Key problems associated with nuclear power production
Vast quantities of CO2 are, in fact, produced by nuclear power stations, especially at the manufacturing and building stages. But there are other highly significant issues – very long-term environmental and health hazards, extreme costs especially of the often unmentioned decommissioning process, creating material for nuclear weapons, and problems of security.
Whilst it is true that the actual production of nuclear power at the time of generation produces negligible CO2, the actual building of generators and the nuclear power station itself and issues like the mining and milling of uranium ore and transport of nuclear materials and nuclear waste together create enormous quantities of CO2.
Of course the manufacture and installation of wind farms and solar farms also produce a considerable amount of CO2. And experts will disagree about the amounts of CO2 produced by any kind of power generation system.
Take the full series of CO2 production stages into account
However, it seems to me to be very important to check that those producing statistics which suggest a low level of CO2 produced by nuclear power stations have actually taken into account more than simply the building and on-site operation of a nuclear power station. They should not be allowed to overlook the CO2 costs of mining, processing and transporting uranium ore, or the CO2 costs of building deep, underground storage facilities and the transport of uranium waste to its eventual storage facility.
See below for some of the facts.
Radio-active, toxic waste
Nuclear power generation creates vast quantities of cancer-causing radioactive waste which remains highly dangerous and radioactive for many generations to come, in fact for thousands of years. This nuclear waste presents environmental problems and costs which are so great that they cannot be paid for within the lifetimes of people currently alive. The waste from current and recent nuclear power stations has not been successfully stored and no-one has so far suggested a satisfactory way of doing this. See the extracts below from a recent government report on this problem
The decommissioning of nuclear power stations at the end of their useful life is part of this environmental problem.
Building costs are enormous and have, so far, always gone well over budget. According to December 2017 estimates, Hinkley Point nuclear power station currently under construction was to be built for £20.3bn by 2025, to be paid for over a 35 year period. It is now estimated that it will cost between £21.5bn and £22.5bn (BBC)
The costs of decommissioning (cleaning up the radio-active defunct nuclear power stations and removing radio-active waste to yet-to-be-built safe storage facilities which need to remain safe for thousands of years) are beyond calculation (see the extracts from a UK Government’s Public Accounts Committee report below) – a financial burden which is omitted from cost calculations of nuclear energy. The energy companies will pass the waste disposal problem and costs onto succeeding governments and generations. We (and our children) will pay for this in our energy bills and taxation.
The UK government’s Public Accounts Committee report
The Public Accounts Committee report describes the cost of dismantling spent nuclear reactors and disposing of nuclear waste as “ inherently uncertain”. It has drawn attention to the incompetence with which waste disposal and decommissioning are handled in the UK, and the estimate that today’s waste could take up to 120 years to make safe. If these costs are added into the cost of nuclear “cheap energy” it will be seen as not only highly dangerous but also far more expensive than the day-to-day running costs would suggest.
Risky involvement of China in nuclear power production.
As at the power station, Hinkley Point C, now under construction, the Sizewell C plant would include the participation of a country we have serious concerns about with regard to human rights, China. China General Nuclear Power has a 20% stake in Sizewell C. This company has been accused of espionage by the United States. Chinese access may include access to plutonium, the key radio-active ingredient in nuclear weapons.
Wikipedia notes, “China General Nuclear Power has been blacklisted by the United States Department of Commerce for attempting to acquire advanced U.S. nuclear technology and material for diversion to military use.” There is talk (BBC) that China is thinking of pulling out of the project.
The reactor is of Chinese design. (BBC website 14 December 2020)
Do we want to give our nuclear know-how to China? Do we want to give a foreign power intimate knowledge of a hazardous facility which might, in a war situation, be turned into a nuclear threat.
Nuclear power stations might make us especially vulnerable to terrorists or if we were ever involved in a war involving bombing.
Nuclear power stations are at risk from earthquakes, rising sea levels and accidents.
Making nuclear weapons
Britain’s first “nuclear power station”, Calder Hall in Cumbria, was developed to create plutonium for nuclear bombs. As a by-product of creating plutonium its excess energy was used to generate electricity, so producing plutonium is a key function and the original function of nuclear power stations.
Do we need plutonium? almost all countries in the world don’t rely on nuclear weapons to ensure good relationships with other countries. Surely we do not need to rely on the threat of mass extinction of our enemies in order to bolster our presence in the world.
Can we manage without more nuclear power stations?
If this country had been really active in insulating British homes well in recent decades there is no doubt that the country could have managed with fewer power stations. I don’t know how much scope there is now for saving on energy usage by further improvements in the insulation of British houses.
If we do need more sources of energy to replace defunct nuclear power stations or conventional power stations how are we going to cope with the fact that the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. Greenpeace suggests that nuclear power stations are unnecessary and that renewable energy coupled with battery storage is the answer. A small number of power stations using non-renewable energy may be necessary.
What should be done about nuclear power in the UK?
We are told that any final decision to build a new nuclear power station at Sizewell in Suffolk will be subject to a full regulatory and planning approval process. However, The planning process in the UK for major projects like nuclear power, HS2, Cross-rail and airports are now outside local planning decision-making. The Government has reclassified such projects as being of such ‘national importance’ that they have removed the rights of councils to make objections that result in delays. The term used by the government to describe this class of project is Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs).
Nevertheless, the government’s planning department (National Infrastructure Planning) is open to receive comments from any organisation or individual, but the consultation process with regard to Sizewell C is already at an advanced stage. See https://infrastructure.planninginspectorate.gov.uk/projects/Eastern/The-Sizewell-C-Project/
You can sign up for updates on this project on the planning inspectorate’s website.
These changes in planning procedure reduce democracy by taking power away from local areas that may be where there is most impact from a planning decision.
The need for independent pressure groups
This increases the need for pressure groups like Greenpeace to try to safeguard people and the environment.
I suggest we can do without the risks to human life, environmental risks and the high costs of nuclear power stations. What will happen next? What should happen?
David Roberts, 14 January 2021
Further explanations below
- EDF’s calculations on CO2
- A pressure group’s calculation of CO2 costs of Sizewell C – Together Against Sizewell C
- UK Government’s Public Accounts Committee report on radioactivity and the unsolved decommissioning problem.
- In simple terms what are radioactive substances and what is radiation?
EDF’s CO2 Calculations
The French energy group estimates that 5.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide will be emitted in the nine to twelve years that it will take to build the Sizewell C plant. (The Times, 20 August 2020.)
Against this initial estimate EDF predicts that Sizewell C will save 9 million tonnes of CO2 emission every year as compared with gas-fired power stations. The company fails to mention other sources of CO2 produced in the running of a nuclear power station and these are explained in the following extract from the website of Together Against Sizewell C, a pressure group opposed to the construction of Sizewell C.
EDF’s figures are highly speculative and difficult even for an expert to challenge. Nevertheless, we should ask for an itemised account so that we can judge whether all aspects of the production of nuclear energy have been accounted for. The comments by the pressure group, Together Against Sizewell C, identify some potentially significant aspects of the production of nuclear energy which have probably not been taken into account.
TASC’s view on EDF’s claim that nuclear power is low carbon
Edited comments from pressure group, Together Against Sizewell C
Important questions not covered by EDF in its publicity for the power station.
TASC would like to correct EDF’s contention that nuclear power is a low carbon source of electricity. We believe that, in the current climate of crisis over the atmospheric carbon, it is vital that the energy policy the UK pursues is not predicated on assumptions which give a false impression of the carbon footprint of the Sizewell C development.
CO2 and Sizewell C Nuclear Power station
As part of their promotion of the Sizewell C project, EDF makes great claims of nuclear’s ‘low carbon footprint’. While we agree that the operating of the plant itself and the process of generating electricity through the fission process will be more carbon efficient than fossil fuel combustion, it is untrue to claim that the nuclear fuel cycle renders the technology truly ‘low carbon’.
Many authoritative studies show that when the “cradle to cradle” assessment of the carbon footprint of a new nuclear power plant is calculated, a far higher figure than that used by EDF is produced. EDF claim lifetime emissions of 12gCO2e/kWh [12 grammes of CO2 are produced per kilowatt hour of electricity] for nuclear reactors generally and 5gCO2e/kWh for EDF Hinkley Point C. However, studies carried out by others show a figure of more than 50gCO2e/kWh in one meta-analysis reported in the Ecologist magazine and a range of 78-178gCO2e/kWh in another carried out by Mark Jacobson.
Given the climate emergency declared by the UK government and the importance of establishing a sustainable low-carbon economy, we believe all large infrastructure projects need to establish their greenhouse gas emissions credentials. TASC believes that Sizewell C will have a huge upfront carbon debt from the uranium fuel and from its construction and are concerned that this debt will occur in the period that the International Panel on Climate Change, in 2018, said that we need to reduce our carbon emissions by at least 45% to keep the global temperature rise down to 1.5%.
For a new nuclear power plant such as Sizewell C, the calculation would need to include the carbon, and other greenhouse gases, produced from activities including:-
The mining, milling, fabrication, enrichment and transportation of the uranium fuel needed so the power station is ready for use.
The construction of the power stations and all of its infrastructure (roads, roundabouts, railways, jetties, sea walls, beach landing facilities, cement batching plant, dry fuel stores etc etc) including the mining, processing and transportation of all the materials and transport of staff and contractors.
The operation of the plant including materials and daily personnel transportation (including flights of international specialists) for planned and unplanned outages, replacement fuel and packaging and processing of spent fuel, maintaining and increasing sea defences to deal with rising sea levels and storm surges.
Radio-active nuclear waste and the decommissioning of nuclear power stations
The decommissioning and total dismantling of the power stations and restitution of the site to its original state.
The storage of the radioactive waste until such time as it becomes no more dangerous than its original state. There appear to be two basic ways of considering this:-
Proposals for a deep Geological Disposal Facility, requiring a programme to accommodate the waste, are still uncertain, making the carbon footprint calculation for the disposal programme difficult if not impossible to assess given the depth, location, volume and configuration of any GDF, should it ever find a willing community to host it, are unknown. In addition, the GDF itself will require a complicated and extensive transport infrastructure. It would be appropriate to calculate the carbon footprint for building one, maybe two nominal repositories which would be the largest ever civil engineering project in the UK with a series of chambers at possible depths between 200m and 1,000m below ground covering several square miles. The thousands of spent fuel assemblies will require thousands of tonnes of copper cladding which will have to be mined and smelted before turning into cylinders and there will of course be processing and transport requirements.
TASC believes we have to accept storage of the waste in specially built surface level or just below surface level stores (viz Sizewell B Dry Fuel Store). The carbon footprint calculation will need to take into account the requirement for the site to be protected, maintained, renewed and probably relocated, due to the impact of rising sea levels and increased storm surges, over the millennia.
Please see their website for more details https://tasizewellc.org.uk/carbon-emissions/
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.”
In simple terms what are radioactive substances and what is radiation?
Radiation is an invisible energy which can pass through solid objects in a similar way to which magnetism and radio waves can pass through solid objects. Radiation is emitted (or given off) by certain elements including polonium, radon, strontium 90, uranium, and plutonium. In fact there are three grades or kinds of both uranium and plutonium. Substances which give off radiation are said to be radio-active. Some of these substances occur naturally, but some (like plutonium) are man-made in nuclear reactors which are like a special kind of furnace.
The radiation produced by radioactive elements can have beneficial uses for human beings and can also often be extremely dangerous. For example radiation can be used in radiotherapy to kill cancer cells. Other effects of radiation include burns, cell damage, cancer, radiation sickness, DNA damage leading to mutations, and death. Radiation is typically emitted by radioactive elements for many years, often thousands of years which is why this highly toxic material is of such concern for the environment and human health. Radioactive particles can be released into the atmosphere by nuclear bombs and nuclear accidents possibly causing immediate deaths and longer term increases in cancers and genetic mutations over wide areas such as entire countries.
Two radioactive substances are of special importance in connection with nuclear power generation: plutonium and uranium.
Plutonium is created inside nuclear power station reactors. Three kinds are produced – plutonium 239, plutonium 241 and plutonium 242. It is plutonium 239 which is used to make atomic bombs. The inhalation of 30 micrograms of plutonium has been calculated to be enough to kill an adult by causing cancer. The acquisition of plutonium is therefore something that might be very attractive to terrorists or enemy states and requires constant guarding.
Uranium ore is mined. Most of this ore, 99.3% uranium-238, is only very mildly radioactive and of no use for nuclear power generation. To extract the 0.7% of highly radioactive uranium-235 a great deal of effort, energy and cost is required to break up the ore and extract the reactor grade uranium. This process itself produces large quantities of radioactive waste.
How long does radiation last?
The radioactivity of radio-active substances can last for many thousands of years. The strength of the radioactivity of each radioactive element reduces over time and eventually reduces to nothing. As a way of expressing how long it will take for the radioactivity of each element to decline scientists use the term “half-life” which is the time it takes for the strength of the radioactivity to reduce to half of what it is at the beginning of the element’s life. The half-life of plutonium-239 is 24,100 years. The half-life of uranium-238 is 4.5 billion years. In contrast, the half-life of radon is 3.82 days.
- Statement by Queen Elizabeth on opening Calder Hall plutonium facility in 1956.
- CO2 and power stations
- Why CO2 produced by concrete is such an important global concern – Concrete’s role in world CO2 emissions
- Worth researching – nuclear power station disasters: Chernobyl and Fukushima
Statement by her gracious Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, on opening the world’s first full-scale nuclear power station
“Calder Hall was built as a requirement for more military plutonium and as an experiment to investigate the possibilities of adapting nuclear energy to the production of electrical power quickly, cheaply and safely.” 17 October 1956
CO2 and power stations
Concrete/Cement is a major component of nuclear power stations. Just the base of the nuclear power station being built at Hinkley Point needed 49,000 tons of concrete, completed May 2020. This produced 61,000 tons of CO2 emissions.
Infrastructure, transport and transport links, mining uranium ore, milling the ore, manufacturing machinery, reactors and other large items of equipment will all have a CO2 costs.
Decommissioning and storing radioactive nuclear waste for generations is the great, untold, uncosted nuclear mystery. The construction of the facilities and the transport of materials have CO2 costs.
Why CO2 produced by concrete is such an important global concern – Concrete’s role in world CO2 emissions
Concrete is responsible for 10% of global CO2 emissions. This compares with the global aviation industry producing around 2% of all human-induced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC 2015 on Concrete. The panel stated that cement production globally rose to 4.2 billion tonnes. According to the IPCC, for every tonne of cement produced there is a one and a quarter tonnes equivalent of CO2 released. 4.2 billion tonnes of cement multiplied by 1.25 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of cement produced gives an eye watering 5.2 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted from cement production in 2015. In the same year total CO2 emissions from human sources was 36 billion tonnes. This puts carbon emissions from cement just under 10% of all human emissions, and growing.
The reason one tonne of cement produces 1.25 tonnes of CO2 is that the CO2 comes from two sources.
First the limestone which is burned to make cement is more than twice the density of water and has to be heated to 1,450 degrees C, which uses a lot of fossil fuel, about .75 tonnes per tonne of cement.
Second to the energy load to heat the limestone, the stone itself is composed of calcium and carbon. To make cement the extremely stable carbon, the living part of the creatures whose remains make up the limestone, has to be made into CO2. In this way we have made two sources of very stable fossilised carbon into a huge amount of CO2. – Explanation from Rammed Earth Consulting. http://rammedearthconsulting.com
Worth researching – nuclear disasters
Chernobyl: The Chernobyl nuclear meltdown and the radioactive fallout which spread over Western Europe, 26 April 1986.
Fukushima: for information about the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant when an earthquake struck in March 2011.
BBC website, 14 December 2020.
EDF on CO2 https://www.edfenergy.com/energy/nuclear-new-build-projects/hinkley-point-c/news-views/low-carbon-climate-change
Together Against Sizewell C https://tasizewellc.org.uk/carbon-emissions/
On EDF The Times, 20 August 2020
About concrete and CO2 http://rammedearthconsulting.com
UK Government Report on Radio-activity and the unsolved decommissioning problem
The Government planning department’s account of the planning process for Sizewell C and the documents submitted to it in their consultation process. https://infrastructure.planninginspectorate.gov.uk/projects/Eastern/The-Sizewell-C-Project/
The Doomsday Machine – The high price of nuclear energy, the world’s most dangerous fuel. By Martin Cohen and Andrew McKillop, Palgrave Macmillan 2012.
David Roberts, 13 January 2021 ©️ 2021 www.davidrobertsblog.com Please share.
Petition against Sizewell C
Please consider signing the petition against Sizewell C. Link: –
I’d be interested to hear your insights or view on this important topic. DR.