26 January 2011

Don't be shy

We at the Politically Homeless Institute warned against inserting Josh Frydenberg into key national debates. Quarantining him at The Australian was a smart move but insufficient. In this piece he's going on about nuclear power.

our Prime Minister ... needs to take the lead and initiate a comprehensive discussion about nuclear power, which happens to be the only carbon-neutral baseload energy source.

The debate on nuclear energy doesn't have to be initiated by a Prime Minister. For proponents of nuclear energy it would be best if such a debate weren't so PM-dependent, given their record of not opposing nuclear power but quietly letting it die. For example, John Howard commissioned the Switkowski Report and was happy to let the issue die; Josh Frydenberg, then a senior adviser to that government, didn't exactly die in a ditch for the Switkowski Report and is failing in an attempt to look like an Ideas Man in pursuit of one of the most stale ideas in Australian politics.

The proponents of nuclear power have not been muzzled or ignored, but they have been unconvincing:

  • Nuclear power would require a greater government subsidy than those paid to all other renewable energy sources put together.

  • It would deny investment in other clean energy sources, effectively having government pick a winner in a fascinating race.

  • Nuclear power would be much more expensive than the NBN: would it be snarky to point out that no cost-benefit analysis has been done for nuclear power?

None of these questions are addressed in Frydenberg's piece, let alone answered. He starts off weakly:

So, why is it time for Australia to have the nuclear debate? And why is it, in the words of former prime minister Bob Hawke, "intellectually unsustainable to rule it out as a possibility"?

Hawke says the same thing about the republic, changing the flag and reconciliation with Aborigines, Josh: are you going to go all the way with RJLH on those issues, too? Did you note that Hawke was Prime Minister for over seven years, and that no more nuclear reactors were built during his time than under Howard?

As a leading source of uranium, Australia has a competitive advantage;

Australia is a leading source of coal, yet power generators still play global prices for it.

as a clean form of energy, nuclear power is better for the environment;

By the time Australia's first nuclear power station generates its first power, decades will have passed (Switkowski's 2020 prediction is optimistic and vague), and will have drawn resources away from less expensive and practical solutions that can better help the environment.

and as the only advanced economy not embracing it as the answer, it is time we caught up.

No economy regards nuclear power as "the answer". Other advanced economies regard nuclear power as one element of their power needs.

The facts are compelling.

Such a pity that you use so few of them, Josh.

Australia is in a curious moral, economic and environmental position where we are prepared to export uranium, but not use it.

Australia is one of the world's largest exporters of camels and goat meat. I bought some goat meat once - more often than most Australians - and have never bought even one camel. This does not make for any sort of "curious position", it's basic economics that we trade away some things in order to gain others.

Today, 31 countries host 440 nuclear reactors, providing two-thirds of the world's people with electricity.

It's a dead-set lie that two-thirds of the world's people consume electricity generated by nuclear power. It's like claiming that Josh Frydenberg was a Director of Deutsche Bank, it is a falsehood and any cause championed by a falsehood is discredited.

The European Union generates more than 30 per cent of its energy from nuclear power. The US figure is 20 per cent and rising.

Neither of their economies are what they were, Josh. Paying too much for electricity could be part of it.

Only in Australia does entrenched ideological opposition prevail.

There are Australians who have entrenched ideological positions for and against nuclear power. Most of us, however, are unmoved by either side. If a small number of proponents think their main problem is a small number of opponents, they can think again: their major problem is apathy and suspicion brought about by a lack of candour from proponents who can't and won't talk about costs and risks. Frydenberg's piece displays all these tricks, as I'm in the process of pointing out, and thus fails to advance the debate.
It is a message the International Energy Agency's executive director Nobuo Tanaka recently carried to Canberra: "If you don't use nuclear, totally renewable energy is very, very expensive, and also it is fragile in terms of its productivity."

Fine, you can build us a nuclear power station then, we don't have the money.

Seriously, let's get down to brass tacks: would there be a nuclear power station in what is now Australia's third-biggest city? Where exactly within SEQ would you put it? What would happen if there was a "rain event" like 2011 or 1974? What would happen to a nuclear reactor in a "fire event" like Victoria 2009? Can you promise that a nuclear future won't feature fire and rain on that scale?

The pre-eminent voice in the Australian debate, Ziggy Switkowski, chairman of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, believes Australia can have its first reactor operating by 2020 and 50 in place by 2050, providing 90 per cent of the nation's energy needs.

Such a move would propel us a long way towards meeting our emissions targets by 2050.

Developments in reactor technology are also occurring so fast that the construction phase is likely to shrink from 60 to 30 months in coming years.

New generation reactors will also be considerably smaller, built underground, and with the potential to be gas cooled, so they would not need to be located close to large sources of water.

None of those projections have any credibility at all. The next ten years is the crucial period for carbon emissions, and the rest is sheer fantasy. Australians are a practical people and will not build underground reactors on spec - leave that to Bond villains, Josh.

Incidentally, Australian companies like Worley Parsons are involved in the construction of new reactors as in Egypt, where they are gaining an international reputation for their project management expertise.

Well, three cheers for Worley Parsons. It will take more than that to build a nuclear energy industry here: with almost full employment and a dearth of training facilities, where are the skilled workers and managers necessary to operate such an industry to come from? How much will it cost?

Today's reactors are also significantly safer than their predecessors. The explosions at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island were decades ago and since then there have been thousands of reactor hours without incident.

Blithe nonsense like that gives no confidence that the lessons from those terrible accidents have been learned. European economists have attempted to quantify the economic damage arising from Chernobyl - hunt down this work Josh and crunch it into your cost-benefit analysis.

A comprehensive and informed debate about a nuclear power industry for Australia is long overdue.

It sure is, but it's a shame that Josh won't contribute to it with piffle like this.

Old lines, long discredited, can't be made new by rehashing them or doing the pot-kettle routine on ideological blinkers. Be honest about costs and risks. Be specific: I've suggested that a nuclear power station be built in SA (specifically Woomera or Whyalla) to showcase the uranium resources of that state and to provide employment for workers in that state's fading industries.

Josh can't advance a debate by pretending his opponents are any more shy or blinkered than those of his political forebears - Menzies, Howard amongst them. It would be a real pity for Josh to be regarded as a thinker and a potential minister on the basis of this.


  1. What a relief! To know that Australia does not have to continue on regular government and mass media dialysis! I was about to slash my wrists, but now that I know that Australia does have well, one kidney, - that is a start for some hope.
    May the toilet continue to be filled and flushed with your satirical view on our political "leaders"

  2. A few extra points to add to the Nuclear mix:
    1. Why doesn't SA keep going down the path it is presently on and concentrate on developing the Geothermal Energy Industry, which feeds, safely, off the heat generated by their Uranium deposits?
    2. If anyone with any real interest in bringing Nuclear Power to Australia had done their homework properly, instead of just being mouthpieces for Uranium Mining companies, as Frydenburg and Switkowski are, then they would have found out that Australia also has one of the world's largest deposits of Thorium, which is a much safer alternative nuclear fuel. It has a much reduced half-life cf Uranium/Plutonium, the reactors using it are smaller and safer(Pebble Bed), and they are easier to construct. For example, Germany atm is going full-bore in this direction. They don't need as much water, if any, to cool them either.

  3. Good points, Victoria. I understand that India also has significant thorium deposits, which will probably mean that it will develop thorium reactor technology as well.

  4. Thorium reactors use natural thorium, which is isotope 232. There are a lot of neutrons running around in there; it’s how reactors work. If an atom of thorium 232 absorbs a neutron, it becomes isotope 233. Some will fission, but some won’t.

    Thorium 233 beta decays (HL 22 minutes) to proactinium 233, which beta decays (HL 27 days) to uranium 233.

    Uranium 233 is fissionable, and you can make bombs out of it. And the best part of all is that it can be purified chemically out of the spent fuel of the thorium reactor. You don’t have to mess around with gas diffusion or centrifuges.

    If, as some propose, there’s a thorium reactor buried in every backyard, you could face the possibility of pretty much any dedicated extremist being able to build nuclear weapons.

    The Greenroom » Nuclear Weapons for the Masses!

  5. So Christina, you're telling me that one element becomes another? Alchemy isn't dead, then.

    This issue aside, I do believe that sneering at renewables because they don't provide baseload misses the point. Households and small outfits should be able to produce their own power and tap into the grid only when required.

  6. Sorry to carry this debate on a little further, but I had to rebut Christina's silly assertion re terrorists and nuclear bomb-making potential of Thorium Reactor waste. This is from the Wikipedia article on Pebble Bed Reactors:
    'The graphite pebbles are more difficult to reprocess due to their construction,[citation needed] which is not true of the fuel from other types of reactors. Proponents[who?] point out that this is a plus, as it is difficult to re-use pebble bed reactor waste for nuclear weapons.'

  7. Thanks Victoria. It was the transmutation of elements along with the "as some propose" Albrechtsenism that caused me to smell a rat.

  8. Gotta put these Greenies back in their boxes too.

  9. Andrew, it's not my intention to sound patronising, but are you across the concept of radioactive decay? Maybe Victoria was too polite to call you out on it, I can't speak on the details of the technologies she and Christina are discussing, but elements turning into other elements is not medieval alchemy, it's a fact that underpins nuclear physics. That's why the periodic table has that line of elements down the bottom named after scientists who either worked on nuclear theory or the Manhattan Project, and that's why said elements only exist because of nuclear technology, for example.

    Agree with your long-standing assertion that outdated conceptions of baseload power are retarding the wonderful possibility of small-scale supply for small residences, even more so after driving up the Princes Hwy to Canberra at the beginning of the year and seeing the Latrobe Valley power stations for the first time.

  10. Aware of the concept of radioactive decay, Sean, and will investigate the process by which one element becomes another. Cheers.

  11. Victoria, no country has yet been able to develop the "safe" thorium powered pebble bed reactors, despite efforts made in South Africa, China, Canada, USA, Russia India. Amongst the various designs, many use thorium in combination with plutonium.
    But the problems with thorium have so far defeated the hope of any commercial practicality.
    To quote from The World Nuclear Association:
    The problems include:

    * The high cost of fuel fabrication, due partly to the high radioactivity of U-233 chemically separated from the irradiated thorium fuel. Separated U-233 is always contaminated with traces of U-232 (69 year half-life but whose daughter products such as thallium-208 are strong gamma emitters with very short half-lives). Although this confers proliferation resistance to the fuel cycle by making U-233 hard to handle and easy to detect, it results in increased costs.
    * The similar problems in recycling thorium itself due to highly radioactive Th-228 (an alpha emitter with two-year half life) present.
    * Some concern over weapons proliferation risk of U-233 (if it could be separated on its own).
    * The technical problems (not yet satisfactorily solved) in reprocessing solid fuels.

    Much development work is still required before the thorium fuel cycle can be commercialised, and the effort required seems unlikely

  12. I think we'd all agree that the fad for nuclear as a green alternative is bullshit.