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  • Writer's pictureGeoff Russell

Zali Steggall and Australia's cargo cults

I vaguely remember learning about cargo cults at school. Are they still in the curriculum? Perhaps there is so much competition in the cult space that the cargo kind has been squeezed out in favour of newer mythological worldviews.

Cargo cults don’t understand mines and factories and building stuff. They believe that rituals can convince the gods to send you all manner of high-tech goodies; usually by plane direct from the heavens. The origins of such beliefs are said to be people with no knowledge of technology watching cargo arrive by plane. It’s not such a ridiculous causal blunder to think they are made by god(s) in the sky. Wrap anything in plastic and it’s easy to forget the blood, sweat and toil behind its origin story, as opposed to its origin myth. Children don’t identify animals as the source of meat, and we all easily forget the link between solar panels and Uyghurs in Chinese labour camps.

And of course, plenty of people, even in advanced technological societies, still worship a heavenly deity and thank it/him/her for their daily bread; thereby ignoring the contribution of farmers, gas and electric power companies, the steel furnaces and brickworks making the ovens, and the vast supply chains behind the humble delivery van; not to mention the fertiliser.

Zali Steggall deserves a prominent place in the pantheon of Australian deities for unseating Tony Abbott at the 2019 Federal Election, but her recent article in The Saturday Paper, “How to get more electric vehicles on the road” has more than the strong taint of the cargo cult about it.

She seems to take it for granted that there are, somewhere, vast factories making electric vehicles (EVs) and all we need is the right incantations, in the form of more taxes, fewer taxes, different taxes, and we can have as many as we pay people to deliver.

So how do we reach critical mass? Cost is a huge barrier to uptake.”, she writes.

She follows this with all kinds of policies designed to smash the cost barrier, but laments that:

Manufacturers are not prioritising the Australian market …

She claims this is because of our lax emission standards. Maybe it is. Or maybe we just love muscle cars and cavernous SUVs too much. Teslas aren’t just too expensive, but also (mostly) not big enough. Perhaps when the heavenly factories start making electric utes they’ll start falling on Australia.

But why should anybody be prioritising us for EVs?

This harks back to the scramble for Covid-19 vaccines when Australian politicians and many in the general public somehow figured we should be “at the head of the queue” to get them. It’s not like we don’t have plenty of good vaccine scientists here. But we still fought for the place we thought we were entitled to – number one – while countries with far fewer resources and choices struggled to even see the queue, let alone get to the front.

Steggall moves on quickly from vehicles themselves to a discussion of charging stations. This is yet more cargo we need to persuade the gods to send us.

But here’s the rub.

Climate change is a global problem. It doesn’t actually matter where electric vehicles are sold, all that really matters is how many are sold and that those sales reduce the use of oil.

The problem shouldn’t be viewed as “How can Australians get a bigger piece of the pie!” like we deserve it, when we clearly don’t.

The question Steggall should have been asking and answering is what can we do to help grow the pie? By growing the pie we will not only help solve the problem but also be earning our cargo rather than thinking we are entitled to it because … well, just because!

There is perhaps one reason we could argue for prioritisation.

We’ve been far-sighted enough to place a low priority on mass transit for decades, leaving us heavily dependent on private vehicles. So we do a hell of a lot of driving. And our bloody huge vehicles are almost as big as those of our US mates. Surely those two factors should get us to the front of the EV queue! Why would you put countries with better mass transit at the head of the queue? It’s only fitting that those morons in Holland with their bicycle paths, and all those other cities with good rail systems pay for their sins. They don’t appreciate large private vehicles like we do!

But then there’s the second rub, the one that hits you in the kidneys and buckles your knees. The one without a pang of satire …

Building electric vehicles, particularly the batteries, but not only the batteries, generates plenty of the same bad climate change gases that people are trying to avoid by switching to EVs. The fact that there are no exhaust gases doesn’t mean that EVs have no climate impact. And they don’t only have a climate impact but considerable other ecological and social impacts. At best, switching from a petrol vehicle to an EV is like switching from a coal to a gas-fired power stations. It isn’t at all analogous to switching from coal to something which is genuinely low carbon, like nuclear or wind.

NorthVolt Vs Chris Bowen

Australian politicians love a photo op.

Gelion is an Australian battery maker. A “large” new factory was opened recently by Chris Bowen, our Minister for Climate Change. At the opening, Bowen said:

“If you are a serious country, you make things. And increasingly around the world, you make renewable energy and the infrastructure that supports renewable energy.”

I couldn’t agree more, except I’d add nuclear to the mix of acceptable technologies. But Bowen’s vision is nanoscopic, blinkered and parochial. Gelion was founded in 2015, the same year as NorthVolt, a Swedish battery company. The factory Bowen was opening will make 2 megawatt-hours of batteries per year. Remember that number; 2 MWh.

NorthVolt doesn’t just make batteries, it is also doing its level best to make them as cleanly as possible. They recognise that current battery production technologies are filthy, destructive and have a much higher carbon footprint than we need for a zero-carbon world. They reckon their batteries are produced with 80% less greenhouse gas emissions than their competition (meaning the Chinese). That’s a huge decrease and it needs to go global.

In the current political climate, NorthVolt has been able to pre-sell its (very expensive) batteries to Volkswagen and others who can afford to pay for the lowest carbon battery currently possible.

NorthVolt, like Gelion, also recently opened a new battery factory. It will make 60 gigawatt-hours or batteries per year. A gigawatt-hour is a thousand megawatt-hours.

Do you recall the Gelion number? 2 MWh. And the Northvolt number? 60,000 MWh. Recall also that Sweden has less than half our population.

Unlike Australia, of course, Sweden is fortunate to have nuclear power as well as abundant hydro-electric resources.

I’m not meaning to rubbish Gelion, I used to work with a company that made and exported software and making and exporting anything is a really tough gig. But if Bowen wants to earn his photo-op, then he needs to stump up much more support. Leaving the solving of a global emergency to the private sector says a lot about how our country and our Government view said emergency.

Bowen recently released the National Electric Vehicle Strategy. It is, appropriately, full of marketing jargon and proposing to consult the hell out of the issue instead of actually doing anything. If we had a public service confident of their bosses doing more than chasing photo ops, they’d be constantly engaged in consultation and research. That’s what a public service should be doing; investigating issues so that they can give authoritative expert advice on which governments can act.

Australia’s biggest contribution to growing the pie

Australia may not make wind turbines or nuclear plants, but we do at least mine uranium and various essential minerals required by a more electric future; clean or otherwise. Our miners are the exception to my claims above about how little Australia is contributing to fighting climate change. For the cargo cultists in Australia, knowing about this is a little like when children first discover that meat comes from killing animals. But while it’s easy to become vegan, living without the fruits of mining is both impossible and undesirable.

Our biggest contribution to fighting climate change is our uranium exports; nothing else, not even our lithium exports, comes close.

Let’s compare:

  1. The Australian Energy Update 2022 reports just 50 terawatt-hours from our imported wind turbines and solar panels among the total of 71 terawatt-hours from renewables in 2021.

  2. Put the 6,000-or-so tonnes of uranium we exported in 2021 into about 30 x 1 gigawatt reactors and you’d generate about 236 terawatt-hours of very low carbon electricity; significantly lower in carbon than electricity from solar panels, particularly Chinese solar panels.

Both fail, of course, to offset in any way the emissions from the vast quantities of fossil fuels we use and export. But uranium producers do deserve a little credit to offset the usual decades of misinformation they’ve received from the ignoranti.

We are also the global leader in lithium production, but not in refinement.

Happily, we now have our first lithium refinery capable of producing about 24,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide per year; a target the refinery expects to meet at the end of 2023. A second refinery is also being considered in Western Australia. Currently, about 65% of the lithium refinery capacity is in China. Some are even predicting Australia could grab 20% of lithium refining capacity by 2027.

Just by way of background. Lithium for batteries used to be a minor sector of lithium use, but now accounts for 74% and is expected to hit 95% in the not-too-distant future; the other uses being for things like ceramics, glass, grease, and polymer production. Lithium hydroxide is for batteries, and lithium carbonate or oxide is for other uses.

But mining expansion for renewables and a more electric future is focused on, but not limited to, copper. This is the stuff of more robust and complex grids, and more densely-wired buildings and vehicles.

Global annual copper production is now 21 million tonnes per year and is increasing at the rate of about two Olympic Dam-sized copper mines per year; that’s almost 500,000 tonnes of extra copper production annually.

Mining for copper isn’t like mining for coal and gas. You will see all manner of claims on Twitter about us needing less mines in future, because we won’t have coal mines. That’s sort of true, but irrelevant and misleading. Mining coal is pretty yucky, but very different from mining copper or other metals.

When you mine coal, you use what you dig. When you mine copper and most other metals, you use a very tiny proportion of what you dig, the rest is called tailings and is usually in the form of a slurry and stored in a dam; called, obviously, a tailings dam. It’s the product of milling, the crushing, washing, sorting, leaching part of the process.

Major tailings dam collapses have occurred every 2-3 years during the past 50 years somewhere on the world; with many lesser collapses. Four of the big ones have each killed more than 200 people. For example, in January 2019, a tailings dam (the tailings can be solid, or in a slurry) at the Brumadinho iron ore mine in Brazil collapsed and killed 259 people … that’s 8 times more than were killed by the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

Globally, about half of all tailings dam material comes from copper mines.

Compare. In 2021 the world produced over 8 billion tonnes of coal and 21 million tonnes of copper, but copper mines were responsible for 46% of tailings compared to just 8% from coal.

And uranium? In case you were wondering … under 1% of global tailings. Most of the world’s uranium is now mined with in-situ leaching and produces no tailings. You could drive past an in situ leaching mine and not know it was there. Compare that with BHP’s (joint venture) Escondida copper mine in Chile

Escondida copper mine

And from above, the scale is even more obvious ... that huge hole above is just one part of a much bigger picture.

Escondida copper mine

The attribution of tailing dams to particular metals is complicated by multi-mineral mines. Cobalt is usually a by-product of copper and nickel production. This makes it hard to grow cobalt production in isolation.

If we consider mining damage in isolation, it looks and is horrid, but compared to the only other way of making stuff, which is growing it, mining is far less destructive. Habitat loss is always first on the rankings of biodiversity impacts. Wildlife extinctions are mostly down to loss of habitat and that’s primarily due to growing stuff, or clearing land to grow stuff; mostly this is land cleared to “grow” cattle and the feed for other animals. In Australia, we have cleared a little over 100 million hectares (mha) since white arrival, we crop about 27 mha and the rest was for cattle and sheep. Our cities and settlements occupy a little over 3 mha of our 770 mha of land.

Chinese clean batteries?

Let’s get back to batteries and cars. To understand the cargo Steggall hopes we can attract, we need a better understanding of the whole industry, not just the game-changing Swedish entrant.

Chinese battery factories are, by contrast with Northvolt’s, still heavily dependent on coal throughout their supply chains. It isn’t that China isn’t actively investing in clean energy – it is. But China plans things and it’s not always obvious what is happening unless you understand the plan. Many climate activists have been berating China for the coal plants it kept building over the past decade or so; this was understandable because they didn’t understand China’s nuclear plans.

Was it stupid enough to build coal plants with 40 year lifespans that would have to be abandoned in a decade or so? Of course not. China was building coal, but planning nuclear.

Over the past 15 years, China has been developing a nuclear plant with many advanced features. The reactor is the HTR-PM. The HT means high temperature. It has so many advanced features that one of its more mundane capacities is easily missed. Namely, that it is plug compatible with a supercritical (high temperature) coal plant’s boiler. Meaning you can remove the boiler, plug in the reactor and keep the rest of your coal infrastructure.

Its high temperature steam makes it particularly good for making hydrogen; but it can supply all manner of industrial process heat. The mantra of “electrify everything” is a slogan and it really is only sensible if you don’t have a good heat source. If you have a good heat source, you don’t need to electrify quite so much.

All of which means that China will be able to clean up its battery supply chains quite rapidly, assuming that the HTR-PM lives up to expectations. The first reactor was connected to the grid at the end of 2021. It was a slow build because it involved considerable new technology. China has also been rolling out more conventional low-temperature reactors in addition to solar and wind power.

The largest producer of EV batteries in the world is Contemporary Amperex Technology Co.Limited (CATL), a Chinese giant, but with partnerships with companies like Hyundai, Daimler AG, BMW, Honda, Tesla, Toyota … and many more!

CATL has been talking up the need and possibility of shrinking the climate emissions associated with making batteries. Should we take them seriously? The Chinese may be on the nose for very good reason due to autocratic and barbaric treatment of anybody not supporting their dictatorial leader, but on any objective metric, they easily put Australia and many other countries in the shade on climate action. It isn’t just the nuclear development, mentioned above, but the full gamut of action.

For example, the Chinese don’t eat as much meat as Australians, but still, they understand the connection between meat, methane and the climate and in 2016 launched Dietary Guidelines aimed at halving meat consumption. In contrast, our red-necked BBQ culture is still in the pocket of a meat industry which has a decades-long record of lies, propaganda, and greenwashing.

But, however much CATL and other Chinese giants may want to clean up their EV manufacturing chains, they may prioritise market domination so long as people are still happy to buy products whose low price is a result of cheap coal and exploited labour.

But external pressure is mounting. In December 2021, US President Biden passed his Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.

The EU is proposing import tariffs on batteries based on the carbon intensity of production. These could push up the price of Chinese batteries by US$500. This will help Northvolt and push the Chinese to clean up their supply chains.

What are we doing along these lines?

Steggall is all about cheap, cheap, cheap.

Australians in general have never seemed to care how the panels we are putting on roofs are made, so why would we care about batteries? As long as it’s cheap, Australians will buy it and demand to be first in line to signal our virtue with our new EV.

The irony of people in Australia worrying about nuclear waste while supporting some of the filthiest supply chains on the planet to supply renewable technology would be funny if it wasn’t so ignorant and destructive.

Global battery production

Time for a little battery arithmetic. The planet (meaning various countries outside of Australia) produces and sells about 100 million light vehicles (cars and vans) a year. Multiply that by 60 kWh as a rough guess at average battery size (a Tesla typically has an 80 kWh battery) and you get a global requirement of 6 terawatt-hours of annual battery production capacity required to electrify the light vehicle sector (cars and vans). Cargo cultists may not appreciate it, but before we can hit that target, we need the mines for the battery material. Australia can definitely contribute here; we already are, but this is strangely absent from Steggall’s article as are any references to anything which could contribute to our helping to increase the production of EVs.

What are the predictions for global battery production capacity by 2030? The Economist recently put it at about 2.7 TWh.

But what about batteries in houses or for use as grid storage? Using battery capacity for these purposes will increase the total global capacity required. Using batteries for these purposes will make it that much harder to reach ambitious EV targets.

If Australia wants to help, rather than simply bludge off the efforts of others, we could increase the mining of critical minerals. We could also start making batteries. But we need a better growth model for industries which contribute to fixing the climate. We can’t wait for market-led growth.

Given the certain shortfall in battery production capacity, we could also contribute with hydrogen vehicles. There are some tiny Australian companies working on these technologies, but where is the Government support?

In any event, as long as Australia is merely a consumer then we will remain part of the problem, not the solution.

Maximising the cost of distributing electricity

When Steggall is discussing charging stations, she mentioned the potential of EVs to act as storage for the grid. Many people are loving the expansion and redesign of the grid; including mining companies and grid construction and operation companies.

An Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) report back in 2017 into the retail price of electricity found that 48% of the price was network costs, with just 22% down to the price of producing electricity. So think about it. Steggall (like many others, including Chris Bowen and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Gencost (GENCOST) study) are focused on the cheapest way to supply the stuff responsible for 22% of the cost and ignoring the added complexity this will bring to the stuff responsible for 48% of the costs.

They want to make the cheap bit cheaper and the most expensive bit more expensive.

Meaning we will have to not just maintain the grid as we build renewables, but redesign and rebuild it. A heavily renewable grid has to be bidirectional and have much thicker wires.

Happily, BHP is planning on producing plenty of copper, so at least we won’t be bludging off the rest of the planet for this.

We are already committed to about 10,000 km of extra transmission lines, not to mention the 1,500MW undersea Marinus link with Tasmania which will enable Tasmania to flood more valleys to supply cheap electricity. Where’s Bob Brown when you need him?

Steggall is clearly focussed on technologies that will make the grid more complex and expensive. But that’s a consequence of focusing on consumption and ignoring supply chains and production.

Strangely, Australia currently bans the only technology which would allow us to run a simpler, cheaper grid without a complete redesign and rebuild– nuclear power. With nuclear, you don’t need batteries. And if you did want storage, you would store heat, which is far cheaper and simpler than storing electricity.

Steggall’s dissenting report

In 2019, the Australian Parliament Standing Committee on Environment and Energy delivered its “Inquiry into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia”. Steggall wrote a dissenting chapter.

I’d urge her to go back and look at what she wrote and compare the “problems” she mentioned with renewable problems. About 12 months after her anti-nuclear, dissenting report, some 50 people died in a Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) cobalt mining accident, including 14 children. While some progress has been made in cleaning up the DRC cobalt operations, the purchase of major mines by the Chinese may see true reform throttled at birth. When Steggall has finished researching cobalt mining in the DRC, she can move on to consider nickel in Indonesia. If I had to pick a defining psychological characteristic of hard core anti-nuclear believers, it would be the total inability to quantify, rank and compare risks and impacts.

Steggall’s dissenting report contains a section on health and safety. She was clearly struggling to quantify any kind of risk at all, so she didn’t. I’ve added a small appendix below which looks at one fascinating claim in her dissenting report which exposes how little she understands about the technology which frightens her.

Steggall makes no mention of mines or factories or manufacturing, except those elsewhere, producing our cargo. Like many of us, she thinks like a consumer rather than a producer.

I’d suggest, in contrast, that we need actions and ideas that turn us into a producer; a contributor to solving the problems, rather than just another bludger. Our governments need to start taking climate change as seriously as they took Covid-19. Leaving it to the private sector with the occasional photo-op’s worth of support is irresponsible. We need to be picking winners and backing them. They won’t always succeed, but fear of failure can’t be allowed to drive constant indecision and inaction.

Appendix: Steggall’s fascinating nuclear views

I wrote about Steggall’s dissenting report on nuclear power in some detail when it first appeared, but ignored one fascinating feature.

Steggall quoted from Dr Ingrid Johnston about the health risks of nuclear power and the quote mentions a fascinating requirement for:

morgue management for radioactive dead bodies;

This was in the context of the Fukushima meltdowns where there were no dead bodies related to the meltdowns. And in any event, people killed by radiation don’t become radioactive any more than people killed by electricity turn into high voltage cadavers or people killed by heavy blunt objects turn into heavy blunt cadavers.

Steggall must have friends who’ve had radiotherapy. It’s a very common process. Why call it a “process” and not a “procedure”? Because you typically have it day after day after day after day; for weeks.

Why so often? Because your cells – both normal cells and tumour cells – are really hard to kill and radiation isn’t very good at it. Most cells recover. Each day the treatment succeeds in causing DNA damage and manages to kill a few more. And so it goes on. When the anti-nuclear movement began, nobody knew about DNA repair, so they thought all damage was permanent and cumulative; wrong.

The radiation dose to the public avoided by the evacuation at Fukushima was some 50 milli-Grays. Ignore the 50 and focus on the milli bit. It means a thousandth of a Gray. A Gray is a measure of the energy (in joules) per kilogram deposited in your body as the radiation interacts with it.

That 50 milliGrays was what people were kicked out of their houses to avoid over a 12 month period.

When you have radiotherapy, you would typically get 1-1.5 Grays!

The situation is a little different because radiotherapy is typically given to a smaller area of your body than people get living in a high radiation area, but how small will depend on the tumour(s).

In any event, if you ignore the 1-1.5 and focus on the Grays, you can see you are getting roughly a thousand times the dose that the public at Fukushima were evicted to avoid; and you get it at hundreds of thousands of times the dose rate because you are getting it in 5-10 minutes, instead of over 12 months; and you get this massive rapid radiation hit day after day after day.

Now. Think about it. Having received a gigantic dose of radiation, what happens to other passengers if you, for example, catch a train home from the hospital.

Do you contaminate people? No.

Unfortunately, the chasm of ignorance of basic facts about radiation is deep and wide. If you could flood it and make a hydro scheme you could power the planet with it.

Why don’t you contaminate people? The radiation you receive goes straight through you; okay, not always dead straight, it interacts with your tissues, but the radiation is gamma rays. Gamma rays aren’t radioactive, they are the result of radioactivity, not a cause. You could give a person a full body, fatal radiation dose of 5-10 Grays and they could catch the train home, stand in a crowded carriage and the most dangerous thing they’d be likely to do would be vomit on somebody. The vomiter rather than the vomitee would die over the next few weeks; but again, whatever risks were involved in handling the body, radiation wouldn’t be among them.

Okay, so is it ever possible to make a body radioactive?

Our bodies already are radioactive. They contain both potassium and carbon and both of these elements have very, very tiny fractions of their atoms which are radioactive. These different types of carbon and potassium atoms are called isotopes.

To increase the level of radiation in our body to a dangerous level, you’d have to be snorting or swallowing radioactive material.

There is a small and prestigious club of workers who inhaled plutonium during the production of the first atomic bombs. Their bodies would have been slightly more radioactive than most. Didn’t they die from it? No. But they urinated tiny quantities of plutonium for the rest of their lives, hence the name of the club (UPPU).

Consider tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen. It’s the stuff in tanks of water at Fukushima. When they tested it on rodents in all manner of macabre research, they couldn’t get them to swallow the amounts they needed to cause harm, so they mixed it up into high dose liquids and injected it … for day after day, week after week and month after month. They injected the poor animals for the term of their natural life and when they died they then examined them for tumours. In some (but not all!) studies, the rate of tumours was higher in the injected animals than in the control animals. How much tritium from the Fukushima tanks would you need to drink to get those kinds of “dangerous” doses? Over 100 litres, day after day. Is there any liquid you could drink 100 litres of in one day without it being fatal? I think not.

In my mind’s eye, I can see that phrase about radioactive bodies and special precautions bubbling around anti-nuclear chat groups for years to come; and it comes with the “authority” of being in a government document. But it is pure bullshit.



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