Ten myths about nuclear power
Taken from an article on spiked by Rob Johnston …
Greens opposing nuclear power muddle every issue from terrorism to uranium supplies, in order to besmirch the only proven safe and cost-effective way to generate large amounts of electricity that won't produce large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. One would think that greens don't want a world with abundant energy and a stable climate!
MYTH ONE: Uranium is running out
According to Greenpeace, uranium reserves are 'relatively limited' and last week the Nuclear Consultation Working Group claimed that a significant increase in nuclear generating capacity would reduce reliable supplies from 50 to 12 years.
In fact, there is 600 times more uranium in the ground than gold and there is as much uranium as tin. There has been no major new uranium exploration for 20 years, but at current consumption levels, known uranium reserves are predicted to last for 85 years. Geological estimates from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) show that at least six times more uranium is extractable - enough for 500 years' supply at current demand. Modern reactors can use thorium as a fuel and convert it into uranium - and there is three times more thorium in the ground than uranium.
Uranium is the only fuel which, when burnt, generates more fuel. Not only existing nuclear warheads, but also the uranium and plutonium in radioactive waste can be reprocessed into new fuel, which former UK chief scientist Sir David King estimates could supply 60 per cent of Britain's electricity to 2060.
In short, there is more than enough uranium, thorium and plutonium to supply the entire world's electricity for several hundred years.
MYTH TWO: Nuclear is not a low-carbon option
Anti-nuclear campaigners claim that nuclear power contains 'hidden emissions' of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from uranium mining and reactor construction. But so do wind turbines, built from huge amounts of concrete, steel and plastic.
The OECD analysed the total lifetime releases of GHG from energy technologies and concluded that, taking into account mining of building materials, construction and energy production, nuclear is still a 'lower carbon' option than wind, solar or hydroelectric generation. For example, during its whole life cycle, nuclear power releases three to six grams of carbon per kiloWatthour (GC kWh) of electricity produced, compared with three to 10 GC/kWh for wind turbines, 105 GC/kWh for natural gas and 228 GC/kWh for lignite ('dirty' coal).
Greens, exemplified by the Sustainable Development Commission, place their trust in 'carbon capture and storage' (CCS) to reduce the GHG emissions from coal and gas plants. But carbon capture is, at present, a myth. There is no functioning power station with CCS in the world - not even a demonstration plant - and if it did work, it would still greatly reduce the energy efficiency of any power station where it is installed.
MYTH THREE: Nuclear power is expensive
With all power generation technology, the cost of electricity depends upon the investment in construction (including interest on capital loans), fuel, management and operation. Like wind, solar and hydroelectric dams, the principal costs of nuclear lie in construction. Acquisition of uranium accounts for only about 10 per cent of the price of total costs, so nuclear power is not as vulnerable to fluctuations in the price of fuel as gas and oil generation.
Unlike the UK's existing stations, any new designs will be pre-approved for operational safety, modular to lower construction costs, produce 90 per cent less volume of waste and incorporate decommissioning and waste management costs.
A worst-case analysis conducted for the UK Department of Trade and Industry (now the Department of Business and Enterprise), which was accepted by Greenpeace, shows nuclear-generated electricity to be only marginally more expensive than gas (before the late-2007 hike in gas prices), and 10 to 20 times cheaper than onshore and offshore wind. With expected carbon-pricing penalties for gas and coal, nuclear power will be considerably cheaper than all the alternatives.
MYTH FOUR: Reactors produce too much waste
Contrary to environmentalists' claims, Britain is not overwhelmed with radioactive waste and has no radioactive waste 'problem'.
By 2040 there will be a total of 2,000 cubic metres of the most radioactive high-level waste, which would fit in a 13 x 13 x 13 metre hole - about the size of the foundations for one small wind turbine. Much of this high-level waste is actually a leftover from Britain's atomic weapons programme. All of the UK's intermediate and high-level radioactive waste for the past 50 years and the next 30 years would fit in just one Royal Albert Hall, an entertainment venue in London that holds 6,000 people (and which seems, for some reason, to have become the standard unit of measurement in debates about any kind of waste in the UK).
The largest volume of waste from the nuclear power programme is low-level waste - concrete from outbuildings, car parks, construction materials, soil from the surroundings and so on. By 2100, there will be 473,000 cubic metres of such waste from decommissioned plants - enough to fill five Albert Halls.
Production of all the electricity consumed in a four-bedroom house for 70 years leaves about one teacup of high-level waste, and new nuclear build will not make any significant contribution to existing radioactive waste levels for 20-40 years.
MYTH FIVE: Decommissioning is too expensive
Existing UK reactors were built with no regard for future demolition. New reactors will be constructed from modular designs with the need for decommissioning built-in. The costs of decommissioning and waste management will be incorporated into the price of electricity to consumers.
New nuclear plants are expected to have a working life of 40 years so the cost of decommissioning is spread over a longer period. Current government subsidy of decommissioning costs is approximately £1 billion annually (for 20 per cent of Britain's electrical supply) - half the subsidy to 'sustainable' energy (two per cent of Britain's electrical supply).
MYTH SIX: Building reactors takes too long
This is perhaps the most ironic of the anti-nuclear arguments, since the legal manoeuvrings of Greenpeace delayed the UK government's nuclear decision by a year and it is the very opposition of greens that will cause most of the future delays.
The best construction schedules are achieved by the Canadian company AECL, which has built six new reactors since 1991; from the pouring of concrete to criticality (when the reactors come on-line), the longest build took six-and-a-half years and the shortest just over four years.
The UK government expects pre-licensing of standard designs and modular construction to reduce construction times significantly - to about 6 years. New nuclear build could certainly start making significant contributions to UK carbon reduction targets by 2020.
MYTH SEVEN: Leukaemia rates are higher near reactors
Childhood leukaemia rates are no higher near nuclear power plants than they are near organic farms. 'Leukaemia clusters' are geographic areas where the rates of childhood leukaemia appear to be higher than normal, but the definition is controversial because it ignores the fact that leukaemia is actually several very different (and unrelated) diseases with different causes.
The major increase in UK childhood leukaemia rates occurred before the Second World War. The very small (one per cent) annual increase seen now is probably due to better diagnosis, although it is possible that there is a viral contribution to the disease.
It is purely by chance that a leukaemia 'cluster' will occur near a nuclear installation, a national park or a rollercoaster ride. One such 'cluster' occurred in Seascale, the nearest village to the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant, but there are no other examples. Clusters tend to be found in isolated areas where there has been a recent influx of immigration - which hints at a virus.
Men who work on nuclear submarines or in nuclear plants are no more likely to father children with leukaemia (or any other disease) than workers in any other industry.
MYTH EIGHT: Reactors lead to weapons proliferation
More nuclear plants (in Britain and elsewhere) would actually reduce weapons proliferation. Atomic warheads make excellent reactor fuel; decommissioned warheads (containing greatly enriched uranium or plutonium) currently provide about 15 per cent of world nuclear fuel. Increased demand for reactor fuel would divert such warheads away from potential terrorists. Nuclear build is closely monitored by the IAEA, which polices anti-proliferation treaties.
MYTH NINE: Wind and wave power are more sustainable
If, as greens say, new nuclear power cannot come on-line in time to prevent climate change, how much less impact can wind, wave and carbon capture make?
Environmentalists claim offshore wind turbines can make a significant contribution to electricity supply. Even if that were true - which it is certainly not - the environmental impact disqualifies wind as 'sustainable'. The opening up of the North Sea continental shelf to 7,000 wind turbines is, essentially, the building of a huge industrial infrastructure across a vast swathe of ecologically sensitive seabed - as 'unsustainable' in its own way as the opening of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration.
Wave power is still highly experimental and unproven as a method of generating electricity. Even if we allow the Severn Tidal Bore, the tidal surge that runs up and down the River Severn estuary in south-west England (and a great natural wonder of the world), to be destroyed, the cost overruns and time delays would make any problems of the nuclear industry look cheap by comparison.
MYTH TEN: Reactors are a terrorist target
Since 11 September 2001, several studies have examined the possibility of attacks by a large aircraft on reactor containment buildings. The US Department of Energy sponsored an independent computer-modelling study of the effects of a fully fuelled Boeing 767-400 hitting the reactor containment vessel. Under none of the possible scenarios was containment breached.
Only the highly specialised US 'bunker busting' ordnance would be capable - after several direct strikes - of penetrating the amount of reinforced concrete that surrounds reactors. And besides, terrorists have already demonstrated that they prefer large, high visibility, soft targets with maximum human casualties (as in the attacks on New York, London, Madrid and Mumbai) rather than well-guarded, isolated, low-population targets.
Any new generation of nuclear reactors in the UK will be designed with even greater protection against attack than existing plants, and with 'passive' safety measures that work without human intervention or computer control.
The GOS says: We were intrigued to learn recently that the magnetic field of the Earth is expected to "flip" sometime soon, so that the North Pole will become the South Pole and vice versa. This has apparently happened at more-or-less regular intervals throughout the planet's history. It will mean that when he goes sailing, the GOS's compass will be upside down. Big ships and aeroplanes won't be troubled as they all use GPS. There might be a lot of lost pigeons, though.
We asked our science correspondent to explain this, and he said that the magnetic field is caused by the flow of molten iron-bearing metal in the Earth's core. Every so often the patterns of flow falter, break down, and start up again in a different direction, rather like the bubbling of a boiling kettle, and this affects the polarity and strength of the magnetic field.
So far, so good.
But what causes the molten core to flow in the first place? Well, apparently it's the intense heat generated by enormous amounts of radioactivity deep at the centre of the Earth.
We're all sitting on a gigantic nuclear reactor. What's worse, the sun that warms us and feeds us is an even bigger nuclear reactor!
This is a ridiculous and highly dangerous state of affairs, and it's high time the government did something about it. I mean, anything could happen. What's worse, we've all been going happily about our lives in blissful ignorance of this potential catastrophe under our feet. We should have been told. There should have been risk assessments - where's Health and Safety when you need it? Instead of worrying about silly little fences round puddles and warning notices at the top of every cliff at the seaside, they should be working to remedy this dreadful danger.
Come on, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the IPCC, Al Gore, George Monbiot - there's a great new campaign all ready to go, fear and despondency to spread, alarm to raise. Forget the bloody polar bears, get started with an action pack for every primary school telling the little children how scared they ought to be, and that it's all their parents' fault …
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