ''If wind doesn't get its economics an awful lot better fairly quickly, there isn't going to be a big increase [in wind power].''
Well, nothing’s “inevitable” except death and taxes, but Brooks’ insistence does have a zeal to it.  The story goes on to say that Batterham believes that nuclear energy is not the slam dunk Brooks imagines. Still, he says, “Let's make sure we shake a few [energy] alternatives as well as seeing nuclear coming to a house near you.''

So – new nuclear build in Australia next year? Let’s not get crazy. But the presence of a bracing debate and support from key government officials – plus the country’s determination to meet its greenhouse gas emission targets – brings it closer than it’s ever been. Hmm - maybe New Zealand is not as out-of-the-question as it once seemed.

The Ranger uranium mine. Did we mention that Australia has uranium? A lot of uranium. According to the World Nuclear Association, “Australian exports over the last five years have averaged just over 10,000 tons/year U3O8, and in 2009 provided 15.7% of world uranium supply from mines.   Uranium comprises about 35% of the country's energy exports in thermal terms.” Australia holds about 23 percent of the world’s uranium reserves, the largest in the world. Talk about energy security! Now it just needs the facilities to be secure with.


Anonymous said...

As an Australian who is active in this debate I'd like to reinforce some of the points made in this post. One correction that I can see is that currently the Labor Government is a minority government, meaning in the last election (2010) there was no clear winner and to form government the Labor party had to get the support of 3 independents and 1 Greens party member. The Green support there (House of Reps) is key. As in the Senate the Greens have a balance of power factor they can use when legislation gets passed from the House of Reps to Senate. Green policy influence (hardened anti-nukes, no compromise) is there. Labor supported Nuclear now, we would end up in an election sooner than expected.

On the anti-nuclear part of Australian politics it is a bit harder to disseminate for an outsider. Within each political party there are factions. The Labor left are traditionally anti-nuclear, and the Labor right is the same but more open to the option if concerns (born from anti-nuke left) are adequately addressed. The Liberal party (NB: more closely ideologically aligned with Dems in US than Republicans) say it needs to be considered but fall short of saying we support it. The main reason was the 2007 election when in 2006 they set up a committee to look into Nuclear power only to have Labor use the chronic anti-nuke arguments and NIMBY (not in my back yard) FUD to gain a political foothold. So they are cautious form making it a platform to repeat past mistakes.
Also there is section 140A of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act where it explicitly states a prohibition of Nuclear facilities. This needs to be repealed first for anything tangible to occur.

For it to be considered it needs bipartisan support originating form the Labor party. Which may happen as the Labor-Greens alliance is upsetting a large proportion of the Labor right faction, seeing a slight shift of Labor to the right. Considering the recent Energy White papers stating the need to assess Nuclear power and the Dept. of Resources, Energy, and Tourism recent report on LCOE for 40 generation types (incl. SMRs and GIII; BREE report) that the pieces are there, it just needs the right environment politically to occur. Factoring in the 2006 committee inquiry that basically created a roadmap, it may be closer than the anti's would like you to think.

Engineer-Poet said...

On the technical side, the whole weapons/nuclear war issue ought to be moot for Australia (and NZ?).  They could easily get all their electrical power needs from domestic uranium supplies using CANDU reactors, eliminating enrichment (no path to HEU weapons).  Without reprocessing, there's no path to plutonium weapons... as if Australia would create a weapons program absent an existential threat and a deterioration of the American nuclear umbrella.

Someone needs to work up a proposal for an all-nuclear Australia, including most ground transportation.  That might move the Overton window a few notches.