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Nuclear commission findings spell more trouble for wind and solar in Australia

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The South Australian Royal Commission into the nuclear fuel cycle has conceded that nuclear power is not a viable alternative for Australia, but has urged authorities to consider it anyway – in what could have serious implications for the roll out of renewable energy across the country.

The commission delivered the results of its “tentative” findings on Monday, indicating that it supports the establishment of a nuclear waste facility in the state, the storing of spent nuclear fuel and the expansion of uranium mining.

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On the subject of nuclear generation, the commission admitted that it wasn’t viable in South Australia in the foreseeable future (2030) – even with a significant carbon price and a sharp reduction in the cost of capital.

It conceded that Australia should only adopt “proven” new nuclear technologies such as “small modular reactors” and next generation “fast reactors” , but that these were some way off, and likely to be very costly.

But commission chairman Kevin Scarce wants the nuclear generation dream to continue. He admitted that while there were real risks in nuclear generation – and there are “no guarantees on its safety” – he doesn’t “think the positive side of nuclear power is being presented.”

Despite the findings of the commission on the high costs of nuclear, and its unsuitability to the South Australian market in particular, he wants nuclear energy to be part of the national consideration because of the challenges Australia faces in meeting its emissions abatement task.

In effect, he and the nuclear proponents are betting that Australia will fall short in its climate targets; and given the record of the Coalition government on climate policy – including the repeal of the carbon price, the slashing of the renewable energy target, the attack on key institutions and slow progress on energy efficiency – that is a fair bet.

And this is where the problems emerge for the renewables industry, and wind and solar in particular. Most major studies, despite the best efforts of the nuclear lobby, suggest the abatement tasks of Australia and the world can be met by a combination of renewables, such as wind and solar, and energy efficiency. Even the International Energy Agency suggests that nuclear would play a minor role in emissions reductions.

But in Australia there is no policy in place to ensure that Australia’s modest emissions reduction targets are met. The repeal of the carbon price and the stalling of renewable energy development has put Australia on a path to increase emissions to record levels and will likely not reach a peak before 2030.

The nuclear industry is essentially counting on failure on these tasks, and then having some sort of Marshall plan to allow for the extra expense of nuclear generation.

The potential implications for large-scale and small-scale wind and solar are clear. Already, large-scale wind and solar developments are at a standstill because of changes to government policy by the current Coalition government.

And there is clear support for nuclear within the Coalition. Senator Sean Edwards is a major proponent, and Energy minister Josh Frydenberg, as we noted on his appointment, is a long-term nuclear supporter, and said so again on Monday. And many in the Coalition hate wind energy in particular, and renewables in general, such as new deputy prime minister and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, as do many on the cross bench.

That suits the incumbent fossil fuel industry just fine. The major coal lobbies, the Minerals Council of Australia and the Energy Supply Association of Australia, which represents coal generators such as AGL Energy, Origin Energy and Energy Australia, among others, have expressed support for nuclear power, keen to see the continuation of a commodities-based economy and centralised power in the energy markets.

Privately, the energy generators think nuclear is an absurd option for Australia, because of its high costs, long lead times, the fact that no energy producer has the balance sheet to support such projects, because it would need subsidies that would dwarf those needed for renewables, and because Australia has such excellent wind, solar and other renewable resources.

But by tentatively supporting nuclear, and keeping the brakes on renewable energy, it means that billions of dollars of coal assets can remain profitable for longer, and the massive sunk investments in the grid can also be protected.

The established industry is being severely challenged by emerging decentralised energy technologies – solar, storage and smart controls – and the pro-nuclear lobby has run a deliberate campaign against wind and solar, arguing that they cannot power a modern economy.

These arguments have been given significant and uncritical air time in conservative mainstream media , but also in Fairfax newspapers and online publications such as New Matilda and InDaily.

The Royal Commission has chosen to run with some of those myths, which is disappointing, but not surprising given that one of the biggest proponents is a web-site operated by one of the commissioners, Professor Barry Brook. A paper co-authored by Brook is repeatedly cited in the commission’s report and by pro-nuclear submissions to the commission.

Among these myths, promoted by Scarce on Monday, is the need for more peaking gas and imports in South Australia because of the growth in wind and solar. Actually, as has been pointed out repeatedly, South Australia now uses less peaking gas and less imports from Victoria than before it produced a lot of wind and solar.

The document also says that solar PV has had a negligible impact on peak demand in South Australia. Actually, it has had a significant impact on peak demand, pushing the peak from late afternoon and into the evening and made it smaller, to the benefit of the network in heat waves. (see graph below and further explanation here.)

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The royal commission document also says battery storage applications are not yet commercial. Actually, they are, and Ergon Energy has already rolled out dozens of 100kWh, utility-scale battery storage arrays, saying it reduces grid upgrade costs by one-third – with no subsidy.

And while the government’s own forecast has admitted that the cost of nuclear is going to be more than twice that of wind and solar by 2030, the commission is repeating the line of the nuclear advocates that “cost of technology” is not a fair comparison, and that cost should incorporate grid “integration” and back-up.

This is an old furphy. Again, it ignores the enormous cost of nuclear energy in both the need for extra transmission lines and in the need for back-up power in case a plant goes off-line. In the UK, National Grid, the grid operator, said back-up power for the new Hinkley plant, if it goes ahead, would cost $12 billion.

The nuclear industry is facing huge headwinds internationally, and the industry itself admits that it cannot succeed in “deregulated” markets that dominate western economies.

France, the poster country for the nuclear lobby, is facing a disaster over its new-generation reactors, which are running up to a decade late, and more than $10 billion over budget, in Finland and France.

The bill just to keep France’s ageing fleet in working order has now nearly doubled to more than $150 billion, and the value of the country’s flagship nuclear company, EdF, has plunged on the stock market and has been kicked out of the main index. One third of its reactors are now likely to be closed by 2025.

In the UK, Hinkley Point, the first nuclear reactor to be built in more than 20 years is facing yet more delays, despite the fact that proposed government subsidies – regarded as “insane” even by nuclear supporters themselves – have been promised.

Even with a “guaranteed” feed-in tariff starting at nearly $200/MWh and rising with inflation to more than $450/MWh 35 years later, the proponents – EdF and its Chinese state backers – are baulking because of the financial risks.

China, is also being hit by delays and cost overruns in new reactors and the government recently conceded that its emergence response standards in the rapidly growing sector were “not adequate”.

In the US, the first new reactors in a generation – at Vogtle in the US – are also running over budget and over time. Many reactors are uneconomic and are seeking new government subsidies to continue operations.

The South Australian Royal Commission final report is due in May, and the South Australian government will respond soon after.

It would be tempting to think that, regardless of its view into nuclear waste processes, the government of Labor Premier Jay Weatherill will press ahead with its goal of 100 per cent renewables.

Despite what nuclear boosters tell us about wind and solar, numerous reports, including by the Australian Energy Market Operator, the French government, and various think tanks, say 100% renewable energy based largely around wind and solar is perfectly feasible, and will likely even reduce costs.

As Peter Bradford, from the Vermont Law School and a former member of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, wrote recently: 

“Climate change, so urgent and so seemingly intractable, has become the last refuge of nuclear charlatans throughout the Western world. From well-meaning ideologues and editorial writers claiming that the unknowable is theirs to state with certainty, to paid advocates more skilled in pleasing and persuading government officials than furthering consumer and environmental well-being, prophetic arguments have swollen from a stream to a river and now merge with the Seine in Paris, threatening to submerge the world under a layer of nonsense rising as inexorably as the seas themselves.”

The likelihood is, however, that in Australia renewables will remain stalled, or much delayed.

The capital strike by large energy retailers will continue, networks will continue to push back against solar and storage by changing tariffs to protect their revenues, regulators will continue to put on blindfolds when asked to identify the benefits of distributed generation such as solar and storage, and the Coalition government will continue to drag its heels.

The chances of it looking at this report, noting the huge costs of nuclear, the timelines needed to address climate change and pressing the go button on renewables is remote. All of which means that Australia is heading for a train-crash in energy policy, where individual consumers will be tempted to take energy matters into their own hands.

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  • Keith

    …and we thought that evidence based Government was going to return?

    Perhaps a combination of today’s news that the people want solar PV, and the edge coming off Malcolm Turnbull’s popularity, might have an impact? Or maybe Engie might close down a Victorian lignite plant ? … ever the optimist.

  • lin

    It would seem that the big energy players in Australia and their LNP mates are engaged in a new form of “Create the Problem, then Sell the Solution”. The longer they sabotage renewables for, the more money their coal mates make, and the more desperate the citizens will be for their expensive solution when the climate SHTF. They are as bad as a bunch of monkeys with matches in a fireworks factory. They need to be sidelined, and some adults put in charge of the decision making. And after all the hype and hope, Malcolm is running out of time to be part of the solution.

    • solarguy

      Yes absolutely. Malcolm is better than that, but he should have been ruthless. Now he is just their puppet and has set himself up for the kill

  • phred01
  • David McKay

    I have worked for the worlds largest designer & builder of reactors. Take a look at the construction record of reactor builds. If the budget is 8bn you can bet it will end up at least double & take 15 years to build.
    A finding of not really viable, but lets do it anyway, says it all.
    Add to the already stratospheric costs the fact that Australia is about the most expensive place in the world to build anything.
    We need a government that puts the interests of the country first, but where do we find such a government??

    • solarguy

      Clearly Labor and Greens are the only hope to stop this BS.

      • Steve159

        See my reply to your earlier post.

    • Chris Fraser

      David that message needs to get outI sometimes wonder what we are seeing in this ideological mania for nukes. Given the costs, the clear alternatives, and the urgency, why have this discussion ?There might well be a modular, mobile, quick, cheap, waste consuming IFR reactor out there – somewhere – but some of these politicians are waaaay ahead of their time.

  • solarguy

    Giles, as I have always believed Abbott and his weak head crew, with help of cash under the table by the Nuke Industry and other Industries, have engineered this mindlessness folly.
    Enter, Labor and Greens to kill the greedy bastards off. We have to have a change of government this coming election.

    • Steve159

      Well, Labor and Greens won’t get in unless there’s sufficient ‘feet on the ground’ — doorknocking, come the next election.

      I’ve helped out (doornocking, campaign training) in both Federal and State Greens campaigns.

      On the booth at which I was (somewhat loudly) extolling the virtues of voting Green (admittedly with some rather tongue-in-cheek cheek — “Don’t let ’em fraq the hell out of the place”, or “Vote Greens for jobs — more jobs in solar than mining” and similar), the polling for that booth (for the Greens) was nearly double the seat average. Sometimes if it was quiet, I’d walk about 30 metres from the gate, then turn around and walk back with those about to vote, giving me time to hammer 3 or 4 hard-hitting key points. As I said, my booth polled nearly double the percentage for Greens for the seat.

      Door knocking and vigorous advocacy on polling day, do make a difference.

      It’s up to those concerned, to door-knock. With good preparation, it’s quite a treat to see people change their “you Greens are a bunch of useless tree-huggers”, to “you’ve got my vote.”

      • solarguy

        What ever works Steve. Hope you can do it again this election.

        • Steve159

          I can’t in isolation — if you’re not inclined to doorknock, there are many other avenues to help.

  • BroSheffieldBrotherton

    These are generically the kinds of findings we have been getting from pro-nuclear inquiries and investigations for decades – viz the claims that we can make squillions from looking after the everyone’s nuclear waste (hey we even have a “moral” responsibility to do it), renewables don’t really work and nuclear may be uneconomic in Oz (even with ignoring most of the externalitlies) for as far as we can see and guess but we’ll be “forced to build nukes eventually. Long has been, always will be bollocks,

  • Radbug

    Prof. Jong Beom Baek’s team, (Ulsan Institute & Case Western Uni) has subjected their Sb/graphene catalysed DMFC to 100,000 cycles with no loss in performance. Buy the stack, share the roof top PV inverter, install the methanol tank (refilled by Origin, just like LPG), vent the CO2 & go off the grid. Venting the CO2 will reduce emissions, relative to an equivalent electricity output from black coal, by 70%. That’ll break the cartel’s grip on the grid! And that’s before you install the evacuated tube HW system!

  • onesecond

    How to ruin the nation by voting for the Coalition.

  • Phil Shield

    It would be foolish to have a major expansion of uranium mining in Australia. With many reactors due to retire in the next 15 years and few likely to replace them, there is not going to be the demand to keep the price high.
    Renewables and storage are already much cheaper than nuclear for electricity generation in Australia and the gap will continue to widen.
    The only part of the nuclear fuel cycle Australia can hope to make money out of is waste storage. Perhaps Jay Weatherill could find some space in his garden shed for some spent fuel rods?

    • Alan S

      The RC can recommend expansion of uranium mining if it wishes. Companies such as BHP will decide whether that goes ahead based on economics – and they’ve said ‘No’.

    • lin

      The only people with any chance of making money out of waste storage are the white shoe brigade and perhaps some building contractors. NOBODY on the planet knows how to store it for even a small fraction of the half a million years it needs to be isolated. The WIPP in New Mexico was supposed to be good for 10,000 years, but blew up after 15 and will cost billions to fix. The cost of cleaning up after other contaminated sites, such as the Hanford, Stellafield, Ozersk, Chernobyl and Fukushima run into the hundreds of billions or even trillions without counting the health and environmental costs, which are considerable, regardless of the spin and bullshit fed to us by the nuclear industry, compliant regulators and complicit governments.
      And if something does go wrong in 10, 100 or 1000 years, you can be confident that it will be the residents of Australia who will suffer the costs, either financial, ecological or both, rather than the corporations and governments who generated it in the first place. Whatever this RC recommends, getting into the waste storage business will put taxpayers in a lose/lose situation.

      • neroden

        They haven’t even started trying to clean up Novaya Zemlya.

        At this point, the rule of thumb is “never open a new nuclear site”. All the proposed nuclear waste sites in the US are at pre-contaminated locations like Hanford. The UK is concentrating everything at Sellafield. The Russians are doing similarly.

  • Stephen Gloor

    Barry Brooke is a problem alright. He used to be reasonable however he did fall in with the wrong crowd and now a once good site like Brave New Climate is just a nuclear echo chamber …..

  • BsrKr11

    Ka booooooooom …it’s going to be a train wreck no doubt about it! In fact it already is. ….

  • Mike Dill

    Four billion at $2.00 a watt gives us two gigawatts installed in about two years. Another billion in storage makes that a FIRM energy resource. Nuclear can never compete on cost, and new FF plants cannot either.

  • Suburbable

    Our Australian policy makers have a mining mindset. Uranium is mined, therefore it must be good, or at least understandable to them as it’s like coal – you dig it up and you ‘burn’ it to make electricity. Add to this that, in general, it uses the existing infrastructure for transmission and we begin to get the picture that it means ‘business as usual’.

    The technology is being scrapped, or, at least questioned in other parts of the world, so maybe we can pick up materials and components at fire sale prices.

    This illustrious commission is also recommending that SA become the dumping ground for nuclear waste from both here and abroad. Can I see a pattern emerging? I think so. Maybe you can too.

  • Steve159

    As Jeremy Rifkin on last year’s 4Corners program bluntly put it “We’re the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy”.

    Forget nuclear — we’re swimming in renewable energy. We could utilise the middle of Australia with vast solar arrays, pull in sea water, export hydrogen (or some variant thereof, such as synthetic-petroleum*), enough for the whole f*^king planet.

    But, oh no, that would require vision. We’ll just watch Morocco do it, with a pipeline to Europe. Maybe they’ll eventually ship to Australia, effectively “selling coals to Newcastle” so we don’t have to do anything.

    * http://www.cnet.com/au/news/miracle-tech-turns-water-into-fuel/

  • Mike Ives

    Renewables are fine and solar and wind may well take up a large proportion of Australia’s decarboned energy supply if we ever really get started . But take a look at what the LCA of PV cells are, the energy, hence GHG emissions required to produce suitable batteries, the limits of our hydro resources, geothermal and water. What does Reneweconomy suggest we adopt to fill the gap …. Biomass?

    • Hey, this is interesting. Nuclear loses out on costs, so you and other boosters have been bombarding forums like this in last 24 hours on another myth, life cycle emissions for solar PV.
      The most comprehensive study was done by the US Department of Energy, which proved, comprehensively, that your claims are nonsense. http://www.nrel.gov/analysis/sustain_lca_results.html
      Suggest you guys go back to basic and find another furphy. Have you tried star signs?

      • Mike Ives

        Giles I am honoured by your response. Thanks for the NREL reference based on IPCC’s 2011 report of which I already had a copy. It reminded me that nuclear (truly base load with proven high capacity factors) was shown to shape up well in NREL’s LCA terms.

        Harmonising seems a logical approach to get all reports on an equal footing and hopefully all responsible analysts adopt the same principal.

        1. An analysis of IPPC’s 2014 report on LCA is available on Wikimedia site https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life-cycle_greenhouse-gas_emissions_of_energy_sources

        It provides a list analysing which tends to put wind and nuclear somewhat ahead of PV re LCA. The same report also analyses IPCC’s 2011 report and the 50 percentile range PV does not look so rosy.

        2. You may well know that several other reviews of this nature have been carried out by the Argonne National Laboratory which is operated by the University of Chicago on behalf of the US Department of Energy. They use software called GREET which is freely available on the NET for their analysis regarding geothermal power generation in relation to other sources including PV. One such one (Life-Cycle Analysis of Geothermal Systems in Comparison to Other Power Systems) is available at:

        https://anl.box.com/s/tif87yku41hbxqpf8kw0jyeu9ktug6bv

        Their Fig 9 and Table A1 shows the energy life cycle ratio of various systems and again PV does not look too clever. The high up front energy requirements of silicon and aluminium production are the main contributions to poor performance and much of the silicon becomes waste due to sawing. Albeit this is a 2010 report and there has been advances in multi junction and concentrating PV since that time but so far I have not seen any LCA data on such.

        3. Yet another report by Daniel Weisser at

        http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/03605442/32/9

        entitled ‘A guide to life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from electrical supply technologies’ deals also with PV. His Fig 5 not only shows the PV but also associated energy storage impacts (battery, compressed are and pumped hydro) in not such a bright light.

        As global energy is derived from 85% fossil fuel sources (95% in Australia), and as we have a very limited carbon budget yet to spend, if we are to have any reasonable chance of limiting temperature increase to a tolerable 2 deg C then up front energy costs of de carbonising must present a key factor in any such review I would have thought.

        By claiming 100% solar and wind cocktail as a panacea for Australia’s carbon emissions issue should we ask if this is truly honest?

        I could go on but……

        Kind regards

        Mike Ives