Jul 7, 2009

Ooops. The nuclear ‘solution’ just melted down.

For all those who suggest that nuclear power is the only solution to climate change, there's a little spanner in the works - nukes don't deal with the heat... The

Tim Hollo

Tim Hollo is an adviser to Australian Greens’ Deputy Leader Christine Milne.

For all those who suggest that nuclear power is the only solution to climate change, there's a little spanner in the works - nukes don't deal with the heat... The Times of London is reporting that:
France is being forced to import electricity from Britain to cope with a summer heatwave that has helped to put a third of its nuclear power stations out of action.
As temperatures in France head up over 30C (not hot for us, sure, but it is for them!), the cooling water gets too hot and the plants need to be ramped way down or even shut down to avoid breaching safe operational temperatures. Coinciding with increased demand for electricity in hotter weather, this ain't good news for the world's only power sector heavily reliant on nukes. This isn't the first time this has happened. But, as Paris sizzles in the summer more frequently, it is happening more often. And the trend is only due to increase. On the other hand, some forms of renewables do well in a climate changing world. Solar thermal obviously will be helped by greater heat, and wind and ocean power will benefit from greater turbulence in both systems. Geothermal won't be impacted at all. Only bioenergy, the least attractive renewable source to many anyway, stands to be negatively impacted by climate scenarios. This is, of course, only one more reason on top of several others why nuclear is no solution. The massive cost blowouts in every nuclear development for decades is one, the very long lead times is another, and the intractable waste issue - linked to nuclear weapons proliferation - is the most critical. But heat shutting down existing plant is a killer from a base PR point of view ;-) As they say, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

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30 thoughts on “Ooops. The nuclear ‘solution’ just melted down.

  1. Jonathan Maddox


    The UAE’s nuclear power plans don’t disprove the rule that the nuclear game is usually more to do with geopolitics than actual electricity.

    The Emirates are a weird melting-pot; both as Islamic and as capitalist as it is possible to be, with an enormous expatriate population (only 20% of residents are locally born — there are as many Persians in the Arab Emirates as there are Arabs). The Emirates are on paper thoroughly in America’s pocket but are also a central ‘neutral’ location for international industry bazaars (especially the arms industry) and for bypassing the legal red tape that various countries place on businesses trading with official ‘enemies’.

    Iran, France and the USA are all rattling their nuclear sabres on ‘neutral’ territory. I’m sure that the US and France hope to seize a slice of the Iranian nuclear pie from this bridgehead just across the Gulf as the Islamic Republic inevitably crumbles from within.

    As for the expense of wind power — yes, the maintenance costs are a little higher than for coal-fired power, but the fuel is free. The cost of maintenance for nuclear power stations is actually far higher, because whenever one tiny thing goes wrong generators have to go offline in lumps of hundreds of megawats or entire power stations, requiring enormous backup resources, whereas it’s a trivial matter to take one 2MW windmill off the grid for an hour or (if necessary) a week while maintenance is scheduled.

    It’s clear you don’t have a handle on the difference between units of power and generation capacity — just from the web page you refer to, *existing* Texan wind farms already annually produce 1,190,000,000 kWh of electricity each year and the biggest wind farm on-the-drawing-board is expected to have a *peak capacity* of 283 *megawatts* — not “283 KwH”. 283 kilowatt hours per what? Did you mean “per hour”? “Per year”?

    Google is your friend. Try asking it “30 percent of 283 megawatts in kilowatt hours per year”:


    Now absorb that number. The City of Houston pays 9.1c per kilowatt hour for electricity, delivered. Give half to the middle man to cover the cost of transmission (and of backup power from the gas generators Enron built to suck money out of Texan consumers in the 90s — gas is far too expensive now to use them as baseload) and multiply those kilowatt hours by just 4.5c. Forty million dollars worth of clean wind power, every year. Capital costs of wind farms are now on the order of $2-$3 per watt (they were under $1 for a brief moment around 2003 but steel prices have soared since), so a 283MW one should cost between $500m and (outside risk) $1b, so the return in the first year of operation will be between 4% and 8%. Not the most lucrative business in the world (obviously it’s a better story for those who built in 2003) but show me one nuclear power plant turning a profit!

    The bulk of the cost of wind, solar or geothermal power is in the initial capital, just as it is for nuclear power. On paper you can make either look cheaper just by fiddling with discount rates and NPVs. But the up-front cost of wind farms (and other established small-scale generation technologies) is predictable and declining because of mass-production and competition amongst suppliers (which also means the technology evolves much more quickly), and the returns begin almost immediately so the accounting fiddles (and therefore the consequences of the occasional financial meltdown) are far smaller.

  2. Joel B1

    @18, I don’t have a social licence. I pay for this.

    If I had a SL I could get my rants published nationally for free.

    That’s the power of a Social License>>

  3. kdkd


    I guess the first thing that disqualifies you from a social licence is asserting the need for everyone to have a social licence 😉

  4. Joel B1

    Off topic…

    So you want a Social License… What is it? What’s it good for? And where can you get one?
    The all powerful, very cool. and dare I say it, mystical Social License!
    Not everyone can have one. But more about that later.

    So what is a Social License?
    A Social License gives you permission to comment on subjects that you have no training in but feel your opinions are better than people who’ve studied and researched the area for 10, 12 or even 20 years. So, you might feel strongly about Tasmanian Devils, and with a Social License your views are given equal weight with those of a Professor of Zoology! How cool is that?

    What’s a Social License good for?
    Aside from the obvious power, you can use it just about however you like. In essence what you say becomes “reality”! Imagine you really hate Gunns. When they say they want to make clean Green electricity with a Biomass Generator your Social License allows you to say “Gunns should leaving saving the Planet to the people who care about it” and get it published in National News Media. That is amazing you say? Well, Gunns doesn’t have a Social License and you have. So even though you know nothing about anything other than feel-good mother-craft statements you’re in there, instant power!

    How to get a Social License.
    Not everyone can have a Social License. Obviously, you have to be “better”. And that’s the secret to getting a Social License. You have to be special, have special powers and knowledge. But not real knowledge, that’s for intellectuals. The best way to get a Social License is to join a pseudo-political group that’s got a few spare. We’re talking Australian Conservation Foundation, The Greens, The Tasmanian Greens (they have heaps, just lying around), The Wilderness Society etc. But you don’t just get a Social License, you get access to dozens of slightly woolly brained potential sexual partners!


  5. John Morgan

    Tim: “However, on the bigger, picture, how’s abou we actually TRY the renewables and efficiency solution before we diss it? Eh? Why not try?”

    For the very simple reason that there is now no longer time. We have an impending disaster unfolding around us that requires that we eliminate CO2 emissions completely within perhaps the next decade or two. Certainly, lets say, by 2050. That timeframe does not allow us to try a renewables only strategy, find it doesn’t work, and then reluctantly implement a nuclear base.

    Maybe that choice was possible back in the 70s, when the oil shocks gave everyone fair warning that fossil fuels were finite. Maybe 100% renewables could have been tried back then, and we’d now be finding out if it could be done, or not, and whether we needed nukes, or not. But we didn’t, and we wind up here, now, in 2009 with scant renewable power, a modest nuclear contribution, and the rest is coal, oil and gas. And we have to completely reengineer the worlds energy infrastructure to not just provide power when the last three run out, but to keep as much of those fuels as possible in the ground, before we hit climate tipping points to a world you don’t want to know about.

    This is a one shot chance. We get one go at getting this right.

    No one’s “dissing” renewables or efficiency. Quite the contrary, as immediately deployable clean energy technologies they’re critical to rapidly cutting CO2 emissions. But to replace coal, gas and oil in the necessary timeframe, or even at all, the numbers don’t add up, so while we’re rolling out the wind turbines we’d better be planning a nuclear rollout.

    The endgame is zero CO2 emissions. Not economic displacement of coal. Not 80% renewables and efficiency with 20% gas fired backup. Its not going to be easy. How’s about we actually TRY everything we’ve got and see if we can even achieve it, rather than diss the nuclear option? Eh? Why not try?

  6. Greg Atkinson


    The UAE is pursuing nuclear power, it is an oil rich country and I do not think it is part of some cunning plan to take on the West.

    See: http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/reactors.html

    Yes all these nations have got it wrong and Australia is right.

    A modern reactor can generate 1000 KwH. Future reactors will generate more. A new planned wind farm in Texas will generate 283 KwH but will need 118 of the latest wind powered generators/towers to do that. So to get close to what an existing nuclear power plant can generate around 416 wind powered generators would need to be installed. These are not small desk top units, there are massive…just think of the land required…in a windy location.

    See for yourself: http://www.awea.org/projects/Projects.aspx?s=Texas

    Oh and wind powered generators need lot’s of maintenance and the gearboxes need to be replaced occasionally. Hence the cost per KwH is quite high as per the report I provided earlier.

    The upfront costs are not cheap either, some new large wind farms are expected to cost over 2 billion USD and this does not include the annual rent needed to pay farmers/landowners or land acquisition costs.

    Yes a lot of nuclear power technology is cutting edge and there are project risks, so are people suggesting Australia should just give up on anything that seems a little challenging?

    What would be the big deal is setting up a trial reactor somewhere and trying to develop a new high industry in this country?

  7. Jonathan Maddox


    I am not aware of any oil-rich country seriously pursuing nuclear electricity today without an ulterior military/strategic/phallic motive. However the fossil-fuel economics which made sense in the 1970s for Japan and France to develop nuclear power today apply to every country — except that today, renewable electricity is cost-competitive in a way which was not on the radar in the 1970s.

    There is NO reliable data on the real cost of *new* nuclear power. The cost of running an existing nuclear power station is low and known but the capital costs of power stations built in the 1970s and 1980s are already paid off and — as every result in the search link you provides mentions — the cost of any new nuclear power station is dominated by the cost of capital (upredictable in the current climate even given a fixed schedule) and the completion timetable (highly variable in any climate except one of a steadily expanding, experienced, professional nuclear industry such as France, Japan and the USSR had in the 1970s). Of course, the ultimate capital cost includes the interest incurred during construction overruns.

    EDF’s spin-off AREVA was supposed to deliver the newest and cheapest nuclear energy ever for Finland at Olkiluto, but planning errors, general inexperience (even French engineers are out of practice at building new nuclear power stations), the fluctuating cost of construction materials and the financial crisis all combine: the ultimate capital cost of this power station (with interest) will be at least TREBLE the initial quote. Meaning the ultimate price of its electricity to consumers, or whomever bails out the project, will be at least double the original promised discount, meaning less will be required as Finnish homes and industry aggressively adopt efficiency measures, and consumers won’t even have the option of using that additional power until at least three or four years after it was promised.

    On the other hand, the real cost of new small-scale electric generators such as solar PV, small dish Stirling engine solar thermal, wind turbines, traditional internal-combustion gensets and cogeneration (combined heat and power) installations is very well understood and predictable. This equipment is mass-produced, delivered on demand, and provides electricity as soon as you plug it in: it is not constructed in place on a timetable of four-or-eight-or-maybe-twelve years and a cost of billions before any power is delivered. The lead times for mass-produced generators are negligibly short by comparison with brand-new nuclear designs on the gigawatt scale, so the risk of capital cost overruns is also negligible.

  8. Malcolm Street

    I’m a bit confused by the Times story. There seem to be three different explanations for the shortages:

    1. for the inland reactors (using rivers to cool) “When water temperatures rise, EDF is forced to shut down the reactors to prevent their casings from exceeding 50C”. What casings, where on the reactor? Suggests the river water is too warm to properly cool the reactor itself. But why shut down rather than run at reduced power?

    2. inland reactors again, there are limits on the maximum temperature of output cooling water: “EDF must also observe strict rules governing the heat of the water it discharges into waterways so that wildlife is not harmed. The maximum permitted temperature is 24C.” But… “In 2003, the situation grew so severe that the French nuclear safety regulator granted special exemptions to three plants, allowing them temporarily to discharge water into rivers at temperatures as high as 30C.” so again there is an option without buying power from the UK.

    3. “a ten-week strike by power workers and ongoing repairs.” IOW, there’s capacity off-line due to technical problems and the repairers are on strike.

    So which is it? Or all three? In what proportion? Can someone explain point 1?

    Incidentally, I understand the waste heat problem with nuclear power station is worse than coal ones for two reasons: (a) the thermal efficiency is generally lower (certainly in the case of the PWRs the French use) so there’s more waste heat to start with (b) in a coal-fired station a lot of the waste heat goes straight out the chimney, whereas with a nuclear station ALL the heat has to be carried out by the coolant.

    BTW, fast reactors (with more efficient fuel usage and higher thermal efficiency) have been around since the 1950s and still aren’t ready for large-scale generation. The French abandoned Super-Phenix (sp?) which I understand was off-line so often during its life that it used more electricity than it produced (power being needed to keep the sodium in the primary cooling loop liquid) and the Japanese have had all sorts of problems with Monju. In terms of having been tomorrows energy forever fast reactors are almost on a par with fusion 🙂

    BTW, I accept that some countries have no alternative to nuclear. That doesn’t mean I like the technology. Jimmy Carter (ex US Navy nuclear engineer) had it right: the energy of last resort.

  9. Greg Atkinson

    Jonathan as I mentioned even oil rich countries are planning nuclear power plants so clearly the cost effectiveness of nuclear power generation must be attractive.

    I hear people in Australia talking about the high cost of nuclear power but the only solid data I can find disputes this: See: http://www.googlesyndicatedsearch.com/u/raeng?q=+cost+generation&sa=Go

    Tim Hollo – 1950’s nuke technology? Have you ever been anywhere near a modern nuclear power plant?….they moved on from the 1950’s a long, long time ago. The plants that are currently being built are state of the art facilities and the next generation of reactors contain technology that Australia will probably not see for decades. I am not dismissing renewable energy I am just supporting the nuclear option as well. Australia is backward because we will talk about things for years, have little idea of what is happening overseas and then never actually do anything.
    (We are still waiting for the second airport in Sydney and a high speed rail link to Canberra for example….but of course there is plenty of talk about doing something!)

  10. Tim Hollo

    Um, ooops again.

    Barry, good point re geothermal – my mistake. However, on the bigger, picture, how’s abou we actually TRY the renewables and efficiency solution before we diss it? Eh? Why not try?

    I don’t buy the old “it can’t be done lines. It’s what car manufacturers in the US told FDR when he asked them to retool for a war footing in 1941, and he told them he didn’t care if they thought it couldn’t be done. It had to be done. So they did it. Same for the Apollo missions. It was an impossibly huge task and it was achieved. Let’s try!

    Greg @ 10 – um, why is it backward to talk about new renewable energy technology and move away from 1950s nukes technology? In what way is it backward to talk about linking broadband internet and electricity grids to create smart grid infrastructure? It’s those who diss renewables who are being luddite (ruddite?).

  11. Jonathan Maddox

    Greg I addressed that point in my comment #7, don’t know why you’re asking kdkd to elaborate on it.

    I will.

    In a country such as Japan or France with negligible fossil fuel reserves of its own, the price of imported fossil fuels are higher and more volatile (and the fear of the government that the energy supply can be cut off is greater) than in countries that have their own cheap fossil fuel supplies. In Japan in particular, energy prices have historically been much higher than in Western countries.

    The relatively high price of fossil fuels makes a (historically) expensive option such as nuclear or renewable energy much more competitive than it is in a country with large coal or natural gas reserves. It also naturally leads to more efficient exploitation of energy throughout the economy.

    Yes, nuclear fuel is imported, but the fuel component of the cost of nuclear electricity is tiny compared with fossil-fuel electricity. The lion’s share of the cost is in construction capital, with much higher costs of maintenance, fuel processing and waste management than fossil fuel plants. Only the low fuel cost makes it viable at all in competition with fossil fuel electricity.

    Exactly the same goes for renewables.

    Incidentally, Japan’s GDP per unit of energy consumed is almost twice as high as any other economy. High energy prices lead directly to efficient consumption.

  12. Greg Atkinson

    kdkd Japan also is big on solar, wind etc. Do you think Japan lacks wind, sun and tides? Also they need to import uranium so I am not sure what you point is about oil and coal.
    Even oil rich nations are turning to nuclear power rather than burn oil for electricity.

    As for modern technologies I suggest you have a look at where the wind power generators come from that are used in Australia. Also many of the solar panels used in Oz are imported. In fact even the next generation of so called “clean coal” power stations are likely to be built using foreign companies using imported technology.

  13. Jonathan Maddox

    Hi Barry + Bill,

    Steam turbines do indeed use water as the working fluid, but other heat engines don’t: fuel cells don’t (no moving parts except pumps); internal-combustion diesel or gas gensets and simple gas turbines don’t (they use the fuel-air mixture and the combustion exhaust) and nor do Stirling heat engines (using a closed inert gas loop of air, nitrogen or hydrogen), which are increasingly popular in cogeneration and small-scale solar thermal dish installations, and are even used in wood-fired hybrid vehicles (see eg. http://www.infiniacorp.com/ , http://www.stirlingenergy.com/ , http://www.whispergen.com/ , http://www.precer.com/ ).

    ‘Refrigerant’ type working fluids are also proposed for some geothermal and ocean-thermal kinds of generators, but I’m not aware of any such engines in serious use yet.

    However, the particular problem at the French nuclear reactors is nothing to do with the working fluid, but the cooling system. The typical French power station uses for cooling a high-volume flow of water taken from a nearby river or ocean which is discharged at a significantly higher temperature. If the water is warm to begin with, it can’t provide as much cooling unless it is heated to a higher final temperature or a larger flow is taken — but in hot weather, rivers are warmer and already have a reduced flow. Dumping hot water into a stressed riverine ecosystem can kill it off — so EDF faces a PR disaster one way or another. The ocean doesn’t get as warm in hot weather as rivers do and the supply volume is unlimited, so the temperature of the outfall is never high enough to be considered hazardous.

    Australian thermal power stations inland (and some French ones) don’t take large volumes of water from rivers, or dump it back hot. They use evaporative cooling towers, where a smaller volume of fresh water is heated and allowed to evaporate into the dry air. They can suffer from water shortages, but not from hot weather as long as water is available.

    Air cooling, with a completely closed coolant loop, is a well-practised technique (all vehicle engines use it!) requiring no ongoing water supply at all. It would work rather well for stored-heat baseload solar thermal power stations in desert environments, where the ambient temperature is falls throughout the night while the sun isn’t shining, matching the declining temperatures in the heat store (hot oil or molten salt).

    Bill — there is no risk of running out of petrochemicals on Earth, ever. Although some fossil fuels are no doubt igneous in origin, having been synthesized deep beneath the Earth’s crust or retained under enormous pressure in crystal structures from before the Earth’s formation, all coal and most oil are actually originally biological products, carbon bound from the atmosphere by plants and concentrated by processing in metabolisms and by tectonic action. There is nothing the Earth did to plants and animals’ bodies over millions of years that people can’t do more quickly and efficiently in a factory ( see eg. http://www.choren.com/en ).

    The only thing that is going to run out soon is petrochemicals so cheaply obtainable that it seems sane to burn them for energy. Quite soon, we will have to get our energy from something cheaper than oil wells and coal mines. I suggest the sun.

  14. kdkd

    Err, Greg, the Japanese embraced nuclear out of necessity. They lack oil and coal resources which post WW2 has been the main way for the industrial economies to generate electricity. Australia lacks neither, neither do we lack for more modern appropriate technologies; that is wind, sun, hot rocks, waves, tides, all of which can be optimised, along with efficiency measures, to provide good baseload. (OK, I regard aluminium smelting is a separate problem due to the huge amounts of electricity required, I’ll grant that). The only renewable resource that Australia lacks by international comparison is potential hydroelectric resources. Unfortunately the fossils and the miners have bought a lot of our political process. This is what keeps us as a backward nation full of people who get excited when they see an aeroplane 🙂

  15. Greg Atkinson

    This sort of debate about nuclear power just makes Australia look like some backward nation full of people who get excited when they see an aeroplane. Japan has dozens of reactors, it gets much hotter in some parts than France, has earthquakes and more rectors are planned and being constructed. If any people on earth should be wary of the everything to do with nuclear technology it is the Japanese…but the fact is they have embraced nuclear power.

    See also: Fuel cells, nuclear power, solar energy and the way forward for Japan

  16. tee


    No kidding but this has to be the stupidest blog piece Crikey’s run for a while and Crikey has a certain talent of picking some doozies.

    Read what the far more polite Barry Brook has said. Add the fact that not all countries are able to access geothermal because they may not have hot territories in their borders or they’re geographically far.

    As Barry says it’s nuke or bust for baseload energy no matter what you’re dreaming.

  17. Nancy

    There’s also clear evidence now that living near a nuclear power station increases the risk of leukaemia in children. For example a recent major long-term German government-sponsored study of their cancer records, shows a clear correlation between proximity to power station and risk of leukaemia. A meta-analysis of previous studies, by researchers the University of North Carolina, came up with similar results, with younger children at greater risk.

  18. adherent

    Tim, reading the linked Times article, it turns out the French problem is not nuclear power stations, but inland steam power stations. A gigawatt of steam power will need a similar amount of cooling whether the boiler’s heat source is fission, fusion, coal, gas or whatever.

    The nuclear plants on the coast are doing fine, and the French try not to schedule service for the coastal plants during summer, when they can expect they’ll be needed.

    Your opening pars just sounded really fishy, and turned out to be so with a moments reflection. Is there something wrong with your bullshit detectors to have posted this under such a headline?

    Perhaps on the other hand, you might like to look over the border at what wind power in Germany has done during this same heat wave. The last week’s output for all German wind is here:


    Of 23 GW generating capacity, two days in the last week have produced – nothing! Zip. And the output on the other days is next to nothing. (Note this chart continually updates showing a 7 day window, so I don’t know exactly what you will see here. That two day stretch is actually 3 or 4 days of zero output starting 8 or 9 days ago.) This is much worse than the reduced capacity in Frances nukes.

    What does Germany do when its wind power goes down the toilet like this? They burn more coal! What a tragedy, that they’ve turned their back on co2-free nuclear, and built out wind capacity that then has to be covered, in its entirety, by burning coal. If we all do this we truly are rooted.

    Can we have an update today, with a headline of equal emotional colour? Something along the lines of,

    “Ooops. The wind ‘solution’ just blew over.’

  19. Bill Parker


    I do not think that anyone in the RE industry is taking such a black and white contrast as you and many others do. It isn’t a case of switch this off and take a big risk with that. Its a transition like most industrial developments. The passenger car is an example.

    Even the proponents of say large scale solar thermal such as David Mills have said just this. His first successful proof of concept CFLR plant was attached to the Liddell coal thermal station in NSW and still is. CFLR has a way to go as does the type of technology coming out of ANU.

    And “renewable energy could do it all. But it can’t_”. Let’s try and get the other side of the equation sorted as well. The energy efficiency experts all agree – some 30% of of demand could be removed by being clever. 10% can always be knocked on any building demand by an expert walk through – no capital nec..

    The growth in demand should also be exposed to efficiency constraints.

    Its a matter of allowing sensible and workable investment frameworks to operate such that RE can get past proof of concept. Never mind all this home roof top PV stuff (34MW total to date???) Try much, much bigger roof tops, tens of thousands of square metres; invest in smart grid technology; build better infrastructure; get costs down ( as you can with large PV).

    There is no black and white. Oh, and as oil diminishes, where to we get petrochemicals from? How about coal? So why keep burning the darn stuff – we’ll need it for other chemical purposes.

  20. justinnt

    I’ve never seen an IFR / Gen IV reactor,
    lots of houses in my street have solar hot water;
    at the local tip, we have a methane plant, which goes to the grid;
    and my bush retreat runs on three solar panels.
    Further down the track, there’s a few communities of over 1000 people powered by a dozen solar dishes.
    Round the coast, there’s a company mapping out the sea bed, with plans to install 400 tidal power turbines.

    These are proven renewable energy techonolgies which we can already see in successful deployment all around us. With climate scientists warning we have too few years left to make deep cuts to global carbon emissions, it seems clear to me that we should go with these proven solutions, rather than investing precious time in non-existent fantasies like IFR or clean coal.

  21. Barry Brook

    Tim says: “Geothermal won’t be impacted at all”

    What makes you say that? It is a thermal power plant which uses a turbine spun by expanding steam. This requires cooling to create a temperature differential. It’s essentially no different to a coal, gas-steam, nuclear or solar thermal power plant in that regard.

    Wind turbines and PV are about the only water-free energy techs. Problem with wind was that during the last big heatwave in Jan/Feb 2009, wind output was close to zero across southeastern Australia.

    For thermal plants cooled by sea water, the heatwave issue is completely irrelevant. Also, given that we didn’t have heat-related shutdown of our coal-fired power stations during the Jan/Feb 2009 heatwave, we shouldn’t expect any different if they were Nuclear Power stations in the La Trobe Valley instead.

    Tim, I would be delighted if renewable energy could do it all. But it can’t — or at least the risk that it can’t is so high that it would be foolhardy in the extreme to close off other zero carbon, low environmental impact energy technologies such as nuclear. You know very well that I’m not arguing this from any vested position — my reason is honest, evidence-based, and centred around ensuring a sustainable future which avoids the most serious consequences of climate change.

  22. Jonathan Maddox

    “Nuclear power provides reliable base load electricity”. Myth. Busted.

    But there are lots of misconceptions here.

    The heat-wave problem in France is real, but it’s a problem with all older thermal power stations including coal and gas fired ones. It’s a total non-issue with respect to new power generation which can be designed and/or sited to avoid the problem of dumping excess hot water into rivers.

    Nuclear power, historically, has been really really expensive. The reason it has been pursued anyway is first and foremost for military purposes and second for related geopolitical chess-playing. Making electricity from it is partly a public-relations swords-to-ploughshares exercise and secondly a matter of shuffling budgets around between military and civilian branches of the state.

    A consequence of the great expense of nuclear power is that the only significant nuclear power programs in the world have been pushed and subsidised at all levels (largely hidden away from the commercial budgets of actual power stations) by the governments of states that at least *aspire* to military greatness. One or two exceptions exist, where subsidised suppliers from major nuclear states have fraudulently sold the idea of cost-effective commercial nuclear power to consumers who wouldn’t otherwise have been interested.

    Nuclear power only comes close to cost-competitiveness with fossil fuels in countries which must import their fossil energy, such as Sweden, Japan and France. They also import uranium, but nuclear fuel is a tiny portion of the cost of nuclear power and its transport is a concern because of the fear of terrorism and environmental contamination, not energy security. Uranium is cheap and plentiful.

    Uranium won’t run out for a long long time even if it is adopted wholesale. Thorium will be its successor and that won’t run out for much longer still.

    It is most likely that both will see some adoption in the big-swinging-dick states, but neither will be adopted wholesale worldwide for cost reasons. Costs will come down with technological development, but so will the costs of all the competing technologies except for (a) gas and oil as reserves deplete and (b) coal (and to a lesser degree gas and oil) as emissions trading is introduced.

    Renewable electricity generation technologies are still dreadfully under-developed, which is a natural consequence of the historical low cost of fossil fuels. They don’t get a hubris subsidy like nuclear power, nor (until they were big business) did they get the regular enormous subsidies that the fossil fuel business has long attracted for reasons of “energy security” and by being a big corrupt vested interest.

    However renewable electricity is now seeing large-scale investment and subsidy, which is only likely to increase, and the various technologies are responding positively with innovation, rapid cost reductions and economies of scale. Wind and hydroelectric power have long been cheaper than fossil and nuclear electricity, and it is only the additional costs of wind’s intermittency (also decreasing with appropriate contracts for severable loads, intelligent metering, quick-response cogeneration, long-distance HVDC transmission and new battery technologies) that prevents wind farms from being the obvious first and only economic choice for new power generation.

    Moreover, other non-intermittent renewable electricity sources such as biomass, biogas, geothermal, solar-thermal-with-fuel-backup and solar-thermal-with-heat-storage are also coming down in cost and will, in production, be every bit as reliable as nuclear power.

  23. Bill Parker

    I rarely talk about my experiences with nuclear matters, but living in the UK in the 60s and early 70s still resonates.

    I lived near Harwell and this was the only place where “ordinary” police were armed. OK so now that’s common enough but then it was unusual. These were the days of Greenham Common and the women’s blockade of the USAF base with nuclear armed B52s.

    Now we are beginning to crank up the support politics for a nuclear industry in Australia. Pangea have already been in WA when the promotion was on about storage of high level waste in the geo stable parts of this state. What we never heard anything about was how such waste was to be transported to the inland regions north of Esperance. There are ships that carry nuclear waste owned for example by Pacific Nuclear Transport, and ultimately they are vulnerable. And I am confident that should Australia take the unnecessary step to build nuclear power stations, waste storage would follow. I do not relish the thought of any port or transport system in WA being populated by the kind of “protective” police force that had the carte blanche of those officers who worked at Harwell.

    In the 80s, Troy Kennedy Martin wrote an outstanding BBC tele-series called “Edge of Darkness” The content is even more relevant now than he could have known then.

    I know I will get the usual flack for this, but when you know you have been discretely vetted by the British equiv. ASIO merely because your wife works “behind the wire” at a nuclear establishment, then its time to question.

    Finally I ask. Is there enough Uranium to be had without scraping a bloody expensive mullock removal barrel? I don’t think so. Billions will be spent on a technolology that has a limited future. And many of those billions will be spent of diesel to get the ore.

  24. Mark Duffett

    I discount the proliferation danger. No one that wants nuclear weapons badly enough is going to be stymied by lack of access to enriched uranium. The thing is, the nuclear fuel is already in the world. Heck, you can even extract it from seawater if you want to.

    I hope you’re right on renewables + efficiency – but I don’t think you are. That the world will become more volatile is simply another reason not to take the risk of adding electrical energy to the list of scarcities likely to come upon us in the next few decades.

  25. Graham Stephens

    Sorry folks! This article is full of misinformation. High ambient temperatures have a bad effect on output (and fuel efficiency) of many forms of electric power generation. For those that use a thermal working fluid such as steam there is a single effect caused by the condenser to turn the vapour phase back to the liquid phase, ie low pressure steam back to water. Thus coal fired powerstations, Nuclear Power stations, biomass, Solar thermal and geothermal are all affected adversely. Older power stations (using lower “high temperatures and pressures”) are worse affected than the more modern units (using much higher “high temperatures and pressures”). Thus modern nuclear stations are likely to be the best for CO2 reduction in future, as the fuel costs are extremely low and of all large output installations, will have near zero “carbon emmissions”

    Gas Turbines typically using natural gas or high cost distallate fuel are doubly affected by high ambient air temperatures;firstly at the air inlet and secondly at the exhaust.

    wind and ocean power will benefit from greater turbulence in both systems. Tidal power prospects will improve as ocean levels rise (more suitable sites) and particularly if tidal range increases

    Only bioenergy, the least attractive renewable source to many anyway, stands to be negatively impacted by climate scenarios. Not my area of expertise, but this is counter intuitive to me.

  26. Tim Hollo

    Oh, I know it was schadenfreude, Mark, but it was mighty enjoyable! Agree that this is 1970s technology, and that other old technology (like Victoria’s energy grid last summer, by the way) suffers badly in the heat.

    The key problem for me is, no matter the technology you use for nukes, the proliferation danger still exists with the fuel source. The world is going to become much more volatile as the climate change we have locked into the system already comes to fruition. That’s not a world I want more nuclear fuel in, thanks very much.

    There’s people all over the world at the moment researching 100% renewable + efficiency scenarios. I disagree with you and Barry Brook et al on this. We won’t need to contemplate nukes – it won’t be necessary. By the time you can get your first IFR plant operational, we can be well on our way to powering the globe with renewables, as long as we push down the efficiency path at the same time.

  27. Mark Duffett

    and another thing…it seems that the heat issues with French nuclear power plants are nothing to do with safe operation of the reactor per se, rather limits on waste heat emission enforced for environmental reasons.

  28. scottyea

    Let’s hope that this becomes a factor in alternative energy planning, nuclear-generated power is madness anyway, as anyone who has watched the Simpsons knows. Duh.

  29. Mark Duffett

    That’s 1970s technology you’re having an attack of schadenfreude over, Tim. Those of us advocating a nuclear solution are generally looking a little beyond that.

  30. philwearne

    This seems weird (although I’m trying not to doubt the truth of the matter)! The whole process of nuclear energy relies on the heating of water to generate steam which turns turbines and generates electricity. A modern and more efficient plant, you would think, should take advantage of seasonal increases in temperature, where the heat from the sun is potential improving the efficiency of the reactor! Maybe this says more about France’s facilities than the viability of nuclear power.

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