Friday, October 14, 2022

Europe hopes Finland’s new reactor will hail a golden atomic age

If the human race is still around tens of thousands of years from now, our distant descendants may come across a small island off the west coast of Finland, and on it they would find the walled-up entrance to a tomb beneath a grassy hillock.

Behind a thick layer of rubble, a tunnel will snake down three miles through the bedrock to a 50-mile warren of high-ceilinged artificial caves, with tunnels branching off into burial chambers that hold one of the most dangerous substances known to humanity.

This is the Onkalo spent nuclear fuel repository, the world’s first deep geological repository for atomic waste, designed to keep nearly 3,000 24-tonne canisters of spent uranium fuel locked safely away for the next 100,000 years.

Described as a “game-changer” by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the global nuclear regulator, it finally offers an answer to a problem that has bedevilled the sector from its beginnings: what to do with chemicals that will continue leaking heat and radiation for at least as long a period as our species has been farming and building settlements?

It sounds simple enough. At present there are about a quarter of a million tonnes of radioactive waste on the planet, just about enough to fill a single very large oil tanker. It is currently either reprocessed or contained underwater in lead caskets known as “bottles” that are kept at interim storage sites next to atomic facilities round the world.

This works for the time being. Yet these installations require constant monitoring and security measures, which are not only expensive but may also ultimately be unsustainable in the event of some kind of civilisational breakdown.

In the Sixties and Seventies most states reached a consensus that the only truly viable solution for the long term was to bury the waste deep underground.

That is not as easy as it might appear. In 1967 the West German government began sealing up 127,000 drums of low and medium-level radioactive material in an old salt mine beneath the hills at Gorleben, close to the East German border.

Over time, however, the authorities realised the salt dome was gradually collapsing at a rate of 15cm a year, raising the risk that the bunker would become flooded and some of the waste would escape into the groundwater. Last year they decided to close the facility and backfill the mine with spoil.

Geology is not the only challenge. In the 2000s the US tried to establish its own deep storage facility below Yucca Mountain in Nevada, only to run up against strident opposition from local communities. The project was effectively shut down by the Trump administration in 2017.

Where America and Germany failed, Finland has succeeded. It began looking for a site in the 1980s, shortly after its first reactors came online at Loviisa, a town on its south coast, and Olkiluoto island in the west.

Unlike in the US, Britain and Germany, where winning consent for this kind of thing has proved tricky, both of the Finnish local authorities competed for the right to host the repository. They had learnt to trust nuclear power and to appreciate the substantial income and property tax revenues that came with the facilities. The most recent polling suggests 70 per cent of Finns support atomic energy, with only 11 per cent opposed, compared with 39 per cent of Britons who are in favour and 17 per cent who are against it.

“People [in other countries] are asking the same questions that we were asking in Finland 20 to 30 years ago,” said Pasi Tuohimaa, a spokesman for the Onkalo repository on Olkiluoto. “Maybe this is because we are very practical and people of our generation think that if we need something we’re not going to leave it for the solidarity of future generations to deal with. This is very widely accepted in Finland.” [...]

Yet the EPR has at times been in serious danger of turning into a white elephant. Both prototypes in Europe, at Olkiluoto and Flamanville in France, have run gravely behind schedule and over budget, with the cost of the Finnish reactor ballooning from €3.7 billion to €8 billion. In the end China stole a march on the Europeans, opening the first two operational EPR plants at Taishan on its south coast in 2018 and 2019 respectively.

Olkiluoto 3 is at last ready to go, pending the results of tests to determine whether it can be hooked up permanently to the Finnish electricity grid without causing instability. When The Times visited last week, it was plugged in and supplying about 16 per cent of Finland’s total power requirements. It should be fully online before Christmas, generating enough electricity for a million people and presenting a heartening light at the end of the long tunnel for Hinkley Point C. Even the press in Germany, where nuclear scepticism dies hard, has taken to calling Olkiluoto 3 the “reactor of hope”.

Yet Finland, like Britain, believes the long-term future of nuclear power is not so much behemoths like Olkiluoto 3 as small modular reactors (SMRs), which would have only a third of its capacity but could theoretically be built much more cheaply and swiftly, and close enough to large population centres to provide heat as well as power. The SMR division of Rolls-Royce, which hopes to be at the forefront of the technology, is understood to be on the point of opening a Finnish branch.


Yet again, IPCC’s climate math doesn’t check out

Don’t let anyone tell you 'the science' demands we simply accept the increasingly lethal climate policy agenda

The high and rising costs of climate policy — now including the inability of jurisdictions that bet big on renewables to guarantee enough energy for their citizens to survive the coming winter — don’t just entitle us to question the basis for it: they demand we do so.

Ultimately, the justification for renewables is the view that carbon dioxide emissions have a big effect on the climate that will cause devastating harm at some point in the future. Scientists measure the effect using a concept called “Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity” or ECS, which estimates how much long-run average warming will occur as a result of doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Some important new evidence pointing to a low ECS value just emerged in the scientific literature.

ECS has long been uncertain. In 1979 the U.S. National Academy of Sciences estimated it to be between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees Celsius, with a best estimate of 3.0 degrees C. That range, which runs from “no big deal” to “very bad outcomes,” was accepted by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its first report in 1990 and thereafter until 2007 when, citing greater warming projections in newer models, it raised the bottom end to 2.0 degrees C.

But over the next few years a literature developed using, not model simulations, but observed warming rates since the late-1800s to estimate ECS. Its results typically centred around 2.0 C or less. So in 2013 the IPCC reduced the bottom end of the range back to 1.5 C and declined to offer a best estimate. In other words, after three decades climate science hadn’t narrowed the uncertainty at all.

The economic implications of ECS being 2 C rather than 3 C are enormous. Economic models used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others assume ECS is 3 C when computing the social cost of carbon. Some co-authors and I have shown that if the ECS parameter is instead centred around 2 C, the estimated social cost of carbon plummets and becomes very small at least through the middle of this century. The justification for costly climate policy essentially disappears.

Given the discrepancy between models and observations, the IPCC changed the way it handled the ECS issue in its latest (2021) report. It no longer relied on model estimates, but neither did it go with the existing estimates in the empirical literature. Instead it turned to a 2020 paper by Australian climate scientist Steven Sherwood and 10 co-authors, who used a new technique to combine data from modern climate change with that from the end of the last ice age and even further back. They concluded the likely sensitivity range was from 2.6 to 3.9 C. On this basis the IPCC revised its estimate of the likely ECS range to between 2.5 and 4.0 C with a best estimate of 3.1 C. And it specifically ruled out ECS being less than 2.0 C.

But as so often happens when a new paper appears in the literature that solves a political problem for the IPCC, they pounce on it before experts in the field have had a chance to check the numbers — which is what a new paper in the peer-reviewed journal Climate Dynamics by U.K. mathematician Nicholas Lewis does.

Lewis shows that the Sherwood paper made some mathematical errors and also relied on outdated data. Interestingly, many of the data updates were done by the IPCC itself in other parts of its 2021 report but weren’t applied in the Sherwood study. Other data updates were done in the wider peer-reviewed literature by specialists in the field.

Lewis shows that correcting the math actually increases the sensitivity estimate slightly. But updating the data does the opposite: the ECS best estimate drops to 2.2 C with a likely range from 1.8 to 2.7 C. And if the analysis focuses only on the period after 1870 (recognizing that most of the world has little or no reliable temperature data prior to that) the best estimate drops even more: to 1.8 C. In other words, with updated data the Sherwood paper would largely confirm the empirical literature the IPCC had passed over.

This is a big deal. But amid the nonstop stream of climate news you won’t hear about it: the world’s climate journalists aren’t trained to follow important topics like this — though that never stops them from lecturing their readers, viewers and listeners about what to think about climate science.

It will be five years or more before the IPCC issues a new report. If history is any guide, months before that a group of authors heavily involved in the report-writing process will rush a paper into print that drags ECS back up to the 3 C range just long enough for the new IPCC Summary for Policymakers to declare the same old best estimate. But reality keeps pointing to lower values.

Don’t let anyone tell you “the science” demands we simply accept the increasingly lethal climate policy agenda. It would fail a cost-benefit test even if ECS were 3 degrees C. But it’s even less justified with an ECS of 2 degrees C, which is the level the evidence seems to insist on.


Church of England’s net-zero plan in peril due to high costs

Churches are installing new gas and oil boilers because environmentally friendly ones are too expensive, putting their net zero plan at risk.

In February 2020, the General Synod, the Church of England’s legislative body, voted in favour of setting a target for the institution to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030.

Following the vote, guidance was issued to churches telling them to switch from fossil fuel boilers to more environmentally friendly alternatives and to only install gas ones “if there is no alternative”.

However, green heating systems such as electric boilers or heat pumps are either too expensive for parish churches, which are buckling under financial pressure, or they cannot be fitted in historic buildings.

The findings have been revealed in an analysis of church court rulings and comments made by ecclesiastical judges, one of whom warned that this “is likely to lead to the 2030 target being missed”.

The analysis of Consistory Court rulings since the 2020 target, carried out by The Times, showed that that permission has been granted in 90 per cent of cases for parish churches to install new fossil-fuelled boilers instead of environmentally friendly alternatives.

‘No green options at a reasonable cost’

Among the rulings detailing this issue is the church of St Mary the Virgin in Welling, London, which asked to install a new gas boiler.

Philip Petchey, the church judge, said last month that there was “not a green option at a reasonable cost”. “If churches do not begin to take steps now [it] will not be achieved within the eight years remaining.”

St Mary’s in Oxted, Surrey, requested permission to install a new gas boiler last February. The ruling noted that the gas boiler would cost £1,800 per year, and the electric one £8,000 per year.

Judge Petchey, who also presided over this case, warned: “It does seem that, absent new technology coming to the rescue … a whole series of decisions like the present case is likely to lead to the 2030 target being missed.”

Also last February, St John the Evangelist in Donisthorpe, Leicestershire, asked to install a new oil boiler, having already looked into heat pumps and biomass boilers.

Lyndsey de Mestre KC, the church judge, ruled: “It is cost that has forced [their] hand… The use of an oil-fired boiler is not a zero-carbon heating system in line with [the church’s] commitment [to hit net zero]. It is, however, the only feasible and affordable outcome for this parish.”

The church of St Thomas and St Luke in Dudley, West Midlands, was allowed two new gas boilers last May. Granting permission, Jacqueline Humphreys said: “I know I am not the only chancellor faced with the difficult decision whether or not to permit the introduction of new heating systems that … do not accord with the objective of achieving net zero carbon by 2030.”

In only one case over the period - that of Christ Church in Dore, Sheffield - was a parish told to reconsider “fully the alternatives to the use of fossil fuel”.

The analysis comes just months after the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the leaders of the Church of England, admitted that they “got it wrong” by not prioritising rural parishes over city churches.


Coal and gas are still Australia's economic saviours

With Australia in desperate need of economic golden eggs as we struggle with a massive debt burden and face a possible world recession, they’re trying harder than ever to kill the goose that is laying them. The huge $50 billion slash in the 2021-22 budget deficit, cutting it by two-thirds from $80 billion to $32 billion, largely resulted from record company tax collections of $126 billion. These were driven up by our highest-ever resources and energy exports of $421 billion, led by the condemned-to-death fossil fuels of coal, oil and LNG which together made up almost half the total. And in the current 2022-23 financial year, the golden eggs will be even richer as resources and energy exports are officially forecast to reach even higher to $450 billion as coal export revenues surge to $120 billion to exceed iron ore.

But governmental net-zero targets, investment bans by woke climate-catastrophe-obsessed boards of directors and super funds, a court system happy to be the plaything of climate-activist lawfare that has made Australia the world’s most litigious developed nation for mining projects, have all combined to bring the campaign against fossil fuels – and thereby against Australia’s historic dependence on reliable cheap energy and status as an exporter – to a serious tipping point.

Unless there is a truce in this war against fossil fuels, the current financial year will be the last time they will be capable of coming so significantly to our economic rescue. Already, next year’s official forecasts of an expected decline in the Ukraine war’s high commodity prices, of a Western world economic slowdown and for its rush to renewables (as self-destructive emissions targets are imposed), are together likely to result in a cut in our fossil fuel export revenue by almost a quarter in 2023-24. This, along with Australia’s deliberate official obstructionism to fossil fuel investment, particularly in coal, will all combine to kill off this economic lifeline whose current significance has been deliberately downplayed by those seeking environmental purity.

So while this year’s forecast iron ore exports at $119 billion takes the headlines, the fossil fuels of metallurgical coal at $58 billion, thermal coal at $62 billion, natural gas at $90 billion and oil at $15 billion are together officially forecast to be almost twice as big as iron ore’s export earnings this financial year and to make up, at $225 billion, half of Australia’s total minerals and resources export revenue. While, on their own, coal exports are earning more than iron ore, so effective has the campaign been against coal that not even the organisation that is supposed to represent it, the Minerals Council of Australia, was prepared to acknowledge coal’s primary role when it issued a press release last week welcoming the latest official resources and energy forecasts by the Department of Industry, Science and Resources, ‘as a strong reminder of the of the economic benefits delivered by the mining industry’.

In noting the forecast that Australia’s resource and energy export earnings will reach a record $450 billion in the current financial year , the MCA correctly asserted that, ‘Australia is only in a position to take advantage of these [high international] prices due to increased production across a range of commodities. In the last decade, over $250 billion of investment in new mines, processing equipment and infrastructure has resulted in Australia’s bauxite mining increasing 41 per cent, iron ore production increasing 84 per cent and lithium output rising nearly 400 per cent’.

Not a word about the biggest single revenue earner, coal, which became the mineral that MCA pretends does not exist ever since an emissions-obsessed BHP threatened to quit the MCA if it continued to lobby for coal; note the absence of coal in MCA press releases in recent years.

But when MCA campaigns against pressure for rises in mining taxes and royalties, as it has this month, by boasting of mining’s record $43 billion contribution made to the Australian economy in 2020-21 (with 2021-22 sure to be even considerably larger), coal’s existence is re-discovered and its multi-billion-dollar share is included – without acknowledgement. And by asserting that the effective tax rate on Australian mining investment is already high relative to many jurisdictions in other mining countries, it reminds governments that while Australia needs to attract more investment in mining (but you must not mention coal!) in order to benefit from growing international demand, there is strong competition for investment from other mining countries.

However, at least coal has proselytisers on a state basis. As Stephen Galilee, CEO of the NSW Minerals Council pointedly told me, ‘Some people want to ignore the fact that our coal sector even exists This is despite coal continuing to be NSW’s most valuable export commodity, worth around $22.6 billion in exports, and delivering a record $4 billion in royalties to the NSW government this year alone’.

But what of the future, given the high demand for NSW coal that Galilee claims is some of the highest quality available anywhere in the world, producing more energy with less emissions than coal from elsewhere? ‘There are currently 17 potential coal-mining proposals in the planning and development pipeline in NSW representing a further $4.6 billion investment.’ But nearly all are proposals to expand or extend operational lives of NSW’s forty existing coal mines; greenfield projects face too many hurdles.

The same goes for Queensland, where my old parliamentary colleague Ian Macfarlane who runs the Queensland Resources Council, said the latest official forecasts ‘reinforce the significance of the resources industry to the budget bottom line. Coal exports underpin both the Australian and Queensland governments’ budgets’. But Macfarlane warned that governments, particularly Queensland’s, ‘can’t take future investment and future returns from coal exports for granted’ and that the Queensland government’s decision to hike up coal royalty taxes to the highest rates in the world has resulted in ‘large mining investors already rethinking their investments in Queensland’.

Is it time someone brought another lump of coal into parliament to remind MPs of its economic significance? ?




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