Fission for an answer to all our energy woes
Whether purchasing a house or a car, developing a mineral deposit, or planning for water or energy security, exploring our options is roundly regarded as a good place to start. Options let us explore alternate pathways. They let us envisage and model different outcomes.
Options let us consider the costs and benefits of action from a range of perspective with a simple goal in mind: making the best, most informed and beneficial decision we can in a world of scarcity and finite resources.
It follows that the exclusion of options at the early stages of planning runs the risk of the opposite outcome. Unless we get lucky, closing ourselves to options without objective analysis is nearly destined to generate an outcome that is sub-optimal. That means embracing higher costs for slimmer benefits, which then limits our ability to deliver more and better change in future.
That’s where Australia sits, right now, in looking ahead to plan the next half century of development of that most crucial input to our economy, energy. We appear to be fully appraised of the enormity of the challenge we face, that of sustaining and growing an economy while decarbonising one of the most carbon-intensive electricity supplies on earth.
Yet we approach the challenge with an arbitrary exclusion of a major potential solution. We exclude nuclear power.
Despite being the world’s largest exporter of uranium, nuclear power has been legally prohibited in Australia since 1990. Since that time our greenhouse gas emissions from electricity production have grown 18 per cent as we have extended our dependence on fossil fuels. Nuclear power is not a bit player in the global scene.
It provided over 12 per cent of global electricity in 2011. By excluding it before we even start our planning, the options that are well suited to providing zero-carbon baseload become very, very scarce, limited to a range of technologies that, in 2012 at least, are financial and technological non-starters.
As Professor Barry Brook recently pointed out, modelling from the CSIRO eFutures tool allows us to see the impact of this arbitrary exclusion on a nation-wide energy scenario. The result is unsurprising.
Modelling without nuclear yields a higher-cost result, with nearly double the greenhouse gas emissions. Even that outcome is dependent on the questionable assumption of carbon capture and storage delivering around a third of the supply.
Another, potentially more tangible way to illustrate this type of impact is to model different technologies against a range of criteria in the hypothetical delivery of a defined energy challenge. That is precisely what we have done in our new report Zero Carbon Options.
The task the technology options had to meet was the hypothetical replacement of South Australia’s Playford and Northern Power Stations based on 2009/2009 levels of generations. Two reference zero-carbon technology options have been compared head to head against thirteen criteria: a nuclear power option (in this case, an Enhanced CANDU6 reactor) and a hybrid solar thermal with storage/wind power development.
The results are telling. For dramatically less capital investment, the reference nuclear solution delivers a greater quantity of electricity, with a far higher capacity factor, at a much lower cost per megawatt hour. The superior dispatchability and higher electricity production means the reference nuclear solution delivers greater reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
It occupies a dramatically smaller footprint on the land, uses far less fresh water in operation and is constructed with fewer resources for a much longer lifespan. The principal trade-off for these benefits is the accumulation of a small quantity of spent fuel, to be housed on site.
Before we reject options in major state and national decisions, we need to impartially assess them. We can continue the arbitrary exclusion of nuclear power and pay the national price. But thanks to tools like eFutures and reports like Zero Carbon Options, it will be much harder to do this in ignorance of the costs we are incurring and the benefits we are forgoing. A different option is available to Australia. Will we exercise it?
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