PODCAST: Honesty about nuclear power
This particular post is accompanied by a reading from the author. If you use this feature, please let me know your thoughts.
Point 1 – 0:27 | Point 2 – 1:25 | Point 3 – 4:16 | Point 4 – 6:35 | Point 5 – 12:40 | Point 6 – 14:35
A couple of weeks ago I had an interesting evening. I found myself on the ‘For’ side in a public debate ‘Nuclear Energy – Yes Please’, in the course of which there were quite a few ‘facts’ on the negatives of nuclear energy put forward by one of my opponents. So I thought I’d root around and try to understand how robust some of those facts really were. I’ve tried to include some sources for the information I’ve used.
- “We were told nuclear electricity would be too cheap to meter”
Well, if this was ever said, it was said before I was born and present experience says it was certainly wrong. However, a bit of digging makes it far from clear that it was nuclear electricity which was going to be too cheap to meter. The relevant quote, from Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, talking in 1955 about technological development generally, seems to have been “Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter…will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age.” That’s a very long way from claiming that nuclear electricity would be too cheap to meter. The Canadian Nuclear Society has more details on all this.
- “Most of the world doesn’t need nuclear energy”
Well why not? Arguably, much of the world just needs energy, and more of it. Most of the population has access to only a small fraction of the energy that we do. David Mackay’s excellent Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air  tells us some interesting things. Most obviously, five billion of the six billion people on Earth have access to well under half of the energy resources per head that we do and, of those five billion, 3.5 billion live in Asia, most in China and India. Surely, those five billion people are entitled to seek greater access to energy than they have today, to support an improved standard of living? Or are we taking some sort of arrogant, neo-imperialist approach – we were born lucky and you weren’t, so that’s tough?
If the majority of the world’s population is to have access to much larger quantities of energy, where will it come from? Climate change and pollution concerns suggest it can’t be fossil fuels (at least not without carbon capture and storage, a currently unproven technology which requires the underground confinement of waste from energy production forever). Renewables? Maybe, if you think they can produce energy on the scale needed and deliver it to the point of use efficiently, both of which are still pretty difficult today.
The debate seemed to focus on the African continent to illustrate the unsuitability of nuclear power. Large power stations need highly developed power distribution systems and, ideally, densely packed consumers. Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, certainly lacks the first and largely lacks the second. Hence, in telecommunications for example, much of Africa has skipped landline telephone technology and gone straight to mobile phones. So, if there is a nuclear answer for Africa, it may well not be big, 1-2 GW plants, but small modular reactors – yet to be used widely but an emerging option – might be a way to go.
However, most of the 5 billion people I’m talking about don’t live in Africa – they live in Asia, a continent which hosts the world’s eight largest megacities, and 16 of the largest 25. Not only are there already a lot of city-dwellers in Asia, these cities are growing fast and a large proportion of the people in them live in slum conditions. These conurbations are energy-hungry and may well be suitable for nuclear generation as we already know it and, indeed, would be hugely challenging for renewable generation, which tends to be dispersed. If these countries look at our experiences and still choose to follow the nuclear path, what gives us the right to tell them they can’t?
- “Nuclear is appallingly dangerous- Chernobyl caused hundreds of thousands of deaths”
The main source for this assertion appears to be Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, a compilation of translated works published by the New York Academy of Sciences, which makes some interesting comments on its website – In no sense did Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences or the New York Academy of Sciences commission this work; nor by its publication does the Academy validate the claims made in the original Slavic language publications cited in the translated papers. Importantly, the translated volume has not been formally peer‐reviewed by the New York Academy of Sciences or by anyone else – and, interestingly, also provides a link to a very critical review of the book. As a contribution to debate, fair enough; as established fact, it’s far less robust.
By contrast, the Chernobyl Forum, convened by the International Atomic Energy Agency (a UN body), which consisted of over 100 experts in the field, concluded that the most that might be observed from Chernobyl was “eventually up to several thousand fatal cancers” on top of a background of perhaps 100,000 fatal cancers from all causes. A very different conclusion indeed.
I do wonder to what extent there is an ‘environmental ideology’ out there, worried about climate change and opposed to nuclear energy. When the scientific community, working under the auspices of the UN, supports this ideology, as in the case of climate change, then it’s deemed to be right, and deniers are dismissed as ill-informed mavericks or industry-funded apologists. But when the scientific community, working again under the auspices of the UN, doesn’t support this ideological position, as in the debate on radiation health effects, then that same community is condemned as apologists for the industry and being guilty of groupthink, and is accused of ignoring or marginalising the few “far-sighted visionaries” who are actually right. Sorry, guys, you can’t have it both ways. If the scientific method works for climate change, it works for radiation risk too.
- “The UK has no way of dealing with its huge quantities of radioactive waste”
The UK’s historic management of the radioactive wastes it has accumulated over some 70 years is a national embarrassment but, to be fair to recent Governments of all political complexions, this was recognised in 2002 and there has been a sustained effort, through two changes of Government and a major financial crisis, to deal with the ‘nuclear legacy’. You might disagree with how it’s been done, and wonder why it seems so slow and so expensive, but at least it is being done, and for that Government should get considerable credit.
The UK nuclear legacy wasn’t just created for fun, and many of its worst elements reflect the politics of the time. Through the 1950s and into the 60s, Britain had to have the Bomb, and the pursuit of this at almost any cost created much of our early nuclear legacy. In the 1970s, our catastrophic industrial relations meant that we couldn’t manage the used fuel from our reactors properly; and then in the early 1980s, we ran the reactors flat out to break the power of the coal miners. But whatever the rights and wrongs, the UK nuclear programme did also provide us with about 20% of our electricity for many decades. Those of you who are, unlike me, too young to remember any of this can find out more in Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain– well worth a read.
The UK’s radioactive waste legacy is not homogeneous. It reflects our diverse and, at times in the past, very large, nuclear programmes and therefore consists of all sorts of things, some of which are essentially non-hazardous and some of which are extremely nasty. The nastier components are classified as ‘Higher Activity Waste’ and, internationally, it is accepted that the best thing to do with this is to seal it up in an engineered repository deep underground, so that radioactive decay can reduce its toxicity over long periods of time. In the UK, the proposed ‘Geological Disposal Facility’ (GDF) will lie at between 200 and 1000 metres depth.
But how big is the waste legacy? There seems to be a fondness for the ‘Albert Hall’ as a unit of volume, and the whole UK nuclear legacy represents something like 5 Albert Halls (compare a large coal fired power station which creates about 1 Albert Hall of ash each year). However, that’s not the whole story, especially for heat generating wastes, because you have to space them out. So, although the volume of such waste for disposal is pretty small (0.1 Albert Halls), the ‘footprint’ of a geological disposal facility for such waste will be several square kilometres, so most of your GDF is just empty space with these wastes dotted about.
Alternatively, you can express the legacy in terms of its radioactivity and, if you add it all together, it’s a huge number of Becquerels (the unit of radioactivity; 82,000,000,000,000,000,000 if you want to know) but that’s not the whole story. First of all the Becquerel (sometimes known in the trade as the ‘Bugger All’) is a very small quantity – it’s like measuring astronomical distances in millimetres so you quickly get to a big looking number. Each person has about 5,000 Becquerels of naturally occurring, radioactive potassium-40 in their body, but I don’t think we view ourselves as particularly radioactive. Second, much of the waste inventory has a fairly short half-life and the total radioactivity of today’s waste will have decayed by over 50% by 2050, and by almost 90% by 2100. The relatively small fraction that persists contains some long-lived and hazardous materials, so neither radioactivity not ‘Albert Halls’ really tell the whole story. But, to sum up, the volume of waste is pretty small by industrial waste standards, and most of the radioactivity goes away pretty quickly, leaving a fairly small but problematic amount. This is a technical challenge but certainly not an insuperable problem.
Geological disposal is in an interesting place at the moment. I am old enough to remember TV news pictures of contractors in previous GDF programmes being run out of town, so the current policy is to seek volunteer communities to host the facility, and certainly international experience from places like Canada and Sweden suggests that, without support from the local community, you will not succeed. There was some interest, mainly in west Cumbria, in an attempt to start a GDF programme a few years ago, but that lost its way in a debate about the suitability or otherwise of Cumbrian geology. The bottom line is that it is technically possible to package the waste in a safe form, store it, and dispose of it safely in any of a range of geological settings. It would certainly be possible to package waste more quickly and cheaply, and make the GDF smaller, but to say we cannot manage the waste safely is untrue.
We actually don’t know very much about UK geology at GDF depths (I distinguish what we know from what we think we know, based on expert interpretations, which can be both variable and wrong – that’s why oil companies spend so much money drilling exploratory boreholes and so few are actually worth exploiting) but, from what we do know, there are plenty of candidate settings for the facility. Any particular site’s suitability will only become clearer as any programme develops and it is investigated in detail. The hurdles are thus far less in the science and technology of disposal, and far more in the social, political and economic aspects. Techies like me believe they can do it- the challenge is for us to gain trust in the wider community.
It’s worth mentioning waste from new reactors here, too. This is different from the legacy, because we have a choice over whether to create this waste or not. This puts a very different complexion on the debate, and it is important to make this distinction. The much more limited new nuclear build programme would produce smaller volumes of waste, maybe only 10% of the legacy volume but including significant quantities of heat generating spent fuel , but it is still waste which we could choose not to create at all.
- “Nuclear energy is massively expensive”
Well, as far as I can see, a nuclear power station can cost almost any amount you want, depending on how you do the sums. EDF say £18 billion for the two Hinkley EPR reactors, but if you include financing costs, then it’s £24.5 billion, and if you add in other things, you can apparently get to £35 billion. Then add in the nuclear industry’s inability to deliver projects on time (a failing in the UK which actually isn’t unique to nuclear) and you do start to wonder what’s going on. But then you dig around and find out that the Chinese can apparently build EPR reactors in 46 months for about £5 billion. Dismissing this difference as just reflecting sloppy and unsafe Chinese engineering seems patronising and arrogant; after all, pretty much every UK household contains perfectly functional examples of Chinese engineering and manufacturing. Nevertheless, if building the same reactor in the UK really costs over three times more than doing so in China, there are certainly some tough questions to answer.
That said, energy in large quantities is expensive. Two EPRs give you 3.3 GW electric, which is about the same as say 2,000 wind turbines, but turbines only operate at about 25% of theoretical output, so to match the two EPRs you’d need 8,000 wind turbines at a couple of £ million each. So that’s £16 billion, pretty much comparable to the cost of the reactors, at least within the uncertainties which surround this debate. 
Interestingly, nuclear isn’t the only energy source where there seems to be a massive fog over the finances. WiseEnergy.org paints a very different picture of the economics of wind energy from what I’ve just suggested. I don’t know who’s right, and cleverer people than me disagree over all this, so there’s clearly a need for an honest, intelligent debate over energy economics. But until people are willing to compare apples with apples, I don’t see how it can be resolved.
- What can we actually do about all this?
So where does this leave us? With a debate certainly, but a debate which is not helped by selective use of ‘facts’ to score points as if it’s some sort of gameshow. I’ve highlighted here some of the objections which are often heard but seem, on investigation, to be relatively unfounded. This is certainly not to say that the proponents of nuclear energy have never been economical with the truth and, bluntly, that frustrates me as much as any ‘anti’ propaganda. All I ask for is honesty in the debate; it is too big and too important for clever point-scoring.
 Authors: A. V. Yablokov, V. B. Nesterenko & A. V. Nesterenko; edited by J.D. Sherman-Nevinger; (2009)
 http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/0952-4746/32/2/181/pdf;jsessionid= 792B7B934E82AE09EA116F08ABCC909E.c2.iopscience.cld.iop.org
 Managing the nuclear legacy- a strategy for action. cm5552 (2002)
 Implementing geological disposal- a framework for the long term management of higher activity radioactive waste. DECC, July 2014
 Managing nuclear safety and waste: the role of the EU. House of Lords European Union Committee, 37th Report, Session 2005-2006
 The 2013 UK radioactive waste inventory- radioactivity content of wastes. Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (2014)
Professor Francis Livens is Interim Director of The University of Manchester’s Dalton Nuclear Institute.