The recent natural disaster in Japan has sparked renewed debate on the issue of nuclear power. It’s an emotive debate, full of misunderstanding and public concern.
So, a bit of background first on what has happened with the reactors affected in Fukushima. Last month, Japan was struck by the worst earthquake in its recorded history. The reactors immediately went off-line, as they were designed to do. At that stage, the threat of a repeat of the events at Chernobyl was immediately ruled out. Subsequently, the electricity supply to the power station failed. Electricity is required at Fukushima to pump water around the reactors. When the tsunami hit Fukushima, the diesel generators failed and then the back-up batteries ran down. At that stage, no water was being pumped around the reactors and they started to heat up.
So, does this mean that we should put a stop to the nuclear programme in the UK (and worldwide)?
Well, we are fortunate in the UK in that we are not subject to the same plate tectonics as Japan. We rarely have serious earth tremors. The earthquake which hit Japan was 130,000 times stronger than the strongest earthquake we have ever had in the UK. Yes, you read that correctly – 130,000 times stronger.
We have experienced one tsunami in the British Isles on the scale of the one which hit the East coast of Japan – in 6100 BC, following the underwater Storegga slide off the Norwegian coast, which washed over some of the Shetland Islands and hit various areas on the coast of Scotland. There have otherwise been two recorded tsunamis – one in the Bristol Channel in 1607 and the other in Cornwall in 1755. According to a DEFRA report from 2005, the chances of such an event are extremely unlikely.
Despite all this, I fully expect that any nuclear power station should be built anticipating these kind of events – even in this country. Newer reactors already use convection cooling, so had the affected reactors at Fukushima employed this kind of cooling system, the events that have since transpired there would never have happened.
There are three principle reasons for supporting nuclear power, as far as I can see. They are environmental, political, and economical.
Unless you deny that global warming is happening (regardless of what you believe the cause to be), you will appreciate that we need to drastically reduce our reliance on burning fossil fuels for energy production. There are good economic and political reasons for decreasing this reliance of fossil fuels too, which I will deal with below.
The fact that we are so reliant on burning long-dead carbon lifeforms for our energy in the 21st century is a sad indictment on how where we are in terms of our energy policy. Since 1991, we have imported more coal into the UK than has been mined domestically, and since 1997, our coal power stations, which accounted for 85% of our coal use in 2005, have used more coal than can be mined in the UK. By 2005, approximately 66% of coal used in power stations was imported. Aside the environmental impact of burning the coal to produce our power, we are having to transport around 50 million tonnes of the stuff predominantly from Russia and South Africa; an exercise which in itself has a heavy carbon footprint.
In the first half of the 20th century, most of our crude oil supply came from the USA (two thirds in 1938). In the 1950s, supply started to move to the Middle East and until the Oil Crisis in 1974, at which point the Middle East accounted for more than 80% of our supply, this figure continued to grow. Following the commencement of drilling for North Sea oil in 1975, UK supplies from that area started to increase. In 2006, Norway accounted for 70% of our oil imports and the Middle East had sunk to an unprecedented 2%.
Although we continue to indigenously produce most of the crude oil consumed in the UK, the amount has decreased since 2000, our exports have decreased in line with this, and we now import more oil than we export.
Historically, our energy production has been hit by events such as the Oil Crisis in 1973; the miners’ strike in 1984; and the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988, which caused a drop in North Sea oil production due to safety overhauls. The UK refineries developed in the 1950s were built to refine crude oil for use as petrol and fuel oil, reflecting the UK economy since the 1950s. When demand for oil for other purposes has increased, it has been cheaper to import rather than reconfigure the UK refineries.
The UK’s primary fuel source of energy for heating and electricity production is gas. In 2008, our electricity supply comprised gas at 47.5%, coal at 32.1%, nuclear at 12.9%, and others (including renewables) at 7.5%. Contrast with this France’s figure of 75% electricity generation from nuclear power and you can see that we are somewhat reliant on fossil fuels, in particular gas. We have shifted from self-sufficiency in gas to becoming a net gas importer. It is anticipated that we will be 80% dependent on imported gas by 2020. This will leave us more susceptible to gas supply interruptions and price fluctuations than we have been in the past. UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) gas production has increased, but has been unable to keep up with demand and is now in decline, so we are increasingly susceptible to increases in seasonal demand. Admittedly, the increase in the number of import routes in the very recent few years has reduced our vulnerability somewhat. At the global level, it is expected that gas production will peak in the next 10-20 years, at which point supplies will decrease on a global scale, and prices will increase – all against the backdrop of increasing demand.
I had intended to include a section on the issue of oil being tied into our foreign policy vis-à-vis recent interventions in the Middle East. However, my view has always been that the supposed public belief that our foreign policy is tied into oil is, in any case, erroneous, and this seems to be borne out in the research I have carried out (see oil import figures above). If our foreign policy were cynically based around oil, we would be paying a hell of a lot more attention to Norway and meddling far more in Norwegian affairs than in those of the Middle East!
Nevertheless, if you take the view (I don’t) that we do operate a foreign policy in this country’s oil interests (the government’s insistence on the seemingly unpopular stance of maintaining its level of international aid suggests otherwise, as does our intervention in Bosnia – not known for its oil fields), then a move away from such a reliance from oil from the Middle East would mean that we could stop intervening in that region and leave the theocracies to their own devices. If you insist that we are culpable of illegal interventions and killing in the name of oil, then you should surely be arguing strongly in favour of nuclear power.
Our existing nuclear facilities are nearing the end of their operational lives. By 2015, 6 of the 19 currently operating nuclear reactors in the UK are scheduled to have reached the end of their lives and to be closed down. At that stage, the energy requirements of the country will need to be filled by some other means. The life of some reactors may be extended and energy efficiency measures may go some way to alleviate the problem of the ‘energy gap’, but we need to act now to plan our electricity supplies for the coming years.
I concede that the construction and decommissioning of nuclear reactors is costly, but the running costs are minimal. The costs are chiefly capital outlay costs in the commissioning and associated safety measures which need to be implemented, and then in the decommissioning costs of the reactors at the end of their working lives. Once the reactor is running, the ongoing costs are very low. When compared with traditional fossil fuel power stations, which need constantly feeding with the raw materials, nuclear reactors offer much cheaper running costs.
The fission of an atom of uranium produces 10 million times the energy produced by the combustion of an atom of carbon from coal. Uranium is plentiful. With breeder reactors, we have billions of years worth of energy.
Can’t we just use alternative energy?
I’m all for alternative energy. The more, the better. People who know me have heard me talk enthusiastically (to the point of boring them) about solar roadways, which I still consider to be a great long-term energy solution. However, I am also a realist. Wind power typically costs much more than nuclear – often twice as much per kWh and then you have the issue of NIMBYism – seemingly even with off-shore wind farms.
Small scale, domestic use of alternative energy has to be encouraged wherever possible, and I am currently investigating having solar PV cells installed at home, but larger-scale solar arrays are not really suitable for the UK. There are other alternative means of energy production which do merit further development and investment, but we have to deal with the impending energy gap.
Chernobyl is the only nuclear incident which harmed members of the public, but it is irrelevant to the debate on nuclear power, since the reactor was a Soviet era reactor without any of the many safeguards built into new reactors. It would be like basing a decision on modern car safety on a Trabant.
Here are some facts and figures I’ve come across in researching this article:
- The official UN figure for deaths at Chernobyl is 56. However, 4,056 people supposedly died as a result of the indirect, long-term effects of Chernobyl.
- 5,000 coal miners are killed in China every year in industrial accidents. That’s more people killed in one country in one year than have been killed worldwide by nuclear power since we started to use it.
- More people have been killed by wind turbines in the USA than have been killed by nuclear power.
- Radiation levels from the nuclear industry are lower than naturally occurring levels.
- You are statistically more likely to be killed by your trousers than in a nuclear power incident.
Contrary to what has often been quoted about reactors being uninsurable, insurers are only too happy to take the premiums, precisely because of their high safety standards (the very aspect of the nuclear industry which does make construction costs expensive).
Nuclear materials are transported in specially built containers, which are designed to withstand any collision incident. There are some famous clips of such tests (e.g. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=as3VQeYfd2c).
It is fair to say that there has been criticism of security at nuclear power stations, and security of reactors is certainly of paramount importance. We need independent reviews of security and very tight measures in place to prevent attacks on reactors (which are far more likely to happen through personal infiltration of a site than by a direct attack using weapons, which, considering the measures in place will in all likelihood be unsuccessful).
If we don’t embrace nuclear power, energy prices will rocket in the next few decades. If we turn our back on nuclear energy, we will have seen our ‘golden age’ of low fuel costs and we will see our domestic bills increase dramatically in the coming years.
The disaster in Fukushima is certainly a chance to review and improve the design of nuclear power stations and this is already happening, but to abandon all the advantages afforded by nuclear power based on ignorance and fear will prove to be far more harmful environmentally, politically, and economically.
Supposedly, 39% of the British public have changed their mind about nuclear power since Fukushima. The danger is that people are missing the true human tragedy of the earthquake and the subsequent tsunami, and worrying unduly about unrealistic scenarios of nuclear meltdowns. In reality, considering the reactors at Fukushima were designed 50 years ago, were subjected to the most extreme forces of nature, went offline automatically (as they were designed to do at any sign of seismic activity), and were only let-down by the failure of diesel generators, we should see the nuclear incident in Fukushima as a demonstration that nuclear power is indeed safe. All the subsequent talk of radiation in the media, as though radiation is the bogey man (when you’re subjected to more radiation when eating a banana than you are from living with 50 miles of a nuclear power station for a year) is just misleading and downright irresponsible.
We have enough experience internationally to know which reactor types work well, and to be able to standardise on any new reactors, thereby significantly reducing construction costs and times. We have in the UK made bad decisions in the past about reactor types (favouring the gas cooled AGR reactors over the more successful water-cooled PWR reactors used by the French). We also failed to standardise on reactor types, which added significantly to their costs. But we have learnt from these mistakes.
Unfortunately, politicians are all too keen to pander to public moods rather than attempt to educate. Moreover, those opposed to nuclear power know that their best bet is to delay commissioning through endless public enquiries. In the meantime, the French will continue to embrace nuclear power, with electricity as its fourth largest export. Perhaps it is a good thing that the French company EDF has expressed strong interest in developing Britain’s nuclear power stations into the future… assuming the Luddites don’t get their way!