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  • Writer's pictureGeoff Russell

Simon Holmes a Court spinning more fakenews

I wrote an article in New Matilda a while back taking Simon Holmes à Court (SHAC) to task for using maps to mislead people. Maps can easily make big jobs and vast areas look tiny. Put a line on a map between Sydney and Melbourne and it beggars belief why we don’t have a bullet train between the two. Similarly, innocuous looking squares on maps, representing vast renewable energy farms, give no indication of the ecological, mining and social costs behind them.

But there are other ways of misleading people; and SHAC has mastered those also.

One of the golden oldies in the gentle art of deception is scaring people silly with long chemical names of things that are potentially dangerous, but readily managed; while ignoring similarly toxic compounds used in products you support and advocate. SHAC did a series of tweets on March 6 attacking Bridget McKenzie (of sports rorts shotgunning fame) for saying that a golf-ball sized piece of uranium could provide a lifetime’s worth of energy.

SHAC took her to task for ignoring the complexity of the harvesting of that energy. He also claimed we don’t have the technology to do it anyway.

Says who?

Fast reactors aren’t just paper tigers

The technology that can satisfy McKenzie’s claim has existed for decades; fast neutron reactors.

Here’s a picture of a fast neutron reactor that’s been running since 1980 (Credit: Rosatom):

And here’s a new and larger one that entered commercial operation in 2016. The Chinese are looking at this model, but will probably commercialise a home grown design.

So the reactors and technology have existed for decades. But it would be fair to say that these reactors haven’t been a commercial success; there are only about 495 operating years worth of experience with 21 reactors.

A slow neutron reactor (the normal ones) gets only about 1% or so of the energy out of that golf ball, and a fast neutron reactor can 60-100 times more energy. Exactly how much depends on many factors that don’t concern us.

Happily, and relevantly, there isn’t much uranium in China.

So how are the Chinese going to fuel the vast fleet of reactors they are building? Think about it. If they are reliant on overseas uranium for energy, then slapping politically motivated import bans on any of their suppliers won’t be so simple.

So the Chinese want fast neutron reactors to squeeze every drop of energy out of any lump of uranium; and they aim to make them commercially competitive by 2030. They connected a smaller experimental fast neutron reactor to the grid in 2017.

Ignoring energy harvesting costs is always wrong

But SHAC was right to take issue with McKenzie.

Ignoring energy harvesting costs and complexity is certainly misleading.

It’s routinely done by solar power advocates who claim that solar power is renewable, while ignoring the non-renewability of the resources used to harvest it.

Solar advocates typically ignore the batteries or fossil fuels or flooded valleys or flaming forests used to store or firm solar panel output for those wanting to do other things than sleep after dark.

Solar advocates frequently lie and say that solar electricity has grid parity when it doesn’t. When you can run a grid with solar power, then you can start comparing prices, but until then comparing prices is simply dishonest. It’s like comparing the price of a bicycle with the price of a B-double.

But SHAC’s attempt to supply the backstory about nuclear power and that uranium golf ball was shamefully dishonest. Being wrong about fast reactors was the least of his sins. The biggest sin is a tight competition between his treatment of UF6 and waste.

Let’s talk about UF6 first; uranium hexaflouride.

Did anybody notice he didn’t produce a body count?

Not even a list of accidents. Not even a link to a body count or list of accidents.

As far as I can determine, the last accident where UF6 (uranium hexaflouride) hurt or killed anybody was 1986, death toll 1, and before that was 1944 when 2 died and 3 were seriously injured. Clearly UF6 is dangerous, but is it more or less dangerous than chemicals used, for example, in the solar industry? Not at all.

Consider SiH4 (Silane).

Writing in Scientific American in 2010, David Biello details 2 fatal explosions involving silane in the PV manufacturing industry, one in 2005 and the other in 2007; he cites a source claiming 8 more fatal accidents during the previous decade. And then there’s SiCl4 (Silicon Tetrachloride), another highly toxic and corrosive substance used in making poly-silicon for panels. On it’s own it’s nasty, but exposure to heat can produce hydrogen chloride gas; also nasty.

One of my favourite yardsticks for danger is the button battery.

Application is simple. Is your candidate chemical or process more or less dangerous than the button battery?

Button batteries hospitalise about 20 children a week in Australia alone; with about 1 per month suffering life changing consequences. These little buggers burn as they go down a digestive tract.

None of UF6, SiH4 or SiCl4 is more dangerous than button batteries.

Industries routinely handle all manner of highly toxic chemicals in the manufacture of all kinds of hi-tech (and low tech) products.

SHAC’s not-so-veiled implication that the nuclear industry is somehow worse than any other industry is either wildly ignorant or deliberately dishonest; or both. Li-ion battery production, for example is dependent on cobalt and graphite mining. These industries make uranium enrichment look like home baked cookies.

Some things are potentially dangerous but easily managed because of context. UF6 and SiH4 are both handled by big industries with solid OH&S processes. The nuclear industry makes everything accessible to short-notice inspections from the IAEA. The PV industry, in contrast, is far more open to small players acting like cowboys and there are no comparable international inspection protocols. Chinese factories, for example, were found dumping dumping toxic chemicals in rivers back in 2011. But regulating companies is a much easier problem than regulating the public.

It’s the distributed nature of the product that creates the really tough problems. How do you stop people dumping their cadmium and flourine containing panels in landfill? Even first world countries are finding this a tough problem.

Toxic chemicals on the supply chain, whether in the nuclear or PV industry is intrinsically simpler to solve.

The public simply doesn’t handle UF6 of SiH4.

The context of a material’s use is everything. Aeroplanes aren’t flown by the public either, but by professional pilots, which is why they safer than motor vehicles, despite an aviation accident rate many times higher that the nuclear power industry.

For SHAC to throw in his line about nuclear waste “pls - don’t eat it”, shows how desperate he is to use rhetorical tricks rather than go with facts. And viewing the various quoted retweets shows that his anti-nuclear cheer squad are easily entertained and equally incapable or disinterested in rational risk evaluation.

What’s the most dangerous thing about rooftop PV?

It isn’t silane explosions. Nor is it cadmium in many panels, or flourine in the backing sheets; the clue is in the name … it’s the roofs. Last I checked, Worksafe don’t record falls associated with cleaning or installing solar panels in a separate category, so I can’t give you a body count, but what I do know is that “falls from a height” hospitalises over 4,000 people each year in Australia; with many serious injuries and some deaths. Ladders are far far more dangerous than UF6.

Any energy source that increases the number of people on ladders and roofs, both skilled and unskilled, is intrinsically dangerous.

If you relabelled “rooftop PV” as “2-ladderoxide-hexaroofite PV”, you might have more people with a rational view of the dangers of the technology. Falls from heights are probabaly more dangerous for amateurs, but professionals fall also. Anything to do with roofs is dangerous and for people backing rooftop PV to run around making spurious debating style claims about nuclear safety is irrational.

SHAC’s factless innuendo treatment of UF6 was mirrored by his buzz-word treatment of high level nuclear waste.

I have the similar questions? Where is the body count? Or the list of accidents? Where are the links to either?

Not only does he have no list of accidents or people killed or injured by nuclear waste, he has no suggestions about how such problems might come about.

I understand SHAC’s critique was just tweet-level, but it was as deep as any criticism of nuclear waste ever is. Back when I was anti-nuclear, I assumed, possibly like SHAC, that there was a corpus of solid science and data behind the anti-nuclear campaign’s fear mongering over waste. There isn’t. The entire nuclear waste campaign is more like a Coke or Pepsi campaign. There are no facts or plausible scenarios whereby nuclear waste can cause a problem, there is just the creation of an image and a fear


Talk about it being radioactive for 100,000 years or so and that’s all. Hell, the cadmium in many solar panels is toxic and carcinogenic forever; which is much longer than 100,000 years!

Have you ever seen an explanation of how a nuclear waste repository can fail and kill people? How, for example, can containers stored 600 meters deep in granite manage to levitate up out of the hole? Levitate through the filled in hole?

“But it’s such a long time, how can we possibly know what might happen” is the usual brainless reply.

Climate scientists have no trouble at all finding areas which have been undisturbed for millions of years. It’s not hard. And then there’s Oklo. It’s a place in Gabon where all the conditions for fission occured naturally about 2 billion years ago and the resulting natural reactor ran for hundreds of thousands of year; producing waste. What happened to that first high level waste? Nothing. It didn’t kill or sicken anybody, or levitate through the ground for somebody to swallow.

The large detailed studies into the proposed Yucca Mountain waste repository in the US explored failure scenarios in depth. They postulated every kind of failure. The even postulated them happening simultaneously … and still didn’t find a way for radiation to harm anybody. Fake-news isn’t an invention of Donald Trump, it was spawned and honed over decades by the anti-nuclear movement. Yucca opponents have been using SHAC type tactics for decades to frighten people.

A little background on mining

SHAC doesn’t appear to know much at all about uranium production. Almost 60% of the uranium produced in 2019 involved no mining (in the sense of big holes in the ground) at all. The process is called in-situ leaching, where something with an Ph similar to vinegar is used to dissolve the uranium while it is in the ground … and the uranium rich liquid is pumped up. Meaning no tailings.

But sometimes the uranium is simply a byproduct. At Olympic Dam, for example, the main product is copper; 230,000 tonnes per year. That’s what the big hole in the ground is for. The uranium is just a valuable bonus; delivering about 4,000 tonnes and 20 percent of the revenue.

Australia exported 76 million tonnes of LNG in 2019. We could get that energy with solar power, but it would need 4,854 Nygans solar farms, each with 1.35 million panels weight about 18 kg each. That’s about 118 million tonnes worth of glass, aluminium and silicon.

But you can’t actually export the energy from those 4,854 Nyngans without turning it into something like hydrogen or ammonia. In which case you lose a bundle during the transformation. At best, it will take about 8.5 megawatt-hours to generate a tonne of ammonia, with the current figure being closer to 11 megawatt-hours. So, the maths isn’t complicated, you will need between 194 and 251 million tonnes of panels.

Alternatively, you could mine 9,400 tonnes of uranium each year and export that; it would have the same thermal energy.

The idea that ammonia or hydrogen generated using solar panels (or wind turbines) is some kind or clean green fuel of the future is the fantasy of people who don’t realise solar panels all start off in the ground and are mined as quartz, aluminium, copper, silicon and a whole slew of other materials. They are transformed into panels using an array of toxic chemicals and processes in massive factories; not with a green magic wand. The IEA’s 2019 Future of Hydrogen report calculated that to replace the current global production of 70 million tonnes of hydrogen annually with hydrogen generated by splitting water with electricity would require the entire electricity output (from all sources) in the European Union; keeping in mind that none of that electricity is unavailable.

It’s every kind of obvious that nuclear power minimises mining; particularly if the industry switches to fast reactors over time.

The energy density story is certainly more complex than Bridget McKenzie implied, but it’s still very very real.

A rational comparison

A rational way of comparing the materials required to harvest energy from the sun or a lump of uranium would compare the fuel cycle plus reactor construction and decommissioning, with solar construction and decommissioning. The hard part is to compare like with like. It would be totally dishonest to compare solar with nuclear when only the latter is dispatchable.

Back in 2009, Professor Barry Brook did a blog post comparing the material requirements of nuclear power with solar thermal. This works because solar thermal is dispatchable.

Brook looked at steel concrete and land. His reference technologies were the AP1000 reactor and the Andasol1 solar thermal plant. He found that solar thermal required 15 times more concrete, 75 times more steel and 2,530 times more land. He didn’t include the battery chemistry; why bother, the result was clear. But he didn’t include uranium either. Why bother, when it’s only a few percent of the running costs (perhaps upto ~5%).

But do we need a rational comparison? The IEA warned the world in 2019 that the early closure of nuclear plants in Europe and the US would seriously reduce our ability to mitigate climate change. The anti-nuclear movement is global and anybody, in any country, that puts out SHAC style tweets is a part of our climate problem. SHAC is quite simply, risking everybody’s future to push his own ideology.

IEA ... 2019
"Over the past 20 years, wind and solar PV capacity has increased by about 580 GW in advanced economies. But in the next 20 years [with continued early and scheduled closures], nearly five times that much would need to be built [just] to offset nuclear’s decline"
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Mark Heslep
Mark Heslep
Mar 14, 2021

"We could get that energy with solar power, but it would need 4,854 Nygans solar farms, each with 1.35 million panels weight about 18 kg each. That’s about 118 million tonnes worth of glass, aluminium and silicon."

As it happens Nygans uses thin film PV based on (toxic) Cadnium and Tellurium, not silicon.

Note too that those panel and cell materials makeup only about a quarter of the overall mass in a solar farm.* The iron (steel) and cement for posts and foundation form the other three quarters, or another 354 million tonnes for this solarized Australia example. Cement and iron have their own mining impacts and site transportation problems.

The land usage BTW is also non-trivial for 4854 Nygans…

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