Melting Down the Myths
No doubt about it, the nuclear lobby has a fresh spring in its step. Could the long-time bête noire of the environmental movement really be re-emerging from its dark days and bidding once again for a place in the sun?
For once upon a time, when Blair was a babe, nuclear energy was the great white hope of the technological future, offering clean unlimited electricity too cheap to meter. It never delivered that, of course. The killer price advantage remained elusive, while the fairytale image was tarnished badly in the succeeding decades by safety concerns, health scares, and growing worries over where to put the radioactive waste. Britain, like most of the western world, has had an effective moratorium on new nukes since 1989.
So what’s changed? Climate change. Isn’t that a real threat to overshadow any nuclear nightmare? Our pressing need for low-carbon energy solutions, coupled with fears of the approaching end of reliable and affordable fossil fuel supplies, are being presented as problems to which a programme of ‘nuclear new build’ could be the best answer.
Ecologist James Lovelock, forever linked in the public mind with deep green thinking as originator of the ‘Gaia hypothesis’, sees nuclear as “a secure, reliable energy... immediately available, safe, economic and sufficient to meet our needs in full”. He has always been pro-nuclear – while politicians are more fickle. Now Tony Blair is tempted by nuclear power as a way to cut carbon emissions, although the debate within government is on hold until after the election. The World Nuclear Association, for its part, has gone so far as to brand it “energy for sustainable development”.
But nuclear power doesn’t necessarily do just what it says on the tin. It’s time to unwrap some myths and see how they really melt down....
Climate friendly energy?
Coal-, oil- and gas-fired power stations spew out greenhouse gases. Nuclear plants don’t. But is that enough to justify the claim of the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) that it’s offering “climate friendly energy”?
Not quite. Add up the carbon footprint of the bits you don’t see, like building the plants in the first place, importing uranium and processing waste, and the greenhouse gas score really is not negligible. It’s twice as bad as wind power on this count.
And even if nukes came absolutely carbon-free, a shift to this power source wouldn’t wipe out our emissions problem. If we doubled the number of UK nuclear plants, and had them producing half our electricity – what would that do to our overall greenhouse gas emissions? Reduce them by 8%. Worthwhile, but still a long way short of a home run. We’d still have a big emissions problem – the most intractable part of which seems to stem from our addiction to polluting cars and planes.
It’s not the cheapest way of making the cut either. The government has done its sums and reckons that, by 2020 – the earliest time a new nuclear programme could come on stream – it’ll be cheaper to cut a tonne of carbon dioxide emissions through wind or combined heat and power (CHP) technologies – or simply through energy efficiency. These greener options could even have a negative net cost, the Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU) worked out. But if an expensive new nuclear build programme draws investment away from the development of clean technologies like these, we could see higher, rather than lower, emissions in the medium term.
The dilemma we face is not so much whether we fear the consequences of climate change more than the perils of nuclear power, but how we choose the best ways to combat the former.
Sir David King, the government’s chief scientific adviser is not one to play down the problem of climate change – it was he who made such a media splash by identifying it as a greater threat than terrorism. But King has not let that blind him to the downsides of nuclear. He has gone on record saying that “responsible government has to see whether we can manage to work without [it]”.
Responsible would mean dealing with climate change – a global problem – in a way we’re happy for others around the world to follow. With all the current concern about countries like North Korea and Iran developing nuclear weapons on the back of a supposedly civil programme, is the proliferation of nuclear technology really our global solution of choice?
An ideal stopgap?
All but one of the UK’s existing nuclear power plants are due to be shut down over the next 18 years – starting next year. Where, then, will we get that proportion of our electricity – 23% – that currently comes from nuclear? The renewables sector provides less than 4% of our electricity today, and even its most ardent devotees accept that it can’t do it all tomorrow. So do we need a nuclear new build programme, as a quick fix for this ‘energy gap’?
Lovelock is convinced that “for now, nuclear power is the only workable alternative”.
But a programme of nuclear new build won’t be ‘for now’. If the moratorium ended tomorrow – which it won’t – there’d still be a lead time of 10 years or more to build the first reactor, with the planning application as the joker in the pack. It was 15 years before Sizewell B was up and running, in the face of determined local opposition. How can nuclear be seen as a stopgap, if a new generation of power plants wouldn’t come on stream before 2020?
Look at the alternatives further ahead, and there is no certainty that there’ll be a ‘generation gap’. A vision of 2050 where up to 50% of electricity is generated from renewables is not something the green lobby has dreamt up, but the considered view of oil companies like BP and Shell.
The cleanest technology?
You don’t see smoking stacks on top of nuclear power stations. But what does come out, invisible though it is to the passer-by, makes an ugly story.
Britain has been taken to court by Ireland over claims that the Irish Sea fishing industry has been polluted by radioactive discharges from the Sellafield reprocessing plant. There’s also the nagging question of whether low-level radiation from nukes has something to do with the leukaemia clusters identified in the area....
Then there are the stockpiles of radioactive waste we’ve built up over the past 50 years – about 75,000 cubic metres in this country alone. 1,500 of these are high-level waste that’s been made so radioactive it’ll take thousands of years to decay to its original state. When Britain’s older generation of Magnox stations start to be decommissioned next April, the amount of high- and intermediate-level waste is set to increase fifty-fold by the time the clean-up is finished. A clean-up that’s scheduled to take a century.
So when former energy minister Brian Wilson says to Green Futures that waste “is not a show-stopping issue”, and why not go on researching waste disposal while we launch a programme of new build, it’s hard to swallow.
If we knew what to do with the stuff, it might not be so bad. But after 50 years of research, the British government is still not convinced that it’s safe to store it under the ground or seabed. In fact, no country in the world has a working answer to the problem of permanent storage of high-level radioactive waste.
Norman Baker, liberal democrat environment spokesman, hits the nail on the head: “It is simply irresponsible to future generations to make worse a problem that will last hundreds of years and for which there is no identified solution.”
Over-hyped safety risks?
Are they? The 1986 accident at the Chernobyl No. 4 reactor in Ukraine caused over 30 deaths, exposed 8.4 million people to radiation and contaminated the surrounding countryside across an area half the size of Italy. More than 20 years on, scientists are still seeing a rise in cases of thyroid cancer amongst children there, as contamination continues to run through the watercourse.
Sure, this is modern Britain, not the old Soviet Union. We expect – indeed we have – much better operating standards today. There hasn’t been a serious accident in this country since the Windscale fire in 1957. The big US scare, at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, was what the industry would call an ‘incident’, brought under control before it reached the point of disaster. ‘Incidents’ still happen, yes, but it’s potential rather than actual damage that gets people running scared. But it still sounds a bit complacent when journalist Rod Liddle tells us nukes aren’t “quite so dangerous as we thought them to be all those years ago”.
Today’s world brings risks of its own – not least terrorism. A plane crashing on Sellafield, for example, would release over 40 times more radioactivity than the Chernobyl disaster. You may take it as reassuring that the DTI decided last year to install permanent armed police at every nuclear power plant in Britain. On the other hand, you might see it as explicit recognition of the risk to these sitting ducks.
Even transporting nuclear fuel presents a moving target for piracy. The Pacific Teal and Pintail carry plutonium from Europe to the nuclear plants of Japan – under armed guard, of course, as their cargo is also the ideal material for making atomic bombs.
Easy to get hold of?
Forget soaring oil prices, and gas pipelines through Russia – nukes only need a little uranium from abroad, and then we’re practically self-sufficient, says the nuclear lobby.
To call the power ‘indigenous’ or ‘renewable’, though, is pretty misleading. Britain still had to import about 2,500 tonnes of uranium last year to feed its reactors. We may be able to turn 97% of used uranium back into fuel at the Sellafield reprocessing plant. But this isn’t like ‘recycling’: highly radioactive elements are creamed off (and ‘stored’) each time round. Even the NIA thinks the cost and extra radioactive emissions released by reprocessing mean it’s not necessarily better than importing ‘fresh’ uranium. True home-grown renewable energy would come from our own fields, wind and waves.
The most reliable power?
When a nuclear power plant is up and running it is pretty good at producing power most of the time, as measured by what’s known as its load factor – the proportion of its theoretical maximum output that is actually generated over the course of a year. The nuclear industry’s 75% load factor is higher than that of fossil fuel power stations, and over twice that of wind farms. But British Energy is having a bad year for production at the moment, with unplanned ‘outages’ at two of its power stations.
Nuclear won’t always hold such a lead on the load factor, either. Its mature technology could well be overtaken by the ‘sunrise’ renewable sector. Smaller in size and faster to build than a nuclear power plant, renewables such as turbines, solar panels and CHP plants have a much higher ‘learning rate’, as experience from out in the field is fed back into improvements on the drawing board more quickly.
In any case, load factor isn’t the only element in the reliability equation. It’s the reliability of the national grid, rather than individual power sources, that’s critical to consumers. It’s good for the grid to draw energy from diverse sources. And in the foreseeable future, storage facilities will mean that it’s even less of an issue whether a given power source is producing energy all the time. Hydrogen ‘batteries’ will be able to lock up energy as it’s produced. Even when the wind’s not blowing, we’ll be able to draw on ‘some we made earlier’.
Where nuclear really falls down in terms of reliability is that it will never provide the decentralised and localised power needed to make a supply network really secure. Relying on a few big power plants puts a country’s electricity at risk from anything from mechanism failure – remember North America’s dramatic blackouts – to terrorism.
Even if the Chinese do get the latest much-vaunted smaller scale ‘pebble bed’ reactor technology off the ground, it’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing ‘micro reactors’ in every city or home, as we might see CHP, wind or solar plants. It’s not only their insatiable thirst for cooling water that limits our nuclear power stations to the coasts of Britain... it’s also a matter of who’d want one in their own back yard.
Hardly anyone, MORI tells us. 82% of people questioned would say no to a nuclear power station within three miles of their home. And to a wind farm? A mere 14%.
Pretty cheap power?
“The economic case for nuclear power is overwhelming,” reckons Liddle.
‘Commercial confidentiality’ means it’s not easy to compare the exact price of a unit of electricity from different power sources. But the PIU has worked out the electricity from Britain’s newest existing nuclear plant to be about 6p/kWh, once all the development costs are factored in. New build stations, says the Royal Academy of Engineering, might bring the figure down to 2.3p/kWh, a cost similar to new coal and gas and less than your average wind power.
However, well-sited wind farms have been known to produce electricity that’s already competitive with this, at 2.5-3.0p/kWh. And 20 years on, the PIU expects developments in technology to bring the average cost of power from wind, energy crops and CHP to below that of new build nuclear. Not such a tall order when you consider that the price of wind power has dropped from 50p per kWh 25 years ago.
The real rub for nuclear, though, is that these figures don’t include what is by far the most costly part of the process – the clean up. Last year’s Energy Act set aside £48 billion pounds to deal with the waste we already have in the pipeline, and the DTI expects this figure to increase as it becomes clear just how much is to be done.
Embark on a new programme, and we could be bolstering it up with subsidies of £900-£1,800 million a year, to close the gap between the cost of output and electricity prices in the wholesale market. This is a figure worked out by SERA, the Labour environment campaign, in 2002. The NIA doubts the figure will be so cripplingly high, as it depends on the energy market and the amount of private investment that can be rustled up. Not much, judging by the recent track record of British Energy, which had to be bailed out by the state three years ago. Who’d want to buy in to an investment with potentially massive – and undefinable – liabilities for eventual clean-up?
The estimated annual subsidy hoovered up by nuclear new build would be up to four times more than goes towards sustainable energy sources through the Renewables Obligation today. It’s worth asking which investment is best for our future: nuclear power plants with their limited lifespan and unlimited end-of-life liability, or renewable energy, that’s set to go on and on and on?
Hannah Bullock is Green Futures’ editorial assistant and researcher.
Nuclear Industry Association,
020 7766 6640, www.niauk.org
Royal Academy of Engineering,
020 7227 0500, www.raeng.org.uk
SERA, 020 7263 7389, www.sera.org.uk
World Nuclear Association,
The Performance and Innovation Unit’s Energy Review can be found at