Life in Australia has become a theatre of the absurd. One of the more absurd notions is that Australia will become a ‘green energy superpower’, even to the extent of holding a Senate inquiry into it. In my submission to the inquiry I try to point out as gently as possible that the laws of physics and economics won’t allow that to happen:
“Senators should be aware that energy from solar panels and wind turbines is only as cheap as it is because the solar panels and wind turbines are made using energy from fossil fuels, predominantly coal. Solar panels are made in China using electric power costing US$0.04/kWh. Under ideal conditions in the West Australian desert those same panels produce power at a price equivalent to power produced from diesel generators at $0.21/kWh.
If you used power from solar panels to make more solar panels, the cost of power from the second generation of solar panels would be of the order of $1.00/kWh. The same is true of wind turbines. If you tried to carry on the process of replacing solar panels and wind turbines as they wore out with solar panels and wind turbines made from power produced from the ones being replaced, the cost would become infinite and the economy would collapse. The situation is that simple, and that obvious.
As such solar panels and wind turbines are neither renewaable or sustainable. The solar panels and wind turbines we have installed in Australia at the moment are an artefact of cheap coal power.
One day the coal will run out and it would be wise to prepare for that day. The only energy source that can replace coal and maintain civilisation at a high level is nuclear. The sooner we prepare for that day, the safer we will be as a nation and as a civilisation.
In going to that nuclear future, Austalia should avoid the trap of adopting the current predominant nuclear technology which is light water reactors burning U235. That technology is inherently wasteful, dangerous and leaves an enormous waste legacy.
It is wasteful because it burns only a small fraction of the total uranium endowment. It is dangerous because it combines water, zirconium and decay heat in the reactor vessel. The waste legacy is due to the fact that, by the time the rods are pulled in each fuelling cycle, half the energy is coming from the fission of plutonim and higher actinides. These will remain radioactive for millions of years unless recycled.
Making light water reactors larger to achieve scale economies increases the decay heat flux per unit area of the reactor core surface and makes the reactor less safe. Going the other way to small modular reactors is not a solution because they increase the capital expenditure per MW produced and still have the waste problem.
The only solution to Australia’s long term problem of the coal running out is plutonium breeder reactor technology. This technology is inherently safe as it doesn’t use water in the reactor vessel, would utilise our full uranium endowment and doesn’t have a waste legacy. The plutonium produced will have a Pu240 content too high to be used in weapons. As such this technology is not a proliferation threat.
There is a plutonium breeder reactor technology from GE-Hitachi called Prism that is ready to be commercialised. Australia should start installing Prism reactors as soon as possible.
Power from those reactors would be utilised to make hydrogen which in turn will be used to hydrogenate biomass in the Bergius process. Power at $0.05/kWh produces hydrogen at $7.00/kg. Synthetic diesel so produced would provide an energy-dense power source for transport, mining and agriculture. The latter two industries are particularly problematic with respect to electrification and synthetic diesel, made possible by nuclear power, is the solution.
Senators should also be aware that however Australia produces its power, this has nothing to do with climate. The world has not warmed in the last 44 years and there is no physical sign of it warming from this point. Various models of the atmosphere that have predicted appreciable warming have failed and are thus discredited.
In summary, pursuing a ‘green energy’ future is physically and economically impossible. Spending Australia’s capital in pursuing that chimera will only end in tears. It is a latter day version of the Children’s Crusade, bringing death and destruction to those who pursue it.
Understanding of the physics and chemistry of what is possible in producing the energy that would maintain civilisation at a high level means that we don’t have a choice – it is sodium-cooled plutonium breeder reactors or nothing. Our only choice is in how much pain we want to endure before we decide to take the correct path.”
David Archibald is the author of The Anticancer Garden in Australia.
GE-Hitachi Prism reactor