Last week, the Royal Society published two papers on the sustainable carrying capacity of New Zealand. I’ve been working on these for a while but, as ever, I don’t feel like I authored them. Instead, they’re a consolidation of discussions with experts, reviewed by yet more experts. There’s a huge list of names of the back of them, go see.
The papers are asking the question of how many people can New Zealand support and copiously failing to give a simple answer, but that’s ok, coz this stuff is hard. For instance, here’s some of the press about the papers:
Kiwis take more than a fair share – NZ Herald
Less television, more gardening suggested – Otago Daily Times
Both those articles miss the point, or rather they are casting about for a simple message – that we’re overshooting the planet’s capability to support us. There’s a bunch of issues with that simple message, which I’ll get around to describing another time, but the primary one is that we know we’re in overshoot, we’ve known that for really quite some time, and saying it again isn’t going to change that.
We know that, so let’s think a bit harder
Despite my previous bitching, the nuclear industry does have a track record of delivering low-carbon electricity, at a scale so far unmatched by renewables. Given that climate change is going to hurt, given the absolute imperatives for rich nations to cut their carbon emissions by 80%, then any source of low-carbon electricity is needed. So despite my concerns, there still needs to be an ongoing discussion of whether nuclear power can help us. So, here’s where we have to get away from abstract arguments and talk about what nuclear options we do have, how much of a difference to emissions nuclear power can make, and at what cost.
I’ve raised abstract arguments against a resurgence of the nuclear power industry at a global level, but this industry is not global, it is fundamentally set of national industries. (How the industry got like that is a fascinating tale, for another day, but mostly it’s down to individual nations wanting to have their own capacity to make their own bombs.) Which nations are we talking about, and how well do I expect those industries to progress? We’ve seen today the Italians vote 95% in favour of rejecting nuclear power (although that 95% is also driven by Italians rejecting water privatisation and Italians rejecting Berlusconi).
We’ve also seen the Germans turn away from nuclear power, possibly after a long hard look at just how far over budget the new European generation III reactor has run. Then again, China is wanting to get from thirteen reactors to a hundred reactors by 2020 (or they were, before Fukushima). Every nation is different, but I’ll just discuss the US and the UK.
The US – Regulatory capture FTL:
How radioactivity damages your health, or maybe doesn’t:
Why can’t we agree on how many people were killed by the accident at the Chernobyl reactor? We’re not arguing over a narrow range here, we’re arguing about widely disparate numbers. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation states the number of deaths from the radiation to be 62, the International Atomic Energy Agency predicts the number at 4000, Greenpeace put the number at between 100,000-300,000, and there’s a in-depth review by Russian scientists that puts the number at a million. So we’re not arguing plus or minus a few here, we’re talking four orders of magnitude here. So what gives?
Ah, thorium. Thorium will power the future, resulting in endless electricity for all… oh wait, or was that fusion power? Anyway, every man and his dog seems to be pushing to use thorium, instead of uranium or plutonium, with a seemingly endless stream of articles about how great it’s going to be. Apparently, it’s safer, more economic, it will never run out, and you can’t make bombs of out. Sadly, I think this is mostly hype.
There have been experimental reactors fueled by thorium, there will be more, but large scale, commercially viable reactors? In less than ten years? No chance.
Thorium “can’t be used to make an atomic bomb”
Thorium “can’t be used for making bombs”
“You CAN’T make bombs from thorium reactor fuels or wastes”
Wrong. We have made bombs from thorium. Bombs, again
Every technology starts by being too expensive. The production costs of solar cells started at US$250 per Watt, back in the 1950s, then $65 per Watt in 1976, and now they’re pushing $1.4 per Watt. Why?
Short innovation cycles:
People keep asking me about nuclear power. This might be down to living in NZ, where people who know anything about it are few and far between. Or it might be because they pay me to think about energy systems. I put together the Royal Society of New Zealand’s energy report in 2006 (although I’m speaking purely for myself here). And I have worked with a whole bunch of researchers who worked in the UK nuclear industry. And I don’t work for anyone who’s trying to sell you anything. So, here’s my quick thots, rather than an in-depth, months of research kind of analysis that you’d normally pay me a decent wage for. And it’s going to look like this:
1) What’s the issue
2) What’s wrong with nuclear power from a technological point of view
3) What’s wrong with nuclear power from a economic point of view
4) Why thorium isn’t as easy as you’ve been told
5) What’s wrong with nuclear power – in a real sense and why none of this matters to New Zealand
6) Why the UK has some hard choices to make
It turns out I’ve a fair amount to say on this topic, but the TL;DR version comes down to this: The Trojan nuclear power plant in Oregon was designed with potentially-explosive tanks of hydrogen mounted on the roof of the control room. How anyone ever thought that was a good idea, I’m baffled. But hey, given that the nuclear industry is so highly regulated and committed to safety, you’d think that someone would have spotted that little design flaw before building the plant, right? Wrong. You’d think that someone would have checked this before connecting the plant to the grid and turning it on? Wrong. In fact, it ran for thirteen years before anyone noticed, at which point I expect some harsh language was used.
Getting over technophilia and recognising how multifaceted this is:
“Warm homes: Drivers of the demand for heating in the residential sector in New Zealand”, Philippa Howden-Chapman, et al, Energy Policy, 37 (2009), pp 3387-3399
New Zealand houses are cold and damp. This kills about 1,500 people per year.
We’ve a $300 million government scheme to insulate houses, open to all but with additional funding for low-income households. The push for this scheme was originally about saving power, but NZ homes are so cold that people seem to take the benefits as higher indoor temperatures. They
continue to buy about the same amount of energy for heating but live in healthier, warmer, drier homes.
There’s still a saving of 10-15% on energy use, but the main benefits of insulation are less people dying or getting sick. Whether that social benefit will pay back the $300 million investment, we don’t yet know, but it’s looking pretty good so far…
“The feasibility of long range battery electric cars in New Zealand”, Mike Duke, et al, Energy Policy, 37 (2009), pp 3355-3462
In summary: Ffs, just get on with it.
“System-level energy efficiency is the greatest barrier to development of the hydrogen economy”, Shannon Page, et al, Energy Policy, 37 (2009), pp 3325-3335
“In the wonderful future, all our cars will run on hydrogen” – as said by approximately every futurist for about thirty years. So where is this hydrogen economy then?
Hydrogen is an energy carrier, like electricity. You have to put energy in to make it, and then you get energy out at the other end, from fuel cells that make electricity to turn motors. Fuel cells are clean, therefore hydrogen is clean, right?
“Carbon capture and storage: Fundamental thermodynamics and current technology”, Shannon Page, et al, Energy Policy, 37 (2009), pp 3314-3324
New Zealand’s energy system is pretty unique. We’re isolated and can’t trade electricity with anyone else, we’ve got more hydro than nearly anyone else, geothermal’s big here, and we’ve vast amounts of coal that we’ve yet to dig up. Oh, and governments that have varied between big state projects and market fundamentalism.
So it’s no surprise that there’s lots of research on our energy system. In fact, there’s a special issue of a journal called Energy Policy devoted to NZ (September 2009 issue). I’m reading through this, as the work tails off from my current project (Project “Jump into the Firing Line”). I’ll be looking at a couple of the articles in detail, as they’re fairly key to where NZ can go with energy (and they’re not online for free, so it’s not like many people can just go and read them).
First, carbon capture and storage. The glorious future of clean coal