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Why we don't need nuclear power

Gerry Wolff


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 nuclear power.

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.

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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:

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.

Subsidies

To be 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.


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Opportunity cost

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.

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Security of supply

Some people claim that nuclear power provides security in energy supplies. For several reasons, the opposite is true:

Reliability

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%.

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  • 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).

Safety


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:

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.

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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 health:

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.

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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.

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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.):

  • 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.
Here are some estimates of the quantities of carbon released by the nuclear cycle:
  • 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).

Energy consumption

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.

Nuclear waste

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.

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Heat waves

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.

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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).

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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).

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Restricted scope

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 power plants.

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.

Plutonium?

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.

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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).

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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 read!


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.

Climate change

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:

Security

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.

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Campaign groups

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"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.