General information on nuclear power


1-"Nuclear energy is experiencing a comeback"
There is a lot of political talk about nuclear being the solution to all our energy problems but in practice not much has happened. In 1989 there were 172 operating nuclear reactors in Europe. There are now 147 - 15% less. Since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 only one construction process for a nuclear power plant has started in Europe: the prototype EPR reactor in Olkiluoto, Finland. Due to technical difficulties it is already 9 months behind schedule, barely a year since work began and is now expected to be delayed for a further year due to complications with planning. Other plans (France, UK, Baltic countries) are still only at the political stage.

2-"We need nuclear energy because we will not have enough energy in the future"
Nuclear power plants only produce electricity. The present share of nuclear energy in the total global energy con-sumption is just 2,7%. The number of nuclear power plants worldwide is 442. At the same time there is a huge unused potential of energy saving, energy efficiency and renewable energy, which in combination are much cheaper and definitely much safer than building new nuclear power plants.

3-"Nuclear energy is an infinite source"
Nuclear energy makes us dependent on uranium, which is a limited resource. If we would maintain the nuclear energy production at the current level, we would have dug up all (currently and expected) accessible uranium in 50 years. There is more uranium on the planet, but it is either very difficult and/or expensive to mine, or not suitable for use in electricity production. The associated energy use and CO2 emissions would rise steeply.
Originally, nuclear energy was supposed to have a closed energy production cycle, using fast breeder technology. This technology failed however and the big European fast breeders are closed down (the 'Superphenix' in France) or were never completed (Kalkar in Germany).

4-"There are new solutions for dealing with radioactive waste"
The suggested solutions have been at a 'very promising research' stage for decades. One suggestion ('transmutation') entails separating the radioactive isotopes from the waste and reworking these separated parts into something less dangerous - that is dangerous for a shorter time span. It is still not possible to isolate isotopes and more-over, even if it would ever work, it is not suitable for the present generation of waste. It would need special, new-to-build reactor types. In other words, the high-level radioactive waste that is produced today will be with us for around 240.000 years.
No final storage has been developed in any country so far; often the waste is stored near the reactor or in temporary bunkers. Experiments with the storage of low-level radioactive waste in earth layers have not proven to be safe so far.

5-"Nuclear energy is cheap"
Nuclear energy is cheap for the individual consumer but costs are paid through the tax bill. The costs for decommissioning are high, and although some reactors have a fund for this, experience so far has shown that these are by far not sufficient.
The cost for safeguarding radioactive waste for hundreds of thousands of years cannot even be calculated. Moreover, nuclear energy receives a lot of subsidies in many different ways. There is a lot of public money going to nuclear research, safety investments, and into cheap loans for the nuclear industry. It is very difficult to find private investors in the liberalized energy market that are willing to provide the huge amounts of money necessary for building a new nuclear power plant. Therefore public financial participation is considered essential, e.g. in the form of guarantees. In that way investment risks befall society, whereas profits go to the privatized sector.
Of the total annual energy subsidies in the EU between 1990 and 1995, 23% went to nuclear energy and only 7% to renewable energy sources.

6-"We need nuclear energy to combat climate change"
During the complex production cycle of nuclear energy production (uranium mining, enrichment, production, repro-cessing, decommissioning, waste storage) a lot of energy is required and used - energy that mostly comes in the form of fossil energy. Nuclear energy is a very energy-intensive way of producing electricity.
For the common energy production of 1 kWh of electricity and 2 kWh of heat, the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted during the nuclear (+ oil-fired for heat) variant of this complex production process is nearly as much as that of energy production by a co-generation gas-powered plant. If we were to replace older fossil-fuel burning power stations with new cogeneration systems, for the same amount of electricity and heat generation the total greenhouse gas emissions would be similar to those in a system based on electricity from nuclear power and heating from fossil fuels. Full commitment to energy saving, energy efficiency and renewable energies are faster and cheaper ways to combat climate change.

7-"The consequences of the Chernobyl accident are exaggerated"
It is impossible to calculate the number of victims of the largest nuclear disaster because illnesses such as cancer can occur decennia after exposure to radiation and can have multiple causes. The estimates differ from 40 (the direct victims at the explosion) to 100.000 deaths. Last year the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency, a UN agency for the promotion of nuclear energy) published a report that suggested the number of victims did not exceed 4000. This report has now been corrected by its co-publisher WHO (World Health Organization) that found another 5000 victims 'overlooked' in the original report. There are also recent reports, one from Greenpeace counting 93.000 victims and one of European Greens (TORCH: The Other Report on Chernobyl) counting 30.000 to 60.000 cancer victims. The differences are all within the range of scientific uncertainty about how much radiation was emitted at the explosion and how much radiation is fatal.
There is also much suffering and damage to health caused by the economic disruption of the accident. There are also those who have survived surgery and live under heavy medication regimes but who are not counted in these reports.

8-"'Chernobyl' cannot happen again. Nuclear power stations are much safer nowadays"
All nuclear power stations in Europe are based on technologies from the 1960s and 1970s. Since the Chernobyl accident huge sums of money have been spent on improving their safety. Nevertheless, there have been 22 major accidents since 1986 and many smaller ones. For example, in 2005 twenty metric tons of uranium and 160 kilograms of plutonium dissolved in 83,000 litres of nitric acid leaked undetected over several months from a cracked pipe into a stainless steel sump chamber inside the THORP nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in the UK. The partially processed spent fuel was drained into holding tanks outside the plant. In another case, in 2002, there was a near-disaster in the Davis-Besse reactor in the United States, where the steel reactor head was found punctuated and only a few inches away from meltdown. A major accident could still occur any day.

9-"We need nuclear energy because there is a growing energy demand, notably from India and China"
China has announced that it wants to build 30 new reactors. The country has been forecasting the construction of numerous nuclear power plants over the last 25 years but so far, it has only built eleven, from which three are very small.
In India, the amount of electricity produced by its 14 nuclear power plants is still smaller than that from its wind power installations. India's announced nuclear expansion has mainly been for military purposes.
Both India and China have huge untapped potential for renewable energy from wind, sun and small hydropower - much more suitable means of providing electricity for poor rural populations than expensive, large-scale nuclear power.

10-"Maybe we should not build new nuclear power plants but it is not a problem to leave the old ones open"
Lifetime extension for ageing nuclear power plants is the trend in the Western world. It is supported by politicians who hope to fulfill Kyoto Treaty obligations in this way and/or try to avoid difficult decisions on reliable and sustainable energy supplies for the future. It is a very risky development because old reactors suffer from problems such as corrosion and erosion and although regular safety checkups are carried out, there have been many near-accidents and emergency shut downs at old power plants over the last years.

11-"A good control on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) will prevent the spread of nuclear weapons through nuclear energy"
The part of the NPT stating that all nuclear weapon states should work on abolition, seems to have been conveniently forgotten by the 'established' nuclear weapons states of France, the United Kingdom, Russia, China and the United States. At present, the United States are undermining the NPT by promising nuclear technology to India to develop its 'peaceful' nuclear program, although India has already tested nuclear weapons and gained its nuclear technology illegally anyway. At the same time, technology for the enrichment of uranium is denied to Iran because it is thought that the Islamic state would use it for nuclear weapons. This proves that nuclear energy and nuclear weapons cannot be separated. It is the same technology that produces both, the same material that is used, and the same scientists that are working on it. Over and over again, nuclear knowledge and materials are leaked to non-nuclear states and the IAEA has so far found no way to prevent it. If we want to get rid of nuclear weapons, we must stop producing nuclear energy.

August 2006
thanks to WISE Amsterdam