Nuclear power: still “no thanks”

Michael Davies Antony Froggatt
6 June 2005

Favourable publicity for nuclear power has become too cheap to meter. A resurgent nuclear industry is proclaiming the merits of large-scale, reliable, zero-carbon electricity at an affordable price, while dismissing the alternatives like wind power as inadequate to support the demands of our advanced economies. But nuclear power has no role in a modern energy policy that can meet the challenge of climate change.

There are three basic flaws in the arguments of advocates of nuclear power. One, nuclear power plays a small role in world energy production and would require an unfeasible expansion before it could make a meaningful difference. Two, nuclear power has particular problems that make the technology too risky. Three, there are better options, and this is where countries like Britain need to focus and lead. We will examine each of these points in more detail.

Don’t miss the other articles and features in openDemocracy’s debate on the politics of climate change

The scale of the challenge

The first problem is illustrated by some of the world’s energy statistics. In 2003 nuclear power contributed a little over 6% of the world’s total primary energy consumption from oil, gas, coal, nuclear and hydro (see Statistical Review of World Energy, 2004). In Britain, nuclear power accounts for 8%. There are 440 nuclear reactors in thirty-two countries worldwide, with eight countries currently building new plants: Russia, India, China, Japan, Ukraine, Argentina, Romania, and Iran (see the IAEA).

Overall, current construction is insufficient to replace the plant that is closing. A huge expansion programme of thousands of reactors would be needed to replace existing assets and expand capacity to a level where it could play a major role in slowing the rate of growth or actually reducing total emissions of greenhouse gases.

This is unfeasible. In 1996, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) outlined a scenario envisioning a significant increase in nuclear-power-plant operation until 2100 resulting in nuclear power contributing 47% of the world’s electricity (or about 15% of total primary energy consumption). This would require a sustained construction programme of an average of 75 new reactors per year for 100 years to reach a total of some 3,000 reactors in operation (assuming each reactor operates for a few decades). In 2004, five new reactors were connected to the grid worldwide.

Among the obstacles to such a major expansion would be the need to spread nuclear programmes to countries that do not yet have them. The first nuclear-power station creates vast “consequential costs”, for example the need for radioactive waste infrastructure and disposal facilities, proliferation safeguards, an incorruptible regulatory regime, and an advanced safety culture.

Costs and risks

The second part of the argument against a nuclear response to climate change rests on the costs and risks of the technology. Some have already been explored in openDemocracy’s debate on the politics of climate change (see here, for example). The key issues are:

  • The technology is spectacularly costly, slow to build, inflexible to operate and in competitive markets requires a raft of state guarantees and risk-bearing before it is financially viable. In a market that properly priced carbon, there are many alternative abatement technologies that are more cost-effective and would require less intervention
  • No country has yet solved the problem of nuclear waste or identified a final disposal strategy – the approach is simply to leave it as an open-ended liability for future generations. For Britain, the undiscounted liabilities for the older part of the nuclear programme alone are £48 billion (see this government source), but no-one really knows what the final cost will be for the simple reason they have no idea what will eventually happen to all the waste
  • As Paul Rogers has argued in openDemocracy’s debate, civil nuclear programmes are inherently “dual use” and have military applications: fissile materials, technologies like enrichment centrifuges, waste management facilities, chemical reprocessing plants, and not least the expertise of scientists and engineers can all be used in military programmes. The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which promotes civil nuclear power in return for controls on military applications, has at its heart this inherent flaw and this is one reason why it is failing). An expansion of nuclear power increases the risk of the use of nuclear weapons and may be destabilising in some regions
  • Nuclear technologies have accident risks that are uninsurable (and underwritten by governments). They require very high levels of regulatory supervision and safety culture and even in Britain, where the industry boasts of its record, mismanagement, accidents and malpractice are common. Chernobyl may be fading from the memory of some, but as the United Nations reminds us, thousands have died and will continue to die, and millions have been harmed or displaced from this single accident
  • Nuclear facilities are vulnerable to terrorist or military attack and are in effect a form of “dirty bomb” waiting to be detonated.

Alternatives to nuclear power

The third part of the argument is that there are bigger and better approaches than nuclear power. If nuclear power contributes only 6% of primary energy, what really matters for the climate is what we do with the other 94% of the world’s commercial energy, dominated by oil (37%), coal (26%) and gas (24%) – with the rest (7%) made up mostly of renewables.

There are three overarching approaches for the energy system:

  • Efficiency. Since the industrial revolution, economies have been increasing the efficiency with which they use energy. In 1965, each dollar of world GDP involved the use of the equivalent of 420 grams of oil; by 2000, only 220 grams were required. This is “energy efficiency” in its widest sense and it is a long-term trend.

    The key for policy makers is to accelerate the trend – just as happened following the oil shocks – by using economic instruments to put a price on carbon. The European Emissions Trading System has already developed a price of around €20 per tonne carbon dioxide. This is equivalent to about $10 per barrel of oil, and it is beginning to send efficiency signals.

    Regulation such as vehicle efficiency standards, building regulations, and appliance standards can reduce emissions, and save time and money. New commercial models such as contract energy management can specialise in energy savings for organisations that wouldn’t normally be bothered. At a deeper level, the planning system can design out wasteful transport energy use and new energy network design, metering and tariffs can encourage widespread micro-renewable energy use and energy saving.

  • Decarbonisation. The carbon content of energy production can and will be reduced. Further, such changes in the fuel mix of fossil fuel will dwarf even the most rapid increase in nuclear-power production. Natural gas use is increasing and it has the lowest emission per unit of energy of all fossil fuels at about 14 kg of carbon per gigaJoule of energy compared to oil with about 20 kg and coal with about 25 kg. Switching from the conventional coal power generation to a gas-combined cycle reduces carbon emissions per unit of electricity by about 60%. And there is a lot of gas available (reserve-to-production ratio stands at 67 years, compared to 41 for oil). To meet Britain’s target for a 20% cut in CO2 by 2010, the simplest option is to move gas generation to the baseload, displacing coal to the margin. Renewables and nuclear are amongst the decarbonisation options, but they are dwarfed in impact by energy efficiency and switching between fossil fuels.
  • Carbon capture and sequestration. The likely “business-as-usual” coal burn in the coming century, notably in India and China, presents the central challenge of reducing its environmental impact. One prospect for “clean coal” is to turn the coal into gas, burn it efficiently in gas turbines and extract and capture the carbon and bury it in geological formations. This could be a critical technology, dwarfing any possible impact of nuclear power. Carbon sequestration is not without risks and uncertainties, and may not even work at all. But the benefits could be huge and solve a critical transitional problem.

A vision for the G8 and beyond

The British government aspires to lead the global response to climate change at the G8 summit in July 2005 and during its presidency of the European Union. The prime minister, Tony Blair’s strategy is to lead internationally rather than to simply meet domestic targets (Britain accounts for about 2% of total global emissions). To do so, his government must take a direction that others will want to follow. For the reasons we have outlined, a nuclear response to climate change is a dangerous distraction from doing what really will make a difference.

On 1 June 2005, the day of the closure of its Barseback nuclear reactor, the Swedish utility Vattenfall announced it was planning a big increase in renewable energy and would invest $1 billion in building northern Europe’s biggest wind farm. Maybe the British government could signal its renewed intention to lead by announcing the closure of reprocessing operations at Sellafield, and presenting a broad strategy for energy efficiency, fuel switching and R&D; investment in advanced technologies.

This article appears as part of openDemocracy‘s online debate on the politics of climate change. The debate was developed in partnership with the British Council as part of their ZeroCarbonCity initiative – a two year global campaign to raise awareness and stimulate debate around the challenges of climate change.

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