The Coal Action Network campaigns on and supports opposition to coal mining and combustion.
In reaction to criticism of fossil fuels and to ‘the energy crisis’, nuclear, biomass and natural/unconventional gas are being suggested as carbon dioxide free (or lower carbon in the case of gas) solutions and real alternatives to polluting coal.
Whilst the Coal Action Network focuses on Coal, we feel it is necessary to point out that in no way do we support any of these destructive industries as alternatives or replacements.
For more info on why nuclear power is a bad idea see the Stop Nuclear Power Network UK
For information on the impacts of biomass and biofuels see Biofuelwatch
And on unconventional gas extraction, see Frack Off
There are of course many other destructive forms of energy being proposed, but we’ll focus on the main three being touted as alternatives to coal, or as necessary for “keeping the lights on”. But what about solutions or real alternatives? Well, we’ve got our work cut out opposing destructive developments, so don’t work as much as we’d like to on practical and just alternatives. However, no technofix or industry-based solution will get us out of the mess we’re in without a substantial change in the way our society is organised. First of all we need a serious reduction in the energy we use, and we need to empower communities to make their own decisions about where their energy comes from, embracing small-scale and decentralised generation. But decisions on real solutions aren’t for the experts, politicians or even campaigners to make – they’re for everyone to make and feel ownership over collectively, in our communities and workplaces.
Nuclear in the UK Currently
“At present nuclear power, (which is carbon-free at point of generation) provides some 15% of the world’s electricity, around 35% of the EU’s electricity, and 20% of Britain’s. This figure represents more than 80% of all the UK’s present low carbon power.”
Nuclear Industry Association
Nuclear power produced just over 13 percent of our electricity in 2008 (DECC http://www.decc.gov.uk/en/content/cms/statistics/publications/dukes/dukes.aspx)
not the 20% as quoted in many places (organisations such as Nuclear Industry Association and EdF continue to claim this despite being aware of the correct figures). Electricity provides 18% of our energy needs. Therefore nuclear provided 2.34% of our energy in 2008. It is often said that nuclear provides 20% of our energy (this is totally wrong).
The Energy Gap
Recent studies have show that the UK faces an energy gap
“By 2015 the Energy Demand in the UK Could Exceed Supply by 23% at Peak Times”
However, even the most optimistic assumptions about nuclear no new reactor will be online before 2017/2018. Three years to late for the energy gap. With several nuclear power stations closing down before then the first two power plants will only replace this loss of capacity.
Nuclear World Wide
438 reactors operational. 52 nuclear reactors are “under construction”:
13 have been “under construction” for over 20 years
24 have no officially planned start date
half are late, often substantially
36 (over two-thirds) are in just four countries—China, India, Russia, and South Korea
2008 was the first year since 1955 that no nuclear power stations were connected to the grid anywhere in the world.
China has the most ambitious nuclear programme in the world. Various targets have been quoted but the one of 30GW seems the most realistic. However, China is likely to get 30GW of wind capacity by the end of next year (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/03/business/energy-environment/03renew.html?_r=1).
Chinese 2020 targets include 150 GW of windpower and 20 GW of PVs
Renewable energy supply such as wind, wave and solar are said to be unreliable. This is technically incorrect – they are much more reliable than nuclear. They are, however, intermittent. However, even with wind and solar their outputs can be predicted reliably within the timescale of several hours at least. In these situations alternatives can be started.
Baseload does not have much meaning. Basically energy companies would want to use the electricity generation technique that will have the lowest running costs if available (e.g. wind, solar, wave…). Once they are built then they are cheaper to run than any of the competitors including gas and coal.
However, nuclear plants cannot respond to this variability – if they have to power down then you cannot power back up (well they did at Chernobyl) for several days. This is due to the build up of elements (mainly Xenon 135) that are nuclear poisons which poison the fission process and you must wait until they have decayed below a reasonable level.
Therefore nuclear is incompatible with most renewable energy sources.
France now has to import expensive electricity during winter and sell cheap French electricity in summer since their nuclear plants cannot be used to balance demand (55GW higher in winter than summer).
Nuclear plants are big and any sudden failure can cut electricity generation by a very large fraction. Therefore ‘spinning reserve’ is needed which can cut in within seconds. (For more information see http://www.ukerc.ac.uk/Downloads/PDF/06/0604Intermittency/0604IntermittencyReport.pdf )
Carbon Dioxide Emissions
The government use the British Energy Torness Environmental Impact Statement and the Vattenfall Environmental Impact Statement for their figure of 6gCO2/KWh. These figures are given as statements and there is no detail of how they were derived.
Other studies such as the University of Sydney ISA study ((http://www.isa.org.usyd.edu.au/publications/documents/ISA_Nuclear_Report.pdf) gives a figure of 65gCO2/KWh which is a bit different. Savacool et al www.nirs.org/climate/background/sovacool_nuclear_ghg.pdf looking at 103 lifecycle analyses gives a similar figure for the carbon dioxide emissions.
There is another study by Storm van Leeuwen. This is somewhat controversial. However, the Oxford Research Group and CND have used the figures.
The long time period for planning and construction of a nuclear plant is also an important factor. During this time the nuclear plant is not cutting CO2 emissions. It has been estimated by Jacobson (http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/PDF%20files/ReviewSolGW09.pdf) that this more than doubles nuclear’s CO2 footprint (from 7-70gCO2/KWh to 68–180.1gCO2/KWh).
The CORWM committee were looking at the legacy waste. It is there and we have to get rid of it. It did not make any recommendations about the new waste or how we should get rid of it.
The waste from new nuclear plants will be a lot ‘hotter’ both in heat terms and radioactivity. In terms of storage it is these that count not the actual volume of waste. (http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19826514.200-nuclear-superfuel-gets-too-hot-to-handle.html)
The 5cm of copper cladding that was going to be used by Sweden in its long term waste disposal proposals has now been shown to be totally inadequate and suggest that 1m of copper may be needed (http://www.mkg.se/uploads/Water_Corrodes_Copper_-_Catalysis_Letters_Oct_2009_-_Hultquist_Szakalos_et_al.pdf). What is important about this is not the failure of the copper but the failure of the current understanding and theory of the corrosion of metals over long periods – they failed after a couple of hundred years let alone hundreds of thousands of years. The best metal to use for containers is probably Gold since it is known to exist naturally in the native state in a variety of chemically different geological environments.
The repository at Yucca mountain has now been scrapped and the Swedish plans are now in chaos due to the copper studies. Nuclear power companies in the US are now suing the government over their failure to provide a repository at Yucca mountain.
The UK government is proposing to cap the cost of the repository at £18billion without knowing how they will process the waste from the new reactors or how the waste will be stored.
In the cost benefit analysis the figure of £2.8billion per nuclear power plant was used. This figure has now increased to over £4.4billion without a brick being laid. This is just for construction and does not include waste disposal or decommissioning. Since the £2.8billion was used in the governments ‘cost benefit analysis’ (http://www.berr.gov.uk/files/file39525.pdf) perhaps this should be revisited.
At present there has never been any private investment in nuclear and this is unlikely to happen considering the opinion of investment firms such as Citi Group (New Nuclear – The Economics Say No: https://www.citigroupgeo.com/pdf/SEU27102.pdf ).
Job creation has been used to justify new nuclear. However, this is by far their weakest point. It has been reported that they will create 500 permanent and 4000 jobs during construction (this works out at about 770 jobs [ (500 x 60 + 4000 x 5)/65 ] over a 60 year plant lifetime with 5 years construction). This works out at over £5million per job. In the US studies have shown alternative ‘green’ energy jobs cost $33000 (£20,000) of capital investment.( http://www.pewcenteronthestates.org/uploadedFiles/Clean_Economy_Report_Web.pdf )
Other jobs are created (enrichment, mining, conversion etc) but these also require high capital investment with relatively few jobs created.
The nuclear industry is very specialised and there is little spin-off in research and production that can be used in other areas. Developments in semi-conductors for solar cells, efficient generators for wind turbines etc can be passed over to other areas.
The “If we had enough wind turbines we would have no land to grow food” argument. Partly this is based on the idea that if you stick a wind turbine in a field then you cannot use the field. In fact only makes a very small area unusable. Also the land footprint of nuclear is also grossly underestimated since it does not include the excluded area surrounding the power plant, the uranium mines, mills, conversion plants, enrichment plants and fuel fabrication plants. The land ‘lost’ due to power generation is about the same for nuclear and wind.
A common argument is that there are better, newer nuclear technologies (breeders, thorium, pebble beds, molten salt reactors). It seems pointless talking about these unless they are actually being proposed. Breeder reactors do not actually ‘breed’ fuel but merely use it more efficiently. At present only 4% of the fuel is reacted – the other 96% is spent fuel ‘waste’.
Nuclear Fusion technology is very different from nuclear fission technology. However, proposed reactors such as ITER would probably still require fission to be able to produce tritium since they would not be able to breed enough themselves.
Uranium is a limited resource. How much Uranium which can be recovered and used for energy production with a net energy gain is not clear. It is often stated that Uranium is widespread, however, it needs to recovered and converted to fuel without expending more energy than it produces.
Most Uranium ore is very low grade – less than 0.2%. 99.8% of the rock dug and crushed is waste but contains 85% of the original radioactivity.
Uranium can also be extracted using In-Situ leaching. However, this can have serious side effects – the in-situ mine at Stáz pod Ralskem in the Czech Republic has contaminated 235billion litres of groundwater. In Kazakhstan several mines have been fined for illegal dumping, however, the powerful mining companies often do not pay.
The IAEA Red Book is the standard reference for uranium supplies but there is some question over its reliability (The Future of Nuclear Energy: Facts and Fiction Chapter III: How (un)reliable are the Red Book Uranium Resource Data? http://arxiv.org/abs/0909.1421).
The 5.5 million tonnes of “reasonably assured” resources would only last 85 years at the current rate of consumption – strangely the IAEA call this “for at least a century”.
Short Term Supply Crisis
Of the 65000 tons of Uranium required to fuel the 438 nuclear reactors at the moment only 40,000 of it is freshly mined. A large proportion comes from existing stocks and the downgrading of Russian military enriched Uranium. The rest of the current supply gap is met by running down reserves.
Can uranium mining increase by 50% by 2013 to meet this gap? Possible expansion in places such as Canada where recently 30% of a town’s doctors threatened to resign if a uranium mining project went ahead (http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/North+Shore+doctors+threaten+resign+over+uranium+mine/2306289/story.html) and Australia are limited due to local opposition. Any growth during this period is likely to come from Kazakhstan and Africa where health concerns are not such an issue – for the government anyway. Ux Consulting are predicting the continued high growth in production in Kazakhstan will continue. However, very little growth is planned after 2010.
The proliferation dangers are mainly from getting the expertise and the experience of handling nuclear materials. This can be gained by having a nuclear power programme.
Although Uranium can be enriched to produce a weapon most nuclear weapons use plutonium which can be made in any nuclear reactor. IAEA safeguards are meant to stop this happening but countries can always leave the NPT.
Countries that have shown an interest in nuclear power include Myanmar (Burma), Uganda, Yemen, Vietnam, Venezuela, Namibia, Indonesia and many middle eastern countries including Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, UAE, Algeria, Libya and Morocco.
Dangers to Local Population
There have been many studies but the reporting of the studies are usually totally scientifically invalid. It is often stated that they do now show any correlation of cancer/leukaemia rates to proximity to a power station. This does not show that nuclear power plants are safe but merely that the studies were not good enough to show either way. It could be equally stated that the studies failed to show that there were not increases in cancer/leukaemia rates.
The way in which these rates are calculated are mainly done by comparing them to studies at Hiroshima/Nagasaki. However, those studies were flawed since they probably compared people exposed to direct radiation to those who were exposed to fallout.
If the number of people getting cancer/leukaemia is greater than the calculated rate then they must have died from something else such as stress or shock. Surprising it is assumed that the people of Hiroshima/Nagasaki did not suffer from stress or shock.
Other reasons for the cluster of increased leukaemia around places such as Sellafield has been mixing of population.
A detailed and statistically significant German study – the KiKK report (http://www.alfred-koerblein.de/cancer/english/kikk.htm) found that there is increase risk of Leukaemia near power stations. They also managed to show that there was a direct link between the distance from the power station to the number of excess cancers. This indicates that the power station was the source of the increase and that it was not due to other factors.
There has been no official statement in the UK about this study as yet but COMARE (Committee on the Medical Aspects of Radiation Exposure) is expected to report in March 2010. However, this is after the deadline of the latest government consultation on the justification for new nuclear build.
The KiKK report may indicated that the clusters in increased leukaemias found in UK studies are not due to chance or ‘population mixing’ but due to the nuclear installations.
There is a good article which was published in Scientific American:
Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi, Evaluating the Feasibility of a Large-Scale Wind, Water, and Sun Energy Infrastructure
Woking is a good practical example:
51% energy consumption savings across the Council’s estate (1990–2006)
81% reduction in CO2 emissions across the Council’s estate (1990–2006), from 34,000 tonnes per year to approximately 6,500 tonnes per year