What Future for Nuclear Power?

image Published: Apr 14, 2010

The Context in which Nuclear Power is Assessed

It is our view that the future prospects for nuclear power cannot properly be assessed in isolation from an overall understanding of energy production and use in the UK. In this respect we are disturbed that the Government’s assessment of the different sectors of the country’s energy requirements is apparently being done on a piecemeal basis - coal, nuclear, renewables, etc. Many experts, as well as ourselves, have repeatedly stressed to the Government that in an area so strategic to the country’s well being - not only economic, but also environmental, and in health and safety - it is profoundly lacking in foresight to assess the prospects in any particular sector of energy, without setting out an overall, long term energy policy. This should address not only the balance of energy supply methods, but the necessary portfolio of investment incentives and fiscal policy to reduce energy consumption, encourage energy efficiency.

The Need for Balance in the Criteria by which Nuclear Power is Assessed

The Government’s believes that “the future role of nuclear power ... will depend on proving itself competitive while maintaining rigorous standards of safety and environmental protection”. While not denying the need for efficiency and productivity, the impression given is that the Government accords to the criterion of competitiveness a particular attention and priority in assessing an energy technology, where all other criteria would be seen as secondary. We recognise the need to balance many factors, but from the application of Christian principles we are concerned at the possibility that in assessing the role of all energy supply, short-term competitiveness could be allowed to override primary criteria of care for human health and safety, and our present and future environment.
By its nature the energy industry operates on long timescales, and major changes cannot be implemented quickly. It is inappropriate, therefore, both for our own and future generations, that the assessment of the balance of electricity supply from different sources, and thus the contribution of nuclear energy, should be based primarily on factors as transient as the “mechanisms of the market”. As we shall argue, even as strongly constrained a market as currently exists in electricity supply is unable to take due account of the externalities of health, safety and the environment which are so fundamental to the stewardship of our energy resources.

Again from Christian principles, we see it as poor stewardship to adopt an approach which by nature favours energy choices which show the most attractive short-term financial returns, and which discounts the value of long-term deployment of our resources. We see this error exemplified in the switch to the large scale consumption of Scottish gas resources for electricity generation. This is short-sighted use of a single, finite resource - for which there are other important uses - and is likely to subject the UK to unnecessary dependence on potentially volatile international markets when our own resources run down.

The Environmental Context of our present balance of energy supply

We recognise that energy production is a vital factor in the economics of this or any country, but by the same token, it is one of the largest sources human impact on the environment, and can provide some of the most serious challenges to public health and safety. Most of the energy in the UK comes from burning fossil fuels, but it has become apparent that on the scale which we use them, their atmospheric emissions have become the cause of major environmental damage - in acid gas pollutants and other toxic wastes, and the potential contribution of largest waste, carbon dioxide to global warming, threatening not just one locality, but the whole earth. It is now clear that it is of paramount importance that these emissions should be drastically reduced. Emission control technologies can reduce acid pollution to some extent, but these treat the symptom rather than the cause, and there appears to be no practicable means to remove CO2 and store or treat it. Again, the situation can be eased a little by more efficient combustion methods, and combined heat and power schemes, whose UK potential is severely underused by comparison with many European countries. Even the best efficiency, however, will not remove the basic problem - that burning fossil fuels generates CO2 and a measure of other wastes - which will be met only by substantially reducing our dependence on fossil fuel combustion.

Producing energy more cleanly - what alternatives to fossil fuels?

If we are serious about combating global warming, and the pollution from acid gases and particulates, we will need to find alternatives to burning coal, oil and gas on our present scale. For the a long time to come, however, it seems inevitable that oil, gas and perhaps advanced “green” coal technologies, will be needed, especially for heating, cooking and transport fuels for which there are currently no realistic alternatives on the scale which would be needed. This suggests that we should minimise our other uses of fossil fuels, where there are alternatives, of which electricity production is the most obvious area. The three alternatives are renewable electricity, nuclear power and the greater use of combined heat and power (CHP) schemes. It is in this context that we view the future role of nuclear power in the UK, and in Scotland in particular. Already over half of Scotland’s electricity comes from such sources, namely hydro (15%) and nuclear power (around 50%), significantly more than in England and Wales.

The Role of Nuclear Power

Since nuclear power generation does not emit significant quantities of the acid gases and, in the UK gas-cooled reactors, a very much smaller amount of CO2 , it has played a significant role to date in reducing emissions of these gases in the UK. In the present climate where most major industrialised countries are experiencing serious difficulties in reducing these emissions sufficiently, it seems that to shut down existing reactors, or simply to phase out all present stations at the end of the operating lives, would be environmentally a retrograde step, unless the environmental consequences were far worse, or there were a readily available alternative.

Do renewable energy technologies and CHP present practicable alternatives?

The long term aim must be to reduce our energy consumption and to switch our reliance as far as possible to indigenous renewable energy technologies, of which Scotland has an abundance. Not only will these not run out, but in general they have a far lower environmental impact with regard to CO2, acid and other emissions, and they do not carry the particular risks associated with nuclear power. We recognise, however, the practical difficulties and the economic implications which would be involved in such a major switch of energy infrastructure, and also the current problem of a large excess of installed generating capacity in Scotland. Nonetheless, many in the Church of Scotland have become concerned with what they see as the slow progress in developing this immense resource. The SRT Project wishes to emphasise strongly the need to proceed with development and demonstration projects, including in such resources as biomass, tidal and wave energy, whose current uncertainties will not otherwise be resolved. At present, however, there seems no prospect of installing renewable electricity on such a scale that would enable a clean swap from nuclear to renewables, either in Scotland or in the whole UK. A much wider use of combined heat and power generation (CHP) could make significant improvements in the overall efficiency of fossil fuel electricity generation, and thus reduce the emissions per unit of electricity. The UK lags behind many European countries in this essential energy efficiency measure. Steps need to be taken by the Government to remove the barriers currently discouraging the realisation the full potential of CHP in the UK, particularly smaller scale municipal schemes. While these opportunities should be grasped, CHP seems unlikely adopted on the scale needed to provide an alternative to nuclear generation in terms of savings in emissions. It is rather a step to be done in parallel.

Are the risks of nuclear power too great?

On the consequences of nuclear power for the environment and human health and safety, there is within the church, as in the wider UK population, a sharply divided reaction. For some, it is the energy source above all to be rid of. Two main reasons are cited. The human and environmental consequences of a possible major accident are considered so severe as to make even a small numerically probability unacceptable. To pass on to subsequent generations the legacy of long-lived wastes for the indefinite future is seen as a matter of grave ethical concern in a Christian moral framework, especially to proceed with nuclear power while the question of ultimate storage or disposal has not been demonstrated in practice. Some church members are also troubled by the risk of diversion for military or terrorist uses, and the historical association of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. Some perceive this as the main reason the Government has continued to support the nuclear energy programme. Another concern is what some see as the subsidising of nuclear power by the requirement, following the electricity privatisation, for Scottish Power to buy Scottish Nuclear’s electricity, and the allocation of most of the non-fossil fuel obligation in England and Wales to nuclear. This is regarded as distorting the economic case, at the cost the of developing the full potential of Scotland’s renewable energy resources.

A balance of risks and impacts suggests a continuing role for nuclear power

Others in the churches, while not denying the drawbacks of nuclear power, stress the need to see them in the context, not only of its advantages, but also of the environmental impact of whatever alternative policy was pursued if nuclear power were to be displaced. In particular, this would seem inevitably to mean the increased use of fossil fuels to generate electricity, at the very time when we most need to reduce fossil fuel emissions. It is a matter of judgement whether the risk from global warming and the actual damage from acid gases is more tolerable than that the risk of a severe nuclear accident and the concerns arising out of long-term radioactive waste management. The SRT Project’s view is that while the vast majority of the UK’s energy is supplied by fossil fuels, and with the difficulty in reducing their emissions on a large scale, and a prospect of large increase of worldwide CO2 emissions, the priority for the time being would be to reduce the fossil fuel electricity component rather than the nuclear. The relatively low level of fossil-fired electricity in Scotland should not therefore be increased, but the existing nuclear component retained for the foreseeable future.
Even if the best possible conditions existed for the penetration of renewable energy into the electricity supply market on a significant scale, if this were used to displace nuclear generating capacity, the “opportunity cost” of this would mean that same proportion of fossil fuel generation had not been replaced, and that amount of CO2 and acid gas emission would not be removed. Given the conclusion of a priority for reducing fossil fuel emissions, renewable energy deployment should displace fossil fuels for the time being. Some may argue that the nuclear component should be increased, perhaps to 40% for the UK, to reduce fossil emissions more rapidly. Nuclear power might, in conjunction with renewables, virtually remove the need to generate electricity from fossil fuels. While there is some logic to this in terms of the risk of global warming, we feel a balance must also be struck with risks of nuclear energy which we have expressed above, and especially the strong public concern about them. As a matter of prudence we suggest that for the time being the existing levels in the UK should remain about the same. A rolling programme of fresh nuclear stations should be planned to replace time expired nuclear plant, which would also maintain a stable UK nuclear industry with both construction and support capabilities, but this should not increase nuclear’s share substantially.

On the Economic Case for Nuclear Power

The issue of the “true” costs of the nuclear industry have been a subject of controversy over many years and especially in the privatisation of the electricity supply industry. We are not in a position to make a detailed assessment of the costings for future PWR’s based on the Sizewell B design, or their validity vis a vis coal or gas fired stations. It would have been more honest, however, if the comparisons of nuclear coal and gas in fig.3.3 showed included the possible variations in the nuclear costs, including the sensitivity to uranium price increases.
We are pleased to see that a wide range of sensitivity studies taken into consideration in the Nuclear Utilities Chairman’s Group report, and an explanation of the decommissioning cost provisions. We consider it essential that all investment towards future decommissioning should be “ring fenced” in a trust fund, to avoid any diversion of these funds, after what has occurred in the past. Public confidence is at stake on this issue, since there is a strong feeling of being seriously misled in the past by both the Government and the former utilities.

While we cannot judge the detailed economics of the case, the question of what is meant by competition in the energy market affects not only nuclear energy but renewables as well. It is widely believed that we have been getting our energy “on the cheap”, and that some form of energy taxation should be used which begins to reflect the true environmental costs of our energy consumption. Amongst the conclusions of the Government’s workshops on Climate Change in March 1993 (1) was the widespread view that energy is too cheap to motivate people to reduce energy consumption and thus reduce emissions of CO2. A carbon tax was generally preferred as the right way forward, and not VAT or a general energy tax, and not be levied just to raise general revenues. In any taxation, the greatest care would be needed to ensure that the better off, who can pay, do pay, even an extra share to protect the increasing percentage of society who are poor, elderly and infirm, for whom keeping warm is already a problem.

It is now quite clear that comparable attention has not been made to costing the environmental, health and safety impact of the fossil fuels, in respect CO2, NOx, SO2, inhalable particulate, CH4, etc. and their impact on acid deposition, global warming, urban health and pollution, and other degradation arising from transport fuels. Until such costing is done, it is meaningless to speak of the nuclear industry “proving itself competitive”, since the “playing field” by which assessment is made may be so far from level. This applies to nuclear energy, but still more to renewable forms of energy, which, in the main do not suffer these particular forms of fossil fuel environmental impact, nor carry the risks associated with nuclear power.

If our fossil fuel electricity generating costs included either the safe removal and storage of CO2, acid gases and particulate from all our industrial and domestic flue gases, or at least the environmental impact, the relative economics of renewable and nuclear energies against coal and gas could look very different. It is not our place to pass judgements within the difficult and controversial area of estimating externalities, but we note, by way of example, Pearce’s estimate that the combined additional costs of global warming and acid emissions on the generation of electricity either by a new IGCC coal plant or a combined cycle gas turbine may tip the economic balance in favour of a new PWR nuclear plant. (2)

Some specific concerns if nuclear power is continued in the UK

Improved safety in the Sizewell B/C design

We note that reactor choices for the time being are likely to focus on the Sizewell B design. This is a UK modification of what is now an old US design which dates back to the 1970’s. There have been many improvements in PWR technology since then which would need to be incorporated if the design were continued. A notable example is in operator radiation exposure, whose relatively high levels are one of the drawbacks of the PWR reactor concept. Any future PWR built in the UK should follow German practice with low cobalt materials which has resulted in reduced worker doses more in line with the low levels customary in the UK AGR and Magnox stations. The church would be concerned if the pressure to show competitive costs meant that the nuclear utilities sought not to adopt the proven best practice elsewhere in the world for protecting those working on future nuclear power stations, or the general public.

Severe accident risk and passive safety

The risk of widespread contamination and the serious effect on life, both immediately and for generations, in the event of a serious accident cannot be ignored. In choosing reactor designs, priority should be given to those embodying the maximum use of passive safety systems and features, bearing in mind the largest source of risk may well lie from human error. Nuclear companies should be advised not to make unrealistic claims about “intrinsically safe” reactors.

Radioactive Waste Management

Our largest concern continues to be in the area of the management and disposal of long-lived radioactive wastes. While this is the subject of a parallel review, we wish to record our deep and continuing concern at the slow progress towards a demonstrated solution, and the apparently continual reviews and changes of policy. This seems to put back still further the realisation of a deep level ILW repository. We note that nearly 20 years have passed since the 1976 Royal Commission report was very cautious over the advisability of the continuation of nuclear power until its radioactive waste management problems had demonstrated solutions.

Delay on the Torness Dry Fuel Store

We are now also concerned at the additional delay that has been introduced on a decision over the proposed Torness dry fuel store, especially in view of Reporter’s favourable comments. It is important that this alternative technology for the back end of the AGR fuel cycle in Scotland is given the opportunity to be demonstrated. The idea of a centralised facility for the UK seems not to merit serious consideration, as it would remove all the advantages of on-site storage, and would increase unnecessarily the transport of spent fuel around the country.

The Economic and Social Impact on Caithness

Caithness has borne a heavy part of the closure of the fast reactor at Dounreay, and the rundown of the associated research. While recognising the changed circumstances which have led to this pioneering Scottish work being terminated, we are concerned that insufficient attention has been given to encourage redeployment of the highly skilled workforce, and are concerned at the loss of the unique pool of experience if ever there is seen to be a prospect for the commercial deployment of the fast reactor. As with its severe measures in cutting back the coal industry, we consider that the Government has shown a serious lack of concern for the human cost on this relatively small and extremely remote local community, both in spirit and in economy.

Nuclear Fusion

The UK should continue to pursue actively the prospects for nuclear fusion power, on an international collaborative basis, to establish whether this would be a strategic option for large scale energy generation for the long term future. It should be made clear to the public, however, that although it has many safety advantages, even fusion power is not completely without risk - notably from tritium releases and medium term radioactive wastes.


Report of Workshops on Climate Change - “Our National Programme for CO2 Emissions,” QEII Conference Centre, 1-2 March 1993, A.Hedges et al, eds., Dept.of the Environment.
Professor David Pearce - “Can global warming save nuclear power?”, a paper given at IBC International Conference on the Future of Nuclear Power, London, 18-19 January 1994.

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