The argument over whether or not the UK should invest in a new generation of nuclear power has been jolted into life again thanks to climate change and the urgent necessity to decarbonise electricity production. The scale of this challenge is undoubtedly great, and it has lead to many unlikely proponents of nuclear power including prominent environmentalists such as George Monbiot and Mark Lynas.
However, particularly since the Fukushima disaster in Japan last year, the nuclear debate has been couched in terms of a direct choice between the dangers posed by climate change and the safety concerns of the reactors themselves. The threat of meltdown and the risk of proliferation are not inconsiderable concerns set against the consequences of a failure to meet carbon reduction targets.
The real failure of nuclear proponents is that, in becoming fixated on carbon reduction, they fail to consider the type of energy system that the wholesale adoption of nuclear power is likely to create and its appropriateness for the state of the world in which it will operate. They fail to consider the resilience of our future energy system.
So in what ways does nuclear power undermine resilience? To answer this question we need to look at the characteristics of a power plant that generates nuclear energy.
* They are big. Building viable nuclear power plants is an expensive business, there has still never been a nuclear power plant built anywhere in the world, that did not receive substantial state subsidies to make it commercially viable. To reduce this cost to somewhere near acceptable levels, and to increase efficiency, nuclear power plants have to be large.
* They are immovable. It sounds obvious, but it is important, once you choose your site, you can’t move a nuclear power plant. Once they are built they are operational for around 50 to 60 years.
* They are thirsty. In order to cool its reactors, a nuclear plant needs to have access to water, and lots of it; so much in fact, that the plant must be sited within easy reach of seawater or an abundant groundwater source.
* They are sensitive. Water’s not all that is required, excellent transport links to provide a supply of uranium, a constant and stable energy supply and a lot of highly skilled nuclear technicians are all a must.
The first way in which nuclear power undermines resilience is by increasing its exposure. Building nuclear power plants on the coast is fine for today’s conditions but sea level rise and the increased storm-surge risk poses a real threat in the future. Additionally, incremental factors such as the gradual reduction of groundwater supplies may make areas that were once suitable for nuclear plants, unsuitable. During the 2003 heat-wave, the French had to take 4,000 megawatts (equivalent to 4 nuclear plants) of nuclear power offline as groundwater levels dropped and rivers ran dry.
Other incremental changes might also pose a problem for nuclear power. A study by Natal Kopytko and John Perkins, researchers at York University, show nuclear plants may be unable to adapt to rising temperatures and other climate impacts. The large-scale, inflexible nature of nuclear power stations makes them extremely unresponsive to change. Dr Stuart Parkinson, Executive Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, puts this into context; “Proposals are now in the pipeline to build eight or more new nuclear power stations in the UK – each one designed to operate for 50-60 years, and store highly radioactive waste onsite, probably for another 50 years. 100 years is a very long time to predict and manage the serious risks posed by material from a nuclear power station. Think about how different the UK was in 1911, and then consider the environmental and social risks of the next 100 years.”
They also require a great deal of care from experienced nuclear technicians and scientists, well-maintained transport links to provide the mined uranium and a constant, reliable, power supply. At the national scale, these characteristics have serious implications for the type of energy system that we build in the future. Nuclear power plants produce large amounts of electricity from each individual reactor. This has the effect of reducing the diversity of energy production at grid level, as it displaces energy that could potentially be produced by a range of different renewable technologies. As storms battered the Scottish coasts in recent months, a wind turbine overheated and caught fire in the high winds. The ‘too windy for wind power’ gag was too hard to resist for much of the media, but the real lesson from the event is that wind turbines fail safely; the modular nature of the technology means that failures are contained.
Japan learned the hard way that this is not the case for nuclear reactors. Nuclear power provided almost 30 percent of Japans electricity last year and Fukushima provided nearly 20 percent of the nuclear supply. When it failed it left thousands of homes without power. More than 70,000 people had to be evacuated from a 20 km exclusion zone set up around the plant, and a further 140,000 people, living between 20 and 30 km from the plant were told to stay indoors. Many of the nuclear workers dealing with the emergency are likely to have received extremely high doses of radiation. Food from the region is still not sold in shops. Power was cut off to factories for so long that some of the world’s biggest companies were unable to continue to operate, with knock-on effects that were felt all over the world. Global supply chains were disrupted meaning that factories such as Toyota’s Derbyshire plant in the UK (5,800 miles from Fukushima) had to cut its production as the flow of vital parts slowed to a drip. Some estimates put the economic cost of the Fukushima plant failure at around US$50 billion.
Ha, ha. A wind turbine is on fire.
Our challenge is to build energy systems that are flexible enough to cope with a changing world. Conventional nuclear power appears, in many ways, to run directly counter to that goal. Nuclear plants in the UK are unlikely to face the same threats as those we saw in Japan, but threats they will face. Terrorism, human error or power failure: predicting the exact type of threat is folly, the question we should be asking is can a nuclear power plant fail safely? I am a long way from convinced.
Despite these substantial challenges, my argument is not that no form of nuclear technology would be acceptable from a resilience perspective. There is some evidence that the use of thorium reactors or integral fast reactors (IFRs) could negate many of the problems discussed here, but in considering those technologies resilience must be a primary consideration.
Will Bugler is Editor at Get Resilient, he has worked within the ‘Adapting to Climate Change’ department at Defra, Friends of the Earth, and for the UK government’s advisory body on climate change issues; The Energy and Climate Change Committee.