One of the few bright aspects of the current catastrophic climate change meme is that a number of environmentally minded people are looking seriously at the only option that there is to replace fossil fuel use in baseload power generation.
First of all, lets look at what baseload power is, and why it exists. Demand for electrical power varies quite considerably across the days and across the seasons. The amount being generated must be matched to the amount being consumed, or we suffer voltage variation (brown outs, power surges, etc). Now, different forms of generation have different characteristics in terms of flexibility, control, location and cost. Consider the following options:
Hydro is flexible, controllable, and low cost. About its only downside is that it is limited to fixed locations (where large volumes of water drop) and that it is largely captured – there really isn’t that much more to extract. So hydro combines the highest quality power with, in many cases, the lowest costs. Coal is inflexible, controllable, and low cost. The output of a coal fired power station can only be changed slowly, and only by a limited amount. Gas and Oil are flexible, controllable and of medium cost. Wind and solar power are inflexible, uncontrollable and high cost; they are both driven by natural conditions rather than electricity demand.
Coal fired power in Australia provides for what we call the base load – the power demand that is always there. It has made sense here to produce as much power as possible using coal, given that it is readily and locally available, and low cost. But because of its inflexibility, we need alternative sources to cover peak loads – the extra power required when demand rises above the level continuously required. Preferentially, we have would use (and have used) hydroelectric power to cover this need given that it is able to produce variable output at low cost. However, in any place there is only so much hydroelectric capacity available, and we have pretty much tapped all of the available sources nationwide. So we use gas or oil powered turbines to cover the remainder at a medium cost. Solar and wind power, (normally with battery and/or generator backup), have served usefully as remote or isolated power sources where distance and transport costs make other options cost prohibitive.
And all was well in the land until concern regarding a) the potential for oil and gas to rise in price significantly as supplies dwindled and b) the effect of carbon dioxide (and other) emissions arose.
What to do? Well-intentioned but misdirected people pushed ‘renewable energy’ forward as a network generation option. Solar power was installed in homes and fields, wind generators cropped up in windier areas, and strangely, the amount of gas and oil consumed went up. It turns out that because we have no control over when wind and solar energy provide power, they end up reducing the amount of power that can be considered baseload. Think about it. If a network is providing its baseload level and starts receiving power from a wind turbine, there is no where that power can go but into higher voltage. So a buffer needs to be left, even at minimum demand, so that these uncontrolled inputs can be allowed for. That buffer must then filled by hydro, oil or gas fired supply during the times the renewables are not available. Every wind or solar installation needs to be backed up by flexible generation capacity of equal output.
What we actually need to bring down power costs while dealing with the concerns regarding emissions is an affordable, alternative, baseload supply that is not CO2 based. The only option available to us now is nuclear energy. In Tasmania, we need to invest in more generation capacity this decade, and the only other potential option, geothermal, will not be ready within that period.
Nuclear is not as cheap as coal, but it is more than competitive with natural gas or oil. It produces no CO2, nor other airborne pollutants. They emit less radiation than a coal fired power station. It produces no waste that can’t now be consumed in the production of more power. It produces valuable medical materials that we have no other way of producing.
It is also, by a significant margin, the safest form of electrical generation ever developed. Consider the recent events in Japan. Not only did one of the oldest sets of nuclear reactors in the world survive a 9.0 earthquake and a 14m tidal wave intact, it also managed to shut down after all of it’s backup power failed. In doing so, no one was hurt to any degree greater than a bad sunburn. Some gases were released, but nothing that affected more than the immediate area, and nothing there that will persist long term. In what could be described as a very real worst case scenario, these old reactors came through with flying colours. Consider too that in the same events, more than 10,000 people died from a tidal wave; some 1800 died from the collapse of a hydroelectric dam; dozens died in a fire at the local refinery. And that was 1960’s technology.
Today, compact reactors are available that can be manufactured, transported and emplaced in a prepared site. In Tasmania we have some superb locations for nuclear facilities; existing hydroelectric stations are generally well sited and already provide much of the infrastructure that would be required. For instance, Strathgordon would provide a superb location for a nuclear facility. It is remote, has plentiful cold water, existing electrical and supporting infrastructure.
Co-locating nuclear with our existing hydro power would also make that infrastructure more valuable. Rather than having to use our high value hydroelectric power, it can be used to provide the more valuable peak load supply here and interstate. It also takes pressures off our dam levels for those periods where there is lower than normal rainfall.
The installation of between 400 and 700MW of nuclear power would set Tasmania up moving forward into the next century, as building the hydro schemes did 50 years ago. It is time to reconsider any outdated opposition to nuclear power, seeing in it the opportunity to return our state to a CO2 free condition and make the most of the hydroelectric power we already posses. Let’s take the nuclear option.
P.S. For further reading:
- About similar moves in South Australia – Decarbonise SA
- About what happened in Japan – Neutron Economy
- About one option for consideration – B&W mpower
- Ongoing commentary on the nuclear industry – Atomic Insights