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Publisher's Letter

Nuclear power, LNG and coal fired power stations

What are the fundamentals for human survival? Most people would answer “Water, food, shelter and depending on climate, clothing”. That is correct for mere survival but for normal everyday life, people would now add “electricity”. People expect it as an absolute right. They become very anxious if a blackout deprives them of electricity for more than a few hours.

And rightly so. While people don’t like being deprived of electricity for heating and air-conditioning, far more serious is food spoilage because the refrigerator or freezer is out of action. Nor can you cook, if you don’t have a gas oven or barbecue. Add to that the lack of hot water for showers and you have a formula for serious discontent.

That discontent will be aimed squarely at government (even though the power generators may be in private hands). People pay for electricity and they expect a permanent supply. We all do, although we do make allowances for natural disasters.

So when there is a significant threat to power supplies, people do become very concerned. Now apart from my Publisher’s Letter in the January 2011 issue on this topic, there has been very little coverage in the general media; so far. However, the whole eastern seaboard of Australia is running quite close to capacity and as far as we can tell, there is no significant new base-load power generation being planned. So what are we going to do?

I am just as opposed to coal mining and coal-fired power stations as anybody and have written Publisher’s Letters on this topic years ago. My reason for opposing coal mining has nothing to do with carbon dioxide emissions and everything to do with its damaging of aquifers and productive farmland.

Mind you, that should not rule out expansion and upgrading of existing black coal-fired power stations. After all, the mines are in existence and so they should continue to work. What many people don’t realise is that most of the NSW power stations are more than 40 years old; in fact, Wallerawang is more than 50 years old. They should be expanded and upgraded, with bigger turbo-alternators and super critical boilers which operate at steam pressures above 220 bar (3200 psi). Super critical boilers offer higher efficiency than the old super-heated steam boilers.

Just as an aside, because coal-fired power stations operate at much higher temperatures and pressures than nuclear power stations, they are much more thermodynamically efficient and those with super critical boilers are even more so. But as most people know, nuclear power stations do not create greenhouse gases. So they are desirable in that aspect but condemned on another – the nuclear bogey.

If coal and nuclear power are ruled out, as seems to be the case in Australia, and geothermal energy is as far away as ever, we have one option left for base-load power stations: gas-fired closed cycle. But again, state governments seem to be reluctant to actively do much about it, preferring to vacillate while the federal government confuses the entire country with moves toward a “carbon” tax which will penalise all power generators, whether they use LNG or not.

That is crazy. In fact, instead of a “carbon” tax the federal government would be better advised to subsidise the conversion of Victoria’s old brown coal-fired power stations to gas-fired closed cycle generation. That would reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds and probably do far more to reduce our national emissions than any tax formula.

By the way, in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear power disaster, Japan is going to burn more LNG – a great deal more. In fact, analysts have estimated that Japan could need as much as 20 million tonnes of LNG up until 2020, only nine years, to make up the shortfall from the closure of Fukushima and any delays to future nuclear plant construction.

That makes Australia’s vacillation with power plant construction look plain silly.

Leo Simpson


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