Monday, February 12, 2024

Anti-Nuclear by necessity

On January 30th the government of Ontario, currently headed by Doug Ford, announced it was advancing the refurbishment of the four “B” reactors at the Pickering Nuclear Generation Station (PNGS), Initial media response has been largely positive, with Ontario’s public broadcaster (TVO) noting, “ it’s hard to see a future government changing course”. Apparently TVO, and other news outlets, felt compelled to offer their readers articles opposed to the refurbishment for balance. At TVO the negative response came shortly after the news broke in an article by Taylor C. Noakes. Rebutting that work is one goal of this one, but it may be more important to explore the emerging tools for producing an article to counter a narrative in another.

There is a commendable aspect of TVO attaining the work by Noakes, who I believe to be ‘stringer’ - which is an independent producer of content: Noakes has produced multiple articles for, at least, TVO and Desmog, on a wide variety of topics. If you wanted an article with a perspective, Noakes is exactly the type of person you’d go to - particularly, if you’re familiar with Desmog and want an anti-nuclear position. The most obvious alternative approach, and the one taken by The Globe and Mail, is to publish an op-ed from a career antinuclear personality. Mark Winfield’s The folly of Ontario’s nuclear power play (subscription) is exactly what you’d expect from a person with a career based on opposing nuclear - I’ve previously highlighted his mid-2000’s publication at Pembina that planned for a nuclear-free Ontario by 2020 that would have had electricity-sector emissions 400% higher, and will simply emphasize that his status as an expert relies not on the the wisdom in his past work, but simply in his opposition to nuclear power.

Noakes’ stringer work may be enhanced with the emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools. Given a topic a writer can simply use an AI tool such as that embedded with the Bing browser, or OpenAI’s tools (I tested only the free version), and get the skeleton of an article. Bing’s Co-pilot, responding to my prompting, “argument to oppose refurbishment of Pickering nuclear generating station”, produced bullet points supporting 5 themes: Environmental Concerns, Cost and Overruns, Safety and Aging Infrastructure, Changing Energy Landscape, and Public Consultation and Transparency. ChatGPT gave paragraphs supporting 7 possibilities for opposing: Cost, Safety Concerns, Environmental Impact, Technological Obsolescence, Public health, Opportunity cost and Community opposition. These themes do emerge with every announcement of continued nuclear operations.

To acquire an article opposing nuclear power in 2024 a polymath isn’t required, but mostly somebody who can wrap readily attainable content in a story. Noakes’ TVO story is titled:

The Ford government’s decision on nuclear will set Ontario back 30 years
OPINION: Our politicians keep subsidizing old technologies and industries — and putting opportunity and ideology ahead of basic economics

That sets the stage: a villain is presented (Ford, who heads what is actually Ontario’s government - but Ontario can’t be the villain), driven by ideology instead of rationality (a.k.a. ‘Basic economics’). You can almost hear a pantomime’s audience booing the modern “not following the science” villain..

Introductory paragraph:
Given there aren’t any VCR or Zeppelin factories left to spend taxpayer money on, the Ford government has decided to spend it instead on another outdated technology. As the world moves away from nuclear power toward safer, cheaper renewable alternatives, Doug Ford is shifting Ontario into reverse, setting the province back 30 years or more, both environmentally and economically.
The Zeppelin is an interesting allegorical vehicle: balloons didn’t disappear with the Hindenburg, but floating them for passenger travel with hydrogen did. Noakes has written, negatively, on hydrogen too. One federal government instrument supporting hydrogen is set to cost $17.7 billion (and there is other spending as well), while Ontario has initiatives to produce hydrogen and to blend it with natural gas in at least one power plant). This is minor stuff compared to Germany, where the government has budgeted $17 billion (USD) to subsidize new gas plants on the premise they’ll be capable of conversion to running on hydrogen - should the technology prove affordable and scalable. The Zeppelin imagery may be more appropriate for theoretical future hydrogen generators than existing, proven, nuclear ones.

“30 years” ago was 1994, which is a strange time to pick. Darlington was finally fully in service (it was planned in the 1970’s), the least nuclear-friendly government in the province’s history (under Bob Rae) had hired an anti-nuclear environmentalist/oil man (Maurice Strong), who’d frozen budgets, rates and initiated a gutting of nuclear capability that would culminate in 1998’s idling of 8 nuclear reactors as generation, and pollution, from coal-fired generation was escalating, pushing greenhouse gas emissions from Ontario’s electricity sector up over 150% in just 6 years. 30 years ago is not a place we are headed under the current government.

By the third paragraph Noakes transitions from the “Technological obsolescence” slight to costs, claiming, “new nuclear costs five to 13 times more than a kilowatt-hour of new solar or wind.” He links to an article in France’s Le Monde that gets the claim from Amory Lovins quoting, rightly or wrongly, Bloomberg New Energy Finance. France has much cheaper electricity than the ‘green’ leaders of Denmark and Germany, so perhaps Lovins (the Soft Path cults’ Joseph Smith) and BNEF (more like Scientology) don’t have this one right.. Noakes’ paragraph closes by checking off AI’s ‘opportunity cost’ item: “And every dollar spent on nuclear is one that’s not being used to buy less expensive, fully renewable energy systems that could help decarbonize the province right now.”

To understand that posturing, a short history lesson is warranted. In the late 2000’s German Greens introduced their Soft Path ideas into the offices of Ontario’s Premier and Energy Minister. A chief tenet of the Soft Path was stated during that period by former German Environment Minister Siegmar Gabriel: “Nuclear energy and renewable energies cannot be combined.” The reason provided then was green generation, which was deemed to be primarily wind and solar, needed to pair with generation resources that could adapt not only to rising and falling demand, but night and day, and windy and calm. The TVO anti-nuclear piece had anti-nuclear personality Paul I-am-rubber-you-are-glue Dorfman re-word that premise; “Nuclear …[is] too inflexible to go up and down with the swings of demand.” That makes some sense, but I’ve argued a ‘baseload component’ of a system can supply 80+% of annual energy needs. 15 years ago the argument was this baseload was incompatible with the varying output of wind and solar generation. Noakes’ article pretends outages, planned or not, make nuclear intermittent. For a single reactor, or site, that may be, but I have 15 years of hourly data that demonstrate it is not true when considering a fleet of nuclear reactors. These weak claims resurface due to the understandable claim that variable renewable generators need to be paired with generators that can respond to their variability, in addition to varying load. In Ontario this has meant that every time baseload-energy Pickering has been extended, there have been howls of protests from the soft path crowd. For examples see former Ontario Deputy Premier and Energy Minister George Smitherman’s X feed re: Pickering), including his 2013 querying of Paul Bliss reporting on costs of excessive supply with, “Oversupply of electricity? Then why are we extending the life of Pickering Nuclear?” It proved a poor question for the anti-nuclear lobby: we needed the capacity. We’d soon stop contracting wind, and solar, to limit excess supply hours.

The next paragraphs deal with the article’s writer not understanding the term ‘refurbishment’ in the context of Ontario’s reactors. According to Noakes’ understanding, “While refurbishment implies a superficial improvement or aesthetic enhancement, Pickering is going to require something much more involved.” Pickering’s first extension came in the 2010 announcement that its operator, OPG, was choosing to proceed on planning the refurbishment of the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station but opting for much less extensive work at Pickering (I covered that decision in my 2022 appeal to Refurbish Pickering). Smitherman claimed that $300 million of work altered the plan under his term to shutter Pickering in 2016. The plan to extend it to 2020 led to a plan to extend it to 2024 (for the 4 ‘B’ units) and now a plan extending the operations into 2026. Meanwhile there have been 8 reactor refurbishment projects initiated (4 complete) which are obviously major component replacements (as Bruce Power calls the work) intended to extend reactor life not by 3 or 4 years, but by 3 or 4 decades.

Noakes chooses to quote Dorfman to work the AI themes of technological obsolescence and changing energy landscape:
“Variability of wind and solar technology are far more easily integrated into evolving flexible electricity grids, including long-distance interconnection.”
There’s an old saying that if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Poor Dorfman thinks he’s riding, but getting transmission projects done is proving difficult and expensive from Germany to the United States. Flexibility has likely improved where countries have seen increased undersea transmission ties, but if nuclear is considered impractical due to lead times, so ought to be variable supply supported by “long distance interconnection.” Difficulty building “long-distance interconnection” is one more reason to refurbish Pickering’s reactors.

Cost is an element of all discussions, a suggestion from AI’s for arguing against nuclear, and the source of specious claims in the TVO article. Noakes seeks out champion time-waster Mark Jacobson, the wind-water-sun modeller, to add gravitas to anti-nuclear cost analysis.
“Nuclear advocates claim nuclear is still needed because wind and solar are intermittent and need natural gas for backup. However, nuclear itself never matches power demand so it needs backup…Today batteries are beating natural gas for wind and solar backup needs. Dozens of independent scientific groups have further found that it is possible to match intermittent power demand with clean, renewable supply and storage, without nuclear or fossil fuels, at low cost.”
There’s a great deal of funding available to those who’ll produce a study with the claims of Jacobson and Dorfman- but no evidence the claims are true. That nuclear does not meet all demand doesn’t mean it requires backup, it means other sources only need to meet the portion of demand above the base load - this is why it’s called baseload supply. The cost claims are awkward not only because the only cost revealed for the Pickering refurbishment was $2 billion to advance it, but because the alternatives to nuclear are unclear, and uncosted.

Noakes’ piece published on TVO demonstrates the ignorance in costing alternatives to nuclear as he tries to dismiss a claim, stated by Ontario’s Energy Minister, that, “replacing Pickering’s 2,000 megawatt nuclear capacity would require 18,000 megawatts of wind power, plus another 2,000 megawatts of battery storage.” To counter the claim Noakes cites Jacobson to math out some annual capacity factors - not only is that problematic, it’s exactly the reason Jacobson has displayed himself to be not only incompetent in modeling system needs, but incapable of responsible behaviour. When his claims of wind, water and sun systems being low-cost solutions to providing all power were refuted in a paper he sued the lead author (who was not backed by a major institution, and was/is one of the most intriguing system modelers of our time), then withdrew the case and was required to pay costs, which he then (I understand successfully) sued his employer to pay. Noakes provides a good opportunity to show why Ontario’s system operator and public power generator could advise the Minister that substituting for Pickering B would require a lot of turbines (18GW) and storage. I’ve pulled hourlyl generator output data for Pickering B and all Ontario’s grid-connected wind turbines (just shy of 5 GW) for a 5 day period centred around the February 5th publication of Noakes’ article. This is not flattering for Pickering B as only 3 of 4 reactors are operating, and I start the modeled 2 GW of solar with a full 8 GWh of storage (think of the 2 GW as the rate the stored energy can drain from the 8 GWh, or 4-hour, reservoir of storage).

My primitive attempts at modeling have shown storage, in Ontario, is frequently full and quickly emptied, and that’s apparent in this 5-day period. With the output of the current ~5 GW wind turbines’ capacity scaled up proportionately to mimic 18 GW of capacity, coupled with the 2 GW/8GWh reservoir, the output of PNGS is met in only 52 of the 120 hours over this period.

Finally, the TVO article ends tugging on the safety concerns pointed to by our AI’s - and AENGO’s. It quotes from professional intervenors at the Canadian Environmental Law Association’s opining that the possibility of accidents make, “high population areas and operating commercial nuclear plants are incompatible.”

I don’t believe any risk assessment expert would consider the possibility of an accident high - or even remote.

Incompatible? The announcement of Pickering’s refurbishment occurred at the site, now surrounded by a far larger population than when it was constructed, and celebrated by that populations’ elected members of municipal and provincial governments.

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