Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Why not nuclear?

Why not more nuclear power? The economics of more nuclear at Hinkley Point (pictured) are sound aren’t they? Nuclear has failed to keep its promise of providing cheap electricity even though at one point it was claimed it would be too cheap to meter. To make the Hinkley C nuclear deal happen EDF have been guaranteed almost double the current market rate for electricity and UK households look set to pay over the odds bills as a result .Everyone acknowledges the very high capital costs and nobody yet knows for sure what decommissioning costs will finally be because we have insufficient experience of it. Nuclear is a very large drain on both public and private resources that we should be directing into energy efficiency and renewable energy generation, the only sustainable options in any case.

But it’s low carbon and would help fight climate change…It’s very slow and ineffective at this, taking many years to build and even more to pay back the carbon costs of construction, mining and transport. Energy efficiency measures are orders of magnitude faster and more effective – and bring wider benefits such as paying for itself in lower bills. The Government's own [former] advisors at the Sustainable Development Commission produced figures to show that even doubling nuclear capacity would cut the UK's carbon emissions by just 8% and then not until 2035.  
It would make us less dependent on imported energy though wouldn’t it? Well, uranium oxide from which nuclear fuel for power stations is made comes from abroad eg Canada (27.9% of world production) and Australia (22.8%) being the largest producers and Kazakhstan (10.5%), Russia (8.0%), Namibia (7.5%), Niger (7.4%), Uzbekistan (5.5%), the United States (2.5%), Ukraine (1.9%) and China (1.7%).

Nuclear is about having an innovative economy though, built by entrepreneurs right? No, nuclear technology is hardly the kind that can be tinkered with, adapted and developed by small and medium-sized businesses and individuals unlike energy efficiency, energy conservation and renewable energy technologies which are amenable and are rapidly

There are very large amounts of uranium ore in the ground though to make the fuel from. Yes but if nuclear power spreads more uranium ore is mined, the quality of the ore falls and the energy cost of mining it goes up. A mass nuclear power program would rapidly exhaust high quality ores and the uranium being mined would provide far less energy per tonne of rock.

Nuclear is a tried and tested technology though isn’t it? It’s failed the test of time and does not come out well if technical capabilities and limitations, total cost-effectiveness, socio-economic effects such as efficiency of job creation and the ability to keep safe and accurate records of nuclear waste disposal for thousands of yrs, and environmental impacts are all fairly considered. Nuclear certainly does not fit in with building a sustainable society because no-one disputes that it leaves ongoing problems for future generations in the form of nuclear waste (being transported through Bristol by train, below) and the finite nature of its fuel.


We will find solutions to nuclear waste disposal though…There are huge nuclear waste handling, storage, transport and disposal problems and there is no scientific consensus on the best way to do it, for existing waste let alone the extra produced from more nuclear stations. Conservative politician Sir Hugh Rossi once said 'With waste that can be active for thousands of yrs, guaranteeing that the institutions would be stable beyond periods which have so far proved to be whole lifetimes of civilisations would be impossible.'
We’ve learned a lot from our mistakes though haven’t we? Huge mistakes are still being made. There are also a whole range of safety and security issues for nuclear stations: with major accidents like Three Mile Island, USA in 1979, Chernobyl USSR in 1986, Windscale, UK in 1957; and Fukushima, Japan in 2011 (see image below).

It’s highly problematic: predicting and minimising human error in the design, construction, operation and decommissioning process; establishing safe levels of radioactivity; safely transporting nuclear waste by rail and road, including through cities like Bristol (shown in photo of train above), for safe disposal for thousands of yrs; planning what it is best to do in the event of a serious incident/accident; whether we can effectively prevent terrorist attacks eg by flying planes into stations, driving cars/lorries loaded up to be bombs. The consequences of just one very serious incident have the potential to be very large and long-lasting in scale as Fukushima and Chernobyl demonstrate.

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