Nuclear Energy; the pros and cons

Background

We are surrounded by matter, made up of atoms, each of which contains enormous amounts of energy in the bonds that hold the atom together. This energy can be released through controlled nuclear fission to produce heat, steam and ultimately electricity, or through uncontrolled fission to produce atomic bombs, like Little Boy and Fat Boy, which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively in 1945 to end the Second World War. Nuclear research was therefore ironically pointed in two disparate directions, one towards the peaceful nuclear use and the other aimed at military use. Pioneering work by Rutherford, Bohr, Einstein, Chadwick, the Curie’s and Fermi led to nuclear fission being developed in 1938 by Hahn and Strassman. The radioactive elements uranium 235 and plutonium 239 are frequently used as the fuel as they are easily split apart by neutron bombardment, to produce two lighter elements (eg. 92Krypton and 141Barium), more neutrons, which further split other uranium atoms in a controlled chain reaction, and a colossal amount of energy. This radioactive decay is also responsible for the heating the Earths inner core (Choi, 2011). The actual quantity of energy released is around a million times that of a fuel such as petrol, so that is why people were so impressed by this ‘bountiful’ new source of energy. The peaceful use of nuclear power was first advocated in the 1945 book ‘The Atomic Age’ where atomic energy would be used instead of fossil fuels in a brave new world. Electricity was first generated from nuclear energy in 1951 at Arco, Idaho, USA, to produce 100 kilowatts, KW. The US Navy then developed nuclear energy to power submarines like the USS Nautilus (launched 1954) and aircraft carriers, while that same year the Russians built the first nuclear plant to generate electricity (5 megawatts, MW) for a grid in Obninsk (Wikipedia). However, the world’s first commercial nuclear energy plant was opened at Calder Hall, Windscale by the Queen in 1956 and produced a total of 200MW. Today, just over 60 years later, there are now 449 civilian nuclear power stations in the world, producing 394 gigawatts, GW of electricity.

Global Nuclear Power, Past, Present and Future

Ten percent of global electricity is presently generated by nuclear power and the International Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, regards it as a clean form of energy, like renewables (solar, wind, water, wave energy). It has been calculated that since it use in the 1970’s, nuclear power has saved around 64 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions and 1.84 million deaths that would have otherwise resulted from burning fossil fuels (Wikipedia). Most developed countries, with the notable exception of New Zealand, use nuclear power as a source of power in their energy mix. However, the controlled nuclear reaction sometimes becomes uncontrolled. In 1957 a fire broke out in one of the air-cooled reactors at Windscale, now Sellafield, in Cumbia. It raged for three days and, at its peak, eleven tonnes of uranium was ablaze, which released radioactive fallout across the UK and Europe. Although no people were evacuated, milk from cows in the surrounding 500 square kilometres was condemned for human consumption. Nevertheless, 240 cases of thyroid cancer due to radioactive iodine-131 have been estimated (Wikipedia). It didn’t stop there; in 1983 the government put out a warning to the public to not swim or use the beaches after another radioactive leak from a reprocessing plant, while between 2006 and 2011, a total of 1233 radioactive pebbles and fragments were removed from local beaches (Edwards, 2011).

In 1974, the Three Mile Island nuclear power facility on the Susquehanna River, near Middleton, Pennsylvania, a pressure valve malfunctioned and started leaking coolant water. The backup emergency pumps automatically kicked in, but control staff misread the situation and shut them down, resulting in the core overheating to 4000 0C, only 1000 degrees below meltdown. The pumps were eventually restarted and the core temperature began to diminish, but the core came within less than an hour of a complete meltdown, which would have blown the reactor and spread deadly radioactivity into the river and surrounding inhabited environment. Two days later a hydrogen bubble was discovered in the reactor building which exploded releasing radiation into the atmosphere. Pregnant women and pre-schoolers were urged to evacuate from within a five mile radius, and this led to panic and 100000 people fled from surrounding towns. Nearly two million people were exposed to minor radiation, but if meltdown had occurred, it could have been disastrous. The clean-up took 16 years, and the reactor was never used again. Nuclear power accounted for about a fifth of electricity production in the US during 2016, but most plants are now old with a life of 60 years. Very few new nuclear power stations have been built since the Three Mile disaster. Other partial melt-downs have occurred at the Chalk River plant near Ottawa, Canada, and at Greifswald, in the then East Germany (Lineback & Lineback-Gritsner, 2014).

Then in 1986, the number 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine, then still part of the USSR, underwent an explosion, which immediately killed two people, while 237 people, many of them servicemen, suffered acute radiation syndrome (ARS) from which 28 people died and spread plumes of radioactive fallout as far as Scandanavia. As exclusion zones were set up, 117000 people were evacuated from the nearby towns of Pripyat and Chernobyl (still ghost towns today, 30 years later). Over 100000 square kilometres of land was significantly contaminated with radioactive fallout in The Ukraine, Belarus and Russia and in the next decade many thyroid cancer deaths followed. A pine forest downwind of the reactor turned red-brown and died. Local horses and cattle died from thyroid problems, while wild boar were also contaminated. In the UK, 9700 sheep farms were affected by radioactive cesium-137 fallout, and restrictions on the sale of meat was only lifted in 2010 (Rawlinson & Hovenden, 2010). The Ukraine was the called ‘the bread basket of Europe’, producing over a fifth of the grain of the former USSR, half of its sugar beet and a quarter of its meat and dairy items, but after the disaster, this figure dwindled drastically. Reports state that milk from neighbouring Belarus contain levels of the carcinogenic strontium-90 isotope which were presently ten times above the safety standard (CBS News, 2016), while milk from cows 140km from Chernobyl is still being drunk by children despite radioactive readings five times over the limit for adults (New York Times, June, 2018). The after effects of Chernobyl will still be seen after 100 years. 

Closer to home, between 1963 and 1984, the nuclear facility at Dounraey, in north-west Scotland, discharged tens of thousands of highly radioactive fuel fragments into the sea polluting beaches and the seabed (Edwards, 2011). Workers for the UK Atomic Energy Authority (AEA) apparently threw around two kilograms of Sodium and Potassium down a 65m deep shaft which contained radioactive waste and the resulting reaction blew off the heavy lid and littered the surrounding area with radioactive shards (Edwards, 1995). Dounraey was shut down in 1993 and as fragments containing Cesium 137 and Plutonium 239 were found on the seabed, fishing within a two kilometer radius of the plant was banned (since 1997). Apparently milling shards from reprocessed uranium and plutonium fuel rods were placed in screw top aluminium vials and merely dumped down the shaft. A report from the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee in 1995 stated that ‘this is not an acceptable model for the disposal of radioactive waste’! There have also been an excessive number of childhood leukaemia cases from this area. In 2006 the plant was fined £2 million over the radioactive spillage and in 2007, UK AEA, who operated Dounraey at the time, was fined a paltry £140000. From 1983 more than 480 radioactive particles were removed from three local beaches and since 2008, more than 2300 shards have been removed from the adjacent seabed. The local Sandside beach became Britains’s first official radioactive public landscape (Barber, 2006). Similarly, at the nuclear station at Chapelcross, SW Scotland, between 2000 and 2005, 126 radioactive particles were removed from the shore.

More recently in 2011, an earthquake off Japan caused a massive 15m tsunami which hit the west coast. The coastal nuclear facility at Fukushima Daiichi had a 5.7m seawall to prevent such an eventuality, but the tidal wave went straight over it and flooded the turbines and disabled the emergency diesel generators. Attempts to connect portable pumps were unsuccessful and the core overheated resulting in three nuclear meltdowns, hydrogen explosions and the release of core material to the surrounding atmosphere in deadly radioactive plumes. This led to an estimated 1600 deaths while 470000 people were evacuated due to the earthquake, tsunami and radioactive fallout from within a 20km radius. In 2013, a study on Fukushima Prefecture health showed that 40% of children screened showed thyroid nodules or cysts. Now, 8 years later, 174000 people have been unable to return to their homes due to damage and background radiation, while to decontaminate and decommission Fukushima will take 30 to 40 years. A government estimate in 2016 for decontamination, decommissioning, compensation and radioactive waste storage costs stood at a staggering 21.5 trillion yen ($187 billion), which was nearly double the estimate in 2013. Food security in the Fukushima area has been drastically affected as radiocesium fallout has contaminated the soil, water and various crops due to its long half-life, and despite massive decontamination effort, severe damage to agriculture and the environment has resulted (Yamaguchi et al., 2016). These nuclear disasters, especially Chernobyl and Fukushima, have drastically changed how the world views nuclear energy and it can no longer be seen as safe, clean energy. After this accident, Japan decided to move away from nuclear power and replaced it with renewable energy, particularly wind, solar and geothermal (Coghlan, 2011; Suzuki, 2018). Between 2013 and 2015 Japan suspended nuclear power and so it had to go back to the old coal powered stations and imported Liquid Natural Gas (LNG), but 5 nuclear power units were restarted in 2018 and now has 9 nuclear units pushing out 8.7 GW (EIA, 2019). Before Fukushima nuclear power accounted for 30% of Japan’s electricity, with plans to increase it to 50%, but this has now been reduced to between 20 and 22% by 2030 and beyond (Nuclear Engineering International, 2018). Germany and Italy also decided to move away from nuclear power after Fukushima. Germany closed 8 of its 17 reactors and announced its nuclear phase-out plan to close them all by 2022, and is also planning to close its polluting brown coal-burning stations, but only by 2038, as a massive 40% of its electricity still comes from fossil fuel sources (Vaughan, 2019). Italy has since closed ALL of its nuclear facilities (Wikipedia).

In the UK around a quarter of the nation’s electricity came from nuclear sources in 2016, but its market share has been shrinking with the rise of cheaper and safer renewables (Vaughan, 2019). Most of the older nuclear plants will have reached the end of their lives by 2030, while the Government is also planning to close all 7 remaining coal burning plants by 2025 (Wikipedia). Three nuclear facilities, Moorside, Wylfa and Oldbury have been shelved, leaving Sizewell C (3.2GW) and Bradwell B (2.3GW), while the 3.2GW Hinckley Point C will power around 6 million homes. The proposed Wylfa plant on Anglesey, set to cost around £16 billion, as well as the Oldbury nuclear development were axed by the Japanese giant Hitachi as an agreement could not be reached. Moorside, which was to be backed by another Japanese firm Toshiba, was also scrapped. France is the biggest investor in nuclear energy and provided a massive 40% of its electricity in 2015, with EDF, largely government owned, controlling its 58 stations throughout the country (Wikipedia). Since Fukushima, EDF have upgraded the vital safety functions of these units, but the growing cost of third generation reactors (eg. Flamanville), coupled with increasing decommissioning costs of old reactors and falling costs of renewables could change the future energy mix in France in the future. 

Emerging economies like India and China with their burgeoning populations (1.35 and 1.42 billion respectively) require energy for growth, and nuclear power is part of their energy mixes. India has 7 nuclear power plants with plans to generate 63GW by 2032, but since Fukushima there has been public protests over planned new Russian and French built stations (Wikipedia). Because of fuel availability, India has been looking at Thorium based reactors as, despite the discovery of new uranium deposits, it has large deposits of this element, which is a self-sustaining fuel, is more common in nature than uranium and does not require fast neutron reactors. Although nuclear power only contributes 4% of China’s electricity through its 40 atomic power stations, another 18 plants are under construction (Hyman & Tilles, 2018). But nevertheless, China appears to be losing interest in nuclear power since Fukushima, because of rising nuclear costs and lack of public enthusiasm. However, this hiccup may have ended as new projects using the Westinghouse AP1000 systems where water is stored above the reactor and can be passively cooled using gravity if the pumps fail are being implemented (Fairley, 2019). Other nuclear systems used in China are of French design such as the new 1.75GW ‘European Pressurized Reactor’ at Taishan (Tabeta, 2018).

Nuclear power in both Latin America and Africa has not been greatly developed. In the former, there are only seven nuclear plants operating, three in Argentina, three in Mexico and two in Brazil, which provide just 2.2% of its electricity (Sol Cueva, 2016). Brazil had plans to expand nuclear power in its energy mix, but corruption has halted construction at the Angra 3. Uruguay, Chile and Cuba have also been looking at nuclear options, but since Fukushima, plans have been shelved. Although Cuba had plans to build two nuclear plants with the Russian expertise, construction ceased in 1992 with the collapse of the USSR in 1992. Then in 2012, Fidel Castro declared that this form of energy was dangerous, and all nuclear developments were abandoned. Similarly, Mexico has equally decided to abandon plans for ten new nuclear developments.

In Africa, there is only a single nuclear power station at Koeberg, in South Africa, which generates only 5% of the country’s electricity, and, despite growing consumption, has abandoned plans for any new atomic developments before 2030, with most of its power still coming from coal-fired sources (World Nuclear Organisation, 2019). During 2010 interest in nuclear power was revived and several new plants were planned, such as Thyspunt, with agreements signed with China, Russia, France and South Korea, but since the recession, the government has reassessed its nuclear building program due to rapidly escalating costs.

Safety

It may be argued that nuclear power has ‘progressed’ from the initial graphite core (first generation) to a more sophisticated third generation function with more back-up’s and controls, but then Fuskushima was one of these later ones. If the fission is not properly controlled, then the reactor becomes a ticking time bomb which rapidly ends in melt down, blowouts and widespread radioactive fall-out. The European Power Reactor (EPR) proposal for Hinckley will be the most complex reactor to be constructed and will incorporate systems to prevent another Fukushima. However, complex is not always good; take the brand new Boeing 737 Max, for example, which has shown the fallibility of automated controls.

Health and Disposal of Radioactive Waste

In terms of health, uranium miners show higher rates of lung cancer and tuberculosis than normal, while a tonne of uranium produces 100 tonnes of tailings and thousands of litres of contaminated water which then flows in to rivers, lakes or seeps into underground water sources (Physicians for Social Responsibility, 2009). Initially spent radioactive fuel was dumped in the ocean where canisters rusted and leaked, but in 1993 international treaties banned this practice. However, because there was no functioning government in Somalia, its oceans were used for illegal dumping and was a potential danger to its offshore fisheries and sea life. Spent radioactive waste was also buried in silos or shafts (like Dounraey), usually in isolated spots in deserts or geologically inert areas such as the controversial Yucca Mountain repository in the USA where 63000 tonnes of highly radioactive spent fuel is being stored, with no plan for its ultimate fate. Russia dumped its waste in the Arctic Ocean, the Europeans dumped in the NE Atlantic and the US dumped in the NW Atlantic and Pacific (Wikipedia). According to a 2015 Hitachi estimate, funding set aside for the management and disposal of used radioactive fuel totalled a massive $100 billion globally ($51b for Europe and $40b for the USA; World Nuclear Organisation). In Britain there are expensive (£12 billion) plans to permanently bury radioactive waste in a large (town sized) underground facility in Cumbria (Williams, 2013). Because of its long half-life, this waste will remain radioactive for thousands of years during which time leaks can occur which would result in huge ecological impacts (Conserve energy future). Clearly radioactive waste is neither cheap to dispose of, nor inherently safe.

Life-Cycle-Analysis (LCA)

In nature, Uranium235 is rare and therefore unsustainable (unless we start mining asteroids) and consequently requires considerable energy in the production of fuel (uranium and plutonium) from mining, milling, processing, centrifuging, refining, storing, shipping, reprocessing and safe disposal of radioactive waste, and in the construction, operation and decommissioning of reactors; it’s so-called life-cycle-analysis or LCA, so has an inherently huge carbon footprint, as well as cost. Barnham (2015) argues that nuclear energy in NOT the low carbon power source that has been claimed. The Climate Change Committee, the UK Governments official climate change advisor, believe that electricity generated at Hinckley Point C does not work out at 6g of CO2 per kilowatt-hour, but at well above 50g per unit, which is above their own recommendation for new power sources for after 2030. In terms of comparison, all renewable energy sources have LCA’s of below 50g per kilo-watt hour (hydro power, 10g; biogas/anaerobic digestion, 11g; wind energy, 34g and solar, 49.9g), with photovoltaic technology rapidly improving and becoming ever cheaper. Two meta-reviews of 103 and 274 published papers on nuclear energy LCA’s by Sovacool (2010) and (2008) and Warner and Heath (2012) respectively calculated figures varying from 3 to 220g, but Barnham disputes these figures as most do not include values for the full life cycle, and consequent CO2 emissions from mining to final disposal and decommissioning. Another analysis of nuclear energy LCA’s were calculated at between 90 and 140g per kilowatt-hour (Storm & Smith).

Changing Comparative Energy Subsidies

The energy giant EDF negotiated a deal with the government to fix the price of nuclear-generated electricity for 35 years (£75 per megawatt hour, MH) because of the huge upfront costs of nuclear development and time (years) it takes for the plant to be fully operational. Later, Hinckley Point C was awarded to EDF for a guaranteed £92.50 per MH, while windfarms were offered only £57.50 per MH. Offshore and inshore wind and solar could rapidly fill this gap in the market and, even without subsidies, would actually make the price of electricity cheaper as sun and wind are free and economies of scale are making them cheaper by the day. The green energy trade body Renewable UK also stated that offshore wind farms could fill this energy gap, but the government has blocked onshore wind farms from competing for subsidies. Hinckley C will only be operational after 2030 and be propped by subsidies for 35 years of its projected 60 year life, which ends in 2090; that is 60 years of emissions well above target! Subsidies are paid by the consumer and for offshore wind it was around £100 per megawatt hour (MH) of electricity, about the same as it is for Hinckley Point nuclear power (£95.5 per MH; Loughran, 2016). However, subsidies are still paid to the fossil fuel industries to the tune of a staggering $5.3 trillion globally (Wikipedia)! Why? Especially when oil company bosses earn millions, while polluting the ocean and land (BP at Deepwater Horizon, costing billions of dollars in clean-up, compensation and penalties and Shell in Nigeria, where oil spills have cost millions of dollars to mangrove forests, fish populations and human health; Wikipedia). During 2016 the UK Government announced plans to spend £730m per year on renewable energy projects with energy subsidies of around £290m a year in order to phase out coal by 2025. However, the Treasury later announced there will be no new green power project subsidies before 2025, to ‘protect’ consumers, while still pledging energy subsidies, mainly for offshore, effectively cutting off other green projects like tidal energy (Vaughan, 2017).

Cost comparisons

Barham compared the cost of the projected Hinckley Point cost with that of building a hydroelectricity station of similar electrical output and it worked out to be five times more expensive. Hydroelectricity was also inherently safer and, with pumped storage for peak times, would also be cleaner, and more sustainable with a longer productive life. The Hebridean Marine Energy Futures in Lewis and the European Tidal Energy test centre in the Orkneys are both working on sustainable energy generated from waves. It has been calculated that there is enough wave energy off NW Scotland to generate the equivalent power of several nuclear power stations at a fraction of the financial and environmental cost (McKenzie, 2013). Extrapolating from a measured average wave energy of 75.5KW per metre, the 200km coastline from Barra in the south to the Butt of Lewis in the north could generate the equivalent of 12 nuclear power stations such as Torness.

Overview

With nuclear power there are health, waste and decommissioning costs which run into billions of dollars (Mail & Guardian, 2019), with the added risk of radioactive contamination to the environment, which effects the long term viability both human and animal communities, populations and even ecosystems, which is impossible to put a price tag on. The ever increasing cost new nuclear reactors and decommissioning old reactors, plus the continuing falling costs of clean and sustainable renewables is making the case for ‘clean’ nuclear power less attractive. Clearly even third generation nuclear energy does not point to a sustainable, safe or cheap low carbon future, even if there are ‘back-ups’ or especially if Homer Simpson is behind the controls of a nuclear plant in Springfield!

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