Professor Francis Livens continues his search for objectivity in the nuclear debate.
As I explained in my previous blog, I recently debated nuclear energy with some opponents. I was concerned about whether their arguments were honest and true, so took time out to investigate them. I have already looked at nuclear waste, here I will consider their other arguments.
“We were told nuclear electricity would be too cheap to meter.”
Well, if this was ever said, it was said before I was born and present experience says it was certainly wrong. However, a bit of digging makes it far from clear that it was nuclear electricity which was going to be too cheap to meter. The relevant quote, from Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, talking in 1955 about technological development generally, seems to have been “Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter…will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age.” That’s a very long way from claiming that nuclear electricity would be too cheap to meter. The Canadian Nuclear Society has more details on this.
“Most of the world doesn’t need nuclear energy.”
Well why not? Most of the population has access to only a small fraction of the energy that we do. David Mackay’s excellent Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air tells us that five billion of the six billion people on Earth have access to well under half the energy resources per head that we do. Of those five billion, 3.5 billion live in Asia: most in China and India. Surely, those five billion people are entitled to greater access to energy than they have today, to support an improved standard of living? Or are we taking some sort of arrogant, neo-imperialist approach – we were born lucky and you weren’t, so that’s tough?
If the majority of the world’s population is to have access to much larger quantities of energy, where will it come from? Climate change and pollution concerns suggest it can’t be fossil fuels. Renewables? Maybe, if you think they can produce energy on the scale needed and deliver it to the point of use efficiently, both of which are difficult today.
The debate focused on the African continent to illustrate the unsuitability of nuclear power. Large power stations need highly developed power distribution systems and, ideally, densely packed consumers. Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, lacks the first and largely lacks the second. Hence, in telecommunications for example, much of Africa has skipped landline telephone technology and gone straight to mobile phones. So, if there is a nuclear answer for Africa, it may well not be big, 1-2 GW plants, but small modular reactors – yet to be used but an emerging option – might be a way to go.
However, most of the five billion people I’m talking about don’t live in Africa – they live in Asia, a continent which hosts the world’s eight largest megacities, and 16 of the largest 25. Not only are there already a lot of city-dwellers in Asia, these cities are growing fast. A large proportion of the people in them live in slum conditions. These conurbations are energy-hungry and may well be suitable for nuclear generation as we already know it. They would be hugely challenging for renewable generation, which tends to be dispersed.
“Nuclear is appallingly dangerous. Chernobyl caused hundreds of thousands of deaths.”
The main source for this assertion appears to be Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, a compilation of translated works published by the New York Academy of Sciences. But the Academy did not commission this work, did not validate its claims, nor has the research been peer reviewed. Instead the Academy provides a link to a very critical review of the book. As a contribution to debate, it is fair enough; as established fact, it’s far less robust.
By contrast, the Chernobyl Forum, convened by the International Atomic Energy Agency (a UN body), which consisted of over a hundred experts in the field, concluded that the most that might be observed from Chernobyl was “eventually up to several thousand fatal cancers” on top of a background of perhaps 100,000 fatal cancers from all causes.
I wonder to what extent there is an ‘environmental ideology’, worried about climate change and opposed to nuclear energy. When the scientific community, working under the auspices of the UN, supports this ideology – as in the case of climate change – it is deemed to be right. Deniers are dismissed as ill-informed mavericks, or industry-funded apologists.
But when the scientific community, working again under the auspices of the UN, doesn’t support this ideological position – as in the debate on radiation health effects – that same community is condemned as apologists for the industry. It is supposed to be guilty of groupthink and is accused of ignoring or marginalising the few ‘far-sighted visionaries’ who are actually right. Sorry guys, you can’t have it both ways. If the scientific method works for climate change, it works for radiation risk too.
“Nuclear energy is massively expensive.”
As far as I can see, a nuclear power station can cost almost any amount you want, depending on how you do the sums. EDF says £18bn for the two Hinkley EPR reactors, but if you include financing costs, then it is £24.5bn. If you add in the nuclear industry’s inability to deliver projects on time (a failing in the UK which isn’t unique to nuclear) and you wonder what’s going on.
But then you find the Chinese can apparently build EPR reactors in 46 months for less that £3bn each. Dismissing this difference as just reflecting sloppy and unsafe Chinese engineering seems patronising and arrogant. Almost every UK household contains perfectly functional examples of Chinese engineering and manufacturing. If building the same reactor really costs over three times more in the UK than in China, there are tough questions to answer.
Energy in large quantities is expensive. Two EPRs give you 3.3 GW electric, which is about the same as 2,000 wind turbines. But turbines only operate at about 25% of theoretical output, so to match the two EPRs you’d need 8,000 wind turbines at a couple of million pounds each. So that is £16bn- comparable to the cost of the reactors, at least within the uncertainties which surround this debate.
Nuclear isn’t the only energy source where there is a massive fog over the finances. WiseEnergy.org paints a different picture of the economics of wind energy. There is widespread disagreement over all this. But until people are willing to compare apples with apples, I don’t see how it can be resolved.
So where does this leave us? I’ve highlighted here some of the objections which are often heard but seem, on investigation, to be relatively unfounded. This is certainly not to say that the proponents of nuclear energy have never been economical with the truth and, bluntly, that frustrates me as much as any ‘anti’ propaganda. All I ask for is honesty in the debate; it is too big and too important for clever point-scoring.