Alas, nuclear proponents have now found a new generation of the gullible – Walt Patterson

Nuclear Power?

Nuclear power is trying to rebrand itself as the great hope for countering climate change. I’d liken that to jumping out the frying pan into the fire – except that we’d burn ourselves in the fire without even getting out of the frying pan.

There are four main points in this essay. Each is more complicated than what I’m saying in these headlines, and I cover each point in more detail in the following sections.

(1) Nuclear power could only deliver a modest percentage of the energy we want, and the industry would take a long time to grow enough even to do that – much longer than the alternative energy industry would take to achieve the same growth given the same level of investment.

(2) Nuclear power enthusiasts like to portray it as clean and safe. This is a very long way from the truth. In particular, it leaves an ever-growing legacy of the most dangerous, indestructible waste ever produced.

(3) Nuclear power enthusiasts like to portray it as cheap. This is also a very long way from the truth.

(4) Nuclear power enthusiasts like to portray the alternatives as expensive, and incapable of producing the energy we want. This is also untrue.

I deliberately used the expression, “the energy we want” rather than “the energy we need”, because demand for energy is actually elastic (to use the economists’ term). The amount we use depends on the price. I’m not suggesting that we should cut our energy consumption by pricing it out of the reach of ordinary people, but there’s no good reason why the price of energy should not vary according to supply and demand. It already does, with electricity cheaper during the night when demand is low.

Nuclear power is a technologist’s wet dream – that of a particular kind of gung-ho, environmentally uncaring technologist. Very sexy; great fun for a technologist who likes playing with highly complicated and demanding technical problems – and who doesn’t really give a damn about the consequences. (See Logic & Reality for a bit about estimation of the size of risks.)

Some nuclear opponents will try to tell you that the construction of nuclear power plants, and the mining and processing of uranium, produce as much carbon dioxide as the equivalent fossil fuel plants. This is NOT TRUE! It does not help one’s case to overstate it. (See the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology’s PostNote 268, which as far as I can see is fairly accurate, although the figure for nuclear waste disposal must have been plucked out of thin air, since they don’t have any plans for how to do it).

Nuclear power can’t deliver.

Worldwide, nuclear power delivers approximately 10.8% of the electrical energy consumed [World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2014] (UK, 18.3%). That sounds quite a lot, but it’s less than 5% of the total energy consumed. Even doubling it wouldn’t reduce our carbon dioxide emissions very much. The industry couldn’t double its capacity overnight anyway. Exactly how long it would take is hard to guess, but it would certainly be many, many years. Increasing it by the much larger factor necessary to make any real reduction in carbon dioxide emissions would take much longer still.

The supply of uranium for a greatly increased nuclear generating capacity would also be a problem. There are two technological fixes for this: reprocessing used fuel to extract unused uranium to use in new fuel; and fast breeder reactors, which make it possible to use U-238 as fuel (by converting it into plutonium) as well as U-235. U-238 itself is not fissile – that is, it won’t burn in a nuclear reactor; plutonium and U-235 are fissile. Natural uranium is 99.3% U-238 and only 0.7% U-235; plutonium doesn’t occur in nature (other than the odd atom here and there as a result of extremely rare random events in uranium ores). (There is another breeder technology, where non-fissile Thorium can be converted to fissile U-233. Experimental work is being done on this in India, which has substantial reserves of thorium.)

Reprocessing is already undertaken in several countries, mainly for military purposes, but also for civilian reactor fuel in France and Japan. I’m not sure whether the UK is currently reprocessing or not; the Thorp reprocessing facility has serious technical problems, is often closed for extended periods, and is under some threat of permanent closure. If it’s kept open under political pressure despite its problems (a real possibility) then it remains a serious danger to public health and safety.

Reprocessing is inherently one of the more difficult parts of the nuclear industry, much more problematic than the reactors themselves (which are quite bad enough). A reprocessing plant is a very complex chemical works, with the added problem that the materials it handles are highly radioactive. Everything has to be done by remote control. Maintenance engineers can’t even work on the outside of pipework directly. Even small leakages are a serious matter, and when the remote control equipment becomes contaminated with radioactive materials it can no longer be safely removed from the radioactive area for its own maintenance.

Fast breeder reactors (FBRs) are even more problematical. Both Britain and the US have operated experimental FBRs in the past, but they had huge problems, and neither country currently has plans for any new ones. Several other countries have experimental FBRs, but all have frequent difficulties. Whether any are currently operating I don’t know. This certainly isn’t technology that’s going to be an important contributor to world energy supplies any time soon! (It will be completely obsolete first.)

Nuclear power isn’t clean and safe, it’s filthy and dangerous.

Enthusiasts point to what they claim is a good health and safety record. A well designed, carefully operated nuclear reactor could indeed be quite safe – but only with a lot of effort going into keeping the inherently very dangerous radioactive materials in the core properly contained. In practice, the designs are generally quite good, but not perfect; and the operators, well, they’re human. The containment is often less than perfect. At Chernobyl, spectacularly so, but smaller leaks are commonplace. Claims that an accident like Chernobyl couldn’t have happened in the US or the UK are pure hubris: it’s the sheerest luck that they haven’t happened, and if we build large numbers of additional reactors, it’s only a matter of time before one does. And then another, and another.

Enthusiasts claim that those smaller leaks have had few if any health and safety consequences, and it is indeed generally hard to pin any particular problems on them. But it’s equally hard to pin any particular case of lung cancer on smoking, or any particular case of mesothelioma on asbestos, or any particular case of silicosis on coal mining. But it’s clear that a large proportion of cases of each of these diseases have these causes.

They even try to claim that the consequences of the Chernobyl accident weren’t very serious, which is patent nonsense. Large areas are still so contaminated that they are uninhabitable, and still larger areas of former farmland cannot be used for food production. Wildlife lives there, and humans could too – if they accepted a much reduced expectation of life and health. Even far beyond the uninhabited areas, contamination is still present at significant levels, and people have no choice but to accept a somewhat reduced expectation of life and health.

Nonetheless, even allowing for a substantial number of cases of disease or death caused by the nuclear industry, it’s unlikely that reactors have caused as many premature deaths per megawatt day output as coal fired generation. Up to now, that is. The legacy of radioactive waste will carry on being a problem for many generations. Even if it’s true, to say that the nuclear industry is less damaging than the coal industry is damning with faint praise indeed!

It’s questionable whether it’s true anyway. Nuclear reactors aren’t really the biggest part of the problem. Currently, uranium mining is the worst part of the industry. This is mostly because a lot of it happens in poor countries, like Gabon or India, where the industry regards miners’ lives – and the lives of others living in the vicinity – as cheap. Far fewer people are employed mining uranium, in proportion to the amount of electricity produced, than in mining coal; and there is proportionately more money available to spend on safety measures (although that’s often not done in poor countries) – but conditions in uranium mines have additional hazards, particularly the fact that the dust in them is radioactive.

Uranium isn’t very radioactive, and it’s an alpha emitter. Alpha radiation doesn’t penetrate very far – it can’t even get through skin. As long as it’s outside the body, it’s not really a problem. The problems arise when you breathe it as dust, or eat or drink stuff that’s contaminated with it. Once inside you, alpha emitters such as uranium can do a lot of cell damage. At very high levels, that can cause sickness or death directly, but at much lower levels it’s still carcinogenic and teratogenic. It’s not just the fact that it’s irradiating people internally, it’s also the fact that once a particle is lodged inside you, it’s likely to stay there a long time, whereas exposure from outside goes away as soon as you move away from the source of the radiation. Particles in the lungs, in particular, are likely to remain there indefinitely.

Uranium isn’t the only radioactive material in the dust in uranium mines – in fact it only contributes about one seventh of the radioactivity of the dust. The rest is produced by other radioactive elements in the decay chain of uranium. Nearly half of them are beta emitters rather than alpha emitters, so there’s a lot of both kinds of radiation around.

It’s not only the miners breathing the dust who are at risk. The tailings from the mines contain the same range of radioactive materials, which inevitably escape into the surrounding environment. There are always radioactive materials in the environment, but the quantities in the vicinity of uranium mines are far, far greater. This contaminates water supplies and soil, affecting anyone living in the area or eating food grown there. Dust from the tailings frequently gets into the air, too. The health of the general population for miles around uranium mines in India (to my knowledge) and other places (I’m sure) is badly affected. The industry of course deny this, but the reality on the ground is unmistakeable. But the people affected are poor villagers, and the authorities don’t care.

A fact very popular with nuclear apologists is that waste from coal mining and ash from coal fired power stations contains more uranium than is used in equivalent nuclear power stations. However, the concentration of this uranium in the waste and the ash is only comparable with the concentration of uranium in the environment in general, whereas it’s very much more concentrated in uranium mine tailings. And of course the waste from nuclear reactors is thousands of times more radioactive than the uranium they consume anyway. (Every reference to “uranium” in this paragraph really should refer to “uranium and the other radioactive elements in its decay chain”, but this doesn’t really affect the argument. “Thousands of times” is also a simplification: initially it’s millions; after a few years it’s thousands; it’ll gradually get down to be the same as the radioactivity of the original uranium – in about 2,000 years.)

In the long term, the biggest problem is disposal of the radioactive waste produced by nuclear reactors. The quantity we already have is enormous, and it grows with every kilowatt hour of electricity generated in nuclear power stations. The more nuclear generating capacity gets built, the faster this waste pile grows. We’ve got to do something with what we’ve made already, but whatever we do with it, it’s almost certain that some of it will sooner or later end up contaminating the environment. The more of it there is, the more contamination there will be, and the more serious the consequences. We don’t have any solution to this problem – I’ll come back to this later.

Nuclear power isn’t cheap. Alternatives are not expensive.

Costing any large, long-term project is very difficult. Estimates are nearly always exceeded, often double or triple or more, sometimes much more. This applies just as much to alternative energy sources as to nuclear power. You can’t trust anyone’s predictions, and of course that includes mine. You have to make up your own mind. But let me give you a few thoughts to help you make up yours.

A nuclear power station consists mainly of a containment vessel, a reactor, heat exchangers, steam turbines, and generating sets. It requires a fuel supply system consisting of a uranium mine and a processing works to manufacture fuel elements, and a disposal system for the radioactive waste. It’s a very complex, technically demanding, expensive system. That’s the simplest version: it all gets much more complicated (and expensive) if reprocessing or FBRs are involved. The generating sets are a very small part of the overall system cost. Fuel costs, while much smaller (at current uranium prices) than for coal fired generation, are non-zero.

A windfarm mainly consists of a series of towers, swivelling turrets, wind turbine blades, and generating sets. The generating sets are a substantial percentage of the system cost. Fuel costs are zero. It’s not paying off its capital costs when it’s idle, but that’s not all the time, and its capital costs are tiny compared to the capital costs of nuclear generating capacity. The intermittency is an issue, but not a devastating one (see below).

Solar power plant can be even simpler – just solar panels and some solid-state electronics. NO moving parts. At the moment, they’re quite expensive, but the price is coming down all the time with advances in technology and manufacturing. Again, fuel costs are zero, but the output is intermittent. They work, at reduced output, even under cloud.

Solar thermal power stations, where sunlight is concentrated onto a boiler to generate steam to drive turbines, are currently cheaper, and can be designed to work for a while after sunset, or after a cloud covers the sun. However, they are only good in areas with clear skies most of the time, which doesn’t include the UK.

Biomass combustion power stations can consume agricultural waste such as straw, bean stalks, etc. Their capital costs are comparable to those of fossil fuel plant, and the fuel costs and carbon footprint are smaller. (Growing crops specifically for fuel is almost always in competition with food production, or is responsible for habitat destruction, and is generally NOT a good idea.)

There are other alternative sources of energy, but those are the main ones.

Alternative sources of energy can deliver.

The energy available in either the wind or in sunshine completely dwarfs our energy consumption. The size of the resource simply isn’t an issue.

We can’t build any new generating capacity overnight, so unless we’re prepared to put up with power cuts or curtail demand through pricing or rationing, we can’t turn off existing fossil fuel or nuclear plant overnight. But we must build alternative generating capacity as fast as we can.

Unlike nuclear power, alternative sources of energy can deliver. See Energy Matters for more detail.

Intermittency

“There is a value in something always being available, whenever you need it.”

As an argument in favour of nuclear power, that’s pretty weak. One must add, “whether one needs it or not” in the case of nuclear power – with its (high) costs being mostly capital, you have to pay for it whether you’re using the energy it produces or not. This is why the nuclear industry hates anything intermittent so much: any energy they produce at times of low demand reduce the return on nuclear investment.

Something available whenever you need it, but willing to be turned off when you don’t, is FAR more valuable. Hydroelectricity, particularly pumped storage; any kind of storage; combustion of farm and other waste. And until sufficient storage is available, fossil fuels. At first, we will still need a large capacity of fossil fuel combustion, but as more renewables come on line, they’ll spend less and less time running; as storage comes on line, their role will be reduced to covering occasional long sunless, windless periods – and finally, no role at all.

For more about how to cope with the intermittency of wind and solar power, see: Wind and Sun: Intermittency. This also deals with varying energy prices according to supply and demand; and the question of exactly how much of the time a wind farm generates electricity, and at what percentage of its maximum output.

Who am I, to be writing this?

See Nuclear Engineering – a bit of personal history.

Further reading

If you need any convincing about not trusting anyone’s predictions of project costs, see my essay Damned Lies and Economics.

If you doubt my statement that we have no solution to the nuclear waste disposal problem, read my essay Nirex Report, Nuclear Waste. For a vision of the future humankind might have, you might like to read my short story, The Temple at Zelalie.

For a vision of the life poor villagers already have in the vicinity of a uranium mine in India, see my friend Anuj Wankhede’s article A Nightmare Called Jaduguda. There are similar issues around mines in several countries in Africa and elsewhere.

The problems are not only in poor countries like India, either – see Abandoned mine cleanup project poses a ‘deep moral problem’ – that’s Canada for you!

For more about the problems and prospects of fast breeder reactors, see Super-Phenix: Ashes to Ashes? by Walt Patterson. It’s old – 1984 – but nothing has materially changed.