Climate change: is nuclear power the answer?

By skepticlawyer

24 Comments

  1. Posted November 10, 2010 at 5:02 am | Permalink

    This looks like an especially good line-up, so much so that I’m regretting being on the wrong continent. If you can get along, then I think a very informative evening is to be had.

  2. Posted November 10, 2010 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    At risk of doomthreading, I note none of the position stances include my main qualifier on the issue: “maybe, maybe, … but it means governments having the guts to give the engineers in the regulator clout, teeth and freedom to bite: plan and manage those contracts like Sweden does”.

    Requirements and contract management… so important to so much… a discipline too rare among, or too inconvenient to, “yes-man” managers whether private or public. (sigh)

  3. Jacques Chester
    Posted November 10, 2010 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    “Radioactive racism”? I … what … I don’t even …

  4. KiwiInOz
    Posted November 10, 2010 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    Is nuclear power the answer to climate change? No.

    Is nuclear power a good option for replacing fossil fuel based energy sources? Yes, if you are talking about electricity from coal, gas or other petroleum sources, but not so good for directly running your car.

    Can nuclear power contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Yes, if it replaces fossil fuel based options.

    Can nuclear power reduce the accumulated CO2 in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels? No.

    It’s part of the answer, just not the answer.

    And I’m talking about nuclear from technology such as breeder reactors that use thorium and nuclear waste as fuel, not the reactors that can lead to weapons grade plutonium and waste that lasts for tens of thousands of years.

  5. KiwiInOz
    Posted November 10, 2010 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    All new sources of energy generation are too expensive at the start, particularly when existing sources of generation are heavily subsidised and the costs of pollution to the environment and society are externalised. This is a threshold situation where market failure needs to be rectified through government investment, regulation, and the creation of new markets and market mechanisms, and business investment.

  6. Henry2
    Posted November 10, 2010 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    SL,

    We need 2 types of power.
    We need base load power, which is that portion of power that is always needed so essentially we dont want the generation to stop. Indeed if it does stop it produces interruptions in supply. It is a constant.
    We need peak power. This is adjustable power that can be fed into the grid on demand and shut down when it is no longer needed.

    Generation essentially comes in 3 types.
    The first type is cheap and constant. It is typified by large installations that are designed to be run at a consistant rate. It is usually difficult and expensive to vary the output and any variation can result in less efficient combustion. These parameters are found in coal and nuclear facilities. Tidal, wave and geothermal facilities also have potential in this form but as yet cannot produce anywhere near the supply needed.
    The second type of generation is generally more expensive because the output is adjustable and can be fed into the grid on demand. This generation is the output of hydro and gas plants.
    The third type of generation is at best intermittent. It relies on a forms of nature that are intensely variable. Generators rely on having a companion plant that can compliment when nature doesn’t deliver. This is generated by wind and solar plants.

    If you agree that my first form of generation most efficiently supplys the base load power, you must agree that if we do have to reduce our reliance on coal fired base load, we must convert to a nuclear base load, as that is the only alternative readily available.
    To use a variable load generator such as gas for base load power is a blatant waste, particularly when the demand for variable devices is higher due to the greater number of intermittent generators.

    To propose a change in our methods of generation that excludes both of the available forms of base load power generation is foolish.
    Regards,

    Frank

  7. TerjeP
    Posted November 10, 2010 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Henry2 / Frank – Nuclear can do load following reasonably quickly.

  8. TerjeP
    Posted November 10, 2010 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Opposition to nuclear power is really silly. It’s a perfect substitute for coal with cost being the only downside. Even here cost is mostly the product of excessive safety regulation and politicization. Nuclear power has a safety track record better than hydro electricity. Even the most dangerous nuclear power plant in history (Chernobyl) which the WHO projects will kill 4000 people as a result of the nuclear meltdown in 1986, was overall still safer than the average coal fired power plant (assuming we compare on the basis of deaths per unit of energy produced and include deaths from mining fuel). Nuclear power is over regulated.

  9. Patrick
    Posted November 10, 2010 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    I agree with #9. If you were serious about climate change you would want the Victorian government to just pay for Hazelwood (approx 3.2GW I think) to be phased out and replaced by a 5GW nuclear plant.

  10. Posted November 10, 2010 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Even excluding human factors climate change is inevitable. So I was pleased when last year the Royal Society released a set of papers addressing geo engineering. Once we start thinking in century timeframes the whole risk profile changes. We are more likely to see a huge number of deaths from a plague than climate change and the former is more likely. This is why whenever a new virus pops up they jump on it real quick, can’t wait to see if it is dangerous because by then it is too late.

    That is a similiar conceptual problem that relates to human induced climate change. Time will always be against us. Geo-engineering will requires lots of energy. Australia is ideally suited to nuclear power. We have the raw materials, we could have rail lines straight from the mines\processing to the power plant and the same line could be used for that near perfect dumping site in Western or South Aus.

    So I am at a complete loss to understand Australia’s attitude to nuclear power. Of all countries we are ideally placed to utilise this resource. No, it won’t stop climate change, even geo-engineering won’t stop climate change, but a high baseload capacity will be very handy in addressing the various contingencies that will inevitably arise.

  11. KiwiInOz
    Posted November 10, 2010 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    John, don’t forget that the disease risk profile changes with changing climate.

    Re nuclear waste – the latest generation of reactors can use existing nuclear waste (with its half life in the 10s of thousands of years) as fuel, reducing the half life to hundreds of years. Win-win.

  12. Posted November 10, 2010 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    don’t forget that the disease risk profile changes with changing climate.

    Thanks KiwilnOz,

    I know about the new reactors, and last I heard Australia also has good supplies of thorium. There are some very interesting new reactor designs being created, especially those “modular” designs.

    Not just diseases, but even a half decent volcanic eruption can be catastrophic.

    As far as human cognition is concerned 100 years is forever. I think specific strategies are doomed by our cognitive myopia. Broad based approaches, like energy sources that are not environmentally dependent, is a much safer long term bet than as JC would say, “props on sticks and shiny things in the desert”.

  13. kvd
    Posted November 10, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    I am always intrigued by the climate worriers who say that basically we will all be dead in 50-100 years if we don’t mend our ways, but then get incoherent about nuclear power, because the waste/by product will last for “thousands of years”.

    So I think I’m with LE on this – except I would normally treat anyone claiming to be called Arthur Dent with great suspicion.

    The other thing that strikes me is LE’s and SL’s need for a bit of peace and quiet while they attend to more pressing matters. And their previously stated dismay at the provocations caused by anything green or irradiated.

    So, maybe this is just a “talk among yourselves” topic?

  14. Posted November 10, 2010 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    We seem to be in furious agreement, so neither greenery or irradiation is apparently having its expected effects.

    What reasonable folk we are 🙂

  15. Posted November 10, 2010 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] – I’m always amazed when people talk worriedly of long half-lives. I’d rather be standing naked next to a kg of stuff with a half life of 1000 years than a half life of a week.

  16. kvd
    Posted November 10, 2010 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    Dave, I agree. But I’d rather be in bed with a good book than pursue either of your options.

    The other thing I wonder about is the qualifications of these people:

    YES – Adelaide University
    NO – Nuclear Awareness Project
    NO – Friends of the Earth
    NEITHER – formerly known as Albert Langer

    I am always for the underdog, so Arthur has my full support, plus – he seems to have the more balanced approach.

  17. Patrick
    Posted November 10, 2010 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    yea, spend more of other people’s money, balanced like hell.

    I agree with your sentiments though, it would appear that only one commenter is even likely to be informed.

  18. TerjeP
    Posted November 10, 2010 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    we could have rail lines straight from the mines\processing to the power plant and the same line could be used for that near perfect dumping site in Western or South Aus.

    If my memory serves me a 1GW conventional nuclear power plant requires about 20 cubic metres of nuclear fuel per year (0.4 cubic metres per week) or for 60 years of operation a cube ten metres on each edge. As such I think it would be very hard to justify a dedicated railway for fueling a nuclear power plant. And in terms of waste it is best stored on site for later exploitation using more advanced nuclear reactor technology. Conventional reactors only havest about 1% of the fuels potential.

  19. TerjeP
    Posted November 10, 2010 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    60 should say 50.

  20. Posted November 10, 2010 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    There’s currently an intense ongoing discussion about the nuclear power option on Barry Brook’s blog “Brave New Climate”. Brook will be one of the speaker’s at tomorrow’s Monthly Argument – and he and Dent (aka Albert Langer) have already got started over at Brave New Climate.

    You can read what they (and others) are saying here and here … also in several other recent threads.

    What’s missing from the mix there is Jim Green , who is totally opposed to the use of nuclear power under any circumstances. Brook seems really keen to take him on, and from what I know of Dent , he will at least have that in common with Brook.

    Brook sees nuclear as our only real option and maintains that it’s now both safe and cheap enough, whereas Dent, while not being anti-nuclear is arguing that the only thing worth investing in at this stage is a massive research and development program. He’s been criticizing what he calls the ‘parochialism’ of those who focus on what Australia should do, rather than addressing the issue of the need of the developing world for cheap and abundant energy , maintaining that both nuclear and renewables are currently too expensive to be an option for most of the world’s population. Brook has been holding his ground and coming back at Dent on several levels – in particular arguing that he’s just handwaving and thinking “magically” about the prospects of science being able to come up with new (and possibly unimagined) solutions. He seems to feel very confident that the nuclear energy is on the way to becoming not too expensive, even for the developing world.

    Anyway, I thought I’d alert everyone here to that discussion because it’s not only interesting, but very informative.

    And I urge Melbourne readers to come along tomorrow night – it’s shaping up to be a really good debate – and hopefully, also a fun night out.

    It’s an excellent chance to hear the arguments, and at our debates there’s always an opportunity to socialise and argue with others informally afterwards.

  21. Posted November 10, 2010 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    kvd: arthur dent is Albert Langer. Check in wikipedia, esp The Electoral Act bit. I’ve a comment in spam bin i think. In post on his site, his wife said on the LP/LE spat a while back that LE’s post was “long and thoughtful” and LP’s response was “extraordinary”.

  22. kvd
    Posted November 11, 2010 at 3:40 am | Permalink

    Dave, I did realise that. I was only smiling gently at the layout of the flyer, with the qualifications attached to each participant.

    Anyway I hope that all sides get a good hearing, and that the audience is composed mostly of people who can look past the pre-coded words which will necessarily form part of the discussion. It just seems to me that sometimes good points can be lost simply by weight of the baggage attaching to the terminology: green, nuclear, proliferation spring to mind as preloaded with whole chapters of meaning.

    And the other thing I sometimes find hard to take are organisations with names such as “Friends of the Earth”. I mean, if you are not a member does that automatically mean you are an enemy? Just stray thoughts, leading nowhere – I do accept.

  23. Jacques Chester
    Posted November 11, 2010 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    I’d rather be standing naked next to a kg of stuff with a half life of 1000 years than a half life of a week.

    But it’s ten thouuuuusand years, David! It might give off a few grams of radon EVERY CENTURY.

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