It’s hardly a surprise that building nuclear power stations on seismic fault lines, as Japan has done, turns out to be a foolish thing. In the pause for reflection about the safety of nuclear power that the Fukushima disaster is bound to create, here are ten reasons why we think it’s a mistake to build a new round of nuclear power stations in the UK.
1) Nuclear power is too expensive
Nuclear has always been an expensive white elephant. UK taxpayers currently subsidise nuclear directly to the tune of more than £1bn per year.(1) But the indirect subsidies such as decommissioning and insurance are far greater.
The cost of decommissioning old nuclear in the UK is now estimated at at least £73bn.(2) Surely therefore that anyone wishing to provide new nuclear should have to put that sort of sum into an up-front clean-up fund. But of course they won’t. They can’t possibly afford to.
If there’s a nuclear accident like Fukushima or Three Mile Island or Chernobyl, who will pay? An insurance company? Not a hope. Nuclear power is uninsurable. It’s too risky and the potential payouts are too big. The government, meaning the UK taxpayer, will have to pay as we did to bail out the banks. The free market will never bear the true costs of nuclear.
A report published by the US Union of Concerned Scientists last month said nuclear power had never operated in the United States without public subsidies.(4) The existence of an Office of Nuclear Development at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) makes a mockery of Chris Huhne’s claim that no public money will be spent on new nuclear.(5)
Only two atomic power stations are under construction in Western Europe: one in France (which already generates nearly 80% of its electricity from nuclear) and one in Finland. The Finnish reactor, which is supposed to be the first of a new generation of “safe” and “affordable” units, is being subsidised by the French nuclear industry (and therefore the French state) as a loss leader in the hope that it will spark a new nuclear building boom. When the decision was announced Standard & Poor instantly downgraded to “negative” the stock of the Finnish utility commissioning the reactor. The project has been plagued with cost overruns and delays, is under investigation by the Finnish nuclear safety regulator STUK and is probably the single best reason why new nuclear is a mistake.(6)
2) New nuclear power stations won’t be ready in time
According to the 2007 Energy White Paper the earliest a new nuclear power station could possibly be ready is 2020.(7) Chris Huhne occasionally says it might be possible by 2018 but most observers disagree. However we need to replace 40% of our energy generation by 2015 because old nuclear and coal-fired plants are set to close. New nuclear will come too late.
3) Nuclear does not and will not safeguard our energy security
Nuclear power currently provides 19% of our electricity but only 1% of our total energy needs.(8) Three quarters of the UK’s primary energy demand comes from gas and oil.(9) Gas is used for most of our space heating and hot water. Oil is used for virtually all forms of transport. Indeed the vast majority of our oil and gas consumption is for purposes other than producing electricity. Nuclear power cannot replace that energy, while gas and oil deliveries are threatened by tightening supply (peak oil) and political instability. A 2008 Sussex University study concluded: “we are not convinced that there is a strong security case for new nuclear, especially if the costs and risks of strategies that include new nuclear are considered alongside those of strategies that do not.”(10)
4) Nuclear power is not green
Mining uranium requires fossils fuels. So does building a nuclear power station. And so does trying to dispose of radioactive waste. Over its lifecycle a nuclear power station produces as much carbon dioxide as a gas-fired power station.(11) Better than oil or coal but not carbon-free. And it will get worse. In the not too distant future uranium will become so hard to mine that it will require more fossil fuels to extract it than the energy that will be produced from it.(12)
5) Nuclear power will do little to reduce our carbon emissions
Even if Britain built ten new reactors, nuclear power would only deliver a 4% cut in carbon emissions some time after 2025.(13) Even the government admits this. But that’s too late. We need the carbon reductions now. We’d do better to ban standby buttons on electrical appliances than to develop new nuclear power.
6) Nuclear power stations are inefficient
We really need to stop producing electricity in huge power stations hundreds of miles away which waste 60% of the energy they produce as heat through cooling towers and another 7–9% in transmission losses across the national grid. If we produce energy locally and use Combined Heat and Power (CHP), then we can reach efficiencies of 80–90%.(14) Nuclear cannot and never has been made to work with CHP because to distribute the heat you need residents or businesses to be close by. But how many people want to live near a nuclear power station?
7) Plane crashes are a risk to nuclear power stations
In February 2011 a Loughborough University aviation expert suggested the chance of a plane crashing into a UK reactor was 20% higher than official estimates and The Guardian reported that a Health & Safety Executive internal report had admitted that a crash could trigger “significant radiological releases”.(15) Finally, if you can fly a plane into the Twin Towers, then you can certainly fly one into a nuclear power station.
8) Nuclear power kills
Across Europe a number of studies have reported increased rates of childhood leukaemia around nuclear facilities.(16) Billions of fish are killed every year when they get trapped in the cooling water intake pipes of nuclear reactors.(17)
9) It’s a myth that renewables cannot provide baseload
There has never been a day on record when the wind has not blown somewhere in the UK. The point about baseload is that what you need is enough people in enough places producing electricity. The more you decentralise electricity generation the more secure the baseload becomes. The same principle holds for investing in shares – it’s much more risky to invest everything in a couple of big companies than it is to invest in a basket of shares that reflect all aspects of the market.
The real reason why proponents of nuclear are obliged to talk about baseload is that it’s uneconomic to do much with atomic reactors other than run them continuously, whether or not the energy is needed. And in the UK that has usually meant prioritising nuclear over available wind energy.
10) Global expansion could lead to new nuclear security risks
In February 2011 the Royal Society launched an inquiry into nuclear non-proliferation saying that a global expansion of nuclear power “could lead to the wider proliferation of nuclear weapons, as well as creating new nuclear security risks”, which could “impact on international progress towards nuclear disarmament”.(18) Look at the problems the international community is having with the Iranian nuclear power programme. Many observers believe that the US and Israel recently collaborated on a cyber sabotage project to slow the Iranian development up and prevent it from developing atomic weapons.(19)
?) And we still have no idea what to do with nuclear waste
All those arguments against new nuclear and not one of them was about nuclear waste. The 2003 Energy White Paper said one of the reasons why the then government wasn’t proposing new nuclear was because there were “important issues of nuclear waste to be resolved”. Have they been? No.
Coming soon “The Atom: A Love Affair” a documentary on why civil nuclear power failed from our friends at Tenner Films.
2) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/4859980.stm ; http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/jan/30/nuclearpower.energy
4) Koplow, D. (2011). http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/nuclear_power/nuclear_subsidies_report.pdf
6) Thomas, S. (2010). “The Economics of Nuclear Power: An Update.” http://boell.org/downloads/Thomas_UK_-_web.pdf
8) http://www.decc.gov.uk/en/content/cms/what_we_do/uk_supply/energy_mix/ http://www.decc.gov.uk/assets/decc/Statistics/publications/dukes/348-dukes-2010-printed.pdf
10) Watson, J. & Scott, A. “New Nuclear Power in the UK: A Strategy for Energy Security?” http://www.sussex.ac.uk/Users/prpp4/Supergen_Nuclear_and_Security.pdf
11) Van Leeuwen, J. & Smith, P. (2008). “Nuclear power the energy balance.” http://www.stormsmith.nl/
17) Speight, M. & Henderson, P. (2010). Marine Ecology – Concepts and Applications. p186.