Saved by the Atom

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Well, now we have it; nuclear power is once again going to save the day. In the past it helped save us from coal, now it is going to save us, if the rest of the world follows our example, from global warming.

In March this year, John Hutton, Business Minister, announced to UNITE, a trade union with 26,000 members in the energy sector, that not only will we be replacing the existing 24 reactors, which give us some 20 per cent of our electricity, but we will go much further and presumably attempt to achieve what France has done, with more than three-quarters of its electricity coming from nuclear generation. We will, announced Hutton, create not just a £20,000 million industry, but also 100,000 new jobs. As a reference point, he referred to Sizewell B which – post 1994 – took seven years to build and employed 4000 people in its construction, from some 3000 British companies.

Phew, problem over. We can forget our hand-wringing as to whether or not the ‘renewables’ will make it and all that discussion about unsightly wind turbines littering the landscape, especially given their unpredictability and whether or not the wind is blowing.

Were it as easy as that. We are again being deceived into thinking that nuclear power will somehow enable us to keep going with our consumer lifestyles without jeopardising our futures because of global warming or indeed because the world is running out of oil, with demand running ahead of new discoveries. As we shall see, it is a dangerous deceit and whatever the pros and cons, nuclear power can never be the panacea for the world’s energy problems and certainly not take on the role as the ‘green’, low-carbon-emitting answer to climate change.

And, we have been there before. Those of us, who, in the past, fought against the nuclear power programme on the basis of cost, safety, security, weapons proliferation and continued radioactive contamination, and who participated in public inquiries, ranging from the Windscale Inquiry of the 1970s to the Sizewell B Public Inquiry of the 1990s, and who saw sound, well-presented arguments brushed aside in the inspector’s final report, will have a sense of foreboding that we have gone back to square one. Same old concerns – safety, radioactive waste disposal, security against terrorism or aberrant states, the health impacts of permitted releases of radioactive fission products and transuranics – these are all going to surface again.

And, if we push ahead with a brand new nuclear power programme, can we self-righteously deny suspect countries such as Iran or North Korea the right to build their own ‘civilian’ nuclear reactor? Not that our hands are so clean. In the 1960s and 70s we extracted plutonium via reprocessing from our civilian Magnox reactors and dispatched the fissile material to the United States for their nuclear arsenal.

Deconstructing the myth

It is essential that we deconstruct the myth of nuclear power as an energy source that necessarily results in low greenhouse gas emissions. As William Keepin, energy analyst from the USA, remarked more than 25 years ago, an accelerated programme in OECD countries, to follow in France’s footsteps, and get nuclear power to generate 70 per cent of electricity by 2010, would bring carbon dioxide emissions down by 7 per cent at best in those self same countries. Furthermore, we need to put the UK’s attempts, so far feeble, to reduce carbon emissions, in the context of the overwhelming damage that we in the world are doing to our life-support ecosystems and in particular to tropical rainforests, where destruction may contribute between 20 and 30 per cent to total annual carbon emissions.

And, if we are going to be serious about substituting nuclear power for fossil fuel powered electricity generation in the world, so as to make a difference, we would need an urgent, production line programme to build at least 5,000 gigawatt-sized reactors by 2020. Every two days we would have to start on the construction of a new reactor, with the programme costing at least, £20 million-million, or some thousand times the cost of the proposed nuclear construction programme over the next two decades in the UK. Moreover, after one generation of say 30 to 40 years, the whole cycle would have to start all over again.

Even if we could find enough suitable sites to put up all the reactors and enough water to cool them, the massive costs involved must surely put nuclear power well out of reach of all but a handful of nations. And where would nuclear power be without using fossil fuels for uranium mining, for processing the ore, for preparing reactor fuel, for constructing the reactor, the cooling ponds and the reprocessing plant, the electricity connection, let alone for the casks used in transporting spent fuel, whether by rail, sea or road? In effect, fossil fuels have subsidized nuclear power and will continue to do so. In that respect, the cost of nuclear power generation cannot be divorced from the costs of fossil fuel use, and as those costs rise, so too will the costs of nuclear power. Indeed, a carbon tax on fossil fuels would lead automatically to higher construction and maintenance costs for nuclear power.

Nor are carbon emissions so minimal, and as we will see, will exceed those from fossil fuel use once a major worldwide nuclear programme gets underway. In that context, the UK government’s efforts to promote nuclear power as a solution are creating a dangerous example. In France, where some 60 nuclear power stations generate 375 terawatt-hours (TWh = one million-million watt-hours) annually, CO2 emissions amount to more than 13 million tonnes, or about 9 per cent of France’s total emissions, according to the Öko-Institute of Germany, which takes into consideration everything that goes into making nuclear power stations operate. That includes the mining of uranium, uranium enrichment to raise the proportion of fissionable material in the fuel, the construction of the reactor, the extraction and then reprocessing of spent fuel, the disposal and long-term safeguarding of radioactive waste, and finally the decommissioning of the reactor.

Nor is that the end of the story. The average household in an industrialised country such as the UK consumes two-thirds of the energy in the home for heating and just one-third for electrical appliances. Even in France with its subsidised nuclear power, consumers prefer to use natural gas-fired boilers and cookers for hot water, space-heating and cooking rather than resort to expensive electricity.

And were we to be persuaded to use electricity for everything in the house, including heating, we would push up demands on the electricity supply industry to the point where considerably more generating capacity would have to be built. To maintain the supply so that householders can get what they want at the flick of a switch, requires capacity to be built which may get used only at peak times. Meanwhile, to ensure an instantaneous response to demand, power stations need to be ticking over, as ‘spinning reserve’. France, for instance, has a total installed capacity of over 110,000 megawatts (electricity) of which 63,000 MW is from nuclear plants. A significant proportion of that capacity is now used inefficiently to meet peak loads. In fact, the daily peak load for electricity in winter reaches 70,000 MW, which is more than three times the load that may be encountered in summer.

Currently we obtain uranium from the best ores, with an uranium content of about 0.2 per cent. At that concentration, about 96,000 tonnes of uranium-containing rock and shale have to be mined just to provide the fresh fuel for one large PWR – pressurized water reactor – such as Sizewell B. Even before getting to the ore, vast quantities of overburden have to be shifted. The ore is partially processed on site and what gets left behind as tailings is dangerously radioactive with thorium, radium and radon gas. Radon from a mine has been found as far as 1000 miles away. The radioactivity of fresh fuel to run a PWR for a year amounts to some 10 curies, the tailings some 60 curies. After a year in the reactor, the fuel becomes enormously radioactive, to the tune of 170 million curies, with all the potential to contaminate large swathes of countryside, as occurred following the Chernobyl accident in May 1986.

Just one such accident in the UK, or even across the Channel in France, could put paid to agriculture for a hundred years to come, let alone to the need to evacuate millions of people, at least for their lifetimes.

Today’s reactors, totalling some 350 GW(e) provide three per cent of the total energy used in the world, for which they consume some 60,000 tonnes of natural uranium each year. At that rate, economically recoverable reserves of uranium – some 10 million tonnes – would last less than 100 years. A worldwide nuclear programme of some 1000 nuclear reactors would consume the uranium within 50 years, and if all the world’s electricity, currently some 60 exajoules or 17,000 terawatt-hours (million million watt-hours), was generated by nuclear reactors such economic reserves of uranium would last just four years.

True, the world contains masses of uranium, millions upon millions of tonnes. The rub is that the average in the crust is 0.0004 per cent and in seawater 2,000 times more dilute. We would have to expend vastly more energy than could ever be gained extracting such uranium for use in a nuclear reactor – an exercise as fruitless as trying to gather wind in the Doldrums. Even at much better concentrations, such as in the Tennessee shales in the United States, which has uranium concentrations between 0.1 and 0.01 per cent, the amount of electricity gained per unit mass of mined ore hardly makes the exercise worthwhile.

Nuclear power on a grand-scale will not only cost us dear in economic terms, but will lead to greater greenhouse gas emissions than if we had never embarked on such a programme. In fact, below 50 parts per million, the energy extracted is no better than mining coal, assuming that the uranium is used in a once-through fuel cycle, and is not reprocessed, but is dumped in some long-term repository. Apart from the self-evident dangers of dissolving spent fuel in acid and keeping the bulk of radioactive waste in stainless steel tanks until a final disposal is found, reprocessing offers very little, if at all, in terms of energy gained through the extraction and re-use of uranium and plutonium in mixed oxide fuel (MOX).

Once the nuclear industry has to resort to poorer ores, a gas-fired combined cycle power station, or a cogeneration plant that simultaneously generates electricity and heat for domestic and industrial use, comes out better in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. And if we were to have a co-generation system that ran on biogas, then emissions of carbon dioxide would be seven times less than a nuclear power/natural gas combination, such as is currently used in the majority of French households. Indeed, if the consumer were to obtain both electricity and heating from a single co-generation system; the efficiency returns can amount to as much as 90 per cent of the original energy and, therefore, some three times better than if nuclear generated electricity were to be the sole source of energy in the home.

Looking ahead to local

A proper evaluation of greenhouse gas emissions therefore demands that the method of production gets taken into account when estimating the total release of greenhouse gases. Both coal and fuel oil used in a co-generation plant are still inferior by a factor of two to a nuclear power/natural gas combination in terms of greenhouse emissions. But that figure is already far-removed from the 300 times advantage so heralded by the nuclear industry and its supporters when comparing nuclear power electricity generation with coal. Meanwhile, a natural gas co-generation system is level-pegging with the nuclear power/natural gas combination again in terms of emissions, while being far cheaper to the consumer simply because of the three fold better efficiency in delivering end-use energy.

Increasingly too, local ‘ embedded ’ generation, such as from a wind farm, or a co-generation plant, is a challenge to the notion of single large power plants attached to a central grid. In a world ever more competitive in terms of reducing cost, an inefficient, high capital cost nuclear power plant, requiring impregnable security in an increasingly turbulent world, is an anachronism, and especially so when we take into account the limitations imposed by the quality of the uranium ore.

The renewables will undoubtedly make a valuable contribution to our energy needs, especially when tied in with more efficient end-use and energy conservation practices. Were wind-machines to provide 20 per cent of UK requirements, therefore 80 TWh (terawatt-hours), they would cover just over 1 per cent of the total UK land area in terms of the space required between each machine. In principle, the UK could meet up to 20 per cent of its current electricity needs from the use of land-based wind-turbines. Add to that offshore wind-turbines and the proportion could go up significantly and certainly surpass nuclear power’s current contribution of 25 per cent of all electricity generated in the UK.

Critics of wind power in particular and the renewables in general make much of their intermittency – the fact that they do not deliver a steady source of electricity hour by hour throughout the year. But all these assessments are based on the notion that the electricity to the consumer, will be supplied through a central grid system, mainly from large power stations. We should instead be going hell-bent for a system that relies increasingly on local, ‘embedded’ generation. For instance the use of efficient combined heat and power plants, or indeed of hydrogen burning fuel cells, tied in with intermittent generators such as wind, wave power, tidal power and photovoltaics, would significantly reduce the overall need for generating capacity without diminishing the quality of life one jot.

Systems that do just that have been in operation for at least 30 years and were part and parcel of small-scale generating systems used in isolated dwellings and communities, both in the UK and in countries such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and Colombia. The idea is simple. A fluctuating source of electricity, such as from a mini-hydro scheme is sent to an electronic black box that divides the power into two streams, one to a heating circuit and the other to the fuse box for lights and power points. When the electricity is not being used to run appliances, what is left over goes to storage-heaters, immersion coils and even storage-heater cooking stoves. The amount of power available ultimately limits the number of appliances that can be switched on at any one moment.

Imagine the use of such black boxes throughout the UK: they could be set to allow in a set amount of electrical capacity. When the household was asleep and using minimal appliance power, the electricity entering the building would pass automatically through to heating circuits. In effect, each household would be granted base-load requirements that could be regulated from month to month, season to season, with all the electricity within that requirement being used up between the two circuits.

Were the demand to go above the set amount, then the consumer would pay heavily for the marginal costs of bringing in more electricity. Such a system would not only reduce the need for generating capacity but it could be made to work extremely well through the combination of intermittent sources and an embedded, highly efficient electricity generator such as a biofuel burning CHP plant. Essentially the back-up plant is there to take up the slack and once the levels of electricity supplied by the intermittent source, such as from wind turbines, approaches a set critical point, then the back-up system would automatically come on stream, levelling off as the wind came back and then switching off when the wind had reached full strength. The management of such a system could be left to electronic controls combined with self-responsibility to ensure that household electricity use remains within pre-determined limits.

But, we are going nuclear and the UK government is taking us back into a world of old-fashioned concepts that by now should have had their day. A nuclear power programme will cost us dear, if not the Earth.

Peter Bunyard is the science editor of the Ecologist magazine, and a widely published freelance author and environmentalist. He has worked as consultant editor for the United Nations Environment Programme review on Industry and the Environment, and was secretary and editor of the Committee for the Study of Nuclear Economics. A fellow of the Linnean Society, he has conducted field work in the Colombian Amazon on the role of rainforests in global warming.

He lives in Cornwall, and has two grandchildren.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2008

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