Ten myths about nuclear power
‘It's dangerous, wasteful and too expensive!’ Greens are busily putting the case against nuclear, but there is not a spark of truth in their arguments.
The UK government is expected to announce tomorrow that it will give the green light to the building of new nuclear power stations in the UK - the first since the Sizewell ‘B’ station was completed in 1995. These are urgently needed to make up the shortfall in power supply as older nuclear stations are closed over the next few years.
Yet the decision is bound to be controversial - not helped by widespread misinformation about nuclear power. Greens opposing nuclear power muddle every issue from terrorism to uranium supplies, in order to besmirch the only proven safe and cost-effective way to generate large amounts of electricity that won’t produce large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. One would think that greens don’t want a world with abundant energy and a stable climate!
These are some of the myths we are likely to hear from greens debating nuclear power over the next few weeks:
1) Uranium is running out
According to Greenpeace, uranium reserves are ‘relatively limited’ (1) and last week the Nuclear Consultation Working Group claimed that a significant increase in nuclear generating capacity would reduce reliable supplies from 50 to 12 years (2).
In fact, there is 600 times more uranium in the ground than gold and there is as much uranium as tin. There has been no major new uranium exploration for 20 years, but at current consumption levels, known uranium reserves are predicted to last for 85 years. Geological estimates from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) show that at least six times more uranium is extractable – enough for 500 years’ supply at current demand (3). Modern reactors can use thorium as a fuel and convert it into uranium – and there is three times more thorium in the ground than uranium (4).
Uranium is the only fuel which, when burnt, generates more fuel. Not only existing nuclear warheads, but also the uranium and plutonium in radioactive waste can be reprocessed into new fuel, which former UK chief scientist Sir David King estimates could supply 60 per cent of Britain’s electricity to 2060 (5).
In short, there is more than enough uranium, thorium and plutonium to supply the entire world’s electricity for several hundred years.
2) Nuclear is not a low-carbon option
Anti-nuclear campaigners claim that nuclear power contains ‘hidden emissions’ of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from uranium mining and reactor construction. But so do wind turbines, built from huge amounts of concrete, steel and plastic.
The OECD analysed the total lifetime releases of GHG from energy technologies and concluded that, taking into account mining of building materials, construction and energy production, nuclear is still a ‘lower carbon’ option than wind, solar or hydroelectric generation. For example, during its whole life cycle, nuclear power releases three to six grams of carbon per kiloWatthour (GC kWh) of electricity produced, compared with three to 10 GC/kWh for wind turbines, 105 GC/kWh for natural gas and 228 GC/kWh for lignite (‘dirty’ coal) (6).
Greens, exemplified by the Sustainable Development Commission, place their trust in ‘carbon capture and storage’ (CCS) to reduce the GHG emissions from coal and gas plants (7). But carbon capture is, at present, a myth. There is no functioning power station with CCS in the world – not even a demonstration plant – and if it did work, it would still greatly reduce the energy efficiency of any power station where it is installed.
3) Nuclear power is expensive
With all power generation technology, the cost of electricity depends upon the investment in construction (including interest on capital loans), fuel, management and operation. Like wind, solar and hydroelectric dams, the principal costs of nuclear lie in construction. Acquisition of uranium accounts for only about 10 per cent of the price of total costs, so nuclear power is not as vulnerable to fluctuations in the price of fuel as gas and oil generation.
Unlike the UK’s existing stations, any new designs will be pre-approved for operational safety, modular to lower construction costs, produce 90 per cent less volume of waste and incorporate decommissioning and waste management costs.
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A worst-case analysis conducted for the UK Department of Trade and Industry (now the Department of Business and Enterprise), which was accepted by Greenpeace, shows nuclear-generated electricity to be only marginally more expensive than gas (before the late-2007 hike in gas prices), and 10 to 20 times cheaper than onshore and offshore wind. With expected carbon-pricing penalties for gas and coal, nuclear power will be considerably cheaper than all the alternatives (8).
4) Reactors produce too much waste
Contrary to environmentalists’ claims, Britain is not overwhelmed with radioactive waste and has no radioactive waste ‘problem’.
By 2040 there will be a total of 2,000 cubic metres of the most radioactive high-level waste (9), which would fit in a 13 x 13 x 13 metre hole – about the size of the foundations for one small wind turbine. Much of this high-level waste is actually a leftover from Britain’s atomic weapons programme. All of the UK’s intermediate and high-level radioactive waste for the past 50 years and the next 30 years would fit in just one Royal Albert Hall, an entertainment venue in London that holds 6,000 people (and which seems, for some reason, to have become the standard unit of measurement in debates about any kind of waste in the UK) (10).
The largest volume of waste from the nuclear power programme is low-level waste – concrete from outbuildings, car parks, construction materials, soil from the surroundings and so on. By 2100, there will be 473,000 cubic metres of such waste from decommissioned plants – enough to fill five Albert Halls (11).
Production of all the electricity consumed in a four-bedroom house for 70 years leaves about one teacup of high-level waste (12), and new nuclear build will not make any significant contribution to existing radioactive waste levels for 20-40 years.
5) Decommissioning is too expensive
Existing UK reactors were built with no regard for future demolition. New reactors will be constructed from modular designs with the need for decommissioning built-in. The costs of decommissioning and waste management will be incorporated into the price of electricity to consumers (13).
New nuclear plants are expected to have a working life of 40 years so the cost of decommissioning is spread over a longer period. Current government subsidy of decommissioning costs is approximately £1 billion annually (for 20 per cent of Britain’s electrical supply) – half the subsidy to ‘sustainable’ energy (two per cent of Britain’s electrical supply).
6) Building reactors takes too long
This is perhaps the most ironic of the anti-nuclear arguments, since the legal manoeuvrings of Greenpeace delayed the UK government’s nuclear decision by a year and it is the very opposition of greens that will cause most of the future delays.
The best construction schedules are achieved by the Canadian company AECL, which has built six new reactors since 1991; from the pouring of concrete to criticality (when the reactors come on-line), the longest build took six-and-a-half years and the shortest just over four years (14).
The UK government expects pre-licensing of standard designs and modular construction to reduce construction times significantly – to about 6 years (15). New nuclear build could certainly start making significant contributions to UK carbon reduction targets by 2020.
7) Leukaemia rates are higher near reactors
Childhood leukaemia rates are no higher near nuclear power plants than they are near organic farms. ‘Leukaemia clusters’ are geographic areas where the rates of childhood leukaemia appear to be higher than normal, but the definition is controversial because it ignores the fact that leukaemia is actually several very different (and unrelated) diseases with different causes (16).
The major increase in UK childhood leukaemia rates occurred before the Second World War. The very small (one per cent) annual increase seen now is probably due to better diagnosis, although it is possible that there is a viral contribution to the disease (17).
It is purely by chance that a leukaemia ‘cluster’ will occur near a nuclear installation, a national park or a rollercoaster ride. One such ‘cluster’ occurred in Seascale, the nearest village to the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant, but there are no other examples. Clusters tend to be found in isolated areas where there has been a recent influx of immigration – which hints at a virus.
Men who work on nuclear submarines or in nuclear plants are no more likely to father children with leukaemia (or any other disease) than workers in any other industry (18).
8) Reactors lead to weapons proliferation
More nuclear plants (in Britain and elsewhere) would actually reduce weapons proliferation. Atomic warheads make excellent reactor fuel; decommissioned warheads (containing greatly enriched uranium or plutonium) currently provide about 15 per cent of world nuclear fuel (19). Increased demand for reactor fuel would divert such warheads away from potential terrorists. Nuclear build is closely monitored by the IAEA, which polices anti-proliferation treaties.
9) Wind and wave power are more sustainable
If, as greens say, new nuclear power cannot come on-line in time to prevent climate change, how much less impact can wind, wave and carbon capture make?
Environmentalists claim offshore wind turbines can make a significant contribution to electricity supply. Even if that were true – which it is certainly not (20) – the environmental impact disqualifies wind as ‘sustainable’. The opening up of the North Sea continental shelf to 7,000 wind turbines is, essentially, the building of a huge industrial infrastructure across a vast swathe of ecologically sensitive seabed – as ‘unsustainable’ in its own way as the opening of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration.
Wave power is still highly experimental and unproven as a method of generating electricity. Even if we allow the Severn Tidal Bore, the tidal surge that runs up and down the River Severn estuary in south-west England (and a great natural wonder of the world), to be destroyed, the cost overruns and time delays would make any problems of the nuclear industry look cheap by comparison.
10) Reactors are a terrorist target
Since 11 September 2001, several studies have examined the possibility of attacks by a large aircraft on reactor containment buildings. The US Department of Energy sponsored an independent computer-modelling study of the effects of a fully fuelled Boeing 767-400 hitting the reactor containment vessel. Under none of the possible scenarios was containment breached (21).
Only the highly specialised US ‘bunker busting’ ordnance would be capable – after several direct strikes – of penetrating the amount of reinforced concrete that surrounds reactors. And besides, terrorists have already demonstrated that they prefer large, high visibility, soft targets with maximum human casualties (as in the attacks on New York, London, Madrid and Mumbai) rather than well-guarded, isolated, low-population targets.
Any new generation of nuclear reactors in the UK will be designed with even greater protection against attack than existing plants, and with ‘passive’ safety measures that work without human intervention or computer control.
Rob Johnston is a freelance writer on the environment, health and science.
(1) See The economics of nuclear power 2007 on the Greenpeace website
(2) Nuclear Consultation: Public Trust in Government Nuclear Working Group 2008
(3) International Atomic Energy Agency
(4) World Nuclear Association
(5) Nuclear waste could power Britain, The Observer, 23 December 2007
(6) The Energy Challenge, DTI, 2007
(7) The role of nuclear power in a low carbon economy, SDC, 2006
(8) Nuclear Power Generation Cost Benefit Analysis, DTI
(9) Identification and Description of UK Radioactive Wastes and Materials Potentially Requiring Long-term Management, N/085, Doc 77, Nirex, July 2003
(10) The Energy Challenge, DTI, 2007
(11) The Energy Challenge, DTI, 2007
(12) Energy: the answer is not blowing in the wind, by Rob Johnston, 11 December 2007
(13) The Energy Challenge, DTI, 2007
(14) Construction of CANDU in China
(15) The Energy Challenge, DTI, 2007
(16) Leukaemia Clusters, Leukaemia Research Foundation
(17) Leukaemia Clusters, Leukaemia Research Foundation
(18) Leukaemia Clusters, Leukaemia Research Foundation
(19) World Nuclear Association
(20) Energy: the answer is not blowing in the wind, by Rob Johnston, 11 December 2007
(21) Electrical Power Research Institute: Probabilistic Consequence Analysis of Security Threats – A Prototype Vulnerability Assessment Process for Nuclear Power Plants