Free energy – with Nuclear?
Senator Sean Edwards claimed that an expansion of the nuclear fuel cycle in South Australia could provide low or even no cost electricity, create a generation of high-paying jobs and do so without any subsidies from government. His plan is to take spent fuel from older nuclear power plants from around the world, and reprocess them for use in fourth generation reactors here in Australia. We could be paid to take waste which we then turn into fuel, providing free electricity.
So called fourth generation reactors are not yet commercially available but are predicted to become available sometime in the 2030s. If these reactors become commercially available they will be able to take spent fuel rods (currently treated as nuclear waste) from older nuclear reactors and use them to generate electricity. This effectively turns a waste source into a valuable commodity.
The claim that low or no cost electricity can be produced comes from the idea that other countries would pay South Australia to take their nuclear waste. This would mean that not only will South Australia pay nothing for its fuel costs but it would generate an additional revenue source from taking other countries waste and turning it into a commodity.
We will address his argument as three linked claims:
- Other countries will pay Australia to take nuclear waste for storage.
- Australia can build fourth generation reactors to use this spent fuel to generate electricity.
- This will result in free electricity, and perhaps even earn sufficient profit for the state that it will allow a reduction in taxes.
The expert advice to the South Australian Royal Commission into expanding the nuclear fuel cycle gave a time-frame of 25 years to complete a long term waste storage facility. The Generation IV International Forum expects fourth generation reactors – capable of using existing waste stockpiles as fuel – to be commercially deployed in 2030-2040. This means that any waste storage facility that South Australia develops is likely to be completed at about the same time as fourth generation reactors become commercially available. It is likely that South Australia’s own waste storage business would need to compete with other countries’ fourth generation reactors. Spent fuel will cease to be waste, and will become a commodity. Why would anyone pay South Australia to take a commodity?
The circular reasoning is clear. If fourth generation reactors work as hoped, no-one will pay South Australia to take their spent fuel. Further, if fourth generation technology proves to be expensive and difficult to maintain, South Australia would have locked itself into expensive electricity generation, having set up a waste import industry. In either case, countries with existing stockpiles of spent fuel have a clear competitive advantage over South Australia. It makes more financial sense for them to build fourth generation reactors next to existing stockpiles than it does to transport it half-way around the world. There is no good outcome for South Australia.
According to the US Energy Information Administration, fuel represents less than 15% of the cost of generating electricity with advanced nuclear power plants. Most of the cost is in the initial capital expense and maintenance of the reactor. Even if Australia received “free” fuel – a wildly optimistic hope – the cost of building reactors is still great. Wind and solar have no fuel costs, but no one thinks renewable electricity is free. Furthermore, the cost of setting up an international waste storage component would be extreme large. The Pangea proposal which looked at setting up a nuclear waste disposal facility in the late 1990’s included port facilities and a fleet of specialised ships. It showed that any waste facility would be very expensive.
The first ton of waste that Australia received would require a gamble of many billions of dollars.
Perhaps the cheapest way to take a gamble on nuclear power might be to create temporary storage facilities now, use this brief window before fourth generation reactors are deployed commercially to get paid to take waste, and be among the first in the world to build the reactors which can use our newly acquired waste for fuel.
However, the risks are obvious. If fourth generation reactors turn out to have high costs of operation, we would be locked into expensive electricity. If they can’t be made to work commercially at all, we would have given ourselves a high-level waste problem for tens of thousands of years, a problem that may not have a solution. And if they are cheap and effective, most countries could build their own and bid for the fuel we are so generously taking for a fee. If we can plan ahead for fourth generation technology, so can everyone else.
Even at best, if everything goes just as hoped, the payoff for our gamble is paltry. A 15% reduction in energy costs from nuclear reactors, which already have a higher cost per unit of energy than new wind and solar generators, is far from “free” electricity. A waste industry, costing billions to set up, which will see its revenues killed off – in as little as ten years – by the very technologies we hope to champion, can hardly be said to provide “generations” of high-paying jobs. And we will inherit a nuclear waste storage problem that must be solved for at least hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of years.
The most risk for the least reward is not a smart business plan. Free electricity is no more than a pleasant dream.
Most of the developed world are currently trying to phase out nuclear so are unlikely to develop fourth generation LFTR plants due to ideological objections. Even if we don’t build any nuclear plants ourselves we can still make a fortune leasing storage space for the waste that either currently exists or will soon exist. We can store it in easily built short term storage while we build the long term facility. You seem to know very little about nuclear physics and “nuclear reactors, which already have a higher cost per unit of energy than new wind and solar generators” is a meaningless comparison of apples and oranges. You need to factor in storage costs for wind and solar which at the moment are far more then the cost of the generation.
The centralised generation model requires peaking generation capacity that lies dormant most of the time and an overbuilt electrical grid to service those peaks.
Distributed generation and storage allows for a much cheaper grid and replaces those peaker plants with excess storage capacity, which has an added benefit of helping the batteries last longer since they are fully discharged only a couple of times per year.
It also leads to less power wasted as heat in transmission and greater resilience vs natural disaster or hostile action.
If you are going to add the cost of energy storage to renewables then you should add the cost of a fat grid and peaking plants to nuclear.
Also don’t forget to add:
– The health costs of increased background radiation which is an inevitable result of handling radioactive material.
– The remediation costs of old mines which the public always get slugged with because more often then not the miners fail to pay for it.
– The risk profile of nuclear energy, where a single unpredictable disaster like Fukushima can blow out the cost/unit of energy for the whole industry.
– The cost of extra disaster preparation for communities near those facilities and the health effects of added stress for communities who live in the shadow of nuclear facilities.
– The risk of nuclear proliferation and the cost of containing rogue states. Add to this the lost opportunity costs of diplomatic efforts to contain states like Iran and North Korea when there are plenty of other problems in the world which could use that attention.
– The cost of cleaning up loose nuclear material in failed states or insecure facilities. Obama has spent a lot of effort doing exactly that and the logistical feats involved are nothing short of heroic.
Unfortunately it will be decades before excess storage is feasible. Unless you know a way to quadruple the availability of Lithium.
Why is there no byline?
FFB wrote: Why would anyone pay South Australia to take a commodity?
Peter (above) wrote: [others] are unlikely to develop fourth generation LFTR plants due to ideological objections.
[Some pro GenIV-above-all-else advocates write]: the costs of GenIV power production are balanced by the revenues from other paying South Australia to take what will inevitably, eventually, become a commodity over a sufficient time period.
To FFB: Congratulations on NOT dismissing the resource costs as being balanced by resource revenue … to become commodity cost over a sufficient time period. By properly calling spades spades the uncertainty becomes, in lieu of closeness to zero of the balance, the time period over which (predicted) resource revenues will become commodity costs.
interestingly no-one pro-nuclear ever talks about the cost of decommissioning which is probably much higher than anyone hopes for.
The Economist has this week an article “The future nuclear energy : half death”. They have for some years now always said nuclear energy is NOT commercially viable. It only exists because governments want it and therefore underwrites it.
No one ever talks about the cost of replacing thousands of wind turbines either
They totally do though.
Heck, you’re not even talking about decommissioning costs, but cost of new turbines which is currently the cheapest form of electricity generation. And the fun thing about replacing old turbines is that it means you are putting modern high-efficiency systems in to locations which were developed first because they have the best wind resources, so you end up increasing the generating capacity and decreasing the maintenance costs of that region. Local residents also get quieter and more aesthetically pleasing turbines then they had previously and a spike in economic activity.
Replacing an old wind park is an opportunity and a win-win for everybody involved.
Especially the company that is installing them.
You also have to factor in the increased cost of insurance for nuclear power stations, the extra cost of protection against terrorism, and the potential costs of nuclear accidents. Nuclear accidents cost lives, how much is that worth?
Here’s a thought: Pretend the Romans managed to build a nuclear energy generation and waste storage system 2000 years ago. Who would be responsible for the still dangerous waste today? Who seriously thinks Australia will be politically stable for thousands of years? No country has ever been stable for 500 years let alone the 10,000+ generations having to pay to manage the facility. The chances of 4th gen reactors happening are slim because of inability to compete with hi tech renewable generation and storage. That leaves some science breakthrough to neutralise the waste. The whole conversation is ridiculous. Tell them they’re dreamin.
We’ve actually had feasible waste storage for decades now. It’s just a case of “not in my backyard”. There are rock strata in Western Australia that have been stable for Billions of years, and will remain so.
Damn right you are.
Accumulating nuclear waste represents an ever-increasing inefficiency in the economy, either in the ongoing costs of safe storage or the economic damage caused when it escapes unsafe storage.
It’s like slowly poisoning a civilisation.
Nuclear advocates usually tout this energy source as the best one in the face of increasing greenhouse gases produced by fossil fuels. My understanding is that we don’t have decades to wait for nuclear plants to come on line. Observed data is tracking in at the upper levels of IPCC predictions of global warming. We already have wind technology,variants of solar, supplemnted with geothermal, wave, gas, biomass and 17 hour storage is already possible. In addition there are the documented downsides of nuclear: huge construction costs, huge dismantling costs, security, waste storage, necessary location near coastlines (Japan?) etc. Apart from energy generation, there is big and demonstrated potential (e.g. Beyond Zero Emissions) in energy conservation. Like huge desal plants, big single solutions to problems are deceptively simple but don’t make sense. To this outside observer, nuclear proponents seem more driven by ideology than adherence to science and rationality.
Sorry, forgot my website for those interested in farmers who do adhere to science and act rationally
Love the way this article cuts through the bullshit. Brought a smile to my face.
I support the comment “tell them they’re dreaming”. Its an old one but a good one.
thank you for this exposition of the fraudulent behaviour of Edwards, Heard and co.
When will these criminals be prosecuted and punished?
To my knowledge making an inflated claim about something isn’t a criminal offence, otherwise gaols would be overflowing with exaggerators and hyperbole-ophiles
example, it is a criminal offence under Australian law to use deception to influence share prices.
example, fraud under criminal law.
example, consumer protection laws requires honesty in advertising.
But most serious is the criminal intent to administer radioactive poisons to children and to pregnant women.
You better press charges then. Oh, hang on there are no shares and there is no advertising. There’s is just someone overstating their case much as you did in your last paragraph. I don’t think there are any pregnant women or children 200m below ground in the bedrock of South Australia.
Normal operation of nuclear reactors emits radioactive poisons, described as pre meditated random murder by John Gofman the scientist who made the plutonium used in the Nagasaki bomb.
Also, with history showing that “accidents” are a regular thing with radioactive poisons corporations, one can speculate as to why.
Is it the cost cutting, compromising safety for profit?
Is it the nature of radioactive poisons, corroding and combusting and corrupting complex control systems?
Whatever, radioactive poisons get into the air and the water and the soil and the food chain and our bodies, including the bodies of pregnant women.
Inevitable consequences. Reality.
Fantasy and fraud are closely connected lately with radioactive poisons promoters like Heard and Edwards.
The share prices of Toro Energy are of interest.
Also we have the Scarce shares in Rio Tinto and the close connection between our Dept Premier and Cabinet and corporation BHP Billiton.
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