Climate change

June 28, 2010

Take real action on climate change – Part 2 – the FAQ

This post follows on directly from part 1, which you can read here. Here, a list of frequently asked questions (FAQ) on climate change and nuclear energy are answered. These are quite deliberately not technical – you won’t find explanations of adiabatic lapse rates, actinide isotopes or Brayton cycle efficiency here! Nope… these are ‘big picture’ questions. I hope you find them stimulating, easy to understand, and appropriate to their target audience – the average ‘Joe’ and ‘Josephine’. Once again, this material was authored primarily by Marion Brook, in collaboration with various other commenters. Thanks to you all for your efforts in developing this everyman’s guide.

We hope to add to this list, and refine the answers (these are very much first drafts, and some certainly need a little filling out). Eventually, I hope that this becomes a pamphlet for you to distribute among friends and colleagues. So, feedback is very welcome – let’s work together on this.

Q1. How urgent is it to address climate change?

Q2. Why do we need nuclear power? Won’t renewables provide our needs?

Q3. We need to act fast, aren’t renewables the fastest response?

Q4. Aren’t renewables the most affordable option?

Q5. What about storing excess energy for later use?

Q6. Isn’t it more important for us to scale down our energy requirements through energy efficiency and conservation?

Q7. Aren’t renewables our safest option?

Q8. Is nuclear energy fast enough?

Q9. What about meltdowns? Is nuclear energy safe?

Q10. What about radiation?

Q11. Is nuclear energy expensive?

Q12. What about the waste?

Q13. What about nuclear weapons proliferation?

Q14. Wouldn’t a nuclear power station be a terrorist target?

Q15. Is there enough uranium?

Q16. Does nuclear emit more CO2 than renewables?

Q17. Isn’t the nuclear lobby in bed with the coal lobby?

Q18. But… isn’t nuclear power evil?

FAQ

Q1. How urgent is it to address climate change?

Increasingly urgent. The longer we delay on the move away from fossil fuel energy sources, the more we will ‘lock in’ the build-up of long-lived greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.

To have a 50:50 chance of avoiding 2°C or more global warming, carbon emissions must be slashed by around 80% by 2050 and essentially eliminated in the few decades after that. It will take time to make this massive, worldwide transition to new energy sources. We have no time to lose!

Q2.Why do we need nuclear power? Won’t renewables provide our needs?

No. Renewables are very expensive and cannot meet our needs all the time (see below).

Q3. We need to act fast, aren’t renewables the fastest response?

Unfortunately, renewables are proving to be slow and ineffective. For the last 20 odd years, Denmark has been aggressively pursuing wind power, yet it still still only supplies between 5% and 20% of their electricity needs.

In twenty years the Danes have been unable to replace a single coal fired power station with renewables.

At 650 g CO2 per kilowatt hour, Denmark’s emissions are more than 7 times greater than nuclear-powered France. And remember, no country has done better with wind then Denmark.

Conversely, in just ten years, France almost completely replaced their old coal-fired power stations with 34 nuclear power plants. Nuclear power currently supplies 77% of electricity to the French grid.

As a result France now has the lowest emissions from electricity generation of any non-hydro developed nation in the OECD, at just 90g CO2 per kilowatt hour of electricity.

For more details, read Danish fairy tales – what can we learn? (by Tom Blees)

Q4. Aren’t renewables the most affordable option?

No. Effectively replacing just one coal power station involves  a massive overbuild at huge costs.

Australia’s largest wind farm is the 192 MWe Waubra plant at $450 million. To match the nameplate capacity of Hazelwood (1675 MWe) we need 8 of these wind farms (or solar equivalent) spread across state. That’s $3.6 billion. But because weather can vary across the state, this variability means wind and solar combined produce at best only about a quarter of their capacity. So we quadruple our first calculation and blanket the state in 24 Waubras at $14.4 billion. But, wind can also drop off over huge areas. To account for this we need to spread another 24 Waubras interstate. $28.8 billion and we’ve lost our energy independence right there. Theory is, when our wind and solar are out, NSW should be operating and vice versa. Assuming the whole of NSW is experiencing ideal conditions and doesn’t need the power themselves (big assumptions), they should sell it to us. Then there’s transmission lines, more $, and transmission loss, more MW… and so it goes on. Or, we could replace it with one nuclear power plant at a quarter or less of the cost. Old power station out, new power station in, MWe for MWe.

Replacing Hazelwood coal-fired power station – Critique of Environment Victoria report

The 100% renewable option is neither fast nor affordable.

[R]enewable sources tend to be alternative rather than additive. Therefore it is not a matter of having each renewable source carrying a fraction of the load all the time. If we build one unit of wind power and one unit of PV power we would not necessarily have two more units of renewable energy capacity; sometimes we would have no more, e.g., on calm nights. This means we might have to build two or even four separate systems (wind, PV, solar thermal and coal [or]nuclear) each capable of meeting much or all of the demand on its own, with the equivalent of one to three sitting idle much or all of the time.

Ted Trainer: Renewable energy cannot sustain an energy intensive society

A video on the high cost of Danish wind:

Does wind power reduce carbon emissions? (by Peter Lang)

Wind and carbon emissions – Peter Lang responds (by Peter Lang)

Solar power realities – supply-demand, storage and costs (by Peter Lang)

Solar realities and transmission costs – addendum (by Peter Lang)

Q5. What about storing excess energy for later use?

In a continent a dry as Australia our hydro capacity is extremely limited and could not by itself fulfill the storage requirements of a 100% renewable grid. Pumped hydro in Australia is also prohibitively expensive, geographically limited and, to pump water, requires the kind of guaranteed steady power supply variable wind/solar cannot supply. Pumped-hydro energy storage – cost estimates for a feasible system (by Peter Lang)

Concerning solar thermal:

Plant capable of delivering 1000 MW in winter would need 100+ million square metres of collection area. At the estimated SEGS cost of $800/m (Trainer 2008) the plant would cost $80 billion.

The climate data seems to show that despite their storage capacity solar thermal systems would suffer a significant intermittency problem and in winter would either need storage capacity for four or more cloudy day sequences once or twice each winter month, or would need back up from some other sources. This means they could not be expected to buffer the intermittency of other components in a fully renewable system.

Ted Trainer: Renewable energy cannot sustain an energy intensive society

Q6. Isn’t it more important for us to scale down our energy requirements through energy efficiency and conservation?

Population increase, a switch to battery vehicles which use electricity to replace oil, climate change adaptations (e.g. desalination), the continuing electrification of the developing world, and, I’m afraid, human perversity, will all conspire to make conservation little more than a smoke screen – empty action that allows even weak adherents to feel a dangerously misplaced smugness while the planet continues to die.

A great video on India’s growing demand

Put all energy cards on the table to fix climate change fully

Q7. Aren’t renewables our safest option?

Renewables are only ‘safe’ if they work. At the moment, most of the world can only rely on a demonstrably ineffective renewables/fossil fuel electricity generation mix. This won’t adequately address climate change. No other accident or disaster in history will match the scale of the unmitigated disaster of climate change. Equally, the modern world, with all its health benefits and quality of living, will collapse without a reliable electricity supply. Most of what you cherish risks being swept away. Placing our faith in renewables alone is a disaster waiting to happen.

Further reading:

Critique of ‘A path to sustainable energy by 2030′

Germany – crunched by the numbers (by Tom Blees)

Unnatural Gas (by Tom Blees)

Q8. Is nuclear energy fast enough?

It’s the fastest option we have. With a supportive population, and a little inspiration from France, we could replace our coal base load with nuclear power in 15 years. At its peak, France was building 3,500 MWe of nuclear power per year. No nation has ever come close to installing this much wind or solar in such a short time frame.

Q9. What about meltdowns?  Is nuclear energy safe?

Yes.

Nuclear is about the safest of all the electricity generation technologies.

Nuclear is 10 to 100 times safer than coal electricity generation. Coal plant safety varies but nuclear power is at least 10 times safer than the safest coal power plant.

This has been demonstrated by 55 years of nuclear electricity generation.

New nuclear power stations are even safer than the already incredibly safe current designs. They have passive safety systems, controlled not by human operators but by the laws of physics, unless the laws of physics – which have been running the universe since the beginning of time – ‘decide’ to change, then these designs are fail safe. They cannot melt down. If something goes wrong and there is not a single human operator in the plant they simply shut themselves down.

Q10. What about radiation?

Radiation is all around us. People, animals, plants, water, rocks and the sun all emit radiation. Natural radiation levels vary from place to place but nuclear power stations always emit below the natural background radiation levels, and well below that emitted by our current coal plants.

How dangerous is radiation?

Radiation – facts, fallacies and phobias

Q11. Is nuclear energy expensive?

It’s cheaper than 100% renewable energy.

Nuclear power produces some of the cheapest electricity in the world.

It can be made more expensive (but still cheaper than 100% renewables) wherever there is an unsupportive public. Public demonstrations, legal stalling, superfluous or conflicting regulation changes mid- build, all cause delays and cost overruns. The simple answer is to:

1. Support nuclear power as our surest carbon mitigation strategy.

2. Get the appropriate regulations in place before building begins and stick by them.

Nuclear power can be the least cost electricity where there is a ‘level playing field’ for all types of electricity generation.

Recent nuclear power cost estimates – separating fact from myth

Emission cuts realities for electricity generation – costs and CO2 emissions (by Peter Lang)

The 21st century nuclear renaissance is starting – good news for the climate

Q12. What about the waste?

The waste issue has been solved. Indeed it is not waste. It is ‘once-used-nuclear-fuel’. We’ve used about 1% to 10% of the energy so far. We will use the rest of the energy in the future, by recycling the once-used-nuclear-fuel through Generation IV nuclear power plants. The waste from these plants has a half-life of 30 years and will degrade back down to natural background levels within 300 to 500 years.

Used fuel is stored safely in containers like this:

This is all the ‘once-used-nuclear-fuel’ from 31 years of power generation from a now decommissioned power station.

The amount of used fuel is minuscule compared with the waste from fossil fuel power stations, much of which is far more toxic and lasts forever.

Q13. What about nuclear weapons proliferation?

Nuclear power is not a precursor to nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons were developed before nuclear power, evidently nations do not need nuclear power in order to develop nuclear weapons.

None of the weapons that currently exist will disappear with a dismantling of our nuclear power fleet.

There are many nations (Japan, for example) who have nuclear power, yet do not have nuclear weapons.

Nuclear power can replace coal in all nations who currently have nuclear reactors, nuclear power or nuclear weapons without increasing any imagined proliferation risk, and that would take care of more than 90% of our stationary energy emissions worldwide.

Banning nuclear power because of nuclear weapons proliferation concerns is akin to banning medical research because of biological weapons proliferation concerns. In other words, absurd! The connections are too tenuous and the positives too great.

Q14.Wouldn’t a nuclear power station be a terrorist target?

No…

…not if they actually wanted to do some damage.

Q15. Is there enough uranium?

Yes.

There is enough uranium to provide all the world’s energy indefinitely. Indeed, we’ve already mined enough uranium to power the whole world using next-generation nuclear power for 700 years!

There is sufficient uranium and thorium in the top 4 km of the Earth’s land areas to supply all the energy needs of 10 billion people at the USA’s current rate of energy consumption for 220 million years. That’s as long as far ahead as the start of the dinosaur era is behind. But actually, the rivers of the world naturally replenish sea water with 30,000 tonnes of uranium each year due to erosion, so we wouldn’t even need to dig this up.

Q16. Does nuclear emit more CO2 than renewables?

No.

When generating electricity, nuclear power emits no CO2.

When construction, mining and decommissioning of the various technologies are accounted for, nuclear emits far less CO2 than any other electricity generation technology, or mix of technologies, that can meet our demand for electricity.

If we ignore the emissions from the back-up generators, wind power emits roughly the same as nuclear generators. When we include them, wind power emits about the same as efficient gas generation.

Emission cuts realities for electricity generation – costs and CO2 emissions (by Peter Lang)

Q17. Isn’t the nuclear lobby in bed with the coal lobby?

No. Because they know nuclear power is the only zero emissions electricity generation system capable of displacing coal, the coal lobby is fighting hard to keep nuclear power out of Australia. This is a real advertisement produced by the coal industry in Australia.

Q18. But isn’t nuclear power evil?

No. Atoms don’t have prejudices, and energy is not selfish. The universe is naturally awash with radiation,  and nuclear fission is not black magic. It has even occurred naturally in Earth’s history. Ever heard of the Oklo reactor? Look back over a billion years, and find out more

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