ISIS Press Release 20/06/06
Nuclear Power: A Leap into the Dark Energy Chasm
Prof. Peter Saunders raises issues of transparency, cost,
safety, wastes and carbon emissions savings to show why nuclear power is not
A fully referenced version of this article
is posted on ISIS members’ website. ISIS mebership details here
Nuclear energy back on agenda “with a vengeance”
In 2003, following an extensive
review and consultation, the Government published a White Paper, Our energy future – creating a low carbon
economy . Less than two years later,
it announced a new review, Our
energy challenge: Securing
clean, affordable energy for the long term .
It may seem odd to have a second review covering much the same ground so soon
after the first, even with the large increase in the price of oil. But the
first review had ruled out nuclear energy and the Prime Minister now clearly
wants to push ahead with it. As the White Paper had promised a consultation,
a consultation there would have to be.
Well before the
date on which the report of the consultation was to be published, the Prime
Minister announced, apparently on the basis of a dossier that no one else
had been able to see, that nuclear energy was back on the agenda “with a vengeance.”
Failing to replace the current ageing plants would fuel global warming,
endanger Britain's energy security and represent a dereliction of duty
to the country.
That would be a serious
charge if it were true, but is it?
First, there is the question of cost. It may be a cliché but in the 1950s
we were told that nuclear power would be so cheap we wouldn’t have electricity
meters in our houses. It somehow didn’t work out like that. Nuclear power
has been very expensive. When the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher,
privatised the electricity generating industry in 1989, no one would buy the
nuclear plants because of the huge cost of decommissioning. A far cry from
too cheap to meter.
The last nuclear reactor
built in the UK, Sizewell B, was completed in 1995. It came in at more than
a third over budget and the government eventually estimated that, when the costs of financing,
building, running and decommissioning Sizewell B were fully accounted for,
the average cost of every kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity produced over
the plant’s 40-year life would be six pence — two to three times more expensive
than power generated by modern gas-fired stations.
All that was in the past,
and we do things better now. Everything is above board and transparent and
nuclear power is now relatively inexpensive. Really?
The only nuclear power station
currently under construction in Europe is a 1600 MWe European Pressurised
Water Reactor in Finland. But it is being built on the cheap as a loss leader,
the electricity it produces will have a guaranteed buyer and won’t have to
compete in the market, and a year into the project it is already nine months
behind schedule. That does not augur well for the future.
Is the information we are getting today all that much better than we got
in the past? We are told that there are divisions within the cabinet and that
the Treasury – whose role is to take a careful look at what something will
actually cost – is sceptical, but we aren’t allowed to know what is being
said. More worryingly, as Blair was telling the CBI about his decision, Elliot
Morley, was telling journalists that when he was Minister for Climate Change
at the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs, he had been excluded
from the key technical details on which the energy review was based supposed
to be one of the key motivations for the new Review. He was also quoted as
saying that if the review were open, transparent and fair, looking at the
options on economic grounds across a whole life cost assessment of nuclear
stations, the solution may well point to renewables . No wonder they didn’t
want him in the loop.
You can get an idea of how
much transparency there is from the minutes of the Public Accounts Committee
of the House of Commons. On 27 March this year, they were looking into the
restructuring of British Energy, the company that runs nuclear power generation
in the UK and which seems to be getting inordinate amounts of the taxpayers’
The tone was set even before
they got down to business, when the Committee Chairman, Edward Leigh, welcomed
the Permanent Secretary of the DTI:
welcome Sir Brian Bender, Permanent Secretary for the Department of Trade
and Industry. Have we seen you recently Sir Brian?”
Sir Brian Bender: “It has faded from my memory.”
response was from a man who clearly isn’t going to provide any more information
than he has to.
one point, Sir Brian was asked about the cost of decommissioning. The amount
quoted was £5.3 billion, which was apparently £1 billion higher than the previous
estimate. That’s the sort of thing we have come to expect with nuclear energy:
the taxpayer always seems to be called on for much more than we were originally
the new figure turned out to have been calculated using a considerably more
generous formula than the Treasury normally allows. Sir Brian was unable to
explain this to the PAC but we’re told that three weeks later, the DTI wrote
to say that they had used the correct formula all along.
leaves the taxpayer with a lot of unanswered questions about that £5.3 billion,
or whatever the figure will be next time round. Above all, what exactly did
the DTI mean by the “correct” formula? If they had really just followed the
Treasury rules, why was there confusion in the first place, and why did it
take three weeks to sort it out? Or was it a special formula that they have
devised for the nuclear industry? (The estimated cost of a reactor is much
more sensitive to the assumed interest rate than most projects because so
much of the expenditure is up front and there is an unusually long time to
wait before there is any return on the investment. That makes it easy for
governments to conceal what is in effect a very large subsidy.)
What about safety? Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are in the past, we’re
told, and nothing like that could happen again. Well, probably not exactly
like that. Both the USA and the USSR brought in new safety measures after
the incidents and in any case the design of the Chernobyl reactor was inherently
unstable and no one would build such a reactor today.
Unfortunately, that’s not
to say that similar mistakes won’t be made. For example, the new Pebble Bed
Modular Reactors (PBMRs) being developed in South Africa are claimed to be
so safe that they need no containment buildings (Chernobyl didn’t have one,
which is why the consequences were so serious) and can be located near the
towns they serve.
Not everyone shares the
designers’ confidence that nothing could possibly go wrong [5-7]. Remember,
it’s not just the reactor itself that can cause the trouble. Three Mile Island
was caused by water pumps switching off when they shouldn’t have and a relief
valve opening and then failing to close. PBMRs operate at very high temperatures
and contain a large amount of carbon, so there is bound to be a risk of fire
if, for example, a coolant-pipe were to break .
Of course, PBMRs could be built with containment buildings
and far from towns, but in that case a lot of the claimed economic advantage
disappears. Another selling point is that they are supposed to be suitable
for countries that couldn’t manage large reactors, but that increases the
danger of proliferation because the fuel they use is not far short of weapons
grade. You have to look at these issues together, not separately and with
the most favourable assumptions being made in each case.
In the UK there have been
57 reported incidents in the past 30 years. Most of them fairly minor: a small
release of radioactivity here, a leak there, but enough to warn us that the
plants aren’t absolutely reliable. We have to allow for that in something
as potentially hazardous as a nuclear reactor. No doubt the pump failure at
Three Mile Island would have been put down as “minor” if the relief valve
Just a year ago, a leak was discovered in the Thermal
Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) at Sellafield. A mixture of 20 tonnes of
uranium and plutonium fuel dissolved in nitric acid leaked out over a period
of months. No one was killed or injured, but it is worrying both that such
a leak could have happened and, even more so, that it could have continued
for so long before it was noticed.
What about nuclear waste? It is generally accepted that the best method
of disposal is to bury it in deep geologic depositories, but it is turning
out to be hard to identify actual sites. The Americans, for example have been
investigating one - Yucca Mountain in Nevada - for 15 years, but they still
haven’t commissioned it. Yet it has been estimated  that if there were
a thousand GW light water reactors in the world (that’s the capacity of a
typical PWR) a new depository equivalent toYucca Mountain would be required
every three or four years.
When we commit ourselves to building new nuclear power
stations, we commit ourselves to producing a lot of nuclear waste. We really
want to be sure there will be suitable places to put it.
The most compelling argument used by supporters of nuclear power is climate
change. Only by turning to nuclear will we have enough energy to keep the
country going and still reduce carbon emissions to levels the planet can tolerate.
We may have concerns about cost, or safety, or proliferation or the disposal
of wastes, but we’ll just have to do our best. We simply can’t afford not
to go ahead.
Is that really how things
We obviously can’t use nuclear
energy to supply all our energy needs. It only makes electricity, and we need
energy in other forms. At present, less than a fifth of the total energy we
use in the UK is electricity, and while we could certainly increase this proportion,
I’ve never heard anyone claim that it could replace a lot of the other four
fifths of our consumption.
Besides, we can’t build
nuclear power stations fast enough to solve the carbon emissions problem even
if we wanted to. Even if we could, uranium is a finite resource and it too,
like oil, gas and even coal, will run out, especially if the rest of the world
also decides to move to nuclear energy. And, like oil and gas, we would be
dependent on other countries for our supply, which could be a serious problem
Suppose, however, that we
replace the existing 10GW of nuclear capacity at a rate of 1 GW per year,
i.e. we complete one new Pressurised Water Reactor equivalent every year,
and suppose we continue this programme for 20 years. The earliest we can expect
the first new reactor to be operational is 2015, and then the last one would
be completed in 2034.
old plants are already being decommissioned, the proportion of electricity
being produced from nuclear energy is bound to fall to about 10 percent (half
the present amount) by 2015 whether we decide to build new plants or not.
Even if we go ahead with the programme, it will be about another five years
before the proportion is back to its present level. In the short term, therefore, we have no option but to press ahead as
fast as we can with renewable sources and reducing the total amount of energy
that we use.
Satisfies eight percent of energy needs at most
What happens after 2020 is harder to predict, but the Sustainable Development
Commission has estimated that if we suppose that the demand for electricity
remains constant over that period, then if we carry on building new plant,
by 2034 nuclear energy will be producing about
40 percent of the electricity we use . That may sound like a lot,
but it is only eight percent of our total
In terms of the 60 percent cut in carbon emissions we aim to make by 2050
[1,10], a reduction of 8 percent is
not negligible, but it leaves 52 percent to be found in other ways, and that
makes it abundantly clear where we should concentrate our attention and our
Much of the attraction of nuclear energy, especially
for governments, is that it promises what is effectively a business-as-usual
scenario. The problem of climate change can be largely solved by the simple
policy of disconnecting fossil fuel plants from the grid and plugging nuclear
reactors in instead.
That just won’t work. Even
if we go down the nuclear road as fast as we can, most of the reduction in
emissions will have to come from other measures – by getting much more of
our power from renewables and from reining in the profligate ways we waste
energy. What’s more, because we have to
do so much in these other directions anyway, it will take only a relatively
small extra effort to allow us to meet our emission targets without using
nuclear power at all.
If it can be shown that
nuclear energy is safe both for us and for our descendents, and that investing
in nuclear energy gives a better return than we could get by investing the
same time, effort and money in developing the other technologies and practices
that are described in the ISIS Report , then it would be worth having.
But those are a very big “ifs”. And because nuclear is not the whole solution
to the problem of climate change, or even the major part, we can afford to
wait for full and honest answers to serious questions about nuclear power.
More than that, we cannot afford not to.