March 15, 2011
In the light of the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and disasters at the Fukushima plants, I am posting this excerpt from my recent book, arguing that nuclear power is not a safe solution to global warming.
Extract from The Climate Challenge: 101 Solutions to Global Warming
by Guy Dauncey, November 2009
Faced with the climate emergency, some look to nuclear power as a clean, safe, cost-effective solution. Unfortunately, it is none of these.
It makes no economic sense
The nuclear industry argues that nuclear power is cheaper than coal-fired power or wind power - but an assessment in Ontario, based on the actual performance of existing reactors and the required return of capital, suggested that the realistic life-time price of new nuclear power would be 20 cents/kWh, more than two and a half times the price of wind or microhydro.[i]
The nuclear industry wants to build 1000 new plants – but nuclear plants almost always come in over budget and over time, and we need solutions now. The average construction time is 15 years (8 years in France), and the last US plant took 23 years to complete. Ontario’s five nuclear plants all had cost overruns ranging from 40% to 270%.
There are also big hidden costs the taxpayer has to cover, such as the cost of handling a nuclear disaster, which could cost $600 billion in damages and claims. The nuclear industry’s liability is limited to $9.1 billion in the US, $700 million in Europe, and just $75 million in Canada, with the taxpayer picking up the rest. If the nuclear industry had to buy insurance for all its liability costs, it would never get financed.
There’s also the problem of radioactive wastes, which have to be stored for up to 250,000 years, twice as long as since modern humans left Africa. In Canada, taxpayers are on the hook for $24 billion to cover just the first 300 years.[ii] At then the end of a reactor’s life it has to be decommissioned, at a cost of $325 million per reactor[iii]. In Britain the total estimated cost is £70 billion, 70% of which will be covered by the taxpayer.
As a result of these realities, the private sector won’t touch nuclear power unless there is firm government support. In the US since 1948 the nuclear industry has received $74 billion in subsidies, with an additional $13 billion in 2007 and $50 billion in loan guarantees, and an average subsidy of $13 billion per new nuclear plant – roughly its entire cost.[iv] In Canada, it has received $20 billion in subsidies since 1952.
If we are going to use public money, we should do so intelligently. In 2008, Architecture 2030 reported that compared to nuclear energy, a $21.6 billion investment in building efficiency would produce three times greater CO2 reductions, create 216,000 new jobs, and produce new energy for a fifth of the cost clean coal or nuclear power.[v] Because such options exist, public investments in nuclear power, as opposed to building efficiency, will actually slow down the path to climate solutions.[vi]
The world has a limited supply of uranium
The world’s 440 nuclear reactors, with a combined capacity of 363 GW, use 67,000 tonnes of uranium a year, averaging 146 tonnes per reactor. At this rate, the world’s uranium reserves of around 4.5 million tonnes will last for 70 years. If we build 1,000 new nuclear plants with a combined capacity of 1500 GW, as widely proposed, they will need an additional 277,000 tonnes a year.
By 2025, when the new reactors might begin to operate, the reserves will have fallen to 3.5 million tonnes, and the demand will now be 344,000 tonnes a year.[vii] At this rate, the uranium will be exhausted in 10 years. Some propose that we build fast breeder reactors fueled by their own fissile wastes, but these have been a technical and economic failure. Others argue that higher uranium prices will cause new reserves to be found – but even if reserves doubled, they would be exhausted in 20 years.
Nuclear power plants need cooling, but in the summer of 2003 France had to close a quarter of its 58 plants because the river-water used to cool them was too warm – because of global warming. If we locate them by the sea, they will be vulnerable to sea-level rise. They are also vulnerable to earthquakes, as the 2007 Japanese earthquake demonstrated.
There is also the concern that nuclear technology allows nuclear weapons proliferation, and the use of stolen plutonium to make dirty bombs; or that terrorists might fly a hijacked plane into a nuclear reactor.
Nuclear power also poses grave health risks. Uranium mining and nuclear power plants contribute to greater rates of breast cancer, lung cancer, and childhood leukemia. Following the Chernobyl nuclear accident, there has been a 90-fold increase in thyroid cancer, and thousands of deaths.[viii]
Nuclear power produces less CO2 that coal-fired power, but 24 times more than wind[ix] – and why take such risks when there are cheaper, safer ways to generate the energy we need? Those who promote nuclear power as a solution to climate change have simply not done their homework.
[i] Ontario Clean Air Alliance, “High Cost Energy: The Economics of Nuclear Power,” Air Quality Issues
Fact Sheet #20 (March 2006).
[ii] Nuclear Waste Management Organization. Final Study: Choosing a Way Forward. www.nwmo.ca
[iii] Decommissioning Nuclear Facilities. Australian Uranium Association Nuclear Issues Briefing Paper 13 June 2007
[iv] Why expanding nuclear power would reduce and retard climate protection and energy security… but can’t survive free-market capitalism. Invited testimony to the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming United States House of Representatives, Washington, DC Hearing on “Nuclear Power in a Warming World: Solution or Illusion?” 12 March 2008, by Amory Lovins, Chief Scientist, Rocky Mountain Institute.
[v] The 2030 Blueprint. Architecture 2030, April 7, 2008.
[vi] Amory Lovins, as above.
[vii] The calculation assumes the need for 184.5 tonnes of uranium per GW of capacity.
[viii] For more evidence, see Cancer: 101 Solutions to a Preventable Epidemic, by Liz Armstrong, Guy Dauncey and Anne Wordsworth. (New Society, 2007)
[ix] Nuclear Power - the Energy Balance. See www.stormsmith.nl. In Review of solutions to global warming, air pollution, and energy security (Energy & Environmental Science, December 1st 2008), Stanford’s Mark Jacobson finds that when you combine a life-cycle analysis and opportunity cost CO2 emissions due to delays in nuclear construction compared to wind energy, nuclear power produces 68-180 grams of CO2 per kWh.