Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Why I say No To Nuclear

50 years to the day after the Calder Hall fire at Sellafield (then called Windscale), we find ourselves back at square one. 10 October 1957 was day the world’s first nuclear reactor generating commercial electricity caught fire. Fuel melted, the fuel cans burst, uranium ignited and fission products were released into cooling ducts and ejected out of the cooling chimneys. The plutonium-producing reactor sent clouds of radioactivity into the atmosphere. Fast forward to half a century later; last week there was another explosion. This time it was deliberate. The four 88 meter high cooling towers at Windscale were blown up as part of Sellafield’s decommissioning. In total, 50 years of nuclear capacity in the UK brings with it an additional £90 billion price tag to decommission.

And so the Windscale legacy lives on. Scientists are still trying to work out how to safely dismantle the chimney-top filter that trapped much of the radioactive smoke 50 years ago. In an ironic twist of fate, 10th October 2007 heralds the closing date of the government’s consultation on their proposed reintroduction of nuclear to the UK.

You have just today left to have your say on whether you support or oppose a new generation of nuclear plants. The only way you can have your say is by submitting your views online at Yes, there were consultation meetings. But no, I could not attend. God knows, I tried.

As a former employment lawyer, I understand the importance of appropriate procedure and the merits of a properly conducted consultative process. As a British citizen I was entitled to take part, and felt it my duty to do so. For a consultation so important - of a controversial technology that would present a legacy for future generations stretching over many thousand of years – I discovered that it has been remarkably difficult to take part.

Various meetings were held by the government throughout the country. Seven of them, called Citizen Deliberative Events, took place simultaneously and notification was by random phone book selection |(1000 were invited, 949 attended). There were also 12 Regional Stakeholder Meetings. Representatives from local authorities, business, NGOs and other community-based organisations were invited to attend and share their views. I wanted to attend. I received notification of when the events were taking place 12 – 24 hours prior to each event. But even where I was prepared to travel last minute, the exact locations were not disclosed. They were by invitation only. Me? NFI. Problem was, I am just a concerned citizen, I was not part of an organization so therefore I was precluded from being invited to the Regional stakeholder events, and as I was not randomly selected for the Citizen Delibertative event, that avenue was closed also. There were no events open to the largest stakeholder group of all – the general public.

The thing is, I really wanted to find out more. But the government seemed unable help me on that too, so off I went to do my own research. And research I did. I have spent many hours pouring over books, data, reports and presentations. I have looked at nuclear of the past and present as well as the only reactor that is currently being built in Europe, the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) at Olkiluoto, Finland (already €700 million over budget, beset with construction problems and now two years behind schedule), to see what lessons may be learned there. I have listened to those who know better than I and I have sought the opinions (for and against) of energy experts. I have looked to see what the alternatives are and whether they are viable. I examined the immediate, mid-term and long-term social, economic and environmental costs. Finally, I looked at the worse case scenario: the possibility and the consequences of yet another reactor explosion – accidental or malicious. It seemed to me that in our current political climate, nuclear power stations are especially vulnerable to terrorist attack. We have after all witnessed how easy it is to fly into skyscrapers.

In short, I entered into my own period of consultation. As is important during a period of consultation, I remained open-minded. I believe I gave as much if not more time to this issue than I would have, had I had been given the opportunity to attend a government meeting. So I guess, had the consultation process explored the same issues and had I been given the opportunity to enter into the consultation process I would have come to the same conclusions. Maybe you, had you been given the opportunity, would come to the same conclusions too. Maybe not.

Here are some of the questions I asked and the conclusions I have reached. (If you wish to read my fuller answers to the government consultation, please contact me direct for a copy)

What is the proposed capacity of new nuclear programme?
A complete replacement of the current UK’s nuclear reactors, the combined output of 10 GW. This would generate just under 4% of total UK energy needs.

What are the proposed costs?
£15 billion is proposed for the construction programme. Inevitably decommissioning costs for a new generation would be substantially more than the current £90 billion price tag. Additional costs include the cost of providing protection against terrorist attack for nuclear plants, and for additional protection of movement – of trains and ships carrying nuclear fuel and nuclear waste. There are the costs that will extend over and above the 40 – 60 year lifespan of the reactors and will continue for thousands of years. These costs will be born by future generations – citizens that will receive no compensating benefit.

Insurance is an unknown quantity. Currently the industry is only required to pay a small fraction of the cost of insuring fully against claims, and it still remains an unresolved issue as to who would pay in the event of a disaster.Ultimately, new reactors could potentially store up substantial future costs for taxpayers which they will have to accept whether they like it or not, regardless of the potential long-term damage and the associated indirect costs.

Can it be said that Nuclear is a 'clean' energy solution?
No. What is often overlooked is the fact that large amounts of fossil fuels are required to mine and refine the uranium needed to run nuclear power reactors, for plant construction, and to transport and store the toxic radioactive waste created by the nuclear process. Furthermore, large amounts of the now banned chlorofluorocarbon gas (CFC) are emitted during the enrichment of uranium. In addition, there is the increasing use of fossil fuel required over the 20+ year lifespan of a reactor plant - as available global supplies of uranium ore declines (like fossil fuel it is a finite resource and in decline), more fossil fuel will be required to extract the ore from less concentrated ore veins and to enrich the remaining poor grades of uranium. Furthermore, current legislation allows each reactor to emit hundreds of thousands of ‘permissible’ curies of radioactive gases and other radioactive elements into the environment every year which are not factored into the equation. Thus, it is arguable that it is not a low carbon solution.

Is it correct to state that Nuclear would be a ‘home grown’ solution?
No. A new generation of nuclear power would be dependant on the mining of uranium and plutonium which is not available in the UK. Thus, the essential ingredients will need to be obtained from countries such as Kazhakstan and Russia, which raises issues of security of movement of materials and dependency on potentially politically unstable countries.

Can safety from accident be guaranteed?
Where humans are involved, safety can never be fully guaranteed. Calder Hall in 1957 was not an isolated incident. Last year Sellafield was fined half a million pounds after admitting a radioactive leak the size of a lorryload of thallium, and 160 kgs of plutonium from a relatively new Thorpe plant, raIsing concerns that new generations of technology are no safer. Numerous incidents have taken place over the decades, most recently in late July 2006 an accident at Sweden's Forsmark nuclear power station was described as a near-meltdown. Whilst not on the scale of the Three Mile Island (1979) and the Chernobyl (1986) disasters, the memory of those tragedies serve as stark reminders of the potential catastrophic consequences (See also "22 accidents since Chernobyl"). As Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala stated in the Scientific American, September 2006: “Nuclear plants are mutual hostages: the world's least well-run plant can imperil the future of all the others."

What is the true risk of terrorist attack on any one of our 17 plants?
Given that terrorism is promoted by our government as a very real threat to the UK, disproportionately this seems to have received the least attention. The online consultation commentary dismisses terrorist concerns in one single paragraph. This is worrying given the high level of concern, a concern that the government has often portrayed terrorism as our greatest threat (or, ironically, second only to climate change in terms of threat). That high level threat must surely extend to the most dangerous of all targets - the destruction of a nuclear plant. After all, as 9/11 clearly demonstrated, it only needs only one aeroplane to fly into a plant to imperil the lives of thousands (if not millions).

How dangerous are radioactive gases?
They can be life-threatening. Each cooling pool store tons of solid radioactive waste which contain toxic elements. In the event of a disaster, when released into the atmosphere they pollute the environment and human food chains, giving rise to cancer, leukemia and genetic disease, and ultimately also death to untold numbers of humans, spreading thousands of miles, as Chernobyl so clearly demonstrated.

Has a solution has yet been found to the problem of disposing of dangerous nuclear waste?
The only proposal that has been put forward is that the waste be placed in interim storage until a solution is found, much of which will remain dangerous for more than 10,000 years. In short, there is still no solution.

Are there other alternatives?
Nuclear power only provides electricity, which accounts for a 4% of the energy mix in the UK and about 3% globally with little prospect of much increase. It does not address the problem of reducing CO2 emissions from space heating and road transport
Currently Britain's centralised power stations, including nuclear, waste two-thirds of the energy put into them in the form of waste heat that escapes up cooling towers or as cooling water. Industrial sites alone in the UK could provide the potential for enough CHP capacity to deliver the same electricity output as an entire fleet of new nuclear reactors while also meeting those sites' heat needs at the same time. New build gas or coal-fired power stations could all have heat capture, providing both efficiency and energy security. Renewable energy technologies such as geothermal, hydro, tidal, solar, wind are all technologies that do not pollute, are benign, do not attract the same insurance, legacy and terrorist risks.

Microgeneration has huge potential once legislative restraints are removed, mandatory new-build and existing housing and business stock standards and supportive feed-in tarrifs are put in place.

Looking globally, there are vast resources of solar in deserts, with Concentrating Solar Power providing safe, benign, zero carbon, and inexhaustible supplies. Only 112 x 112 km of desert could provide the whole of Europe with all it's energy needs. 10 gigawatts of CSP would command €47 billion (£32.56 billion) to build (including €5 billion for the HVDC transmission links, see TRANS-CSP 2006 report) - that's approximately 1/3rd the cost of decommissioning our current 10 gigawatts of nuclear power stations. And with no risk to future generations.

Such is the abundance of our natural resources such as wind and sun that all the worlds’ energy needs can be fulfilled many times over. This all leads to one inescapably conclusion: I say no to nuclear.

If you too are concerned about our future energy supplies, then add your say to the government's consultation - it can be as brief or as long as you want (be warned, it took me 7+ hours to read and complete the online consultation document). If short of time why not sign up, log in and just write “As a concerned citizen I say No to Nuclear”. As justification, you can always put a link to this page if you endorse my findings and would like to use them in support of your position. The important thing is to voice your opinion. It’s our future, make sure you have your say. You have until 7pm tonight to do so.


Matt said...

Interesting read - and confirms with some useful facts and research what many of us think already.

Unfortunately, despite arguments such as these, and the risks (environmentally, financially and security) I think our government will forge ahead with new reactors.

As you point out, there are many alternatives to generation of energy and heat, however reducing our energy demand is still the route to avoiding the need for any more power stations (nuclear or otherwise).

Thank you


The Lazy Environmentalist said...

No - it's never too late. Even if the consultation results in a Yes for Nuclear, there are still numerous hurdles to overcome and decisions to be made before the new concrete foundations are actually poured some 10 -12 years down the line.

And yes - you are quite right, energy reduction also plays a vitally important role. That's where the expertise of the (sustainable) building industry comes in. I look forward to reading your '7 deadly sins of building unsustainably'.

Anonymous said...

After just a cursory glance on this article I can see it has some "Sir Robert Armstrong" moments. Canada (27.9% of world production) and Australia (22.8%) and are the main sources of uranium not Russia (10%)or Kazakhstan (8%). But then you'd rather mention the countries which are not true democracies than those that are, as it helps reinforce your arguments. However, ignoring facts on such important issues just shows intellectual laziness and ultimately undermines the arguments you provide. Try reading up on issues before pontificating on them. I can see now why you call yourself the "lazy environmentalist".

The Lazy Environmentalist said...

Response to Anonymous:

Maybe I can assist you. The reasons that Russia and Kazakhstan are mentioned here are four-fold:

1. Whilst Australia and Canada may have the largest reserves of uranium, the UK Uranium market (like many markets) is not predicated by buying from those that have the most.

2. Russia and Kazakhstan are two countries that a) also have substantial Uranium stocks, certainly more than enough to satisfy the UK market, and b) are closer to home.

3. Much of our Uranium stock is sourced from Russia and Kazakhstan, hence they are identified as such;

3. I am addressing the UK nuclear consultation, not global nuclear, thus I do not go into analysis of the merits of who has highest reserves of Uranium. Indeed that is an irrelevance when UK stock is being bought from other countries.

Possibly you had not considered these issues. I hope this provides you with a little clarity.

God of All People said...

Nuclear can be the answer, new technology will eventually make it safer.

The Lazy Environmentalist said...

Dear God of All People, even if - and at the moment it still remains an 'if' - safe technology is invented, we still have a legacy of waste to resolve. The dangerous gases still remain dangerous.

Would you back a business on the basis that they still haven't solved current as well as future (admittedly huge) problems regarding extraction, use and disposal? Or would you invest in something that can give the same and vastly more in energy terms and CO2 savings that has none of these problems? Seems a no brainer to me.

justaperson said...

What you describe, The Citizen Deliberation Events, are not listening to the public. I work as a Sergeant At Arms for the NYC Council, so being present at public meetings is what I do. Is there no requirement that truly public meetings are held on such a critical matter?

Julian's blog said...

Hi Lazy Environmentalist:
Ha, enjoyed your site...particularly the shot of the streetlights!
Check out my own blog action project...with animated clips, award-winning short documentaries, and music videos.

The Lazy Environmentalist said...

Hi justaperson, thanks for our comment - you raise a valid point, and I am looking into what rules and regulations (if any) govern our governments consultations. Very interested to hear of your experience. Once I get to the bottom of this I will duly post my findings.

Stephen said...

Word! I agree with many of the findings and basic points of the piece. Yes, nuclear waste = difficult to dispose of, yes, nuclear reactors are hazardous, etc. However, it seems probable that a study of the alternatives to this project - such as the rapid creation of more coal-fired plants - would reveal hazards much more substantial than those involved with the current proposal. How many coal miners have died from emphysema? I have no idea. I would not be suprised if the number were greater, perhaps much greater, proportionally, than that of uranium miners from similar conditions. MOST IMPORTANTLY - the lynch pin of the entire piece - the paragraph, "Can it be said that Nuclear is a 'clean' energy solution?" - is unsubstantiated. Too bad... If you *really* want to help the environment, then perhaps you should figure out the merit of each project before attacking it. The answer to the question of whether or not nuclear energy can be produced cleanly is the key to your whole argument. If nuclear plants are cleaner than the current norm, then focus your energy on supporting this project. Once complete, then shift your focus toward convincing people to support the overhalls on coal-fired plants, creating wind plants, etc. Don't waste time by trying to slow down a potentially-viable alternative energy source unless you know the facts. Which it seems that you don't... (granted there is that legacy thing...we won't talk about that, save to say that people are working on it :-)
p.s. if you have numbers to prove that nuclear plants will accelerate the rate of climate change rather than slow it down, then you should post them on the site, and FAST! That is the heart and soul of this. Not airplanes full of terrorists or solar powerplants bigger than the state of Massachusetts.

Stephen said...

Great Article! Thanks for taking the time to research such an important issue. Are there any numbers to support the argument that nuclear energy is not a clean energy? i.e. that the proposed reactor overhaul will accelerate climate change rather than slowing it down?

The Lazy Environmentalist said...

Hi Stephen,

Number crunching on this aspect has proven very difficult and utterly contradictory depending on who one listens to or reads. Direct and indirect subsidies inevitably muddy the picture as does the issue of insurance costs and disaster recovery costs (human, environmental and social).

Here are some oft quoted "costs" for the Chernobyl aftermath. Although not presented in terms of CO2 emissions, all of the below would nevertheless incur additional emissions by way of additional strain on e.g. existing medical and health resources, environmental and land reclamation and clean-up campaigns, tree planting etc.

Health Effects:
In 1992, it was estimated that there were 187 instances of acute radiation sickness as a result of involvement in the accident and its cleanup, and 5,237 people unable to work for the same reason, while 15,000 had contracted radiation-related diseases. The rate of thyroid cancer in children has risen from 1 per million in 1984, to 100 per million in 1991. The incidence of throat cancer in Ukraine as a whole has doubled.

Amongst the group of accident liquidators, the rate of incidence of tumours has increased 2 times, and 5.7 times in those exposed to the greatest radiation. In addition, the level of all sicknesses has increased significantly. The greatest increases are in diseases relating to the blood, endocrine, and nervous system. Only 18% of the liquidators are now considered to be in good health. Children from contaminated regions suffer from immune system suppression, and from respiratory 25-40% more virus infections than previously.

Economic Effects:
The Chernobyl disaster has been called 'the biggest socio-economic catastrophe of peacetime history'. 24,500Km2 (2.45million Ha) of land in the former USSR is contaminated with more than 185 kBq/m2 (5 curies/km2), including 1.35 million ha in Belorus, 725,000 Ha in Russia, and 377,000Ha in the Ukraine. 50% of the area of Ukraine is in some way contaminated, and 4.7 million ha of once good land is too radioactive to be used for anything.

By 1994, 200,000 people from within the 30 km radius of the reactor had been evacuated and resettled. It is estimated that 1.7 million people have been directly affected by the disaster, while 2.4 million people live on land considered to be contaminated, excluding 3.7 million Kiev inhabitants. 2,400 families are officially registered as having lost a breadwinner as a result of the disaster.

About 7% of Ukraine's budget goes to cleanup of the accident, while it is estimated that 20% would be required to cover the real cost. 25 million cubic metres of topsoil have been removed in 944 inhabited areas, and in 160 hectares of forest.
(for more info, go to: and
Current expenditure so far runs to €33 billion and still counting.

An interesting short paper on CO2 Emissions from the Nuclear Cycle was recently published by Energy Science who make the valid point that "in reality, only reactor operation is CO2-free. All other stages of the nuclear fuel chain – mining, milling, fuel fabrication, enrichment, reactor construction, decommissioning and waste management – use fossil fuels and hence emit CO2. Also the transport between these parts of the fuel cycle can be very energy intensive as they can be in different countries and require shipping, trucking or rail." In the report alternative options are examined (thorium, fast breeder reactors etc) none of which provide a satisfactory solution. See

It would be great to really nail the cradle to cradle economics of Nuclear. The brief picture above demonstrates that it cannot in reality be deemed a low carbon soluution. Exactly how much it will accelerate climate change is dependent (as I hope I have indicated above) on numerous factors. When I'm satisfied that I have a fuller grasp on it I will blog my findings on this particular aspect. Thanks for asking these important questions.

SkyShades said...

It's frightening to think of an increase in the number of nuclear plants. They're a hazardous misuse of funds and a terrible "solution" to the energy problem. There are so many safe alternatives available, like wind farms or solar power, hopefully these technologies will prevail. You have a wonderful blog, very interesting articles!

DC said...

One of the cool things going on in the States is addressing the issue of reducing the demand for power, which in turn would eliminate the need for new power plants, nuclear or otherwise.

Last week Universities from around the world competed in Washington DC to build homes than used zero electricity.

Some of these technologies used could easily be brought to consumers if governmments worked to make it happen! It was encouraging though to see Universities students working on such an important problem.


Devin E said...

Great post! I'm going to have to agree that the direction seems to be toward nuclear in this country. You hear it more and more everyday, especially from the 08 hopefuls. But we can keep fighting!


Check out the journey of two best friends going from meat-lovers to vegetarians for the environment -

Edukator said...

Great article. You finally answered a question that has had me leaning towards supporting nuclear power. I looked at the global warming crisis and though "well nuclear doesn't emit C02 so it can be at least part of the solution." You made a good point about how much C02 is emitted in the refinement and mining of uranium. So it's not much of an aid to the battle against global warming after all.