Andrew Kenny – Nuclear energy sparks a divide, can it be the energy crisis saviour?

In this article, Andrew Kenny delves into the growing divide within the green movement regarding nuclear power. While historically opposed to it, many prominent ‘greens,’ including George Monbiot, have recently shifted their stance in favour of nuclear energy. Kenny challenges the main argument put forth by green energy proponents, which is that nuclear power can help mitigate the climate crisis by reducing CO2 emissions. Presenting an alternative viewpoint, asserting that there is no climate crisis and that rising CO2 levels can actually benefit plant growth. Additionally, the article highlights the safety, reliability, and affordability of nuclear power compared to solar and wind options.


Fallacies about nuclear, solar and wind

By Andrew Kenny*

The greens are becoming divided on nuclear power. Initially they were all against it but in recent years many leading greens, notably George Monbiot, a regular columnist for The Guardian in the UK, have swung in favour of it.

Their main reason for doing so is misplaced. They favour nuclear because it will reduce CO2 emissions and so help to prevent the ‘climate crisis’. Actually, there is no climate crisis. The climate over the last hundred years has been healthy and benign, a bit too cold perhaps compared with most of the pre-industrial age, but much better than the unusual cold of the 14th to 19th centuries. Rising CO2 from present low levels will have little if any effect on the climate but a wonderfully benevolent effect on plant growth.

However, it is true that over the full life cycle – mining, construction, manufacture, operation and decommissioning – nuclear power releases about the least amount of CO2 of any energy technology, including solar and wind. A much better reason for favouring nuclear power is that it is the safest, cleanest, most reliable power that we know and very affordable. Around the world, solar and wind have been an expensive failure, while many countries have shown that nuclear can be very successful. For the South African grid, nuclear is by far our best option. Solar and wind are by far our worst.

The anti-nuclear greens are now fighting a rearguard action against nuclear, not using any new arguments but recycling all the old ones long after they have been refuted. A good example was published in the Daily Maverick this week, entitled ‘Nuclear power is neither reliable nor “green” and is not suitable for the just transition’. It was written by Neil Overy and Ulrich Steenkamp.

I have nothing against either of them and in fact know nothing about them and am not singling them out. But their article was such a prize example of all the current fallacies about nuclear and renewables – we don’t need baseload electricity, nuclear is dangerous and expensive, renewables have been successful in many countries, the ‘just energy transition’, and suchlike nonsense – that I thought to address it.

The Overy and Steenkamp article is an argument for ‘renewable’ energy (meaning solar and wind in this case) and against nuclear. It begins with the argument that solar and wind on grids in other countries have shown that ‘baseload’ electricity (electricity that can be guaranteed every minute of every year) is unnecessary now, and all electricity needs can be met by solar and wind with batteries and pumped storage in a ‘smart-grid’.

Actually the experience of solar and wind around the world shows the opposite. They show that baseload electricity is essential. Solar and wind have many flaws, such as the vast amounts of raw materials they need and the toxic wastes they leave, but by far their biggest flaw is that they are unreliable and intermittent.

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Not despatchable

Unlike coal, gas and nuclear, they are not despatchable: they cannot always meet demand. In fact, most of the time they cannot meet demand at all. To make them despatchable requires very expensive back-up generators, spinning reserve, extra controls, extra transmission lines, compensation for lost electrical inertia and storage. These are known as system costs, and the full cost of all of this is known as the Full Cost of Electricity (FCOE). For solar and wind, the FCOE is ruinously high. But the greens never give the FCOE, they just give the price of the junk leaving the solar panel or wind turbine.

This explains a paradox: the greens tell you that price of solar and wind is going down, but you see that the final cost of electricity keeps going up as more solar and wind is added to the grid. System costs and the FCOE explain this.

Solar panels use a lot of aluminium. Aluminium is made in smelters that use lots of electricity and need it every minute of the day. The Hillside smelter in Richards Bay requires 1,200 MW of electricity all the time. How on Earth can this be run without baseload electricity?

Where is the smart-grid going to get the electricity from at night when the wind is not blowing? Batteries? The world’s biggest battery was installed by Elon Musk in South Australia in 2017 after a renewable energy failure had caused a blackout of the entire state. It has a capacity of 100 MW, energy storage of 129 MWh, and cost about $Aus90 million (about R1 billion). You would need 120 of these batteries to run the smelter for 1 hour 17 mins. To run it for 10 hours would require 930 batteries costing R930 billion (double Eskom’s total debt).

And how and when are you going to charge these batteries when they have run down? Perhaps the renewable power stations could use fewer materials? No, they couldn’t. Solar and wind for the grid require thousands of gigantic machines using colossal amounts of raw materials. Wind turbines require ten times as much concrete and steel per kWh as nuclear.

Every country that has turned to solar and wind has seen final electricity prices soaring and electricity failures increasing. Denmark and Germany, with the biggest fraction of renewable electricity, also have about the highest final electricity prices in Europe.

The German energiewende (replacing nuclear with wind and solar) has made electricity unaffordable for her poorest citizens, the grid potentially unstable, and is threatening her industries. Ireland, using a lot of renewables, has very expensive electricity.

The UK, which now has 28,000 MW of wind capacity, has seen electricity costs rising and rising, and suffered blackouts over large parts of the country in August 2019 with a failure of a wind farm and backup generation.

Electricity prices soaring

Australia saw her electricity prices soaring when she began to move from coal to wind and solar. South Australia is worst of all. This is a state almost as big as the whole of South Africa, with a tiny population (less than two million), a small electricity demand (under 2,000 MW), and good conditions for wind and solar. It moved heavily into wind and solar, and away from coal, which resulted, as always, in sharply rising prices and failures. For a moment in July 2016, the electricity price in South Australia went to $Aus14/kWh (about R168/kWh – over 50 times Eskom’s price). In September 2016, the whole state was blacked out; more blackouts followed. Electricity prices are now among the highest in Australia and the state is now considering electricity rationing.

It must be noticed that in all these countries there are huge (and complicated) subsidies for solar and wind. South Africa’s own renewable electricity program, REIPPPP, which has been generating electricity since 2013, has been a total failure. I have graphs of the production of wind and solar here for every half hour since 2013. They show horrifying fluctuations in output, sometimes with wind and solar producing only 1% of their capacity.

In our case the subsidy is in the very high guaranteed prices for the electricity leaving their panels and turbines, even though this electricity is useless without the enormous extra costs of making it useful (described above), which Eskom has to pay – and collect from us, either as electricity consumers or taxpayers.

The Overy and Steenkamp article cites recent nuclear failures in France, where nuclear is about 75% of total capacity. France is indeed a telling case. She has given a textbook example of how to succeed with nuclear, and then how to fail. From about 1973 on, France began building nuclear power stations. The first were from the American Westinghouse designs, and the following ones had more and more local design. Here is the key factor: they were built according to a programme, a continuous plan of building and operating nuclear plants. It was a huge success. Nuclear gave France safe, cheap, reliable, plentiful electricity, allowing her to export it to her neighbours.

France built the successful Koeberg power station for us. Then she began to stumble. There was green pressure to reduce nuclear, despite its success. The socialist President Mitterrand ordered that nuclear be reduced to 50% of the French total. This had the effect of demoralising the nuclear workforce. New build stopped and the nuclear program fizzled out. The expert, experienced construction crews ebbed away. The nuclear people themselves became complacent and began to neglect maintenance. The new French reactor, the EPR, was over-complicated, and too big and cumbersome. The building of the first one, in Finland, has been way over-schedule and over-budget. France is in a mess now with her nuclear power. She has shown us what to do and what not to do in nuclear.

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Solar and wind

No one has shown us how to succeed with solar and wind for the grid. This is not the fault of the renewable engineers but of the policy makers. Because of nature, solar and wind can never provide cheap, reliable grid electricity.

There were more of the usual nuclear fallacies from Overy and Steenkamp. Nuclear plants take a very long time to build? Wrong. A nuclear plant can take as little as five years or less to build. The Japanese, Russians, Chinese and South Koreans have demonstrated this. I don’t know of any example where an experienced nuclear vendor with a continuous record of building, with a tried and tested nuclear design, has ever run seriously over-time or over-budget. Problems with cooling? Nuclear power plants, like all plants using heat engines (gas, coal, oil, solar thermal), can be water cooled or air cooled to meet any conditions.

Far from having ‘tremendous costs’, nuclear has shown around the world that it can have low costs over the life of the plant. Using real-world costs of capital (the actual cost of capital rather than a fantasy figure) and using real-world costs for materials, construction, interest during construction, operation, maintenance and decommission, a new nuclear plant will produce affordable electricity per kWh over its life (now 60 years or more). They are already doing so around the world. They did so in Germany before energiewende shut them down.

Overy and Steenkamp speak about ‘the potentially catastrophic consequences of a major nuclear accident’. Oh, please! Nuclear power, which has been operating commercially since 1957 (66 years ago), has by far the best safety record of any energy technology, including solar and wind. Of the three worst nuclear power accidents, two of them, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, harmed nobody from the radiation (the unnecessary evacuation at Fukushima killed people through heart attacks, panic and suicides). Chernobyl, by far the worst, did kill about 60 people at the time and subsequently, which is terrible but nothing like as terrible as the major coal mine accidents and hydro-dam failures.

It is physically impossible for any nuclear power plant to explode like an atomic bomb. Runaway reactivity, which caused the Chernobyl accident, cannot happen at a well-designed reactor, which includes all the reactors in the West and even Russia’s own excellent VVER reactors.

I’d be quite happy to live right next to a nuclear plant (and I’d love to live in Melkbos next to Koeberg; the trouble is that house prices there are too high for me), but I’d refuse to live next to a factory making solar photovoltaic (PV) panels – because of the extremely dangerous chemicals used.

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Immortal

The usual nonsense, too, about nuclear waste. Let me clarify two simple facts about all materials. Stable atoms (atoms that are not radioactive) last forever. Most of the atoms in your body are immortal; you will die but they will never die. Each time you breathe in, you are breathing in oxygen atoms breathed out by Julius Caesar and by Tyrannosaurus Rex a long time before him. Most of the waste from all energy technologies consists of atoms that last forever. The cadmium, arsenic, lead and other heavy metals in a solar PV panel, all of which can be ‘deadly’ under certain circumstances, all last forever.

Radioactive atoms do not last forever. They are continuously disintegrating, releasing radioactivity. Each radioactive atom has a specific half-life, the time it takes for half of its atoms to decay. Here is the essential fact about radiation: the longer the half-life, the less radioactive the atom. If a substance has a half-life of five minutes, it is extremely radioactive and very dangerous. If it has a half-life of five million years, it is very feebly radioactive and is safe (from the point of view of radioactivity).

So when someone says that some radioactive waste lasts a long time, you know there is nothing to worry about. Nuclear radioactive waste is small in mass, chemically stable and easy to store safely. Vaalputs in the Northern Cape is already storing Koeberg’s low- and medium-level waste and could easily store all of its high-level waste (spent fuel).

The chemical wastes from solar and wind, which remain dangerous forever, are a much bigger problem than nuclear waste. The mining of neodymium, used in some wind turbine generators, leaves highly toxic wastes.

In Baotou, in China, the mining for neodymium is poisoning the rivers and the local people, causing a range of horrible diseases, and causing babies to be born malformed. These are chemical wastes. But as a matter of interest, the mining also leaves a radioactive waste, thorium, which has a half-life of 14,000,000,000 years, over 580,000 times longer than plutonium, so often cited by the greens to scare people. Actually, plutonium is only feebly radioactive, and thorium is much more feeble. (Plutonium is made naturally all around us, and even in our own bodies, when Uranium-239 captures a neutron.)

Best power station

Back at home, Koeberg, 70 km from where I live, is the best power station on our grid. It has run safely and reliably since 1984. It probably produces the cheapest electricity in South Africa. It is by no means the best run nuclear station in the world but it has been quite well run for nearly 40 years.

Recently it has had problems, none affecting safety. The latest cock-up was over the replacement of its steam generators (SGs): these are heat exchangers that use the hot water from the reactor to turn feedwater into steam. They should have been replaced a long time ago – not for safety reasons but for good practice – but there were various blunders. Right now, Unit 1 is down for its SGs, and Unit 2 will follow later in the year.

Overy and Steenkamp blame the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy for pushing for more nuclear power. I blame it for not pushing hard enough. We are now planning 2,500 MW more nuclear, but we are taking an awfully long time about it. For the sake of our people, our economy and our environment, we need more nuclear.

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*Andrew Kenny is a writer, an engineer and a classical liberal.

This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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