NUCLEAR, RENEWABLES, OR BOTH?
By Barry Brook, 29th May 3:00 PM
I’ve long been interested in sustainable energy systems. In 2008 I co-wrote a popular book on nuclear energy, have authored lots of data/modelling refereed papers on energy systems, and used to run a popular blog on climate and energy which ended up getting over 5 million hits during its lifetime. You might have noticed that I don’t talk about energy all that much these days, mainly because I’ve tired of the public debate and instead concentrated my focus on conservation biology.
But I occasionally still dip my toe in the murky waters of the debate. Recently, Robyn Williams, host of ABC radio national’s The Science Show, was down in Hobart and interviewed me on the topic. Below is a transcript. You can also listen to it (go here), my section starts at the 11 min 46 second mark. By the way, the preamble rant by Helen Caldicott to start the segment is a nuclear-powered version of Gish Gallop, so listen with due scepticism. If you have any specific questions, post them below (or, for those in my research group, come and ask me, or slack it on random!).
Robyn Williams: Professor Barry Brook at the University of Tasmania in Hobart has long supported the nuclear option. But even he says it’s a long way off.
Barry Brook: I think there’s a good chance that nuclear is an option in the long-term, but not in the short-term in Australia, simply because time taken to prepare the ground, not just physically for the infrastructure but in terms of getting public support and political support, is a long-term goal and probably more than a decade away at least.
Robyn Williams: But do you think in terms of climate change and doing its bit there as part of a number of different sorts of responses that it has a place?
Barry Brook: Yes, I think so, definitely, because it provides a zero carbon alternative to coal. And what the renewable energy sources like solar and wind don’t offer is that baseload electricity which is sometimes dismissed as being irrelevant but it is really important and provides a stable underpinning to the grid. So I think that is nuclear’s role. Whether it can do more than that or not is really a matter of politics and economics. It certainly could do the whole job but it could also work as part of an energy mix quite effectively.
Robyn Williams: Are there two sorts of nuclear power station now after Chernobyl, which is terribly old-fashioned and weird, and Fukushima, and Sellafield, which again was pretty ancient?
Barry Brook: Those reactors you mention were actually quite diverse. Chernobyl was a very different reactor to Fukushima, for example. The ones that are built today or even in the 1970s, I mean, Western countries were called light-water reactors, there is also heavy-water reactors that are popular in places like India and Canada. I think the more useful distinction today is between large monolithic reactors and small modular reactors, the latter being an alternative that could be much cheaper, certainly per power plant because they are much smaller and therefore potentially faster to deploy, and could be more convenient because instead of requiring a grid load of many gigawatts, you only need perhaps a few hundred megawatts or even less. And so they are feasible in a much wider range of circumstances.
Robyn Williams: Wouldn’t you need an awful lot of them in a biggish country like Australia?
Barry Brook: Yes but you could also argue you’d need an awful lot of wind turbines or solar panels. So the smaller the output of a single generating unit, the more you are obviously going to need. But you can quite reasonably concentrate these modules, as they’re known, in power parks. So, for example, you could develop the infrastructure to house a dozen or even 50 of these modules at a single power park to produce large amounts of electricity from a single site if that is what’s desired. A key advantage of them over a large plant is that as soon as you start to install modules they can generate electricity, whereas you’ve got to build the whole plant for a large one before anything comes out of it, so that delay can be a decade or more until you’ve got electricity, where, at least in theory, the small modular reactors could be built and dropped into site, taken from factories through a rail system to the site extremely rapidly.
Robyn Williams: And what do they cost? Can we afford them?
Barry Brook: Well, they are probably cost competitive with coal. However, that’s untested. Small modular reactors have been used for many decades in the military where cost wasn’t a particular consideration. But developing a commercial one that could be built in a factory and rolled out to customers is something that a number of vendors are pursuing but no one has got there yet. The closest is a company called NuScale in the US which are going through licensing with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as we speak. And should they complete that, then they could well be the first to market, and their goal is to have it cheaper than coal, and that remains to be seen. But if that was the case then that would become I think a very attractive option for a country like Australia to import.
Robyn Williams: And what if you’re a villain, what if you’re a terrorist and you want to blow them up, what would be the effect?
Barry Brook: Well, it would be very difficult to not only penetrate the perimeter of one of these power plants and get to the reactor but also to overcome the inherent safety systems that are built into them. An advantage of small modular reactors is there are a lot of principles of physics that you can bring to bear to make them inherently safe rather than safe due to engineered systems. So it can be very difficult to disrupt. Another advantage of small reactors are they can be buried underground, so if you imagine almost like a concrete bunker and a terrorist having to try and penetrate those would have an extremely difficult job. Terrorists have never been able to penetrate any old nuclear reactor, nuclear power plant to blow it up, and these would be much more difficult than that, so it seems an unlikely proposition.
Robyn Williams: As we said, you said in the beginning that the interest is just at the moment in Australian politics and society not very great. We’ve got Mark Latham wanting them. Scott Morrison has said it’s not part of Liberal Party policy. So do you wish it were acceptable more in a political sense?
Barry Brook: Yes, I do wish it was more acceptable. I think the only way nuclear will end up getting built in Australia is if you have bipartisan support. That doesn’t mean to say you’ll get the support of all parties, but really all you need is Labor and the coalition to jointly agree that this is a reasonable investment in Australia’s future energy infrastructure and then it can happen. But I think that decision would have to be catalysed by a number of other events that haven’t yet occurred, and the biggest of those will be if you can’t build new coal fired power stations because of public outcry, and that seems probable. If the cost of gas goes up such that they are infeasible for providing baseload electricity. And if the combination of large-scale renewables, principally wind and solar, along with some form of effective energy storage proves to be economically or socially or environmentally unacceptable, coupled with an increasing threat of climate change and potentially more impacts, more extreme events and so forth, that combination could lead the Australian political landscape to change enough to support I think some joint venture maybe between government and industry to build a future generation of nuclear power plants here. But again, in that framing it’s more likely to be a 10- or 20-year prospect before there is any excavation or concrete poured on such a project.
Robyn Williams: Barry Brook is a professor at the University of Tasmania in Hobart.