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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yesterday (6th April) the UK Government announced a new ‘British Energy Security Strategy’. The shape of the strategy isn’t a surprise with many of the elements being trailed in recent weeks. Put simply the strategy is a disaster. It’s a recipe for failing to meet UK greenhouse gas emission targets and ignores the recommendations of the IPCC report that was published earlier in the week (4th April).
This post is a first response, and we will share more detailed analysis in the weeks to come.
The government’s press release notes that the strategy involves an ‘ambitious, quicker expansion of nuclear, wind, solar, hydrogen, oil and gas, including delivering the equivalent to one nuclear reactor a year instead of one a decade.’
Note the ‘expansion of oil and gas’. The aim will be to accelerate the approval of new oil and gas fields in the North Sea and west of Shetland. Essentially, it’s a doubling down on the oil industries so called ‘North Sea Transition Deal’. The aim of the deal is to make the North Sea a ‘net-zero’ oil and gas basin by 2050 – but this can only happen if carbon capture and storage can be developed and introduced at large scale, which is as yet uncertain.
Hydrogen is part of the oil industry strategy – the aim of the transition deal is for hydrogen to replace North Sea gas in domestic and commercial heating systems – these currently account for more than 20% of UK greenhouse gas emissions. The strategy talks about hydrogen supplying around 10% of energy needs. What it doesn’t say is that producing hydrogen by splitting methane or water is an enormously inefficient process and so a very significant proportion of all the new electricity produced from nuclear, wind, solar and oil and gas will be needed to produce the hydrogen!
After a period of equivocating on nuclear power it’s now back at the centre of the strategy. No figures are given, but if we extrapolate from the cost of the current Hinkley C project the proposed developments will cost around £150 billion. The government refers to nuclear as clean and safe. It is neither. This blog has looked at the arguments about nuclear elsewhere. It’s a hugely expensive form of energy, high risk with long construction times and a history of cost overruns and serious and unresolved problems with radioactive waste.
The new strategy says nothing about reducing energy demand through insulating new buildings and retrofitting existing housing stock. Retrofitting the majority of UK housing is estimated to cost around £160 billion – this is roughly what the new nuclear programme will cost. So, it seems like their plan is to construct large scale nuclear plants whose output will then provide the energy that is lost through the walls and roofs of homes, office and factories.
The supposed rationale for the new strategy is energy security. Currently working people are paying the price for the super profits being earned by the oil and gas sector. Led by that sector the strategy opts for a future of high energy prices – continuing oil and gas and new nuclear. Renewable costs continue to decrease, nuclear energy costs continue to rise. Currently renewable electricity is 6 times cheaper than gas and the gap is even bigger between the cost of renewables and the cost of nuclear.
It will be interesting to hear the response from the Scottish Government. Until now Holyrood has been firmly signed up the North Sea Transition Deal and the oil industry agenda, but it has had a firm position of no new nuclear. Similarly, it is now crunch time for the trade unions who have advocated just transition while endorsing the Transition Deal Strategy. The argument at root has been over jobs. It has been the case for a long time now that large-scale investment in renewables creates far more jobs than the same investment in nuclear. Yesterday’s strategy announcement means in effect no transition and no justice. There is an ever more urgent need for the workers movement and the climate movement to work together in opposition to the new strategy (really just the old strategy with more investment in false solutions). Less than 24 hours after its release the strategy has been widely criticised but we will need to do more than oppose this latest attempt at preserving an unacceptable status quo and reject the North Sea transition deal in its entirety.
Brian Parkin takes look at the past, present and possible futures of nuclear power in Scotland. If you want to read more on this topic do try the excellent paper by Simon Butler on ten reasons why nuclear is not the answer.
A MURKY MYSTERY
On a per head of population, Scotland has the highest concentration of nuclear installations in the world. Apart from the Advanced Gas Reactor stations (AGR’s) at Hunterston B, (Ayrshire) and Torness (East Lothian), both owned and operated by eDF, the other nuclear sites in Scotland are where nuclear power generation has ceased- but where licences remain for the continuation of nuclear power generation in the future. In total the number of nuclear sites in Scotland is five- the 2 operating reactors plus Chapelcross, Hunterston A and Dounreay in Caithness. In addition to the civilian generating sites, there are military related sites at Faslane on the Clyde, Vulcan in Caithness and Rosyth near Edinburgh. (See map).
The Chapelcross and Hunterston A stations are the now decommissioning Magnox-type reactors, ten of which formed the UK’s entrance into the world’s nuclear power race. The Magnoxs were developed over a number of years and so shared little in design and operational characteristics- but what they all shared was a graphite (carbon) core which was gas (CO2cooled) and which moderated (controlled) the speed of the Uranium235 fission- which in turn provided the heat for the steam that drove the electric turbines. All Magnox reactors are currently in the hands of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority with the intention to render the sites decontaminated and safe- a process for which the technology is yet to be developed and the costs unknown.
The Dounreay site is the home to that ultimate nuclear fission fantasy- the Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR). The two FBR plants were intended to reproduce their own Plutonium fuel during operation- but in actual fact produced less power than consumed by their works canteens(!). The Dounreay plants present the greater decommissioning challenges due to the extremely high and extended half-life of their Plutonium fuel rods and the extreme levels of site irradiation.
GOING, GOING, GONE?
The remaining AGRs at Hunterston B and Torness, along with the other six such stations in the UK, both share a generic design fault in the form of micro and hairline cracks in their moderator block graphite cores. This has brought forward the AGR closure programme with the problem so acute that the Hunterston B station is due, on a 40% load to shut-down within the next 4 years. This will leave Scotland with the remaining Torness AGR at a 1360 MWe rating on declining load factor. According to current plans Scotland will have ceased to have any nuclear generated electricity within its borders by 2031.
But even after some 60 years of nuclear failure it might be premature to read the funeral rites.
From its very inception, nuclear power has been beset by problems. Its capital costs have historically been prone to going through the roof. Also, recurring safety issues have led to operational caution in the form of low load-factors with down-time and unscheduled outages leading to negative revenues from unreliability- all of which have made nuclear power the most expensive and unreliable on the system.
But in order to disguise the real cost of nuclear power, it has always been given a ‘first on the system/must run’ status to which in addition it has been covered by transferred subsidies from other forms of generation. In other words, nuclear power has historically inflated the overall cost of electricity to the disbenefit of the consumer. Nuclear power has been one of the biggest aggravating factors in the persistence of fuel poverty.
Also, despite a continuous torrent of glossy promotions, the nuclear industry has always hidden the cost and environmental hazards of the back-end matter of waste ‘management’; how to safely treat ‘spent’ fuel rods that represent a lethal radiological threat, plus hundreds of tonnes of reactor core material which must be ‘managed’- kept out of harms way in sealed containment for an incalculable number of years. At no stage in the planning and design of any reactor have such technological and economic challenges been factored in.
ECONOMIES OF SCALE 1: BIGGER IS BETTER
The continual economic failure of nuclear power has given rise to an enduring industry fantasy- basically by building bigger reactors with higher power densities and outputs, an ideal reactor design will become a generic model with large run replication and better reactor efficiencies. Hence some thirty years of shift-shaping a Pressurised Water Reactor of around 1,400 Megawatts output in the hope of a tooth fairy. So around the year 2000, optimum size thinking settled on the 1,600 MWe European Pressurised Water Reactor of the type now being constructed at Hinkley in Somerset- a sister of the Normandy and Finnish massive over-run and over-cost failures. So instead:
ECONOMIES OF SCALE 2: SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL: THE SMALL MODULAR REACTOR (SMR)
This is the obverse; a Small is Beautiful alternative to the Bigger is Better doctrine. The big sell of the SMR is a reactor that it is small, therefore requiring a smaller site footprint. It is also a modular plant that can be factory assembled and delivered with each unit- the reactor, plus cooling system components, steam turbine, pressure vessels and steam generator that when assembled form a single module that just requires being bolted into an outer shell and utility services like an Ikea kitchen flat-pack- or so the promotional goes. Also, once assembled, the reactor core can be loaded with fuel and control rods- all without the need for refuelling during the lifetime of the plant- about 40 years. The concept of the SMR is derived from earlier military Pressurised (Light) Water Reactors that were developed during the 1950-60’s to power nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers. Typically, such a reactor would be rated at around 30MW electrical output- and in the US and Russia such ‘mini’ SMR’s have been undergoing operational trials.But in many ways, the SMR is pretty well a conventional reactor sub-species in that its produced energy is derived from nuclear fission with Uranium235 as the fuel.
However, in the UK Rolls Royce have been scaling up their SMR designs to much bigger out-puts to more conventional power station ‘set’ sizes of 330-440MWe. Initially, this would seem to contradict the aim of the objective of compact size units- which to some degree is illustrated with the image of a SMR reactor encased in primary containment shell on the back of a low-loader truck. Also, the slender diameter of the reactor primary containment promotes the impression of technical simplicity-an impression dispensed by the cutaway illustration- added to which is the reality of the most demanding of shell pressures and an internal temperature hotter than the sun.
Initially, the sales spiel regarding the relative simplicity of the SMR is based on a claimed design and operational simplicity and flexibility of operation- along with claimed low capital costs of some 30% less than ‘conventional’ Pressurised Water Reactors. And it is here that SMR is now being projected as the answer to the need for a‘baseload’ component in a mainly renewables- but largely intermittent generating capacity. And with outgoing AGR nuclear stations at Hunterston and Torness- plus declining output from the gas-fired station at Peterhead, a smaller, lower cost and flexible SMR has some attraction.
Scotland; now virtually at the end of its fossil power generation history faces a future of almost unlimited renewable energy power generation technologies. Wind, wave, tidal, hydro, geo-thermal and solar power has recently begun to combine in powering Scotland for whole days without fossil or nuclear inputs. That is the future; not with a nuclear component that as ever offers jam tomorrow- but in the present offers the highest cost and most dangerous energy on the planet.
The ‘Big Read’ in the Herald newspaper on Sunday 4th October was ‘The nuclear option – can atomic power save the human race from climate change?’. In it, journalist Neil Mackay reviews a new book by US earth scientist James Lawrence Powell. Powell argues that we are at a tipping point that will lead to runaway global temperature rises unless decisive action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero. In this he is absolutely right. However, he goes on to argue that achieving zero carbon by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy technologies will take too long. According to Mackay, Powell argues that achieving zero carbon in a decade by adopting renewables is just ‘infeasible’. The only serious option is to produce all our energy needs by a massive expansion in the number of nuclear power plants. Essentially, he says that we should use nuclear to buy time while renewable technologies are developed further.
Undoubtedly current energy needs could be met by nuclear. But Powell himself concedes it would take at least 25 years for this level of capacity to be reached. Indeed, construction timetables for nuclear power stations are notorious for length overruns.
Powell is not alone in arguing for nuclear as the means to end the climate crisis. However, in our view the nuclear strategy is profoundly mistaken.
Nuclear power has always been entangled with nuclear weapons programmes. The US ‘Atoms for Peace’ programme, launched at the height of the cold war promised a future of almost limitless energy. In truth the civilian reactors provided the raw material for a huge increase in the US nuclear arsenal. By 1961 the US inventory of nuclear weapons was equivalent to 1,360,000 Hiroshima bombs. In the US, the UK, Russia and elsewhere nuclear power has always been a necessary support for nuclear weapons. In the UK context researchers at the University of Sussex Science Policy Research Unit have shown that the sole case for nuclear power is to subsidise nuclear weapons. Electricity consumers are paying for the high cost of an industry that subsidises the military nuclear weapons programme.
Worldwide the number of operational nuclear plants is in long-term decline. In part this is a response to Chernobyl and Fukushima, but it is also a result of the high cost of building new plants (not to mention the eyewatering sums needed for decommissioning plants at the end of their life). Renewables are cheaper than nuclear power and the gap is growing year on year.
Nuclear power is not zero carbon either. Greenhouse gases are admitted at every stage of the lifespan of a nuclear power station. The process of mining uranium and the process of milling and separating the uranium from the ore omits considerable carbon and is likely to be more energy intensive in the future.
Powell has undoubtedly played an important role in arguing the case for rapid action in the face of the climate crisis. He is a fine scientist. However, in making the case for nuclear he employs inaccurate data and even worse judgement.
He notes that in Sweden GDP and carbon emissions rose in lockstep until Sweden increase nuclear power generation at which point GDP started to grow faster than emissions. We are meant to understand here that GDP is equivalent to wealth and that with nuclear we can have GDP growth and low emissions. This is an argument that appeals to big business – it should be less appealing to the 99% for whom GDP growth in recent decades has gone along with increasing inequality.
He dismisses renewables as being immature and not ready yet. But serious studies around the world, including those by Commonweal in Scotland and the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, have shown that existing renewable technologies can achieve zero carbon. The technologies that are not ready are those like Carbon Capture and Storage which are advocated by those who want to tackle the climate crisis while not making the radical changes in the economic system that a genuinely sustainable economy requires.
Inexcusably Powell plays down the issue of nuclear safety and Mackay repeats his figures without questioning them. ‘Manual for Survival – A Chernobyl Guide to the Future’ by Kate Brown ought to be compulsory reading for anyone writing on this topic. In a scrupulous forensic investigation, she uncovers the decades long efforts by the old Soviet Union and then the US to cover up the real impact of Chernobyl. Rather than Powell’s 4 – 16 thousand deaths the true figure is most likely in the range 35 – 150,000. And it remains the case that long-term safe storage of the radioactive by-products of nuclear power remains unsolved.
This video has Professor Andy Stirling and Dr Phil Johnstone, in conversation with CND Chair Dave Webb, about the connections between the UK’s nuclear weapons programme and nuclear power. Their research shows that the sole case for nuclear power is to subsidise nuclear weapons production. Electricity consumers are paying for the high cost of nuclear generated electricity and thereby subsidising research that is used by the military to maintain the nuclear weapons programme. The argument that Nuclear Power is ‘climate friendly and necessary’ is a convenient afterthought to disguise the real reasons for developing it.
The supporters of nuclear energy are at it again, attempting to position it as key to a ‘green’ recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, and as part of the solution to the climate catastrophe. In this post, first published at www.rs21.org.uk and republished here with permission Scot.E3 activist Brian Parkin exposes the dangerous myths of nuclear power.
Climate of doubt
Nuclear power has made many bold claims on economic viability, safety, reliability and environmental sustainability over the years. Again and again it has been disgraced. But nuclear power is the come-back-kid when it comes to energy technology reincarnation and rebranding. Backed up by state revenues, corporate confidentiality and operational unaccountability, the nuclear industry remains the biggest fraud of the industrial age.
One of the most persistent frauds is the claim that it is the most technologically advanced form of electricity generation available. In fact, the global nuclear inventory is ageing and, as safety fears mount, it delivers ever-decreasing load factors (efficiency) and availability (the amount of time when energy is produced). The industry persistently claims that past operational problems are being resolved with each successive advance in reactor design and waste management improvement. It is forever promising that technological leaps will bring the cost of nuclear-derived power inexorably down.
The advocates of nuclear power now see the current economic and climate crises as an opportunity. Nuclear power still holds onto its reputation as a clean source of energy since it produces neither acid-rain precursors nor CO2 emissions, and does not rely on relatively short-term finite fuel resources. Yet, despite this continually revamped argument, nuclear power cannot address either the prohibitive costs reality nor the safety issues that inevitably arise from an energy source created by fallible humans attempting to harness a power source hotter than the sun. It also hinders rather than advances the path to a low-carbon future.
This article will explain why the periodically disgraced nuclear dream is so dangerous, explain the political power that the industry can mobilise, and resist the arguments of supporters of nuclear power, such as George Monbiot, within the climate movement.
Today, nuclear power accounts for some 10.5% of all electricity generated worldwide. This power comes from a total of 457 reactors across a total of 31 countries.Initially, the promotion of nuclear power generation was limited to the post-war ‘spheres of influence’ contest between the Soviet Union and the USA that extended their influence via the means of offering client states a various range of infrastructural vanity projects. This arrangement was later complicated by the rift opened up between the USSR and China, mainly in the Indian sub-continent, with India and Pakistan respectively choosing Russia and China as economic allies.
Another factor was the post-war craze for the developing economies (‘Third World’ in the terminology of the time) to obtain sexy totemic technologies that marked their entry into the ‘First World’ via the procurement of mega-projects that gave swagger-power to the various state bureaucracies but little in terms of gross benefits to what remained impoverished populations. This often proved to be the case in countries where gross electricity demand was low and where the necessary distribution and supply networks were near non-existent.
In fact, what these projects did, via the means of fuel-cycle and operational technology, was to increase the subordination of developing states. Any illusions of sovereign security of supply and energy self-sufficiency, printed on the tin of the latest Pressurised Water Reactor or Boiling Water variants, were quickly blown out of the water. Operational ‘teething troubles’, low load factors and poor availabilities left developing states unable to pay off debts acquired throughout the construction, commissioning and life-time operation of reactors that had not been needed in the first place.
Nuclear power relies on the controlled heat energy released by the separation (fission) of the nucleus of an enriched heavy radioactive element, in most cases Uranium235. This process is therefore closely related to that of the uncontrolled fission of a nuclear weapon. With further ‘enrichment’, a totally artificial and radioactive element, Plutonium, can be created: the stuff of thermo-nuclear ‘hydrogen’ bombs. Consequently, it has always been a matter of international concern that civil nuclear programmes may well lead down the road to nuclear arms proliferation.
From its inception in 1956 at Windscale (now Sellafield) in Cumbria, nuclear power in the UK has been driven by the military imperatives of weapons grade material: supporting US missile ambitions, offering a means of repaying the US-UK lend-lease debts, while ensuring that by ownership of a military nuclear programme, that the UK would be ensured a seat on the UN Security Council. In this regard the post-war Labour government was as culpable as successive Tory administrations.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was established in order to promote nuclear power, albeit within a tightly set-down set of protocols policed by the United Nations. However, by this point nuclear weapons ownership had already expanded beyond the post-war Cold War four of the US, USSR, France and the UK to China, India, Pakistan and Israel.
The other IAEA concerns were the standardisation of operating standards, mainly in order to create a safety culture as well as control over the fuel cycle and the manufacture of fuel rods and subsequent ‘waste management’. The latter issue was never satisfactorily resolved either technically or economically. What these arrangements have ensured, though, are techno-dependencies whereby fuel-cycle management has been out-sourced to the wealthier ‘nuclear club’ states for fuel manufacture, enrichment and the alchemy of fuel recycling.
Reactor enigma variations: jam tomorrow
Over some 55 years of reactor design and development, little in the way of a standard ‘safe’ reactor consensus has arisen. This is largely due to state-sponsored nuclear competition looking for export opportunities.
Initially, the design of reactors was a military thing. In the case of the US, this meant a Pressurised Water cooled Reactor (PWR), which over time became the dominant and preferred reactor for US power utilities. Elsewhere, designs favoured other means of moderating (slowing down) neutron release via different core materials such as graphite or heavy water, while others favoured different primary heat/cooling cycle systems such as pressurised light (ordinary) water, heavy water, gas (usually carbon dioxide) or sodium (liquid salt). But whatever the means, the sole object remains to raise super-heated steam in order to drive a steam turbine in order to produce electricity via an alternator. Whatever the glitz, nuclear power is a steam-age technology.
For over 50 years, nuclear power in its civilian guise has promised clean and infinite energy at a price ‘too cheap to meter’. In every respect, it has failed abysmally: due to impossible engineering challenges, rocketing costs, ever-demanding and failing safety systems and a perpetually irresolvable economic and technical waste management issue. Despite the continual claims that, ‘this time we have really got it right’, there is still no standard and generic design and operational culture.
When this is combined with newer imported costs and construction delays, the consequence has been that nuclear power has never been able to operate in a ‘free’ market, without state subsidies and a skewed regulatory environment.
Meanwhile, epic nuclear ‘incidents’ such as Windscale (now called Sellafield) (1957), Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) have all resulted in massive nuclear releases to the outside environment with melt-downs and huge reactor fires beyond the scope of established safety procedures. With each such incident, the nuclear ‘community’ has had to pause, think and then go into inventive mode regarding another excuse and a massive falsehood regarding the extent of environmental damage and long-term radiological health assessments.
Then, after a respectful moment of silence, this has been followed by another vast PR offensive, garnished with even more Jam Tomorrow.
An energy technology looking for a cause
Nuclear power has met each set-back with a new justification for its existence: security of supply, cheap power, clean power, infinite power and a source of power beyond the control of working class militancy (in the case of the UK, the miners). And at each challenge, a new fall.
But with the realisation of an impending climate catastrophe, the advocates of nuclear finally think that they have a irrefutable case. As nuclear power has no operational CO2 footprint, it is touted as the environmental answer for clean and sustainable baseload power. They foresee a new and massive worldwide programme of nuclear reactor construction, standardisation and replication costs that will set generating costs on a downwards trajectory.
One persistent argument is that the ‘replication costs savings’ would be possible if only the industry world-wide could agree on one generic reactor design that could be used as the architecture for an ongoing sequence of revisions. The new basic stations could be built in line to growing capacity demand and with an actual reduction in capital costs as new orders came on stream. Not so much as jam tomorrow as pie in the sky.
However, such ‘replication savings’ arguments persisted within the UK nuclear cabal up until 1988, where at the Hinkley Point C nuclear inquiry, the UK Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) insisted that the Hinkley Point PWR would be the first-born of a ‘small family’ of UK PWRs. This claim was blown out of the water by evidence submitted by the National Union of Mineworkers.
The nearest thing that an international nuclear agreement has come to is an emerging view that the Pressurised Water Reactor offers the best basic model upon which future reactors should be based. The US Westinghouse (now General Electric) AP100 PWR is now being copied by China as an export model within its developing ‘sphere of influence’. It also forms the basis for technically and economically disastrous ‘third generation’ European PWR (EWR) at Flamanville in Normandy and Olkiuoto in Finland. The EWR is also the reactor of choice for the massive cost and schedule over-running Hinkley Point C project in the UK, and has been accepted as the design favourite for China’s Taishan 1 project which started in December 2018.
A little jam today?
Beyond the third generation of PWRs there are a number of other technical options on offer. Hitherto aimed at big capacity baseload units of reactors with a 1,000 Megawatt plus output, the nuclear industry has been looking at the development of smart grids with response capabilities for inputs from more intermittent small scale units. Within this scenario, smaller and more operationally flexible nuclear reactors are envisaged: the so-called new generation of Small Modular Reactors with capacity sizes down to as small as 10 MWe. Such SMRs could be prefabricated and shoe-horned into existing conventional power station sites.
But even if operationally proved as safe and capable of high load factors, SMRs would hardly contribute much to the capacity need as stated by the advocates of nuclear power. Given that the SMRs will be little more than down-scaled versions of already tried and tested failed reactor designs, there is little reason to expect them to behave over time little better than their bigger grand-parents.
Moreover, funding for nuclear research and development (R&D) drains from the pittance devoted to R&D for renewable energy, and the development large scale storage batteries and disaggregated smart grids which could do so much to create baseload potential for otherwise intermittent and ‘micro’ renewables.
It is a dangerous fantasy to think that nuclear power is best placed to replace fossil fuel power production. According to the International Energy Agency, the installed global power generating capacity as of 2018 was:
All fossil fuels
All renewables, including:
Statistics compiled and amended by Dr T. Wang, Statista, 3 December 2019
Meanwhile, of non-renewable fuel sources, in terms of total % global electrical power consumed:
Non-renewable fuel source
% total global electrical power consumed (2017-18)
IEA World Energy Outlook 2019.
The projection of a 65% nuclear capacity to replace all fossil fuel power plant by 2040 does not just mean the replacement of all existing carbon power generation. It also means an immediate programme for replacing all existing nuclear power plants, two thirds of which will be due for end-of-life decommissioning within the next five to ten years anyway. With no standardised reactor type and operational culture, this would mean 65% of global power generating capacity depending on a variety of plant designs for which no commercial insurability safety assurance will be possible.
Then there is the issue of waste management. Given a present 10.5% global nuclear power generation with no waste management consensus, a capacity increase of six times over presents the stuff of nightmares.
The problem of waste recovery, recycling and long-term management (storage) has so far proved insoluble for the nuclear industry. The industry adopted wet storage – large underground cooling pools – pending proper technical waste management. This was meant to be a temporary solution, but it is still used to this day.
In the mid-1970s, the UK BNFL declared a worldwide solution with the development of a Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) to be built at Sellafield in Cumbria. But dogged with a continuous string of technical problems, as well as very real doubts as to the safety of the Thermal Oxide process, the THORP project with a bill in excess of £5 billion was scrapped in 1989. THORP contracts worth many billions of dollars were force majeured, and nuclear states such as Canada, France, Japan and Sweden were asked to take their waste back home.
According to a 2019 report, some 250,000 tonnes of highly radioactive spent fuel material is in wet storage in some 14 countries awaiting a waste storage solution that will never come. Meanwhile, some 2 billion tonnes of uranium mining ‘tailings’ and process waste remain untreated and with no treatment or financial liabilities settlements in sight.
This is the legacy for future generations that 65 years of nuclear folly has bequeathed. Long-life and long half-life waste radioactive elements, isotopes and their ‘daughter’ products that will last further into the future that human civilisation has taken to reach this moment.
Virtually all of the statistical information referenced above was compiled before the present Covid-19 pandemic. It also predates another global economic event: a growing global recession that has so far been eclipsed by the immediate public health disaster. Such pandemics are, like recessions, treated as natural forces: events beyond the comprehension and control of mere mortals like the ‘rational self-interested actor’, much beloved by liberal economists.
Statistics based on real and reliable evidence make projections rooted in a status quo, which itself presumes business as usual. From such vulgar assumptions, trends are discernible and tendencies towards increasing capital accumulation, urbanisation and population growth can be factored in as verities based on a dismal human condition, unfettered population growth and the persistence of the rule of capital and the inevitability of capricious markets.
Against such projections the IEA and an ever-predatory World Nuclear Association now draw on the undeniable probability of worst-case climate catastrophe to create a new age for nuclear power need. So from a current 10.5% of nuclear generated power, we have to envisage a CO2 abated 2040 where nuclear power will provide 62% of electricity. This means that 70% of all currently operating reactors will have been replaced and that every 40 years or so, all reactor capacity will have to have been renewed.
This means that forever, humanity will have to exist on the brink of a barely containable climate threat, and a source of dangerous energy at barely affordable prices for the bulk of the global population- and that forever, the deceptive alchemy of waste management will remain the radioactive legacy for generations to come. Such a projection is both hopeless and apocalyptic. It offers an eternity of business worse than usual, and it offers a totally fraudulent scenario.
Furthermore, it denies the human capacities of both hope and redemption through struggle. It denies the organised agency of a proletarian class that by 2009 (by UN estimates) had already come to comprise over 52% of the world’s population. Statistical apologists for capitalism and its compendium of various barbaric imperialist scenarios may interpret the world in many ways, but it still remains the role of a revolutionary working class to change it. For the better.
 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report 2019.
 The PWR and BWR reactor types use ‘light’- ordinary water in the primary and secondary cooling cycles.
 The IAEA was set up as an ‘independent’ agency in 1957 for the promotion of ‘Atoms for Peace’. It is located in Vienna and has 171 member states. It reports to both the UN general and Security Councils.
 Former Secretary of State for Energy Tony Benn in his statement of case for the NUM at the Hinkley Point Inquiry, went on to describe the UK Magnox reactors as little more than ‘bomb factories’.
 Israel is neither a member state of the IEA nor a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.
 The ‘fuel cycle’ covers the process of mining Uranium or to the manufacture of nuclear fuel and its waste ‘management’.
 The so-called ‘Nuclear Club’ presently comprises Argentina, Belarus, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, India, Japan, Pakistan, Russia, S Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, Ukraine, UK and US.
 Heavy water is water with a molecule of oxygen plus two isotopes of deuterium- a hydrogen ‘heavy’ isotope with two electrons as opposed to the usual one.
 Baseload power is electricity from a reliable round-the-clock source not subject to daily or seasonal interruption.
 ‘Replication savings’ are the economic benefits arising from series production: i.e. the ‘economies of scale’. In the UK such replication benefits were promised with the Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors (AGRs) which now make up all but one of the UK nuclear inventory. In this case the ‘savings’ ended up as double the original project cost.
 The 1986-89 Hinkley Point Inquiry was for an original proposal involving a Westinghouse Type AP100 PWR. The present Hinkley Point project presently taking place is based on an Areva/EdF European PWR (EWR).
 NUM Proof of Evidence. Parkin et al. Hinkley Point C public inquiry. Proof denied on grounds of ‘misappropriation’ of confidence and ‘purloining’ of information.