As the nuclear tragedy in Fukushima continues to unfold, responses to the disaster have been mixed. In contrast to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s, 'measured exit' from nuclear power, the French nuclear utility Chief Executive of EdF Vincent de Rivaz is still clear that new UK reactors will 'have to go ahead'. I guess the French response may have has something to do with the £12.4 billion they have already spent on buying British Energy’s UK nuclear sites.
Meanwhile the Coalition energy minister Chris Huhne has called on the HSE Chief Nuclear Inspector, Dr. Mike Weightman for a 'thorough report on the implications of the situation in Japan and the lessons to be learned'. However, the outcome of this review seems preordained – in his letter to the HSE, Huhne says that he 'wants to ensure that any lessons learned from Mike Weightman’s report are applied to the UK’s new build programme'. Here, Huhne seems to be pre-empting the HSE review by stating that, despite the sets of core concerns raised by Japans nuclear disaster, there still will be a new UK nuclear build programme.
All this points to the key difference between new build rhetoric and the reality of nuclear risk. Despite the unending round of nuclear consultations over the last few years, there remain fundamental questions that still need to be answered about ‘what if’ issues such as nuclear fuel supply and manufacture, vulnerability to attack, rad-waste, radiation risk, decommissioning, reactor coastal siting, nuclear costs and accident liabilities.
Leading energy analysts have warned that nuclear does not provide answers to our energy supply problems. Prof Tom Burke, Founding Director of E3G, says that 'neutering the planning system, capping the cost of radioactive waste management, continuing to accept the bulk of the nuclear industry’s third party liabilities and putting in a floor price for carbon has not been enough to make nuclear economic'. In a recent report, Steve Thomas, Professor of Energy Policy at the Public Services International Research Unit states that 'nuclear construction has gone dramatically wrong at the sites where it is being built; Reactor orders, if placed at all, will be far later than expected; Safety approval in France, UK and USA is incomplete and regulatory approval may add significantly to costs'.
Pressure to cut costs
Recall also that our current rad-waste liability has gone from £50 billion in mid 2000’s to £70-80 billion at present, and rising. Add to this £10+ billion liability for British Energy’s plant, which are now owned by EDF, and their decommissioning liability, which still falls on the British public.
Equally disturbing is that economic efficiency seems to be driving reactor design as, following the liberalisation of the EU energy market, the nuclear industry has been incentivised to become more competitive. The industry, realising that a decrease in costs could be achieved if reactor power could be increased by using more uranium as reactor fuel and keeping the rods in longer, have plans to effectively ‘super-charge’ their new Generation III reactors. But this also means that this ‘high burn-up’ spent fuel will be significantly more radioactive than conventional spent fuel, performing very poorly when subject to abnormal conditions it is liable to release a much higher content of its fission product inventory than earlier generation nuclear designs, and on a micro-scale its ceramic oxide matrix may prove highly friable and fragmented - which has implications for its interim storage and eventual disposal in the long term. All this means that the proposed reactors will be operating within a much tighter safety envelope.
And of course, lets not omit climate change impact on nuclear sites. The new reactors, containing 2.5 times the radiological inventory as our current largest reactor, together with their radioactive waste stores including spent fuel, will be located on coasts vulnerable to sea-level rise, flooding, storm surge, and subject to ‘nuclear islanding’. Rather worryingly, the Institute of Mechanical Engineers states that 'nuclear sites such as Sizewell, which is based on the coastline, may need considerable investment to protect it against rising sea levels, or even abandonment/relocation in the long term'. This seems concerning, as Sizewell is a strong favourite as a site for new reactors. Equally puzzling are nuclear industry plans for the Oldbury site, located on the highest category of flood risk from the river Severn (a Flood Zone 3), and at risk from severe run-off and co-lateral flooding from the surrounding hills, making its river-facing flood defences unworkable.
As we’ve seen in Japan, the risk to people, the environment and to the nuclear programme as a consequence of a major incident is very significant. Although under recent Government proposals, companies operating nuclear stations in the UK could be liable for up to 1.2 billion euros clean-up costs, this sum doesn’t begin to pay for the real costs of a major nuclear accident. Here, it’s unfortunate to reflect that, whilst UK civil nuclear infrastructures are uniquely implicated in all four ‘tier one’ threats identified in the recent Defence White Paper, the nuclear safety case for the French AREVA EPR design for the HSE regulatory Generic Design Assessment maintains that for the most severely damaging, very worst reasonably foreseeable event, including terrorist attack; the minimum rate of release in the form of a containment bypass would not exceed 0.03 per cent of the core reactor inventory per day.
In contrast, renewable energy supply does not present the kind of high-impact threat that nuclear does. Prof Andy Stirling, Director of Science for Science Policy Research Unit, says that 'there is no scenario at all – unlikely or otherwise – under which renewable energy technologies can render significant areas of land effectively uninhabitable for decades, let alone commit large populations to the potential long-term (and untraceable) harm of elevated low doses of ionising radiation'. And a coherent energy policy future is more than possible: 'It is already the case that global annual construction rates for renewable energy capacity far exceed those for nuclear'.
As Keith Barnham, Emeritus Professor of Physics at Imperial College, reminds us: 'Germany has installed more wind power capacity than the entire current UK nuclear capacity, and is adding to it at a rate equivalent to more than one new reactor a year. Furthermore, in 2009 alone Germany installed solar photovoltaic systems with capacity equivalent to approximately four nuclear reactors, and it looks like the 2010 figures will be much higher'.
Costly and risky
Regulatory difficulty in accounting for new reactor nuclear fuel performance and characteristics, and rather heroic industry expectations for the safety of the nuclear island containment, suggest that there may not be sufficient information to base an assessment whether the benefits of new nuclear build outweigh economic and environmental detriments. Any failure to account for these concerns generates public mistrust, and may leave the Coalition open to legal challenge.
Experience suggest that nuclear has been an economically unreliable option, failing to meet cost and construction targets. Proposed expansion of nuclear investment is likely to divert increasingly scarce resources away from other energy options, and as recent history demonstrates, it tends to be the taxpayer who ends up with major liabilities following corporate over-reach.
In the context of public trust in the governance of nuclear risk, the HSE review on new nuclear must now take all evidence in public, involve and include a legitimately broad range of experts, and seek out a diverse set of views about the viability of new nuclear build in the UK. If the Government is serious about ‘learning the lessons’ from Fukushima, and weighing their impact on plans for new nuclear build in the UK, the Nuclear Consultation Group welcomes the opportunity to work with the HSE review in an open and transparent way.
Dr Paul Dorfman is a Senior Researcher at the University of Warwick and a member of the Nuclear Consultation Group, a broad alliance of 50 leading UK academics and experts
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