Myths and Facts about Nuclear Power
This discussion is brought to you in its entirety compliments of “A Solution for Pollution.” Facts will be presented for each of these Myths:
• MYTH: Uranium is running out
• MYTH: Nuclear is not a low-carbon option
• MYTH: Nuclear power is expensive
• MYTH: Reactors produce too much waste
• MYTH: Decommissioning is too expensive
• MYTH: Building reactors takes too long
• MYTH: Leukemia rates are higher near reactors
• MYTH: Reactors lead to weapons proliferation
• MYTH: Wind and wave power are more sustainable
• MYTH: Reactors are a terrorist target
• MYTH: Anti-nuclear campaigners claim that nuclear power plants are unsafe and a dangerous working environment.
MYTH: Uranium is running out
FACT: According to Greenpeace, uranium reserves are ‘relatively limited’ (1) and the Nuclear Consultation Working Group claimed that a significant increase in nuclear generating capacity would reduce reliable supplies from 50 to 12 years (2).
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 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) show that at least six times more uranium is extractable – enough for 500 years’ supply at current demand (3). 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 (4).
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 (5).
In short, there is more than enough uranium, thorium and plutonium to supply the entire world’s electricity for several hundred years.
MYTH: Nuclear is not a low-carbon option
FACT: 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 analyzed 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) (6).
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 (7). 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: Nuclear power is expensive
FACT: 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.
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 (8).
MYTH: Reactors produce too much waste
FACT: The largest volume of waste from the nuclear power program 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 meters of such waste from decommissioned plants – enough to fill five Albert Halls (11).
Production of all the electricity consumed in a four-bedroom house for 70 years leaves about one teacup of high-level waste (12), and new nuclear build will not make any significant contribution to existing radioactive waste levels for 20-40 years.
MYTH: Decommissioning is too expensive
FACT: 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: Building reactors takes too long
FACT: 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 (14).
The UK government expects pre-licensing of standard designs and modular construction to reduce construction times significantly – to about 6 years (15). New nuclear build could certainly start making significant contributions to UK carbon reduction targets by 2020.
MYTH: Leukemia rates are higher near reactors
FACT: Childhood leukemia rates are no higher near nuclear power plants than they are near organic farms. ‘Leukemia clusters’ are geographic areas where the rates of childhood leukemia appear to be higher than normal, but the definition is controversial because it ignores the fact that leukemia is actually several very different (and unrelated) diseases with different causes (16).
Men who work on nuclear submarines or in nuclear plants are no more likely to father children with leukemia (or any other disease) than workers in any other industry (18).
MYTH: Reactors lead to weapons proliferation
FACT: 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 (19). 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: Wind and wave power are more sustainable
FACT: 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 (20) – 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.
MYTH: Reactors are a terrorist target
FACT: 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-modeling 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 (21).
Only the highly specialized 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.
MYTH: Anti-nuclear campaigners claim that nuclear power plants are unsafe and a dangerous working environment.
FACT: According to the United States Department of Labor Census 2006, there were 190 fatalities related to mining, while the nuclear power industry had no fatalities. Mining fatalities increased 19 percent in 2006, fatal work injuries in coal mining more than doubled in 2006 due in part to the Sago mine disaster and other mining incidents. A total of 47 coal mining fatalities were recorded in 2006, up from 22 in 2005, due in part to 4 multiple-fatality incidents in coal mining in 2006, claiming a total of 21 workers. The fatality rate for coal mining jumped 84 percent in 2006 to 49.5 fatalities per 100,000 workers, up from 26.8 in 2005. Oil and gas extraction fatalities were also higher in 2006 (22).
(1) See The economics of nuclear power 2007 on the Greenpeace website
(2) Nuclear Consultation: Public Trust in Government Nuclear Working Group 2008
(3) International Atomic Energy Agency
(4) World Nuclear Association
(5) Nuclear waste could power Britain, The Observer, 23 December 2007
(6) The Energy Challenge, DTI, 2007
(7) The role of nuclear power in a low carbon economy, SDC, 2006
(8) Nuclear Power Generation Cost Benefit Analysis, DTI
(11) The Energy Challenge, DTI, 2007
(12) Energy: the answer is not blowing in the wind, by Rob Johnston, 11 December 2007
(14) Construction of CANDU in China
(15) The Energy Challenge, DTI, 2007
(16) Leukemia Clusters, Leukemia Research Foundation
(17) Leukemia Clusters, Leukemia Research Foundation
(18) Leukemia Clusters, Leukemia Research Foundation
(19) World Nuclear Association
(20) Energy: the answer is not blowing in the wind, by Rob Johnston, 11 December 2007
(21) Electrical Power Research Institute: Probabilistic Consequence Analysis of Security Threats – A Prototype Vulnerability Assessment Process for Nuclear Power Plants
(22) United States Department of Labor Census 2006