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Changing to responsible use of uranium
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Why use nuclear power?

Almost all national governments the great majority of climate scientists and all open-minded and well informed people have recognised that climate change and ocean acidification are major problems. On top of this, the air pollution from the burning of coal kills millions of people each year.

 
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Many people see nuclear power as a way of greatly reducing our greenhouse and other harmfull emissions. Is their optimism justified?

Perhaps the most compelling demonstration yet (August 2017) that nuclear power is not the way of the future is the abandonment of two part-completed nuclear power stations in South Carolina, USA, because of cost overruns and delays.

Written 2006/07/16, modified 2017/09/01
Feedback to daveclarkecb@yahoo.com welcome

 
Cost of Energy Technologies, 2013
Costs
The X axis is costs in US$/MWh
Graph Credit, World Energy Council and Bloomberg New Energy Finance
More information on another page on this site.
Download the full WEC report
Note that the graph shows that solar PV costs fell substantially between 2012 and 2013; since the compilation of this graph they have continued to fall. Wind power costs have fallen substantially since 2013 (see the main text); nuclear power costs have steadily increased for many years.
  • Will increased use of nuclear power substantially reduce environmental problems?
  • What are the ethical implications of nuclear?
  • If nuclear power stations were built in most of the world's countries, what are the risks that terrorists, or irresponsible regimes, would misuse the materials involved?
  • Is enough uranium available to replace the fossil fuel-powered generators that the world currently relies on?
  • Is nuclear the cheapest way to reduce greenhouse emissions and the acidification of our oceans?
The graph on the right shows that in 2013 nuclear power cost more than on-shore wind power. At that time, as shown on the graph, nuclear power was about US$90/MWh, on-shore wind about US$80. (The graph also shows that the price of solar power decreased substantially between 2012 and 2013; it continued to decrease after that.)

 

Trends

The costs of wind and solar power are decreasing, nuclear is getting more expensive.
In January 2017 a price of US$49/MWh (Aus$65) was agreed for power from the proposed Silverton Wind Farm near Broken Hill in New South Wales.

Apart from the costs there are ethical arguments; the way nuclear power is used at present about 1% of the available energy in the uranium is used and the remaining 99% goes out with the waste. Is this fair to future generations? Also, we use the energy and leave the waste for future generations to look after.

Nuclear power can be used to generate electricity, and there is no release of greenhouse gasses during the generation process, although mining, concentrating, and refining uranium, as it is done today, does consume large amounts of fossil fuels and produces corresponding amounts of greenhouse carbon dioxide. Nuclear power is not a substitute for the petroleum that is running out; it is not suitable for powering transport except for possible use in large ships.

We have lived with nuclear powered electricity generation since the 1950s. So far as I know all the world's nuclear power stations have been built at the expense of national governments and no-one seems to know what nuclear power really costs; especially when the costs of the whole life-cycle of nuclear power is taken into account: mining the ore, refining and enriching the ore, building the power station, safely storing or disposing of the waste, and decommissioning of the power station.

 

The ideal power station

The ideal power station would be available all the time, would produce low-cost emission-free electricity, and would be able to increase and decrease its generation quickly to follow the variation in demand. The ideal power station does not exist.
 

Is nuclear scalable?

Is Nuclear Power Globally Scalable?, (by Derek Abbott, School of Electrical and Electronics Engineering, University of Adelaide) provides a convincing argument that nuclear power cannot replace fossil fuels as mankind's main source of energy.
 

Pronunciation of 'nuclear'

The word nuclear has two syllables, nu-clear, 'nu' and 'clear'. It is pronounced 'new-clear' – look at the bloody spelling; there's nothing difficult about it! Why would anyone pronounce it 'nuke-you-lah'?
If it was the cheapest option then we should be able to leave the building and running of new nuclear power stations to private enterprise. Of course it would have to be a whole package, part of the deal would be the locking away of appropriate sums of money for decommissioning of reactors at the end of their useful life and for the safe long-term storage or disposal of all radioactive materials. Disposal of radioactive waste, in particular, is difficult to cost because it must ensure that the material is kept out of the active environment for several thousand years or even more.

I strongly suspect that no company would be interested in taking full financial responsibility for the whole life of a nuclear power station and the waste; the amount of money that they would have to lock away would be too large and would make the whole operation economically unviable. If building and running nuclear power stations is economically unviable for private enterprise why should our governments take it on and we the tax payers foot the bills? Private industry is willing to build sustainable power generation facilities – wind, solar and geothermal – that are comparable in cost to fossil-fuelled power stations when the cost of pollution or the proper disposal of waste is taken into consideration. It seems that the most cost-effective of wind, solar and geothermal generation is cheaper than nuclear power.

Conserving energy and using electricity more efficiently is by far the best way that we can reduce our greenhouse impact.

What really is the attraction of nuclear power stations to Western nations? Is it that some people short-sightedly see nuclear as a real saviour, or are there hidden agendas? I must admit that I don't know the answer.

Why build nuclear power stations that will be a great target for bombing in any war, and a great target for terrorist attack, if you don't need to? What would happen to New York if a nuclear power station on its outskirts was bombed? It would be much worse than Chernobyl and Fukushima because of the huge number of people irradiated.

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Advantages of nuclear power

  1. Nuclear power, in itself, does not release greenhouse gasses, nor necesserily any other gasses into the atmosphere.

  2. Nuclear power stations are compact, unlike wind farms and solar power stations that must be spread over a large area.

  3. Nuclear power stations can be built where the power is needed, unlike, for example, coal-fired power stations that need to be close to the coal mine.
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Disadvantages of nuclear power

 
The costs of the cleanup of the Fukushima nuclear power station in perspective.
Since this graphic was produced the cost of the cleanup and compensation has risen to Aus$250 billion (about US$200 billion).
Cost of Fukushima cleanup
Graphic credit Greenpeace
  1. Nuclear power is unsustainable, it relies on a finite resource.

  2. Nuclear power cannot be scaled-up to replace the world's fossil fuelled power stations. The world's high-grade, shallow uranium deposits have largely been mined-out. The remaining deposits are either low-grade or deep, or both, so are expensive to mine. A significant increase in the amount of nuclear power in the world would quickly cause a severe shortage of uranium fuel. Derek Abbott, School of Electrical and Electronics Engineering, University of Adelaide published a study in October 2011, 'Is Nuclear Power Globally Scalable?' in which it was calculated that if nuclear was to supply all the world's electricity the known reserves would only last five years.

  3. The lead-time for building a nuclear power station is at least 15 years and this is much too long for it to constitute a viable method for combating climate change; climate change demands quick action.

     

    German study on cost of nuclear

    Sophie Vorrath wrote a summary of a new German study for RenewEconomy on 2014/04/23. It seems that new-build wind and solar power systems can generate electricity for around half the price of new nuclear plants.
  4. Nuclear power is expensive. While it is very difficult to get accurate figures on the cost of nuclear – because nuclear power stations have generally been given big support from government and little is known about the true cost of decommissioning and containment and disposal of waste – it seems that it is significantly more expensive than some sustainable alternatives. Nuclear power is very difficult to cost because, if the figure is to be meaningful, it must cover mining, building the power station, running costs for the full life of the power station, protecting the nuclear material from possible theft by terrorists, decommissioning costs, the costs of disposing of the radioactive wastes and protecting them from disturbance for many years and the costs of insurance against major accidents of the type of Chernobyl and Fukushima.

  5. While major accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima are very rare, they are also staggeringly expensive. The cost to the Japanese economy of the Fukushima disaster have been estimated at Aus$250 billion in late 2016.

  6. Nuclear power is not dispatchable; that it, nuclear power stations produce a constant amount of electricity while demand for electricity varies greatly. Nuclear power would be much more valuable if it could produce a variable amount of power to match demand.

  7. Nuclear power stations require large amounts of water for cooling. If natural water bodies such as lakes, streams and the ocean is used, then the release of large quantities of warm water back into the environment can cause environmental damage. (Compare to wind, tidal, wave and solar power that do not necessarily require any cooling water at all.)

  8. Nuclear power, as it is in the early twenty-first century, produces large quantities of radioactive waste that need to be isolated from the environment for thousands of years. Can we be confident that nuclear waste has been, and will continue to be, disposed of properly? People and companies are very inclined to save money and effort by cost-cutting, often 'bending the rules' to do so.

  9. Renewable energy such as wind, solar and geothermal could be built by private industry without government subsidy (so long as there was a 'level playing field') while no private company would be willing to touch nuclear power without big government subsidies.

  10. Following Chernobyl and, in particular, Fukushima there will be huge opposition from the local community to the building of a nuclear power station in any Western nation.

  11. Nuclear power stations would be a target in any war. A bombed nuclear power station would spread more radiation around than would any nuclear bomb – because there are many tonnes of highly radioactive material in a nuclear power station. Wind turbines and solar panels, because they are spread over a big area, are much more difficult to destroy by bombs, and would not spread pollution if they were bombed. Only a small section of the top, at most, of the deep wells that are the most expensive part of a hot dry rock geothermal power station could be destroyed by bombing; these could be relatively cheaply and quickly repaired.

  12. As it is used at present nuclear power is a very inefficient use of uranium. Only about 1% of the energy available in the uranium is used. See Fast Nuclear.
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Viable and credible nuclear power

If nuclear power is ever to become a credible and viable source of electricity it should be able to pass a number of tests.
  1. It must be possible to convincingly demonstrate that when its total emissions – from mine to dump and decommissioning – are taken into account it is a genuinely low-carbon option.
  2. We know exactly where and how the waste is disposed of.
  3. The whole nuclear cycle, mining, planning, building, running, decommissioning, disposal of waste and insurance must be economically viable and not require government subsidy. (Enough subsidy to allow the power produced to compete with fossil fuel electricity could be excepted, see Level playing field.)
  4. There must be convincing evidence that no civil nuclear materials will be diverted for military purposes or used for terrorism.
  5. The uranium is used efficiently (that is, a large percentage of the potential energy is utilised – not the approximately 1% that is currently extracted – before the 'spent' fuel is dumped.)
  6. Finally, one that before the Fukushima fiasco might have been thought obvious; no plants should be built on major fault zones, on tsunami-prone coasts, on eroding seashores or those likely to be inundated before the plant has been decommissioned or any other places which are geologically unsafe.
(Some of the points above were adapted from an article by George Monbiot.)
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Wind and nuclear power in China

 
Wind power overtakes nuclear in China
Nuclear and wind in China
Graph credit Earth Policy Institute
A piece by J. Matthew Roney of the Earth Policy Institute was published on 2014/03/04:
"In China, wind power is leaving nuclear behind. Electricity output from China's wind farms exceeded that from its nuclear plants for the first time in 2012, by a narrow margin. Then in 2013, wind pulled away-outdoing nuclear by 22 percent. The 135 terawatt-hours of Chinese wind-generated electricity in 2013 would be nearly enough to power New York State."
This seems to be a demonstration that nuclear power is simply not an economically viable option any more, irrespective of its environmental questions and advantages or disadvantages.





 
This section added 2017/01/24

Decommissioning cost

It seems that very few nuclear power stations have been fully decommissioned, certainly it is difficult to obtain reliable figures on decommissioning costs.

Wikipedia, 2017/01/24, listed estimated decommissioning costs varying from US$153 million to US$514 million per reactor.

In the USA 'in-situ decommissioning', that is the entombment of nuclear power stations cost US$73 million for two reactors. Whether leaving the reactors in place indefinitely can truly be called 'decommissioning' is highly questionable.

Wikipedia stated that:

"In 2016 the European Commission assessed that European Union's nuclear decommissioning liabilities were seriously underfunded by about 118 billion euros, with only 150 billion euros of earmarked assets to cover 268 billion euros of expected decommissioning costs covering both dismantling of nuclear plants and storage of radioactive parts and waste."
The cleaning up of mines at the ends of their useful lives has historically been seriously underfunded; often leaving a large part of the costs to be covered by tax-payers. Can we have any confidence that the decommissioning of nuclear power stations will be properly funded?
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Changing to the responsible use of uranium

If the world was to change from using just the 0.7% U235 in uranium to using 100% of it (including the 'harder to burn' U238) there would be so much nuclear fuel available around the world, from old nuclear fuels, depleted uranium stock-piles, etc., that there would probably be no need to mine uranium for a hundred years. This would not be good for the big uranium mining companies; they would resist such a move as strongly as they possibly could, and companies like BHP have a lot of push with governments.



 
This section written 2011/03/31

Fukushima nuclear power station, Japan

 

Update

The cost to the Japanese economy of the Fukushima disaster have been estimated at Aus$250 billion (US$200 billion) in late 2016.
It seems, to an outsider, that the problems that were triggered by the earthquake of 11th March 2011 showed a degree of incompetence in the siting, design and subsequent operation of the plant. Blindingly obvious in hind-sight, the power station was sited too close to the sea. Apparently the tsunami was a metre or so higher than the largest that was planned for! Why not allow a ten or twenty metre safety margin rather than a metre or so? There seems to have been little planning for backup cooling in emergencies. How difficult can it be to plan for several alternative ways of getting a flow of cooling water into a power station?

No doubt it's easy to criticise from a distance.

What will it mean to the future of nuclear power?

As I write this (2011/03/31) it seems very likely that the meltdown and nuclear contamination at Fukushima will strengthen the anti-nuclear lobby and make nuclear power more unpopular world-wide. The alternatives are:
Petroleum
This is the quick, easy and (relatively) uncontroversial option. Unfortunately we are approaching Peak Oil; and burning more petroleum to generate electricity is not a realistic option.

Coal
To burn more coal will exacerbate the already dire climate change problem. It would fix the short term problem at the expense of increasing the long term one.

Sustainable energy
Sustainable energy is a viable alternative.

Energy conservation
There are huge potentials for reducing our profligate rate of energy consumption.
Energy conservation combined with increased development of sustainable energy is the only responsible option that is viable in the long term (sustainable energy always was the only energy option really, the alternative, unsustainable energy, is by definition not sustainable). Wind energy is a mature technology and can be developed much further than where it stands in 2011, but it will never be "the answer" to the energy problem on its own. Solar can and should be developed much further; it is not yet the mature technology that wind power is, but perhaps that should be thought of as an oportunity rather than a problem.
 
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This section written 2017/09/01

USA turns away from nuclear

US utility dumps nuclear September 2017

Joe Romm wrote for RenewEconomy on 2017/09/01 about Duke Energy in Florida announcing that it would terminate all plans to build its Levy Nuclear Project and instead invest $6 billion in solar energy, smart meters, and grid modernization as well as electric vehicle (EV) charging stations and a battery storage pilot program.

Part built power stations abandoned August 2017

Here is yet another reason to not build nuclear power stations: quoting from an article in RenewEconomy –
The so-called "nuclear renaissance" in the United States has had another major setback, with another two nuclear reactors under construction in South Carolina abandoned after costs spiralled out of control, leaving consumers holding the bill for plants that will never be completed.
Procon, 2017/08/04, reported:
"On Monday July 31, the South Carolina Electric and Gas Company announced that it was abandoning construction on two new nuclear power reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Jenkinsville, SC due to cost overruns and delays in construction.

The two nuclear reactors were 40% complete, and $9 billion dollars had already been spent on their construction.

The two reactors were originally scheduled to come online in 2018, however, due to regulatory disputes and construction problems, the utility announced early in 2017 that the reactors would not begin producing electricity before 2021. The utility also announced that completing construction could cost up to $25 billion, over twice the original estimate of $11.5 billion."





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On this page...
Advantages of nuclear power
Changing to responsible use of uranium
Decommissioning cost
Disadvantages of nuclear power
Fukushima
Olympic Dam Mine
Part built power stations abandoned
Pronunciation of nuclear
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USA turns away from nuclear
US utility dumps nuclear
Viable nuclear power
Wind and nuclear power in China
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