Doomed Planet

Clean, Green and Absolutely Sustainable

One of history’s most valuable lessons is that much of what is widely believed at any one time will later be viewed as nonsense, and it is vanishingly unlikely that this does not still apply.  On the contrary, our current system of education is now actively pursuing an indoctrination in postmodern thought which seeks to deny, demean and dismiss the all-too-brief ascendancy of reason and evidence as embodied in the scientific method.  The impetus for this is simple. Reason and evidence threaten established careers, status and beliefs held dear in academia, and it is they who determine the content of education.

Resistance to this corruption of science is fading in favour of the notion of an innate, intuitively understood ‘higher’ morality.  Only the uncompromising clarity of the consequences of errors and false beliefs leaves engineering as one of the last remaining redoubts of simple evidence based truth.

A primacy of reason and evidence over authority and faith has been the essential foundation for the extraordinary advance in the human condition arising from Western Civilisation over the past few centuries.  However, this is now under existential threat by a rising surge of totalitarian ideology.  In a time of unprecedented prosperity, ease, and comfort, it appears a substantial slice of the populace is unhappy and seeking some greater meaning and purpose in life, albeit something which also requires minimal personal cost and effort. Public virtue signalling by conspicuously approving or disapproving ideas of negligible personal consequence has become epidemic, and there is a rich smorgasbord of such concerns from which to choose.  Environmental threats, various social inequalities and sexual aberrations, especially relating to gender, are currently the fashion.

The idea of an imminent and dire threat to the global climate from fossil fuel emissions and the necessity of a complete shift to wind and solar power is especially favoured. Although there is strong evidence to indicate the threat is far more uncertain and less severe than is being claimed and the limitations of the so-called renewable energy are manifold, reason and evidence rarely ever seem able to induce a committed believer to reconsider their faith. 

Fortunately, in this instance there is another option, and it offers a no-regrets solution that conforms far better to the unfolding reality.  It also affords the added bonus of avoiding a detour into the dustbin of history for those who cannot wake up and catch up.

Before examining this solution let’s just briefly consider some of the key limitations of wind and solar power:

♦ Both are diffuse and erratic with little control of availability.

♦ Output generation averages about only 25-30% of nameplate capacity (e. they require 3-4 times greater installed capacity in addition to full backup capacity running in standby mode.

♦ Massive energy farm development plus grid infrastructure expansion and operational complexity will be required.

♦ Hugely increased demand for copper, rare earths, lithium, and other resources is likely to exceed available supplies resulting in shortages and steep price increases.

♦ The service life of wind turbines and solar panels is only about 2 decades.

♦ Environmental impacts of the mining and refinement of raw materials plus the manufacturing, installation, operation, and disposal of outdated equipment will be extensive.

♦ Multi-fold increases in power costs and frequent blackouts should be expected as the new norm.

Regardless of all the pros, cons and uncertainties of climate change and renewable energy, there is a clean, safe, reliable, affordable, scaleable, low-impact no-regrets solution in the form of small modular nuclear reactors (SMR).  This not just some techno-nerd fantasy. Hundreds of this general type have been built and extensively operated over the past half-century in ships, submarines, and remote power installations. The technology is well understood and designs for commercial use are in advanced stages of development in several nations (read more here).

The advantages of SMRs are manifold:

♦ Efficient manufacture in a factory with only limited on-site construction required.

♦ Double or more service life than that of solar or wind technology.

♦ Power output is highly reliable, predictable, and controllable.

♦ Readily scalable to demand by adding modules.

♦ Minimal line loss and network complexity through nearby generation.

♦ Minimal environmental footprint or impact.

♦Radioactive waste can be easily and safely disposed in deep mines located in stable geological locales where there is no groundwater.

The only real problem is nuclearphobia, now endemic in our culture.  Meanwhile, China and Russia will continue to use our social media, NGOs and UN bodies to stoke our fears and our economic self-flagellation while continuing to expand their own use of fossil fuels until their own SMR technology is mature and competitive.  At the same time, Russia will enjoy large profits from providing natural gas to Europe, as will China from selling us the expensive renewable technology — solar cells and wind turbines for starters — to assure our general economic impairment.  Then, all too soon, all that junk will present a major disposal problem, in addition to requiring costly and ongoing replacement.    

A further consideration in favour of SMR technology involves the risk of high intensity solar flares to the current power grid with such vulnerability being further increased by the expansion of the grid imposed by the diffuse nature of wind and solar power.  Analysis indicates that X-class flares, which have the potential to  inflict widespread damage to the grid via a ‘Carrington Event’, may be likely on a centennial time scale with damage requiring weeks or months to repair. Such extended outages would render affected cities uninhabitable resulting in waves of refugees flooding out in a highly distressed condition. Dispersed SMR-based power employing only small local networks would be relatively easy to protect from such damage and much easier to repair.

Regardless of all the virtue signalling, eco-evangelism, and whatever climate may or may not do, SMR technology is on track to begin to be commercially available within this decade.  It’s advantages in cost, reliability, dispatchability and environmental impact are overwhelming.  All of the cost, effort and resources going into wind and solar power will almost inevitably turn out to have been a costly dead end and, given the inevitability that sooner or later there will be another massive Carrington Event, the economies depending on them will struggle to recover.

To compound the impossibilities of achieving Net Zero using wind and solar power, it will also demand an approximate doubling of electrical power generation to replace all our cars, trucks and buses with electric vehicles.  Then, too, there will be a need to accommodate a huge increase in demand driven by population growth and Third World economic development.

The only thing that makes possible even a shred of serious consideration of the renewable power fantasy must surely be the apparent widespread disability in quantitative reasoning, as is manifest in the interchangeable use of  millions, billions and trillions of dollars when our betters spruik the “investment” of going green.

We have entered an era of unprecedented change and complexity in human affairs with which our existing systems of governance and problem-solving are proving inadequate.  Choosing leadership by ongoing popularity contests and relying on proclamations from a high priesthood of self-proclaimed academic expertise for matters shrouded in unknowns, uncertainties and assumptions is simply not good enough. If we cannot soon begin to recognise the necessity of a fundamental rethink in regard to problem solving, the ascendency of Western Civilisation appears likely to prove to be all too brief. That has been a recurrent pattern in human history.

On a more hopeful note, there is one thing that may make this time truly different.  The advent of powerful Artificial Intelligence is beginning to become too effective to ignore.  It at least affords some hope of restoring a primacy of reason and evidence in problem solving, and perhaps even serving as an effective antidote against our addiction to self-serving rationales and comforting nonsense.

Walter Starck is a marine biologist and regular contributor to Quadrant

11 comments
  • Daffy

    Let’s eschew the propagandistic term ‘renewables’. The technology is not ‘renewable’ it is depletive. It’s output is unreliable. It’s a crock. One can only think that it is a vast project to disadvantage the already poor, and make the less well, if not most of us, off the new poor. Yet the humanitarian charities act as gormless shills for the destroyers.

  • andrew2

    “A primacy of reason and evidence over authority and faith has been the essential foundation for the extraordinary advance in the human condition arising from Western Civilisation over the past few centuries.”

    Science should always be subordinate to the Good. We are in the state we are in because people have a tendency to use technological advancements for evil purposes.

  • pgang

    And in whose back yard do we store the nuclear waste?
    ‘Radioactive waste can be easily and safely disposed in deep mines located in stable geological locales where there is no groundwater.’ Not at all. When a mine is abandoned it is abandoned. The cost of constant rehabilitation would be horrendous and prone to disaster, and there are no mines without ground water. De-watering is one of the major engineering problems mines face. Good luck finding a mine in a ‘stable geological locale’, especially a deep one.
    This ‘the answer is nuclear’ meme is nonsense. It is merely playing the game of the climate scolds. We do not need to reduce CO2 emissions, end of story. Coal is the answer to our energy requirements, and the conversation never needed to be continued any further.
    Artificial Intelligence? People are still pulling that magical solution out of the box? To be ‘On’ or ‘Off’ is not a decision, it is a condition.
    ‘A primacy of reason and evidence over authority and faith has been the essential foundation for the extraordinary advance in the human condition arising from Western Civilisation over the past few centuries.’ Somewhat backwards. You can’t have reason without faith. Primacy of reason is a self-defeating concept since it is not self-evident. Authority is necessary to discern truth. It’s the chosen Authority that makes the difference, so it’s a good idea to choose an Authority that embraces reason.
    These days we choose the government/media/corporate conglomerate as our source of authority. Australia seems particularly susceptible to this, having never taken our spiritual growth seriously. Therein lies the problem.

  • Peter Marriott

    Informative piece Walter and of course we should have some nuclear power, if for no other reason than it’s a good long term fall back position, and it’s essential, or at least should be, for our defensive capabilities, especially our ships and even more especially our submarines. Our submarines should be nuclear…tomorrow….. and we can get them off the shelf, almost, from the US at a good price, in the form of their excellent Virginia Class boat. Concerning electricity we have the cheapest power available for hundreds of years yet right under our feet, in our top quality black coal and brown lignite. Unlimited power 24 / 7 at 1/3 rd. the price of the ridiculous, unreliable, inefficient wind turbines and especially the low.low, low efficiency photovoltaic wafers. It’s only the political will that’s lacking and in my view some of this could be solved overnight by legislating non-compulsory voting and first past the post electoral voting. This would emasculate the radical minority groups like the Greens and remove the power they have over the majority of us, and force our ordinary polies to fight a lot harder for their votes. It would also reduce the power of the Socialist Marxist types running the Labour Party these days, as well as lefty types that have infiltrated the conservative parties over the last 40 to 50 years.

  • rod.stuart

    The driver for the war against coal is the idiotic phobia of CO2.
    There is a close parallel with the current phobia of “the CASES, the CASES”.
    All constructed on a mountain of nonsense called the RT-PCR ‘test’ which detects the common cold and influenza and is not quantifiable.
    We are lost in the drive for global communism.

  • Michael

    I sense that the renewables-only fantasy will have to fail, proving too unreliable, too expensive, its sprawling infrastructures too environmentally problematic, with ‘demand management’ too hated, and job and economic loses too severe, before Australia seriously considers the obvious low-emissions alternative, nuclear energy, the twentieth century’s promethean gift.

  • ianl

    This will be too long, but a comment above on mining geology contains too many errors to deal with on a point by point basis. It just wearies me.
    Just read the Wiki on uranium ores: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uranium_ore
    A simple quote: “Uranium is one of the more common elements in the Earth’s crust, being 40 times more common than silver and 500 times more common than gold. It can be found almost everywhere in rock, soil, rivers, and oceans. The challenge for commercial uranium extraction is to find those areas where the concentrations are adequate to form an economically viable deposit. The primary use for uranium obtained from mining is in fuel for nuclear reactors”
    Uranium ores as mined contain the core mineral uraninite UO2, a weakly radioactive substance that has no hazard to it until enriched in a purpose-built plant (which most likely is not on the minesite).
    When mines are closed (market loss, ore exhausted), they are rehabilitated to a previously agreed state – not “abandoned”. The mining entity is required to deposit a very considerable amount of hard cash in escrow to cover the end rehab before mining commences.
    About 60% of the Australian continent has very little groundwater flow (which means below surface), especially the desert deposits of uraninite and associated ores, and the small groundwater flows that do occur occasionally (mostly from surface flows across the continent resulting from landed cyclones) pose no more risk than to unmined deposits. BHP’s Olympic Dam mine demonstrates this.
    Stable geological conditions means no significant ground tremors (earthquakes) as measured by constant, world-wide seismic recordings. Again, about 60% of the continent is so recorded to great depths with no seismic traces within a few thousand km. France has been successfully dealing with the nuclear plant waste issue for many decades but would accept waste deposition in central Australia instantly, for the economic savings alone.
    None of this presents a rational reason not to develop and use modular nuclear power plants as Walter Starck outlines. Other irrational reasons do exist. The true conflict between modular nuclear power and retaining the existing coal-fired stations is simply line by line economics. I have no firm opinion on that as yet; the economic data is not available.

  • Tricone

    I have been involved in a mooted project in the UK for drilling wells to store nuclear waste.

    The volume of actual waste is mind-bogglingly small.
    A stash of beer barrels outside a very small pub would have more volume.
    I don’t believe waste is the intractable problem anti-nuclear activists pretend it is.

  • Biggles

    The only hope for a turn away from ‘renewables’ lies in the progressive fall in northern hemisphere winter temperatures as the current Grand Solar Minimum advances. The idiocy of pouring more money into windmills and solar panels will finally be recognised. Last year in Texas, a state heavily reliant on wind power, people died of the cold. There will be more of that this winter. Even we in Australia will eventually get the message, although, as ‘Black Jack’ McEwen said years ago, ‘it is impossible to underestimate the intelligence of the Australian electorate’.

  • robtmann7

    I agree with Walt about our current confused context. However, fission power remains severely hampered by difficulties.
    1 Diversion of fissile materials to make nuclear weapons has always been a major concern of independent analysts. Australia’s pioneer nuclear advocates little disguised their belief that this is good.
    2 The reactors in the submarines typically use high-enriched fuel. Some of NZ’s advocates for marine reactors have become concerned at the possibility that, in the event of meltdown after loss of coolant, a low-order nuclear explosion may disperse the radioactive materials over a wider area. And anyhow high-enriched fuel cannot be made in Australia.
    3 The claim that the proposed ‘modular’ ‘small’ reactors cannot melt themselves has quietly receded – as it should.
    4 If it were only ignorant greenies who point out the disposal of high-level nuclear waste remains unsolved, why have no govts adopted any method (with the possible exception of some secret USSR method)?
    5 The infrastructure for monitoring the ‘safe’ nuclear reactors entails far more personnel, training labs, etc than most citizens realise.
    6 To license and then build such a nuclear power station would take nearer 2 than 1 decade, given any continuation of law as we have known it. Interest during construction is a severe handicap.
    7 The capital price, and total operating & maintenance, is far higher than those of the dreaded windmills, let alone PV.

  • Lewis P Buckingham

    As RTM points out the legislative and economic hurdles to build a nuclear power plant in Australia appear insurmountable.
    I recall one independent analyst, viz Bob Hawke, arguing that we had so much uranium it was a pity not to use it to stop global warming.
    So as he argued for it and the left does not agree, there is no bipartisan chance of doing this in Australia.
    However the opportunity still remains to desalinate water in trackless deserts and bring base load power to otherwise energy poor regions of the earth.
    The Hawke plan consisted of,
    Maintain signatory status to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty.
    Export uranium.
    Agree to take back spent material and bury it in our massive dry Australian Plate.
    Use CSIRO technology of glassified rock to do this.
    Note that the Chinese have already hacked the CSIRO and BOM and have access to the patents. No need to look any further.
    They are probably using it, like the F 35 plans.
    Synroc was developed here in Australia.
    By receiving the waste back again this controls it being used in the nuclear weapon cycle.
    We export almost 10% of the world uranium requirement.
    https://www.dfat.gov.au/publications/corporate/asno-annual-report-2018-19/site/section-2/australias-uranium-production-and-exports.html
    The defense argument is that if we want the equivalent of Virginia Class, lifetime 30 year refueled, silent attack subs, then we need to start a nuclear industry now.
    We are an island nation entirely dependent upon trade by sea.
    Interdiction of our shipping lanes would collapse us in 30 days due to liquid fuel scarcity.
    We need subs.
    As RTM points out the actual costs would dwarf that of solar collectors in the first place, but I think that once establishment costs were paid the nuclear may win out on cost over 30 years.
    This is because solar and wind, by their nature are non dispatchable and solar panels and turbines degrade over relatively short time periods.
    Solar derives its value due to heavy subsidy.
    I note that Origin is offering a feed in tariff of 5c/kwhr, with a subsidy on the panels themselves.
    Over time, as the fleet of solar maxes out, this will be cut or even charged for.
    China is looking to make commercial barge nukes for electricity generation.
    They are trialling them in the South China Sea.
    Their nuclear electricity output is compounding at about 6% per annum.
    I don’t think that the three year political cycle allows for nuclear generation.
    However Bob was right.
    We need to be involved in waste management to prevent proliferation and develop energy poor countries.
    Someone, not us, will make small modular reactors.
    They will be factory processed.
    When they do that, we should adopt some and burn our own uranium, just like everyone else does with it.
    A leader will emerge.

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