Nuclear Power Dossier - Building a Nuclear Power Station

Think nuclear power and you probably think of small amounts of highly radioactive material, safely encased in vast concrete bunkers, generating an endless supply of clean electricity. Yes it's expensive and clearly there is a problem with nuclear waste, but if it is the answer to climate change then why not?

Once a decision has been taken to build a nuclear power station, the question of location arises. Firm foundations are required for a building that has to surpass an ‘Acts of God’ insurance policy for at least 100 years. It also pays for it to be built close to a plentiful water supply, as it requires 30 million gallons daily to act as a coolant to stop generators overheating and prevent catastrophic meltdown. This is a fundamental problem. Sea levels are predicted to rise by half a metre by the end of the century, according to the the ultra-cautious International Panel on Climate Change. It could be less, but it could easily be more. Such a rise threatens every coastline in Britain and around the world, as it brings with it unpredictable weather patterns.

Late last year, a confidential report from Nirex, the then government agency on radioactive waste management, warned that all the UK’s current reactor sites are at risk of flooding or erosion under such conditions. If the Greenland and Western Antarctic ice sheets start melting away, as some experts now predict, sea levels could eventually increase by as much as 12 metres.

Given this, it would not be possible to construct new reactors on old sites, which has been viewed as the ideal option. The ‘piggy backing’ would have circumvented the need for new planning permissions and a public inquiry. As it is, new sites will have to be developed further inland.

To find the right location, geological surveys are undertaken to assess the long-term viability of the land, and answer questions like will it buckle in the event of a long-term drought or sink in the event of an excessive wet period.

In the UK, the industry faces serious logistical problems. On this narrow and densely populated island, where can a new reactor be sited that is away from the coast but near a plentiful water supply and, politically at least, remote from major conurbations? It is easy to speculate where – the Lake District, the Pennines, the Highlands of Scotland – but such remote locations are a major headache for the industry on two counts. First, infrastructure. Developing a remote site would involve a major road building programme; the facility would have to be hooked up to secure power and communication networks, for security reasons probably via underground networks; and a water source tapped into or created, which raises the spectre of dams being constructed.

These are all energy intensive projects that massively dent any emissions benefits promised during the reactor’s generating life and will add dramatically to the costs. A study by the Rand Corporation found that the estimated costs of complex civil engineering projects involving new technology have always escalated by the time of completion, by a factor of between 2-5. Within the nuclear industry, cost escalations with a factor of 10 are not uncommon.

Secondly, being remote increases the amount of electricity that is required to deliver it to consumers, and increases the amount lost through natural wastage en route.

Supposing all these issues are overcome to the satisfaction of the government of the day, wagons will start to roll. Fleets of them. A study for the Canadian nuclear industry gives an indication of what’s involved. Millions of tonnes of steel (1.6 million) and concrete (14 million) need to be manufactured and delivered to the chosen sites. This means hundreds of lorries, consuming millions of gallons of diesel, will thunder towards the site every day during the construction period. The immediate environmental impact will be immense. Tyre dust is more damaging to public health than exhaust fumes, but of course the latter exacerbates climate change. According to the Sustainable Development Committee, for every tonne of Portland cement manufactured, a tonne of C02 is released into the atmosphere. The same goes for steel. Core reactor parts will most likely be manufactured in Japan and shipped over.

All of this only hints at the enormity of the project. A nuclear power station is not a singular building as the name implies. It is a facility comprising of around 10 auxiliary buildings, which act as the central nervous system for the reactor. The eventual footprint of any facility will be between 500-1,000 acres, including the exclusion zone.

This is merely an approximation of what is involved. The building of a nuclear power plant is a complicated and lengthy process. The prototype European Pressurised Water Reactor (EPR) being built at Olikuoloto in Finland had been 15 years in development by the Franco/German consortium Areva/Siemens before being presented to the Finnish authorities for approval in 2004. Ignoring the political chicanery that has allowed

it to progress to construction in one year, in engineering design terms the reactor can’t possibly have been designed with a 9/11-style terrorist attack in mind. In a highly critical report of the EPR for Greenpeace, John Large of engineering consultants and nuclear analysts, John Large Associates, says in engineering terms it would take at least 10 years to address and resolve such an evident threat, which he describes as a ‘probability, no longer a possibility’.

Although the EPR will, in all likelihood, be used as a blueprint for any UK reactor, it will be far from proven technology. ‘Innovative’ computer systems are being designed to manage the reactor in the event of an emergency shut down, precluding human override. Given the failure of computer systems to manage the NHS, Child Support Agency payments and farmers’ subsidy payments in the UK (to name but a few), it takes a huge leap of faith to believe that a prototype system will work perfectly from the outset. Computer programs only reflect what is known and are not responsive to events that lie outside the designer’s knowledge. With a hugely complex nuclear facility, where even a loose screw or dodgy nozzle can prove catastrophic, there are trillions of potentially fatal permutations.

So ‘advanced’ is the technology that no testing facilities exist for some major components, so we won’t know for certain whether the reactor is up to the job until it’s on the job.

As no nuclear reactor has been built on mainland Europe for 10 years, and the last to be built in the UK was nearly 20 years ago – nearly 30 years ago in the US – who has the expertise to build a reactor, let alone regulate it? ‘It’s a real life nuclear experiment,’ says nuclear expert Harry Lami of Greenpeace.

It can be assumed from the EPR that scheduled build time for any new reactor will be set at an ambitious five years. (One year in, Olikuoloto is nine months behind schedule.) During the construction period, greenhouse gases will be spewing into the atmosphere, fuelling nothing other than climate change. Much of the £2bn it is conservatively estimated a nuclear power station will cost is spent on sourcing the raw materials, their manufacture and their supply, all of which are processes that use energy and cause C02 emissions to rise. If the UK government opts to keep nuclear power supplying 20 per cent of the country’s energy needs, then it is probable that 10 such reactors would have to be built. (Worldwide, 80 new reactors are envisaged.) This is environmental damage that can’t be repaired, and will only intensify the process of climate change now.

To read the full Nuclear Power Dossier click here

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2006

More from this author