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Renewable energy versus nuclear: dispelling the myths

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The Ecologist

Don’t believe the spurious claims of nuclear shills constantly putting down renewables, writes Mark Diesendorf. Clean, safe renewable energy technologies have the potential to supply 100% of the world’s electricity demand but the first hurdle is to refute the deliberately misleading myths designed to promote the politically powerful but ultimately doomed nuclear industry.

Large wind and solar farms can be planned and built in 2-3 years (compared with 10-15 years for nuclear) and are ready now to replace fossil and nuclear electricity. Photo: Brookhaven National Laboratory via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)

Large wind and solar farms can be planned and built in 2-3 years (compared with 10-15 years for nuclear) and are ready now to replace fossil and nuclear electricity. Photo: Brookhaven National Laboratory via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)

Nuclear energy and renewable energy (RE) are the principal competitors for low-carbon electricity in many countries. As RE technologies have grown in volume and investment, and become much cheaper, nuclear proponents and deniers of climate science have become deniers of RE.

The strategies and tactics of RE deniers are very similar to those of climate science deniers. To create uncertainty about the ability of RE to power an industrial society, they bombard decision-makers and the media with negative myths about RE and positive myths about nuclear energy, attempting to turn these myths into conventional wisdom. In responding to the climate crisis, few countries have the economic resources to expand investment substantially in both nuclear and RE. This is demonstrated in 2016 by the UK government, which is offering huge long-term subsidies to nuclear while severely cutting existing short-term subsidies to RE.

This article, a sequel to one busting the myth that we need base-load power stations such as nuclear or coal, examines critically some of the other myths about nuclear energy and RE. It offers a resource for those who wish to question these myths. The myths discussed here have been drawn from comments by nuclear proponents and RE opponents in the media, articles, blogs and on-line comments.

Myth 1: Base-load power stations are necessary to supply base-load demand. 

Variant: Base-load power stations must be operated continuously to back-up variable renewable energy systems. 

Variant: Renewable energy is too variable to reliably make the principal contribution to large-scale electricity supply.

This myth is refuted in my previous article.

Myth 2: There is a renaissance in nuclear energy.

Global nuclear electricity production in terawatt-hours per year (TWh/y) peaked in 2006. The percentage contribution of nuclear energy to global electricity peaked at 17.5% in 1993 and declined to under 11% in 2014. Nowadays annual global investment in nuclear is exceeded by investment in each of wind and solar. Over the past decade the number of global start-ups of new nuclear power reactors has been approximately balanced by the number of closures of existing reactors. While several European countries are phasing out nuclear energy, most growth in nuclear reactor construction is occurring in China, Russia, India and South Korea. (World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2015)

Myth 3: Renewable energy is not ready to replace fossil fuels, and nuclear energy could fill the (alleged) gap in low-carbon energy supply.

Most existing nuclear power reactors are classified as Generation 2 and are widely regarded as obsolete. The current generations of new nuclear power stations are classified as Generation 3 and 3+. Only four Generation 3 reactors have operated, so far only in Japan, and their performance has been poor. No Generation 3+ reactor is operating, although two are under construction in Europe, four in the USA and several in China. All are behind schedule and over-budget – the incomplete European reactors are already triple their budgeted prices. Not one Generation 4 power reactor – e.g. fast breeder, integral fast reactor (IFR), small modular reactor – is commercially available. (World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2015) So it can be argued that modern nuclear energy is not ready.

On the other hand, wind and solar are both growing rapidly and are still becoming cheaper. Large wind and solar farms can be planned and built in 2-3 years (compared with 10-15 years for nuclear) and are ready now to replace fossil and nuclear electricity.

Myth 4: Nuclear weapons proliferation is independent of civil nuclear energy.

Variant: Nuclear weapons explosives cannot be made from the type of plutonium produced in conventional nuclear power reactors, or from the thorium fuel cycle, or from the IFR.

Six countries (France, India, North Korea, Pakistan, South Africa and the UK) have covertly used civil nuclear energy to assist them to develop nuclear weapons. In addition, at least seven countries (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Iran, Libya, South Korea and Taiwan) have used civil nuclear energy to commence covertly developing nuclear weapons, but then terminated their programs (references in Diesendorf 2014). Thus nuclear energy is facilitating proliferation and therefore is increasing the probability of nuclear war. Even if the probability of nuclear war is small (and this is debatable), the potential impacts are huge. Therefore it is inappropriate to ignore the proliferation risk, which is probability multiplied by potential impact.

Thorium reactors are under development in India. Thorium is not fissile, so it first has to be bombarded with neutrons to convert it into uranium-233, which is. Like any fissile element, U-233 can be used either to generate heat and hence electricity, or as a nuclear explosive. Nuclear weapons with U-233 as part of the explosive have been tested by the USA (Teapot MET test), Soviet Union and India.

Some nuclear proponents claim incorrectly that the hypothetical IFR would be proliferation-proof.  The IFR has only ever operated as a single prototype in the USA. The project was cancelled by Congress in 1994 for reasons including funding, doubts about whether it was needed, and concerns about its potential for proliferation (Kerry 1994). The IFR offers at least two proliferation pathways. Once it has separated most of the highly radioactive fission products from the less radioactive transuranics by means of an experimental process known as pyroprocessing, it would be easier to extract the plutonium-239 from the transuranics by means of conventional chemical reprocessing and use it to produce nuclear weapons. An alternative proliferation pathway would be to modify an IFR to enable it to be used as a breeder reactor to produce weapons grade plutonium from uranium-238 – see also Wymer et al. (1992).

Myth 5: The death toll from the Chernobyl disaster was 28-64.

These absurdly low estimates are obtained by considering only short-term deaths from acute radiation syndrome and ignoring the major contribution to fatalities, namely cancers that appear over several decades. For Chernobyl, the lowest serious estimate of future cancer deaths was ‘up to 4000’ by the Chernobyl Forum (2006), a group of United Nations agencies led by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has the conflicting goals of promoting nuclear energy and applying safeguards against inter alia accidents and proliferation. Estimates from authors with no obvious conflict of interest range from 16,000 from the International Agency for Research on Cancer to 93,000 from a team of international medical researchers from Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere.

Myth 6: The problem of permanently storing high-level nuclear wastes has been solved.

All high-level waste is currently in temporary storage in pools or dry casks. Not one permanent repository is operating in the world. Development of the proposed US repository at Yucca Mountain in the USA was terminated after expenditure of $13.5 billion. Underground repositories are under construction in Sweden and Finland. Even if the technical and economic challenges could be solved, the social problem of managing or isolating the repositories for 100,000 years remains.

Myth 7: The IFR could ‘burn up’ the world’s nuclear wastes.

The IFR only exists as a design. If it were ever developed, it would become another proliferation pathway (see Myth 4). At best it could convert most transuranics to fission products, so underground long-term repositories would still be needed for the highly radioactive fission products.

For a fuller exposition of the problems of IFRs and other ‘new’ reactor designs, see Amory Lovins’s classic 2009 essay, recently republished on The Ecologist: ‘ “New” nuclear reactors? same old story‘.

Myth 8: Nuclear energy emits no or negligible greenhouse gas emissions.

Neither nuclear energy nor most renewable technologies emit CO2 during operation. However, meaningful comparisons must compare whole life-cycles from mining the raw materials to managing the wastes. Nuclear physicist and nuclear supporter Manfred Lenzen found average life-cycle emissions for nuclear energy, based on mining high-grade uranium ore, of 60 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour (g/kWh), for wind of 10–20 g/kWh and for natural gas 500–600 g/kWh.

Now comes the part that most nuclear proponents try to ignore or misrepresent. The world has only a few decades of high-grade uranium ore reserves left. As the ore-grade inevitably declines, the fossil fuel used to mine (with diesel fuel) and mill uranium increases and so do the resulting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Lenzen calculates that, when low-grade uranium ore is used, the life-cycle GHG emissions will increase to 131 g/kWh. Others have obtained higher levels. This is unacceptable in terms of climate science. Only if mining low-grade ore were done with renewable fuel, or if fast breeder reactors replaced burner reactors, could nuclear GHG emissions be kept to an acceptable level, but neither of these conditions is likely to be met for decades at least.

For more on this topic, see Keith Barnham’s article ‘False solution: nuclear power is not low carbon’.

Myth 9: Nuclear energy is a suitable partner for renewable energy in the grid.

Making a virtue out of necessity, nuclear proponents claim that we can have both (new) nuclear and renewables in the same grid. However, nuclear energy is a poor partner for a large contribution of variable RE in an electricity supply system for four reasons:

(1)  Nuclear power reactors are inflexible in operation (see response to Myth 10), compared with open cycle gas turbines (which can be biofuelled), hydro with dams and concentrated solar thermal (CST) with thermal storage. Wind and solar PV can supply bulk energy, balanced by flexible, dispatchable renewables, as discussed previously.

(2)  When a nuclear power station breaks down, it is usually off-line for weeks or months. For comparison, lulls in wind last typically for hours or days, so wind does not need expensive back-up from base-load power stations – flexible dispatchable RE suffices.

(3)  Wind and solar farms are cheaper to operate than nuclear (and fossil fuels). Therefore wind and solar can bid lower prices into electricity markets and displace nuclear from base-load operation, which it needs to pay off its huge capital costs.

(4)  Renewables and nuclear compete for support policies from government including scarce finance and subsidies. For example, the UK government commitment to Hinkley C, with enormous subsidies, has resulted in removal of subsidies to on-shore wind and solar PV.

Myth 10: Nuclear power reactors can generally be operated flexibly to follow changes in demand/load.

The limitations, both technical and economic, are demonstrated by France, with 77% of its electricity generated from nuclear. Since the current generation of nuclear power stations is not designed for load-following, France can only operate some of its reactors in load-following mode some of the time – at the beginning of their operating cycle, with fresh fuel and high reserve reactivity – but cannot continue to load-follow in the late part of their cycle. This is acknowledged by the World Nuclear Organisation.

Load-following has two economic penalties for base-load power stations:

  • Substantially increased maintenance costs due to loss of efficiency.
  • Reduced earnings during off-peak periods. Yet, to pay off of their high capital cost, the reactors must be operated as much as possible at rated power.

France reduces the second economic penalty by selling its excess nuclear energy to neighbouring countries via transmission line, while parts of Australia soak up their excess base-load coal energy with cheap off-peak water heating.

Myth 11: Renewable energies are more expensive than nuclear.

Variant: Nuclear energy receives smaller subsidies than RE.

Both versions of the myth are false. Levelised costs of energy (LCOE) depend on the number of units installed at a site, location, capital cost, interest rate and capacity factor (actual average power output divided by rated power). LCOE estimates for nuclear are $108/MWh based on pre-2014 data from the IPCC and $97-132/MWh based on pre-2015 data from multinational financial consultants Lazard. The IPCC cost estimate does not include subsidies, while the Lazard estimate includes US federal government subsidies excluding loan guarantees and decommissioning.

None of these US estimates takes account of the huge escalation in costs of the two European Pressured Water Reactors (EPR) under construction (mentioned in Myth 3). The EPR proposed for the UK, Hinkley C, is being offered a guaranteed inflation-linked price for electricity over 35 years, commencing at £92.5/MWh (US$144/MWh) (2012 currency), more than double the wholesale price of electricity in the UK, together with a loan guarantee of originally £10 billion (US$15.3 billion). Its capped liability for accidents and inadequate insurance is likely to fall upon the British taxpayer.

In 2015 Lazard estimated unsubsidised costs for on-shore wind across the USA of US$32–77/MWh. An independent empirical study by US Department of Energy (Fig. 46) found levelised power purchase agreement prices in 2014 for wind in the US interior (region with the highest wind speeds) of US$22/MWh, and in the west (region with lowest wind speeds) about US$60/MW. The US government subsidises wind with a Production Tax Credit of US$23/MWh over 10 years, so this must be added to the DoE figures to obtain the actual costs. In Brazil in 2014, contracts were awarded at a reverse auction for an average unsubsidised clearing price of 129.3 real/MWh (US$41/MWh).

Lazard estimated unsubsidised costs of US$50–70/MWh for large-scale solar PV in a high insolation region of the USA. In New Mexico, USA, a Power Purchase Agreement for US$57.9/MWh has been signed for electricity from the Macho Springs 50 MW solar PV power station; federal and state subsidies bring the actual cost to around US$80–90/MWh depending on location. In Chile, Brazil and Uruguay, unsubsidised prices at reverse auctions are in the same range (Diesendorf 2016). Rooftop solar ‘behind the meter’ is competitive with retail grid electricity prices in many regions of the world with medium to high insolation, even where there are no feed-in tariffs.

For CST with thermal storage, Lazard estimates US$119-181/MWh.

Comparing subsidies between nuclear and RE is difficult, because they vary substantially in quantity and type from country to country, where nuclear subsidies may include some or all of the following (Diesendorf 2014):

  • government funding for research and development, uranium enrichment, decommissioning and waste management;
  • loan guarantees;
  • stranded assets paid for by taxpayers and electricity ratepayers;
  • limited liabilities for accidents covered by victims and taxpayers;
  • generous contracts for difference.

Subsidies to nuclear have either remained constant or increased over the past 50 years, while subsidies to RE, especially feed-in tariffs, have decreased substantially (to zero in some places) over the past decade.

Myth 12: Renewable energy is very diffuse and hence requires huge land areas.

Hydro-electric dams and dedicated bioenergy crops can occupy large areas, but RE scenarios for few regions have large additional contributions from these sources. Solar farms located on-ground may occupy significant land, often marginal land. Rooftop solar, which is widespread in Germany and Australia, and bioenergy derived from crop residues occupy no additional land. On-shore wind farms are generally located on agricultural land, with which they are highly compatible. The land occupied is typically 1-2% of the land spanned. RE deniers often ignore this and misleadingly quote the land area spanned.

For an economic optimal mix of 100% renewable electricity technologies calculated for the Australian National Energy Market, total land area in km2/TWh/y is about half that of equivalent nuclear with a hypothetical buffer zone of radius 20 km, as belatedly established for Fukushima Daiichi (Diesendorf 2016).

Myth 13: Energy payback periods (in energy units, not money) of renewable energy technologies are comparable with their lifetimes.

Nowadays typical energy payback periods in years are: solar PV modules 0.5-1.8; large wind turbines 0.25-0.75; CST (parabolic trough) 2; nuclear (high-grade-uranium ore) 6.5; nuclear (low-grade-uranium ore) 14 (references in Diesendorf 2014, Table 5.2). The range of values reflects the fact that energy payback periods, and the related concept of energy return on energy invested, depend on the type of technology and its site. Critics of RE often quote much higher energy payback periods for RE technologies by assuming incorrectly that each has to be backed-up continuously by a fossil fuelled power station.

Myth 14: Danish electricity prices are among the highest in Europe, because of the large contribution from wind energy.

Danish retail electricity prices are among the highest in Europe, because electricity is taxed very heavily. This tax goes into consolidated revenue – it does not subsidise wind energy. Comparing tax-free electricity prices places Denmark around the European average. Wind energy in Denmark is subsidised by feed-in tariffs funded by a very small increase in retail electricity prices, which is offset by the decrease in wholesale electricity prices resulting from the large wind energy contribution.

Myth 15: Computer simulation models of the operation of electricity grids with 80-100% renewable electricity are meaningless over-simplifications of real systems.

Although a model is indeed a simplified version of reality, it can be a powerful low-cost tool for exploring different scenarios. Most modellers start with simple models, in order to understand some of the basic relationships between variables. Then, step-by-step, as understanding grows, they make the models more realistic.

For example, initially the UNSW Australia group simulated the operation of the Australian National Electricity Market with 100% RE in hourly time-steps spanning a single year. Wind farms were simply scaled up at existing sites. The next model included economic data and calculated the economic optimal mix of RE technologies and then compared costs with low-carbon fossil fuelled scenarios.  Recently the simulations were extended to six years of hourly data, the RE supply region was decomposed into 43 sub-regions and a limit was imposed on non-synchronous supply. With all these refinements in the model, the 100% RE system is still found to be reliable and affordable.

Meanwhile, researchers at Stanford University have shown that all energy use in the USA, including transport and heat, could be supplied by renewable electricity. Their computer simulations use synthetic data on electricity demand, wind and sunshine taken every 30 seconds over a period of six years. Using synthetic data allows modellers to include big hypothetical fluctuations in the weather. Such sensitivity analysis strengthens the power and credibility of the models.

Strangely, some of the loudest critics of simulation modeling of electricity systems, a specialised field, have no qualifications in physical science, computer science, engineering or applied mathematics. In Australia they include two biologists, a social work academic and an occupational therapist.

Conclusion

Computer simulation models and growing practical experience suggest that electricity supply in many regions, and possibly the whole world, could transition to 100% renewable energy (RE). Most of the RE technologies are commercially available, affordable and environmentally sound. There is no fundamental technical or economic reason for delaying the transition.

The pro-nuclear and anti-RE myths disseminated by nuclear proponents and supporters of other vested interests do not stand up to examination. Given the political will, RE could be scaled up long before Generation 3 and 4 nuclear power stations could make a significant contribution to electricity supply.


 

References

Diesendorf M (2014) Sustainable Energy Solutions for Climate Change. London: Routledge and Sydney: NewSouth Publishing.

Diesendorf M (2016) Subjective judgments in the nuclear energy debate. Conservation Biology doi:10.1111/cobi.12692. (See the Supporting Information as well as the short article.)

Kerry, Senator J (1994) Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act, 1995. Congressional Record, 11 August.

Wymer RG et al. (1992) An Assessment of the Proliferation Potential and International Implications of the Proliferation Potential and International Implications of the Integral Fast Reactor. Martin Marietta K/IPT-511 (May); prepared for the Departments of State and Energy.

Reprinted with minor revisions, with permission, from The Ecologist.  

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  • Craig Allen

    To refute the myths about renewables we need examples of regions and municipalities that have successfully gone 100% renewable. Such as, for example, the proposal to do so on Kangaroo Island. As the examples pile up the naysayers will of course come up with excuses for why each is an exception that can’t be applied more widely. But eventually the evidence will be incontrovertible.

    • Ian

      Exactly right, actions speak louder than words. Besides, the experience gained in isolated minigrids can be scaled up and down. As the article states, nuclear is horrendous, no one has ever been able to permanently store nuclear waste. That in itself should be setting off alarm bells with such a technology.

  • Ken Dyer

    I have a quite chuckle when I read these articles. I subscribe to several newsletters, one of them being World Nuclear News, which reports on the industry. Whereas such newsletters devoted to RE such as this and Cleanrechnica are full of positive stories about successful implementation of RE projects whether they be wind or solar, in contrast the World Nuclear News contains a host of wistful and hopeful articles that nuclear boosters seize on and trumpet that nuclear will save the world. It wont.

  • Mike Ives

    I respectfully ask yet again Dr Diesendorf why the fissionphobia?. Let’s ensure 100% renewable works in the real world before we cross nuclear off the chart. We are likely to need to keep all options open to slay the carbon dragon. Tasmania is crying out for such a 100% RE project and you will be able to shut us variable RE skeptical types up once and for all. By the way nuclear LWR do load follow, especially BWRs. Also there is more than just LCOE to consider in regard to PV and CSP. How about EROI and LCA in an ever shrinking Carbon Budget world? PVs don’t look all that clever in that regard, yet at any rate

    • Barri Mundee

      What fission phobia? More like a devastatingly critical analysis of nuclear power. We can consider NP if and only if it is can be demonstrated that RE cannot deliver. So far that has not been demonstrated and RE is just getting into stride whereas NP is almost a moribund technology.

      • Mike Ives

        Well Barri I think your opening statement says it all. I have no desire to compete blow for blow being a tad moribund myself. All I would suggest is not to eliminate the nuclear option until we are certain the variable, low capacity factor REs will do the job. In the late 19th Century it is pretty certain folk would not want to scrap their old steam engine until they were certain Mr Rudolf Diesel’s engine was going to perform. Instead they may have decided to leave it in the shed just in case and may even find a need for both later depending on demand.

        Like the steam engine nuclear power has performed and clocked up 15,000 operating years in total. They have proved they have the grunt to replace fossil plants, one for one. Whereas the much a claimed base load Gemasolar CSP in Spain, which reportedly cost 230 million Euros and has so far managed a straight run of 36 continuous days of operation, would need to be scaled up dramatically and just to replace one brown coal fired station for instance Yallourn W, would occupy something like 173 square km of Victoria and at what cost!!

        Yes there have been deaths as Professor suggested. Expanding on Wikipedia’s records the total potential accidental deaths for the entire nuclear industry, power, medical, research and industrial since day one in the late 1940s will amount to less than 4,500. Most other electricity generation systems outperform this frightening score many times over unfortunately (Ref Economic Analysis of Various Options of Electricity Generation – Taking into Account Health and Environmental Effects” by Nils Starfelt and Carl-Erik Wikdahl). What the impact will be on global population if we don’t drastically curb carbon emissions is a very daunting thought to say the least.

        Meanwhile apart from the odd sparsely populated state over a short period of time, nowhere I know of has proven 100% RE electricity generation 24/7/365. Nor has anyone proven a Smart Grid to control their fickle variability. If any nation can it will be Germany but one of their solar institutes advises that due to Germany’s climate their 38 GW PV and 36 GW wind seldom offer more than 30 GW combined.

        Professor David Mackay of Cambridge University calculates that Britain would need to have a strip of the entire 3,000 km offshore coastline 4 km wide, saturated with wind generators to cater for Britain’s energy demand.

        Lets not cut off our noses… not yet anyway.

        • solarguy

          100% in Iceland! Prof Mackay’s calc’s smells like bullshit to me. Scotland has just closed it’s last coal fired plant, siting wind producing so much power and cheaper too!

          • Guest

            Prof. Mackay`s obvious fallacy is equating the amount of primary energy released by the burning of FFs with what it would take renewables to do the same job. The latter are all about final energy because their output is electricity that`s obtained without incurring in horrendous thermodynamic losses. Therefore, far less area would be actually required instead of what Prof. Mackay seems to imply in his self-proclaimed “unbiased” take on renewables “without the hot air”.

          • Mike Ives

            I think if you do your research solarguy Iceland has heaps of geothermal generation which is not variable like wind and solar and its there 24/7/365. Iceland fossil fuel consumption is mainly due to its huge fishing fleet

          • solarguy

            Well Mike, I have, Hydro 75.5% and the rest from Geothermal, which is of course renewable! Also, Uruguay is all but 100%, 94.5% from mainly Hydro and Wind.
            In countries such as ours 100% RE will come from the various solar technology’s and wind. Apart from that, Hydro won’t supply much more than it currently does.
            Storage for these technology’s is all it takes to become 100 % RE.

          • Mike Ives

            Sure wish I shared your confidence solarguy.

            Again why don’t we trial it (but somewhere more representative than King Island please) before we spend billions on a system mix that we find out does not cut the grid mustard, let alone provide most of the land transport energy electricity demand to replace biofuels as they have such poor return on energy stats?

            If Australia also had heaps of hydro and binary geothermal some of us would feel more comfortable.

            I agree with the CEO of Ergon Ian McLeod on the subject. Just in case you missed it…. in an answer to a RenewEconomy question in an interview November last year,

            ”Do you agree with the notion that we can completely decarbonise the grid” he responded

            “it’s possible for some grids with nuclear, geothermal and significant water resources but it would be very difficult to do it economically for Australia due to our dry and flat continent.”

            He went on to say “At the moment in regional Queensland we have 25 percent of detached houses with solar on the roof and they only produce around three percent of the energy that is consumed from the grid.” There are also similar international statistics.

            By the way we are proud owners of 3kW bank of PV at our home operating now for over 3 years with a capacity factor of just over 14%

          • solarguy

            Mike, I’m a PV system designer and I have training and experience in off grid and grid connect systems, so I’m talking from a qualified point of view, when I state the following.

            There are household out there, that run completely from solar, no grid power what so ever! Yes, they have back up genset’s, but they are hardly, if ever used. How do they manage to achieve this you ask.

            Simple, they have battery storage and a PV array, sized to provide the maximum possible yield on days of inclement weather and the battery is sized to give them 3-5 days complete autonomy as well.

            So ask yourself what is the difference between a radio controlled model aircraft and a 747. The answer is nothing, except the scale. The principles are same! “And so it is with RE systems”
            Trials are already taking place on 100% grids and it matters not the scale.

            On Ian McLeod, he doesn’t know any better. And as far as his statement of 25% solar on roofs only supplying 3% to the grid is simply explained. It’s because a lot of those systems are not big enough and some will be net metered were they use their solar first and then excess is exported.

            As for storage and Hydro, a lot of our coast line is sufficiently high enough to build birds nest dams and use solar and wind to pump sea water up to fill them and then dispatched when needed.

            Batteries aren’t the only form of storage we will use, the list goes like this: molten salt, compressed air, H2 and pumped hydro. Either of these will be chosen relative to their site economics. As generation source wind can be taped 24hrs fairly often and once again storage will give dispatchable supply.

            So yeah, I’m confident!

    • Chris Fraser

      Ever since Climate Spectator days it did appear there was a cultural divide between RE and Nukes. It probably existed even before that. The nuclear attacks did seem most unedifying.Could it be that RE, while starting from a position of technical disadvantage, caught up and eventually overwhelmed nukes ? An unattached observer would probably say this was a disappointment for those who jumped early on the other bandwagon.All that I read here indicates RE has become the best cost curve performer. It’s become accessible to more of us, scalable, efficient, and most importantly, found a niche in catering for stationary existing and developing load profiles and a replacement for fossil fuels.

      • Mike Ives

        Chris. I have nothing against variable REs per se. Just hoping they will fully replace fossil fuel entirely and within the dwindling carbon budget, including the 28% or so of primary energy used in transport….but with a big slice of cautious optimism…

    • Jens Stubbe

      100% renewable is not a challenge from a technical perspective and the economic challenge is also becoming less with fast progression. The main challenge is actually politically.

      EROI and LCA are not big concerns for solar as you seem to feel. Quite to the contrary solar have proved a really impressive development that has lowered energy consumption by reducing all kinds of materials input (including hazardous materials) and by increasing efficiency. The key reason behind the 80% price drop in solar over the last five years is simply that less materials is being used.

      As for Tasmania you have excellent wind resources and could vey easily build the capacity you need and use the excess electricity to produce Synfuels.

      Your beliefs that LWR and BWR load follow is only founded on technical evidence. The adverse effects of load following that stress nuclear power plants, diminish electricity conversion efficiency and hampers profits are the real world constraints that makes load following nuclear unreasonable.

      • Mike Ives

        Then please point to the references Jens on solar LCA, EROI. Maybe Argonne National Labs screwed up.

        • Jens Stubbe

          I would not know if Argonne Labs screwed up since you have chosen to post a claim with no reference.

          In this moment in time EROI is not the proper matrix to measure CO2 light energy by anyway. You need to analyze how soon the energy is returned not how much energy that will be returned at the end of lifetime.

          Here is someone who has taken the time to discuss the ridiculous EROI claims http://rameznaam.com/2015/06/04/whats-the-eroi-of-solar/

    • Mark Diesendorf

      It seems that Mike didn’t read the response to Myth 13 in my article. EROI is not a significant problem for wind and solar. It’s a bigger problem for nuclear, especially when it has to mine and mill low-grade uranium ore. Some of the references to energy payback periods and EROI, which is a closely related parameter, are given in my book ‘Sustainable Energy Solutions for Climate Change’.

  • I am an admin of a R.E. Facebook page with 22K+ likes and we constantly get fans of the atom jumping in with combinations and permutations of all these myths. While the info to counter these wrongly banged drums can be found in various corners of the web, thanks for bringing it all together in one place with references. We already send a lot of traffic your way because of the great articles and analysis, but this is another very helpful article and is bookmarked and ready to reference in future. Thanks heaps.

  • Jens Stubbe

    India no longer have a Thorium program. Norway and USA has however just launched approved fuel rods based upon Thorium for standard nuclear power plants. The key advantages are that due to Thoriums much better thermal conductivity the fuel rod transfer more heat and you can upgrade the output from the nuclear power plant while keeping the core temperature lower. Thorium transmute into U233 and the cycle lasts longer so you change fuel with longer intervals and the resulting pile of nuclear waste is smaller. Also with better thermal conductivity the load following ability rises. The reduction in cost per kWh is however rather negligible.

    If you want to be fair then Nuclear has lowered fuel cost, increased utilization and is now diminishing mining because Thorium is already stockpiled. We are not about to see any shortage of nuclear fuel anytime soon if ever. The SILEX process invented in Australia might also contribute. So nuclear will be outcompeted purely on economics.

    Denmark is not close to average electricity cost in Europe. By contrast we have nearly the cheapest electricity in Europe. The taxation is designed to keep the large central thermal power plants alive. The current energy minister served as CEO of a fossil lobbyist organization until he took office and the minority government that he is a member of is the same that lifted Lomborg into fame.

    The average wind power PPA in USA per 2014 was $0.035/kWh unsubsidized and a lot of the other wind cost quoted in the article is definitively too high and/or cherry picked too high, which I really do not get if the author as is evident is pro renewable.

  • George Michaelson

    Why is the social phobia against nuke dumps in non residential marginally used lands more acceptable than the social phobia against windmills? I believe neither is justified and so equating the socialized opposition to post use nuclear waste as insurmountable begs questions. I’m not bagging tribal rights here, I think aboriginal communities are entitled to demand a say, but socialized waste issues can transcend local opposition just as socialized RP needs transcend infrasound opposition.

    I don’t dispute other aspects of your article because I am not competent to judge. I wish NP and RP got equal mindshare. I appreciate that RP is given short shrift and grossly inadequate research funds but I wish that didn’t lead to oppositional postures on the 3, 3+ and 4th gen technology, many of those cost overruns are a function of a broken capital investment cycle which affects all centrally planned investment. Roads and tunnels overrun budget as does military spending. The attraction of the declining costs in RP are clear BTW, in many ways they’re the go-to solution but I think you’re over egging the nuclear opposition, especially citing Chernobyl excess death stats. If you have evidence to show 60,000+ which make it unquestionable, put it up. Your refs go to Greenpeace which is a little unfortunate given your claim there is no obvious bias in this source. You dispute that lower figures because it’s poacher-turned-gamekeeper but the same applies to the upper side counts.

    • Ivan Quail

      Ivan Quail
      Chernobyl Heart

      The heart is one of the organs most vulnerable to the effects of radiation, and every year, 6,000 children in the Ukraine are born with genetic heart diseases and defects. One of these defects is the deadly condition known as “Chernobyl Heart.” This is a defect in the heart of children caused by radiation from Chernobyl, and it causes physical holes in the heart of the child, along with a host of other issues.

      Over 68% of all deaths in Ukraine are due to cardiovascular disease alone and more than 50% of children are not operated on because of lack of facilities and training. Ukraine has an under-five mortality rate of 15%, by comparison to 5% in the UK, and this has been attributed mainly to congenital heart diseases.

      Only half of affected children will receive the surgeries that they need to survive: the rest will die within three to five years.

      CCI manages and delivers a world-recognised Cardiac Programme that has saved the lives of thousands of children. In collaboration with the American cardiac surgeon Dr. William Novick, CCI has reduced a waiting list for cardiac surgeries in Belarus from 7,000 to less than 2,500 children in just five years.

      Volunteer surgical teams travel throughout the Ukraine and Belarus to perform surgeries that save lives

      – See more at: http://www.chernobyl-international.com/programmes/medical-programmes-projects/cardiac-mission#sthash.sOmZLO3T.dpuf

      • George Michaelson

        the UK rate of congenital heart defect is as high as 1 in 100. 6,000 kids born per year with CHD would equate to a birth rate of 600,000 at that rate of 1 in 100. Demographics websites say the birth rate is around 9/thousand, with a population of 40m, thats around 360,000 births/year. So the rate is high, but not double. How do you attribute this solely to chernobyl pollution, across the entire country? Its equally likely to be due to pollution from industry, groundwater &c.

        Belarus is not Ukraine btw. If they too have a sustained high CHD rate, again, I ask myself why this is ascribed to Chernobyl?

        I have no doubt some of this is truly caused by the awful effects of the radiation leak, and its social dislocation, but some is also due to the economic conditions people are living in which don’t directly relate to chernobyl.

        Yet again, I find myself wondering if the high-side figures people quote as consequential on radiation are misunderstood?

      • Seeing this kind of phenomenon is distressing, of course. To address it properly, George Michaelson’s comment takes the right approach – to save lives and save people from conditions such as this, public health requires statistics and hard-nosed analysis.

        I also question Chernobyl’s relevance. It was an insane design without containment, completely unlike modern reactors (and IIUC, unlike reactors of its own era from outside the USSR).

    • neroden

      Nuclear waste is toxic. The social phobia against leaded gasoline and against lead in general is, if anything, not nearly strong ENOUGH. The social phobia against nuclear waste dumps is about right.

  • solarguy

    Mark, Thank you for a wonderful, in depth and informative article. The climate change, RE deniers, and Nuke fans, are often one and the same. The misinformation these people perpetuate in the media is difficult to counter, which gives them some creditability to the audience, who wish to believe them, because they won’t research the deniers claims and or, are of the weak head variety.
    Well known proponents of climate change denial and RE deniers, Anthony Cox and Lord Monkton, who isn’t actually a member of the house of Lords, sound convincing in their lies, promoting themselves as experts, but are only experts at baffling brains with bullshit.
    And thank you for giving us all, the ammunition to counter these cons, financed by the FF industry.
    Cheers

  • Pfitzy

    I’m not anti-nuke by any means. As a sci-fi fan, it is often represented as one of the main ways to undertake space travel, support planetary habitats, and keep things running for years or decades without input.

    This article is fairly compelling reading, but just as many pro-nuke articles (or Twitter users) are ready to fire back with their own set of cases, particularly using France as a beacon of enlightenment for existing nuclear, and China as the new kid on the block.

    The issue is I keep coming back to Australia, and whether nuclear is right for us.

    Particularly when you consider how many GW (over 10 by my count) we’ve added for solar alone in the last 5 years, for the same sort of cost as a single nuclear power plant which might add 3-4GW.

    And of course, nuclear is still reliant on poles and wires, while the obvious trend with storage is to form micro-grids and distributed networks of renewables to lower the infrastructure costs – something not mentioned in the article at all.

    • I find the France case a pretty compelling argument for nuclear being a feasible option – the most successful case of decarbonisation in the world, as I understand it.

      > the obvious trend with storage is to form micro-grids and distributed networks of renewables to lower the infrastructure costs

      It’s a trend, sure, but *if* we had centralised, reliable, low carbon energy, how important would this trend seem?

      • Chris Fraser

        Does it boil down to the question of whether to have either centralised or distributed systems ? Probably more holistic to have hybrids of both. All grids start as centralised because you start with a generator. But effective grids do evolve and merge with others.

        • Pfitzy

          I think the existing underground urban networks are fine. The overhead suburban networks could use replacing.

          But rural communities and individuals would be better off with solar + wind and storage, as well as localised solar thermal.

      • Pfitzy

        But we don’t. So the trend has a higher probability than the *if* right now 🙂

        I’m sure if the government had made the decision to build perfectly safe nuclear plants nationwide back in the 90s, we’d be laughing, given the amount of uranium just waiting in the ground. We would still need something to help with peak load, and still need to distribute it.

        Cost of poles and wires should be fairly minimal compared to the couple of billion required for each power station. Yet, something in the order of $45 billion has been spent on infrastructure – a percentage of it unjustified – in the last ten years, and as a result we still pay more for electricity than just about anywhere in the world.

        I think nuclear in Australia has missed it’s window. The battle for money now is in renewables R&D for solar thermal, planning am exit from coal as a priority, and parachuting microgrids into rural communities who suffer out at the end if the chain.

  • The tipping point where re is the dominant form of electricity generation is not far off – nuclear may be seen as quaint but more dangerous than the horse and cart in just a short time. Thanks Mark for the talking points on the many distractions to growing the investment in re.