(November, 2000) It has been half a century since nuclear energy was promised to be too cheap to meter, safe, reliable, endless. Where are we after 50 years of spending money on nuclear energy? Actually, none of the promises came true. It is now clear that nuclear energy is not cheap at all, is not safe enough, its reliability is questionable and nuclear energy is in no way an endless energy source.
And this common sense is reflected in the global picture of the state of atomic energy: the decline has begun. In the late 1990s we saw the first decline in installed nuclear capacity along with the first decrease in the number of nuclear power plants in commercial operation. At the end of 1999, 436 nuclear power stations were listed as operating in 32 countries.
If you believe the figures given by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Uranium Information Center, the Nuclear Energy Institute and other nuclear industry advocates, one would think that there are many more stations waiting to be connected to the grid. The nuclear lobby keeps issuing data based on highly optimistic assumptions of the expected date of grid-connection. In more than 80% of the cases grid-connection is delayed from their projections, on average by 5 years.
|IAEA, 1976 projection for 2000
IAEA, 1980 projection for 2000
IAEA, 1985 projection for 2000
Actual world nuclear capacity as at 1-1-2000
all in GW
Throughout the past decades the IAEA always has highly overestimated the world's total nuclear capacity for the year 2000. Expectations had to be adjusted downwards from projections of 2300 Gw in 1976, 725 Gw in 1980, to 475 Gw in 1985, whereas the actual world nuclear capacity for 2000 is currently estimated at 352 Gw by the same institution.
Looking at the European Union, the past ten years have seen the completion of the last few reactors. Italy voted against nukes by an overwhelming majority in 1987. Spain put a moratorium on new nuclear plants in 1991. Four years later, Great Britain decided not to build any new stations. A majority of EU countries either have no nuclear power or have decided to phase-out their programs.
In the United States it has been more than 25 years since a reactor was ordered for which construction was completed. More reactors were cancelled in the U.S. than were built.
Asia is often reported as the region where nuclear power continues to boom. However, because of economic, social and environmental pressures many of these programs have been abandoned or scaled back. Southeast Asia will not make the difference. China already has made clear it will downgrade its investment in future generation capacity, and the role of nuclear power - with only 0.6% of total electricity production - will continue to be marginal.
As a consequence, with no further orders and none on the horizon, the nuclear industry is in terminal decline, even though the IAEA claims that for the year 2000 there are 38 reactors under active construction. When looking where construction is really taking place, at least ten must be taken off the list. For several of the remaining 28, it is highly questionable whether they will ever be completed. With almost no new stations being built, and a significant number of stations reaching the end of their planned lifetime, one can predict a sharp fall in the production of nuclear electricity in the coming twenty years.
The decline of nuclear power has led to increased efforts by the nuclear industry to present itself as 'part of the solution' to climate change, and thereby accepted as an environmentally friendly source of energy. Growing concern about the greenhouse effect is thus exploited as an opportunity to give a new impetus to an otherwise dying industry. Not surprisingly, the nuclear industry views climate change as 'the best friend we have had in the past 40 years' 1 . The argument goes that nukes emit few greenhouse gases such as CO2. There are two main problems with the figures on emissions avoided by using nukes as presented by institutions advocating nuclear energy. First , their figures always compare nuclear to highly polluting coal-fired electricity stations, thereby neglecting that the alternative to nuclear is not necessarily coal. Secondly, their figures do not take into account nuclear's indirect emissions of greenhouse gases. Indirect emissions result mainly from the mining and enrichment of uranium, construction of power plants, and reprocessing. But even if nukes emitted zero greenhouse gases, their environmental implications are such that they simply cannot be considered a sustainable source of energy.
Growing concern about climate change led to the establishment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change at the Earth Summit in 1992. All countries that are part of the Framework Convention meet at the 'Conference of the Parties'. The third conference of the parties (COP3), resulted in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Under this Protocol, countries committed themselves to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. One of the ways through which this might be achieved is by means of the so-called flexible mechanisms. These mechanisms allow the parties to realize part of their reduction targets abroad. It is through these mechanisms that the nuclear industry sees its opportunity for revival.
In the early history of nuclear energy, the issue of nuclear waste was not taken seriously. Some of the proposals about what to do with the waste have never been realized, as they were technically or practically impossible. These proposals included disposal in polar ice caps or shooting it into outer space. For decades, it sometimes was simply dumped into the sea.
Waste stemming from nuclear reactors can be divided into two main categories. "Low level" waste consists of clothes, filters, plant components, etc. Old reactor vessels (except in the U.S., where these also are considered "low-level") and irradiated fuel are high level waste and the latter is either stored directly or reprocessed.
High level waste remains dangerous for eons to come. While the nuclear industry often claims that waste will be harmless after 240,000 years, most other sources believe the waste is still radioactive far above free release limits after a million years, and probably even still after 10 million years.
The nuclear industry proposed to bury high level waste in deep rock formations, but has failed to realize such a disposal site. It is impossible to guarantee the isolation of waste for hundreds of thousands of years. Once the waste is buried, there is no longer a possibility to check it for leakages and repair them. Leakages are simply a question of time, i.e. the containers surely will leak sometime in the future and consequently release radioactivity.
Aboveground storage cannot be called safe either. Although there is a possibility to control and repair the waste containers, mankind will be responsible for its management 'forever'. Containers have to be replaced and the storage facility must be protected against war, terrorism and other potential dangers.
There is only one conclusion to be made: there already is too much nuclear waste.
Everyone knows that nukes emit radiation, but what is radiation exactly? Nuclear radiation occurs when unstable atoms decay. It is often called "ionizing radiation" because it has enough energy to knock electrons off atoms, turning them into ions. Ionization disrupts the functioning of the cells that make up our bodies. High levels of radiation kill cells, resulting in radiation burns, sickness and death.
Lower levels of radiation cause mutations, resulting in cancer and inheritable genetic damage. However, these effects are less predictable, because they occur at random. If a large number of people are exposed to radiation, for example after the Chernobyl accident, we know that some people will get cancer and some women will give birth to children with genetic defects, but we cannot predict who will be affected. Also, we cannot say for certain whether a particular cancer or genetic defect was caused by radiation or by something else. The effects can be delayed, with cancers or birth defects occurring many years after exposure to radiation.
When levels of radiation are very low, close to the naturally occurring "background" level, scientists disagree about its effects. It is usually assumed that the health risk is proportional to radiation dose. However, some scientists, particularly those associated with the nuclear industry, argue that low levels of radiation carry little or no health risk. Some even argue that low levels of radiation can be beneficial. However, there is considerable evidence that the risk of low levels of radiation over long periods can be higher than the same dose received in a shorter period.
Types of radiation
relatively heavy particles emitted by elements such as uranium and plutonium. A sheet of paper can stop alpha particles, but if an alpha emitting substance gets into the body it causes lots of damage (e.g. inhaling 80 micrograms of plutonium is usually fatal).
electrons travelling at high speed. They can penetrate the body, but can be stopped by a few millimeters of aluminum. Beta emitting substances are dangerous both inside and outside the body.
like X-rays but with higher energy. Thick lead or concrete can stop gamma rays, but they can pass right through the human body, and can cause damage to body tissues.
neutral particles emitted in nuclear fission. They are very penetrating, and can also damage body tissues, so nuclear reactors need thick shielding, which is generally of concrete.
As long as nuclear energy has existed, accidents have happened. Most known are the fire in the Windscale reactor (1957, UK), the Three Mile Island meltdown in Harrisburg (1979, US), the Chernobyl disaster (1986, Ukraine) and the recent criticality accident in Tokai Mura (1999, Japan).
Working with radioactive substances always carries a risk. In a nuclear reactor, there is a huge amount of radioactivity. The (hot) fuel must be cooled permanently to prevent it from melting. The biggest risk with a nuclear reactor is that of a meltdown accident. This happens when cooling water leaks from the cooling system.
In a meltdown accident, huge amounts of radioactivity can be released when the containment system of the reactor fails. This can happen as a result of human mistakes, or because the system is destroyed by the accident itself. A containment consists of steel and concrete structures around the reactor. In Chernobyl, the containment system was destroyed by the explosion in the reactor. At Harrisburg, however, the containment was not damaged but radioactivity escaped through vents in the structure.
A meltdown and the release of radioactivity results in severe consequences for the local environment, but also for the wider area (e.g., radioactivity from the Chernobyl disaster could be detected throughout the whole northern hemisphere). People inhale and ingest radioactive substances, which later cause cancers. Water can be contaminated, agriculture can be damaged, and food has to be destroyed for years to come.
A nuclear reactor is constructed with safety backup systems to prevent accidents, such as emergency cooling systems and backup power generators. But even with those technical safety systems, human beings can and do make mistakes. In all four of the accidents mentioned above the 'human factor' contributed to the cause or to the severity of the accident.
It has been high costs that have most damaged the market prospects of nuclear energy. Most nuclear power stations have been built by monopoly utilities and the costs were passed through to consumers or government regardless of how high they were. But with governments around the world now opening electric power markets to the winds of competition, nuclear power must stand on its own for the first time. We finally have a clear picture of the prospects of nuclear energy, and its near future looks bleak. More and more studies give proof of nuclear already being expensive and becoming more so while other energy sources are becoming economically sound.. Due to advances in turbine development and offshore possibilities, in most cases wind is far more economical than using nukes. While costs for wind energy are expected to decline, this cannot be said for nuclear power.
According to the Uranium Institute, only existing nuclear plants with low marginal production expenses will survive in competitive markets, which will lead to strong incentives to reduce costs, and will lead to changes in the way stations are operated and managed - raising new questions about reactor maintenance and safety.
Wall Street analysts have questioned the ability of nukes to compete with fossil-fueled rivals, and as the Nuclear Energy Agency puts it:
"The competitiveness of new nuclear power plants has decreased substantially in recent years, particularly when compared to gas-fired plants. A recently published NEA/IEA joint study on projected costs of generating electricity concludes that nuclear power is seldom the cheapest option for plants to be commissioned by 2005-2010"2.
So the market does not like nuclear, as is - to the surprise of some - once again confirmed by the World Bank:
"Even with low operating costs the high capital cost of nuclear plants preclude their being selected as the least-cost alternative under any reasonable assumptions concerning prices of coal or oil. Nuclear plants are thus uneconomic because at present and projected costs they are unlikely to be the least-cost alternative. There is also evidence that the cost figures usually cited by suppliers are substantially underestimated and often fail to take adequately into account waste disposal , decommissioning, and other environmental costs. Further complicating the issue is a perception of secrecy and lack of candor that characterizes the operation of nuclear power stations. In recent years, a number of accidents have raised doubts in the public mind as to their competence of the industry and the safety of the process. Many doubt the credibility of the industry"3.
Besides politics, the spread of nuclear weapons depends on both the availability of the know-how and of the radioactive material. The know-how is easy to obtain; in 1976 a 21-year old U.S. student designed a nuclear device by using publicly available information. Radioactive materials that are usable to build nuclear weapons are highly enriched uranium (Heu) and plutonium (Pu), the latter of which is produced in nuclear power stations during the fission process. In a 1000 Mw Light Water Reactor (LWR) between 210 kg and 240 kg of plutonium are produced every year.4 Only a few kilos of either Pu or Heu are needed for a nuclear bomb. As uranium is enriched for use in nuclear power stations, the step to increase the level of enrichment for usage of this Heu in weapons is small, and is not limited by technical difficulties.
Apart from the five official nuclear weapon states, countries able to produce nuclear weapons include India and Pakistan, and the cases of South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Israel, North Korea and Iraq also are well documented. Moreover, there is substantial proof that countries like Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Iran, South Korea, Algeria and Taiwan at one time all had a secret nuclear- weapons program . Australia has repeatedly discussed the possible start of a program to become the proud owner of a nuclear weapon.
Many countries are in the position to build nuclear weapons on a short term. Once considered 'necessary,' the device can be made quickly and easily. This leads to an official lower number of countries who actually have a nuclear bomb. - the ones that can make it in very short time are not counted.
When talking about nuclear energy we generally think of the nuclear reactor where electricity is produced. But this is only a small part of the total nuclear chain:
Uranium ore if found in Canada, Namibia, South Africa, Australia and in lesser amounts in other countries. Most uranium resources contain only a fraction of uranium: 1,000 kg of ore leads to about 500 grams of usable uranium. Once uranium ore has been mined, the ore is crushed, ground and then leached to dissolve the uranium. The uranium is separated out and precipitated as a concentrate containing 90% or more uranium oxides. This granular concentrate is usually referred to as yellowcake. The radioactive remains ('tailings') of the ore are usually disposed into open holding ponds.
Uranium in its natural form cannot be used in weapons nor in most reactors, which need a certain percentage of fissionable uranium (U-235). Of natural uranium, only 0.7% is fissionable. This percentage needs to be increased to about 3% in order to be used. This is enrichment, which produces as a byproduct depleted uranium. Highly enriched uranium (over 20% U-235) can be used in nuclear weapons. The byproduct depleted uranium is also used in ammunition and tank armor.
After enrichment, uranium oxide is squeezed into tablets. The tablets are put into long metal pipes, the fuel rods. A bundle of these rods form a fuel element.
Nuclear power reactor
In the reactor, the uranium-235 contained in the fuel rods is fissioned, a process which releases energy. This heats water (in some designs gas or molten metal) and by means of a (steam) turbine and generator, electricity is produced.
Storage of fuel rods
After being used for two or three years, the fuel rods become extremely radioactive and intensely hot and have to be put in a cooling pool for several years before they can be transported. The fuel rods are considered high-level radioactive waste and stored in an interim storage facility or transported to a reprocessing plant.
Spent fuel rods still contain an amount of uranium-235, as well as plutonium (Pu) which was breeded from the other uranium isotope, uranium-238. The remaining uranium and formed plutonium are chemically separated from the fission products, allowing them to be used again. In order for reprocessed uranium to be reused, it has to be re-enriched to 3% uranium-235. Reprocessed uranium contains remnants of plutonium and other byproducts of fission. As a result, reprocessed uranium is more radioactive than normal uranium. Reprocessing results in large quantities of solid waste and releases into water and air. There are only a few reprocessing plants worldwide.
Uranium includes the non-fissionable uranium-238, which can be converted into the fissionable plutonium-239. For this process of so-called "breeding," special fast breeder reactors were developed. These would be able to produce more plutonium than originally put into it as fuel while at the same time producing electricity. Only a few breeder reactors have been operational, and most countries have given up the technology, mainly because it is extremely dangerous because of the corrosive coolant sodium metal.
As a result of the lack of successful operation of breeder reactors and the growing stock of plutonium resulting from the decommissioning of nuclear weapons, reprocessing becomes futile. Without the original justification for reprocessing, another destination for the tens of thousands kilograms of plutonium had to be found: the use of Mixed Oxide or MOX fuel in nuclear power plants. MOX is a mixture of uranium and reprocessed plutonium. Its use has many proliferation risks, offers no solution for the problem of storage of high level radioactive waste, does not result in a substantial saving of uranium and bears many extra safety risks.
No country has found a solution for the waste problem. Burying it in the deep underground will certainly lead to leaks, now or in future. Aboveground storage also has its problems and disadvantages
Throughout the nuclear cycle, radioactive material is transported from one installation to another. Transport always carries the risk of accidents, theft and sabotage, the consequences of which could be devastating.
The process of shutting down a retired reactor is an essential step in the use of nuclear power. Many reactors currently are reaching their retirement or will do so in the near future. Strong irradiation of the reactor vessel causes it to degrade and the reactor has to be closed after some decades of operation. The high levels of radiation in shutdown reactors makes the dismantling procedure very complex and costly.
all matter is made of minute "building blocks" called atoms. Atoms consist of a central nucleus containing protons and neutrons (except hydrogen, which has just one proton and no neutrons) surrounded by electrons. Atoms have the same number of electrons as protons; if they lose or gain electrons, they become ions.
a change of the average weather conditions. Examples include an increase in average temperature(which causes sea level to rise) and a change in the distribution and frequency of rainfall. Changes from year to year do not count: the change must be over a prolonged period, of tens or hundreds of years perhaps, to be described as climate change.
CO2 (carbon dioxide):
a gas produced when animals breathe or carbon-containing substances are burned. Plants take in CO2 and with the help of sunlight carry out photosynthesis, using the carbon to build more plant material and releasing the oxygen.
small negatively-charged particles which normally orbit the nucleus of an atom.
gases in the atmosphere that reflect heat from the earth, keeping the earth warmer than it otherwise would be. Examples include CO2 and methane.
Highly enriched uranium:
uranium with more than 20% of the isotope U-235. U-235 is capable of nuclear fission, and is used in both nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons.
International Atomic Energy Agency. International body with the goal to promote nuclear energy but also to prevent the proliferation of nukes for military purposes.
an atom or molecule that has become electrically charged by losing or gaining electrons. Loss of electrons gives a positive charge; gain of electrons gives a negative charge.
forms of an element with different numbers of neutrons but the same number of protons in the nucleus. Each isotope has a number giving the total number of neutrons plus protons, e.g. U-235 is a uranium isotope with 92 protons + 143 neutrons.
Light Water Reactor (LWR):
the most common type of nuclear reactor, using ordinary water as coolant and moderator.
a group of atoms which is chemically bound together.
Mixed-Oxide Fuel. Nuclear fuel made with both uranium and plutonium.
an alteration in the genetic make-up of a cell or organism.
uncharged particles normally found in the nuclei of atoms (except hydrogen).
relating to the nucleus (central core) of an atom.
a reaction in which the nucleus of an atom splits into two. Fission also produces neutrons. These neutrons can then collide with other nuclei, causing further fission - this is called a chain reaction.
Nuclear Power Plant:
a power station that uses nuclear fission to generate electricity.
an artificial radioactive element produced mostly as a by-product of nuclear power. To date, over a thousand tons of plutonium have been produced.
positively charged particles normally found in the nuclei of atoms.
in a nuclear power station, the large steel tank in which nuclear fission takes place.
a naturally occurring element used to make nuclear fuel and nuclear weapons.
1) Quote taken from: " German Elections Threaten Meltdown for Nuclear Power in EU", European Voice, 14 January 1999.
2) Nuclear Power in Competitive Electricity Markets, Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), Paris, France, 2000
3) World Bank, 'Environmental Assessment Source Book' Vol. III, Guidelines for Environmental Assessment of Energy and Industry Projects , 1992
4) "Exploding the Myth; Power Reactors and Nuclear Weapons", Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, Canada, 1981
World Information Service on Energy (WISE), established in 1978, is a small but powerful networking organization against nuclear power. We run a huge library, act as a clearinghouse, run and support campaigns, produce educational material and publish the WISE News Communique, 20 issues a year, with news and background information. Our main aim is to support grassroots organizations fighting against the threat of nuclear power worldwide.
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