Saturday, 21 November 2009

Action (and nuclear) still required

As reported by the ABC, a typical Australian emits more carbon than any other person in the developed world. We are setting a very dangerous example and worse providing very low hanging fruit for any country or political leader seeking justification to strive for our comfortable lifestyle via increased emissions. We have a moral and ethical obligation to take significant action to reduce our emissions, in addition to the climate signals repeatedly knocking on our door.

From an April 2007 UN meeting (What's happened since then?)

The ABC report does contain some seemingly good news; that emissions have dipped slightly due to the financial crisis. However, this may provide a false sense of security and is certainly no cause for celebration for anyone expecting serious cuts by 2020, 2030 and/or 2050.

Emissions per unit GDP (carbon intensity) is another relevant metric. According to the US Government, Energy Information Administration, Australia / New Zealand’s carbon intensity ranks third in the OECD (behind Canada and South Korea). One wonders how Australia’s ranking would move if we were judged on our own. Carbon intensity is dropping, but if tangible action is not completed to reduce it further along with emission cuts per capita (i.e. if ‘real’ emissions are not cut considerably), any economic recovery will stress the climate via emissions increases.

If one reviews the two tables within the EIA page linked above, it can be seen that emissions per unit GDP continue to decrease – China and India are the best performers, as one would hope. However, emissions per person actually increase out to 2030 – here China is the worst performer and Australia/New Zealand only drops by 0.2%. However, both GDP and population increase over that time. Therefore, real emissions will increase in Australia and around the world; which in turn will lead to climate disaster according to Hansen, Brook and many, many others.

And there is tangible evidence that our real emissions will indeed rise. It can’t be any clearer than the two large fossil energy projects currently proposed in NSW. If these plants go forward, it will mark a significant failure to seriously cut Australian emissions. Their mere proposal should be a wake up call to anyone genuinely interested in climate change, emission cuts or Australian leadership in the upcoming climate negotiations. Australian energy policy falls short of delivering the energy security our economy requires and emission reductions we are obligated to achieve; for Australians at home and the world at large.

A serious national debate on holistic approaches to significantly cut our emissions is desperately needed. The debate must go beyond the fulfilment of campaign promises and it must recognise and address the risks posed from climate change – particularly for Australia. These risks must be compared in an objective and balanced context against those of nuclear power.

For example, climate scientist and blogger Prof Barry Brook is linking recent weather events to climate change. Consider that just one Australian bushfire resulted in over 3 times the fatalities than the immediate impact of the worst ever nuclear accident at Chernobyl (a flawed design that would never be built today). Furthermore, within a typical 5 year period, deaths from coal mining accidents in China alone exceed the projected long term death count from Chernobyl. One must question the true aim of modern anti-nuclear campaigners who seemingly care about public safety at home or abroad.

Nuclear waste issues are indeed a challenge that must be addressed, but the world has repeatedly demonstrated the ease of storing high level spent waste in interim facilities until permanent solutions can be implemented. The good news here is that there is really no rush, unlike action to curb emissions which is becoming more urgent with the passage of time. There is also the very real possibility that spent nuclear fuel could be consumed as a fuel source in fourth generation reactors.

Certainly, proliferation must be managed. This need has been recognised by both the Rudd and Obama administrations, among others. Collaborative efforts have been stepped up in recent years as has the IAEA budget in line with calls for enhanced nuclear security by IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei. Again, fourth generation reactors include a prerequisite design criteria to mitigate proliferation risk through either the consumption of plutonium or the blending of high radiation fission products into the fuel to make physical protection an inherent property of the fuel.

Economic anti-nuclear arguments (too expensive, too long) often conviently assume nuclear as a stand-alone emissions reduction technology as opposed to one of a suite of technologies deployed in parallel between now and 2050. In Australia, we have been led to believe we are ‘blessed’ with renewable, conservation and efficiency options that are more rapidly and more cost effectively deployed. Great! Then deploy them and let’s get those two fossil projects in NSW cancelled.

Without tangible evidence that non-nuclear actions will achieve the necessary cuts, the allocation of additional resources to the problem is justified. There is evidence from, say large renewable deployment efforts in Europe, to suggest a non-nuclear strategy challenges the ability of a nation to achieve significant emissions cuts (see this story on anti-nuclear Austria’s Kyoto target performance vs. its EU peers).

With respect to the timing, there is additional evidence that nuclear project implementation performance improves with experience. Citing the current projects in Finland and France is counterproductive since they are early implementations of a First-of-a-kind third generation design. As experience is gained, the implementation of this design will improve just as second generation design project performance has over the past few decades, particularly in Korea and Japan. For more details on modern nuclear plant construction – refer to this post.

The justification to keep nuclear power off the table in Australia is simply not there. In fact there is considerable, objective evidence to the contrary.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Non-proliferation and the US nuclear waste fund


Australia continues to refuse to export uranium to India, citing a longstanding policy that any country wishing to import Australian Uranium must, as a prerequisite, be party to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). This policy and the NPT are manifestations of the universal acceptance of the risk posed by the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Conversely, Australia freely exports coal to India among other countries. We are the world's #1 coal exporter (fossil fuel based emission proliferator?) - by far.

Share of coal exports (Australian Coal Association)

Why the double standard? Obviously there is no universally accepted acknowledgment of risk posed from the ongoing reliance on fossil fuels.

What is that? "If Australia doesn't sell the coal, then Indonesia or some other supplier will?"

But North Korea has been accused of assisting Syria in its attempts to develop non-peaceful nuclear technologies. If that is so, shouldn't the US, Russia, France, the UK and/or China be rushing into the nuclear weapons market? Aren't we all just in this for the economic sustainability??

Certainly NOT. At some point, something must trump raw and unmitigated financial gain.

The nuclear waste fund

In the USA, a fraction of one cent per KW of nuclear generated electricity consumed is applied to a nuclear waste fund. This scheme was developed to ensure customers of utilities relying on nuclear generation technology assume responsibility for the final disposition of that industry's waste. It is one of many examples of a user-pays solution to a technical problem.

One could make the 'no solution yet' point with respect to nuclear waste, but first consider my post on nuclear vs. fossil waste. At least nuclear power in the USA has a reserve of cash to apply to the challenge (and my hope is that this 'waste' is recognised as a valuable fuel for the next generation of reactors).

But no such approach yet exists for the minimisation, control or disposition of fossil fuel waste; despite the massive external costs society is shouldering from our reliance on it, according to consistent studies in Australia, the USA and Europe.

Consistent, objective quantification and management of risk

As I interpret Prof. Jim Hansen's recent presentation, the risks from our use of fossil fuels exceed those of nuclear weapons proliferation. This is because even if nuclear weapons proliferate to every corner of the globe, there is no guarantee they will be used. In such a perverse hypothetical, one could even make a large scale deterrent argument. Let me be clear, I am not advocating any reduction in global nuclear non-proliferation efforts. My point is that scientific consensus assures us that a certain degree of climate change is already 'in the pipeline' due to the inertia from past and current emissions. And if the use of fossil fuel technologies is allowed to continue - or worse - to proliferate further; the world will suffer the following consequences according to Hansen:

  • Ice Sheet Collapse,
  • Mass Extinctions,
  • Methane Clathrate Instability
  • Economic and Social Chaos
  • Runaway greenhouse warming

I read Hansen's presentations, letters and other writings as a call for a global fossil fuel technology non-proliferation treaty, in particular coal (zero new plants without co-deployed carbon capture and storage). Considering the magnitude of the risks, how can one attempt to justify lesser actions, to postpone action or to greenwash the status quo?

In his presentation, Hansen cites the need for a modern day Winston Churchill. This reminds me of the James Freeman Clarke quote, "A politician thinks of the next election. A statesman, of the next generation." ( Australian, the next poll?)


Nonsense. What about the jobs worldwide related to the production, maintenance and security of nuclear weapons? Does anyone want to step forward to defend them as a counter argument for the NPT? What about jobs in the global tobacco industry (farmers, tobacco product manufacturers, the global supply chain, retailers, vending machines, etc.)? Do we consider them when taxes are applied to the sale of tobacco products to offset external (healthcare) costs or laws are passed to restrict the ability to smoke in public places? Probably, but the offsetting risks are far more significant.

Fossil fuels are a carcinogen for our planet; literally as described in the studies linked above.

Furthermore, if all coal plants not employing CCS are to be completely phased out by 2030, a massive infrastructure development program will be required, especially in Australia with our 80% reliance on coal based electricity production had heavy reliance on non-sustainable, fossil fueled transport. We are already seeing job creation in the renewable energy market (solar hot water, home insulation, and wind farm deployment). This will have to continue and be significantly accelerated toward a scale that will allow the shift away from fossil fuels. And that means Australia's serious consideration of nuclear power as part of an internationally binding legal commitment to cut emissions as required to support a global 350 ppm scenario.

Fee and Dividend

Hansen's advocacy for a fee and dividend strategy can be compared with America's nuclear waste fund. Critics are quick to mock Hansen's idea and fear monger voters by labelling it a 'tax'. Okay then, let's cart out the bogyman, call the nuclear waste fund a 'tax', eliminate it and allow the market to subsequently solve the problems related to nuclear power's external costs since the example set to date by the fossil industry is so stellar.

Far from a simple tax, fee and dividend is a user pays system. Where those whose lifestyle is more carbon intensive, pay for the impact of the subsequent waste. Those with a leaner carbon lifestyle will be financially rewarded for their efforts and encouraged to further develop their good habits.

I don't want to repeat the detailed mechanism of fee and dividend. See the links above and below for that information. To understand the differences between fee and dividend and cap and trade, please see the video below. I do prefer fee and dividend to cap and trade because it applies a significant price incentive directly at the consumer level, helping motivate the large scale behavioral changes necessary to achieve aggressive emission reductions worldwide.

I will repeat Hansen's warnings about cap and trade. His concerns include the flow of money to carbon permit traders and the virtual locking in of the status quo / business as usual scenario - particularly if free permits are issued. In such a situation, permit traders have a cash incentive to prolong the transition to low emissions and ensure emissions never fall below the caps (else the permit market could collapse). This concern was echoed in a post by Steve Kirsch at BraveNewClimate. That post included the below video made by two attorneys working for the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Prof. James Hansen - back online

Following a few surgeries to address prostate cancer, Dr Hansen has returned to the online community. On November 6 he posted a summary of his activities over the past few months. He remained impressively active during his recovery; finishing a book, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity to be released December 8. He also gave a presentation in the Netherlands last month. As is his style, the full presentation and elaborated commentary may be found on his website. It's 18 pages in total and includes persuasive climate data and calls for action that include:

  • No new Coal Stations without carbon capture and storage.
  • Total phase-out of coal by 2030
  • Putting a price on carbon (fee and dividend approach)
  • Setting / improving energy efficiency standards
  • Deploying more renewable technologies (solar, wind, geothermal, biomass)
  • Deploying 3rd and 4th generation nuclear
  • Carbon capture and storage (used aggressively with biofuels)

Hansen also discussed his planned participation in a student led public action in Boston, USA. In this case, the action was a 'sleep-out' outside the Massachusetts State House, by students who refuse to sleep in dorms/apartments powered by coal-fired electricity. They weren't blaming the State government, but are looking for government leadership to solve the problem. Hansen, a world renowned scientist and author anticipated the possibility of getting into a bit of trouble with the law (a minor misdemeanor) and possibly paying a US $50 fine.

A few comments on the above summary.

First I'm delighted to learn the surgery went well, that Hansen is cancer free and his post-op recovery is complete. I wish him all the best and many more years to enjoy the company of his grandchildren and to defend their future.

Next, I note the inclusion of 3rd generation nuclear in Hansen's list of energy deployment options. I believe this is somewhat new compared to, say; his letter to the Obama's where he advocated the expedited development and deployment of Gen-4 designs. This is more evidence of the increasing trend of prominent environmentalists' calls for increased nuclear energy technology deployment. Stuart Brand's recent book being another.

Also, a comment on what I did not include above. Hansen lists a number of serious challenges to achieve the technically feasible - 350 ppm scenario. Most of these are linked to the significant influence of lobbyists and special interests (i.e. the large amount of money spent by the fossil fuel industry to sustain the status quo). He also criticises political green-washing and rhetoric, noting the significant divide between what he believes must be done and reality (for example, consider various Australian political and 'green' leaders who make claims about Australia being 'blessed with plentiful renewable resources' while coal stations continue to be deployed). Shameful - and worse - harmful distractions to tangible action toward real solutions.

Finally, I applaud Hansen's passion and full-throttle action; participating in the public action mentioned above, as well as his defence of the UK protest by the Kingsnorth 6 among others. I give him at least partial credit for my own participation in the day of action last month. I think I surprised the organiser who walked buy with a pamphlet asking if I understood what the action was about. Needless to say, he saved the material for another participant. It wasn't much, but it seemed noticeably more significant than sitting here, authoring a simple blog post.