Ben Heard - nuclear power - decarbonisesa

Adelaide-based Ben Heard runs the website. He is arguably the most aggressive and abusive of Australia's nuclear advocates − see for example this temper tantrum and compare it with the matter-of-fact tone of the paper he is attacking.

Like so many other nuclear advocates, Heard very rarely or never says or does anything about the problems of the nuclear industry such as its systemic racism (abundantly evident in South Australia) or the inadequate nuclear safeguards system.

A mining industry magazine article says that Heard was "once a fervent anti-nuclear campaigner". However Mr Heard has never had any involvement whatsoever in anti-nuclear campaigning. Heard made no effort to correct the error in the magazine article - indeed he put the article, uncorrected, on his own website. The website was later corrected, but only after his dishonesty was exposed. Likewise, Heard made no effort to correct an ABC article which describes him as a "former anti-nuclear advocate".

A November 2015 ABC article falsely describes Heard as a scientist. It isn't clear whether this was an error by the ABC or the latest fabrication and misprepresentation by Heard. Either way, it's a safe bet that Heard won't be correcting the error.

Heard has done consulting work at Beverley uranium mine, owned by General Atomic subsidiary Heathgate Resources. He rarely discloses his financial interest when spruiking for the nuclear/uranium industry. He says the reason he rarely discloses his financial interest is that it is mentioned on his website. So any time you hear anyone speaking about anything in the media, it's your responsibility to do a web-search to see if they have a financial interest!

Heathgate is 100% owned by General Atomics, which is run by this gentleman:

Mr Heard's claim to be an environmentalist sits uncomfortably with his willingness to take on consulting work for GA/Heathgate, a company i) whose behaviour towards Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners has been highly controversial, ii) that supported police brutality against environmentalists and Traditional Owners at Beverley (and the capsicum-spraying of the 11-year-old grand-daughter of an Adnyamathana Elder), iii) has been caught spying on environmentalists with the employment of a private investigator/infiltrator, iv) has a sub-standard environmental record and v) is heavily involved the military-industrial complex including indiscriminate drone death machines. No-one with any sort of environmental or social conscience would take blood money from a company like General Atomics.

Referring to a Walkerville Council meeting in June 2012, Mr Heard claimed that Friends of the Earth "tried to have our event shut down". That is a blatant lie.

Mr Heard offers himself for pro-nuclear talks, and even asks for speaking fees although he has no relevant qualifications or expertise. Judge for yourself whether you'd pay to hear him speak ...


Some comments from an article by Ben Heard and Barry Brook (BH/BB) and my (Jim Green) responses.

BH/BB: "The best start for responsible management of any hazardous waste is to capture and contain it at the source. Nuclear power does this."

About one-third of the spent fuel produced in power reactors has been reprocessed and this results in considerable releases of radioactive materials (it is "environmentally dirty" according to the Deputy Director General of the World Nuclear Association). Then there are accidents and leaks − for example in April 2005 it was revealed that 83,000 litres of highly-radioactive liquid containing dissolved spent nuclear fuel (and 160 kgs of plutonium) had leaked from the THORP reprocessing plant in the UK, and the leak went undetected for at least eight months.

Uranium mine tailings waste isn't captured and contained, nor is the liquid waste from in-situ leach mining.

Hanford, Dounreay, Sellafield, Chelyabinsk/Mayak − these are synonymous with environmental pollution as a result of serious, protracted nuclear waste management problems.

BH/BB: "[R]adioactive waste is perceived as complex. This is far from the truth. Radioactive material is one of the most predictable, easily monitored and best understood forms of waste. We know what it does, and how it does it, forever, and we manage it accordingly."

Obviously there is no experience with the management of high-level nuclear waste over periods of centuries or millenia let alone "forever". Research continues to throw up surprises, e.g. colloidal migration of plutonium, and studies from the Äspö Hard Rock Laboratory in Sweden suggesting that copper-encapsulated canisters will corrode much faster than previously expected.

BH/BB: "The material in Dry Cask Storage at Fukushima bore the full brunt of the tsunamis, with no damage."

True, but the spent fuel in the reactor buildings was responsible for a significant fraction of the radioactive releases.

BH/BB: "[T]he quantities in question are relatively very small. ... A large-scale 25 GW nuclear power industry would add a mere 50 tons, taking up just 250 m3 (six-and-a-half standard shipping containers)."

BH/BB ignore waste streams across the nuclear fuel cycle − mine tailings waste, depleted uranium, etc. Over a 50-year lifespan, a 25 GW nuclear power industry would be responsible for:

  • 900 million tonnes of low-level radioactive tailings waste − assuming the uranium came from the Olympic Dam mine in SA. (If the uranium came from in-situ leach mines, there would be no tailings waste but there would be many aquifers polluted with radionuclides, heavy metals and acid.)
  • 215,000 tonnes of depleted uranium waste, a by-product of the uranium enrichment process.
  • 37,500 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste (spent fuel).
  • 375,000 cubic metres of low-level and intermediate-level waste.

(The Switkowski report is the basis for most of the above calculations. The figure on tailings waste comes from BHP Billiton's literature regarding the Olympic Dam open-cut mine plan.)

The figures for one reactor (1 GW) for one year are: 720,000 tonnes of radioactive tailings waste (Olympic Dam), 170 tonnes of depleted uranium waste, 30 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste (spent fuel) and 300 cubic metres of low-level and intermediate-level waste.

Volume and mass are not the only parameters to consider. High-level nuclear waste (spent fuel) produced in power reactors around the world contains enough plutonium to build about 200,000 nuclear weapons. Heat generated by high-level nuclear waste is another concern.

The interesting part of the BH/BB article concerns fast reactor technology. In theory fast reactor technology is attractive (potentially consuming more waste and weapons-useable material than the reactors produce) but in practice it has been highly problematic − fast reactor programs have contributed to several nuclear weapons programs; they have been leak-prone, fire-prone, and accident-prone; and there are a number of multi-billion-dollar white elephants such as the French Superphenix fast reactor. (On fast reactor technology see this report (PDF) by the International Panel on Fissile Materials.) Likewise the theory of conventional reprocessing is attractive but in practice it has been highly problematic.

BH/BB conclude their fast reactor promo: "So nuclear waste stops being a major headache, and turns into an asset. An incredibly valuable asset, as it turns out. In the US alone, there is 10 times more energy in already-mined depleted uranium (about 700,000 tonnes) and spent nuclear fuel, just sitting there in stockpiles, than there is coal in the ground. This is a multi-trillion dollar, zero-carbon energy resource, waiting to be harnessed." Nuclear utilities around the world disagree − they are keen to dump their nuclear waste in Australia or anywhere else that will take it and they are prepared to pay billions of dollars to get rid of it. In theory, nuclear waste is a multi-trillion dollar asset; in reality it is a multi-billion dollar liability.

More information on nuclear waste:


Mr Heard acknowledges a total of 43 deaths from the Chernobyl disaster from acute radiation exposure and thyroid cancer. He argues that the long-term non-thyroid cancer death toll is zero. He arrives at that conclusion by repeatedly misrepresenting a report by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) and ignoring all other estimates of the long-term cancer death toll.

The UNSCEAR report (PDF) argues that the long-term cancer death toll from Chernobyl cannot be meaningfully estimated because of "unacceptable uncertainties in the predictions", i.e. the limitations of epidemiological studies, and the uncertainties of applying a risk estimate (e.g. based on the linear no-threshold theory) to the collective radiation dose estimate (e.g. the IAEA's collective dose estimate of 600,000 person-Sieverts).

Mr Heard conflates UNSCEAR's unknown long-term cancer death toll with a long-term cancer death toll of zero. Obviously they are two very different propositions yet the distinction is lost on Mr Heard. An obvious question for Mr Heard − how could UNSCEAR arrive at a long-term cancer death toll of zero at the same time as it argues that the death toll cannot be estimated because of "unacceptable uncertainties in the predictions"? In truth, UNSCEAR doesn't estimate a long-term cancer death toll of zero − it simply declines to provide any estimate whatsoever.

UNSCEAR participated in the Chernobyl Forum study which estimates a death toll of 4,000 among the highest-exposed populations (with a follow-up World Health Organisation study estimating an additional 5,000 deaths among populations exposed to lower doses in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.) On the broader issue of the cancer risks of exposure to low-level ionising radiation, UNSCEAR's view (PDF) is that "the current balance of available evidence tends to favour a non-threshold response for the mutational component of radiation-associated cancer induction at low doses and low dose rates."

Back to the Chernobyl death toll:

  • A study published in the International Journal of Cancer in 2006 estimates that Chernobyl will have caused 16,000 thyroid cancers and 25,000 other cancers in Europe by 2065, and that 16,000 of these cancers will be fatal. The study does not consider emergency workers exposed to relatively high doses.
  • Research published in 2006 by UK radiation scientists Ian Fairlie and David Sumner estimates 30,000 to 60,000 deaths.
  • A 2006 scientific study commissioned by Greenpeace estimates a death toll of about 93,000.
  • A Russian study uses a dubious methodology to arrive at the unlikely estimate of a death toll of around one million - that study is best ignored.

Studies such as those listed above (other than the Russian study) typically use a risk estimate derived from the linear no-threshold theory (LNT). There is uncertainty about the accuracy of the LNT-derived risk estimate in relation to low doses and low dose rates. However that does not mean − as many nuclear advocates state or imply − that the LNT-derived risk estimate overstates the true risk. It may be accurate or it may understate or overstate the true risk. Thus the 2005 report of the Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation (BEIR) of the US National Academy of Sciences states that (p.6) "combined analyses are compatible with a range of possibilities, from a reduction of risk at low doses to risks twice those upon which current radiation protection recommendations are based."

Mr Heard makes great play of the psychological impacts of nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, which he blames on radiophobia spread by nuclear critics. However the enormous psychological impact of the Fukushima disaster is not a result of  'radiophobia' — it is an understandable reaction to the circumstances people face, in particular the 100,000+ people evacuated from the 20-km exclusion zone. They are homeless, jobless, and many are separated from friends and family. Compensation has been too little, too late. The clean-up of contaminated areas has been slow and contentious.

Some useful discussions on the Chernobyl death toll:

Heard disputes the accuracy of the following article in RenewEconomy, his response is posted at:

Memo Coalition: If you want to talk nuclear, talk about its costs

Giles Parkinson, 1 Dec 2014

The Australian Coalition government is at it again – raising nuclear power as a potential replacement for coal fired generation without mentioning the one thing that should kill the idea in its tracks, its stratospheric costs.

Julie Bishop, in an interview with Fairfax Media, raised nuclear as an option before heading off to the Lima climate change talks. "It’s an obvious conclusion that if you want to bring down your greenhouse gas emissions dramatically you have to embrace a form of low or zero-emissions energy and that’s nuclear, the only known 24/7 baseload power supply with zero emissions," she said.

It is not the first time the government of Tony Abbott has raised nuclear. Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane is a big fan, and intends to look at it in the energy white paper.  As we wrote in August in our article "It’s time for Abbott to dump secret nuclear ambitions," Abbott is surrounded by pro-nuclear advisers who seem ignorant of the opportunity in renewable energy. Hence the government’s position on the RET.

Bishop says she wants Australia to have a "sensible debate" about nuclear, but what they – and the pro-nuclear advocates – never mention is cost. In developed economies, with liberalised markets, it is astronomical.

The UK, which has nuclear and where the issue is not controversial, the proposed 3.2GW Hinkley C reactor – the first new reactor in 20 years – is proving just how expensive it is. It is suffering huge delays, and may still not be built, and the cost is blowing out all the time – so far it is five times the estimate cost in 2008.

As the EU noted in its investigation into the massive government subsidies needed to support the project, the total total will come to some $45 billion.  The construction risk, the insurance risk, the production risk and the financing risk all have to be assumed by the government, because no private company will risk their own balance sheet.

Even the International Energy Agency, in its recent world outlook, lamented the problem facing nuclear – economic uncompetitiveness, lack of public confidence, massive subsidy reliance, changing government policy, and "financing in liberalised markets," not to mention the approaching closure of old facilities, which have yet to be costed. That’s why it paints scenarios that do not include nuclear, or the even more expensive carbon carbon and storage.

In western economies, such as Australia, financing is the key for nuclear. But it is a point that is repeatedly ignored. In a recent presentation to the Peabody Coal-sponsored energy seminar in the lead up to the G20 meeting in Brisbane, for instance, nuclear cheerleader Ben Heard blamed everyone from lefties to greenies for the current state of the nuclear industry.

But it is the other end of town that won’t support it and is crippling its deployment. Bankers, insurers and project developers simply don’t want to bear the risk of something going wrong, however remote the possibility. When the India government last year toyed with the idea of not accepting construction risk at nuclear plants, General Electric, the biggest industrial company in the world, said it would pack up and leave. It wasn’t about to accept construction risk for the plants it builds either. GE recently pulled the plug on laser nuclear enrichment technology research which badly impacted Australia’s Silex Systems.

India’s energy minister Piyush Goyal said last month the government was growing cautious about nuclear, noting that the US and many European nations have stopped setting up nuclear plants. "This government would like to be cautious so that we are not saddled with something only under the garb of clean energy or alternate energy; something which the West has discarded and is sought to be brought to India," he said.

As the influential paper, the Hindu, later noted:

The key fact about nuclear power is that it is the world’s most subsidy-fattened energy industry, even as it generates the most dangerous wastes whose safe disposal saddles future generations. Commercial reactors have been in operation for more than half-a-century, yet the industry still cannot stand on its own feet without major state support. Instead of the cost of nuclear power declining with the technology’s maturation — as is the case with other sources of energy — the costs have escalated multiple times.

Heard, meanwhile, did the usual pro-nuclear thing of attacking renewables – criticising their "intermittency" a disingenuous meme we hear often in the government and conservative commentariat. Heard, for instance, argued that wind farms take up too much space – omitting to note that the land can and is used for grazing, crops and other farming activities.

Heard then declared himself to be a "supporter" of solar, and then took a pot-shot at the new Ivanpah solar tower plant, a first of its kind technology – quoting stories that it had failed to meet its production targets.  But the target quoted is the production goal for 2018. Ivanpah has only been running for nine months, and it has spent the first year calibrating the technology which is being at this scale for the first time. It is actually running ahead of its targets, as we reported here.

And then Heard tried to dismiss claims that solar and wind have cheaper levellised cost of energy (LCOEs) than other "base load" fuel sources, by claiming that these costs do not include cost of grids and grid integration.

But neither do the other technologies. And in Heard’s own state, the South Australian grid is now powered 40 per cent by wind and solar without the need for any new back-up or grid integration at all.

Contrast that with Hinkley C, where National Grid says the need for new back-up will cost £160m a year ($A300 million), or more than $A12 billion over the 40 year life of the plant. That is over and above the $45 billion upfront cost, and doesn’t take into account the decommissioning costs, or the waste disposal. Indeed, since 2008, the projected cost of the plant has risen five-fold, and its builders – who said they would be powering electric ovens to cook Christmas turkeys in 2018, now don’t mention a start up date.

The costs of Hinkley, even heavily subsidised in a country with a well established industry,  will lock in a price of £92.50/MWh, or $A170/MWh, indexed to inflation.  Thankfully, this has caused the Australian government forecaster, BREE, to include a more sober assessment of nuclear’s costs - even without decommissions and waste disposal, or a real grip on cost of capital – that the government pro-nuclear advocates choose to ignore in their rush to demonise renewables.

As for France, well that nuclear bubble is well and truly punctured. France pays a lower rate per kilowatt hour than other countries, because the capital cost of the nuclear plants was written off by the government decades ago. But French consumers face similar electricity bills to those in Germany because the nuclear plants have to run all the time, so there has been no investment in energy efficiency.

Now, though, the French have got a major problem. They are not economically as strong as they were in the 1970s, and they simply cannot afford the capital cost of building new nuclear plants. Even the capital cost of maintaining the current fleet will be higher than the capital cost of building them in the first place.

This prompted energy minister Segolene Royal to point out that it would be cheaper to build wind and solar than to maintain the nuclear fleet. Which is what they are doing, and why they are seeking to wind back the share of nuclear to 50 per cent from 75 per cent, because all the new capacity will come from renewables.

In France, at least, costs and practicality are finally winning over ideology. Australia needs to realise that too. The need for base load power is something of a myth. With the plunging cost of solar and other renewables and now storage, flexibility is the key.