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After Japan, Nuclear Fades. But Clean Coal? You’ve Gotta Be Kidding!

March 14, 2011

After Japan the supporters of nuclear will be on the defensive.

Yet climate change is a reality and renewables are growing only sluggishly. I can see attention moving to ways of abating the carbon pollution generated by coal. I’m not saying I’m persuaded. But I can see this debate gathering force.

First, climate change. At 390 parts per million (ppm) carbon-dioxide concentration is now at the highest level in many millions of years. The last time it was sustained at this level much of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets were not there. Meanwhile it is going up by about two ppms a year. Here’s how one American writer puts it:

“By the time today’s sixth-graders finish high school, the world carbon-dioxide level will probably have passed 400 ppm, and by the time most of them are starting families, it will have entered the 420s.”

Now we face the question of what might happen as carbon-dioxide levels reach 450 ppm – the prospect that with “positive feedback” loops, the hotter things get, the faster they will get even hotter. For example by the melting of polar ice sheets. By the vast Arctic permafrost areas thawing and releasing methane.

Now let me confess that this excellent update comes from the article by James Fallows that appeared in the December 2010 edition of The Atlantic which argues – in light of the above – we are going to have to make low-polluting coal a reality. Whoa, you say. Deal with coal? That’s a big leap.

Let’s come to the goal we all aspire to, infinite energy from renewables. What about solar? What about thermal? What about wind?

Even if these renewables – currently running at four or five percent – were to double or triple they still won’t come close to meeting total demand for energy in China or the U.S. or Australia.

Fallows quotes one Chinese advisor who says, “We hope someday to have 15 percent of our power from renewable sources. Even so, the percentage of power generated by coal will not drop by more than a few points, and the absolute amount will quickly grow.” What about that big investment in railways across China? The reason they’re doing it is to free up their main rail lines to give them more capacity to move coal.

Julio Friedmann of Lawrence Livermore said, “Solar and wind power are going to be important, but it is really hard to get them beyond 10 percent of total power supply.” This is reflected, by the way, in the Australian experience. He pointed out in an interview with Fallows the huge engineering achievement it has taken to raise the efficiency of solar photovoltaic cells from about 25 percent to about 30 percent but you need improvements of two or threefold.

That’s why U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said, “We have to face the nightmare of coal for a while.” Yes, a nightmare. But not receding. And if the nuclear renaissance in the U.S. stalls, it will not begin to recede.

Fallows therefore focuses our attention on what up till now has been a repellent prospect: finding new technologies that tackle the oxymoron of “clean coal”.

You can read his disturbing analysis – all the more relevant after Japan – at

  1. Mick permalink
    March 14, 2011 4:10 pm

    Hi Bob,
    I’d be curious to hear your impression of the “Zero Carbon Australia 2020” initiative:

    It looks pretty solid, but is there a glaring mistake in their analysis?

    The analysis argues for solar-thermal to be a big part of the solution, not photo-voltaic which seems to be what people normally think of when they say “solar energy”.


  2. Rod Rimmer permalink
    March 14, 2011 8:25 pm

    I believe we should move into nuclear power in australia, from what I understand its a lot cleaner energy then coal (of cause), and yes melt downs and leaks are of some concern, but in todays world surely with the right people on the job a system can be developed to prevent melt downs and leaks from happening 99.9% of the time.
    Where they build the power plants is a anther question perhaps small plants on the coast or larger ones inland, somewhere like south australia where the land has already been affected by nuclear testing by america so the impact would not be as great on wild life, of cause water would need to be piped in from the ocean or from under ground water which I think SA have a lot of, for cooling purposes,nuclear wast could also be buried out there, I have herd that it takes 20,000 years for one nuclear rod to breakdown to its natural self, so why not bury it in these already affected areas, as unpopular as it may be it is one option to consider I think.
    I think money should be invested now on these projects rather then waiting 50 to 100 years and then doing something, we need to start now because all the quick fixes in world are not going to help in the long run. Australia is only going to get bigger and the demand for cleaner power greater.
    I understand that a nuclear power direction for the future will enter in to the billions of dollars, but I think it is the direction australia needs to go.

  3. Peter Pando permalink
    March 16, 2011 5:26 am

    Dear Mr Carr,

    One can only hope that the global expertise being directed at the current problems in Japan prevails, and that we have an opportunity to learn from this. Of course, shutting down all nuclear plants in the world immediately is not feasible, but I think the most important point is this: To close our minds out of fear that our scientists and regulatory authorities won’t be able to control nuclear power would constitute a vote of no-confidence in the Western universities and other institutions which train nuclear scientists and regulators, in the intellectual capabilities of Western people, and in future Western technological innovative potential. More importantly, it would also signal an abrogation of responsibility for learning how to control and for controlling the power that was uncovered and unleashed within the European scientific tradition. None of that would be favourable in educational, social, economic or historical terms. Nuclear power is a wild horse bucking that must be properly ‘broken in’, and Australia will do well if it backs its ability to contribute to the development of even safer technology in this area, rather than just letting it into the neighbour’s paddock to run amok. Sincerely.

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