It’s time to say ‘Nuclear? No Thanks’ once and for all.
On Sunday it will be exactly a year since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, one of the most powerful earthquakes in the world since modern record-keeping began in 1900. The disaster left almost 16,000 people dead, and 3,287 people unaccounted for. But whilst the world looked on in horror, a second disaster was unfolding at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.
n 1986, nuclear pioneer Alvin Weinberg wrote an article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists where he reflected on the, then recent, disaster that guaranteed the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant would go down in history. Nations abandoned plans for new nuclear, and public support crumbled. And here we are again, as Ian Fairlie, an expert on radioactivity in the environment illustrates in his accountof the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant disaster.
While the risks of nuclear energy have never been more real – from disasters, future risks of sea level rise on coastal sites and Iran’s nuclear programme breeding tension in the Middle East – the UK government is still embracing it with open arms. Our policymakers are now contorting words so the industry can access the public subsidies it needs to survive, and withholding information about the future risk of the designated sites for our “Nuclear Renaissance”.
Can we stop making the same mistakes again? Can we really have a future without nuclear? Is the almost evangelical position on Integral Fast Reactors by some commentators really the magic bullet to impending energy insecurity and our nuclear waste hangover?
A combination of bloated industry lobbying budgets, the relentless search for a magic ‘energy’ bullet, a cultural desire to demonstrate our technological prowess to the rest of the world, our centralised approach to energy planning and the failure to prioritise energy conservation has led to fast streamed and incomplete consultations on nuclear policy. This is in addition to a culture of public misinformation or withholding information altogether.
The idea that nuclear would be ‘too cheap to meter’ is perhaps one of the most infamous statements made at the dawn of civil nuclear programmes. Although, it is worth noting here that, Lewis Strauss, then Chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, who made this statement in 1954, was actually referring to nuclear fusion, rather than fission. Yet such techno-optimism was quickly proved to be wrong. Nuclear fusion is still a long way off demonstration, let alone commercial roll out. And, the history of nuclear fission across the world is plagued by bankruptcy, bail-outs and enormous subsidies. The fact that both of the two proposed nuclear power plant designs for the UK’s future programme are over budget and behind schedule also doesn’t bode well for new generation reactors either.
But there are a growing number of studies, both within the academic and grey literature, that now demonstrate we can have a future without nuclear. Wind, water and solar can all provide our energy needs if we so choose. And, it doesn’t have to cost more. In fact, it will probably cost less, but certainly not more, as US Nuclear Regulatory Commission veteran Peter Bradford argues in this week’s Nature. It is worth pointing out, however, that Bradford compares the cost of ¢12 per kilowatt hour for nuclear, predicted by the industry itself to a combination of natural gas (another controversial energy future), energy efficiency, expansion of existing nuclear plants and wind that is estimated to cost ¢3-11 per kWh. Other studies, for example, the often cited paper in Energy Policy by Stanford University academics Mark Delucchi and Mark Jacobson make similar claims, but without gas or nuclear in any shape or form. In their 2011 study, Delucchi and Jacobson find that in a world with 100% wind, water and solar energy, the cost of electricity would be the same as today. They conclude that,
…barriers to 100% conversion to WWS [wind, water and solar] worldwide are primarily social and political, not technological or even economic.
A study by the European Climate Foundation draws similar conclusions.
In 2010, a team of Danish academics went one step further. In their analysis of a 100% renewable energy system by 2050, they find that,
…implementing energy savings, renewable energy and more efficient conversion technologies can have positive socio-economic effects, create employment and potentially lead to large earnings on exports. If externalities such as health effects are included, even more benefits can be expected.
Indeed, what are we waiting for? But there is always a snake-oil salesman lurking in the shadows ready to promise a magic bullet, that irresistible quick fix.
nef fellow Andrew Simms and I argue in our essay published this month in ‘Atlas: Geography, Architecture and Change in an Interdependent World’, it is difficult, near impossible, to find real magic bullets because we exist within complex, interdependent systems, yet we have incomplete knowledge of the world and how it works. And while history, folklore and sacred prose warn us of the unintended consequences associated with these alluring magic bullets, they have done little to hamper our obsessive search for them. The appealing notion of the magic bullet perhaps help to explain why simplistic solutions are often preferred to more complex ones that often require us to rethink how we interact with the world around us.
And for nuclear, the latest magic bullet is the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR). Cheap, low-carbon energy, fuelled by nuclear waste (of which there is plenty), and relatively low-level radioactive waste compared to its anachronistic predecessors. What’s not to like?But, as E3G’s Tom Burke, Warwick Business School’s Paul Dorfman and Greenpeace’s Executive Director, John Sauven argue, IFR technology is another one of those to ‘just around the corner technologies’ which could leave us chasing our tails for decades to come. After sinking $13 billion and four decades of R&D into the technology, Japan were unsuccessful in developing the technology. And, no fast reactor has been built on a commercial basis. If this is to be a stopgap between our fossil intensive energy system and our low carbon future then this can’t be a juvenile technology. It can’t even be an adolescent. It needs to be shovel ready now. We are up against real immutable limits – how much carbon the atmosphere can hold before catastrophic climate change becomes more likely than not. But as Burke, Dorfman and Sauven state, even if IFR could be made to work,
…it does nothing to resolve the main problems with nuclear: the industry’s repeated failure to build reactors on time and to budget…that’s why ideas like fast reactors work much better in the headlines than they do in fine print.
In his Nature article, Bradford draws similar conclusions,
The prospect that the nuclear industry can be saved by a radical new generation of designs is a long way off and still a remote possibility.
It’s time to say ‘Nuclear? No Thanks’ once and for all.