Why we don't need nuclear power
To correct misleading information that is being spread about nuclear power and raise
awareness of a major alternative, there is an online campaign described here: www.mng.org.uk/gh/cspnn.htm.
"Nuclear plants are mutual hostages: the
world's least well-run plant can imperil the future of all the others." From “A plan to keep carbon in check,” by Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala in the Scientific American, September
2006, p 33.
"What exactly is nuclear power? It is a very
expensive, sophisticated, and dangerous way to boil water." Helen Caldicott, Nuclear Power is not the Answer, p. 4.
"New nuclear plants are so extraordinarily costly that they would save about two to 11 times less carbon dioxide emission per dollar, about 20 to 40 times slower than investing the same money in efficient use of electricity or in 'micropower' (co-generation and distributed renewables)." Amory Lovins in an interview with CNN, 2008-10-16.
With regard to CO2 emissions and the need to reduce them, some people say that renewable forms of energy cannot meet our needs and that, despite its
clear disadvantages, nuclear power is a necessary stop-gap. But the truth is
quite different: many studies now show how to decarbonise the world's economies without using nuclear power. There is more than enough renewable power
and there is no need to tolerate all the many headaches arising from
Those many headaches all boil down to one thing: cost. In those terms, the case against nuclear power is straightforward:
Bearing in mind that the nuclear cycle is far from being zero-carbon and that nuclear power plants take a relatively long time to build, we get bigger cuts in CO2 for a given amount of money, and we get them sooner, if we choose renewable forms of energy with energy conservation—and without using nuclear power. We certainly don't need both.
New nuclear power stations will not be built in the UK, or anywhere else, unless substantial subsidies are provided. That several such subsidies are already in place is a flagrant breach of the principle of fair competition. Subsidies may be justified for new industries and new technologies but they are not justified for nuclear power which is long-established and has had more than its fair share of support.
The following main sections summarise the problems with nuclear power.
- Problems plague launch of 'safer' next-generation reactors (Spiegel Online, 2009-10-15).
- Spain says has power to spare, can phase out nukes (Planet Ark, 2009-09-29).
- Scotland stands firm against nuclear (Construction News, 2009-04-23).
- Will the U.S. ever need to build another coal or nuclear power plant? (Scientific American, 2009-04-22). Jon Wellinghoff, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, suggests that no new nuclear or coal plants may ever be needed in the United States.
- EDF warns against planning delays to UK’s new nuclear programme (ContractJournal.com, 2009-03-13).
- Utilities could struggle to fund £40bn new nuclear programme (ContractJournal.com, 2009-03-13).
- Slash renewables target to protect nuclear, says EDF (ENDS Report Bulletin, 2009-03-12).
- Legal threats could delay UK's £40bn new nuclear programme (ContractJournal.com, 2009-02-12).
- The British nuclear industry: status and prospects (PDF, 810 KB, Ian Davis, The Centre for International Governance Innovation, January 2009).
Nuclear costs and subsidies
It appears that, where claims are made that nuclear power is cheap, the evidence has come, directly or indirectly, from the nuclear industry itself. It appears that such claims can only be made with some or all of the following optimistic assumptions: no overruns in the times or costs of building nuclear plants, ignoring all the subsidies for nuclear power and assuming that capital costs have been paid off.
When all the overt and hidden subsidies are taken into account, nuclear
power is one of the most expensive ways of generating electricity.
Several accounts of how costly it is are:
- France predict cost of nuclear disaster to be over three times their GDP (Oil Price, 2013-03-14).
- Jeff Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric—one of the world’s largest suppliers of atomic equipment—has said (in July 2012) that nuclear power is so expensive compared with other forms of energy that it has become “really hard” to justify (Financial Times, 2012-07-30).
- UK nuclear build requires taxpayer rescue -Citi (Reuters, 2012-05-08).
- Researchers calculate horrendous liability costs for nuclear power (Der Spiegel, 2011-05-11).
- ExternE - externalities of energy. A research project for the European Commission, 1995. "A  report for the European Commission, ExterneE, on the externalities of energy found that the external cost of nuclear power was €1.80/kWh ($2.59/kWh) largely due to the cost of insurance." (Nuclear expensive and uninsurable say studies, Wind-works.org, 2011-06-03). Allowing for inflation between 1995 and 2011, the external cost of nuclear power would be about €2.69 per kWh.
- 2010 Comparative Costs of California Central Station Electricity Generation (California Energy Commission, January 2010). "[The report] found that a 1,000 MW Pressurized Water Reactor would generate electricity in 2018 from as little as $0.17/kWh to as much as $0.34/kWh." (Nuclear expensive and uninsurable say studies, Wind-works.org, 2011-06-03). This study appears not to take account of the subsidy provided for nuclear power by its cap on liabilities.
- The cost of nuclear power: Why nuclear will cost us more than the alternatives (briefing from No2NuclearPower, February 2011).
- The Nuclear Subsidies report from the Energy Fair group. This report describes seven categories of subsidies enjoyed by the nuclear industry. Removal of just one of those subsidies (limitations on liabilities) would raise the price of nuclear electricity to about 20 US cents per kWh. Without the other subsidies, it would be hopelessly uncompetitive.
- As Fukushima bill looms, nations weigh dilemma: nuclear plants viable only when uninsured (Washington Post, 2011-04-21). "From the U.S. to Japan, it’s illegal to drive a car without sufficient insurance, yet governments around the world choose to run over 440 nuclear power plants with hardly any coverage whatsoever."
- The business case against nuclear power
(Wall Street Journal, 2011-03-24).
- Wind power cheaper than nuclear, says EU climate chief (The Guardian, 2011-03-17). Connie Hedegaard, the EU climate change commissioner, said: "Some people tend to believe that nuclear is very, very cheap, but offshore wind is cheaper than nuclear. People should believe that this is very, very cheap."
- Nuclear power: still not viable without subsidies (PDF, Union of Concerned Scientists, February 2011). See also After 50 years, nuclear power is still not viable without subsidies, new report finds (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2011-02-23). "Government subsidies to the nuclear power industry over the past fifty years have been so large in proportion to the value of the energy produced that in some cases it would have cost taxpayers less to simply buy kilowatts on the open market and give them away."
- Does nuclear power have a negative learning curve? (Climate Progress, 2011-04-06). See also:
- Policy challenges of nuclear reactor contruction, cost escalation and crowding out alternatives (PDF, 1.7 MB, Mark Cooper, Vermont Law School, September 2010). See also VLS study: widely misunderstood in U.S., the French 'nuclear miracle' is plagued by fast-rising reactor costs and 'crowding out' of renewables (Digital Journal, 2010-09-09).
- The high and hidden costs of nuclear power (PDF, 190 KB, Policy Review, August & September 2010, No. 162).
- Solar and nuclear costs — the historic crossover (PDF, 1.1 MB, John O. Blackburn and Sam Cunningham, Duke University, July 2010). See also Nuclear energy loses cost advantage (New York Times, 2010-07-26).
- New Nuclear – the economics say no; UK green lights new nuclear – or does it? (PDF, 144 KB, report from Citigroup Global Equities Online, 2009-11-09). "Three of the risks faced by developers — Construction, Power Price, and Operational — are so large and variable that individually they could each bring even the largest utility company to its knees financially. This makes new nuclear a unique investment proposition for utility companies."
- Why Obama's nuclear bet won't pay off (Time Magazine, 2010-02-18). See also Nuclear's comeback: still no energy panacea (Time Magazine, 2008-12-31).
- Is it all over for
nuclear power? (New Scientist, 2006-04-22).
- Bad reactors. Rethinking your opposition to nuclear power? Rethink again and Bad Reactors. Sidebar: sub-prime nuclear loans (Washington Monthly, January/February 2009).
- The high cost of nuclear power (PDF, 830 KB, Maryland PIRG Foundation, March 2009).
- The economics of nuclear reactors: renaissance or relapse? (PDF, 630 KB, Mark Cooper, Vermont Law School, June 2009). See also Report: 100 new reactors would result in up to $4 trillion in excess costs for US taxpayers and ratepayers (press release from the Vermont Law School, June 2009).
- America's nuclear solution likely to come with a huge price tag (Lubbock Online/Associated Press, 2009-05-03).
- Mirage and oasis: energy choices in an age of global warming (PDF, 1.2 MB, New Economics Foundation, June 2005). According to this report, a kilowatt-hour of electricity from a nuclear generator will cost as much as 8.3 pence (16.3 US cents) once realistic construction and running costs are factored in, compared with about 3 pence (5.9 US cents) claimed by the nuclear industry—and that’s without taking account of the subsidies described in the Nuclear Subsidies report (PDF, 189 KB) from the Energy Fair group.
- Helen Caldicott's book "Nuclear power is not the answer" (ISBN-13 978-1-59558-067-2, 2006).
- Business risks and costs of new nuclear power (PDF, 337 KB, Craig A. Severance, January 2009. See also Climate Progress).
- Nuclear power as taxpayer patronage: a case study of subsidies to Calvert Cliffs Unit 3 (PDF, 285 KB, Doug Koplow, Earth Track Inc., July 2009). See also Energy bill: billions more in taxpayer handouts to the failed nuclear industry (PDF, 70 KB, 2005), other reports from Earth Track and Nuclear power’s new debate: cost issues of safety and waste make way for a focus on funding (Christian Science Monitor, August 2009).
- Nuclear costs and financing (PDF, 309 KB, Pete Roche, October 2008).
- Buried costs, Ian Jackson, Nuclear Engineering International, April 2008. This is an extract from Ian Jackson's book, Nukenomics: the commercialisation of Britain's nuclear industry, ISBN-13: 978-1903077559, April 2008.
- Arjun Makhijani's article Nuclear isn't necessary in Nature Reports Climate Change, 2008-10-02. This article is based on Arjun Makhijani's book Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: a Roadmap for US Energy Policy, IEER Press, ISBN 978-1-57143-173-8, 2007.
- Paul Brown's "Voodoo economics" (PDF, 1.4 MB).
- Amory Lovins and Imran Sheikh on "The nuclear illusion" (PDF, 4.4 MB).
See also Nuclear power 'failing' price test (The Sydney Morning Herald, 2010-12-01).
According to calculations in Nuclear Subsidies (PDF, 189 KB), the removal of just one of the several subsidies for nuclear power would raise the price of nuclear electricity to about 20 US cents per kWh, a level that would make it deeply unattractive to investors.
More information may be found on Nuclear costs and finances.
The nuclear industry will argue, as it always has, that problems from the past will not be repeated in the future. But cost overruns and delays in the building of a new nuclear reactor in Finland (with a similar story apparently unfolding in France) are not reassuring.
competitive with other sources of power, nuclear power requires permanent
support from tax payers or permanent support by means of market mechanisms or
hidden subsidies. By contrast, most renewable forms of energy need temporary support
until costs are reduced by economies of scales and refinement of technologies,
and no further support after that.
Nuclear Subsidies (PDF, 163 KB, October 2009) is a report, for campaigning group Energy Fair, about subsidies for nuclear power, with an emphasis on the situation in the UK.
One of the biggest of several hidden subsidies for
nuclear power is that it is only required to pay a small fraction of the cost of
insuring fully against claims from a Chernobyl-style disaster, or worse: "... in
the United States, the Price-Anderson Act limits the nuclear industry's
liability in the event of a catastrophic accident to $9.1 billion, which is
less than 2% of the $600 billion guaranteed by the Congress. In any case, $600
billion is considered to be a gross underestimate ..." (Helen
Caldicott, p. 32). There are similar limitations on liabilities in other countries around the world, including the UK.
"In France, if Electricité de France had to insure for the full cost of a meltdown, the price of nuclear electricity would increase by about 300%. Hence, as opposed to conventional wisdom, the price of French nuclear electricity is artificially low." (ibid., p. 32).
Regarding the 300% figure, Appendix J of the report Environmentally harmful support measures in EU member states (PDF, 1.1 MB, report for the DG Environment of the European Commission, 2003) says "Scenario B, in which all liabilities are covered at the upper damages estimates, results in premiums of 5.0 c€/kWh. This insurance scenario would thus lead to a tripling of current total generating costs." (p 132).
Full insurance against nuclear disasters would completely demolish any
economic case for nuclear power.
Other hidden subsidies include:
- With regard to the disposal of nuclear waste, Ian Jackson writes (Buried Costs, Nuclear Engineering International, April 2008): "The bottom line is that nuclear energy utilities probably need fixed waste disposal ‘prices’ for repository disposal capped somewhere in the range from £12,200 to £24,400/m3, but the NDA’s true marginal ‘cost’ is nearer to £67,000/m3, and the commercial ‘value’ of the repository asset could approach £201,000/m3 if operated as a fully private sector venture." (See also Nukenomics: The commercialisation of Britain's nuclear industry, ISBN-13: 978-1903077559, April 2008).
- There are further costs arising in the management of nuclear waste for periods that, in the case of the most dangerous nuclear waste, will be thousands of years. These costs will be born by future generations but they will receive no compensating benefit.
- The costs of providing protection against terrorist attack for nuclear plants, and for trains and ships carrying nuclear fuel and nuclear waste (see, for example, Anti-terror patrols secretly stepped up at power stations, Daily Mail, 2008-08-10);
- The costs to us all arising from the fact that any such protection can only ever be partial (see Nuclear fuel fleet arms up for information about the partial nature of the protection that is provided);
- The costs born by national governments in that ultimately they must underwrite all risks, as evidenced by the way the UK government had to bail out British Energy in 2005 at a cost of £5 billion;
- The cost of decommissioning nuclear plants. An estimate in 2006 by the UK Treasury for the cost of decommissioning the UK's old nuclear power stations was £90 billion; see also Nuclear decommissioning (PDF, 253 KB, September 2008).
- The cost of bribing people to accept a dump for nuclear waste in their area (see A nuclear slush fund? (PDF, 103 KB, September 2008).
The subsidies that have been described are a flagrant breach of the principle of fair competition. They could well be illegal under EU competition rules.
"More than half of the subsidies (in real terms) ever lavished on energy by OECD governments have gone to the nuclear industry."
From "Nuclear power out of Chernobyl's shadow", The Economist, print edition, May 6th 2004.
- Babcock is right to look to nuclear future (Daily Telegraph, 2009-09-18). "The race to develop nuclear energy in this country is more of a three-legged hobble at the moment. Companies hoping to get involved in building a new fleet of power stations are far from hopeful that the necessary financing and regulatory clearances will be in place to bring the first ones on tap by 2017, as hoped by the Government."
- Nuclear power maybe too costly for Saskatchewan: premier (Edmonton Journal, 2009-09-17).
- Meltdown: a gloomy look at the economics of nuclear power (Wall Street Journal, 2009-09-16).
- The nuke no-subsidy illusion (Blog of Paul Flynn MP, 2009-09-17).
- Another major setback for a "Nuclear Renaissance" (Nuclear Power Daily, 2009-08-31).
- The real cost of new U.S. nuclear reactors (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 2009-08-21)
- Britain's reprocessing boondoggle (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 2009-08-19)
- Consumers to pay for new nuclear power plants (Daily Telegraph, 2009-08-18)
- Energy firms in secret talks on nuclear ‘levy’ (Sunday Times, 2009-08-16)
- UPDATE: UK nuclear indus seeks equal terms with renewables (Easy Bourse, 2009-06-10)
- In Finland, nuclear renaissance runs into trouble (New York Times, 2009-05-28).
- EDF calls for support for nuclear industry (Financial Times, 2009-05-25)
- Slash renewables target to protect nuclear, says EDF (ENDS Report Bulletin, 2009-03-12).
- UK's CBI calls for energy policy shift away from wind (RenewableEnergyWorld.com, 2009-07-13).
- CBI urges shift to nuclear from wind power (Financial Times, 2009-07-12).
- New capitalism: old capitalism except taxpayer money is at risk (Sunday Herald, 2009-07-06).
- Minister Ed Miliband opens West Cumbria's £20m nuclear academy Energus (Times & Star, 2009-06-19). It appears that the nuclear academy has been paid for out of public funds.
- UPDATE: UK nuclear indus seeks equal terms with renewables (Easy Bourse, 2009-06-10).
- Is the nuclear renaissance fizzling? (New York Times, 2009-05-29).
- In Finland, nuclear renaissance runs into trouble (New York Times, 2009-05-28).
- EDF calls for support for nuclear industry (Financial Times, 2009-05-25).
- America's nuclear solution likely to come with a huge price tag (Lubbock Online/Associated Press, 2009-05-03).
- Cumbria nuclear workers handed £11k bonus by NDA (Carlisle News & Star, 2009-04-23).
- Budget 2009: Darling gives renewables a £5bn shot in the arm (The Guardian, 2009-04-22). This article includes a report that the UK government may give an explicit subsidy to nuclear power (which would be on top of the many hidden subsidies).
- Taxpayer foots the bill for nuclear bonuses (The Times, 2009-04-22).
- Nuclear fuel fleet arms up (The Scotsman, 2009-04-14).
- Government delays nuclear power insurance plans (Building, 2009-03-06). Liabilities of nuclear companies may be increased but the UK government may underwrite the insurance if commercial arrangements can't be made.
- Earth Track. Doug Koplow and others provide information about energy subsidies.
- Striking a blow against nuclear power (Counter Punch, 2009-02-13). Attempts to introduce subsidies in the USA for nuclear power are defeated for the third year running.
- Nuclear's comeback: still no energy panacea (Time, 2008-12-31).
- The Economics of Nuclear Power, by P. Bradford, A. Froggatt, D. Milborrow and S. Thomas, Greenpeace International, May 2007.
- International Energy Agency 'blocking global switch to renewables' (Guardian, 2009-01-09). The figures given by the IEA for the cost of nuclear power appear to be too low. This article confirms suspicions that the IEA is not a reliable source of information about energy.
- IoS investigation: officials plotted Sellafield cover-up (Independent on Sunday, 2009-01-04).
- Windfall for nuclear waste site (BBC News, 2008-12-22).
- BNFL's 'expensive failures' earn £1m payoffs from taxpayer (Guardian, 2008-12-11).
- Could nuclear sell-off be another taxpayer bail-out? by David Lowry (Guardian, 2008-11-19).
- MP's anger as state bears cost of any Sellafield disaster (Guardian, 2008-10-27).
- Arjun Makhijani, Nuclear isn't necessary, Nature Reports Climate Change, 2008-10-02. This article is based on Arjun Makhijani's book Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: a Roadmap for US Energy Policy, IEER Press, ISBN 978-1-57143-173-8, 2007.
- The nuclear industry's secret subsidies by David Lowry (Guardian, 2008-09-04).
- Escalating costs of new build: what does it mean? (Nuclear Engineering International, 2008-08-22).
As Friends of the Earth and others have been pointing
out, money spent in propping up the nuclear industry is money that would be
much more profitably spent on expanding renewable sources of energy.
Nuclear power is dirty and dangerous, and it can only supply power for a
relatively short period of time. By contrast, renewable
forms of energy are plentiful (more than enough for our needs), clean and safe, they will last for thousands of years, and when environmental and hidden costs are factored in,
they are cheaper than nuclear power.
The inflexibility of nuclear power increases its damaging effect on renewable sources of power. Because it cannot easily be switched off, it undermines renewable sources of power at times of low electricity demand.
Security of supply
Some people claim that nuclear power provides security in energy supplies. For several reasons, the opposite is true:
Contrary to what many people imagine and often suggest as an advantage of
nuclear power, it is not available 24/7 throughout the year. Just like wind
power, and all other sources of electricity, nuclear power is intermittent.
Nuclear power stations stop producing electricity during routine maintenance
and unscheduled breakdowns, and the 'load factor' (the amount of electricity
that is actually produced compared with the theoretical maximum) is normally
well short of 100%.
- Nuclear contamination (The Economist). France has had to import large quantities of electricity during 2009 because almost a third of its nuclear plants went out of service at some point, either because of strikes or for maintenance. France’s grid operator recently warned that the country could even suffer power cuts in the winter of 2009-2010.
- Analysis of load factors at nuclear power plants by Michael Maloney, June 2003 (PDF, 556 KB).
It is said that a nuclear power plant is likely to produce a nuclear disaster only once every 10,000 years. But with more than 400 such plants in the world today, we may, on average, expect a nuclear disaster once every 25 years or less. Counting only the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011—and excluding the near-disasters at the Narora nuclear plant in India in 1993, the Wylfa plant in Wales in 1993, the Davis-Besse plant in Ohio in 2002, and the Forsmark plant in Sweden in 2006—we are averaging one nuclear disaster every 11 years.
Right from the beginning of the nuclear power industry, we have been
assured that the technology is safe. But:
- The major earthquake and tsunami on 11 March 2011 in Japan has led to a meltdown in at least 3 of the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power station.
- According to the Whitehaven News (2007-01-04): "British Nuclear Group
Sellafield was fined half a million pounds last year after admitting a
radioactive leak, the size of a lorryload of thallium, and 160 kgs of
- In late July 2006 there was an
accident at Sweden's Forsmark nuclear power station which was described as a
near-meltdown by Lars-Olov Hoglund, a Swedish nuclear expert (see Spiegel Online, 2006-08-07, and report in the International
Herald Tribune, 2006-08-04).
- At Sellafield, on the 19th of April 2005, twenty metric tons of uranium and 160 kilograms of plutonium dissolved in 83,000 liters of nitric acid leaked undetected over several months from a cracked pipe into a stainless steel sump chamber at the Thorp nuclear fuel reprocessing plant.
- In 2002, there was a near catastrophe at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant in Ohio (see US nuclear safety in spotlight, Financial Times, 2011-03-22; see also Davis-Besse nuclear plant comes close to disaster as lax regulator places company interests ahead of public safety, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, 2001-03-13).
- Nuclear Electric was fined £250,000 plus costs for breaches of safety regulations at the Wylfa magnox reactor in July 1993 when a crane grab broke off and fell 40ft into the reactor. The Health and Safety Executive has said that it was purely a matter of luck that a meltdown did not occur.
- In 1993, the Narora nuclear power plant, there was a near meltdown: "'In our Narora station there was a major fire, which got that reactor pretty close to meltdown, frankly,' says A. Gopalakrishnan. He was head of India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board at the time." (See Japan's nuclear crisis stokes fears in India, NPR, 2011-04-05).
- The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 released large amounts of radioactivity
over a very wide area. See Chernobyl radiation killed nearly one million people: new book (Environment News Service, 2010-04-26). The International Agency for Research on Cancer report, Estimates of the cancer burden in Europe from radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl accident (2006), estimated that "by 2065 about 16,000 cases of thyroid cancer and 25,000 cases of other cancers may be expected due to radiation from the accident".
- In February 1986, 13 tonnes of radioactive carbon dioxide were released from Trawsfynydd nuclear power plant.
- In October 1985, there was an accidental radioactive release into the sea from Hinkley Point nuclear power station.
- In November 1983, Sellafield reprocessing plant discharges highly radioactive wastes directly into the sea.
- There was a partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979.
- There was a
disaster at Windscale in 1957 which turns out to have released much more radioactive material than was suggested at the time.
- Also in 1957, there was an explosion at the Mayak nuclear plant in the Southern Urals which exposed 272,000 people to significant radiation. Half a century later, Mayak (near the town of Kyshtym) is one of the most radioactive places on earth.
- There has been extensive
radioactive contamination from the Dounreay nuclear reactor.
- And many more. See also Greenpeace Calendar of Nuclear Accidents (updated 21 March 1996) and "22 accidents since Chernobyl".
Assurances that such things will not happen in
the future do not inspire confidence.
The nuclear industry is constantly producing new designs for nuclear reactors, always with the suggestion that each new design will be safer than what went before. But each new design creates a new set of opportunities for failure, with a corresponding set of unknowns about the risks involved. And pressure on costs means a persistent temptation to cut corners, with corresponding increases in risk. These issues are well discussed by Helen Caldicott in Chapter 6 of Nuclear Power is not the Answer.
- Timeline: nuclear plant accidents (BBC News, 2011-04-12).
- Chernobyl radiation killed nearly one million people: new book
(Environment News Service, 2010-04-26). See also New book concludes: Chernobyl death toll: 985,000, mostly from cancer (OpEdNews.com, 2010-09-03). A book reviewing the collected material is: Chernobyl: consequences of the catastrophe for people and the environment (PDF, 3.7 MB, Alexey V. Yablokov, Vassily B. Nesterenko, and Alexey V. Nesterenko, New York Academy of Sciences, 2009. See also The Chernobyl catastrophe: consequences on human health (PDF, 1.8 MB, A. Yablokov, I. Labunska, and I. Blokov (Eds.), Greenpeace, Amsterdam, 2006; and The health
effects of the human victims of the Chernobyl catastrophe: collection of scientific
articles, I. Blokov, T. Sadownichik, I. Labunska, and I. Volkov (Eds.), Greenpeace,
- Debate over health effects of Chernobyl re-ignited (The Lancet, April 2010).
- Revealed: catalogue of atomic leaks (The Guardian, 2009-06-21).
- Sizewell nuclear disaster averted by dirty laundry, says official report (The Guardian, 2009-06-11). See also Campaigners want N-plant plans halted (The Lowestoft Journal, 2009-06-15).
- Toxic link: the WHO and the IAEA (The Guardian, 2009-05-28). "Delegates [to the WHO's 62nd World Health Assembly] heard that the standard risk models for radiation risk published by the International Committee on Radiological Protection (ICRP), and accepted by WHO, underestimate the health impacts of low levels of internal radiation by between 100 and 1,000 times – consistent with the ECRR's own 2003 model of radiological risk (The Health Effects of Ionising Radiation Exposure at Low Doses and Low Dose Rates for Radiation Protection Purposes: Regulators' Edition)."
- Sellafield disaster ‘worse than Chernobyl’ averted - claim (News & Star, 2009-04-24).
- Sellafield admits hot tanks error but denies plant was ‘hours from disaster’ (Whitehaven News, 2009-04-15).
- Consequences in Norway of a hypothetical accident at Sellafield (Report from the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority (NRPA), 2009-03-23).
- Chernobyl animals worse affected than thought: study (Reuters, 2009-03-17).
- We can't check everything, admits atomic safety chief after 14-year leak (The Guardian, 2009-02-02).
Speed of construction
In general, renewables can be built much faster than nuclear power stations:
- Nuclear power stations are notoriously slow to build. For example, Unit 3 of the Olkiluoto nuclear power plant in Finland is likely to take at least 7 years to build. As of April 2012, The average time from start of construction to full grid connectivity for Areva’s last four nuclear reactors was 17.5 years (bit.ly/J91Y7E, p. 4).
- By contrast, just one year (2010) Germany installed 8.8 GW of photovoltaic solar panels, producing, overall, about the same amount of electricity each year as a 1 GW nuclear power station but up to 8.8 times the peak output of a nuclear power station—because PV generates during the daylight hours when demand is high.
Release of radioactive materials and risks to health
Apart from unintended leaks of radioactive materials into the environment, 'routine' or 'permitted' releases can cause damage to
The processes of mining uranium ore and processing it also releases radioactive materials into the environment. In some cases, this has been on a large scale as in the Church Rock disaster in Arizona in 1979.
Terrorism and nuclear proliferation
Nuclear reactors, nuclear reprocessing plants and the trains that carry
nuclear materials around the country are easy targets
for terrorists (see how a Daily Mirror
reporter planted a 'bomb' on a train carrying nuclear waste,
July 2006). In a similar way, nuclear materials being transported around the
world can easily be attacked or hijacked by terrorists or some unholy alliance of terrorists and pirates (see A global menace on the high seas, The Guardian, 2008-12-07).
The wide distribution in the world of plutonium and enriched
uranium increases the chances that terrorists will be able to get hold of
enough to make either a
'dirty' conventional bomb or even an atom bomb.
The technology for nuclear power has much in common with the technology
needed for the production of nuclear weapons. The "Janus-like character of
nuclear energy" (Kofi Annan) adds to the problem of reducing the number of
nuclear weapons in the world or preventing their proliferation. If we are
trying to persuade countries like Iran to give up nuclear power, we are in a
very weak negotiating position if we have nuclear power (and nuclear weapons) ourselves.
- Fissile material smuggling and the nuclear renaissance (Time, 2010-11-08).
- Nuclear family gathering (The Economist, 2010-04-13). In 2007 armed gunmen attacked a nuclear facility in South Africa, breaching heavy security before they were chased off (and never caught). The incident illustrated that the possibility of nuclear materials falling into the wrong hands is far from an abstract one.
- Nuclear watchdog calls for new powers (Euronews, 2009-09-14). Yukiya Amano, the incoming head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, says that the spread of nuclear knowledge threatens international peace.
- Nuclear riddle of missing ship as pirates demand a £1m ransom
(Daily Mail, 2009-08-17).
- Nuclear fuel fleet arms up, The Scotsman, 2009-04-14.
- Design flaws in nuclear transport ships increase the risk of accidents, claims report (Sunday Herald, 2009-04-13).
- Turn to nuclear energy could herald "anarchy" (ViewLondon.co.uk, 2009-03-16).
- Ships sailing into political storm after leaving Barrow (Business Gazette, 2009-03-02).
- A global menace on the high seas (The Guardian, 2008-12-07).
- Anti-terror patrols secretly stepped up at power stations (Daily Mail, 2008-08-10).
Releases of CO2
Contrary to what is often suggested, nuclear power is not a zero-carbon source of electricity. Peer-reviewed research shows that the nuclear cycle emits between 9 and 25 times more CO2 than wind power (Energy Policy, 2010, Part I, doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2010.11.040; Jacobson, M.Z., "Review of solutions to global warming, air pollution, and energy security". Energy and Environmental Science 2,148–173, 2009. doi:10.1039/b809990c.):
Here are some estimates of the quantities of carbon released by the nuclear cycle:
- There are emissions from the construction of nuclear power plants, especially from the large amounts of concrete which are used.
- The mining and processing of uranium are energy-intensive processes that, with current technologies, produce emissions of CO2.
- The decommissioning of nuclear plants and the treatment of nuclear waste also uses quite large amounts of energy, with corresponding emissions of CO2. The complexity of these processes means that these emissions are very difficult to estimate.
- In their article "A path to sustainable energy by 2030" (PDF, 1.4 MB, Scientific American, November 2009, pp 58-65) Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi say "Nuclear power results in up to 25 times more carbon emissions than wind energy, when reactor construction and uranium refining and transport are considered." (p 59). In Energy Policy, 39 (3), 1154–1169, 2011, they say "... nuclear energy results in 9–25 times more carbon emissions than wind energy, in part due to emissions from uranium refining and transport and reactor construction (e.g., Lenzen, 2008; Sovacool, 2008), in part due to the longer time required to site, permit, and construct a nuclear plant compared with a windfarm (resulting in greater emissions from the fossil-fuel electricity sector during this period; Jacobson, 2009), and in part due to the greater loss of soil carbon due to the greater loss in vegetation resulting from covering the ground with nuclear facilities relative to wind turbine towers, which cover little ground." (p 1156). The two papers that they cite are: “Life cycle energy and greenhouse gas emissions of nuclear energy: a review”, Manfred Lenzen, Energy Conversion and Management, 49 (8), 2178–2199, 2008; and “Valuing the greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power: a critical survey”, Benjamin K. Sovacool, Energy Policy, 36 (8), 2950–2963, 2008.
- In its report, The role of nuclear power in a low-carbon economy, the Sustainable Energy Commission says: "Our evidence shows that taking into account the emissions associated with plant construction and the fuel cycle, the emissions associated with nuclear power production are relatively low, with an average value of 4.4tC/GWh, compared to 243tC/GWh for coal and 97tC/GWh for gas." (p 5). But:
- They point out that those figures do not take account of emissions from decommissioning and the treatment of waste, and that emissions from those sources are very difficult to estimate.
- They also say "A number of commentators have expressed concerns that any move to low-grade uranium ores could substantially increase the carbon intensity of nuclear power. Our evidence on uranium resource availability shows that predicting if and when this might happen is very difficult to do with any accuracy." (p 5).
- The report, Nuclear Power: the Energy Balance by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith concludes that the life-cycle analysis from ore extraction to waste disposal shows that nuclear power emits up to one third of the CO2 of a gas-fired power station.
- In her book, Nuclear power is not the answer, Helen Caldicott quotes research showing that "The use of nuclear power causes, at the end of the road and under the most favourable conditions, approximately one-third as much carbon dioxide (CO2) emission as gas-fired electricity production." But this is only with the highest grades of ore. The use of poorer ores as a source of fuel for nuclear reactors "would produce more CO2 emissions than burning fossil fuels directly." In other words, "nuclear reactors are best understood as complicated, expensive, and inefficient gas burners." (p. 6).
Nuclear power may consume more energy than it produces. "Even
utilizing the richest ores available, a nuclear power plant must operate at
ten full-load operating years before it has paid off its energy debts. And ...
there is only a finite supply of supply of uranium ore containing reasonable
concentrations of uranium 235. When this concentration falls below 0.01%, the
costs of energy production from nuclear power can no longer cover the costs of
extraction of uranium from the earth, at which time the nuclear fuel cycle
will produce no net energy; below a certain uranium content, nuclear power
produces less energy than is needed to build, fuel, and operate the reactor
and to repair the environmental damage." (Helen
Caldicott, p. 16). By contrast, energy payback times for wind power and most other renewable sources is 3 to 5 months. PV currently has an energy payback time of 3 to 4 years but this is likely to fall to 1 year or less in the future.
No solution has yet been found to the problem of disposing of dangerous
nuclear waste, much of which will remain dangerous for 10,000 years or more. No human institution has ever survived that long. People imagine that it is possible to store nuclear waste underground but that environment is at least as complex and unpredictable as weather systems and we have much less information about it. There is no satisfactory solution to problems of corrosion, ingress of water, vulnerability to terrorist attack, and the long-term instability of all geological formations.
In recent heat waves, nuclear power plants have been shut down owing to
shortages of cooling water and unacceptable damage that would be caused by the
discharge of hot water into the environment (see below). This kind of problem is likely to become worse as
global temperatures rise.
Risk of flooding
All of the UK's nuclear power stations that are in operation are on the coast and it appears that the nuclear industry favours building new nuclear power stations on the same sites. Thus any significant rise in sea level could have disastrous consequences both for existing power stations (even after they have ceased producing electricity but are still 'hot') and any new ones that may be built nearby. Significant rises in sea level may seem unlikely but, in a recent article ("Huge sea level rises are coming – unless we act now", New Scientist, issue 2614, 25 July 2007), James Hansen, Head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, argues there could be a "runaway collapse" of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets leading to rises in sea level that are much bigger than current IPCC predictions. Since climate scientists have already been surprised by the speed with which floating ice shelves in the Antarctic have broken up, it would be unwise to assume that there could not be similar surprises in the speed with which land-based bodies of ice disintegrate."
"Nuclear power stations on the British coast will
experience storm surges up to 1.7 metres (5½ft) higher by 2080 because of
global warming, a study suggests. The research, commissioned by British
Energy, the nuclear plant operator, suggests that new coastal defence
strategies may be needed to protect sites from a combination of more extreme weather and higher sea
levels. All of Britain's 15 nuclear plants are near the coast, and the
prospect of rising sea levels has raised questions about whether the sites will be suitable if a new generation of reactors is
built." (Mark Henderson, The Times, 2007-01-24).
An inflexible source of power
Nuclear power is an inflexible source of electricity that is only suitable
for 'base load'. It cannot respond quickly to peaks in demand for electricity.
McCain's French kiss is an article containing an interesting analysis of the problems caused by the fact the French nuclear power stations can only provide base-load power. This inflexibility rules them out as a major source of power in the USA and many other parts of the world.
The inflexibility of nuclear power means also that it has a damaging impact on the development of renewable sources of power (see below).
Damage from uranium mining
The mining of uranium ore and its processing creates a range of environmental problems including pollution by radioactive and other noxious materials, release of CO2 into the atmosphere, and the consumption of large quantities of water (sometimes in regions where water is scarce).
Nuclear power only provides electricity. It does not address the problem
of reducing CO2 emissions from space heating and road transport
(except under the unlikely scenario that nuclear electricity would be used for a significant
amount of space heating and charging of electric vehicles).
Shortages of skilled labour
Few science and engineering students are coming through to replace reactor
workers who are now retiring. As a result there will soon not be enough people
to build and operate new reactors. Without people who have the necessary
knowledge and experience, it would be very unwise to try to build new nuclear
Exhaustion of uranium reserves
It has been calculated that, if enough nuclear fission reactors were built
to meet most of the world's demand for electricity, exploitable sources of
uranium would be exhausted in about fifteen to twenty years (see Energy Beyond Oil by Paul Mobbs, Matador, 2005, ISBN 1-905237-00-6). If the more risky fast breeder
reactors could be made to work reliably (not an easy job), this might yield
fifty or sixty years of electricity. In a similar way, thorium could in
principle be converted into nuclear fuel but this has not yet been shown to be
practical and supplies of thorium are in any case limited.
As exploitable sources of uranium
become exhausted, prices will rise. And as higher-grade ores are exhausted, more energy will be consumed and more CO2 will be released in processing the
lower-grade ores that remain.
The idea of using plutonium and other waste from nuclear reactors or from nuclear weapons as a source of energy is widely regarded as an expensive failure.
- Plutonium end game, Arjun Makhijani, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, January 2001.
- The MOX myth, Wise News Communique 469-470, 1997-04-11.
- Plutonium and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel (PDF, 2.8 MB), Frank N. von Hippel, Science, Volume 293, Number 5539, Issue of 28 Sep 2001, pp. 2397-2398.
- Voodoo economics and the doomed nuclear renaissance (PDF, 1.4 MB), paper prepared by Paul Brown as Press Fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge during 2007/08. The Fellowship was sponsored by British Petroleum.
Overruns in times and costs
The nuclear industry is notorious for long lead times and over-runs in times and costs. Building a new nuclear plant is likely to be a long and costly process. The result may be a white elephant that is not able to compete with cheaper and nimbler renewable technologies.
There is some information about build times for nuclear reactors and cost over-runs in Nuclear costs and financing (PDF, 309 KB, September 2008).
STOP PRESS: Helen Caldicott's book called Nuclear power is not the answer explains very well why nuclear power is such a bad option. It's an excellent
The 'public benefit' argument
From time to time, right up to the present, people have attempted to justify nuclear power as a public benefit for the following reasons:
- The original justifications for the limitation of liabilities for nuclear power, and other forms of support, were two-fold:
- Nuclear power was considered to be necessary because of its role in the production of nuclear weapons.
- As a means of generating electricity, it was one of the few alternatives to coal or other fossil fuels.
- Today, nuclear power is promoted as part of the answer to the problems of CO2 emissions and climate change.
- Extraordinary as it may sound, nuclear power has sometimes been promoted as a 'home grown' source of power that enhances the UK’s energy security.
- Nuclear power may be justified as a public benefit because it can be used to destroy some of the unwanted stockpiles of plutonium.
As described in the following subsections, none of those justifications are sound.
Military and diversity justifications
Although nuclear power was seen as necessary for the production of materials needed in nuclear weapons, the cold war is now over and many people would like nuclear weapons to be phased out.
At the time of the miners' strike in 1984-5, Mrs Thatcher saw nuclear power as a useful alternative to coal as a means of keeping the lights on. Now, as described in the next subsection, there are more than enough alternatives that are cheaper and better than nuclear power.
Far from being an answer to the problem of CO2 emissions and climate change, nuclear power would be a mis-allocation of resources, making things worse by diverting funds away from better and cheaper alternatives:
Nuclear power is not a 'home grown' source of power in the UK since all uranium is imported. It is true that stockpiles of plutonium may be processed into MOX fuel, with depleted uranium. But although MOX core loadings up to 100% are theoretically possible, no commercial nuclear reactor has ever been licensed to operate at that level. Where MOX is used, it normally provides only about 30% to 50% of the fuel of a nuclear power station, with the rest provided by Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) (see Nukenomics, p. 89).
Most of the non-nuclear decarbonisation scenarios that have been published provide for greater security of energy supplies than with nuclear power, with its associated worries about all aspects of security, including the security of supplies of uranium, terrorist attacks on nuclear plants or nuclear materials in transit, the creation and detonation of 'dirty' bombs, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Destruction of plutonium
It is clear that at least some of the UK's unwanted stockpile of plutonium may be destroyed by processing it into MOX fuel and then 'burning' that fuel in appropriately-designed or adapted nuclear plants. If we set aside the several practical problems associated with this course of action (Nukenomics, Chapter 4), it looks like an attractive option: we reduce a storage-and-pollution problem and we get some electricity as well.
How does this relate to the issue of subsidies for nuclear power? According to Ian Jackson (Nukenomics, p 84), MOX fuel is nearly 50% more expensive than LEU. If the argument were to be accepted that nuclear power has a role in "plutonium disposition", then it would be legitimate for the government to pay the additional cost of the MOX, without those payments being classified as subsidies.
But the plutonium disposition argument does not justify all the other subsidies for nuclear power and all the other headaches described in previous sections. Since some kind of solution must eventually be found to the problem of storing or disposing of the UK's legacy of nuclear waste and, since plutonium stockpiles can participate in that solution, there is no case at all for building new nuclear power stations purely as a means of reducing the quantities of stored plutonium.
- McCain's French kiss (National Post, 2008-05-13). The economic disaster of French nuclear power and why the USA could not be powered by nuclear power.
- The nuclear illusion (PDF, 4.6 MB, Amory B. Lovins and Imran Sheikh, Ambio Nov 08 preprint, dr 18, 27 May 2008, DRAFT).
- Voodoo economics and the doomed nuclear renaissance: a research paper (PDF, 1.4 MB, Paul Brown, published by Friends of the Earth, May 2008).
- People Against Wylfa B (PAWB)
- UK Government's consultation on "The Future of Nuclear Power", 2007:
- No to nukes, an editorial in the Los Angeles Times (2007-07-23) making a strong case against nuclear power.
- Nuclear power? No thanks! The case for a non-nuclear energy strategy for the UK was presented at a public meeting at Portcullis House, Westminster in November 2006. The associated report: "Nuclear Power: Unnecessary, Dangerous and Expensive" can be downloaded from this site.
- "On the road to ruin", article
by Michael Meacher in The Guardian,
- "Is it all over for nuclear power?",
article by Michael Brooks in the New Scientist, 2006-04-22.
- Nuclear power is
not the answer to tackling climate change or security of supply, according to
the Sustainable Development Commission (2006-03-05).
- Chernobyl scientist warns of 'nuclear folly' (Telegraph.co.uk,
- A nuclear power primer by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen.
- Windscale Fire (Wikipedia)
- Dounreay's catalogue of idiocy is a cautionary tale of nuclear danger (George Monbiot in the Guardian, 2006-09-12)
- Child leukaemia
cluster in North Wales.
"Nuclear subsidies have the same effect as defibrillating a corpse" Amory Lovins, CEO of the Rocky
Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based energy analysis firm.
To help correct misleading information that is being spread about nuclear power and raise
awareness of a major alternative, please go to www.mng.org.uk/green_house/cspnn.htm.