Science in Society Archive

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 an option

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 [1]. Less than two years later, it announced a new review, Our energy challenge: Securing clean, affordable energy for the long term [2]. 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 [3]. 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’ money [4].

The tone was set even before they got down to business, when the Committee Chairman, Edward Leigh, welcomed the Permanent Secretary of the DTI:

“We 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.”

That response was from a man who clearly isn’t going to provide any more information than he has to.

At 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 told.

Even 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.

That 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 [8].

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 hadn’t stuck.

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 [6] 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.

Climate change

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 are?

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 in future.

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.

Because 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 [10]. That may sound like a lot, but it is only eight percent of our total energy requirement.

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 resources.

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 [11], 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.

Article first published 20/06/06


  1. Department of Trade and Industry. Our energy future – creating a low carbon economy. (White Paper, 2003),
  2. Department of Trade and Industry. Our Energy Challenge: Securing clean, affordable energy for the long term.
  3. Wintour P. Ex-minister Morley says figures are a fix. The Guardian, 17 May 2006.
  4. Committee of Public Accounts, Formal Minutes 27 March, 2006.
  5. Saunders PT. Safe new generation nuclear power? Science in Society 2006, 29,  15-17. Reprinted in [11], 19-21.
  6. Harding J. Pebble bed modular reactors – Status and prospects. (2004).
  7. Deutch J, Monitz EJ, Ansolabehere S, Driscoll, M, Gray, PE, Holdren JP, Joskopw PL, Lester RK and Todras NE. The Future of Nuclear Power: An interdisciplinary MIT Study.
  8. Lyman ES. The Pebble-Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR): Safety and non-proliferation issues. Forum on Physics and Society of the American Physical Society.
  9. Kadak A et al. Advanced Reactor Technology Pebble Bed Reactor Project Progress Report, MIT/INEEL, 2000.
  10. Sustainable Development Commission. The Role of Nuclear Power in a Low Carbon Economy. Paper 2: Reducing CO2 emissions – nuclear and the alternatives.
  11. Ho MW, Bunyard P, Saunders PT, Bravo E, and Gala R. Which Energy? 2006 Institute of Science in Society Energy Report. Institute of Science in Society, London, 2006.

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