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.
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).