Atomic Wedgie, Coming Up  

Posted by Big Gav

While nuclear energy has featured heavily here lately it seems to have top spot in the local press today as well, so the trend may continue for a while.

I pointed to Crikey's article yesterday suggesting the Rodent may have requested an atomic wedgie to be delivered by the populace at large as a result of his attempts to suck up to the uranium mining industry. Howard himself obviously thinks its yet another wedge issue he can exploit - but I tend to think he might have wedged himself at last. Clive Hamilton was quick to start the obvious game that the Liberals will struggle to win - picking the site for the first nuclear power plant - the logical choices (based purely on ostensibly practical considerations) Clive identifies are Port Stephens (a beautiful holiday / retirement area 3 hours drive from Sydney, which also has the Rodent's favourite holiday location - Hawks Nest - on it) and Westernport Bay in Victoria.

Apparently the mayor of Mt Gambier thinks they might be a welcoming host - how that goes down with local voters is another matter I suspect.

Port Stephens might not immediately be placed alongside Springfield, the everytown from The Simpsons which relies on a nuclear power plant for everything from jobs to three-eyed fish.

But the town, which lies just north of Newcastle and is famed for its clean water and dolphin watching, was yesterday named by The Australia Institute, a public policy research centre in Canberra, as an ideal location for the nation's first nuclear power plant. "After consulting a number of energy experts, the institute has identified several sites on the east coast that meet the main criteria for the siting of a nuclear power plant," said the institute's director, Clive Hamilton.

"The most important of these is that the site be on the coast, so as to provide access for the very large volumes of cooling water that a major nuclear power station would need. An inland site would not be feasible, because Australia's inland water supplies are unreliable and are already over-committed."

Dr Hamilton's one-page statement is the first missile fired in what will be the most contentious part of any debate about whether Australia should proceed with nuclear power - where such a plant should go.

The Mayor of Port Stephens, Craig Baumann, said the institute's suggestion was "mischievous", adding: "A power station of any description would not look all that attractive, and would not be sought, I imagine, by anybody in the region."

But Chris Riedy, the research principal at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, said Dr Hamilton's reasoning was sound. "You couldn't build it in WA or the Northern Territory because they have separate power grids," explained Dr Riedy. "You could maybe do it in outback South Australia, where there are large [power] transmission lines, but water would be an issue."

Michelle Grattan at The Age says "Howard's new wedge will have a long half-life".
John Howard always likes to have a new issue on the go. Apart from the merits of whatever he's pushing, he believes that taking on a difficult challenge wins marks from the electorate. And if it is one that he thinks might wedge his political opponents, all the better.

Nuclear energy has become the latest prime ministerial cause. Suddenly he's saying it is absolutely urgent we have the debate, and making it sound as though Australia stands on the brink of its nuclear power age.

Howard, who arrives home tomorrow, has promised to quickly give "form and structure" to the debate.

It might look as if the PM had an epiphany while he was in North America, where he talked nuclear with US President George Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He was galvanised by high oil prices and extolled the virtues of "cleaner and greener" power. But actually the discussion about nuclear energy for Australia has been kicking around in Government ranks for more than a year.

Brendan Nelson, as education minister, last year urged that the nuclear option be examined, although he stressed "the Government has no plans whatsoever in this regard". In November, Industry Ministry Ian Macfarlane and Nelson wrote to Howard proposing a scientific inquiry into domestic nuclear energy. Howard agreed all along there should be a debate, but didn't ramp it up as he is now doing.

Some in the Government remain sceptics. Finance Minister Nick Minchin said at the weekend: "I cannot see how nuclear power could possibly be viable in this country for at least 100 years."

The debate is becoming confused, and issues conflated. There are several distinct questions. Should the use of nuclear power be made legal in Australia? Would it be economic? Ought Australia export uranium to India, which is not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty? Should Australia entertain the idea of "lease-back" deals, under which the waste from uranium we export would be returned here?


Howard hopes to find divisions in the Labor movement (though ranks have closed), and also paint Labor as against something that could help address climate change and high oil prices.

Labor isn't convinced it is in a hole. It is gearing up for a scare campaign. Beazley yesterday told the caucus that Howard would wedge himself. "Australians will be asking where the reactor will be and the waste will go," he said, later issuing a list of questions for the PM. "Which suburbs will be home to the new nuclear reactors? What will he do to ensure local residents and schools are safe?"

Some Liberals worry about a backlash. Minchin, who once had the nightmarish task of trying to find a nuclear dump for Australia's limited medical waste, believes the politics are toxic.

The Herald reports that the government's new found concerns about global warming are behind their altruistic surge towards nuclear power (what their coal industry backers think about this hasn't been reported on yet, although some ministers are obviously still in thrall to the black and brown stuff). The Herald's editorial today calls the revival of the issue the "PM's nuclear hand grenade".
Global temperatures will rise by three times as much as many scientists had estimated, resulting in irrevocable changes for life on Earth, according to advice to the Howard Government - arming it with new ammunition to support a nuclear power industry for Australia.

Senior government ministers lined up yesterday to spruik the benefits of nuclear power as a solution to global warming, despite repeated denials from green groups and energy experts that it was a saviour.

The Government used question time yesterday to talk up nuclear energy as the answer to global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions. The Foreign Affairs Minister, Alexander Downer, said "it could, at least, be argued that our uranium exports already effectively neutralise Australia's global emissions contribution".

"To put that into some perspective, it has been estimated that you would need a wind farm occupying 3200 square kilometres to produce the equivalent energy of a medium-sized power station."

Energy experts were stunned by Mr Downer's remarks.

There is no shortage of witty headlines elsewhere, with The Australian announcing "Beazley declares nuke war". Peter Garrett says the nuclear debate is "a farce". It may turn out to be manna from heaven for him, as its the perfect issue for him to raise his profile with.
Prime Minister John Howard is creating a false nuclear debate to deflect attention from a lack of action on climate change, Labor frontbencher Peter Garrett says.

Mr Garrett, a one-time Senate candidate for the Nuclear Disarmament Party, said the prime minister had left the United States a "born-again nuclear warrior". The nuclear debate was a false one, he said. "The prime minister's creating one his great false debates, flying kites, making mischief, and covering up for the fact that he's done absolutely zip on climate change - nothing in the budget for it," Mr Garrett told ABC radio.

"(He) abolishes the Australian Greenhouse Office. We've seen half a billion dollars worth of investment in wind farms and alternative technologies go overseas because of this government's lack of action. The prime minister comes back from America as a nukes enthusiast, but he's just clouding the debate and covering his own deficiencies."

Mr Garrett said he was also concerned about senior government ministers, including Alexander Downer and Ian Macfarlane, flagging a uranium enrichment program for Australia. "I'm astonished that the government wants to push ahead with enrichment given the huge issues around safety, around proliferation, the sort of debates that we're seeing in the Middle East about rogue states. But more importantly, why isn't this government investing in technologies that are good for the country?"

After 40 years with nuclear power, the US had not yet dealt with its own waste, Mr Garrett said. "They still haven't, after 40 years, got a successfully approved radioactive waste safe repository."

The Australian also had a snippet in one article (and there have been many today - I'm just posting a selection) with a typically disingenuous piece about a supposed "Nuclear cloud over the Greens". The anti-green politicking is to be expected - but how to explain one of Dual Citizen Murdoch's trusts funding the ACF's anti nuclear team ? I would find it hard to believe Rupert is a closet greenie, though maybe some of his family are less reactionary in their political beliefs (I liked Lachlan's reasons for quitting the company - especially the line about wanting to sit around at The Cloey on a weekend watching the football). I can't come up with a coherent conspiracy theory to explain this, but I will link once again to Engdahl's theories about nuclear power.
The traditional anti-nuclear lobby has very obviously been caught ill-prepared for the renewal of nuclear hostilities in Australia, particular on as broad a front as that being defined by the travelling PM.

They are not alone. Australia's hardy community of actual uranium miners are as perplexed as the greens by Canberra's sudden, robust promotion of our nuclear age.

Not, mind you, because they disagree with the rhetoric. But there is a sense the conversation is getting well ahead of the reality and the potential of the nuclear option for Australia.

The federal Government is musing on the whole controversial enchilada: nuclear power stations, uranium enrichment and the management of other nations' nuclear waste. But, back in the real world, the state governments continue their opposition to any new uranium mines. Even with agreement, the industry is rich in hidden delicacies.

Look at Rio's ERA. It has been talking to the Mirrar people on and off since 1991 to secure a deal to mine at Jabiluka, 230km east of Darwin in the Northern Territory. One of the last public contributions to that conversation was a request to replace whatever ERA had previously dug up.

Opposition to nuclear power is one of the foundation issues of the environment movement in Australia. The greens will not remain mute on the new nuclear initiative for too much longer. The radiation suits will soon be back on the barricades.

The Australian Conservation Foundation, for example, has recently more than doubled its anti-nuclear team courtesy, interestingly enough, of funding from the Poola Foundation, a family trust connected to the Murdoch family.

Two weeks ago, the collective of anti-nuclear forces reaffirmed "opposition to all aspects of the nuclear industry, including uranium mining, enrichment, nuclear power, nuclear weapons and the creation and disposal of radioactive waste".

Greg Palast has got the peak oil world riled up with a rather badly reasoned assault on peak oil theory (personally I think a fairly convincing conspiracy theory about peak oil could be prepared by someone with a good understanding of the issues, but all of the attempts I've seen thus far have been woeful - and Greg's is no exception. On a similar note, you could probably come up with a reasonably coherent conspiracy theory about global warming being a scam by the nuclear industry combined with the Europeans and Japanese due to their annoyance at being held economic hostage by US control of the major world oil reserves - which could also be convincing, and also wrong).

Palast also manages to somehow make peak oil a joint conspiracy between big oil and the nuclear industry (the opposite of Engdahl's theory). This sort of thing doesn't do much for the credibility of some of his other theories, unfortunately.

The section below isn't all bad, as it does include some elements that are probably true - the alignment of interests between the seven sisters and OPEC that resulted in the 1970's oil shock for example.
Shell Oil, through Hubbert, sought, successfully, to change the way America thought of oil’s price, alternatives to oil and access to oil.

PRICE: The problem of falling oil prices was solved for Shell, brilliantly, in four years, in 1960, by the creation of OPEC. On paper, OPEC was created by national governments. If oil companies had created this cartel to fix prices, that would have made it a criminal conspiracy—cartels are illegal. But when governments conspire for the same purpose, the illegal conspiracy turns into a legitimate “alliance” of sovereign states. OPEC’s government cover makes the price-fixing perfectly legal, and Big Oil reaps the rewards.

ALTERNATIVES: As to replacing fossil fuels, Hubbert had the answer:
Limitless nuclear power. His 1956 paper is not called “Peak Oil.” Its title is “Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels.” His let’s-go-nuclear chart, call it “Hubbert’s Plateau,” is usually ignored. You can view it here.

Note that Hubbert envisions a high, flat plateau of nuclear energy outstripping fossil fuels by the twenty-first century, providing us a comfy, electric economy for five thousand years. Hubbert’s Uranium Reich was longer than anything the F├╝hrer could have imagined. Who would supply all this nuclear fuel? Lucky for us that Hubbert’s company, Royal Dutch Shell, was about to announce the formation of its new mega-venture, “URENCO,” a uranium enrichment consortium.

ACCESS: Protecting our access to petroleum, a “peaking” resource, was Shell Oil’s urgent message. Hubbert’s paper was published in June 1956, not long after the CIA overthrew Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh for having nationalized Shell’s and BP’s assets. The paper was released just one month before Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s President, seized the Suez Canal, the oil tanker passageway, and just months before a British-French-Israeli invasion force took it back. Hubbert’s Peak thinking helped provide a justification for war over this “strategic resource.”

This description of Hubbert doesn't gel with the writings of the man himself (scroll well down through one of WHT's top all time posts) however - Hubbert believed in solar power and a steady state economy based on hydrogen (the smart grid concept wasn't around back then, and neither was cheap, plentiful wind power).
We can only continue to use oil as long as it lasts. We should be looking for other sources of energy. There's only one that's big enough, it's free, and good for at least a billion years. That's the sun. We must move into solar energy.

The technology exists today to convert solar energy directly to electricity. But you can't store it overnight and it's difficult to transmit over long distances without great losses.

We can convert that electricity into chemical energy by the hydrolysis of water. You get oxygen which passes off into the atmosphere and hydrogen which you can then ship by pipeline to wherever it's needed. The only cheaper way to move a gas is by tanker. We can then burn the hydrogen locally at the power plant to generate electricity. The product of combustion is water, it's all ideal environmentally. Hydrogen is difficult to handle, but we learned how to handle natural gas, we can learn this.

There's a Professor John O'Mara Bockris at Flinders University in South Australia,.a leader in electrochemistry, w~o has the whole thing worked out. He just recently released this book, "Energy - The Solar-Hydrogen Alternative", I got my copy several months ago.

Bart at Energy Bulletin has a critique of Palast and also link to a subsequent article by him which makes his position a little more consistent with reality.
Another piece by Greg Palast has appeared on GNN: "Why Palast Is Wrong: And why the oil companies don't want you to know it", in which he comes to the same conclusions as many Peak Oilers:
Now that I’ve convinced you that the Peak Oil crowd is crackers, let me disagree with myself. We can’t understand the new class war unless we understand why oil, a certain kind at least, has in fact “peaked.”

But Hubbert was also deadly right. We are indeed running out of oil....a certain kind of oil oil. That is, we are coming to the end of the stuff we can pump at a low cost, the easy oil that practically jumps out of the ground. When we bring price into the equation, Hubbert was correct—technically. Oil production [in the US presumably] did peak in the 1970s—for a certain type of oil.


The “we’re running out of oil” line still has its uses. In 2005, taking advantage of oil-shortage hysteria, the Republican Congress passed an “energy” bill that was a Petroleum Club wet dream. For example, the feds can now order cities to accept liquid natural gas ports, a boon to Big Oil’s Explosions-R-Us LNG divisions. Drilling under the caribou in Alaska is likely to follow. And, in 2006, George Bush is attempting to raise nuclear power from its crypt. In his State of the Union message, our nuke-salesman-in-chief admonished Americans for our “addiction” to oil—which was a bit like the pusher-man sermonizing against the dangers of the needle. Unfortunately, some environmentalists have echoed the “peak oil” theorem in the false hope that oil companies’ raising prices will lead to conservation. Fat chance. Despite $50-a-barrel oil, we don’t see windmills on the Empire State Building. We will reduce oil dependency only when we have a government less dependent on oil money.

A closing note of caution: I fear that some may take my noting the super-abundance of oil remaining on the planet as approval for our using it. Far from it—getting off the oil habit is an urgent working- class issue. First, because cheap, good air and water are in limited supply. We can’t keep pooping combustion contaminants into the sky unless expect we expect our children to grow gills that will metabolize sulfur. There’s lots of arsenic on the planet. Don’t eat it. There’s lots of oil. Don’t burn it.

Salon's Andrew Leonard isn't impressed with the first Palast piece either...
Reasonable people can disagree on when the peak will arrive or what its implications for the world economy will be. The Hirsch Report has a good summary of various estimates. Notably, Palast makes no mention of the fact that Hubbert’s prediction of when oil production would peak in the United States—1970—was right on the money. Instead he ladles on buckets of sarcasm predicated on the observations that Hubbert’s figures for global reserves of oil were incorrect, and peak oil in the world doesn’t appear to have occurred, yet.

Maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t. We don’t really know how much oil is left in Saudi Arabia or Iran or the countries of the former Soviet Union. But to ridicule the reality of peak oil based on the state-of-the-art of petroleum geology 50 years ago is juvenile. There’s been a ton of work since then by scores of geologists endlessly refining the data. When Palast jokes that every 20 years, they push the deadline back 20, he sounds like nothing so much as an oil industry shill paid to make arguments against government subsidies of renewable energy or energy efficiency technologies. Of course, sooner or later, someone will be right, and if we haven’t already started preparing for that moment in earnest, decades in advances, we will be in for some rough economic waters.

Most ridiculously of all, Palast suggests that we dismiss Hubbert and peak oil because Hubbert was a petroleum geologist who worked for Shell. Oil companies, Palast tells us, want us to believe in peak oil, because it gives them an excuse to keep raising prices. Tell that to Exxon, who just this February calmly assured the world that there’s plenty of oil to satisfy demand.

The argument doesn’t stand the most basic sniff test. The oil industry does not want the world to think peak oil is right around the corner, and watch government and consumers rush to embrace alternative energy technologies. For a glimpse at how the industry reacted to Hubbert at the time, try Hubbert’s own recollections. Executive summary: They thought he was crazy.

I probably should have stopped reading Palast when I realized he didn’t understand what the word “culmination” meant. But if there’s anything more annoying than corporate-subsidized right-wing propaganda it’s half-baked left-wing conspiracy theorizing.

Heading back to the topic of nuclear power for a moment, Energy Bulletin today pointed back to an older post of theirs that contained a collection of relevant links - including this one from Transition Culture on "Why Nuclear Power is a Non-Response to Peak Oil".
My first reason why nuclear power is a non-response to peak oil is that it will take the steam out of the profound and far-reaching renewables revolution which is the only thing that will actually get us through peak oil. In the long run, we need to restructure society so that it becomes more local, with local food production, decentralised energy grids and so on, as has long been argued at Transition Culture . This is the ONLY thing that will pull us through. Nuclear power offers the illusion that “something is being done”, and takes the steam and the necessary funding out of the urgency to start the programme of profound change needed.

The structural relocalisation of the UK, the retrofitting of its buildings, the stimulation of new local businesses and manufacturing and so on will be expensive, and now, while there is still electricity, while the (albeit diminishing) wealth from the North Sea bonanza is still in the economy, and while we are not in a crippling crisis, is the time to do this, on the scale, as many writers have argued, of a war time mobilisation. A new programme of nuclear power will draw away funding from that.

Peak oil appears to be happening far faster than predicted, and actual shortages of fuel appear to be a possibility in the near future. The dream of shiny new nuclear reactors in 20 years time is a distraction with which people can delude themselves that business as usual can continue. It can’t. Really.

The peak oil taxonomy and its star exhibit, the doombat, is continuing to generate chatter amongst the peak oil world. Interestingly no one who has voted in The Oil Drum's poll has identified themselves as a doombat, which would seem to violate the laws of probability given the number of doombats around - I'm almost tempted to go and nominate myself, given that I've done at least one doombat style post that I can recall...

Jamais at Open The Future has come up with a somewhat similar taxonomy - his looks at a matrix for identifying different attitudes towards the future, which maps onto Rob's taxonomy quite well.
It's important to note first off that there isn't a strict correlation here between politics and foresight worldview. Both premillennial dispensationalists (the Left Behind, "rapture ready" types) and traditional revolutionary Marxists would be situated in the lower-right Idealist-Pessimist box, for example. It wouldn't be hard to find similar pairs of contrasting ideologies for the other boxes.

Instead, let's populate the matrix with examples of differing approaches to understanding a changing world.

In the upper left, Optimist-Realist, we can put WorldChanging and its fellow-travelers -- success is possible, but requires a clear understanding of problems and a willingness to adapt to meet changing conditions (use new tools, work with new allies, etc.). I put myself in this category, too (unsurprisingly), and I suspect that a large portion of the new generation of people doing foresight work would call this box home.

In the upper right, Pessimist-Realist, probably the most familiar manifestation would be the cyberpunk sub-genre of science fiction, where the world is complex, change is messy, and the best we can hope for is staving off the worst of it for our own (likely small) group. As Jacob noted, many traditional environmentalists fall into this box; I'd also put various critics of technology such as Neil Postman or Bill McKibben in this category.

In the lower right, Pessimist-Idealist, we can find (as noted) the religious revolutionaries, be they Left Behind-type Christians, Caliphate-fixated Muslims, or Third Temple-building Jews, all ready to wash away the unbelievers and enemies in order to transform the world. I would also put the "back to the Pleistocene" Deep Ecologists here, too, the folks who think that the only way to save the planet is to wipe out 9/10ths of the population.

Finally, in the lower left, Optimist-Idealist, are those who see a transcendent, transformative future available to all. The most visible manifestation of this worldview can be found in those who see the advent of a technological Singularity fixing the world's problems and giving us all near-infinite knowledge and power. I don't put all Transhumanist-type folks here; James Hughes is an excellent example of someone who sees both a potential for technology-driven transformation and the need to work to make sure the benefits extend beyond a small group of elites. But anyone who has read Ray Kurzweil's books The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Coming knows how readily the Singularitarians can slip into millennialist language.

So what part of the matrix do you fit into ? I'd place myself in the upper right quadrant based on my natural tendencies, but I have tried to cultivate the mindset of an upper left inhabitant over the last year or so. I think a doombat would probably be placed somewhere in the lower left - but they might make a case for an upper right location...

Bill Moyers is one of the better speech makers around - WorldChanging points to his latest effort - thanks a lot, previous generation...
Bill Moyers gave a very moving, entirely worldchanging, Baccalaureate address at Hamilton College this weekend:

So I have been thinking seriously about what I might say to you in this Baccalaureate service. Frankly, I'm not sure anyone from my generation should be saying anything to your generation except, "We're sorry. We're really sorry for the mess you're inheriting. We are sorry for the war in Iraq. For the huge debts you will have to pay for without getting a new social infrastructure in return. We're sorry for the polarized country. The corporate scandals. The corrupt politics. Our imperiled democracy. We're sorry for the sprawl and our addiction to oil and for all those toxins in the environment. Sorry about all this, class of 2006. Good luck cleaning it up."

And to close, here's a post from TransMaterial that I think I forgot to link to last week on "power glass".

XsunX has developed very thin translucent coatings and films that create large area monolithic solar cell structures. This semi-transparency makes their so-called Power Glass glazing desirable for placing over glass, plastics, and other see-through structures. Using patented processes, such as reel-to-reel manufacturing techniques and multi-terminal cell structure designs, XsunX is working to commercialize large area cell manufacturing processes for thin film flexible plastics.

XsunX claims that Power Glass may provide as much as a 100% efficiency-to-cost gain over conventional opaque solar cells. This 100% gain in efficiency-to-cost is based on estimates of Power Glass solar cells operating at as much as 50% the efficiency of conventional opaque amorphous solar cells yet costing as little as 25% to produce.


I did vote myself as a doombat, but it didn't show up in the percentages for some reason. Doombat is the only category that would work for me as a political statement.

I probably should have stopped reading Palast when I realized he didn’t understand what the term “culmination” meant.

I would stop reading this guy for not understanding the use of the word hyperbole. Palast understood it quite well.

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