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Coal and the nuclear lobby

August 13, 2018 - 18:50 -- Admin

Against my better judgement, I got sucked into a minor Twitterstorm over the weekend. The main outcome was to remind me that, while Twitter is useful in the role of a microblog, providing quick links to, and sharp observations on, more substantial material, it is utterly useless as a venue for discussion and debate.

In this case, the debate was over nuclear power, and this post from last year. It’s reasonable to ask why I would bother arguing about nuclear power, given my frequently expressed view that it’s dead as a doornail. The problem is that nuclear fans like Ben Heard are, in effect, advocates for coal. Their line of argument runs as follows

(1) A power source with the characteristics of coal-fired electricity (always on) is essential if we are to decarbonise the electricity suppy
(2) Renewables can’t meet this need
(3) Nuclear power can
Hence, we must find a way to support nuclear

The problem is that, on any realistic analysis, there’s no chance of getting a nuclear plant going in Australia before about 2040 (see over the fold). So, the nuclear fans end up supporting the Abbott crew saying that we will have to rely on coal until then. And to make this case, it is necessary to ignore or denounce the many options for an all-renewable electricity supply, including concentrated solar power, large-scale battery storage and vehicle-to-grid options. As a result, would-be green advocates of nuclear power end up reinforcing the arguments of the coal lobby.

Looking at the argument set out above, point (1) is generally taken as self-evident, even though the idea of baseload demand is basically a nonsense, at least until the renewables share gets much closer to 100 per cent.

Point (3) is based on the claim that since France did this 40 years ago, Australia can do it today. The fact that France has long since lost the special characteristics that made its dash for nuclear power possible isn’t even considered.  When I looked at the issue a few years ago, I concluded that only China had anything like the characteristics needed, but nuclear power has stalled even there.

Coming back to the Australian debate, it’s striking that it’s still going on, given the negative findings of the SA Royal Commission, established at the behest of the nuclear lobby. But I’ll spell out the problem one more time. Let’s look at the most optimistic possible timetable. The hardest evidence relates to the time between the issuing of a contract to build a nuclear power plant and the connection to the grid. The best-case scenario is that of the KEPCO contract in the UAE, one of the rare cases where the construction phase was completed on time and on budget. There have, however, been unexplained delays in startup.  The contract was signed in December 2009 and, on current projections, the first plant (of four) will be connected to the grid ten years after that, at the end of 2019.

So, to get nuclear power going in Australia before 2040, we’d need signed contracts by 2030 at the latest. What needs to happen before that goal can be achieved

* First, obviously, both major parties need to be convinced of the case for nuclear power. That’s highly unlikely but let’s suppose it can somehow be done by 2020

* Next, the current ban on nuclear power needs to be repealed. This ban looms large in the  minds of nuclear fans, but actually it’s such a minor problem we can ignore it

* Next, we need to set up, from scratch a legislative and regulatory framework for nuclear power, and establish and staff a regulator similar to the US NRC. Bear in mind that there is essentially no one in Australia with any relevant expertise. I’d be surprised if this could be done in five years, but let’s suppose three

* Next we need to license designs that can be built here and, at the same time, completely remodel the National Electricity Market in a way that makes nuclear cost-competitive with both gas and renewables, while not opening the door for new coal (again, three years would be incredibly optimistic)

* Next we need to identify greenfield sites for multiple nuclear power plants, almost certainly on the east coast, and go through the processes of EIS, Environment Court and so on. In any realistic view, this would never succeed, but let’s suppose another three years.

After all that, we have to find companies willing to build the plants, and organize the necessary contracts. Given the absurdly opimsitic schedule set out above, this would have to be done inside a year.

In summary, even on magical assumptions it would be impossible to get nuclear power going in Australia before 2040, by which time we would already have had to close most of the coal-fired generation fleet. It follows that the only effect of nuclear advocacy is to prolong the life of coal-fired power to the limits of technological feasibility.

In practice, support for nuclear power in Australia is support for coal. Tony Abbott understands this. It’s a pity that Ben Heard and others don’t/