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  • Dayne Eckermann August 2015 1

    Generating electricity from nuclear fuels

    A submission to Issues Paper #4 of the Royal Commission into South Australia’s involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle August 2015


    Our changing climate and the relationship with energy generation The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reinforces the

    link between concentrations of greenhouse gasses in the earth’s atmosphere and increases in

    global mean surface temperatures, stating that human interference of the global climate system

    is “clear”, that “recent anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide are the highest in history” and

    that a warming of the climate system is now “unequivocal” (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate

    Change, 2014). Global mean surface temperatures have increased by 0.85 degrees Celsius

    between 1880-2012 and annual average global carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations reached

    395 parts per million in 2013, their highest level for 800,000 years due mainly to the combustion

    of fossil fuels for energy generation (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2014). In a

    more local context, Australia’s climate has warmed by 0.9 degrees Celsius since 1910 and

    these temperatures are projected to continue to increase into the future, cognisant to the

    concentrations of greenhouse gasses such as CO2 emitted into the atmosphere and ‘locked-in’

    temperature increases due to current accumulated atmospheric greenhouse gas

    concentrations (Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology & Commonwealth Scientific

    and Industrial Research Organisation, 2014).

    Australia’s goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 2000 levels by 2050

    (Wood & Edis, 2012). Reaching this target will require the successful reduction of emissions

    from electricity generation via a combination of increasing energy efficiency, reducing our

    overall energy production and consumption and in changing the way in which we produce

    stationary energy (e.g. electricity). Historically, stationary energy policy in Australia has focused

    on supplying electricity that is both secure and affordable. Australia has now effectively added

    a third objective: achieving low-carbon electricity generation within the coming four decades

    (Wood & Edis, 2012).

    More locally, South Australia has a greenhouse gas reduction target of 40% less than 1990

    levels by 2050, legislated for in the Climate Change and Greenhouse Emissions Reduction Act

    2007 (South Australia). Much of this reduction will come from changing the way in which South

    Australia produces its electricity and to date, South Australia has made significant inroads into

    the decarbonisation of its electricity generation via the successful integration of renewable

    energy such as wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) into its grid (Heard, Bradshaw, & Brook, 2015).

    This submission touches on the economic and technical complexities of integrating large

    amounts of intermittent renewable energy sources such as wind and solar PV and asserts that

    complementing South Australia’s successful renewable energy scale up and completing the

    decarbonisation task could be technically feasible using nuclear energy technologies.

    A number of analyses have been undertaken in recent years exploring pathways for Australia

    to adopt in order to transition it energy sector toward low or zero carbon sources. For example,

    Stock (2014) outlines a practical pathway to achieving a greenhouse gas emissions reduction

  • Dayne Eckermann August 2015 2

    target of 80% by 2050, which recommends the replacement of old fossil fuel power plants with

    more efficient technologies, the capture and sequestration of emissions produced from existing

    fossil fuel plants and the production of more zero emission renewable energy. Unfortunately,

    what is otherwise a sound and informative analysis does itself a disservice by arbitrarily

    excluding the use of nuclear power from its discussion of options for Australia’s energy future.

    In addition, the analysis discusses large-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) energy installations but

    fails to adequately compare this technology to other large-scale sources on criteria such as

    capacity factor, which would reveal substantial limitations associated with this technology. In

    addition, the analysis fails to account for the intermittency of renewable energy technologies

    such as wind and solar PV, which creates unique complexities in managing their contribution

    to a standard electricity grid and often leads them to be wedded to natural gas (The Grattan

    Institute, 2011). Another study of note, undertaken by Elliston, Diesendorf and MacGill (2012),

    also consciously excludes nuclear energy from its work in modeling a decarbonised electricity

    system comprised of 100% renewable energy using a combination of energy storage

    technologies, intermittent renewable sources and sources such as biomass to provide baseload

    electricity typically performed by thermal generators such as coal or natural gas. While the

    study in question recognises the crucial function of baseload generation in an electricity market

    such as the National Electricity Market (NEM) of which South Australia’s grid is connected to,

    the work of Elliston, Diesendorf and MacGill (2012) has been effectively critiqued on

    technological and economic grounds in studies such as Heard, Bradshaw and Brook (2015).

    The key factors underpinning critical analysis of the works such as those mentioned above will

    be touched on throughout this submission.

    Energy reliability and economic development The development of the Australian economy, much the same as the rest of the western

    developed world, has been underpinned by access to cheap and reliable energy. In the

    Australian context, fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas have supplied this cheap and

    reliable energy. Countries in the global ‘south’ (i.e. developing nations), with large populations

    and significant sections of society lacking access to reliable electricity, are in the midst of

    unprecedented development and as such, will require large amounts of installed electricity

    generation. Contrary to popular notions of sustainable development that prescribe a form of

    energy austerity to address socio-environmental objectives, it is the massive expansion, rather

    than contraction of energy systems, carried out primarily in the relentlessly urbanising global

    ‘south’, that provides the context and opportunity for a robust, coherent, and ethical response

    to the global challenges of sustainable human and economic development (Caine, et al., 2014).

    The use of solid fuels (coal and biomass) - a common source of energy in developing nations

    where populations lack access to large scale, reliable energy - is likely to be the largest source

    of air pollution on a global scale and as such, more than 1.6 million deaths of 38.5 million

    disability adjusted life years are attributable to indoor smoke from solid fuels in 2000 (World

    Health Organisation, 2006). For example, the air in New Delhi, India, is the world’s most toxic

    in part due to the high concentrations of PM2.5 1, comprised of burning garbage, coal and diesel.

    While ‘developing’ countries such as India are planning to expand their use of coal-fired

    electricity out of necessity and accessibility (Harris, 2014), the global energy, air quality and

    climate change imperative means that decisions to bring online new electricity generation

    infrastructure will need to, where possible, consider lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions if

    countries are committed to a global effort to avoid the worst case temperature rise scenario

    and worst impacts of climate change by containing atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 450

    1 PM2.5 refers to particulate matter less than 2.5 micrograms in diameter. The safe level of PM2.5 is 25 micrograms per cubic meter. The air in New Delhi has been measured at 225 micrograms per cubic meter (Harris, Delhi wakes up to a problem it cannot ignore, 2015).

  • Dayne Eckermann August 2015 3

    parts per million.

    For rural and smaller scale settings in countries such as India, renewable energy technologies

    such as solar photovoltaic (PV) will form an important component of the energy access

    challenge (Katakey & Chakraborty, 2014). However, the scale of energy required is such that

    in order to satisfy its goal of achieving 20 per cent low carbon energy by 2030, China, for

    example, will need to build between 800-1000 Gigawatts of clean power over the next fifteen

    years, essentially duplicating the entire energy fleet of the United States (Johnson, 2015). Thus,

    as the largest, most mature source of low carbon baseload energy globally (World Nuclear

    Association, 2015a), nuclear energy will play an important role alongside renewable energy in

    addressing the dual climate change and economic development imperatives for many

    jurisdictions. In this context, it is inevitable that the scale up of low carbon baseload sources of

    energy su

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