We walked west into a fiery red sunset in St. Kilda last night, on our way to pick up some yogurt for dinner. On our way back, the moon rose before us in the east, nearly as dark and orange as the sun setting behind us. We turned sideways with one celestial body on each hand and enjoyed the beauty and symmetry for a few quiet seconds, looking at the skyline of Melbourne in front of us, caught between a nuclear source of light and the dead moon reflecting it.
Then we took off our poetry hat and put on our thinking beanie and our brain began to boil.
The Chinese are going to burn enough coal in the next fifty years to make every Melbourne sunset look like the end of the world. For instance just this week China’s Huaneng Group launched the country’s first 1,000 megawatt coal-fired power generating unit. A little info-mining tells us that a 500 mega watt coal-fired power plant provides about 3.5 billion kilowatt hours of juice per year. That’s enough to power a city of 140,000 people and enough to consume about 1.4 million tons of coal.
Sit down for a second and consider the following. China’s great migration or rural farmers to urban enclaves means relocating 400 million people into new or existing cities. Those people will live in buildings that need air conditioning and work in factories that use electricity and eat in restaurants that cook with electric appliances and refrigerate with electric freezers. Where will the power come from?
If it comes from coal, China will have to build a staggering 2,857 500 mega watt coal-fired plants to meet the demand. This would produce-without cleaner-burning technology-around 10.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year. A 500 mega watt coal-burning plant spews nearly 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year.
We don’t know what a ton of carbon dioxide looks like, or how you would carry it on your back. Neither do we know if it causes the earth’s temperature to rise. But we do know that when you burn coal you also produce what are called particulate emissions. These include sulfur and nitrous oxides and other pleasant by products like lead, mercury, and arsenic.
We know that all this coal-burning must excite the Australian coal industry. But if China burns this much coal in the next twenty years, its neighbors in Japan and Korea are going to borrow a phrase from Australia and ask, “Where the bloody hell are you?” They’ll ask because they won’t be able to see each other through the thick pall of smog blown west from China.
Last night’s orange moon didn’t come from Chinese pollution. It came from bush fires and the normal pollution of hundreds of thousands of cars burning petrol on the way home to watch the beginning of England’s second innings in the Adelaide Test of the Ashes. And atmospherically speaking, the jet stream probably prevents Australia from having to bear the brunt of Chinese energy consumption habits, at least directly. But what could Australia do about it if a big orange cloud descended from China? Would the border patrol try and turn it back? Would customs arrest it? Would A Current Affair find someone to blame?
Japan and Korea have complained bitterly to China about the black cloud, but with little effect. It wouldn’t surprise us to see the Japanese build giant coastal fans, nuclear powered of course, to blow the smog back. But that wouldn’t really solve anything. To solve this problem, we have to get at its root causes. One of the biggest causes is the aversion to nuclear power by the lunatic fringe of the political and environmental world.
You never hear anti-nuclear forces whinge about the sun. But by all rights, if they’re being consistent, they should. After all, the sun’s radiation causes skin cancer. And the sun itself is a giant nuclear fusion reactor, ceaselessly bombarding the Earth and the other planets in the solar system with heat, light, and energy that is stored in Earth’s plant life. This fossilized plant life eventually turned into the oil and natural gas the industrial world has been living off of for the last 200 years.
Why not go straight to the source and nuclear? This would be good for cleaner for global energy needs, in addition to unleashing a “Uranium Rush” in Australia. Yesterday’s report by the House of Representatives on Australia’s nuclear future emphasized the economic benefits of expanded uranium mining. It also concludes that nuclear energy is the “only means” for cutting green house gas emissions. The 700-page report, which sits on ominously on our desk, is entitled “Australia’s Uranium: Greenhouse friendly fuel for an energy hungry world.”
And here is our main point. The nuclear debate in Australia isn’t so much about Australia as it is about China and India. Australia, like every other major Western economy, ought to develop a safe, efficient, and clean nuclear industry for the day when conventional hydro-carbons like oil, coal, and gas, are no longer plentiful and cheap. That day is fast approaching, and is probably already upon us.
But the main reason Australia ought to encourage nuclear power use is that if China and India don’t go the nuclear route, the world will soon be a dirtier, sweater, and more dimly lit place. The sunsets might be romantic. But if you can’t breathe, you won’t be able to enjoy them all that much.
It’s not as if nuclear technology isn’t safely operating in other places all around the world:
There are 442 operating nuclear reactors across the globe, with 59 in France, 55 in Japan, 53 in the UK, and 103 in America. China has five reactors under construction and 13 planned. Globally, 28 reactors are under construction and 62 are being drawn up. China currently gets on 1.6% of its power from nuclear generation. Finland, by comparison, gets 33%. Germany 31%, Hungary 37%, South Korea 45%, and the USA 20%.
What is the real objection to nuclear power in Australia? That we don’t need it now? Will we not need later? That it is un-economic? It is getting cheaper and more competitive with each passing day, as the world’s supply of cheap and plentiful oil and gas depletes.
If it doesn’t move now, Australia may face a situation later where it wants to develop a domestic nuclear industry and can’t. Why? Call it ‘peak engineering talent.’ There are only so many capable nuclear engineers and designers around. Not a lot of them are coming out of Australian universities. Will engineers suddenly give up jobs in China, India, or other places for the chance to come and build reactors in Australia. Maybe. But maybe they won’t.
There are other benefits to nuclear power, including tourism! We read in Reuters that “For 30-yuan (about $4) admission fee, visitors to the Daya Bay nuclear plant [satellite image] located by the South China Sea in Southern Guangdong province will be able to learn about its construction and safety measures through models, photographs and videos…They will also have access to a Lover’s Island, a wharf, and a lookout point offering a ‘panoramic view’ of Daywan and Lingao, another nuclear plant being built nearby.”
What really is the alternative? Will Kevin Rudd and John Howard stand outside Parliament House and produce enough hot air to power wind turbines? It might work, and would be suitable work for politicians…if they could find the turbines. But from Agence France Presse we read today that “materials needed to make wind turbines are limited and the industry fears it will fail to keep pace with growing demand for the clean energy source.”
Therein lies the problem. Can dirty old fossil fuels power the world into a second industrial revolution in Asia without plunging the planet into toxic darkness, or sparking resource wars in the Middle East? Is there enough conventional fuel to “fuel’ the growth. If not we must either find no fuel, or stop growing. And it’s going to take a lot of fuel. “Global energy consumption is expected to rise by 60 percent over the next two decadesa product of industrialization and population growth, particularly in China and India,” writes Ken Silverstein in article titled “Is Nuclear Fusion Possible.” We’d better hope so.
Of course a nuclear world is no day at the beach, either. Spent nuclear fuel can be weaponized and put in a delivery vehicle like, say, a passenger airline. It’s not a pleasant choice, is it? On the one hand, full power ahead with coal, oil, gas, and renewables…on the other give the nuclear genie, just recently out of its non-proliferation bottle, a big warm bear hug and hold on tight for the geopolitical ride.
It’s enough to make a guy think of relocating to somewhere more temperate…like the moon. Fortunately, yesterday NASA announced that it, “will establish a base camp on one of the moon’s poles, permanently staffing it by 2024, four years after astronauts return to the moon.” Our application is pending.