Friday, January 11, 2008

Why am I against nuclear power??

So, Gordon Brown's Labour Government have given the final go ahead for more nuclear power. Apparently '... Britain must build new nuclear plants to help meet its climate change goals and to avoid overdependence on imported energy amid dwindling North Sea oil and gas supplies.' (Guardian). Both these main points are easily contradicted, making the government's decision a very bad one.

For a start the uranium oxide from which nuclear fuel for power stations is made comes from abroad. 'In 2005, seventeen countries produced concentrated uranium oxides, with Canada (27.9% of world production) and Australia (22.8%) being the largest producers and Kazakhstan (10.5%), Russia (8.0%), Namibia (7.5%), Niger (7.4%), Uzbekistan (5.5%), the United States (2.5%), Ukraine (1.9%) and China (1.7%) also producing significant amounts.' (wikipedia) which means we would be dependent on imports from other countries for our nuclear fuel - so much for reducing energy imports.

As for more nuclear power to help fight climate change, in short its very slow and ineffective, with the Government's own advisors at the Sustainable Development Commission producing figures to show that even 10 new reactors would cut the UK's carbon emissions by only about 4% some time after 2025. This low figure makes great deal of sense because it takes quite some time to approve, build and get nuclear stations into full operation. In the meantime there is a high carbon cost in construction and also in the whole nuclear fuel cycle (in particular mining the ore, transporting it thousands of miles across the world and then manufacturing the fuel...). Plus of course the nuclear electricity generated cant directly replace most of the fossil fuel used eg in gas central heating systems and petrol/diesel from oil used in cars. So much for fighting climate change. And there are many more arguments against nuclear power and for much better energy options.

It is several times cheaper to save energy through efficiency and conservation than it is to generate it by any means. This is also the most rapid and effective way to cut carbon emissions, fight climate change, and reduce our dependence on imported fuels. Even though the Government claims to be green (who doesn't make this claim these days!) they are still thinking in terms of generating more and more energy - yet a sustainable society requires the establishment of a low energy culture. Government needs to be determined to help shape this future but currently is still stuck in the past.

There has always been a lot of talk from Gordon Brown about an enterprise economy, built by entrepreneurs. But is nuclear technology the kind that can be tinkered with, adapted and developed by small and medium-sized businesses and individuals? Self-evidently its not. Yet energy efficiency, energy conservation and renewable energy technologies are amenable and are rapidly developing - the future is clearly with these and we should be ensuring billions are invested in them.

Nuclear power does not fit well with the basic engineering criterion of economy of means, that is doing tasks with the minimum of energy supplied in the most effective way. In short, why go to the trouble of splitting the atom to boil a kettle of water?? In any case for how long will the source of the atoms split in the nuclear fuel be economically available? Goldsmith et al, in their 1990 book 5000 Days to Save the Planet say ' As more uranium ore is mined and the quality of the ore falls, so the energy cost goes up. A mass nuclear power program would exhaust high quality ores so quickly that, within a generation, the uranium being mined would provide no more energy for each tonne of rock than would mined coal.'.

Everyone acknowledges the very high capital costs of nuclear power (and nobody yet knows for sure what decommissioning costs will finally be). Several billion is needed to build each station. This is a very large drain on resources that we should be investing in renewable energy generation methods, which as the only sustainable option we must develop at some point anyway. There's no time like the present to do this.

We dont assess our technological options properly. Nuclear does not come out well if technical capabilities and limitations, total cost-effectiveness, socio-economic effects such as efficiency of job creation and the ability to keep safe and accurate records of nuclear waste disposal for thousands of yrs, and environmental impacts are all fairly considered. Yet this would not be where assessment of the technology should end, since we should progressively widen the domain of issues to be considered, introducing more factors and interactions - like the ripple effect of throwing a stone into a still lake. Nuclear certainly does not fit in with building a sustainable society (though all the big political parties claim to be green these days) because no-one disputes that it leaves ongoing problems for future generations (and of course the uranium fuel is finite and depletable - it will run down in supply and run out at some point).

Plutonium, with a natural occurence on the planet of virtually zero, is lethal (highly toxic as well as radioactive). An evenly distributed 500 kg could kill the Earth's human population approx 90 times (at one microgram per person). Yet when I visited Sellafield, the site of the UK's first nuclear station and where nuclear waste is reprocessed, some yrs ago, the tour guide said that approx 500kg of plutonium had been emitted to the Irish Sea over the sites lifetime. There are huge nuclear waste handling, storage and disposal problems and there is no scientific consensus on the best way to do it, for existing waste let alone the extra produced from more nuclear stations. In a report of the House of Commons Select Committee on the Environment on radioactive waste Sir Hugh Rossi said 'With waste that can be active for thousands of yrs, guaranteeing that the institutions would be stable beyond periods which have so far proved to be whole lifetimes of civilisations would be impossible.'

There are also a whole range of safety and security issues for nuclear stations: learning lessons from major accidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Windscale; attempting to predict and 'eliminate' (!) human error in the design, construction, operation and decommissioning; establishing 'safe' (!) levels of radioactivity; 'safely' transporting nuclear waste by road and rail (eg as happens frequently through Bristol) for 'safe' disposal for thousands of yrs; planning what it is best to do in the event of a serious incident/accident; whether we can effectively prevent terrorist attacks eg by flying planes into stations, driving cars/lorries loaded to be bombs etc... .

Then there are the major ethical issues involved in reprocessing some nuclear waste and providing material for the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction....

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