Nuclear power: not green, clean or cheap
National Forum
By Mark Diesendorf
June 16, 2006

With growing international concern about global climate change from human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, the nuclear power industry has attempted to change the image of its product into that of an energy source that is “clean, green and cheap”. In reality, all the problems that worried us about the nuclear industry in the 1970s and 1980s are either unchanged or have become worse. In the latter case:

* the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons is worse because the US and Australian governments are undermining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by selling uranium to non-signatories, India and Taiwan. While the NPT is far from adequate, it is better than nothing or unilateral US control; * since September 11, 2001, the risk of terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities has increased. The fewer the facilities, the safer everyone is; * now that several countries have created competitive markets for electricity, it is clear that the cost of nuclear electricity is even higher than previously projected (see below); and * detailed recent calculations of the CO2 emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle reveal that nuclear energy, based on existing technology, cannot be a long-term solution to global climate change from the human-induced greenhouse effect (see below).

This article addresses the last two of these points.

CO2 emissions

The nuclear industry has disseminated widely the false notion that nuclear energy emits no greenhouse gas emissions. The truth is that every step (except reactor operation) in the long chain of processes that makes up the nuclear fuel “cycle” – mining, milling fuel fabrication, uranium enrichment, construction and decommissioning of the reactor, and waste management – burns fossil fuels and hence emits carbon dioxide (CO2).

Over the past 20 years there have been several calculations of CO2 emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle. The most detailed calculation comes from Van Leeuwen and Smith (VLS) (2005).

Contrary to the claims of the nuclear industry, VLS find that the CO2 emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle are only small when high-grade uranium ore is used. But there are very limited reserves of high-grade uranium in the world and most are in Australia and Canada. As these are used up over the next several decades, low-grade uranium ore (comprising 0.01 per cent or less yellowcake) will have to be used.

This means that to obtain 1kg of yellowcake, at least 10 tonnes of ore will have to be mined and milled, using fossil fuels and emitting substantial quantities of CO2. These emissions are comparable with those from a combined cycle gas-fired power station.

In response, the nuclear industry cites a report by Swedish utility, Vattenfall, which only considers a single power station and obtains lower emissions than VLS in the case of high-grade uranium ore and apparently doesn’t address low-grade uranium at all. This report has not been published and is not available on the Internet – only a summary  that does not reveal most of the assumptions or results, is available.

It is very poor science to cite a report that is unavailable to the public. Van Leeuwen and Smith’s report, which is based on the analysis of many uranium mines and power stations, stands unrefuted at present.

In theory, a technically possible solution to the shortage of high-grade uranium would be to switch to fast breeder reactors, which produce so much plutonium that in theory they can multiply the original uranium fuel by 50. Large-scale chemical reprocessing of spent fuel would be necessary to extract the plutonium and unused uranium, and this has its own hazards and costs, since spent fuel is intensely radioactive and plutonium is an excellent nuclear explosive. The “commercial” reprocessing industry has failed in the US and UK. Only France hangs on.

Fast breeders use liquid sodium as a coolant and so are more dangerous than ordinary nuclear reactors. So far, fast breeders have all been technical and economic failures. The largest was the French 1,200 megawatt Superphoenix, a name that alludes to the mythical bird that burnt itself on a funeral pyre and then arose from the ashes to live again with renewed youth.

Reality was rather different from the myth: Superphoenix commenced operation in 1985 as a “commercial industrial prototype”. It operated only intermittently and very rarely at full power, experiencing leaks from its cooling system and several other accidents. It was shut down at the end of 1998 after costing an estimated total of about A$15 billion.

At present there are no commercial scale fast breeder reactors operating. There is a 600 megawatt demonstration fast neutron reactor in Russia, but it has a history of accidents and does not seem to have ever operated as a breeder. The pro-nuclear study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), entitled The Future of Nuclear Power, does not expect the breeder cycle to come into commercial operation during the next three decades.

In summary, nuclear power, based on existing technologies, is a dead-end side alley on the pathway to reducing CO2 emissions.

Nuclear economics

In most countries where there is a competitive electricity industry, it is clear that nuclear electricity is much more expensive than fossil
electricity. In the UK and US nuclear energy is even more expensive than wind power. More specifically, the MIT (2003) report (cited above) estimates that the cost of electricity generated by a new nuclear power station in the US would be US6.7 cents per kilowatt-hour (c/kWh), or about AU9c/kWh Australian. For comparison coal power in eastern Australia costs under AU4c/kWh. Wind power in US costs US4-5c/kWh and in Australia AU7.5-8.5c/kWh, depending upon site.

When the UK electricity industry was privatised, the British Government had to impose a fossil fuel levy to subsidise nuclear electricity. By 1998 the annual subsidy had reached £1.2 billion per year, equivalent to a subsidy of about AU6c/kWh Australian on each unit of nuclear electricity generated. In addition, it has recently been estimated by the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority that dismantling Britain’s existing nuclear power stations will cost about £70 billion. Since a full-size nuclear power station (1,000
megawatts or more) has never been decommissioned anywhere in the world, the costs could turn out to be even higher.

The only new “commercial” nuclear power station under construction in a developed country is currently taking shape in Finland. The nuclear industry claims that this demonstrates nuclear energy is competitive in market conditions. But the power station is being built by a consortium, that includes a 40 per cent share by the government of Finland, which will sell its electricity to its own members. Thus the consortium avoids conditions of a competitive market and so has obtained finance at interest rates far below market rates. The European Commission is currently considering a complaint about this practice.

On the global scene, consider the following frank summary of the 1998 electricity generating cost study that was published jointly by the International Energy Agency and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency. The raw data was supplied by the nuclear industries in the countries surveyed, so they are hardly likely to be biased against nuclear energy. The summary was presented by Dr Fatih
Birol, the chief economist and head of the Economic Analysis Division, International Energy Agency (IEA), at an annual international forum of the Uranium Institute:

The results confirm the current cost advantage of fossil-fuelled power generation … Clearly, under BAU [business-as-usual] assumptions the contribution of nuclear power over the next two decades will be limited.

The harsh reality is, at market interest rates of 10 per cent real or more, nuclear electricity is uneconomic almost everywhere in the world. It is at least double the cost of coal power in the US and UK, and would be nearly three times the cost of coal power in eastern Australia.

The nuclear industry’s solution to these harsh economic realities has been to produce a series of reports on the economics of a “new generation” of nuclear power stations that only exists on paper at present. In theory such reactors would be slightly cheaper and possibly slightly safer than existing models. The latest estimate of “new generation” economics is the report to ANSTO by leading nuclear industry figure, John Gittus, claiming that a non-existent nuclear power station, AP1000, would be competitive with coal power in eastern Australia under certain conditions.

The Gittus report’s conditions are indicated in two alternative scenarios. One involves substantial government subsidies on the capital and operating costs of the proposed power station. The other involves “no subsidy”, according to Gittus, just a massive government guaranteed, unsecured, “insured loan, which would be repaid to government, together with a retrospective premium, out of revenues from the station once it began to generate electricity”.

But, what if the untried nuclear power station proves to be more expensive to build and operate than the paper study estimates? That has always been the case with nuclear power in the past. What if the earnings from electricity sales prove to be insufficient to repay the additional costs and the loans? The Gittus report is vague on such details, suggesting that the government (i.e., the taxpayer) would share the risk. If so, this is a subsidy dressed up as a loan and neither of Gittus’s scenarios is anywhere near being economically competitive with conventional coal power. If this proposal is a good deal for the lender, why is it necessary for the government to lend anything? Surely, private financial institutions would be queuing up? Though it’s strange that no private investors have funded a new
nuclear power station in the US for over a quarter century, despite massive subsidies to the industry.

The investor’s choice

The nuclear industry is offering investors and the community a false choice between coal and nuclear power, which are both dirty and dangerous technologies. But the real choice is between clean power – comprising a mix of efficient energy use, natural gas and renewable sources of energy – and dirty power – comprising coal and nuclear power.

Both coal and nuclear power have severe adverse environmental, health and social impacts. Both offer big financial risks to investors. That’s why the Gittus report requests that the government either pay a direct subsidy or take on much of the financial risk, which is an indirect subsidy. It is essential that the Australian community does not permit the government (i.e., the taxpayer) to take on the financial risk of building new coal-fired or nuclear power stations.

A truly ethical and clean investment portfolio in energy would exclude both the coal and nuclear industries. Efficient energy use and renewable energy offer safe and clean investments. Over the past 15 years, wind power has been both the fastest growing and cleanest energy technology in the world. Bioenergy is already making valuable contributions to energy supply in Finland and Austria. China’s target is for renewable energy (mostly wind power) to contribute 12 per cent of electricity and nuclear only 4 per cent by 2020.

Meanwhile, huge potential for hot rock geothermal power has been demonstrated in Australia and a new generation of solar electricity
generators (thin films including CSG cells developed at UNSW, sliver cells developed at ANU and solar thermal electricity) is coming onto the global market.