A Lack of Understanding of Nuclear Issues

Ben Fowler writes about the issues related to nuclear power in Australia. He spends 8 paragraphs discussing the issues on the “Right” side of politics – of which 6 concern the an Australian nuclear weapons capability and then spends 3 out of 5 paragraphs related to the “Left” side explaining that he thinks that everyone who opposes nuclear power is a Luddite.

Ben didn’t bother providing any links or statistics to back up his claims, so I’ll assist him in analysing these issues by providing some facts that we can discuss.

In March Spain had wind power provide 27% of all electricity (making wind power the main source of power for the country). I blogged about this at the time. While Spain has an ongoing program of building new wind power stations the majority of wind turbines in Spain are quite old (the Model T of wind power) and not nearly as efficient as modern turbines that would be installed for Australian power plants.

The Danish government has announced plans to use wind power for 75% of their electricity. Denmark has a much smaller land area than Australia, which means that generating so much electricity from wind power is more technically challenging for them than it would be for us. A larger land area means that when one area has low wind speeds other areas can be used to provide power.

For home electricity generation wind turbines have not yet been proven to be practical. The linear speed of the blade is determined by the wind speed and the rotational speed is therefore a factor of the wind speed divided by the radius of the blades. This means that smaller turbines have higher rotational speeds which causes more noise (bad for getting council approval), also to avoid turbulence a wind turbine will ideally be some distance above the ground (8 meters is good) which again gives problems when getting approval. The O’Connor Hush Turbine is supposed to solve the noise component of this problem. It will be interesting to see whether home based wind power becomes practical in future – if so I would like to get an O’Connor turbine on my house!

Home solar power has been proven to work well, in the form of both solar-electric and solar hot water (I know several people who have been happily using them for years). You don’t get cold showers when the sun isn’t shining, you instead use gas or electricity to heat the water (it’s a standard feature in a solar hot water system). Also your home electricity doesn’t go off when the sun stops shining, you have batteries that are charged during sunny times to run things overnight, and when they get flat you pay for power from the grid.

It is quite realistic to stick solar power systems on every roof in the country. The added cost to the process of building or purchasing a house is negligible and the benefits include having electricity when mains power is unavailable (NB water is used in generating electricity from coal or nuclear power plants so a bad drought will eventually become a time of limited mains power). Even the smallest home solar electric system will produce enough electricity to power a fridge and freezer 24*7 so it’s a very useful backup for essential power. The government is subsidising the installation of solar electric systems, so it seems that they expect everyone to get one eventually.

Dr. Ziggy Switkowski (the main advocate of nuclear power in Australia) says “the introduction of a carbon tax could make nuclear power the cheapest option by the 2020s”. In consecutive paragraphs Ben derides “carbon trading” and claims that nuclear power is “practical”. Unfortunately the main advocate of nuclear power in Australia does not believe that it is practical without a carbon tax. Ziggy also states that it would take at least 15 years to complete a nuclear power plant, unfortunately we don’t have the luxury of waiting for 15 years before starting to try and reduce the damage that we are doing to the environment. The Stern report makes the economic consequences of inaction quite clear.

I am not a Luddite. I oppose nuclear power because of the risks related to accidental release of radioactive material and the routine release of radioactive material as part of the uranium mining process, and the dangers related to long-term storage of nuclear waste (let’s not assume that Star Trek science can make it all non-radioactive). Nuclear power is not cost effective for Australia and will take so long to develop that it won’t save us from the serious economic damage predicted by the best scientific models as presented in the Stern report.

For large scale power generation wind power works now, can be easily implemented and has no hidden costs or risks. There will never be a Chernobyl type accident with wind power, it is inherently a safe technology. For small scale power generation (something you can add to your home) solar power works well, is not expensive (when considering the price of a house and especially when the government subsidy is counted) and has the potential to seriously reduce the amount of carbon dioxide produced.

8 comments to A Lack of Understanding of Nuclear Issues

  • Michael Greb

    Just a quick note from a former reactor operator. In the typical pressurized water reactor both the primary and secondary loop are closed so continuous water use is quite low, it’s not a constant influx of new water.

    That said I agree with you that nuclear power isn’t the end all be all, especially with the high cost of constructing a plant and the waste issues.

  • etbe

    Current nuclear reactors generate power by boiling water and using steam to drive turbines. The amount of water used for heat transfer is minute compared to the amount used for generating steam.

    Currently in Australia the wholesale electricity prices have been increasing significantly due to the drought (AKA climate change) and are expected to increase further as water supplies drop even lower.

    Steam can be condensed but the greater efficiency at doing so the more energy is lost (you have to include the energy investment in building cooling towers).

    The people who are doing the detailed analysis of electricity generation systems also include the water used to wash the blades of wind turbines (which is minute compared to the amount used for steam in coal and nuclear plants.

  • etbe

    Unfortunately there isn’t an undelete button on the comments, I accidentally deleted the below from Jan Hudec:

    There is a hidden cost to wind (and solar as well) power – you have to take into account the backup sources that need to be available in case the wind stops blowing. These need to have the same or almost the same power as the wind turbines.

    Also as wind turbines can’t be built anywhere, they put higher load on the long distance power lines, because the electricity needs to be transfered from the area with strong wind to the area where it is used.

    I read that in north Germany there were many wind turbines installed recently and no more can be built because there is not enough backup sources and because the north-south power lines are loaded to limit.

  • > In March Spain had wind power provide 27% of all electricity (making wind power the main source of power for the country).

    As a Spaniard who has more than jst an academic interest in the subject, let me call bullshit on those figures first, and look up the right ones afterwards.

    Even without looking at actual data, just reading The Age, I can start by saying that the MegaWatts is a power unit, not a work/energy unit (that’s the MegaWatt-hour), so anything measured in MegaWatts is either a peak production capacity or an average, but not a sustained throughput.

    Sez The Age:
    > At 5.40pm (0340 AEDT on Tuesday) on Monday, wind power generation rose to contribute 27 per cent of the country’s total power requirement, Red Electrica said.
    > At that moment wind power contributed 8,375 mega watts to the nation’s power consumption of 31,033.

    That is a moment’s power output, not the March consumption, as your post implies.

    Aquaintance with the aggregated data for March published by Red Eléctrica Española (the electric network operator) shows that, indeed, during the month of March Spain consumed 3.746.278 MWh of hydraulic power, 5.176.546 MWh of Nuclear Power, and a very worthy and respectable 2.936.063 MWh of eolic power.

    Now, I am impressed that eolic power is almost catching up with hydraulic power in the Spring months: surely big subsidies have something to do with it, and it is a pity that wind can’t be stored so power can be generated on demand, but hey, we can run on air and save water for a good part of the year!

    MW and MWh, instant measures and monthly aggregates. I am sure you don’t lack an understanding of these, and it was just a slip.

    Still, your post was mistaken at best. Bad accounting in the name of wishful thinking is bad, even if done in the name of a good cause. Let me say again that I am sure it was not voluntary on your behalf: you just read The Age a bit too hurriedly. But please consider a correction.

  • […] Ben Fowler writes about the issues related to nuclear power in Australia. He spends 8 paragraphs discussing the issues on the “Right” side of politics – of which 6 concern the an Australian nuclear weapons capability and then spends 3 … …more […]

  • Johnnyb

    I don’t think that the anti-nuclear Luddites fully understand the the requirements of a power grid or the big picture moving towards the future. Energy policy is a matter of national security, whether Global Warming turns out to be a bust or not.

    Wind and Solar are not suitable for providing the base load in the power grid, only fossil fuels plants, hydro and nuclear are suitable for this task. Its really not a question or either/or, because we need wind and solar, as well as nuclear because the long term goal is not to merely replace coal plants, but to also provide enough excess capacity to produce hydrogen in quantities sufficient to replace petroleum and this is a task that nuclear is particularly well suited due to their high operating temperatures, and would create a secondary market for electrical power. This would allow nuke plants to run at 99% capacity between refueling cycles all the time, while excess capacity generated through wind and solar could be used while they are available to maintain the base load, while the nuke plants direct more of their energy to producing hydrogen.

    A week long power outage in the Southern United States during a heat wave would kill far more people and poses a far greater danger to humanity, than the much over hyped dangers of nuclear waste would pose. Uranium is not an uncommon element and is found all of the Earth, including limestone deposits. These same limestone deposits are used to make concrete and drywall, the same concrete and drywall that forms the slab that is currently beneath your carpet and the same drywall that’s beneath your paint. Carpet and paint are uranium free either, they are made with petroleum products which also come from deep beneath the earth and also contain small amounts of Uranium, just like the coal that we burn in power plants or the gas the we burn on our cars.

    Radon gas is what Uranium eventually turns into, and is the second leading cause of of lung cancer after cigarettes. Radon builds up in your house as radioactive elements in your carpet, paint, drywall and concrete in your home decay. In a well ventilated home, this is not much of an issue, unless you want to make your home really efficient. If you want your home to be really efficient you will try and make the system as closed as possible to keep the conditioned air inside. This allows Radon gas to build up giving people a larger dose of radiation.

    So, ironically, these people who are trying to save the Earth from all this nuclear waste by discouraging nuke plants are actually responsible for keeping more nuclear waste in your living environment, than you would be exposed to if you did the exact opposite of what they said. Not only that, but since its an either/or deal between coal and nuclear, they are actually supporting the coal industry which pumps heavy Earth elements like Uranium and thorium directing into the atmosphere on a much larger scale than nuke plants produce the stuff.

    The choice is not between solar/wind power, vs. coal and nuclear. But rather the choice is between coal and nuclear, or death. Energy saving methods actually expose you to more radiation than nuclear energy ever would unless perhaps you are working inside the plant. Future dependence on despotic regimes like Iran and Saudi Arabia for our energy demands jeopardizes our national security and produces large trade deficits which will only increase in the future, not to mention that petroleum products like gas, diesel and jet fuel pumps radiation into the atmosphere just like coal.

    A nuclear powered future is optional, but its either nuke plants or poverty and death. The Luddites need to wake up to reality on this issue, and the politicians need to learn to ignore them.

  • etbe
    Johnnyb: Firstly read the history of the Luddites, they were opposed to new technology that cost them their jobs (even though it gave jobs to other people and generally benefited society in the long term). Really the coal and nuclear campaigners are most deserving of the term.

    I agree that energy policy is a matter of national security. Countries that start terrorist based wars should try and reduce their risk to terrorist actions. Storing materials that are concentrated sources of energy and which are also highly toxic is just asking for trouble when you have problems with terrorists. Countries that don’t provoke others to attack them (Switzerland and New Zealand are the first examples that come to mind) are at less risk in this regard.

    You might want to research geo-thermal power and the variety of ways of storing solar energy as heat for steam turbine based power generation at night. This combined with the fact that the average wind speed does not vary much across a continent the size of Australia, North or South America, or Europe means that renewable energy can supply all our requirements.
    You should read my post about hydrogen powered cars. Bio-Diesel hybrid cars that are charged by wind power is the way to go. Also if you have a Prius (or similar car) with a large battery connected to your home grid then it can be used to store electricity when it’s cheap (when it’s windy and there is little use) and sell it back to the grid when it’s expensive (when it’s not windy and the use is greater).

    Your claim about uranium not being uncommon is disingenuous, U235 comprises less than 1% of all uranium, U238 can only be used in the nuclear industry for a fast-breeder reactor to produce plutonium. It’s the rare U235 and plutonium (which doesn’t exist in nature) that can be used for nuclear fuel (and which are the most highly toxic.

    A week long power outage in the south of the US would kill less people than hurricane Katrina. NASA have predicted more hurricanes due to climate change. It’s another good reason for using renewable energy sources.

    There is no either/or choice between nuclear and coal. The correct choice is to have neither, it is technically possible we just need to decide to do it.

    I believe that we have passed the “peak oil” stage. Dependence on Iran etc will decrease as they run out of oil.

    The choice is bio-Diesel for vehicles and renewable sources of electricity or dramatic climate change. Nuclear power plants can not be constructed fast enough to save the environment.

  • vaughn nebeker

    paladendrum: the ukraine is trying to buld nucler palnt’s. but as of yeat not payed for the putting out charnobyl… All it dose is devalue the hervania curincey.. it as bad as a roneled ragen daaaaaaaaaaaa.