In October 2015, David Cameron signed a deal with China committing the UK to spending $25bn on a new nuclear power station at Hinckley. Back home, China are planning 67 of their own. These new facilities will stop generating electricity around the year 2065. Both governments promote nuclear as a “low carbon” technology. In other words, they see nuclear as part of the solution to climate change.
Here are 10 reasons why that’s way off the mark.
1) Low Carbon Is Not Low Enough
“Low carbon” is the euphemism the nuclear industry prefers for itself, which politicians cheerfully parrot to the public. The phrase compares nuclear with fossil fuels to make it look environmentally friendly. But given the scale and urgency of the climate crisis, the only appropriate comparison is with zero carbon technologies, and nuclear comes nowhere near zero. In 2014 nuclear power emitted about 110,000,000 tonnes CO2e worldwide, roughly the same as the Czech Republic. These emissions come mainly from mining and enriching the fuel ready for use in a reactor – and just like fossil fuels, the more we’ve already used, the more energy it takes to extract new sources.
2) Nuclear Power Needs Lots of Cold Water
More than any other source of power, in fact. As climate change kicks in harder, accessible fresh water will become increasingly scarce. How can we be sure that in 2065, when a new reactor reaches the end of its lifespan, we’ll have enough water to run it? The water has to be cold because it’s used to cool the reactors. In the summer heatwave of 2003 France had to shut down the equivalent of 4 nuclear power stations because the water was too warm to cool the reactors safely. Again, think 50 years ahead. By then summer 2003 is going to look fresh.
3) Nuclear Doesn’t Solve Intermittency
Mainstream politicians don’t seem terribly exercised about warmongering or heating the whole world up, but one thing they really are terrified of is The Lights Going Out. So a serious problem with wind and solar power is the fact that we can’t control when the energy will be generated, and it’s not (yet) simple to store excess for when it’s needed. Nuclear is trumpeted as the “low carbon” solution that fills the gap. But even when the local water is cool enough, nuclear reactors spend a lot of time offline. Most days several of EDF’s 15 UK reactors are out of service – you can check online. For instance, as I write (7th March) Hinckley Point Reactor 3 is out of action for planned work, and Hartlepool Reactor 1 and Hartlepool Reactor 21 are down for unplanned reasons.
4) Lifecycle Cost Is Extortionate
Cameron’s deal with China and EDF is for £18bn to build the power station. What about decommissioning it and dealing with the waste? Worldwide, around $500bn-worth of decommissioning is in the post, and that figure is rising. Even after decommissioning, we don’t know where we’re going to put the waste in the long term, which leads to the stunning conclusion that after 60 years of nuclear power we still don’t know the overall lifetime cost in either money or pollution of a single joule of nuclear energy. However, with the unit costs of all forms of renewable energy falling rapidly, we know enough to know it’s a dumb investment. That may be why EDF boss Thomas Piquemal quit over the Hinckley C deal.
5) You Have To Trust Proven Liars
It’s a strong word, I know. The lie that springs to mind is when TEPCO, the operators of the Fukushima nuclear plant, dismissed the possibility of damage from a tsunami with a one page memo to the Japanese government. 5 years after the tsunami did strike, all 48 of Japan’s nuclear reactors remain off line. But the fact is the whole industry is built on half-truths. A small army of lobbyists dress up the figures, deploy euphemisms liberally and take politicians out for dinner to persuade them to build each new nuclear power station. The doors between the industry and government revolve, the real costs double or treble the original quotes, and the politicians keep falling for it.
6) It Makes Diplomatic Hypocrites Of Us
What makes us think we’re all that? Why can we be trusted with nuclear power, whereas Iran has to be monitored to death so it doesn’t produce the weapons we already have? I’m not saying I trust Iran with nuclear. I’m saying how do we know that in 50 years we won’t have our very own transparently corrupt, extremist regimes? A year ago, who thought Trump could seriously contend for US president?
7) What If Everything Goes South?
The UK government already spends billions guarding its plutonium stockpile against terrorists. Climate change is going to make the world a less stable place. Some of us think that’s already happening, but those who see it as an imminent future threat include the US Defense Department and the UN. Please show me the crystal ball where you can peer half a century hence and be sure that plenty of young graduates are still going into the nuclear industry to oversee the deadly waste and ensure that reactors are operated safely. Tell me they won’t be too busy fighting climate wars, growing their own food to supplement the poor diet they can barely afford in the shops, or just prefering to go into renewables.
8) It’s Too Late
We need to stop emitting carbon yesterday. It takes a decade to build a nuclear power station. That’s simply too slow to help with the rapid transformation of the grid that we need straight away. Hinckley C will still be emitting carbon indirectly in 2065, and that’s before we factor in dealing with the waste. The zero-carbon technologies we need already exist – let’s use them.
9) A Lot Of Other Things Can Boil Water
Nuclear power is really just a fancy way of boiling water. The reactors heat water, and the steam drives turbines that generate electricity. But most renewable techs use turbines, and some, like concentrated solar, boil water to drive them. Without generating radioactive waste, lies, colossal debts or huge unanswered questions.
10) Climate Change Demands A New Attitude To Life
The bottom line is that nuclear is a very 20th century technology. It makes politicians and engineers feel all manly, but that’s another reason it sucks. We don’t need technologies that show us how powerful we are over the elements of nature. We need sensitive technologies born of a new attitude, which recognise that what we do to nature we do to ourselves. Even sticking tonnes of concrete in the sea to prop up a wind turbine should be done with a heavy heart, but attitude change will also reduce the amount of energy we use. After all, the only nuclear reactor you need to watch the sunset is the sun.
Matt Carmichael is a climate educator, and co-author, with Alastair McIntosh of Spiritual Activism published by Green Books.
Greenpeace Petition: George Osborne: Don’t Waste £Billions On Nuclear Power
George Osborne is on the cusp of wasting billions on nuclear power. The new nuclear plant he wants to build at Hinkley in Somerset is set to be the most expensive object on Earth – and already it’s at least 8 years overdue.
While Hinkley continues to suffer huge delays, and serious questions are being raised about the safety of the reactor, the cost of renewable energy is falling.
Rumours are now spreading that EDF – the company that wants to build Hinkley – could pull out of the deal, meaning the whole project could be on the rocks.
Let’s seize this moment to pile the pressure on George Osborne. A huge petition could convince him to abandon the project and back renewable energy instead.
Suggested tweet: Hinkley nuclear plant will be most expensive object on earth. Tell @George_Osborne we want renewable energy instead http://bit.ly/1Tj50M0