Exposing the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Chain Royal Commission’s spin about Electricity

Dennis Matthews, 13 May 15 NUCLEAR FUEL CYCLE (sic) ROYAL COMMISSION ISSUES PAPER THREE

ELECTRICITY GENERATION FROM NUCLEAR FUELS  

Once again we have an issues paper full of pro-nuclear conjecture and crystal ball-gazing with statements like “research has been undertaken”, “under development”, “are proposed”,   “soon to demonstrate”, “could potentially”, “could, if commercialised”, “may be”,” might encourage” and “could have”.  The history of the nuclear industry is a history of overstated optimism. Policy makers would do well to stick to the facts rather than optimistic forecasts from vested interests.

Ionising has been constantly dropped from “ionising radiation”, especially in the section on operational health and safety.  At best this is sloppy science but given the history of the nuclear industry, it might well be considered mischievous.

The word “nuclear” is frequently dropped especially when talking about nuclear reactors. This demonstrates the sensitivity of the nuclear industry to its image. Ironically, the nuclear industry appears to be loathe to admit that it has anything to do with its own scientific and technical foundation.

The issues paper has an unusual view of what constitutes a fuel. In the context of electricity generation, fuels are burnt (combusted) to produce heat for the production of steam which is then used to operate a turbine that drives the generator. Combustion is the reaction of fuel with the oxygen in air and yields carbon dioxide and water.

Over time, the nuclear industry has changed the term fuel to include fissile material used in a nuclear reactor. It even talks about fuel burn-up.

The issue paper’s reference to solar energy and wind energy as fuels removes an important distinction between solar and wind power and non-renewable sources of energy such as fossil and nuclear fuels. Solar and wind energy are not “burnt” to generate electricity and consequently do not produce noxious pollutants.

The unscientific use of the term “fuel” will only serve to confuse the public about the important distinction between renewable non-polluting solar/wind energy and non-renewable polluting nuclear/fossil energy.

The great advantage of solar and wind generators of electricity is that there is no fuel, hence no ongoing costs such as mining, processing, and transport and no noxious wastes and pollution either from these operations or from the operation of the generator. Apparently, the nuclear industry would like to avoid discussing such issues and to give the impression that solar and wind are no different to nuclear in this respect.

This issues paper is divided into three sections, Nuclear Fuels and Electricity Generation, Viability of Electricity Generation in South Australia, and Advantages and Disadvantages of Different Technologies and Fuel Sources; Risks and Opportunities.

 

  1. NUCLEAR FUELS AND ELECTRICITY GENERATION

 

  • In its history of the development of nuclear power this issues paper makes no mention of the connection of nuclear weapons research, development and infrastructure to the nuclear power industry or of the role that Governments made and still make to the nuclear industry. It thus ignores the crucial role of government subsidies to the development and operation of the nuclear power industry.

 

  • The issues paper describes nuclear reactor moderators as “facilitating” the nuclear fission reaction, but it is just the opposite. The role of moderators in nuclear reactors is to control the fission reaction so that it doesn’t get out of hand and lead to catastrophic reactor failure.

 

  • The power output (MWe) of an electricity generating system is a measure of the rate of electricity generation. The latter is generally measured in MWh (megawatt hour). The issues paper says that the power output is “the amount of electricity produced every second”. It makes as little sense to say that it is the amount of electricity produced every nanosecond or every year.

 

  • Whilst giving data on the number of operating, under construction and planned nuclear reactors this issues paper gives no data on the number of nuclear reactors being, or planned to be, shut down. Nor does it give data on the net result of these activities.
  1. VIABILITY OF ELECTRICITY GENERATION IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA

 

This section concentrates on electricity supplied through the National Electricity Market (NEM) and hence plays down the role of small but increasingly significant  rooftop solar electricity. Rooftop solar panels supply electricity to the grid but are not part of the NEM.

Additionally, the emphasis is on supply of electricity rather than on services which can often be delivered with no, or greatly reduced, supply of electricity, such as hot water.  Consequently, the issues paper does not look at the alternatives to electricity for supplying services such as hot water and comfortable homes.

Making a home comfortable during periods of high or low temperatures can be done through better housing design and insulation but these cost-competitive alternatives to electricity have to compete on an unequal footing with electricity which is supplied at no up-front cost, time-payment of capital costs and taxpayer subsidies through former, or existing, government ownership.

The NEM is heavily biased towards centrally generated electricity.

It is pointed out that electricity demand in South Australia is very “peaky” but the issues paper does not mention that the problem of peak demand has been reduced by the high uptake of rooftop solar which has not only reduced the magnitude of the peak demand but has shifted it to later in the day.

 

  1. ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF DIFFERENT  TECHNOLOGIES AND FUEL SOURCES; RISKS AND OPPORTUNITIES

 

  • Under the heading “Nuclear accident” only Chernobyl and Fukushima are mentioned. Chernobyl is blamed on uniquely bad design. Nothing is said about human error or the unforgiving nature of nuclear technology. Nor is there any mention of the Three Mile Island meltdown which was also the result of human error.

 

  • Fukushima is described as an “accident”. There is no mention of a culture of secrecy and deceit which permeated the nuclear industry not only in Japan but also in many other countries including Australia, e.g., the Olympic Dam project, which was given carte blanche thanks to the Indenture Agreement with the SA Government.

 

  • It is claimed that the design safety and operational efficiency of modern nuclear facilities have improved significantly since those involved in the Fukushima and Chernobyl “accidents”, but gives no evidence to support this.

 

  • In discussing insurance liability associated with the nuclear industry no mention is made of the fact that a typical insurance policy excludes nuclear accidents from its coverage. This leaves policy holders liable for costs related to the nuclear industry.

 

  • Under the heading of “greenhouse gas emissions” (GGE) the figures given show that Australia is well on track to exceed its GGE reduction target. Thanks to the renewable energy industry, GGE from electricity generation have departed from their historical pattern of steadily increasing and are now steadily falling.

 

In SA the Olympic Dam project is the single largest contributor to GGE.

 

Present GGE targets cannot be used either as an excuse to introduce nuclear power, to expand the Olympic Dam project, to introduce GGE intensive processing of uranium oxide into fissile material for nuclear reactors, or to expend large amounts of energy constructing underground chambers for long term storage/disposal of nuclear waste.

 

  • In discussing operational health and safety it is stated that workers who deal with radioactive materials need to be informed about the hazards prior to commencing work but nothing is said about the information being readily understandable by the workers.

 

  • Under health and safety, the word “ionising” has been dropped from “ionising radiation” which suggests that both workers and the general public are being misled about the nature of the risks.

 

  • It is noted in the issues paper that many generation technologies cannot be switched on or off at the request of power grid operators but it is not mentioned that nuclear power stations are in this category.

 

The major problem with electricity supply in South Australia, both technically and economically, is the peak load. This problem would not be solved by having a nuclear power station and the problem is already being addressed by rooftop solar electricity which not only reduces the magnitude of the peak load but also shifts it to later in the day.

 

  • The issues paper suggests that the commercial viability of the nuclear industry should be assisted by guaranteeing a minimum price for their product.

 

  • The issues paper claims that a nuclear reactor “could potentially” satisfy demand for “seawater desalination”. Given the economically and environmentally disastrous, rarely used, desalination plant south of Adelaide then suggestions about the need for further desalination plants would appear to suggest that the (anonymous) authors of this discussion paper are totally out of touch with the needs of South Australia.

 

  • It is claimed that a nuclear power industry in South Australia would lead to a need for “specialist training by tertiary and technical providers.” This is not unique to the nuclear power industry but applies to all other technology for providing the same services as the nuclear industry.

 

Given the capital intensive nature of nuclear technology, it would seem likely that many more jobs would result from deploying technologies, such as wind and solar, that are already significant and growing contributors to the SA economy.

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