Wrote this as a response to Monbiots request to ‘Talk to me about nuclear power‘ on CiF today… Thought I might as well put it up here – while I’m not a knee-jerk opponent of nuclear power I think the following issues must be considered if the pro-nuclear lobby is to be taken seriously… And I have major doubts over whether they can be addressed…
I did my MSc on the sustainability characteristics of nuclear power, particularly Gen III+ and Gen IV designs.
When I started my studies I was a fairly firm supporter of nuclear power – While acknowledging its problems I saw it as a key technology for the transition to a low-carbon, sustainable global energy system.
However, a year of studying the issue, and the politics that surround it led me to the conclusion that nuclear power can never be a significant part of the global solution.
Please set my mind at rest on the following issues:
- Scale – we would have to build hundreds of new nuclear power stations to significantly increase the proportion of electricity generated by nuclear, not only replacing our ageing fleet of power stations in the west, but building many more in China, India, SE Asia and the Middle East. This means finding huge amounts of capital (upfront) to fund their construction, and it means reviving an industry that has been relatively moribund for decades. It means pouring money into a technology which is not going to get dramatically cheaper as a result, as much of the cost associated with nuclear power is in the physical construction of the plants, particularly the safety systems. In the same way that there isn’t much room for reducing the cost of the construction of a dam, there isn’t that much room to reduce the cost of a nuclear power station. Contrast with renewable technologies, which have low marginal costs, and are on rapidly decreasing cost/kWh curves at the moment. This makes them much easier and faster to roll out on piecemeal, incremental basis, without the requirement for massive upfront investment. Which is going to make building them much more scalable, and, in an uncertain (economic, as well as everything else) climate, much easier to fund.
- Sustainability of nuclear power – while nuclear power is a genuinely low carbon option, it does have fuel requirements, and a significant expansion of the share of nuclear in our energy mix would require a significant expansion of uranium mining, processing, etc. This will, over time, drive up the cost of fuel. Again, little hope for nuclear power to become cheaper, unless we aggressively pursue the reprocessing option, which has its own problems, in particular a significantly increased proliferation risk.
- Intergenerational issues – the long term disposal of nuclear waste, while perfectly feasible in engineering terms, is less so politically. We will be choosing to increase by a large amount the quantity of extremely toxic waste we create, and will be leaving yet another unwelcome legacy for our descendants. Although the impact of climate change will be worse, if we are to deal with the problem of climate change etc. we will have to start taking intergenerational equity seriously.
- Political stability – Nuclear power is not a technology I would want to see widespread in the world which is declining in stability. Even assuming we act decisively and collectively as a species and address the problems of climate change and the sustainability of our civilisation, there seems a very good chance of huge political upheaval over the next century – not something which sits particularly well, in my opinion, with the construction of a large amount of new nuclear plant, waste repositories, etc., along with a large expansion in the movement of nuclear material.
- Technological lock-in – Fossil fuels seemed like a good idea at the time. We spent over a century building infrastructure based on them, and now we’re stuck with it, and have created an immensely powerful vested interest for sticking with them, an interest group which is currently doing its level best to prevent action on sustainability issues. Are we to believe that in a century we will easily give up our nuclear industry? Or will we be creating another unsustainable energy bubble?
- We don’t need nuclear – we can build enough renewable power to meet our needs, as long as we take some care to sensibly manage (and reduce) our needs. Admittedly this is a contentious statement, which cannot be proven, but we do know that there are sufficient available renewable resources to meet global demand, with current technology, at least in theory. These technologies are in their infancy when compared with nuclear, the recipient of staggering levels of investment over many decades. When (if!) solar, wind, wave, tidal, geothermal, on both the large and small scale, reach technological maturity, along with the associated power transmission and storage infrastructure, we won’t need nuclear. In order to successfully address our sustainability problems, we will, however, need the renewable and associated technologies mentioned above. Why invest in nuclear if in 50 years we won’t need it (either because we’re well on the way to solving our problems, or we have failed to deal with them and have only a remote chance of doing so without cataclysmic upheaval.
I agree it’s a shame that the environmental movement was so successful in preventing nuclear construction from the 80s to the present day, and we would no doubt be in a better position on climate change at the moment if we had gone down the French route then, but its a bigger shame that the nascent renewable revolution of the 70s was stifled so successfully. Which paradigm would you rather had been dominant for the past 30 years?
Why make the same mistake again?
And why feel the need to court controversy so closely George?