Physical Insights

An independent scientist’s observations on society, technology, energy, science and the environment. “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.” – Carl Sagan

Australian support for consideration of nuclear energy continues to grow.

with 3 comments

Paul Howes, national secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union, is continuing to advocate taking a reasonable look at the role of nuclear energy as a means to achieve anthropogenic GHG emissions reductions. As you might expect from Australia’s largest trade union, their chief area of concern is the mitigation of GHG emissions, and the introduction of GHG emissions trading, without damage to Australian industries and industrial employment.

THE Rudd Government is being urged to embrace nuclear power as a source of clean energy, amid warnings its emissions trading scheme could result in desolating Australian mineral and metallurgy industries.

Just days before the Government releases a discussion paper on carbon trading, a new report shows Australia’s aluminium industry – employing 35,000 people – could be devastated.

Challenging Professor Ross Garnaut’s preferred model, the Australian Workers’ Union wants the key metals sector to receive a partial reprieve from carbon trading.

The union has a powerful ally: respected business figure and Commonwealth Bank chairman John Schubert.

Mr Schubert, who also chairs the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, says Canberra should “definitely look at” nuclear power.

It needs to be a real option… should absolutely be on the table“, Mr Schubert said.

Howes has just released a report from Per Capita consulting on the effects of the emissions trading scheme on Australian industry – specifically the aluminium industry, in this case.

It says the future for the aluminium industry is grim if the Government gets the design of an ETS wrong.

Union and business leaders fear an ETS will cause job losses and send investment offshore, with the aluminium industry particularly vulnerable.

The Per Capita report says jobs could be lost to Brazil, China and India if Canberra imposes tough new laws.

The study recommends the Government give the aluminium industry a “partial exemption” from carbon trading for up to five years and embrace nuclear power.

Mr Howes said the report would bring a “bit of level-headedness” to the debate over emissions trading and climate change.

Mr Howes said he was sick of hearing claims that workers in “heavy-polluting” industries, such as steel and aluminium, could be re-trained in “green” industries.

Instead, workers could be “left on the scrapheap of history” and enter the ranks of the long-term unemployed, Howes claims.

Personally, I don’t agree with the popular conception that aluminium production is an especially highly GHG emissions intensive industry.

Direct GHG emissions intensity for aluminium production in Australia was 2.0 tonnes CO2-e per tonne of aluminium production in 2007 — down from 2.1 in 2006 and 5.0 in 1990 — an improvement over the 1990 level of 60 per cent.

Indirect GHG emissions intensity from electricity consumption for aluminium production remained at the same level as 2006 at 14.1 tonnes CO2-e per tonne of aluminium production — down from 16.1 in 1990 — an improvement of 12%. This reflects both energy efficiency and changes in greenhouse grid factors.

Australian aluminium production in 2007 (i.e. aluminium smelting, not alumina production) contributed 31.6 mt (million tonnes) of GHG emissions (CO2-e), comprising 3.95 mt CO2-e of direct PFC emissions, direct carbon dioxide process emissions and other site-level emissions, and 27.69 mt CO2-e of indirect emissions from electricity consumption.

The Australian aluminium smelting industry consumed 29,500 GWh of electricity in 2007, corresponding to an average GHG emissions intensity of 939 g/kWhe for the electricity consumed by Australia’s aluminium smelters – consistent with Australia’s extremely GHG intensive, overwhelmingly coal based electricity generation capacity.

[These statistics are taken from the Australian Aluminium Council’s 2007 Sustainability Report.]

Indirect GHG emissions from fossil fuel electricity generation – which aren’t really emissions from the aluminium production industry at all – hence comprise 88 percent of the GHG emissions intensity ascribed to the aluminium smelting industry.

If the overall GHG emissions intensity of the electricity supply of 939 g/kWhe was cut to, say, 100 g/kWhe through the replacement of coal fired generators with nuclear energy, geothermal, solar thermal, hydroelectricity or what have you, then the greenhouse gas emissions of aluminium production in Australia can be cut from 31.6 mt to 6.9 mt – 3.52 tonnes CO2-e per tonne Al, compared with 16.1 tonnes CO2-e per tonne Al at present – a 78% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions intensity, and that’s on top of any further improvement in energy efficiency and/or process efficiency, PFC emissions reduction and so forth, in the industry.

Aluminium smelters are not at all the cause for concern here. The burning of coal and fossil fuel for essentially all the country’s electricity generation is by far the foremost concern that we need to address.

The AWU’s press release, and the 32 page analysis commissioned by the AWU from Per Capita, are available here.

Also, in Canberra today, economist Professor Jeffrey Sachs warns that the world must embrace nuclear power as one of its options if it is going to win the fight against the potentially catastrophic damage of anthropogenic greenhouse effect forcing.

Professor Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and author of the book The End of Poverty, warned that global warming had the potential to undo the progress being made in the war on global poverty, making the tropics hotter and arid regions even more arid.

In Canberra to give a keynote speech today at the Australian National University’s annual China Update, he said the world would need to use every available technology – and develop some more – to reduce anthropogenic greenhouse forcing at the same time as rapidly expanding its output.

Professor Sachs, who has not supported nuclear power in the past, said better technology was the key to breaking the link between economic growth and carbon dioxide emissions, and the world could not afford to do without either nuclear power or cleaner coal.

“I support the reintroduction of nuclear power”, he said. “It’s hard to see how we’re going to get enough energy with low carbon emissions without nuclear playing a significant role.

If Australia chooses not to go that way, it’s going to have to go even more aggressively towards solar energy and carbon capture and storage. My own feeling is that nuclear is safe and cost-effective.

Professor Sachs, 52, played a key role in drawing up the Millennium Development Goals that are the targets for reducing global poverty.

Yesterday he said climate change was one cause of the steep rise in world food prices, which is making food unaffordable in some poorer areas.

If the world can not afford to do without either nuclear power or “cleaner coal”, and nuclear power is already a developed, mature, proven technology across the world, and “cleaner coal” is far from it, then it’s not much of a contest, is it?


Written by Luke Weston

July 14, 2008 at 5:12 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Nuclear energy, good.


    July 14, 2008 at 7:01 pm

  2. Sometimes I think that the “lets save the earth” crowd has a big streak of “lets make those filthy capitalists pay!” right down the middle. As far as metal production goes, aluminum is one of the cleanest metals out there. Recycling aluminum uses only 5% of the power required to smelt it, and aluminum aluminum recycles indefinitely. If there is one metal for the 21st century, I would say aluminum is it. Yet, the industry, which I might add is one of the “weakest links” in the economy which if it fails, can wreck havoc on the whole thing. Somehow I am not surprised that people who are anti-nuclear power are also anti-aluminum industry.


    July 16, 2008 at 2:16 pm

  3. For your readers here is the latest ideas from the Australian Workers’ Union on the climate change debate –

    AWU wants emissions permits for workers, not just corporations

    Andrew Casey

    July 23, 2008 at 9:27 am

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