Why we should oppose Nuclear Power

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ON WEDNESDAY, Boris Johnson announced £525 million support for new nuclear power. 

In the coming weeks, he is expected to approve a major new nuclear power station at Sizewell in Suffolk.

This government seems to have an unwavering commitment to making the wrong calls, and more support for nuclear power is now the next item on the long list of its failures. 

There are many options available to decarbonise the grid and meet Britain’s energy needs, but the Prime Minister has chosen to stick with the most expensive option: nuclear.

He has ignored advice to the contrary from many advisors, including the Oxford energy expert Dieter Helm, the World Bank, the Office for Budget Responsibility, and the National Audit Office. 

He has also ignored the fact that several large multinationals including Hitachi, Westinghouse, Toshiba and Siemens have abandoned nuclear on the grounds that it is overly expensive and uncompetitive compared with renewables such as wind, solar, biofuels, and hydro power. 

The reality of the matter is that we are in the midst of a technological revolution that encompasses new forms of renewable energy, new ways of managing the Grid, new methods of energy storage and new ways of energy conservation. 

As a result, the cost of the renewables just keeps on falling, while nuclear becomes inexorably more expensive. To give just one example: offshore wind is already getting built at about £40 per megawatt hour (MWh), while the Hinkley C plant, were it ever completed, would deliver electricity at about £93/MWh.

The Prime Minister often repeats the myth that nuclear will curb carbon emissions.  

But the carbon footprint from nuclear’s fuel chain — including uranium mining, milling, U-235 enrichment, fuel fabrication, irradiation, radioactive-waste conditioning, storage, packaging and final disposal — is astronomical.

A recent study by Mark Jacobson, professor of civil environmental engineering at Stanford, estimates nuclear’s carbon footprint to be 10 to 18 times greater than those from renewable-energy technologies.

Boris Johnson would do well to heed the views of the public. Some 46 per cent of participants in the UK Climate Assembly, a group of British citizens convened by six Parliamentary Select Committees, strongly disagreed that nuclear could play a role in reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050, with a further 18 per cent undecided.

Among the reasons for their scepticism were “cost, safety, and issues around waste storage and decommissioning.”

Johnson recites the common myth that the renewables will be unable to supply all our electricity needs. But more than 100 academic studies indicate that this view is out-of-date and incorrect: the renewables can indeed supply all our electricity needs. There is simply no need for nuclear.

Beyond this, nuclear power cannot be separated from the problem of nuclear proliferation, as fissile materials for nuclear weapons originate from civil nuclear reactors and nuclear facilities.

Countries like Pakistan, India and Israel obtained their nuclear weapons from civilian reactors. 

This is merely one problem, albeit a serious one. Nuclear is also an extremely unsustainable energy source. This is partly due to uranium mining which creates mine and mill tailings resulting in pollution and despoilation problems.

And although nuclear power has existed for about 70 years, not a single licensed facility exists to deal with these radioactive wastes which will remain dangerous for millennia. The one such facility currently under construction, in Finland, will cost more than the revenue generated by the nuclear fuel it will store.

Apart from the problems of proliferation and unsustainability, we must never forget the serious nuclear accidents at Windscale (now Sellafield) in 1957, Kyshtym in the former USSR also in 1957, Three Mile Island (US) in 1979, Chernobyl (USSR) in 1986, and Fukushima (Japan) in 2011. 

Renewable energy sources, especially offshore wind, are cleaner, safer, more sustainable and much cheaper than nuclear. 

We need urgently to decarbonise Britain’s economy and create millions of well-paid, unionised green jobs while doing so. But this can only be done through mass investment in renewables, and keeping fossil fuels in the ground. More nuclear means dither, delay, and another potential cause of catastrophe. 

Dr Ian Fairlie is vice-president of CND.

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