Nuclear Power: A Resurgence of Doubts

Protests in Germany against the renewal of Germany's nuclear power plants

In the wake of the devastating events in Japan over the last few days, and the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant, there has been a resurgence of doubts and debate  about the safety and sense of the nuclear renewal that many of Europe’s political leaders have been planning. But it seems that some linkages are yet to enter discussion, like the threat that increasingly frequent and intense climate related natural disasters might pose to nuclear plants, as well as issues like efficiency and job creation.

Today, European Energy Ministers are having a special meeting to discuss nuclear energy and the events in Japan, following statements yesterday by German Chancellor ‘Angela Merkel to suspend her contested plan to extend the life of Germany’s nuclear reactors‘, for a ‘three-month safety review of Germany’s 17 nuclear reactors while weighing options for drawing more energy from alternative sources’.

The discussion is being held amid calls from the European Parliament ranging from demands for security checks on the 143 nuclear reactors currently operating in the EU, to the gradual phase-out of nuclear energy. The impact of the earthquake and tsunami on the nuclear facilities in Japan has led some to make the link between the effects of climate change and the security of nuclear plants. An 8.9 Richter earthquake has certainly raised questions of the sense of building nuclear plants in seismically active areas, but earthquakes are not the only threat. European politicians are less concerned about potential earthquakes or tsunamis threatening Europe’s nuclear infrastructure, and more concerned with potential terrorist attacks on nuclear sites. But there is another link they should make: climate change will increase the frequency and intensity of climate-related natural disasters – including floods, storms, hurricanes and droughts.  By directly damaging power plants or disrupting infrastructure and energy or water supply (both crucial to the safety of nuclear plants) extreme weather events due to climate change could also pose risks to nuclear facilities across the globe.

As Victoria Johnson of the New Economics Foundation writes;

“increasing concentrations of man-made greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is making our climate system more variable and more likely to generate extreme events, such as inland and coastal flooding and drought. These events have the potential to affect the operation of nuclear reactors and storage of high-level waste. But while we can be certain that such changes will occur in the future, that timing and magnitude of these changes are less clear. Given this, decisions we make today must take into account the risks posed by a warmer more volatile future.”

There are other issues that must be taken into account when assessing the appeal of nuclear power as a “solution” to our climate and energy problems.

Let us consider an efficiency perspective. At the French Institute of International relations 2011 Annual Conference in February “Speed Bumps on the Road to Sustainability”, we were reminded that no nuclear plant in Europe is more than 40 per cent efficient. This means that at least 60 per cent of energy is wasted in the process of creating electricity. In fact, this is an attribute of combined cycle power plants more generally – be they coal, gas or nuclear – more than half of the energy from the fuel is lost as steam. Even more ridiculous when you consider that some of this electricity generated is being converted back into heat…

What about jobs? Well, for $1 million (around €720 000) investment, it has been estimated that 2.9 jobs are created in the nuclear field, compared to 10.4 jobs in wind and solar or 12.8 jobs in retrofitting houses.

How about human rights? Environmental justice? What do we do with radioactive waste? Having recently encountered energy policy makers at EU level who described to me negotiations involving people who cannot see what is wrong with exporting radioactive waste to developing countries, I am not filled with confidence. The apparent lack of moral progress in the policy making world as well as the lack of publicity about the disposal of highly radioactive materials – spent nuclear fuel – for which there is still no safe, secure, long-term way of disposing, should not be an invisible issue.

The BBC reports that Walt Patterson of UK-based foreign affairs think-tank Chatham House,  has questioned why any government would build nuclear plants when there are so many other sources of energy generation.

“Why turn to the slowest, the most expensive, the narrowest, the most inflexible, and the riskiest in financial terms?” he asks.

Why indeed?

tile future.” There are however other, less considered, issues that make nuclear power look like a much less sensible climate/energy solution. For a start, no nuclear plant in Europe is more that 40 per cent  efficient. This means that at least 60 per cent of energy is wasted int he process of creating electricity. In fact, this is an attribute of combined cycle power plants more generally – be they coal, gas or nuclear – more than half of the energy from the fuel is lost as steam. Even  more riduculous when you consider that some of the electricity generated is being converted back into heat. Having encountered energy policy makers at EU level who describe negotiations involving people who just cant see whats wrong with exporting radioactive waste to developing countries. For $1 million investment, 2.9 jobs are created in the nuclear field, compared to 10.1 in smart grid, 10.4 in wind and solar and 12.8 in retrofitting houses.
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About Rachel Tansey

Rachel was a QCEA Programme Assistant on Sustainable Energy Security between November 2010 and November 2011.

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