After Fukushima, the case against nuclear power, already strong, looks a lot stronger. But some still say – what’s the alternative. There are now half a dozen detailed energy scenarios confirming that renewable energy could supply up to 100% of UK, EU and even global power needs by 2050, or maybe earlier, at reasonable costs. For the latest one, see
Some however say, couldn’t we have both nuclear and renewables? Given the huge renewable potential, we don’t really need both, and in any case, nuclear power and renewables are, in many ways, incompatible: essentially inflexible, nuclear can’t back-up variable renewables without incurring economic and safety penalties. And if we had a large, fixed, nuclear capacity, then the output from wind farms, and from other variable renewables, will have to be curtailed and wasted regularly- e.g. when there is too much wind, or low overall energy demand over and above that supplied by nuclear. That alone suggests that it’s not something we should back. But there are also a host of other problems. Here is a small sample.
Some trade unions are backing nuclear in the expectation of new jobs. In 2008 John Hutton, the then Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform told the Unite union conference that a new nuclear programme could create up to 100,000 new skilled jobs. He did not mention that this was for a 32GW programme - twice what is now being discussed. Each twin reactor nuclear station was expected to create 9,000 construction and manufacturing jobs and 1,000 jobs to run the station.
NuClear News 26 noted that a scenario presented by the skills agency - Cogent - suggests that, if all goes according to plan, a 16GW programme with six twin unit stations (6 EPR reactors and 6 AP1000 reactors) would start to create jobs in 2012, but would be expected to employ a peak of only 14,000 workers around 2021 and then there will be around 5,000 permanent jobs once construction is completed around 2027 – a bit different from the 100,000 jobs originally promised.
NuClear News suggested that nuclear power was very poor at creating jobs – only around 75 jobs per Terawatt hour (TWh) at the most. It added that, all of the areas where reactors might be built as part of the 16GW programme could be promoting themselves as suitable for the offshore wind industry to expand creating up to 2,400 jobs per TWh. But if financial resources get diverted to nuclear, we will see less of these –and less jobs overall.
Dumbing us down
Birds living near the site of the Chernobyl nuclear accident have, on average, 5% smaller brains, according to international research led by a University of South Carolina scientist. 25 years after the Chernobyl disaster, low-dose radiation has proved to have significant effects on normal brain development, with smaller brain sizes believed to be linked to reduced cognitive ability.
Dr. Timothy Mousseau, a USC biology science professor said ‘These findings point to broad-scale neurological effects of chronic exposure to low-dose radiation. The fact that we see this pattern for a large portion of the bird community suggests a general phenomenon that may have significant long-term repercussions.’
Mousseau said these types of defects have been previously reported in humans and other organisms, but those were at higher contamination levels. The small brains were particularly evident in the youngest birds: ‘This suggests that many of the birds with smaller brains are not surviving to the next year, perhaps related to decreased cognitive abilities.’ i.e. they are not as capable at dealing with their environment as evidenced by their lower rates of survival.
More info: http://cricket.biol.sc.edu/chernobyl
Could this subtle change apply to humans as well? And outside the Chernobyl zone? Some low-level emissions, although carefully monitored, are allowed at nuclear sites, and of course there are also occasional accidental excess releases and spills, as at Fukushima. It’s claimed by critics of current safety levels, that this contamination leads to exposures that are very different in kind and impact from that due to normal background radiation e.g. the ingestion of internal emitters, which, although weak, continue to irradiate organs/tissue from inside.
Spreading it around
The UK government has published a consultation about its plans to deal with 112 tonnes of plutonium (including 24 tonnes derived from fuel from other countries) currently stored at Sellafield and Dounreay, generated mostly from UK fuel reprocessing. Its preferred solution is to incorporate the material into Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel, rather than to continue to store it, or encapsulate it into storage containers for a final waste repository, along with other nuclear wastes, at a site as yet unknown. The MOX would be sold to reactor users around the world, making it the cheapest ‘disposal’ option.
The existing MOX plant at Sellafield was castigated in diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks as a ‘white elephant’. They went on : ‘The Mox Plant is considered one of HMG’s most embarrassing failures in British industrial history, costing taxpayers £90 m p.a. The plant’s complex fuel recycling procedure, coupled with management and equipment problems, have plagued it for years.’ The MOX plant has only produced 15 tonnes in its 9 years of operation, compared with an original target of 560 tonnes over an expected 10 year operational life. Cue for a repeat!
MOX can be, and is, used in some plants around the world, including at Fukushima, but at present (though that may change) there are no plans for it to be used in existing UK plants or the proposed 8 new UK plants (if it was, it would need a subsidy). So any MOX we produced would be for export. Its shipment by sea presents a wonderful target for terrorists keen to get Pu for crude bombs.
But DECC sees it differently:
Dumping it somewhere
At the time of the quake/ tsunami in Japan, there were 3,400 tons of spent fuel in seven storage pools at Fukushima, some of it still very active, plus 877 tons of active fuel in the cores of the reactors. That totals 4,277 tons of nuclear fuel at Fukushima- the storage pool above reactor 4 alone contained 135 tons of spent fuel. For comparison, the Chernobyl reactors had about 180 tons when the accident occurred in 1986 and about 6% of that was released into atmosphere. We don’t know yet what percentage was released in the air and sea at Fukushima- it’s still ongoing
Since we are to give up on reprocessing, the UKs plan for nuclear waste, such as it is, assumes that used nuclear fuel from the proposed new plants will stay in similar spent fuel stores at the 8 reactor sites for perhaps 60, maybe 100 years, while waiting for a high level waste repository to be built- at a site as yet to be determined. It’s said that this will be available by 2040. However that site has been earmarked for the existing ‘legacy’ waste, and won’t be available for spent fuel from the proposed new plants until 2130- long after the new plants have been closed down, with ‘interim storage’ continuing somewhere for 100 years or so. But it could be more, for example if a suitable site, and community willing to accept a long-term waste, can’t be found.
Could we dump it elsewhere? The European Commission recently produced a Nuclear Waste Directive, with geological disposal being seen as the way ahead. Two or more Member States can agree to share a final repository in one of them, but the EU is not allowed to export nuclear waste to countries outside the EU for final disposal. It seems that there had been offers from Russia to take it.
However it seems unlikely that anyone in the EU will want our waste- France is not much further ahead with selecting a site for final repository than we are. Sweden and Finland are a bit further ahead, but would they really take it? Why should they?
So we’re probably stuck with it- and for some time. In fact, for a very long time. Long after the worlds limited uranium (and thorium) resources are depleted, and any benefits there might be from nuclear power have been forgotten.