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Small nuclear reactors: Big nuclear problem

Small nuclear reactor

Artist’s idealised image of a small nuclear reactor site

The UK Chancellor’s budget statement of 6 March 2024 once again heralded the government’s backing and financing of new nuclear power generation.  (See statement at end of this article.)

The huge environmental costs are seldom mentioned. The words “clean energy” are typically associated with nuclear power generation.  This is a gross misrepresentation of the facts.

Scandalous disregard for the known environmental risks
The irresponsibility of this presentation of “facts” to the public is almost unbelievable. It is as if government ministers have never read or simply cannot understand the plain English of the shocking reports of their own government.

The most hazardous, anti-environmental danger known to living things
The generation of nuclear power creates hazardous, radio-active waste  –  the most hazardous material known to all living creatures. It needs to be stored in enormous concrete  storage facilities for hundreds of years to come. The cost of “safeguarding and processing” this waste is already astronomic. Not only that, it presents a prime target if ever a war breaks out between the UK and another country.

Britain has the largest amount of nuclear waste in the world. To approach something like safety with this material it needs to be buried very deep underground in hard rock where it must be locked away for thousands of years. So far only two countries have begun to build such facilities  – Finland and Sweden. 

Prime targets in a war
Going for more (smaller) nuclear reactors is an even worse option than the larger nuclear power stations. This is because they would multiply the number of easy nuclear targets in any future war. conventional weapons or even a terrorist attack could release untold radioactive materials into the environment.

More dangerous radio-active waste
These Small Modular Nuclear Reactors generate more, and more dangerous, radioactive waste.

A New Scientist article of 30 May 2022 reported  on Small modular nuclear reactors
“Lindsay Krall  at Stanford University in California and her colleagues compared the SMR technology with a conventional 1.1 gigawatt nuclear reactor.
They have found that SMRs could increase the volume of short-lived low and intermediate level waste – the two lowest of three categories – by up to 35 times compared to a large conventional reactor, when looking at waste produced per unit of electricity generated. For the long-lived equivalent waste, SMRs would produce up to 30 times more and for spent nuclear fuel, up to 5 times more.”

Link to full report: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2322252-mini-nuclear-power-stations-may-produce-more-waste-than-large-ones/

What the government’s own report told us (There are other government reports on the topic.)

House of Commons Public Accounts Committee
UK Government Report on Radio-activity and the unsolved decommissioning problem

Extracts from the Report on the work of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) Session 2019–21
23 November 2020

[This report is primarily about the clearing up of radio-active materials and equipment from the British Magnox nuclear reactors which have so far been closed down, but it makes clear the worrying uncertainty about the unprecedented timescale to complete the task of decommissioning nuclear power stations and the unknowability of the escalating costs]

The report states:
“The uncertainty affecting the Magnox sites reflects a wider uncertainty about the costs and timetable of decommissioning the whole civil nuclear estate. According to the NDA’s [Nuclear Decommissioning Authority ] most recent estimates it will cost the UK taxpayer £132 billion to decommission the UK’s civil nuclear sites and the NDA estimates that the work will not be completed for another 120 years.”
“The cost of the long-term liability to decommission the UK’s civil nuclear sites now stands at £132 billion, though by its nature this estimate is inherently uncertain. When pushed to provide us with a full and final figure for the cost of decommissioning the Magnox sites, The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s management of the Magnox contract the NDA could not do so and stated that this will not be possible until the work has been completed.”
“Public accountability is hindered by a lack of transparency about the scale and nature of the challenge of decommissioning and the performance of the NDA. Nuclear decommissioning will cost current and future generations of taxpayers’ substantial sums of money.”

Link to Government conclusions

2016 Chanel 4,   A 2016 8 minute insight into Sellafield  –  then the nuclear reprocessing site in The Lake District. Now a nuclear waste storage facility costing between £1billion and £2 billion per year to maintain and for an estimated 120 years  –  probably for much longer given the longevity of radioactivity in the nuclear waste.

Currently more than 10,000 people are working at the nuclear storage facility at Sellafield in the Lake District. Here is a Simon Reeves report on his visit.

No short term solution
In an article in The Guardian, 15 December 2022, Samanth Subramanian said that “Nothing is produced at Sellafield anymore. But making safe what is left behind is an almost unimaginably expensive and complex task that requires us to think not on a human timescale, but a planetary one. . . “

“High-level waste – the byproduct of reprocessing – is so radioactive that its containers will give off heat for thousands of years. It will become harmless over time, but the scale of that time is planetary, not human. The number of radioactive atoms in the kind of iodine found in nuclear waste byproducts halves every 16million years.”

Jeremy Hunt's 2024 Budget Statement

I turn now to our other growth industries, starting with clean energy.

We want nuclear to provide up to a quarter of our electricity by 2050.

As part of that, I want the UK to lead the global race in developing cutting-edge nuclear technologies. I can therefore announce that Great British Nuclear will begin the next phase of the Small Modular Reactor selection process, with companies now having until June to submit their initial tender responses.

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David Roberts

Writer, publisher, music promoter

Born in 1942, I now have time to enjoy life more widely and reflect on my experience, interests, and contemporary events.

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