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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

an old moderrnist dream returns « Previous | |Next »
April 28, 2005

The modernist's technocrat dream was one of a nuclear powered for electricity generation, a thriving nuclear industry, and a nuclear Australia. A nuclear Australia would be a modern industrial Australia. By going nuclear Australia would be truely modern, and it would really be able to throw off the shackles of the 19th century agrarian past.


Alas, the utopian dream turned to a nightmare with the catastrophes of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Who wanted to live in dystopia?

Today the dream returns with a difference. Nuclear power is being hawked as the only solution to Australia's need for sustainable energy. Nuclear energy is held to be the only non-greenhouse-emitting power source that can effectively replace fossil fuels and satisfy consumer demand is the new spin.

Unlike some I would argue that global warming is a serious threat, even more so than global terrorism. It is a threat because the planet has a fixed capacity to absorb the greenhouse gases that are closely associated with that growth, and the damaging consequences of ignoring this fact are already evident. Given that emissions have to come down, the continuing promotion of energy-intensive activities and industries is a cause for concern.

But nuclear power as the only source of sustainable energy? Nuclear power as the only solution?

The nuclear power publicists say that those--like me---who think otherwise to them have dumped science, embraced raw emotion and sensationalism, and allowed themselves to be misguided. It is said that opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media. It is then added that these fears are unjustified because nuclear energy, from its start in 1952, has proved to be the safest of all energy sources.

'The safest of all energy sources'? Solar power is not safe? It is at that point, where the technocrat's tired old reason/emotion riff, acts to dismiss renewable energy as irrelevant and useless, becomes publicity in the form of deception not enlightenment.

Yet nuclear power is still beset with insurmountable problems of risk, particularly in waste storage to be the solution to global warming problems. So both climate change and radioactive waste both pose deadly long-term threats. Should we not minimise the effects of both instead of an either or that says we can only choose between the two threats?

On the other hand, renewable energy is recognised as a key element of both national and state energy and greenhouse policies, and as an integral part of Australia's future energy mix.

What we need is a debate about global warming that addresses the increasing energy demand within the long-term context of climate change and its impact on Australia.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 1:41 PM | | Comments (6)


James Lovelock advocates dumping the waste in areas that need to be protected;

Michele Field: But you don’t believe there is any hazard from nuclear waste if it’s handled properly. In fact I think you suggested storing it in habitats like tropical forests that need protection because people are so leery of nuclear waste that they could leave those lands alone.

James Lovelock: Oh it’s a grand guardian of places that are nice. Developers would be very scary of taking on a nuclear waste site. Yes, I think the dangers of nuclear have been gravely exaggerated. The Swiss did a study of the dangers of all powers that we use, the number of people killed since WW11 in all of the power industries and nuclear comes up ten times safer than any other. And that’s including Chernobyl and the accidents that have occurred. Coal and oil burning are about a hundred times as dangerous and using liquid petroleum gas as a fuel is three thousand times as dangerous as nuclear. So there’s no justification for the fear of it. I think it’s something that has been stirred up by bad fiction, by Hollywood films and by the Greens who found it a convenient way of getting members by scaring them.

Nuclear power doesnt scare me. Engineering and technology will improve the safety, impact and make the process more efficient. IIRC the Chinese are working on pebble bed reactors as a solution to any energy crisis they face.

Like Lovelock said, we really dont have any other technology that can quickly transition us to renewable energy in the short term.


I agree with Lovelock that:

the dangers of continuing to burn fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal) as our main energy source ...threaten not just individuals but civilization itself. Much of the first world behaves like an addicted smoker: we are so used to burning fossil fuels for our needs that we ignore their insidious long-term dangers.

And on the long term dangers:
Polluting the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases has no immediate consequences, but continued pollution leads to climate changes whose effects are only apparent when it is almost too late for a cure. Carbon dioxide poisons the environment just as salt can poison us. No harm comes from a modest intake, but a daily diet with too much salt can cause a lethal quantity to accumulate in the body.

I agree with his judgement that recent climatic events have shown the warming of the atmosphere is proceeding even more rapidly than the scientists of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) thought it would, in their last report in 2001.

And Lovelock is right when he says that the the Bush Administration in the US is in denial about climate change it has failed to give their climate scientists the support they needed. It is a similar situation in Australia.

Where I disagree with him is that nuclear power is the only pathway to sustainable energy and so:

the world [should] emulate France and make nuclear power our principal source of energy. There is at present no other safe, practical and economic substitute for the dangerous practice of burning carbon fuels.

That does not make sense in Australia with all the roaring wind on the coasts and all that sunlight. Lovelock does not even considere renewable energy, or explore the role that it could play.

Presumably Lovelock would say that there is not enough time for renewable energy (wind, wave and solar power) to take the place of the coal, gas and oil-fired power stations whose waste of carbon dioxide (CO2) is causing the atmosphere to warm.

The problem is that Lovelock's Gaia metaphysics, the theory that the Earth keeps itself fit for life by the actions of living things themselves, is very much a big one that downplays the differences, dynamics and relationship of the parts. So Australia is very different to Britain. Solar power makes sense here in a way that it does not in the UK or Canadia.

Gary, We currently have a centralised power system. Made obvious when the NE USA went dark due to a breaker not being able to respond fast enough. Nuclear power is a centralised power system technology. It would slot in faster.

Technologies such as wind are decentralised power sources. They would slot in better, IMO, with either a regional or individual power grid technologies.

The capital costs remain high enough for renewable energy that private industry will require some centralisation of the technology so they can take advantage of economies of scale as well as a return on their investment.

Nuclear power pumps out a lot of energy from one plant, so it has better return when collapsed into a centralised structure. Then again I write software to manage/maintain to distributed telecommunications assets, so it is not beyond the realm of possibility to put a decentralised technology over a centralised power network.

I noticed when I was in Germany they had an interesting mix of nuclear power stations and wind generators.

I agree with you about the tendencies towards a centralized national electricity market (NEM) in both the US and Australia.

This is a historical shift away from the stand alone regional (state) power systems of the early 20the century that powered the machinery of industrial capitalism. Nuclear power is a centralized technology and it fits into a centralized NEM.

I also concur with you that technologies, such as wind and solar, are decentralised power sources and would slot in better with either a regional or individual power grid technologies.

This means that you can have a national electricity market created from linkages between the decentralized power systems of the different states, such as Queensland, Victoria, SA, NSW, Tasmania WA etc.

It makes no sense for SA to draw on power tramsmitted half way across a continent from polluting coal-fired power stations in NSW or Victoria in order to run the airconditioners turned on to deal with the summer heat; especially when it can meet that consumer demand with solar power that is generated on individual rooftops and fed into the grid. Hence the idea of Adelaide as a solar city.

And it makes no sense for SA to import coal-fired generated power from Queensland or NSW when it can export wind generated power to the eastern states. It is just a matter of putting in the right export/import interconnectors.

This is the sort of creative thinking that Lovelock and the other advocates of nuclear conveniently overlook. That is why I'm calling them publicists.

What the above means is that you do not need to say that centralization is the only pathway. That is the old modernist approach--big, technocratic and centralized. A digital world opens up other possibilities.

Gary, I think the way capital is organized will push it toward a central solution. A nuclear power station is a big item in one spot. Capital, construction, maintenance and MWs arent distributed. Big companies will go for that structure as it is easier to manage from their point of view (and make a profit from).

The best chance for a distributed structure is if the renewable energy hardware drops sufficiently in price that it can be bought by individuals or smaller businesses. I dont see the energy hardware market being at that stage yet.

I also dont see councils or states getting involved in the purchasing of the hardware needed for a distributed system. It will require a fair bit of management and maintenance expertise to be done efficiently. I have seen big US firms creak and groan trying to manage that kind of stuff - and those companies specialise in managing distributed systems. Not certain the states or councils would be able to manage it effectively.

That being said, obviously if there is "one" grid then any energy creating device can contribute to it. So nuclear and renewable energy sources are complementary in that effect. Ultimately I see energy become a distributed system with each location providing the majority of its power needs. Everything is commoditising, and once capital costs come down they move to distributed systems anyway. I dont think energy will be any different.

I still think at this stage nuclear is the best immediate option to phase out the dirty power stations, with the goal having low impact energy systems provide power in the future.

btw who owns the Australian power grid?

no doubt you are right about the relationship between nuclear power, big energy companies and the market.

It ain't going to happen in Australia any time soon because the Canberrra designed national electicity market (NEM) is a mess.

The mammoth reform project, which begun in 1995 with the CoAG reforms that sought to connect the States' electricity systems and drive efficiency through competition and use of excess capacity faces enormous, unresolved problems.

The market, as envisioned and designed by Canberra econocrats inthe 1990s, was for a totally privatised system. It didn't eventuate--only Victoria and South Australia took that route.

The NEM is prejudicial to renewable technologies, ensures the escalation of greenhouse emissions and does not promote demand management or energy efficiency.

Secondly, the energy companies are struggling to deal with their acquisition of over priced assets from the privatisation process, and they don't have enough cash flow or return on their investments to start investing in new infrastructure.

Thirdly, as an energy regulator barely exists, there is little regulation of monopoly networks and it means tha the operators of the Austrlaian power system virtually unaccountable.