Sunday, November 23, 2008

Time for Australia to relent on the issue of uranium sales to India.

The United States has signalled its dismay with China’s decision to assist Pakistan with the construction and operation of two new nuclear reactors:

China for its part is not really taking a lot of notice, and can be expected to move ahead with the deal. It is known that Pakistan is the nation with possibly the worst nuclear proliferation record in the world. Potential nuclear proliferation is, of course, the justification given by the Rudd government for not selling Australian uranium to India. Funnily enough, China’s long-standing relationship with Pakistan raised no red flags over the issue of uranium sales to China. In fact, Martin Ferguson is quite chirpy over the deal:

It’s true Australia has insisted that Australian uranium only be used in certain designated reactors for electricity production, but since uranium is a fungible commodity this doesn’t really mean much. Uranium China has purchased from elsewhere will now be freed up for use in Pakistani reactors, and, who knows, perhaps eventually Pakistani bombs.

If we are willing to sell uranium to China and thus indirectly facilitate supplies to China’s allies such as Pakistan, why are we refusing to sell uranium to India? Surely it is in our interests to join with our western allies in fostering a strategic relationship with this emergent Great Power, not to mention our environmental interests to assist India to develop its CO2-free energy sector.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Nuclear Power Enables German Utility To Offer Affordable CO2-Free Electricity Option.

German electricity utility RWE has come out swinging against Germany’s absurd nuclear phase-out policy with a new electricity purchasing package for consumers based on a mix of 68% nuclear power and 32% renewables, mainly hydroelectric. The story can be found here:

Although the power purchased through the scheme will be slightly more expensive than usual, RWE has stated that baring changes to taxes, the power will remain at a fixed cost until 2011. It is being promoted to consumers concerned about CO2-induced global warming.

This is not the first scheme of its kind to be marketed in Europe. Finnish utility Fortum has also marketed two carbon emission-free packages, one costing slightly more than usual based on nuclear power, and another devoted to electricity produced by non-nuclear renewable sources, which is more costly:

Predictably enough, reactionary anti-nuclear campaigners from the German chapter of Greenpeace have denounced the RWE initiative in their usual soundbite press release style.

“Greenpeace Germany is critical of the new plan. "'Pro-Climate' is just a label. The product is in no way ecological. It does nothing to help the environment," Andree Bohling, an energy expert with Greenpeace Germany, told Spiegel Online.”

Yeah, right. Anyhow, that quote comes from the following story:

I hope that German consumers will chose wisely with regard to this new option for purchasing their electricity and send a clear message to decision makers, underlined in Euros. Unfortunately it looks like it will be quite some time before Australian consumers will have the luxury of expressing a similar preference.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Affordable Power For The Future.

It is interesting and sometimes mildly entertaining to occasionally kick back and watch the cycle of arguments fielded by anti-nuclear activists in their eternal quest for the extinction of nuclear power. I have witnessed this both on the net and in my personal contact with acquaintances of the anti-nuke flavour. It is entertaining in the long haul, but frustrating in the short term. The cycle goes something like this:

Anti-nuclear activist (ANA): “Nuclear power is not a viable source of energy because of X.”

Pro-nuclear advocate (PNA): “Your argument is incorrect for the following reasons.” (Provides reasons).

ANA: “OK, I see your point, but it doesn’t matter because nuclear power is not viable on account of Y.”

PNA: “Argument Y is also incorrect on account of the following.” (Demonstrates fallacy of argument Y).

ANA: “Very well, but you haven’t considered argument Z.”

PNA: “What?? Very well then!” (Disposes of Z)

ANA: “Yes, you are clearly right about Z, but what about argument A?”

This sequence continues until finally we get back to:

ANA: “Yes, you are absolutely correct that argument W is without merit, but what about argument X??”

Presented in such terms, the sequence is obvious and childish, but I have seen supposedly intelligent adults hide behind that tactic when arguing against nuclear power. Actually, drop the ‘supposedly’. I know that some of these people, who include some very good friends of mine, are unquestionably of high intelligence. The cyclic nature of the debate with them is, I suspect, more of the nature of a religious dialogue than a scientific one.

As a tactic for presenting their case to the public, the anti-nuclear movement is clearly onto a winner. The pro and anti nuclear cases are generally presented in the media as single-issue isolated events, with the connections to associated issues rarely built into a rational whole. The general public is thus left with the impression that an ongoing scientific controversy exists over, say, the safe disposal of radioactive wastes, when in fact the technology for dealing with that particular ‘problem’ has been around for decades, and no competent scientist working in the field doubts it.

The actual period of the cycle has a direct relationship to the size of the anti-nuclear entity you are conversing with. The cycle of argument with an individual might be completed within an evening, or even go through several cycles in an evening. A debate on the net with a cadre of committed anti-nukes might last for days or weeks. When you consider the anti-nuclear movement as a whole, the debate surrounding one particular point might go on for months.

At the moment, the anti-nuclear movement is trying to make an issue out of the cost of nuclear power. Since this is the flavour of the moment for the antis, their chosen battleground on which they presently perceive headway might be made, I shall commence my series of posts on current nuclear issues addressing that topic.

So what is the cost of nuclear power?

This is not an easy question to answer currently in terms of dollars/kW. Unlike coal, the cost of fuel is not a major factor in the ultimate cost of the power delivered to the consumer. The fuel requirements for a nuclear power plant are so minimal that great increases in the price of uranium ore or enriched uranium fuel won’t really have much of an effect on the price paid by the end-consumer of the power generated. The largest cost input to nuclear power by far is the cost of constructing the plant in the first place. In this sense nuclear power plants are less like coal or natural gas power plants than they are like hydroelectric dams. The bulk of the cost is the up-front capital cost of construction.

There are many inputs into the construction of an asset as large and complex as a nuclear plant, but humans have been building them for five decades now, so we should have some experience to go by. Why is it currently so hard to pin down a ballpark figure for the construction of new nukes? Why has the anti-nuke crowd seized on this issue of late?

The anti-nuclear activists have seized on nuclear plant construction costs because the cost estimates for construction have lately gone through the roof. I recall back in 2005 when I started searching the net for information about nuclear power that at the time, firms like GE-Westinghouse were confidently predicting plant construction costs on the order of US$1000-2000/KW output. I believe the current estimates to be 4-6 times in excess of this. What the hell happened? The anti-nukes will happily inform the public of this increase, but rarely look to the reasons why.

The primary reason for the great increase in construction cost directly relates to the increase in price of the construction materials for the plants. The price for new nuclear power plants has gone through the roof because the price of the stuff they’re mainly made out of has gone through the roof. The stuff in question is steel and concrete.

In my previous post I stated that I’d be linking to sites and studies which have looked at these issues in more detail. In that spirit, please check out the following:

You can find a link to John’s site in the links section of this blog. I recommend following it and learning what you can from it. Now for a brief summary of the germane material inputs for nuclear power and other power sources based on the data from a study by Professor P.F. Peterson of UC Berkeley undertaken in 2005. Professor Peterson determined that for each megawatt of power output from a new nuclear plant, 40 metric tons of steel and 190 cubic metres of concrete are required. For the bulk of plant construction costs, take current prices for those commodities and multiply them by the number of megawatts of electrical power output. The price of plant construction, and by extension the ultimate cost of power from the plant, is determined by commodity prices over the period of construction. I’m sure we can all appreciate that these are difficult to determine in advance, especially in such turbulent times for the global economy.

Something that isn’t so subject to sudden alterations is the relative demand for those commodities by competing energy technologies. No matter the current price of concrete or steel, the amounts required for obtaining a megawatt of reliable power from a nuclear reactor, a wind farm, or a coal plant are (barring technological breakthrough) pretty much fixed.

The two non-nuclear examples provided in John Wheeler’s article are wind and coal. For an output of 1 megawatt of power a coal plant requires 98 metric tons of steel and 160 cubic meters of concrete. A wind farm requires 460 tons of steel and 870 cubic meters of concrete (each of those wind turbines might look slender and graceful from a distance, but they are Behemoths in their own right, and you need a hell of a lot of them to provide the same level of power as a standard nuclear plant). This is not an academic exercise. The rise in price for basic construction materials over the past two years (driven by rising demand from China and India) has caused the UK to do an abrupt about-face on its plans for massive wind infrastructure to meet the government’s mandate for its renewable energy target. Sticker shock has even forced the cancellation of some new coal plants, and that’s before any carbon tax has been imposed on their operation. In contrast, major utilities in the US are determined to press ahead with their plans for a new nuclear build because they recognise that in spite of increasing costs, the alternatives are rising in price with the tide as well, and nuclear retains its comparative cost advantage. This will remain true no matter what the global financial situation may be four years from now, when the first suite of proposed new plants reaches the conclusion of their licensing procedure. The input price may go up, it may go down, it may go round and round, but nuclear still wins.

Given the above, it is no mystery why the anti-nuclear movement likes to harp on about the cost of new nuclear build… but doesn’t care to provide too many details as to just why this is.

So When Is Finrod Going To Start Talking About Nuclear Power?

I have received some criticism concerning the content of this site. To wit, there isn’t really all that much stuff here yet that is actually about nuclear power. It is a valid criticism. This results from my history of being a commenter on other pro-nuclear blogs for a couple of years now. During that time I have become quite familiar with many dimensions of the subject of nuclear power, its risks, costs, advantages, challenges, history, paths taken and not taken, potential fuel sources and so on. It is abundantly clear to me that there is a huge pool of talented pro-nuclear people out there, both within and outside the professional nuclear community who are far more qualified than I to present these matters to the public. So why am I doing this at all?

I am doing this because:

A) In my view, the advantages of nuclear power are so obvious that even an unqualified outsider should (with a little research) be able to defeat the anti-nuclear case in a logical discussion of the issue with even the most expert of anti-nuclear activists.

B) I tend to have my own take on certain matters which are not always illuminated to my satisfaction by other pro-nuclear advocates.

C) I have at whiles observed that one or two fairly basic, homely observations of mine have ended up in the pro-nuclear meme pool, without attribution to myself. This is quite OK by me. If some small observation of mine helps the cause I don’t mind not being credited with it, but it does point to the possibility for valid contributions to the debate which are original to me, so I should avail myself of every opportunity to make them.

So getting back to the original point, I started this blog very much in the context of my previous 2-3 years worth of commentary on other blogs, and set out initially to supplement the excellent body of work already in existence, rather than attempting to reinvent the wheel at the outset. Hence my first posts were on topics which I felt had been neglected by their obscurity, or directly related to some topical discussion on a side aspect of the field.

It is clear, however, that some of my readers are not very familiar with the basics of the pro-nuclear case and have looked to my blog in vain to be filled in. I shall therefore post a few articles outlining that case in very basic form, and provide links to other sites with more detailed expositions, to give people something to go on with.

I am also considering doing a few articles on power generation issues in my local area, namely the Australian Capital Territory and surrounding districts in New South Wales, as well as some articles on energy issues currently concerning Australia.