Nuclear Energy

The Nuclear industry, on it's last legs?

For some time the nuclear industry has been in near-terminal decline, following the failure of its promise of clean, cheap, safe and reliable energy production. The ongoing crisis in nuclear waste management, the poor safety record and it's lack of economic viability have all undermined the industry’s credibility.

World-wide, the fortunes of the nuclear industry has been in decline throughout the last twenty five years. Global orders for new nuclear plants have been falling since it's high in 1968. These days the industry is barely replacing the capacity of the reactors being closed.

The nuclear pundits once promised cheap energy - so cheap that it would hardly need to be metered. However the cost of nuclear energy has proved to be much higher than hoped. The building of plants has taken longer and cost more than expected. Running costs, increased safety demands, regular equipment breakdowns, decommissioning, and the incredible costs of dealing with nuclear waste have all conspired to trash the dreams of the nuclear industry.

The Asian Development Bank wrote, "The Bank is very much aware of this background [on nuclear power] and has not been involved in the financing of nuclear power generation projects in the Developing Member Countries due to a number of concerns. These concerns include issues related to transfer of nuclear technology, procurement limitations, proliferation risks, fuel availability and procurement constraints, and environmental and safety aspects. The Bank will maintain its policy of non involvement in the financing of nuclear power generation". Even the World Bank seems to have given up on the Nuclear promise, "Nuclear plants in the power sector would not be economic; they are large white elephants".

In the UK, the government dismissed the industry’s demands for public funding to build new reactors to combat global warming after a review of the privatisation of the nuclear power industry. Shortly afterwards, British Energy cancelled two proposed stations, leaving the UK for the first time in over 40 years with no plans for new nuclear power stations.

Besides the direct economic factors, the true cost of any power source must include external costs. Such costs do not appear in the accounts and are much harder to quantify. They include environmental damage, the effect on human health and society following an accident, damage to human health and the environment during routine operation of nuclear facilities and also long term problems associated with nuclear waste and decommissioning of nuclear facilities. Some of these external costs can be quantified in monetary terms, i.e.: employment, health effects and government subsidies. Other external 'costs' associated with the nuclear industry, such as damage to the environment and to future generations is not something you can so easily put a price to.

Radioactive waste, 50 years and still no solution

Despite having been in operation for about 50 years, there is still no adequate programme of dealing with the radioactive bi-products of the nuclear industry. Radioactive wastes are produced at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, from the mining of uranium to reprocessing of spent fuel rods. Much of this waste represents a deadly radioactive legacy for future generations and will remain hazardous for many thousands of years. Every nuclear power station, as part of routine operations, discharges waste materials directly into the environment. Contaminated cooling water is discharged into the oceans and gaseous waste is released into the atmosphere.

At nuclear plants the highly radioactive waste must be regularly extracted from the reactor and in many cases it is stored 'temporarily' in cooling ponds filled with water. Almost 200,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel is awaiting a sensible method of isolating for adequate time periods radioactive waste from the environment.

Don't panic, it's perfectly safe

At least nine million people were affected by the Chernobyl disaster in Russia. A total of over 160,000 km2 of land was contaminated across Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. The nuclear industry continues to refute evidence regarding widespread health effects and the prevalence of diseases resulting from Chernobyl. However it is now widely accepted that the accident has resulted in a massive increase in thyroid cancers in those three countries.

The latest round of reactor closures in Canada demonstrates that the inadequacies that lead to Chernobyl are not unique. A damning report resulted in the closure of seven nuclear reactors in Ontario on safety grounds. In the meantime, the increase in the number of ageing reactors around the world represents a growing risk of further nuclear disasters.

Nukiller weapons proliferation

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the nukiller industry is the link between the civilian use and military use. The very first nuclear reactors were built in the 1940s and 1950s specifically to produce plutonium for nuclear bombs and were only later adapted to generate electricity. Plutonium is contained in spent nuclear fuel and one of the most radioactive and dangerous substances in existence. It takes an amount smalled than a speck of dust to cause fatal cancer if inhaled or ingested. The spread of nuclear energy technology around the globe, increases the risk of nuclear proliferation.

Ready for a come back?

The nukiller industry is desperate to justify continued development and obtain state support and funding, in the face of hostile public opinion. In a cynically attempt to exploit global concern over global warming, the industry has recently begun to frantically promote the idea that switching from fossil fuels to nuclear power is the only way to cut Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emmissions. However, you don't have to have to look at the issues very hard to see that the opposite is true; the promotion of nuclear power as any kind of solution to global warming would simply detract from the genuine measures required to effect a sustainable solution.

Worldwide, demand for energy is expected to increase by at least 50% in the next 25 years. There are currently about 450 nuclear power stations in the world providing approximately 5% of the worlds electricity. This means that to just double the contribution made by nuclear energy would require not just doubling, but tripling the number of reactors within 25 years! This would require one reactor being put into operation every week (even assuming an opptimistic build time of ten years).

Nothing would be gained from such as increase in turms of climate protection since it is calculated that cuts of about 80% in CO2 emissions are required NOW. To make any contribution, nuclear power plants would have to come on line with impossible speed and inconceivible numbers. Such a massive expansion would require the a major shift in political and public opinion. National referenda held in Sweden, Italy, Austria and Switzerland left the nuclear industry quite clear of were it stands in terms of public opinion.

No more business as usual

Action is needed NOW to halt climate change. It requires instant cuts in green house gas emissions. The production of electricity through burning fossil fuels is one of the main sources of CO2. Ways must be found of using less electricity and producing it in ways that significantly reduce the environmental impact. Switching to nuclear power would not instantly cut CO2 emmission and would leave consumption paterns unchallanged. Therefore more it would bring it's own environmental burden and threats to the future of generations to come.

Nuclear power uses a finite fuel. Wind, hydro, tidal, biomass, and obviously solar, are all sources of energy ultimately derived from the sun. Hopefully the sun will continue to shine for several million years more so it is fair to consider such sources as sustainable and renewable. It is these sources of energy which, along with modified paterns of consumption, offer the most realistic way achieve a drastic cut in CO2 emmisions.

"The nuclear industry’s disingenuous claims to a role in alleviating climate change must be rejected for what they are: dangerous and self-serving fantasies which would create a serious legacy of deadly radioactive waste, increase the risks of catastrophic nuclear accidents and also vastly increase the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation.

Environmental impacts aside, nuclear economics preclude its use to combat global warming. It is not the cheapest of the non-fossil fuel alternatives; nor is it the cleanest. A host of renewable technologies have outstripped nuclear power in development and performance, while energy efficiency measures remain the most cost effective way to address the need for new power.

The challenge posed by climate change raises important questions about what kind of world we wish our children to inherit: one in which the inseparable technologies of military and civil nuclear power are prevalent in every nation or one in which energy is used wisely and generated through the use of sustainable renewable energy systems."

Last updated: 2009-04-22

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