Saturday, February 06, 2010

thoughts on the nuclear debate

Debate: "Should we consider Nuclear Power as a response to climate change?"


Professor Barry Brook, Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change, University of Adelaide, and author of the blog Brave New Climate

Tom Blees, President, Science Council for Global Initiatives and author of the book "Prescription for the Planet."

For the Negative:

David Noonan, Australian Conservation Foundation

Dr Mark Diesendorf, Deputy Director, Institute of Environmental Studies, University of New South Wales".

I bought Tom Blee's book Prescription for the Planet. Tom was a very effective presenter due to his extensive research and personal contact with a wide range of people deeply involved in these issues allowed him to communicate telling and interesting anecdotes - and he has a wicked sense of humour, which was much needed on the night

The majority of the audience was anti nuclear (2/3rds or 3/4) but thanks to the work done by Barry Brook on his blog, Brave New Climate, there was a significant pro nuclear presence

Mark Diesendorf was energetically aggressive in his attack on nuclear power as an "idealistic fantasy". He argued that renewables could completely replace fossil fuels by 2030 and presented a slide showing the growth of various renewables illustrating how this could be done.

I felt this slide was dodgy but didn't know enough to refute it. Mark also made a big issue of his expertise and criticised Barry for pronouncing outside his field of primary expertise.

Aspects of this slide were challenged by Barry Brook. How could geothermal grow so quickly when on another slide Mark had shown geothermal at the R&D stage in Australia and that new technologies took 40 years or so to reach large scale commercial stage. Mark had used this to argue that IFR (Integral Fast Reactors) was pie in the sky, so Barry's counter was quite effective.

There was other to and fro along these lines, some of it amusing. Barry pointed out that renewables only made up 1% of the world's energy. Mark responded that it was unfair to take a world average because some European countries had a much higher percentage. But Mark had earlier criticised Tom Blee's example of ineffective solar panels in Germany as "cherry picking" because Germany had a cold climate. This sort of exchange confirmed my belief that you need to have a firm grasp of the arithmetic to engage intelligently in this debate. I've read this page (Renewable energy cannot sustain an energy intensive society) of Barry's site and downloaded Ted Trainer's pdf from that page to improve my own knowledge here

David and Mark were unreasonably dogmatic in their anti-IFR stance. The issue of urgency was used in an irrational way, given the reality of the failure in Copenhagen and the certainty of developing countries like China and India to continue using massive amounts of fossil fuels. Even if IFR does take 50 years to develop on a large scale (in itself debatable) then that is not a reason not to develop it. There is a can do and a can't do mentality and wrt IFR their attitude was totally can't do on technical grounds alone. They want a total roadblock on nuclear power. They spent quite a bit of time on this, irrespective of their other objections.

Barry took a realistic economic approach that coal would not be replaced by alternatives until a cheaper alternative emerged - and the best shot for that was nuclear.

Mark disputed that but admitted that his renewable futures would be more expensive. For me this was the real "idealistic fantasy", his repeated statement along the lines that people power would convince governments to change.

The other main objection from the anti-nuclear side was proliferation. What emerged here was that IFR reactors do not produce weapons grade plutonium and there are other more effective means of producing weapons grade plutonium, such as high-speed centrifuge technology. I felt the pro-nuclear side was on shakier ground here since more IFR reactors will lead to more transport around the world of weapons grade plutonium (as a start up fuel) and so the probability of it falling into the hands of terrorists will probably increase.

Mark said that nuclear power was 14% of the world's electricity production and declining. Barry offered a bet that the nuclear percentage would increase but Mark declined to accept it. Good move, Barry!

So, it boiled down to who was living in the "real world" and who was living in "fantasy world"


Barry Brook said...

Thanks for the excellent summary Bill, and also for your attendance on the night.

Sean FitzGerald said...

Hi Bill. Have you seen "Sustainable Energy – without the hot air" - It might help you with the maths.

Bill Kerr said...

thanks Sean,

A friend sent me that link a couple of days ago. I've started to read it now.

Anonymous said...

Nice summary.

As an idealist, I'm disappointed when the experts omit some vital point. I get just as cranky with the likes of Helen Caldicott ranting about storing nuclear waste for 100 000 years (when IFR's EAT waste) as I did with Blees misrepresenting wind power in European countries as blowing at night when there is no demand - which might technically be true for another year or so - but soon will be irrelevant as there will be a massive fleet of EV's plugged into the grid and the internet and able to communicate with the utilities to charge off-peak whenever the wind blows overnight.

So it was with some reticence that I started reading the free PDF chapter of Blees on the Plasma converters. I was blown away. I had heard of the plasma converters and *some* of the things they could do, but the way Blees describes them and the brainstorming of applications he puts them to really changed my mind on his penetrating ability to brainstorm a variety of systems and applications.

So what's a little 'wind' between friends? I'm all for the IFR, and society having the *real* information on energy systems, and will now recommend Blees book (even though I've only read parts of it online).