What happened to nuclear power?

The single thing that could possiby lower emissions in the long term is apparently off the table at present.  Assuming that it really matters to lower emissions. It is possible to be skeptical about that and still be in favour of cleaner energy sources.

One of the opportunity costs of the carbon tax (in addition to the deadweight costs of the bureaucracy and regulation involved) is the crowding out of the nuclear debate.

And not just the  nuclear power debate, but the critical and imaginative thinking that we should be devoting to other really important issues, like the health system and the ongoing debacle of the outback Aboriginal communities. The re-regulation of the labour market, and indeed the general advance of regulation.

Reply to comments on Friday  morning.

On the hazards of thinking aloud. I don’t want to get personally involved in a time-consuming debate on a topic where I have no comparative advantage, and I don’t want to spend all day blogging:)

There are at least three angles on the nuclear power issue and I think there is scope for debate on all of them. However it is impossible to do justice to all the major issues at the same time and that is why I think it is unfortunate that so much political capital is being invested in a policy that will make no measurable difference to the global climate.

The three issues that I have in mind are (1) mining and export of uranium (2) storing nuclear waste from other nations and (3) domestic nuclear power.

In the bigger picture I see nuclear power as the main hope for the many billions of people in the world who presumably would like to enjoy our standard of living.

We can help in that process and also earn magabucks by exporting uranium and storing nuclear waste.

As for nuclear power plants in Australia, I don’t know the economics but I do know that the technology is advancing rapidly, so it will become safer and cheaper.

Given that the world will need hundreds of nuclear power plants, maybe if we get started we could match the Canadians and make some more megabucks by building some of them.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CANDU

I am out for most of the day so don’t expect a reply to comments before the evening!

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37 Responses to What happened to nuclear power?

  1. Marek says:

    turns out that no one trust worthy makes nuclear power plants

  2. wilful says:

    I’m engaged in nuclear power debates all over the place, so I’m not going to get stuck in somewhere else, but the primary reference for me by the nuclear cheer squad is http://bravenewclimate.com/

    But big props to my mate Ben, who’s campaigning for nuclear power for South Australia: http://decarbonisesa.com/

  3. Richard Tsukamasa Green says:

    It could be addressed if even a small proportion of the people who say “we need a debate on nuclear power” would, you know, have a debate on nuclear power. At the moment the ratio of people who say “we need a debate” to those debating is staggeringly high.

    Neglecting any of the normal concerns, lets look at it this way.

    1) Nuclear power is expensive. I’ll take as the benchmark the Switkowski report, which was commissioned in order to support nuclear power, and chaired by someone who by his education background is inclined to advocate Nuclear power (and does so). So it’s the most optimistic set of remotely defensible assumptions, and it’s still very expensive.
    This means that completely regardless of any relative costs and advantages/disadvantages, for anything regarding nuclear to get off the ground we’d need either huge government project/subsidy, or a price on carbon to reduce the massive cost advantage of coal. It can’t remotely

    I’m not inclined to favour the former (and you less so), the carbon tax, far from crowding out the issue, is far and away the only thing that could reasonably get the issue on the table. It’s the position Switkowski, who actually advocates nuclear rather than posturing about wanting a debate takes here
    “Dr Switkowski said the government was right to start with a “politically acceptable” carbon price, but he warned that to drive the take-up of alternative energy the price would have to rise substantially from the $20-$30 a tonne being speculated to more than $50 a tonne.”

    This is why I suspect those calling for a debate, and declining to actually debate it are adotping a posture rather than a policy. A way to indicate how serious and unsentimental one is, to differentiate oneself from both the denialists and environmentalists.
    For if one was to actually look at how nuclear could be adopted without a government megaproject, one would have to invest all their energy into advocating policy which is already on the table as a partisan issue, namely a carbon tax or ETS.

  4. Alphonse says:

    “The single thing that could possiby lower emissions in the long term” is this post’s false premise. No need to read further.

  5. Incurious and Unread (aka Dave) says:

    Rafe,

    So your proposition is that, if we weren’t talking about carbon pricing, we would be talking about nuclear power.

    But if there were no AGW and no carbon pricing, why on earth would there be any need to even consider nuclear power in Australia? What would the debate be about?

  6. wilful says:

    An optimistic but highly defensible set of costs for nuclear power is the Canadian Chinese experience building Qinshan 1 and 2. These took 81 months to build from contract signing to electricity flowing. Total cost for 1.4 GW power station with 90% uptime was CDN1.25bn (2004 dollars).

    Don’t tell me that’s unaffordable.

  7. Incurious and Unread (aka Dave) says:

    Wilful,

    You’re dreaming mate. If your costs were true, we wouldn’t be debating nuclear power, we would be building it. The cost of generating electricity would be cut in half.

  8. Rafe says:

    Before we built any nuclear stations we could make megabucks by storing waste from overseas.

    Cost and safety factors are improving all the time, at the very least it should by ok for commercial punters to go ahead if they think it will pay, but given the regime uncertainty generated by the Greens who would dare to make a start?

  9. wilful says:

    I and U (Dave), yeah I apologise, I stuffed up, the cost was per reactor (two reactors), the actual cost was US$2.9 bn for the two reactors.

    http://home.pacific.net.hk/~nuclear/info0210.htm

    (I had a good .pdf link recently about this, I just cannot find it)

    I still don’t think that’s outrageously expensive.

  10. KB Keynes says:

    Rafe,you are not making any sense.

    If there is NO AGW then it is yippee as we go coal and go hard.

    There is no need for nuclear at all.

    If there is AGW as Garnaut has shown there is then you need a carbon tax/ETS which is pretty substantial to make nuclear economical as has been shown above.

  11. derrida derider says:

    Well I was going to comment pointing out that the premise of this post is totally wrong – an effective carbon price will ignite, not substitute for, a debate on nuclear power. But I see Richard beat me to it.

  12. Nicholas Gruen says:

    And Rafe has ignored Richrd. Turns out he doesn’t even want a debate!

  13. Ken Parish says:

    This whole AGW debate is a classic instance of confirmation bias and the extent to which attitudes towards “hot button issues” are mostly determined by people’s sense of identity rather than by any attempt to engage or debate with the issue, facts, science etc. It’s Haidt’s “social intuitionism” in action – people reach snap judgments based on hard-wired intuitive responses, which may then be mediated to a minor extent by social context, and for which they thereafter seek post hoc rationalisations seemingly at almost any cost to intellectual integrity.

    Have a look, for example at the responses of Tel and Patrick here at Troppo. Both are very nice chaps as far as I can tell, usually able to marshall sensible and quite rigorous arguments on most issues, and seem quite capable of dealing constructively with information that might not fit their initial response e.g. Keynes famous saying: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” If it’s a hot button issue for you as an individual, the answer is that you put your fingers in your ears, begin humming very loudly, and repeat completely untenable arguments in an increasingly loud voice until everyone with less emotional investment in the issue gives up in despair and disdain and leaves you to your irrational obsession.

    On issues like AGW where sense of identity is strongly engaged, they’ll desperately latch onto any point no matter how silly to avoid grappling with the fact that the science is clear and essentially undisputed. There simply isn’t a sensible argument that GW isn’t largely caused by A. Apparently it’s a hot button issue for those who define themselves as conservatives or conservative/libertarians. Their attitude is conclusively determined by that self-identification irrespective of the evidence. Presumably it flows in part from a perception (however unfounded) that AGW inherently provides a threatening opportunity for rigid socialist ideologues to impose their prescriptions on the rest of society in a prescriptive and freedom-denying way. But a carbon trading scheme at least is the very antithesis of that conception. All markets are artificially constructed and most require some government regulation to survive and thrive. Carbon trading is simply creating a market in financial instruments which if purchased at market price permit businesses to continue externalising their carbon pollution. They are no more (or less) threatening than gold, currency or interest rate futures. But social self-identity and group status apparently is not conferred by the posture one strikes towards gold futures whereas being an AGW denialist confers social status as a member in good standing of the conservative/libertarian tribe. No doubt the same is true in reverse for some of the more shrilly “religious” pro-AGW people too. There isn’t any real point in engaging in discussion with people holding views at either of these extremes. It’s like finding yourself cast as the straight man in the Monty Python argument sketch.

  14. Don Arthur says:

    Rafe – Are you arguing for a relaxation of regulatory barriers to privately funded nuclear power?

    If so, what are the barriers and how would you change them?

  15. Senexx says:

    Trouble with nuclear power is everyone (as in the greater ignorant masses) thinks nuclear technology is static and nuclear power consists of what we saw in the 50s/60s and the Homer Simpson world view but nuclear technology has progressed along with everything else and my view hasn’t substantially changed since 06/07 to which I put the case here.

  16. Ken Parish says:

    Perhaps I’m doing Rafe an injustice (although I doubt it), but evidence so far suggests he’s raising the nuclear energy question as a red herring and not a serious issue.

    Like you Sennex, I’m certainly not opposed to nuclear power and never have been. There are clearly serious potential risks involved (including waste disposal, proliferation and extreme events like Fukujima). But there are also advantages like no greenhouse emissions in the production phase at least.

    However Rafe is raising nuclear quite explicitly as a trump or alternative to a carbon price when, as Richard compellingly argued (and Rafe has studiously avoided replying) a carbon price would actually OPEN UP a rational basis for a debate/decision about adopting nuclear energy. Without a carbon price no such argument exists because the cost of nuclear energy is so much higher than carbon-based current energy technologies for as long as they are allowed to externalise the cost of the pollution they produce free of charge and inflict that cost on the rest of the community (since we’ll all pay the price one way or the other one day).

    Nuclear energy is not an argument against a carbon tax, it’s a very powerful argument IN FAVOUR of a carbon price. In the absence of a government-imposed carbon price no sane business would choose to invest in nuclear power unless it receives a huge subsidy from government for doing so. That by definition would involve government in gross interference with the market to “pick winners”, not to mention imposing greatly higher taxes than necessary to fund these wasteful subsidies (much higher than a carbon price/tax for a comparable carbon reduction effect). Thus Rafe can logically only either argue for a carbon tax or socialist interference with the free market + much higher taxes. This is the antithesis of his usual intellectual position. Moreover it’s essentially the Tony Abbott position, but Abbott is sufficiently pragmatically duplicitous to avoid using the “N” word at almost any cost. For Tony, any sort of “direct action” initiative however hare-brained, expensive and inefficient (except nuclear which scares the crap out of the punters) is by definition better than the imagined evil of a modest , efficient carbon tax. And if he shouts loudly and repetitively enough, maybe punters won’t notice that:

    (1) his “policies” inherently involve a larger “great big new tax” than Labor’s carbon tax;

    (2) his leadership predecessor Malcolm Turnbull has said precisely that in the last week and almost half the Coalition privately agrees but is hoping they can sleaze back into government by keeping their mouths shut and their noses blocked while Tony misleads and frightens the punters for all he’s worth. What a strange God it must be that Tony believes in. His confessions must be entertaining.

  17. Rafe says:

    On the hazards of thinking aloud. I don’t want to get personally involved in a time-consuming debate on a topic where i have no comparative advantage, and I don’t want to spend all day blogging:)

    There are at least three angles on the nuclear power issue and I think there is scope for debate on all of them. However it is impossible to do justice to all the major issues at the same time and that is why I think it is unfortunate that so much political capital is being invested in a policy that will make no measurable difference to the global climate.

    The three issues that I have in mind are (1) mining and export of uranium (2) storing nuclear waste from other nations and (3) domestic nuclear power.

    In the bigger picture I see nuclear power as the main hope for the many billions of people in the world who presumably would like to enjoy our standard of living.

    We can help in that process and also earn magabucks by exporting uranium and storing nuclear waste.

    As for nuclear power plants in Australia, I don’t know the economics but I do know that the technology is advancing rapidly, so it will become safer and cheaper.

    Given that the world will need hundreds of nuclear power plants, maybe if we get started we could match the Canadians and make some more megabucks by building some of them.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CANDU

    I am out for most of the day so don’t expect a reply to comments before the evening!

  18. derrida derider says:

    Yep, I really do like the logic pursued by “libertarian” denialists:

    1) If AGW is happening, government intervention to prevent it is good
    2) Government intervention is never good
    3) Therefore AGW cannot be happening. QED

    Given the two premises the conclusion follows, but questioning the second premise is more painful than asserting the conclusion, however much it violates empiric reality.

    Of course if pressed the syllogism often becomes:
    1) If AGW is happening, my view is wrong
    2) My view is valid and therefore never provably wrong***
    3) Therefore AGW cannot be proved right.

    *** Note the postmodernism, worthy of my nom-de-blog

  19. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Rafe, I’ve got to hand it to you. A blog post calling for a ‘debate’ and then a refusal to spend your time debating.

  20. Patrick says:

    Ken, you have a point.

    Perhaps I would quibble to the effect that I don’t think I bother latching onto particular arguments, I simply and crotchetily refuse to believe that any program of government intervention so enthusiastically supported by people who I so thoroughly mistrust is likely to work well – exactly as you say.

    See further John Roskam’s piece in today’s fin.

    This is of course far more the case when the actual explicit aim is merely aesthetic: to give Australians a warm fuzzy glow about their irrelevant contribution to the problem that is typically almost too late to solve. Or so it seems to me.

    I also have real doubts about any scientist’s ability to understand what if anything is likely to happen as a result of anything – life is not a Terry Pratchett novel but it would be really unsurprising if whatever we do turns out 100 years later to be exactly what we should not have. Of course I am going to be criticised left right and centre for that ‘intellectual arrogance’ but if Einstein told me to jump off a cliff I’d damn well push him instead.

    I don’t simply support doing nothing but I certainly don’t support doing just anything either.

    I would support, for example, MRRT (which is a decent proxy for a carbon tax!) in largely its original form but with greater concessions for internal sales and small players, coupled with substantial cuts in corporate and personal tax (to 20% and top rate of 40% over say five years). If the MRRT didn’t pay for it I’d increase GST to 15% and give every household on less than $80k $250 a year in compensation.

    If Labor had the balls to go with that and stick with it Abbott would not be liberal leader now and Gillard would not have to wear steel plates sewn into the back of her shirts.

  21. FDB says:

    Rafe, mate, you seem like a nice bloke, but you’re a bit of an arseclown sometimes.

    What RTG et al said. If you’re pro-nuclear, you better be praying for a carbon tax to get up. A pretty harsh one too.

  22. murph the surf. says:

    now now FDB use of terms like that will get you sent to LP where that sort of thing is acceptable.

  23. JM says:

    Patrick: I also have real doubts about any scientist’s ability to understand … [etc]

    Let’s take a couple examples of “any” scientist.

    1. Newton. Whose laws of gravitation got us to the Moon. I’m sure Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins don’t have any doubt about his “knowledge about anything”

    2. Jenner. Smallpox vaccine. The disease has been totally eradicated. I’m sure no surviving victim (or potential victim) of smallpox has ever had any doubts about the effectiveness of science.

    3. Röntgen. Discoverer of X-rays. Have you or any member of your family ever had an operation or other treatment involving an X-ray? Like a broken leg, say? Do you have any doubts about the ability of your doctor to “know” what is wrong with you?

    Honestly, I’ve heard some nonsensical, farcical and cynical statements in my life but this takes the cake – a supposed “rationalist” adopting some distorted version of a 1970’s New Age hippy and doubting the concrete benefits of rationalism.

    It’s enough to make you spit.

  24. FDB says:

    Well Murph, I did say a bit of an arseclown. Let’s just say I meant the bumbling and entertaining bit, not the alcoholic faeces-stained bit.

  25. Patrick says:

    Oops, should have confined that ‘any scientist’ bit to predicting the consequences of any action to mitigate climate change or even of climate change itself.

    A generous reader might have got their by implication, but let’s face it, I wasn’t setting myself up to be generously read.

    In which vein I can’t resist pointing out that I quite often have doubts about my doctor’s ability to know what is wrong with me…lol

  26. Mel says:

    Shamefully, Rafe is pushing his usual Fabian socialist agenda while pretending to be a classical liberal.

    Here’s what the WSJ has to say about the business case for nuclear:

    “Nuclear power makes little economic sense.

    Modern nuclear plants are among the most capital-intensive structures ever built.

    ……

    So how has anyone been able to afford to build any plants at all? In short, government support. The business model for nuclear power generation relies primarily on extracting huge amounts of taxpayer subsidies.

    This has been true since the industry’s early days. Nuclear power in the U.S. received subsidies of $15.30 per kilowatt hour between 1947 and 1961—the first 15 years during which nuclear technology was used for civilian power generation—compared to subsidies of $7.19 per kilowatt hour for solar power and 46 cents for wind power between 1975 and 1989, the first 15 years when those technologies came into more widespread use. Nuclear operators are often protected by laws limiting liability that shift most of the expense of serious accidents to the public, thus shielding operators from the costs of insuring a potentially more dangerous technology.

    All of this ought to raise questions in a lot of minds in Asia, where nuclear increasingly has been viewed as the next big energy thing. Asian governments purport to have plans to build 110 nuclear power plants between 2010 and 2030. Achieving this build-out would necessitate hundreds of billions of dollars of continued subsidies. Conservatively estimating a per-plant cost of $5 billion, and very conservatively estimating subsidies equal to one-third of project costs (it’s closer to 70%-80% in the U.S.), that still works out to around $180 billion in subsidies simply to build the plants, let alone operate them. Can Asia afford that?

    Nuclear-power proponents often argue that the market should decide whether nuclear makes sense. They’re right. The reality is that but for government support, nuclear is a terrible business proposition.”

    The big weakness in the WSJ article is that it doesn’t mention the bizarre costs associated with decommissioning nuclear power plants:

    “American nuclear power plants today reckon with an estimated decommissioning cost of some $325 million per reactor, and that is likely being optimistic. In France, the cost of decommissioning the relatively small Brennilis facility, which was only operational from 1967 till 1979, today amounts to some $650 million, no less than 20 times the amount initially estimated. Hence the reason why the big clean-up, like that of four other nuclear sites in France, has been postponed indefinitely. In Britain, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has altered its cost estimates several times and currently predicts a price tag of $100 billion for cleaning 19 nuclear sites.”

    Rafe, you really are a devilish old red-ragger.

  27. Pedro says:

    “Nuclear energy is not an argument against a carbon tax, it’s a very powerful argument IN FAVOUR of a carbon price.”

    Is it? Then I guess teen pregnancy is a powerful argument in favour of the pope’s stance on condoms.

  28. Rafe says:

    Nicholas, I have a lot of other things to do apart from blogging. I didn’t say I wanted to get up to my ears in a debate where i have no special expertise, I want to know why these things have apparently fallen off the table for debate generally.

    Leaving aside the economics of local power generation, there are still great prospects for mining and storage of waste but apparenlty those avenues have been blocked by Green luddites and nimbys.

  29. Mel says:

    Rafe: “Leaving aside the economics of local power generation, there are still great prospects for mining and storage of waste but apparenlty those avenues have been blocked by Green luddites and nimbys.”

    How the hell can the Greens with just 10% public support and a tiny smattering of seats in the nation’s parliament block anything?

    You also ignore the fact that neither of the major parties are advocating Australia become a dumping ground for the world’s nuclear waste products.

  30. john says:

    A nice irony is that there are active local groups in SE Australia that use , often effectively, environmental planning protection laws to block wind farms.

  31. Patrick says:

    That’s very cute mel, but there’s playing dumb and then there’s you…

  32. Alphonse says:

    [email protected]16: “What a strange God it must be that Tony believes in. His confessions must be entertaining.”

    Minimal, perfunctory even, if he confesses to George.

  33. john says:

    Alphonse
    One of Tony’s priests ,at the time he was at the seminary, was interviewed a little while ago , he hinted that Tony had the not uncommon problem amongst some priests of confusing the role of a servant of god and the role of god.

    Some of the party might be starting to wonder if the guys real namesake might be Voss .

  34. john says:

    Ken
    If the situation is as dark as some believe – a positive feed back ‘chain reaction’ a real possibility- then shouldn’t all options be on the table regardless of cost, would market solutions been enough to deliver the supply of enough hurricanes and spitfires in 1940?

  35. John B says:

    What a schemozzle of a discussion thread!

    Quite simply, web sites such as Brave New Climate, which is owned by an Adelaide academic and was referred to above, have oodles of case studies regarding comparative costs of energy options, comparative safety cradle to grave, emissions and the amount of energy locked into construction materials and so forth, so there is little point in rehashing it here.

    Regarding the three discussion points:
    Nuclear waste is not as fearful and intractable as some believe. Unfortunately, beliefs seem to rule the discussion, so I will not continue, apart for saying that there is no need to stuff the wastes underground as soon as they come out of the reactor. It is quite rational to place them in water baths for a year or more as the faster decaying materials lost their heat, then transfer them to dry cask storage, ie inside stainless steel cannisters inside concrete blocks. The small amount of radiation emanating from dry casks would come as a surprise to some. After about 300 years (room for debate here, but I won’t bite) the contents of the dry storage casks have decayed to a level which is comparable or below the natural radiation levels of the uranium as it came out of the ground as ore. Stoarind waste from other nations strikes me as being a very smart thing to do, because today’s wast is tomorrow’s Gen IV nuclear fuel and will be worth many millions of dollars.

    As an indication, current Type II and Type III reactors only extract 1.6% of the energy in the uranium fuel. Type IV, aka fast breeders or a few other names, uses the remaining 98% to the fuel. Present indications are that the total fuel waste from a Type IV process, over the whole life of a Westerner using energy at today’s Australian levels would come from fuel about the size of a can of Coke and end up as a lump the size of a golf ball. Per person, per lifetime. Even then, this so-called waste will contain transmuted elements which have medical and other uses and thus high value.

    I won’t go into the pro’s and con’s of the carbon tax or cap or whatever. Suffice to say that, climate change or no climate change, isn’t it about time that those who use fossil fuels started to pay something for the damage that their processes do to the economic commons of air, land and water?

    Regarding the huge cost of converting the whole of Australia’s electrical power generating capacity to a mix of nuclear, renewables and hydro: Nuclear is nowhere near as expensive as some hope that it is and both wind and solar PV are nowhere near as cheap as their enthusiastic spruikers would like to say that they are. Nuclear is definitely an option, if/when rational debate becomes possible.

    So, thanks, Rafe, for opening up this discussion. It’s fun to watch everybody come in with their metaphorical fists flailing. You started this fight… can you finish it?

  36. Pedro says:

    “How the hell can the Greens with just 10% public support and a tiny smattering of seats in the nation’s parliament block anything?”

    Sheesh, next old Rafe will be saying Brian Harradine got stuff done.

  37. john says:

    “How the hell can the Greens with just 10% public support and a tiny smattering of seats in the nation’s parliament block anything?
    Answer
    when they vote with Abbot ,and against the libs that crossed the floor, to block Carbon trading scheme.

    The reason the greens like the tax better is because this ‘Market’ measure will need a lot of ‘restrictions of trade’ if it is to work.
    They are fond of self reflexive paradox.

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