On air with Peter Goers

Last Thursday, 12th February, (2014 that is) I had the unusual honour of being invited to attend Australia’s national broadcaster’s, ABC, studios in Collinswood, Adelaide. I joined the host, Peter Goers, on his evening radio show in a discussion about nuclear energy and solar thermal power generating. I must admit, I was somewhat bemused by all this, it is not every day I get called for this sort of thing.

A couple of days before, a letter I had written to the editor of the local paper, (the imaginatively named “Advertiser”) on this topic had been printed. Someone at the ABC, and I assume Peter Goers himself, read it, thought it had something worthwhile to say and extended me the invitation to the studio.

For me, this just came out of the blue. I have had some feedback from other people, whom I know, about my letters to the Editor, as I do write frequently. I did think that anyone, if they read what I wrote, would take the opinion of a layperson and either agree with my view or dismiss me as some opinionated nitwit in love with his own ideas. I never really considered that they would be given much attention by a wider audience.

Here is a copy of the letter I wrote, as it appeared in the “Advertiser”

“Dear Sir, Business SA is clinging to the past in what seems an endless repetition of past demands that they believe will “renew” the economy. This blinkered vision is the very reason it will fail.

Using existing solar technologies we could build up to four solar thermal generating stations that would produce a lot more energy than one nuclear plant. These plants could be in production and on line in less than ten years, not the 25 years for a nuclear plant. Maintenance and decommissioning costs of these plants would be minimal when compared to those of a nuclear plant. The real benefit here though is we would own them, we would never own a nuclear plant.

Yes, a nuclear plant would do some things to stimulate the economy, but the on-costs of that station make it uneconomical.

These comparisons are made between the costs of the Olkiluoto nuclear plant in Finland and the Bright Source Rio Mesa project in California. My question here is has Business SA actually looked at the solar thermal possibilities?

Yours sincerely,”

The local chamber of commerce issues a wish list every year and nuclear energy is on that list, every year, and every year it does not happen. It, no longer, sparks any debate of note, it does not inject new vigour into the debate. Business SA’s call is a waste of time, it harks to back another era, and should be dismissed for the nonsense it really is.

I assert that we could build four solar thermal generating plants for the same cost as one nuclear power plant and produce more energy for the same money. My logic is simple, the Finland’s Olkiluoto plant will produce 1.5GW and has already cost 8.5 billion Euros, and still rising. This is about $12 billion Australian. The Bright Source project at Rio Mesa will cost about  $(US)2.5 billion about $(Au)2.75 billion for 400MW. Times that by 4 and you get 1.6GW at $(Au)11 billion. My understanding is that Bright Source is actually an Australian company, or is using technology developed here in Oz or some such. There is a connection somewhere so we are not really importing technology from overseas.

Solar thermal works by concentrating the sun’s energy onto a tank at the top of a tower and melting salts, not heating water. The salts melt at about 600 degrees Celsius, then flow to the boiler which then creates the steam, which turns the turbine generating power. The advantages of using this method over nuclear are so obvious that I really do not want to go into them in any real detail. However, I will state the obvious, if there is a spill at the plant, it is not likely to irradiate everyone for kilometres around. Also, using molten salt, the plant can go without any sunlight for three to four days before it stops working, so solar thermal can meet our base load energy need. (That is it can run overnight, when the sun is not shining, still producing power.)

When we look at the opposing views on nuclear, we really should stop listening to the proponents of both sides and start looking at the fundamentals of their positions. If we did this we would immediately pick up on the fallacies of their arguments and dismiss them both as childish and inept.

The environmental argument is based in the fear of having children born with three legs. They cite Chernobyl as their example, and a shining one it is too. The problem is that the facts do not support their position, but why let facts get in the way? There was more damage from the hysterical reaction of the media, politicians and medical people than was caused by the gas cloud from Chernobyl. The number of pregnant women who were advised to have abortions was horrendous and, alone, destroyed more life than the explosion at the plant did. It was later shown in the UN investigation that this was an unnecessary over-reaction to the event. The real after-effects lie in higher risks of cancers in the areas around the plant and the loss of use of productive land for 20,000 years. These are tragedies, certainly, but they need a better context than the one they are being used in.

Sooner or later, someone will call the environmental lobby on their argument and it will be exposed for the fear mongering it really is.  Having said that, we have to recognise the argument is not without merit, but it is not a substantive one, it is only a secondary argument and will eventually lose its support.

The pro-nuclear lobby is just as deceitful in its argument. It is not outrightly lying, but it is just not telling the whole truth. For example, uranium, the current staple of nuclear power, is not called a “rare earth” for nothing. Current reserves of commercially viable deposits of the ore will last about 80 years. The only way we can extend this is to allow the definition of “commercial viability” to become very flexible. If the current point of viability is, say, $100,000 per gram mined, the only way we can extend current deposits is to make that figure, $200,000 per gram mined. This ensures that nuclear power plants are never going to be economically sustainable.

In short, no nuclear power plant will ever operate in this country without public subsidies. There is also the hidden costs, for example, the public purse will need to cover the insurance of such a plant in case of an accident. What private insurer will take such a risk? What is worse, the additional maintenance costs as the plant ages increase running costs exponentially. Add to that the unknowable figure of the decommissioning costs, unknowable as no-one wants to put a figure on an event 60 years down the track.

The economics just do not add up so why do we persist in discussing this topic? I advance these ideas as the current debate has become dogmatic, position taking and totally ineffective, so lets move on, please.


About colinfraser

I claim the title of educator, because I want to be more than "just" a teacher.
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