Nuclear power is dangerous, expensive and unnecessary to cut global greenhouse gas emissions. It is bound up with nuclear weapons. We should oppose the expansion of nuclear power in today’s conditions of capitalist globalisation.
In particular we should oppose the British government’s promotion of a new generation of nuclear reactors.
According to a recent report by the Oxford Research Group (ORG), there are currently 429 nuclear reactors in operation in the world today in 30 states. It says another 25 reactors are under construction and a further 76 have been planned, mainly by China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
These reactors produce around 16% of the power necessary for global electricity consumption, although this is unevenly distributed. In France, nuclear provides 79% of electricity, 32% in Germany and 19% in the USA. (Greenpeace)
In the UK nuclear power provides 20% of the UK electricity and around 8% of overall energy, when transport fuel and non-electric heating are taken into account. However with the decommissioning of Magnox and Advanced Gas Cooled Reactors (AGRs) by 2025, leaving only Sizewell B, this will decline to around 7% unless further reactors are built.
It is difficult to find an accurate estimate of the number of workers in the nuclear industry worldwide. However the Nuclear Industry Association says there are 40,000 workers employed in the industry in the UK.
The nuclear industry is promoting new types of nuclear reactors, known as Generation III and Generation III+. There are four Generation III reactors currently in operation, the Advanced Boiling Water Reactors (ABWR) developed in Japan, with two under construction in Taiwan. The only Generation III+ plant under construction is the European Pressurised Water Reactor (EPR) at the Olkiluoto site in Finland.
Eight new reactors may be built in the UK, two at each of four existing sites on which an existing nuclear-power reactor is operating. In its 2006 Energy Review, the government said these would be proposed, developed, constructed and operated by the private sector. This includes the full decommissioning and long-term waste management — the government says it is not offering any direct or indirect subsidies, unlike with previous nuclear projects.
I’m not opposed to nuclear power, or any other technology in principle. It was right for scientists to develop nuclear technology after World War Two and to assess its potential as a source of power for electricity generation. It might be necessary for a workers’ government to utilise and develop nuclear technology in the future.
However the experience of nuclear power over sixty years under capitalism shows that there are formidable arguments against it. These are: cost, waste, safety and nuclear weapons proliferation. There are also arguments that nuclear undermines the necessary changes to energy consumption, to energy efficiency strategies and to the development of renewable energy sources.
We are a long way from the fantasy scenario painted by the nuclear industry, expressed by Lewis Strauss in 1954 that, “it is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter”.
The cost of building, running and decommissioning nuclear reactors must be a key consideration for socialists, given that costs are likely to be paid for by workers, either in the form of additional taxation or through higher energy prices. For example the collapse of British Energy in 2002 means that a significant proportion of decommissioning costs of old UK nuclear power plants will by paid for out of general taxation.
Nuclear build is notorious for cost overruns. The most recently built reactor in the UK, Sizewell B, was projected to cost £1.7 bilionn but actually cost £3.7 billion. The Torness reactor in Scotland increased from £742 million to £2.5 billion. The Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) at Sellafield was expected to cost £300 million but in the end cost £1.8 billion. The Generation III+ Olkiluoto site in Finland, which began construction in 2005 has been beset with difficulties, is already 18 months behind schedule and £500,000 over budget.
Then there are the costs of generating electricity. In 2002 the government’s Performance and Innovation Unit produced a study of the estimated costs of electricity generated from different sources in 2020. The results were:
Technology 2020 cost
Large combined heat and power <2p/kWh
Micro combined heat and power 2.5-3.5p/kWh
Photovoltaic (solar) 10-16p/kWh
Onshore wind 1.5-2.5p/kWh
Offshore wind 2.0-3.0p/kWh
Energy crops 2.5-4.0p/kWh
Fossil generation with carbon capture 3.0-4.5p/kWh
CCGT (gas) 2.0-2.3p/kWh
(Source: SERA 200)
Other estimates bear out these figures. US research has estimated the cost of nuclear energy at 3.7p/kWh (MIT) or 3.9p//kWh. The MIT study concluded that given these costs, nuclear “is just too expensive”.
The costs of waste and decommissioning also need to be included. The Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) estimates that it will cost £13 billion to deal with existing nuclear waste and £56 billion to decommission existing facilities, including those used by the military.
Nuclear energy would not be significantly cheaper than many renewable sources, and more expensive than others, on most projections by 2020.
The simple fact is that no long-term solution has been found for disposing of high-level nuclear waste.
By the end of 2005, the US had an estimated 53,000 metric tonnes of commercial spent fuel, mainly stored in cooling pools. US government plans to dump this waste deep underground in the Yucca Mountain have been mired in problems and the site is still not operational. However an expansion of global nuclear power would require a new Yucca mountain depository opening every three to six years to keep up with the waste.
According to Michael Meacher, Britain already has 10,000 tonnes of high-level and intermediate nuclear waste, with official estimates putting the figure at 50 times that amount by the end of the century. The government’s Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) has said that 18 million cubic metres of soil and rubble have been contaminated by leaks, spills and discharges from UK sites over sixty years.
Given the half-life of radioactive materials generated by nuclear reactors, it is legitimate to question the legacy it will leave future generations. If the debate is shaped around preventing dangerous climate change for succeeding generations, it is clear that the nuclear “solution” is only possible today by creating other significant hazards for thousands of years.
Safety in the nuclear industry, measured by deaths and injuries is better than in many other areas of energy generation, but there are some legitimate concerns about ill health.
In the 1990s, the incidence of cancer clusters near nuclear facilities was raised. A study by the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) in 2003 found no evidence of raised childhood cancer around nuclear power plants, but it did find an excess of leukaemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma near Sellafield, AWE Burghfield and UKAEA Dounreay.
However nuclear reactors have the potential for a catastrophic incident that extends well beyond these calculations. The debate about expanding nuclear power in the late 1970s and again in the mid-1980s was overtaken by the incidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Sweden’s Forsmark nuclear power station had a near meltdown last year — and earlier this year BNG Sellafield was fined £500,000 after it admitted a radioactive leak.
In the current political situation, there is a greater risk of attack on a nuclear reactor. A Daily Mirror journalist managed to “plant” a bomb on a nuclear train last year. A 2004 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that a major terrorist attack on the Indian Point reactor in the US would result in 44,000 deaths from acute radiation exposure and over half a million long-term deaths from cancer among individuals within fifty miles of the plant.
According to one US study, if there is an expansion of nuclear power over the next period, there is at least a 50-50 chance of an accident by 2050. But whatever the mathematical risk of a major incident, the scale of even one such event should at least make us cautious about advocating nuclear power.
Civil uclear power is intimately connected to nuclear weapons. As the US Committee on Atomic Energy put it in 1946, “the development of atomic energy for peaceful purposes and the development of atomic energy for bombs are in much of their course interchangeable and interdependent”.
This applies to existing bourgeois states that already have weapons, other bourgeois states that want to develop them and to terror groups. The IAEA Illicit Trafficking database has recorded over 650 confirmed incidents of trafficking in nuclear or other radioactive materials since 1993.
By 2075, the nuclear industry predicts that most nuclear electricity will be generated by fast breeder reactors. If this is correct, more than 4,000 tonnes of plutonium will have to be fabricated into fresh reactor fuel each year - twenty times the current military stockpile.
If nuclear power has long been an answer looking for a question, then the new question is climate change. But nuclear power is the wrong answer to the right question.
Cutting carbon dioxide emissions is the new rationale for nuclear power. In May 2006, Tony Blair said that, “Nuclear power is back on the agenda with a vengeance”. Gordon Brown pledged support for nuclear in his first prime minister’s questions. Climate change is the principal reason given for the “nuclear renaissance”.
The argument is that unlike coal, gas or oil, enriched uranium does not release CO2 when it is used, and in that sense is “zero-carbon”. The SDC estimates that counting the costs of construction and the fuel cycle, nuclear generates around 4.5 tonnes of carbon per GWh of electricity, compared with 97 tonnes from existing gas-fired power stations and 243 tonnes for coal.
However any kind of assessment of nuclear also has to include the carbon emissions from mining, processing, decommissioning and waste management of uranium, and from decommissioning and waste disposal. The WWF estimates that over the entire life cycle, nuclear carbon emissions range between 34gCO2/kWh to 230gCO2/kWh, compared with 430gCO2/kWh for gas and 955gCO2/kWh for coal. Nuclear is a lower carbon not zero carbon source of energy.
The SDC estimates that if the UK existing nuclear capacity were replaced and these new reactors displaced gas fired power stations, then 4% of carbon emissions could be saved annually. A more ambitious programme might save up to 8% of emissions — and more if coal fired power stations were the ones displaced. (SDC 2006b pp.4-5)
Nor is nuclear renewable. The DTI cites figures based on 2004 generation levels, that known uranium reserves will last for around 85 years. Even allowing for more discoveries, or for the use of a combination of uranium and plutonium, nuclear is at best a stop-gap rather than a renewable source of energy for the next century.
Socialists will convince no one to oppose nuclear power unless we can point to clear alternatives. However options do exist in today’s conditions, through changing social relations and developing existing technologies. And given the likely construction time involved in building new nuclear reactors, (probably between 5 and 11 years), the comparison has to be between alternatives over the next decade or so.
A report by the Environmental Change Institute estimated that household CO2 emissions could be reduced by 60% using a variety of existing available technologies, particularly by promoting energy efficiency – for example getting rid of standby on electrical equipment. Even the DTI admitted in 2003 that energy efficiency measures were the cheapest and safest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Workplaces and work-related activities account for at least half of all carbon emissions. A drive by workers and unions could deliver substantial savings in CO2 emissions. Cheap or free public transport could also save energy used through car use, and rail is less polluting than road freight.
Nevertheless, energy efficiency savings alone are not enough. Alternatives sources of power generation from fossil fuels are necessary. A study by the Institute of Engineers in 2002 found that the “technical potential” of renewables such as wind, tidal, geothermal and biofuels far exceed current or projected energy demand in the UK. The Energy Saving Trust estimates microgeneration could provide 30-40% of the UK’s electricity generating needs by 2050.
A study by the Tyndall Centre in 2000 estimated that the UK’s “practicable resource” is equivalent to around 87% of current electricity production. A report by the government’s Interdepartmental Analysts Group for the 2003 Energy White Paper put the figure for renewables at 68% of current electricity consumption.
Technologies like carbon capture and storage — already in use in the US, Norway and Algeria – may provide a means of reducing carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels.
Clearly we need to have a strategy for nuclear workers as the existing plants are decommissioned. We would have to have the same discussion with workers in the military and asbestos industries. The ideas of “just transition” pioneered in the United States and prefigured by Lucas and other workers’ control plans, of guaranteed long term income, retraining and the production of alternative socially useful products, is the right way to go.
The enormous sums of capital that are needed for nuclear new build could be invested in renewable and other technologies that help cut carbon emissions, but with fewer side-effects. The decision to build new nuclear reactors or renewables will be taken by private capital on the grounds of profitability (egged on by the state), with little regard to its social or environmental impact. We need to wrestle control from them.
Concentrating on nuclear also dilutes the political message that changes such as energy efficiency are necessary. Given the governments’ commitment to market solutions to climate change and its limited support for renewables, this is a serious problem. However there is substantial scope for pressure and campaigning; in other words for our politics.
A new generation of nuclear reactors would only make a small contribution to cutting carbon emissions, but with huge side effects, such as an increased risk of nuclear weapons proliferation, a catastrophic reactor accident and the generation of waste. Nuclear power is not going to be cheaper than many renewable energy sources by the time new plants are built, and may detract from efforts to develop renewables or improve energy efficiency. We should oppose it.
Greenpeace, 2007, The economics of nuclear power http://www.greenpeace.org.uk
Oxford Research Group (ORG), 2007, Too hot to handle?: the future of civil nuclear power http://www.oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk/publications
SERA, 2006, What’s in the Mix: The Future of Energy Policy — SERA MP’s submission to the Energy Review 2006, March
Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), 2006, Position paper: The role of nuclear power in a low carbon economy, March
SDC, 2006, Is nuclear the answer? A commentary by Jonathon Porritt, March
SDC, 2006, Paper 2: Reducing CO2 emissions – nuclear and the alternatives
Brice Smith, 2006, Insurmountable Risks: The Dangers of Using Nuclear Power to Combat Global Climate Change, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research