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Most informed commentators agree that Australia needs a better mix of energy sources.  We are too dependent on fossil fuel.  This results in a very high rate of carbon dioxide production per capita; and this has international and domestic implications in the context of concerns about climate change.

 

For a more in-depth discussion of climate change follow this link.

While we can increase the production of renewables the potential to significantly expand hydroelectricity (the largest renewable resource worldwide) is limited by:  

  • insufficient rainfall in populated areas;
  • the generally flat nature of the continent; and
  • strong public and political objections to further river diversions and/or dam construction on a scale that could make a significant contribution. 

Wind power is the next best option.  

After making an allowance for 'externalities' related to climate, and recent and expected fossil fuel price rises, wind is already economically competitive at around twice the price of fossil sourced electricity.  But there are serious limits to the contribution wind can make in Australia due to the fluctuating nature of the resource, and the shortage of good sites close enough to most mainland consumers on the to deliver the energy without unacceptable losses. 

 

Capitol Wind Farm Publicity Shot
Capitol Wind Farm NSW - Publicity Shot

 

Solar is effectively unlimited but despite declining Photovoltaic (PV) panel costs, still more costly to recover (per kWh).  It may become competitive if battery and other cost limitations can be overcome. But at the moment (despite a lot of small domestic units installed) it is making a very small contribution to total electricity generation.  For a more in-depth discussion follow this link.

Australia hopes to obtain up to 20% of our electricity (which in turn contributes about a fifth of our total energy consumed - mostly from fossil fuel) from renewables by 2020.  This is very much a 'stretch goal' and on present trends is unlikely to be achieved.

We could do much better and also dramatically decrease our transport and industrial dependence on fossil fuel if we had fossil-fuel-free electricity. For example then we could use rail electrification and electric vehicles to reduce (rather than increase - as at present) carbon dioxide production.  But we have chosen not to.  So unlike the thirty or so countries that employ nuclear power and/or have vastly more hydroelectricity, we are 'fighting with our hands tied behind our back'.

I have come to support a nuclear component in the Australian energy mix after looking at these facts.  I have no financial or personal investment in the technology.  Indeed, I have a small financial (pragmatic) interest in wind, gas and coal businesses that might be inferred as creating the opposite bias.  

In practical, if not political, terms it seems a relatively trivial matter to progressively replace existing coal and gas fired stations with larger advanced nuclear ones in the same locations as they reach their end of life.  Elements of the electricity grid and cooling facilities are already in place, as is a workforce experienced in running power stations.  Local communities would benefit.  Ionising radiation from a coal fired power station is significant and would be lowered substantially and other hazards such as coal transport, noise, dust and toxic oxides would be eliminated.

The US National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) estimates the average radioactivity of coal is 17,100 millicuries/4 million short tons.  This results in a radiation dose to the population from a 1GW coal fired plant of 490 person-rem/year; a hundred times more than from a comparable nuclear plant.

Notwithstanding the problems in Japan at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, caused by the unprecedented earthquake and tsunami on March 11 2011, it remains safer to live near a modern nuclear reactor than near a fossil fuel burning power plant.  

If you doubt this, a recent New Scientist article [open this link] quotes the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force (The Toll from Coal, 2010): that reports that fine particles from coal power plants presently kill an estimated 13,200 people each year in the US. 

 

 


Nuclear Technology

 

 

There are presently 617 power reactors in 31 countries.   It is a mature and reliable technology and 116 older reactors have already safely completed their working life.  In general these were small machines employing old technology. The oldest Calder Hall at Seascale, Cumbria, England achieved criticality in January, 1956.  But the bulk of them, like the failed older plant at Fukushima, commenced construction in the 1960's and early 1970's.

 

Status Net generating capacity (MWe) Number of Reactors
Operating 372,791 441
Under construction 52,615 56
Shut down 38,476 116
Not operating 2,568 4
Grand Total 466,450 617

 

 

Most of us today would be dubious about boarding a Mk1 De Havilland Comet.  But that several of these crashed due to metal fatigue did not put an end to jet airliners.  We can easily distinguish various aircraft types and are generally happy with the recent technology despite the occasional crash.  We accept the very high levels of sophistication required to avoid more frequent disasters. 

But few it seems are able to distinguish one nuclear reactor technology from another. 

There are at least six broad technologies in current commercial use and each has variations depending on age and builder.

All fission reactors employ neutrons slowed-down by a moderator.  When slowed these combine with the nucleus of a heavy element such as uranium or plutonium to destabilise it.  The destabilised nucleus splits and releases further neutrons and heat.  These new neutrons are in turn slowed to result in further combinations with more heavy nuclei; and hence establish a 'chain reaction'.   

Most reactors operating in the world today employ at high pressure water as a moderator to slow the neutrons.  The high pressure water has a high boiling temperature and can be used in a heat exchanger to make steam in a secondary loop to drive turbines to make electricity.  High pressure reactors do not normally allow boiling to take place within the high pressure stage.  As a result they have a built in safety factor in that if the water in the reactor boils, due to pressure collapse or excessive heat; for example if the secondary cooling fails, moderation reduces and the reactor turns itself down.   

In addition, fission reactors are typically controlled by means of control rods containing neutron absorbing materials like: silver; indium; cadmium; boron; cobalt and hafnium; these are lowered into, or raised from, the core containing the fuel, to optimise reactor performance.

 

Cruas Nuclear Power Station
Cruas Nuclear Power Station in France 
Comprising four pressurized water reactors of 900 MW each - totalling 3600 MW 
Just three such plants would replace all the remaining coal-burning generation in NSW

 

Some older water based reactors, like Fukushima 1 to 4, were not of this pressurised design.  They are designed to produce steam directly to run the turbines; boiling the water within the reactor. 

When fully inserted the control rods stop the chain reaction.  But as we have seen at Fukushima, it can be some time before all heat generation stops and without cooling or replacement, the water in the reactor is at risk of boiling away; resulting in a potential 'meltdown'.  This did not happen to the two newer reactors (5&6) at Fukushima that were subjected to the same events.

Some other older designs like the reactor at Three Mile Island and in the old Eastern Block, like Chernobyl, use graphite as an additional moderator so that less enriched uranium could be used as fuel but these get rapidly hotter if the cooling water boils away and graphite has proven to be an additional fire/explosion risk if the reactor goes critical. 

Yet other designs use a different fluid in the primary heat loop such as molten sodium metal.  Some new designs, that are inherently meltdown immune, use pelletised fuel to heat gas that can be used to power a gas turbine.

For a more in-depth discussion of the Fukushima situation follow this link

 


The anti-nuclear lobby

 

 

There is a very well organised worldwide anti-nuclear lobby.  This is particularly active amongst German 'greens' but has sympathetic elements in most 'Green'  political parties worldwide.  The Green Movement can be likened to the Church.  It offers both a theology and a career path.  Green politicians and activists typically need rallying issues to gather 'grass roots' supporters and attract resources.  Among these iconic issues are whaling, dams, GM foods and other crops, animal welfare, garbage disposal, nanotechnology and nuclear power.

In the case of nuclear power there are several standard arguments:  nuclear weapons proliferation; waste disposal; alleged cost subsidisation and the claimed dangers involved in the technology.

For further insights into this movement follow this link

It is true that plutonium refined from used reactor fuel rods can be used to manufacture weapons.  It is also true that some isotopes generated during fission have very long half lives.

Most sensible people oppose nuclear weapons proliferation; see this link to Bertrand Russell on this website. Of the thirty one countries with nuclear power just eight are known to have developed nuclear weapons.  

 

 

But one weapons developer, Israel, has no nuclear power reactor.  Several developed their weapons before introducing nuclear power and all nine have specialist facilities dedicated to weapons manufacture, quite separate to electricity generation.  In addition to these South Africa once developed nuclear weapons, allegedly in cooperation with Israel, but has since dismantled its stockpile of six bombs.  Three former soviet block members hold nuclear weapons they did not develop.

As an alternative to coal or gas for base load generation nuclear power is now very much an economic proposition and more than competitive with the higher cost renewables such as wind and solar.  Follow this link for additional information on renewables.  

Given the requirement for secrecy, massive capital investment and the breach of treaty obligations involved it is implausible that a commercial or state-owned power generator in Australia would take the opportunity to refine plutonium (a very costly and technology intensive process) for the purpose of making a weapon. The same goes for many of the countries already using commercial nuclear power.

The US and UK and several European countries have been using nuclear power for decades and the waste has not proven to be an insurmountable issue.  Indeed the US is about to begin reprocessing old fuel that can now usefully be reused.  As to terrorists making a 'dirty' conventional bomb there are many chemicals, like sarin, and biological agents, like anthrax, that are potentially easier to obtain and deliver and constitute a similar threat.  

When logic fails an alternative strategy is to attack the integrity of an opponent.

Anti-nuclear activists like to use words like 'high priests' to describe the scientists and engineers who design and run nuclear power generators;  and words like  'secrecy', 'cover-up' and 'corruption' are used in almost every discussion of the utilities employing the technology. Yet the same criticisms could be directed at almost any technology or corporation; including those exploiting coal and gas or owning wind farms or solar generators. 

Another strategy is to condemn the whole by finding fault with a related issue. The entire nuclear industry is spoken of as a single enemy with no differentiation made between competing and often radically different technologies.

Yet the actual technologies in use are not secret; indeed nuclear power is better documented and controlled that almost any other modern technology.  Conceptually it does not involve 'high priests'. Anyone of average intelligence can easily understand the basic principles; and these are readily accessible in a public library; in a children's 'how does it work book'; or on the Internet. 

Almost all technologies are potentially dangerous.  Tens of thousands of people are killed and injured annually by fire.  All systems need to be properly designed, regularly maintained, and competently run. Nevertheless all will fail from time to time and we need to improve designs and practice based on that experience.  Consider the many rail disasters, plane crashes, car accidents, chemical plant explosions, mine disasters and so on. Society has learned to accept these risks as part of the cost of the benefits they bring.

It is far more risky getting into a car driven by a friend than to live next door to a nuclear reactor.  In the case of your friend's car - was it designed to be safe in the first place?  Has it been properly maintained?  Is your friend competent, alert, healthy, sober?  Are other drivers and vehicles in the vicinity safe?  The list goes on. Similar arguments apply to aircraft, trains and boats.  The people who call nuclear engineers 'high priests' seldom apply such terms to describe motor mechanics, ships' captains, aircraft engineers or even pilots, yet the degree of specialist knowledge is directly comparable; and all of these technologies kill far more people a year then does nuclear power.

 


Technophobia

 

 

Today many people are technophobic.  They are surrounded by things they have little knowledge of.  They describe people who do understand things as 'geeks' or 'nerds'.  For them the chemistry, physics or biology on which their TV, computer, phone or medicines depend might just as well be magic.  

I find that many reasonably intelligent people have simply not taken the time to find out how things work. 

Simple things familiar to many teenagers of yesteryear like: the operation of an internal combustion engine and the difference between a four stroke, two stroke and diesel engine; or even more primitively: how the valving of a steam engine works, seem to have eluded them in their youth.

No one person can grasp the whole of technology. Specialists are required.  So I'm not suggesting that everyone should know how to tap a blast furnace; build a TV transmitter; or design a mobile phone.  But when it comes to common knowledge, like the physics of an aircraft wing or the operation of a gas turbine; or how a cellular phone; GPS; computer (CPU,  I/O, BIOS, memory etc); their TV; or even their old radio works, many seem to be 'completely in the dark'. 

Technical ability, spatial perception and mechanical aptitude are not universal.  Half the population has (by definition) less than 'average' ability to comprehend or implement technology.  Not everyone has the ability to change a tap washer let alone make simple repairs to their car or their computer.

So there is a risk that those with abilities that lie elsewhere may come to think that technical and scientific knowledge is akin to magic or the dark arts. 

To counter this the remainder has an intellectual duty to apply their higher ability to make themselves aware of the basics of how our contemporary technology works and to reassure the less competent. 

For more discussion of 'science, magic and religion' follow this link.

As a matter of personal prejudice I abhor the Luddite sentiment.  I detect this today in some Greens (stereotypically in 'alternative societal' dropouts) and in some European postmodernists and their Australian acolytes. 

Postmodernists were among the people who inspired the ultimate Luddite: Pol Pot, to embrace agrarian socialism, with the consequent torture and murder of engineers, scientists and other 'intellectuals'.  This ultimately led to societal collapse and the death of 20% of the entire Cambodian population (see Cambodia on this website) through murder and starvation. 

 

S21
Agrarian Socialist outcomes

 

As we saw in an exhibition in the infamous S21 torture prison, delegations of admiring European 'alternative lifestyle' advocates actually visited Cambodia and applauded his initiatives as the country declined into chaos.

This website strongly embraces the expansion of human knowledge and its associated technological capabilities and achievements.  I believe that these will be the achievements that distinguish the brief presence of humanity in this universe. 

In this context the harnessing of nuclear fission is but an additional step on the path to comprehending the universe and mastering our environment.  These steps include our earlier harnessing of fire in furnaces for pottery and metals manufacture; then replacing beasts of burden, slavery, serfdom and indentured labour with external combustion energy based on steam; followed by internal combustion and the harnessing of electricity.  

With commercial electricity came the development of new materials, electronic communications and computing.  Many of these advanced and novel materials are less than fifty years old but have become ubiquitous to the everyday consumer like: the ceramic magnets that are that basis of our motors and microwave ovens; the piezoelectric ceramics that light out gas fire; the liquid crystals that provide our screens; the electret plastics we talk to; or the semiconductors that provide us with logic and light.

In less than my lifetime computing, together with our other advances, has provided a massive increase in our ability to process and analyse our universe.  Technological advance has extended into new abilities in biology and medicine and to every aspect of our lives.

Without our knowledge of nuclear physics and the part played by nuclear fission in the history of science and technology none of this would have been possible. 

This is a step by step process. Nuclear fission may soon be joined by further steps along the technological path.  Nuclear fusion powers the Sun and has already been demonstrated on Earth in weapons (devastatingly) and in laboratories (more like a whimper than a bang) but is yet to be commercialised for peaceful commerce.  Commercial fission has been a necessary step along our path.  Let's continue forward.

 

2015 Fukushima Update:

My predictions on this website in 2011 have been confirmed.The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami resulted in 15,891 deaths, 6,152 injured and 2,584 people are still missing, mainly in the Fukushima area.Many of these deaths could have been avoided had conventional infrastructure been appropriately engineered.In comparison, despite its aging and outdated structures and design, there have been no casualties as a result of the damage to the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant.The World Health Organisation now says that due to prompt action there is virtually no risk to the health of people who were evacuated or anyone else.Early estimates of casualties from the nuclear accident, including up to 1,300 additional cancer deaths globally were quickly proven to be exceptionally alarmist [open this link].One health expert is reported as saying: "On the basis of the radiation doses people have received, there is no reason to think there would be an increase in cancer in the next 50 years. The very small increase in cancers means that it’s even less than the risk of crossing the road."By far the greatest and most likely threat to life in this region is not the (still crippled) reactors at the plant but another seismic event. Although evacuees are now returning to all but a small area, the media and political focus on the nuclear issue has distracted from required improvements to conventional infrastructure to guard against such a deadly recurrence.

 

 

 

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Travel

Europe 2022 - Part 2

 

 

 

In July and August 2022 Wendy and I travelled to Europe and to the United Kingdom (no longer in Europe - at least politically).

This, our first European trip since the Covid-19 pandemic, began in Berlin to visit my daughter Emily, her Partner Guido, and their children, Leander and Tilda, our grandchildren there.

Part 1 of this report touched on places in Germany then on a Baltic Cruise, landing in: Denmark, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Sweden and the Netherlands. Read more...

Now, Part 2 takes place in northern France. Part 3, yet to come, takes place in England and Scotland.

Read more: Europe 2022 - Part 2

Fiction, Recollections & News

Napoleon - the movie

 

As holiday entertainment goes, one could do worse than spend two-and-a-half hours (157 minutes) with Napoleon.

Wikipedia tells us: "Napoleon is a 2023 epic historical drama film directed and produced by Ridley Scott and written by David Scarpa. Based on the story of Napoleon Bonaparte, primarily depicting the French leader's rise to power as well as his relationship with his [first} wife, Joséphine, the film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon and Vanessa Kirby as Joséphine."

The many battle scenes are spectacular and have been praised for their accuracy.

Read more: Napoleon - the movie

Opinions and Philosophy

A modern fairytale - in a Parallel Universe

 

I've dusted off this little satirical parable that I wrote in response to the The Garnaut Climate Change Review (2008).  It's not entirely fair but then satire never is.

 


 

 

In a parallel universe, in 1920† Sidney, the place where Sydney is in ours, had need of a harbour crossing.

An engineer, Dr Roadfield, was engaged to look at the practicalities; including the geology and geography and required property resumptions, in the context of contemporary technical options. 

After considering the options he reported that most advanced countries solve the harbour crossing problem with a bridge.  He proposed that they make the decision to have a bridge; call for tenders for an engineering design; raise the finance; and build it.  We'll call it the 'Sidney Harbour Bridge' he said; then less modestly: 'and the new crossing will be called the Roadfield Highway'. 

Read more: A modern fairytale - in a Parallel Universe

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