Why the nuclear option is.... the nuclear option
It's hard to know where to start on this question. Given the clean, green successful alternatives, why would you choose a source of energy with all these problems?
Can you think of a better target for terrorists than a nuclear power station?
Neither can the experts...
The Oxford Research Group has been looking into the different risks presented by nuclear power. It has concluded that there are six main ways in which terrorists could make use of it.
- Stealing fissile material and making a primitive nuclear bomb.
- Attacking a nuclear power reactor or waste-fuel cooling pond.
- Attacking tanks at Sellafield holding high-level radioactive liquid waste.
- Attacking a plutonium store at Sellafield or other locations in the UK.
- Attacking nuclear fuel or waste in transit.
- Using a 'dirty bomb', to spread radioactive material.
The Oxford Research Group said in its evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee in Parliament in 2005, "It is hard to think of a nuclear terrorist attack which could, at least in theory, be more catastrophic than a successful attack on... Sellafield "
They estimated that the terrible accident at Chernobyl in 1986 released about 4 percent of the radioactivity that would likely be released by an attack on the cooling tanks at Sellafield.
Depending on weather conditions, the dispersal of just one kilogram of the 71kg of solid plutonium held at Sellafield would mean the evacuation of 300 square kilometres of northern England.
There are more than a dozen locations in the UK where a successful attack which released only 2% of the plutonium held at each site would mean an evacuation on the scale of the Chernobyl disaster.
Could this really happen?
There is a mountain of evidence that terror groups have already made attempts on vulnerable nuclear targets around the world, and security breaches happen all the time.
- Worldwide, at least six unsuccessful terrorist attacks on nuclear plants have already occurred.
- In 2004-5 over 40 security breaches occured at nuclear sites in the UK.
- Since 1999, there have been more than 80 breaches of 'no fly zones' around the UK's civil and military nuclear installations.
- Plans of nuclear power stations in the UK were found in the car of a suspect linked to the July 2005 London bombings.
- Statements from Al-Qaeda have suggested that a nuclear power station was amongst the original set of targets for September 2001.
In a demonstration of how lax security can be at some of our nuclear sites, activists from Greenpeace have twice gained access to the Sizewell B nuclear power station in Suffolk.
The storage and disposal of spent fuel and waste presents even easier targets for terrorists as these are less securely guarded than the reactors themselves.
In October 2005, it was revealed that trains transporting nuclear waste from power stations in Somerset to Sellafield were left unguarded for hours in sidings close to houses and a school.
Gloucestershire Green Party's Phillip Booth commented, "Two years ago Greens called for a full, open public inquiry into all the issues surrounding the movement of this fuel. We are still waiting. That time we made the call following a derailment of a fortunately empty, nuclear waste train in Bridgwater.
"Other incidents have also occurred and we are concerned that radioactive contamination has been found in the train wagon dirt and in soil. This latest lapse with the trains left in the sidings unguarded makes the need for an enquiry all the more urgent."
What kind of terrorist target does the home insulation industry or a windfarm represent?
Rather than removing our civil liberties, the Green Party believes that the government should be removing our vulnerabilities to these kinds of attacks by shutting down the nuclear industry as soon as possible and investing in safer forms of energy.
The first serious nuclear accident happened in 1957: a reactor fire at Windscale (Sellafield) three years after the first nuclear power station was opened.
Since then, serious accidents have been rare, but regular occurances.
- 1977 Dounreay, UK - an explosion in a shaft dug to store waste exploded, contaminating a large area of sea and coastline.
- 1979 Three Mile Island, USA - water cooling systems failed and the plant only narrowly avoided a complete meltdown.
- 1995 Monju, Japan - a serious sodium leak, which ignited and melted parts of the infrastructure, led to this experimental fast-breeder reactor being shut down.
- 1999 Tokaimura, Japan - a mistake led to 6 times the normal amount of uranium being added to a tank of nitric acid, and the release of large amounts of radioactive gas.
- 2001 Chapelcross, UK - fuel rods were dropped during removal and a major fire was only just avoided.
- 2005 THORP, UK - 20 tonnes of highly radioactive nitric acid containing plutonium and uranium leaked from a cracked pipe into a secondary container, leading to the shut-down of the reprocessing plant, which has not yet reopened.
The most famous and serious accident happened at Chernobyl in the USSR (now Ukraine) in 1986. One of the plant's reactors exploded, sending a plume of radioactive particles across most of Europe.
Parts of the UK are still contaminated by the fallout from Chernobyl.
But with Chernobyl we were lucky: lucky the area was sparsely populated, and lucky that most people were evacuated soon after the accident.
But this was an area the size of Wales. How lucky do we feel with millions living close to our nuclear plants?
Many UK nuclear power stations are also sited in coastal areas, some in acknowledged high flood-risk areas. As global warming takes effect, these stations may become unusable and pose a high risk of contamination.
The storage of radioactive waste produced by the nuclear power industry means hidden costs and yet more risks, for us and for thousands of generations far into the future.
In the UK we already have 2.3 million cubic metres of nuclear waste in storage, and the introduction of new power stations will lead to a higher volume and a doubling of the amount of radioactivity in our nuclear waste legacy.
If the Romans had invented nuclear power, the spent fuel from their power stations would still be around today - and still be just as dangerous as it was 2,000 years ago.
No long-term solution to the waste problem has been found.
The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) is an independent committee appointed by the UK Government which was set up in 2003 to review the options for managing the UK's radioactive waste.
CoRWM will make its final recommendations in June 2006 - after the end of the public consultation on the Energy Review.
In America, plans to use Yucca mountain in Nevada as a long-term waste storage facility have faltered as the geological stability of the area has fallen into doubt.
After being told that any dump should be viable for a million years, one government geologist commented that the huge timescale, "effectively negates high level waste storage or disposal at any site, above or below ground".
Would you buy anything from a salesman who couldn't tell you the full cost of his product?
'Too cheap to meter' turned out to be a bad joke, but the head of the US Atomic Energy Commission, who said this in the fifties, believed it at the time.
Today's industry pronouncements that power stations can be built much more cheaply than before should be treated with skepticism by everyone without a vested interest.
The history of nuclear power is riddled with cost over-runs and the need for huge government subsidies that weren't included in the original estimates.
Privatised nuclear generator British Energy had to be bailed out by taxpayers with £12 billion in 2002 after reaching the point of financial collapse, and studies by the government in 1989, 1995, and 2002 all concluded that in a liberalised electricity market, private industry would not build nuclear power plants without government subsidies and guarantees.
New nuclear build would need subsidies that would include:
- caps on construction costs and subsidies for over-runs
- price guarantees for the electricity produced, distorting the market for other sources of energy
- caps on the cost of fuel purchase and disposal
- policing and security costs borne by the taxpayer
- guarantees to cover the cost of decommissioning
In January 2006, analysts Standard and Poors said, "Developing new nuclear generation in the deregulated European market environment is a high-risk venture, given the long construction times and high capital costs."
The 2003 Energy White Paper concluded that, "the current economics of nuclear power make it an unattractive option for new generating capacity" and not much has changed in the last two years to make a difference to this conclusion.
Would you give the nuclear industry £1000?
Actually, you have to. In the real world, the cost of decommissioning and waste handling have never been properly included in the cost of nuclear power, and the taxpayer has been left with the bill every time.
Government subsidies given to the nuclear industry between 1990 and 1996 were supposed to be used "to decommission old, unsafe nuclear plants" but were instead spent as cashflow by generating companies.
The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has revised its estimate of the cost of our current store of nuclear waste several times - always upwards, and most recently to £70 billion.
That's more than £1,000 for every person in the country.
Is nuclear power the quick-fix solution we're being told it is?
No. Even if the decision to build new nuclear power stations was made today, and billions of pounds put into it tomorrow, we still wouldn't see one watt of new power in our electricity grid for at least 10 years (industry estimates).
On the other hand, a programme of small-scale renewables would see new capacity coming online within months, and energy-saving benefits could begin straight away.
Time to implementation:
- Nuclear power station - 10 years
- Gas-fired power station - 3 years
- Windfarm - 1-3 years
- Domestic micro-generation - 2-4 weeks
- Changing to an energy-saving lightbulb - 10 seconds
Nuclear power supports fewer jobs than any other kind of energy generation, despite costing the taxpayer more.
However, even closing down the nuclear industry completely would not destroy all the current jobs involved, as the waste already produced will continue to support many workers for thousands of years after electricity production ceases.
Decommissioning nuclear power is set to become a growth industry in its own right, and UK companies like BNFL could stop trying to get new power stations built and seize this opportunity instead, exporting their decommissioning expertise and technology around the world.
Not a global solution
If we expanded our nuclear power programme, would we really want other countries following our example?
And do we want other countries leaping ahead in renewable technology while we play catch-up after uranium becomes hard to find in a few decades?
Our government's's attempts to develop a nuclear power programme is instructive. Clearly, as far the government is concerned, this solution to global climate change is reserved just for us.
Worldwide, efficiency gains plus decentralised renewable sources now add at least ten times as much electricity capacity per year as nuclear power.
These solutions represent the future of global energy supply. If the UK went back to nuclear power now, it would just be a wasteful, dangerous detour from the route to real sustainability.
Not a long-term solution
Even if we wanted to, we couldn't rely on nuclear power for long, particularly if other countries followed us and started their own nuclear programmes.
At current rates of use, it is estimated that the world's reserves of viable uranium ore will be exhausted within 50 years.
If we were to expand nuclear power, the rate of depletion would be even higher.
Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation said, "Nuclear also has a dirty little secret: startlingly there's only a few decades left of the proven high-grade uranium ore it needs for fuel.
"It's also far less climate-friendly than claimed. Once low-grade ore is used, costs go up and all the energy used from mining to decommissioning means it can lead to more carbon emissions than fossil fuel-powered gas generators."
The Royal Academy of Engineering has worked out that, as the availability of high-grade ores decreases, and low-grade ores demand more and more energy input, a point is reached where more energy is used in the process of obtaining nuclear energy than is gained from the fission process.
No matter what the economics, this limitation is always going to restrict the viability of nuclear power.
No solution to climate change
The idea that nuclear power is a magic wand to fight climate change is a dangerous myth.
Nuclear provides only 3.6% of our total energy needs in the UK. Even doubling our nuclear capacity would only result in an 8% reduction in our carbon dioxide emissions.
Worldwide, nuclear power provides just 2.5% of our current energy supply.
To reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by the amount necessary under the Kyoto targets, we would need 1500 power stations, which would result in uranium becoming scarce within just 3 years.
And nuclear is not emissions-free. The mining, processing and transportation of uranium, the building of nuclear power stations, and the transport and storage of nuclear waste, all use fossil fuels and lead to carbon dioxide emissions.
Looking at the whole life cycle of nuclear power, we find that it emits, per unit of electricity generated, 20-40% the carbon dioxide of a gas-fired power station.
Read the Green Party's 2009 report reviewing the evidence
Nuclear terrorism could be catastrophic
Not much of a target
Breaches of no-fly zones around UK nuclear installations - image Oxford Research Group
Sizewell B was broken into by Greenpeace - twice
Yucca Mountain waste storage plans in the USA - image US Nuclear Regulatory Commission