Why are we scared of Nuclear Power?
Nuclear power had a lot of bad press in the 1990’s and early noughties as a result of a few, high profile, power plant accidents – Chernobyl (1986), Three Mile Island (1979). Even as recently as 2011 there was a disaster in Fukushima Daiichi (Japan). However, nuclear seems very much on the agenda today due to the rising cost of traditional power sources, and the government giving the green light to more plants being built.
The economic cost of nuclear power accidents is high, and meltdowns can take decades to clean up. The construction and decommissioning of nuclear plants is also a costly exercise. Most nuclear plants have a lifecycle of around 50 years – and the decommissioning process can take years in itself. Currently around a sixth of our energy supplies still come from nuclear, and due to the more recent, pressing issues around security of supply, in 2010 the government permitted private companies to begin the construction of 8 new nuclear power stations, underlining its renewed commitment to nuclear as a future source of the country’s gas and electricity supplies.
However, in March 2012, E.ON UK and RWE npower announced they would be pulling out of developing new nuclear power plants, placing the future of nuclear power in the UK in doubt. Despite this, EDF Energy (perhaps due to the fact it is a French firm, and the French are strong believers in nuclear) is still planning to build four new reactors at two sites, with public consultation completed and initial groundwork beginning on the first two reactors, sited at Hinkley Point in Somerset. (The fact that EDF have secured a strike price from the government of £92.50/MWh when the current annual price is around £53/MWh is a different can of worms subject for another time!).
Of the nine currently operating nuclear plants in the UK, EDF Energy operates eight with a combined capacity of almost 9,000 megawatts, while Wylfa power station is run by Magnox Ltd.
Apart from the risk of nuclear power plant accidents, one of the major reasons people dislike nuclear is the waste it generates, or more specifically, the disposal of the waste. But there is waste and then there is waste, and the most corrosive and dangerous type is the ‘high-level waste’. This accounts for less than 0.3% of all the waste in the UK, but is so dangerous that it would cause death to anyone directly exposed to it within just a few days. So what do we do with this minute yet highly toxic ‘high-level waste’? In general it is reprocessed to extract the remaining usable uranium and plutonium, a process which reduces the need to mine fresh uranium and cuts the volume of waste. What is left after this processing is intermediate level waste which can be mixed with concrete and stored in tanks, drums and vaults at the sites where they are created. Low-level waste (LLW) is nuclear waste that does not fit into the categorical definitions for high or intermediate-level waste. In essence, it is a definition by exclusion and can generally be disposed of in landfill. So normally when people refer to nuclear waste their fears are really around the intermediate and high-level categories. And how much of this type of waste do we currently have in storage in the UK?
If the UK’s reactors all operate to their current shutdown dates (see map above) and no more are built, there will be an estimated 36,590 cubic metres – enough to fill 14 Olympic-sized swimming pools – of intermediate and high level waste in the UK. Most of the country’s low-level waste is stored in sealed concrete vaults at a purpose-built store in Drigg, Cumbria, although some is considered safe enough to go into hazardous waste landfill sites. The Drigg store currently contains 960,000 cubic metres – equivalent to 384 Olympic swimming pools – of waste.
What are the up sides of nuclear? Let’s address the issue of the risk to human life to begin with. In terms of lives lost per unit of energy generated, analysis has determined that nuclear power has caused less fatalities per unit of energy generated than the other major sources of energy generation. Along with other sustainable energy sources, nuclear power is a low carbon power generation method of producing electricity, similar to other renewable sources in a comparison of greenhouse gas(GHG) emissions per unit of energy generated.
A nuclear reactor itself does not emit any greenhouse gases, and even if the emissions from the mining of uranium, building of power stations and treatment of waste are taken into account they are still much less than from the burning of fossil fuels.The operating cost of producing nuclear fuel is also much less than to produce energy from gas, oil or coal. A 2002 UK government report said power from Sizewell B, the most recently-built reactor, produced electricity for an all-up cost of 6p/kWH. Of course that is once the plant has been built and notwithstanding the costly maintenance, waste disposal and decommissioning that are part and parcel of it.
If we accept that nuclear is to be an important source of our fuel supply going forward, (with plans to develop plants that will supply around 16 gigawatts of new nuclear power), then clearly safety is of paramount concern. Most of the evidence suggests that nuclear is in fact safe, however the government still needs to do more to allay the fears of the general public before nuclear is readily accepted.
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