Science in Society Archive

UK's Nuclear Illusion

UK Parliament’s decision to authorise the construction of 10 new nuclear power plants was taken on the basis of misleading evidence Prof. Peter Saunders

UK’s commitment to nuclear

In early May 2012, Japan shut down its last nuclear power station for routine maintenance in a safety drive since the Fukushima meltdown, leaving the country nuclear free for the first time in more than 40 years [1]. Before the Fukushima disaster, Japan got 30% of its power from nuclear energy. Hundreds marched through Tokyo to celebrate what they hope will be the end of nuclear power in Japan.

Most other countries are having second thoughts about nuclear power; some like Germany and Italy have already decided to do without it and others like Japan may follow [2] (Fukushima Fallout  (SiS 51), but the UK government is still determined to go ahead with the construction of at least 10 new reactors. This is the only way we can fulfil our future energy needs and still meet our commitment to reduce carbon emissions, so we are told; besides, nuclear is the cheapest alternative to fossil fuels and is safer than coal. Every one of those claims is contradicted by evidence, as we have shown in numerous reports.

Nuclear power could only make a comparatively small contribution to our total energy needs and this could be supplied from renewable sources such as wind and solar (see [3] Green Energies - 100% Renewable by 2050, I-SIS publication). It is also very expensive; the government insisted there would be no subsidy for nuclear power even though no nuclear plant has ever been built without a subsidy and no one, least of all the companies that are expected to invest in them, seriously believes one ever will be.  The government is already discussing with the industry what form the subsidy should take -probably a ‘contract for difference’ that will ensure a higher than market price - and how large it will be. It is also negotiating with the European Commission to ensure that the subsidy is permitted under EU rules [4].

Nuclear plants are notorious for coming in years late and hugely over budget and the two currently under construction in Europe at Olkiluoto in Finland and Flamanville in France, are no exceptions [5]  (The Real Cost of Nuclear Power,  SiS 47). And the danger of a major incident like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or Fukushima is ever-present [6] (Lessons of Fukushima and Chernobyl, SiS 50). For the latest information, see [7, 8] Chernobyl Deaths Top a Million Based on Real Evidence and  Truth about Fukushima, SiS 55).

There is a massive amount of evidence in the public domain against the nuclear option. Has the government somehow managed not to notice any of it? The recent report, A Corruption of Governance? ,published jointly by the Association for the Conservation of Energy (ACE) and Unlock Democracy goes a long way towards answering this question [9]. By careful reading of Government documents and statements, especially the Draft Overarching National Policy Statement for Energy (EN-1) [10] and the Draft National Policy Statement for Nuclear Power Generation (EN-6) [11] the authors of the report, Ron Bailey and Lotte Blair, demonstrated that the government was well aware of the evidence against nuclear energy; but simply omitted to draw attention to it in Parliament when the decision was being taken.

How much electricity will we need?

Power stations take a long time to build, so if we want to have enough energy in 2025 or 2050, we need to start planning now.  The first step, you would think, is to estimate how much energy we will be using, then work out how much of the different sources – fossil, solar, wind, biomass, nuclear, and so on – we could have in place by then. This will enable us to decide on a strategy taking into account factors such as cost, safety and the need to reduce carbon emissions.

That’s not what the government did. Instead of analysing present consumption and trends, they asked a consulting firm Redpoint Energy to predict what the generating capacity would be in 2025, including both the proposed nuclear new build programme and the new renewables capacity that would be required to achieve the government’s goal of about 29% of electricity from renewables by that date [12]. Redpoint came up with the figure of 110 GW, which is a prediction of what the generating capacity will be if present policies are carried out. But the government is now using this as its estimate of the UK’s need for energy in 2025, and a justification for the policies.

As for 2050, after they had spent much time and effort trying to get the government to supply information regarding demand up to and beyond that date, Bailey and Blair were told that there are no published assessments that extend that far. They then asked if there were any unpublished assessments or evidence and were told there were none.  That hasn’t stopped the Government from telling us over and over again that “electricity demand could double by 2050.”

What will it cost?

When the Secretary of State was asked for an estimate of the relative costs of energy generation infrastructure, he provided a table that showed the levelised cost (i.e the price at which the electricity must be sold to break even, averaged over the lifetime of the plant) of nuclear as 6.8p/kWh, lower than a selection of other options, such as modern coal and gas plants, onshore and offshore wind [13]. He did not include other sources, for example, biomass combined heat and power (CHP), gas  CHP and landfill or sewage gas, all of which also appear in the Mott MacDonald (UK government) report [14] he was citing and are cheaper than nuclear, even according to the report. He also did not remind MPs that renewable sources, such as solar and offshore wind, have a record of becoming considerably less expensive over time, whereas there is no prospect that nuclear will become cheaper in the foreseeable future because the lead time to employing new technology is so long. On the contrary, the cost of constructing nuclear plants generally rises considerably faster than inflation [3].

Bailey and Blair also noticed that the government assumed the nuclear plants would operate for 60 years, although experience shows that even 40 years is optimistic. In the first draft of the EN-1 document, the operating life is given as “in the region of 40-60” years.  In the revised draft and in the final document, “40” has disappeared and the lifetime is given as 60 years. The Mott MacDonald analysis of costs assumes an operating lifetime of 60 years, but there is no reference given for that. The operating lifetime is especially important in considering nuclear power because so much of the total cost is in building the plants rather than in supplying them with fuel.

When the government announced that it was going ahead with 10 more nuclear power plants, it assured us that this would only happen if they could be built without subsidies. Anyone who looked at the evidence could see that this was impossible and indeed that was the view of the major investment bankers [4]. We can now be certain that the government knew that too.

The German company E.ON has pulled out of building nuclear reactors and the only companies left in the field, Electricité de France and Centrica, have made it clear that they will go ahead only if they are guaranteed a sufficiently high price for the electricity their nuclear plants produce [15]; a large subsidy, in other words.

Is nuclear necessary?

The report the government presented to Parliament greatly exaggerated our future energy needs and underestimated the cost of nuclear energy relative to other non-carbon sources. Despite this, it might – in principle – still be possible that we will not be able both to keep the lights on and meet our greenhouse gas reduction targets without it. That is far from the case. We have given details in our report [3] but perhaps the most convincing evidence is that the German government has already committed itself to closing down its existing nuclear facilities and not replacing them, and it is confident it can reach its targets without them.

The British government too knows that it is perfectly feasible to cope without nuclear. In 2010 and 2011 it published two “Pathways” reports [16]. Each included a number of scenarios that could achieve the required 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 and also satisfy the nation’s energy requirements. Of the 16 scenarios in the 2011 report, 6 involved no new nuclear build [5].

In the EN-1 and EN-6 National Policy Statements [NPSs] presented to Parliament, however, MPs were told that ‘failure to develop new nuclear power stations significantly earlier than the end of 2025 would increase the risk of the UK being locked into a higher carbon energy mix’ [17]. They were not told that more than one in three of the scenarios showed that an adequate supply of low carbon energy could be produced without nuclear.

The Director of ACE, Andrew Warren, wrote about this to Charles Hendry MP, the Minister responsible for nuclear power. A Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) official eventually replied [6] “you note that the overview of the Pathways 2050 analysis in EN-1 did not present the full information to MPs on all the possible options” and he justified this by saying “this is not, however, the purpose of the NPSs”.

It seems a “national policy statement” is just that: a statement of government policy backed by arbitrary ‘evidence’ selected to justify what the government has decided to do. It is not an impartial presentation of the available evidence to help Parliament reach the best decision. It would be interesting to know whether our MPs understand this.

Why was it done?

Bailey and Blair believe that it was not government ministers who misled Parliament; that they themselves were given biased information. That’s not implausible. Ministers are busy and do not have the time to go through in detail every document they receive, still less to look up and read all the references. They rely heavily on summaries provided by their staff. We know that in real life, as in Yes Minister, civil servants and advisers are not above pushing their own agendas and keeping relevant information from their ministers.

All the same, we’re not convinced. We don’t recall hearing any former ministers complaining that they were misled about nuclear energy while they were in office. The real question is why a government should deliberately ignore evidence and choose an option that is going to be more expensive and less effective than the alternative. The most likely explanation is simply that over time, a close and comfortable relationship has grown up between governments on the one hand – ministers and civil servants alike – and the nuclear lobby on the other.  

Sixty years ago, many people believed both that the UK needed its own atomic bomb and also that nuclear power would provide an unlimited supply of cheap electricity. The military and civilian projects have remained together ever since and have supported each other in many ways, as they have in other countries (see The True Costs of French Nuclear Power [18], SiS 53). For example, one of the advantages (from this point of view) of a pressurised water reactor is that it produces plutonium, which can be used in weapons. And much of the cost of research can be hidden in the defence budget, which tends not to be looked at with the same critical eye that other departments may experience.  

Times have changed. We now know that nuclear power is neither cheap nor safe, and even though most people agree that we have to find alternatives to fossil fuels, we also know that nuclear is by no means best option for that.

The military situation is also different from before. Even those who believe it was nuclear weapons that kept the peace until the fall of the Soviet Union have been unable to suggest an even remotely plausible scenario in which they might be useful now. They certainly contributed nothing to our efforts in the Falklands, Bosnia, Iraq, Libya or Afghanistan.  If anything, they only diverted expenditure from equipment that the soldiers who fought in those wars desperately needed.

Yet in the face of all the evidence, the government persists with its nuclear energy programme and uses policy-based evidence to justify it to Parliament. It is bound and determined to spend an estimated £20 billion on a replacement for Trident when no one has any idea what use it could possibly be.

The nuclear lobby see themselves as working at the cutting edge of science, promoting the most modern technologies for the defence of the realm and for supplying our energy needs. Successive governments have taken them at their word, and over the years their influence has grown. In fact, theirs is a mid 20th century vision. We are now in the 21st century and the energy of the future is renewables. As for defence, whatever the answer is, it is not Trident. It is time to end our fascination with the nuclear illusion.

Article first published 04/07/12


  1. “Tomari shutdown leaves Japan without nuclear power”, BBC News, 5 May 2012,
  2. Saunders PT (2011). Fukushima fallout. Science in Society 51, 22-23, 2011.
  3. Ho MW, Cherry B, Burcher S and Saunders PT. Green Energies, 100% Renewables by 2050, ISIS/TWN, London/Penang, 2009,
  4. Hendry C. Reply to written question from M Horwood MP. Hansard, 18 April 2012.
  5. Saunders PT. The real cost of nuclear power. Science in Society 47, 36-39, 201o.
  6. Saunders PT (2011) Lessons of Fukushima and Chernobyl. Science in Society 50, 2-3, 2011.
  7. Ho MW. Chernobyl deaths top a million. Science in Society 55 (to appear) 2012.
  8. Ho MW. Truth about Fukushima. Science in Society 55 (to appear) 2012.
  9. Bailey R and Blair L (2012). A Corruption of Governance? Association for the Conservation of Energy and Unlock Democracy.  3/05/12.
  10. Department for Energy and Climate Change (2009). Draft Overarching National Policy Statement for Energy (EN-1).
  11. Department for Energy and Climate Change (2009). Draft National Policy Statement for Nuclear Power Generation (EN-6).
  12. Redpoint Energy (2009). Implementation of the EU 2020 Renewables Target in the UK Electricity Sector: RO Reform’.
  13. Hendry C.Reply to written question from M Moon MP. Hansard, 8 March 2011.
  14. Mott MacDonald, UK Generation Costs Update, June 2010,
  15. “Centrica threatens nuclear pullout” Guy Chazan and Jim Pickard. Financial Times, 20 April, 2012.
  16. Department of Energy and Climate Change (2010). 2050 Pathways Analysis.
  17. EN-6 (Ref. [6]), June 2011, p7 para 2.2.3
  18. Greaves S . The true costs of French nuclear power. Science in Society 53, 8-11, 2012.

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John Fryer Comment left 5th July 2012 15:03:17
The decision to build new nuclear power plants was taken by committee before the Fukushima debacle and so long after the Chernobyl debacle that the committee may not have been aware of the scale of the catstrophe. WHO and Atomic Energy authorities have done such a good propaganda job on the TRUTH that even experts in the field have been duped. Fukushima was enough to wake up several countries to the fallacy of RISK - BENEFIT analysis. And Britain's other fallacy was to use Chernobyl to prevent 150 sheep farms EVER selling meat to the public. This embargo for reasons of nuclear pollution came just after Chernobyl and the farms affected centred on that unfortunate little village of SELLAFIELD.

Azle Beckner Comment left 16th December 2012 03:03:29
I have studied physics and the uses of radioactive material. I have always known that "nuclear Power" was used to cover the cost of production of nuclear weapons. The complete chain of energy from raw uranium through enrichment and conversion to steam to turn a turbine to produce electricity takes too much electricity. the changes in form are wasteful of energy. From the first coal powered plant that produces steam to turn the turbines that send electricty to the enrichment plant at Paducah,KY. to the final stage of electricity from a nuclear decay of uranium to produce heat to produce steam to turn a turbine and make elecricity there is a great loss of energy and no gain. Nuclear Power is a hoax!