Why nuclear is not the answer to the climate crisis

Our new briefing – number 15 – looks at nuclear power.

New nuclear power stations are central to the UK government’s new energy strategy. Some influential environmentalists like George Monbiot support nuclear as part of tackling the climate crisis and the Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change (IPCC) argue that globally by 2050 energy production should 70% renewables and 30% nuclear.  So why do we say that there should be no role for nuclear?  In this briefing we explore the arguments around nuclear and demolish some of the myths about nuclear power.

A military technology

The raw material for nuclear weapons is produced in nuclear reactors.  In the US, the UK, Russia civil nuclear power was developed after the second world war to support nuclear weapons programmes.  Researchers at the University of Sussex Science Policy Research Unit have shown that to this day the main role of nuclear power in the UK main has  been to subsidise nuclear weapons.  Electricity consumers have paid the price through higher costs, providing a hidden subsidy for the nuclear weapons programme.

Chernobyl CC0 pixabay.com

High cost

Nuclear power costs two to three times as much per unit of electrical energy than offshore wind. Onshore wind and solar is even cheaper.  These comparisons don’t include the cost of decommissioning old nuclear power stations (which takes many decades) or the cost of safely storing the radioactive waste that they generate (which is necessary for thousands of years).  These additional costs are born by consumers and taxpayers.  

Long construction times

Since 2011 construction has started on 57 nuclear power plants around the world.  Ten years later only 15 are operational, with many incurring long delays and massive overruns on predicted costs.  Even advocates of nuclear power argue that it would take around 25 years for new nuclear to make a significant impact to global energy production.

Carbon free? Not at all!

To widespread consternation, the European Commission recently declared nuclear a green technology.  Clearly nuclear reactions don’t generate greenhouse gases.  However, it’s a myth that nuclear is a carbon free resource.  Uranium mining, plant construction, which requires large amounts of concrete, and decommissioning are all carbon intensive. A 2017 report by WISE International estimated nuclear lifecycle emissions at 88–146 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour. More than ten times higher than wind with lifecycle emissions power of about 5–12 grams. Uranium fuel is scarce and carbon emissions from mining will rise as the most easily recoverable ores are mined out.

Safety

The consequences of nuclear accidents are severe.  Proponents of nuclear power downplay the impact of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and argue that the number of deaths was small. In a scrupulous investigation, Kate Brown author of ‘Manual for Survival – A Chernobyl Guide to the Future’ has researched the decades long efforts by the old Soviet Union, and then the US, to cover up the impact of Chernobyl.  She estimates that the true figure for deaths is in the range 35 – 150,000.  Many nuclear plants (like Fukushima) are built close to the sea to provide water for cooling. increasingly these reactors will be at risk as sea levels rise.

CCO pixabay.com

Environmental impact

About 70% of uranium mining is carried out on the land of indigenous people. Mining and leaks of radiation have had a devastating effect on the environment in these areas. Building more nuclear power will result in more leakage of radioactive materials into the environment and more workers exposed to unsafe conditions and preventable deaths.  

Small modular reactors

Rolls Royce is pushing for the development of small modular nuclear reactors as a response to the climate crisis.  It’s argued that they could be built more quickly although this is unproven.  In addition to sharing all the negative features of larger reactors, new research at Stanford University suggests that smaller reactors are less efficient and produce up to 35 times the amount of low-level radioactive waste and 30 times the amount of long lived waste compared with larger reactors.

Scotland

While Westminster is planning huge investments, the Scottish Government is currently opposed to new nuclear generation.  Nevertheless, Scotland has more licensed nuclear installations per head of population than anywhere else in the world.  Only one of these, Torness, is currently generating electricity, and it is scheduled to shut down in 2028.  There will be strong pressure on the Scottish government to buy in to a new generation of reactors.

Alternatives

Advocates of nuclear power argue that nuclear is essential to the energy transition we need because, unlike wind and solar, it is not dependent on the weather or the time of day and so can provide a reliable base load.  There are alternatives – more investment in tidal generation could also support based load supply – and the development of a smart grid involving multiple types of storage – pumped hydro, local heat pumps and battery could ensure an energy supply system that is resilient.  Developing these systems alongside wind and solar would enable the energy system to be transformed much more rapidly than is possible with nuclear.  A nuclear strategy is just too slow to meet the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions over the next decade.  And the big sums of money being channelled in to nuclear divert investment from renewables and prevent that rapid and necessary transition.

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Briefing – the use and abuse of hydrogen

The latest in our series of briefings. Like all of the briefings this one is just two sides of A4 and is published under a Creative Commons license which means you are welcome to share, adapt and reuse the content. Download a PDF version here.

Abuse

Check through the news bulletins and the financial papers and you’ll find hydrogen in the news.  Big energy companies, the Westminster and Holyrood governments and some trade unions are all heralding hydrogen as a ‘green’ alternative to the natural gas which most of us use for heating and cooking.  For example, SGN who run Scotland’s gas network are promoting a plan in which hydrogen would be produced and stored at the St Fergus gas terminal, north of Peterhead.  It envisages starting to use hydrogen in Aberdeen and then extending the hydrogen network to the rest of the northeast coast and the central belt by 2045.

Natural gas used for heating and cooking accounts for around 30% of the UK’s carbon emissions.  In contrast burning hydrogen for heat results in zero emissions.  So, it appears that replacing natural gas with hydrogen is a no brainer.  In this briefing we’ll explain why that’s not the case. 

Grey, blue and green?

You will hear talk about grey, blue, and green hydrogen.  The colours refer to how the hydrogen is produced – and it’s the production method that determines the impact of hydrogen on the environment.

Grey hydrogen is made from natural gas. Almost all the hydrogen that’s in use now is produced in this way. World-wide production currently amounts to 70 million tonnes.  Greenhouse gases are a by-product of the production process, and current production has a similar impact on global warming to the whole aviation industry.

Much of the current hype is over blue hydrogen.  Blue hydrogen is produced from natural gas in the same way as grey – the difference is that the production process incorporates carbon capture and storage. Greenhouse gases are stored rather than released to the atmosphere.  Using blue hydrogen for all our domestic heating and cooking would require carbon capture on a massive scale.  Large-scale carbon capture is untested, the technology for capture is not yet available and there are serious concerns about the long-term safety of large-scale storage.  The production process for blue hydrogen is energy intensive and needs large amounts of green electricity.  One example – Northern Gas Networks have a plan to convert domestic gas supplies to hydrogen.  The aim is to have converted 15.7 million homes by 2050.  This would require 8 million tonnes of hydrogen and need the equivalent of 60 production plants of the size of the largest currently operational plus a huge deployment of unproven carbon capture and storage technology.

Green hydrogen is produced by electrolysing water – if that electricity is from a renewable source the process is zero carbon.  However, the process requires even more green electricity than producing blue hydrogen.  The NGN scheme to supply 15.7 million homes would require around seven times as much wind generated electricity as is currently produced in the UK.

Image by Utahraptor ostrommaysi CCBY-SA 3.0

Generating electricity to provide the energy to ‘reform’ natural gas or electrolyse water into hydrogen and then using the hydrogen for heat is inherently inefficient.  Direct use of electricity is cheaper, more efficient and would require much less generating capacity.

So why the hydrogen hype?

A new hydrogen economy (dependent on carbon capture and storage technology) is at the heart of the North Sea Transition Deal, dreamed up by the industry body Oil and Gas UK, published by the UK government in March 2021 and endorsed by Holyrood. The transition deal aims at continuing extraction of oil and gas through to 2050 and beyond. It is a costly diversion. To be sure of cutting emissions with the speed that is required we need to phase out oil and gas and invest in proven technologies that are based on renewable energy sources.  

Ed Matthew Associate Director at independent climate and energy think tank E3G says hydrogen is the wrong choice for heating homes.  Blue hydrogen (manufactured from natural gas) needs CCS so would be massively expensive and keeps us hooked on gas. Green hydrogen (made by electrolysis using renewable electricity) is 4 times less efficient than using heat pumps. “Hydrogen is being pushed by the gas industry. Beware.”  Dave Toke, reader in energy politics at Aberdeen University agrees. He calls it: “the start of one of the greatest pieces of greenwash that have been committed in the UK.”

Use

There is a place for hydrogen in a new sustainable economy.  Hydrogen fuel cells supplied with green hydrogen are likely to be an integral part of a full decarbonised economy.  Fuel cells work by using hydrogen to produce electricity which can then power a motor instead of using battery power, such as for electric vehicles.

Image by Bill Harrison CC BY-SA 2.0

Hydrogen fuel cells are currently better suited than batteries for long distance transport and to transport heavy loads.  There are likely to be applications in energy storage and in some very specialised processes that are difficult to decarbonise.  Sea transport may be a case in point

Campaign

The main message of this briefing is that the hydrogen + CCS strategy is designed to maintain the profits of the big energy company’s and will not achieve the cuts in carbon emissions that are needed.  It puts profit before people and planet.  There are alternatives that will work.

To decarbonise heat, we need retrofitted insulation, heat pumps and district heating schemes on a mass scale that can only be achieved by the public sector.

Firms producing filthy-dirty “grey” hydrogen must be required to take action to reduce the horrendous levels of greenhouse gas emissions they produce. 

Hydrogen use must be limited to applications that are socially useful and don’t add to the climate crisis.

You can find all our briefings on the resources page.

Trident and Jobs

We are currently updating all our briefings and working on some new ones. The original version of Trident and Jobs was published three years ago. The issue is as important now as it was then. You can download the PDF version here. Like all our briefings it is published under a Creative Commons License that means you can download, use and adapt provided you acknowledge the original was published on this site.

Briefing 4

The case for scrapping Trident

In 2015 the joint STUC /Scottish CND report ‘Trident and Jobs: the case for a Scottish defence Diversification Agency’ was launched at the STUC congress.  The report provides a powerful case for scrapping Trident and strong arguments that defence diversification would have a massively positive effect on jobs and employment.  However, six years on the Westminster government is pushing ahead with Trident replacement.  

According to CND UK this will be at a cost of at least £205 billion. This money should be spent on jobs, homes, education, and health, improving the lives of the British people without threatening the lives of others.

Nuclear weapons are a threat to us all

But the case against Trident isn’t just a case for better jobs.  A Unite Executive statement in 2010 summed up the wider case against Trident, saying:

The question of Britain’s nuclear weapons system is not about employment alone, however.  It is first of all a moral issue, and then a strategic one concerning Britain’s place in the world and the international development we wish to see.  Such weapons would, if used, constitute a mortal threat to humanity’s survival; they are massively expensive; senior military figures have described them as ‘militarily useless’ and said that they should be scrapped; and our possession of them encourages other countries to seek a similar arsenal.

No time for business as usual

Despite excellent policy positions, in practice, unions organising in the defence industry have continued to argue for the status quo on the grounds that Trident represents jobs.  We argue that when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are so high that immediate action is required to avoid catastrophic climate change and with high levels of unemployment business as usual is not an option.

A million climate jobs

It’s time to combine the powerful economic and moral cases against Trident with the case for the major reorientation in economic activity that makes a rapid transition to a low carbon economy possible.  This is not a fanciful notion.  The Campaign Against Climate Change has worked through in detail how a million climate jobs across the UK could be paid for and could make the transition in short order.  Defence diversification and a transition to a low carbon economy can work hand in hand. The workers and the skills that currently support Trident and other parts of the defence industries are an essential and necessary part of the transition.

Jobs under threat

Jobs in the defence sector in Scotland are under threat with reduced frigate orders and the end of the aircraft carrier contracts.  Arguing for the status quo to protect jobs has simply slowed a decline in employment.  The strategy has failed and will not work in the future.  Waiting for the private sector to intervene and invest in alternative construction jobs is also a strategy doomed to fail.  Industries that aim for short term profit will not take the long-term decisions required.  

Action for change

Change will have to be fought for.  However, the time is right and there are openings we can exploit.  In 2016 the Scottish Government nationalised the Ferguson shipyard on the Clyde.  In the same year it announced a proposal to consider a state-owned energy company.  But progress has been glacially slow.  A necessary sense of urgency could be injected with a campaign that unites trade unions, environmentalists, and peace campaigners.  A state energy company needs to be more than just a retailer of green energy.  It could coordinate investment into production and distribution and plan long term for retraining and training in the necessary skills for climate jobs.  And in protecting jobs and creating new jobs it could win the argument with those workers in defence, construction and oil and gas who feel vulnerable to change.

If not now when?

To get such a campaign moving and transform policy into action requires urgent and democratic debate among the workforces involved and serious and sustained support from their unions and from environmental campaigns.  The stakes are high, but we have the possibility of taking a real lead in Scotland.  In the words of Primo Levi – if not now when?

About Scot E3
Scot.E3 is a group of rank-and-file trade unionists, activists, and environmental campaigners. In 2017 we made a submission to the Scottish Government’s Consultation on a Scottish Energy Strategy. Since then, we have been busy producing and sharing leaflets and bulletins.

We believe there is a compelling case for a radical shift in energy policy. Large numbers of jobs have been lost in the Scottish oil and gas sector. Nearly a third of Scottish households suffer from fuel poverty with the elderly worst affected. In 1989 primary energy capacity in Scotland was 45% more than the level of demand, yet we’re heading for a serious shortfall in energy production by 2030. And looming over all this is the prospect of catastrophic climate change, which will wreck the future for our children and grandchildren. 

The stakes couldn’t be higher. However, we have the knowledge and the skills to make a difference to people’s lives in the here and now. Leaving things to ‘the market’ is clearly not working. A sustainable future requires a coherent strategy for employment, energy, and the environment. We need a sense of urgency. We need a coordinated strategy and massive public investment. 

In Scotland we have a unique set of circumstances: a strong skills base; abundant resources for sustainable energy production; and an opportunity to develop a strategy that puts jobs and environment at the heart of economic strategy. What we do locally could be an inspiration for action worldwide. 

Briefing 12 – What is the COP?

Our latest briefing (number 12) explains what COP 26 is and discusses some of the issues that it raises. Like all our briefings it’s designed for downloading, sharing and distributing in workplaces and community settings.

What is the COP?

COP stands for ‘conference of the parties’.  Organised by the United Nations, it’s normally held on an annual basis and it is the place where the nations of the world come together to discuss policy on climate action.   So to give it its’ full title COP26 is the 26th annual Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

COP 26 was due to take place in Glasgow in November 2020. However, the actual event is always preceded by a number of inter-governmental meetings.  These have not taken place because of the global pandemic and as a result it has been postponed until 2021.  The new date is not yet known.  At the moment Glasgow is still expected to be the venue. 

A history of failure

The first COP was held in 1995 in Berlin.  It has taken place every year since then. 2020 will be the first year that a COP has been postponed.  In terms of making an impact on greenhouse gas emissions the COPs have been an abject failure. The two most common greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane.  When COP 25 took place in Madrid at the end of 2019 the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had risen 67 parts per million by volume (ppmv) above what it was when the first COP met in Berlin. To put this in perspective CO2 levels increased by more during the 25 years of COP discussions than they had in the previous 200 years.  Methane levels have tripled since 1995.  Greenhouse gases act like an insulating blanket over the earth’s atmosphere and are responsible for rising global temperatures.   So the massive increase in the amount of these gases in the atmosphere is the reason why the climate crisis is now acute and why rapid action to cut emissions is so important.

The Paris Agreement of 2015

Back in 2015 the COP (21) took place on Paris.  The conference ended with an agreement that has since been ratified by 189 out of the 197 countries that participated (The Paris Agreement).  Ratification committed countries to developing plans that would curtail global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees centigrade.  Those who have not ratified include some important oil producers.  Moreover, the USA ratified under Obama but has now withdrawn.  

In principle ratifying the Paris Agreement commits countries ‘to put forward their best efforts through “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) and to strengthen these efforts in the years ahead.’  The reality has been that progress has been negligible.  The agreement is essentially voluntary and avoids specific targets.  Patrick Bond notes the ‘Agreement’s lack of ambition, the nonbinding character of emission cuts, the banning of climate-debt (‘polluter pays’) liability claims, the reintroduction of market mechanisms, the failure to keep fossil fuels underground, and the inability to lock down three important sectors for emissions cuts: military, maritime transport and air transport.

Paris 2015- the big demonstration defies a police ban – image by Pete Cannell

COP 26

Along with committing countries to regular reporting on progress the Paris Agreement also scheduled 2020 and COP26 as a major milestone at which all the countries would need to assess progress.  Had the COP gone ahead in November an honest assessment could only have been that the Paris Agreement has been a failure.  The failure will have intensified by the time COP26 takes place in 2021.  No one should have high expectations that COP26 will take action to address this failure but it is an important opportunity for the climate movement to hold the rulers of the world to account.  Success for our side must mean a bigger, stronger, better-rooted movement that develops the strength to insist that governments take action.  

COP fault lines

The COP is dominated by the big powers.  So in the negotiations there are sharp divisions between the major industrial nations that are responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions and the global south, which endures the biggest impact of climate change.  These divisions were much in evidence at COP 25 in Madrid.  At the COPs and in the run up to them there is also a great deal of activity from non-state organisations.  Businesses, NGOs and union federations lobby before the event and can obtain credentials that enable them to be within the main conference areas.  There is of course a huge imbalance in resources between the corporate lobbyists and the climate campaigners.  Groups that represent women, indigenous people and poor people struggled to have their voices heard within the conference – indeed in Madrid some were excluded for holding a peaceful protest.  The climate movement is mostly excluded from the conference zone by barricades and police; we make our case on the streets and in meetings and the counter summit.  This will be the case in Glasgow.

Cop 25 in Madrid – image from Wikimedia Commons

Why should we organise for the COP?

From the start the COP process has operated within the domain of market economic orthodoxy.  Crudely it has assumed that market forces will drive a move towards less carbon intensive technologies and hence reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  There have indeed been significant developments in sustainable technologies – particularly wind and solar.  And yet at the same time the big energy companies have also pursued a ruthless drive to exploit new hydrocarbon resources in a way that is completely incompatible with even the most modest targets for limiting global warming.   

COP 26 will take place in 2021 in the economic and social aftershocks of a global lockdown as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Mobilising for the COP is necessary because the event will be the occasion for a huge onslaught of ‘greenwashing’, aimed at persuading us all that the leaders of the world know best, and that the market, ‘business as usual’, can protect us.  Now more than ever we know that ‘business as usual’ is not simply ineffective in face of global crisis, it costs lives.  So building for mass protest in Glasgow is necessary, but is only part of the ongoing struggle to win a just transition to a people centred zero carbon economy.   

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