Can we have nuclear power without bipartisan support?

The key sticking factor in developing a nuclear industry would seem to be the political risk. Would any company take on the risk of building a nuclear power plant while the likely alternate government is opposed to the plan?

With a construction lead time of 10-15 years, this is likely to encompass at least one change of government, and a likely 2 full rotations of the senate. Without significant financial guarantees it is difficult to see why any company would take on the risk of having a billion dollar venture, with a high likelihood of crashing down on change of government. As the report summary states on page 10:

An efficient and predictable regulatory process is an essential prerequisite for a nuclear power
industry. With its high capital costs, nuclear power is very sensitive to delays and uncertainty in obtaining approvals.

While this is mostly talking about governments altering the requirements, an opposition hostile to the very idea would seem to pose an even greater risk. This means the government initiating the deal would essentially need to tie some sort of financial guarantee into the project. While a policy reversal for the ALP once construction has begun would not be out of the question, the chance that they may decide to roll back these changes as well makes it a very risky regulatory environment.

Personally I think this is a shame, as we should have all options on the table to reduce CO2 emissions and nuclear is still one of the few viable base load power sources.

Update: Of course the political risk is not only federal but also regional, with several States already coming out and saying they would fight it in the courts, although given the recent WorkChoices decision it appears unlikley they would win according to this report.

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25 Responses to Can we have nuclear power without bipartisan support?

  1. Steven Noble says:

    I keep hearing/reading that “renewables can’t do baseload” but I’ve never seen any numbers to support the claim. Is it fact or fiction?

  2. Steve says:

    Its not really about the numbers its about the fact that most renewable systems can’t provide power whenever you need it.

    Without efficient storage (which doesn’t exist), solar certainly can’t. Wind can start to get somewhere near it if its broadly distributed enough. Tidal suffers similar problems. So with enough varied sources you can get some mimicing of base load, but likely to be accompanied by massive over supply of resources.

    Of current renewables hydro is the only really reliable baseload but that is limited in Australia, although geothermal has promise but is as yet unrealised.

  3. ozrisk says:

    Steve,
    You could use a renewable source to pump water to a dam feeding a hydro plant which then does the base load. This would be inefficient, however, as you are coverting the renewable into energy to pump the water and then through a hydro plant, with each conversion costing you a fair percentage of the power. In a non-fossil fueled world, though the choice is really between this method and nuclear, AFAIK.

  4. Steve says:

    Yes, I agree. The pumping would lose you heaps of energy, not to mention the regeneration. Its not impossible, but just very inefficient. Hydro and nuclear, (and in a few places surface geothermal) are the only non-co2 baseload suppliers.

    Of course there are plenty of uses for non-baseload power, you just need both.

  5. Sacha says:

    I asked Ian lowe at a recent public talk about this, and he said that a 1992 report from the fed. govt. had said that having renewable energy generators (eg windfarms) across the Australian continent would give you baseload power. I don’t know if this would in fact give you baseload power.

    Bring on the fusion reactors, or the fission reactors that have very little waste!

  6. Steve says:

    Yeah, wide enough distributed wind gets something like baseload, but you have to have bucket loads of excess capacity to achieve it as I understand.

  7. ozrisk says:

    Steve,
    You would also have a lot of dead parrots.

  8. Sacha says:

    Something that I’ve never heard mentioned, probably because practically it’s too difficult to do or people don’t want to do it, is for people to adjust their electricity demand to the supply rather than the converse. In principle it could be done but it’s probably seen as undesireable.

  9. yobbo says:

    That’s why we have a price system. Pity the government doesn’t make use of it.

  10. Steve says:

    Sacha we do do it to some extent. That is why we have off peak water heaters etc.
    As a friend has pointed out this exagerates the baseload usage, when in reality they could be matched to the peak generation if they are connected to the wholesale spot price.

    Yobbo the wholesale electricity market is extremely volatile, with prices varying rapidly on the scale of seconds even occasionally into negative territory at times, as its cheaper to pay someoene to take your power than to shut down and start up your coal fired plant. In this environment its pretty hard for people to effectively match their usage to price signals, however, with increasing use of electronics it should be possible to get household non-peak usage, such as water heaters mentioned above to more effectively match to demand and potentially reduce costs all around.

  11. Sacha says:

    Ah yes. I was thinking of people literally changing their electricity use according to whether it was available or not.

  12. ozrisk says:

    Steve,
    I had always wanted to use that line in a blog comment, but, other than pining for fjords, I was referring to this.
    The other peculiarity, in WA at least, is that baseload actually produces more CO2 than peaking power, for the simple reason that baseload here is coal and the peaks are covered by gas. So, if you are worried abot CO2 you really should try to increase peak usage and drop the baseload. Silly.
    .
    Sacha, It will always be available, it is just a question of whether you wish to pay the price.

  13. jo says:

    if excess capacity collected by renewables is just released back into the wild – what is the problem? does it matter if there are excess solar panels collecting energy….if they manufactured to last more than 5 minutes, what is problem – as they dont cost anything to run other than R&M.

    without the requirement to feed solar with extracted, refined and transported minerals, what does it matter if they collect excess capacity over demand?

    the roi is much much shorter surely… and the on-going environmental footprint is so much kinder than nuclear. would a high-end solar collector on every roof in australia, feeding back into the grid through your meter, cover base load? or how many fricking collectors does it take?

  14. Steve says:

    jo, what are we going to do at night? I mean solar is great for peak day usage for things like powering air conditioning which are likely to get peak usage whe solar is strongest, and also for things like hot water heating ie storable things, but its less useful for say heating homes at night in winter or lighting. It has its role but unlike wind where we may reasonably expect it to be blowing somewhere across the country if we have enough windmills, the sun shines for roughtly half the day everywhere in the country at approximately the same time.

  15. jo says:

    thanks steve…

    so why cant we use all excess collected in the daytime (which there would be) to do the dam thing with the water…. and then run it down the hill at night? and back up in the daytime etc?

    & surely tidal is regular as clockwork. it’s all a bit sci-fi in the drawings, but nuclear is so much more complicated, and if “we” learnt how to build nuclear power stations fifty years ago, and we pump out oil from huge depths in the ocean, and we are spending millions to reseach stuffing CO2 gases back into empty gas and coal reserves etc – you’d think some tidal thing, should be a doddle, if the will was actually there from the big end of town.

  16. Steve says:

    Yeah, you can do that but the pumping and regeneration loses I think over half your energy. Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it but it means that the excess is less valuable.

    There are plans for various tidal schemes, as well as wave energy some are already in use. The wikipedia page can tell you more than I know.

    The issue with most of these renewable schemes is that the power is more expensive compared to coal and gas once you include capital costs (this is a particular issue with solar where it is virtually all the cost). Nuclear also being more expensive. It will come down over time but currently is more expensive. As plenty of people including myself have said we should introduce either a kyoto style cap and trade, or a carbon tax which would then make the CO2 producing sources more expensive. It would also expose hidden CO2 costs in other things, which the sort of winner picking schemes that our govt seems to prefer don’t do.

  17. Steve says:

    I’d also mention I understand that solar compares badly to other renewables like wind as well.

  18. jo says:

    steve, do you think BHPB’s expansion plans for olympic might have something to do with ratty’s new found love affair with the atom? the plans are truly olympian – a million tonnes of overburden per day for 4 years to just establish the pit.

    it will be the no 1 – uranium mine in the world , 4th largest copper mine, 10th largest gold mine and a v. big silver mine ALL in one place.

    as per that 4 corners expose – our energy policy is written by executives and lobbyists from inside the coal, uranium, cement, petroleum, electricity, aluminium industries.

    the game is fixed surely, by vested interest and level playing fields are for chumps – – they’ll have to put in a nuke station to power the desalination plant, to mine the minerals….. to put in the nuke station etc.

  19. Steve says:

    Mostly I think it has to do with the prices for the raw materials being high, and the discovery that the Olympic dam oreboady is much greater than previously suspected.

    In my opinion Howards push for nukes is a cynical way of being seen to do something about nuclear power, while still running the line that they aren’t going to do anything to harm Australian industries, rather they are going to build a shiny new one.

    I have nothing particularly against nuclear power, if it was the cheapest way to reduce greenhouse gases I’d be all for it as in my opinion the safety risks and waste storage issues are small to the risks posed by greenhouse gases. I’m concerned though that it is not the cheapest way to do so.

  20. Steve says:

    AS to the point regarding power for olympic dam etc, Geothermal hot rocks may be able to do it. See here for example

  21. Steve says:

    To correct waht I said in an earlier comment, Hydro storage is much more efficient than I stated around 70-85%, not less than 50%. The only issue is that if it is purpose built it has high capital costs. Wikipedia as usual has a decent first cut summary of the issues.

  22. Steven Noble says:

    This raises an interesting question. Could stored hydroelectric power serve another environmental purpose, in addition to helping renewables adderss baseload demand.

    Specifically, I thinking about the fact that many Australians seem reluctant to drink directly recycled water, though of us of course most of already water that has been treated, discharged into a river, and harvested downstream for consumption.

    Likewise, if water was pumped upstream, could it restore environmental flows before providing power and drinking water downstream? I thinking probably not as dams tend to raise upstream water levels, not lower them, but correct me if I’m wrong.

  23. Steven Noble says:

    What a garbled mess! Here is my comment after a proofread:

    This raises an interesting question. Could stored hydroelectric power serve another environmental purpose, in addition to helping renewables to address baseload demand.

    Specifically, I am thinking about the fact that many Australians seem reluctant to drink directly recycled water. Meanwhile, most of us already drink water that has been treated, discharged into a river, and harvested downstream for consumption. Could pumping treated water upstream both store electricity and support recycling?

    Likewise, if water was pumped upstream, could it restore environmental flows? On this question, I am thinking probably not, as dams tend to raise upstream water levels, not lower them. Correct me if I’m wrong.

  24. Steven, it’s a matter of the amount of energy you could store this way. Short answer – not very much compared to Australia’s total energy needs.

    Jo, there is no great conspiracy about solar. It’s just too expensive – much dearer than wind, for example. And BHP’s plans for Olympic Dam have nothing to do with what Australia does with nuclear power. It’s got to do with the price of the commodities they mine there. In the case of uranium, it’s booming because the demand is slowly increasing, and the supply is dropping (because the Russians and the USA have mostly gotten rid of their surplus stocks of nuclear bombs).

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