The serious opposition to nuclear: can it be handled?

1 June 2007

Those of us in the nuclear industry are used to the attacks from organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, whose opposition is a deep-seated central tenet of their creed and unlikely to be overturned. The most important point is that nuclear embodies everything they hate about the modern world and unless we can reshape to fit in with their desire for a small-scale, decentralised energy system, without globalisation, government and big companies at all involved, we have little hope of changing minds. The best we can do is to marginalise them, in the hope that people will realise that their full crazy vision of a ‘brave new world’ is both unrealistic and, more importantly, actually contrary to what most people actually want.

There is, however, a rising chorus of more substantive attacks on nuclear coming from more intellectually respectable and robust quarters. These have been largely silent for a quarter century, resting on the contented vision that nuclear will slowly wither away as existing plants gradually shut down and no new ones are contemplated. Now that talk of a ‘nuclear renaissance’ has spread from the industry to popular debate in the general media, as many countries consider new nuclear build (including new countries in all continents), the intellectual doubt-mongers are reasserting themselves.

Typical of this is the recent report by Charles Ferguson for the US Council on Foreign Relations, Nuclear Energy: Balancing Benefits & Risks. This is a hugely disappointing document, ill-conceived from start to finish, more particularly so as senior figures closely associated with the US industry sat on the advisory committee. As such, it reads very much like a précis of the book Insurmountable Risks: the Dangers of Using Nuclear Power to Combat Global Climate Change, by Brice Smith for the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research last year.

An essential assumption of these publications is that the position of nuclear has improved mainly because it is being advocated as an important answer to global climate change. To some extent, the industry has asked for this, by not spending enough time and effort ensuring that the security of supply and economic arguments are put across as forcibly. The identification of nuclear with clean energy and low emissions is necessary, but leaves open the attack that nuclear cannot be much of an answer as new plants take so long to build, by when a combination of energy conservation and renewable energy may have provided the answer anyway. The Council on Foreign Relations report majors on this point, claiming that the rapid nuclear growth scenarios postulated by various bodies are unrealistic. A new argument is that the initial possible shortages of men and materials that new build will encounter will turn out to be a long run phenomenon and will have adverse economic implications. Costs of new plants will necessarily escalate, pricing nuclear out of the market.

This goes against both the previous history of nuclear in the 1970s and 1980s, the experience in many other industries and rational economic analysis. Two hundred reactors came online during the 1980s (39 in 1984 alone), which suggests that a rapid buildup from a low level (and particularly with well-proven technology) is eminently possible. An important point is that despite its technological maturity, nuclear new build will almost resemble a new industry, as there is the need for a huge amount of new training and investment in facilities to manufacture key plant components. The men and machines supporting the previous era of new build are now largely gone so substantial investment is required. This will undoubtedly come once a substantial bank of new plant orders is received, giving long-term security to the investors. With much more reactor standardisation than in the past, modular construction and simpler designs, it is almost certain that series production will cut and not escalate costs. The first units will experience substantial ‘first of a kind’ costs, but as the supply infrastructure is rebuilt, nuclear should become more economic and not less so. This fits in with the experience of other industrial sectors where mass production of a limited number of lines allows good economics – this can be seen from aircraft manufacturing to the auto industry.


It is now usually grudgingly accepted that reactor safety has been excellent since Chernobyl, so the emphasis has moved onto security of plants

Assuming nuclear generation can expand rapidly (for example to almost 20% of world electricity by 2030 with a doubling of capacity from today – as in the World Nuclear Association’s upper scenario) it can clearly be a substantial contributor to greenhouse gas abatement. The more sensible critics avoid the arguments on uranium availability and carbon emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle, as they know they don’t stand up to serious analysis. But it is important for the industry to accept that nuclear can only be a partial solution up to 2030 and not to criticise other programmes which will assist, notably in energy conservation and in promoting sources of renewable energy. But beyond 2030, the gloves can be off, as a combination of Generation IV reactors and a move to a hydrogen-based transportation system could allow nuclear to play a substantially enhanced role.

Even assuming new nuclear build can be useful in greenhouse gas abatement, the intellectual argument against them centres on battering the reader into submission by presenting them with a long list of possible problems with building a lot of new reactors. This is also a familiar tactic of the wilder Greens – although the events postulated may be low probability, the range of risks is considerable and may be cumulative in the minds of average members of the public. In each case, the worst possible consequence is considered, with little balance drawn from observable evidence in the real world. It is now usually grudgingly accepted that reactor safety has been excellent since Chernobyl, so the emphasis has moved onto security of plants, possible terrorist use of civil nuclear materials and alleged weaknesses in the non-proliferation regime. These issues are considered to be ‘external costs’ of nuclear and are examined in next month’s Comment. However, sensible energy policy cannot be founded on stoking up fears of low probability but potentially high consequence events – a more rational approach is appropriate, taking into account a full range of advantages and problems.

The other, more traditional, alleged external costs, such as waste management and plant decommissioning, are also targeted by the critics. The industry claims that these are already internalised by plant operators making appropriate payments and provisions (essentially funded by electricity customers). This is in contrast to the position in fossil fuel power generation, where carbon emissions are not (until now) heavily penalised. It is becoming clear that the announcement of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) programme in the USA has led to some confusion amongst less-informed observers. It obviously has several possible objectives, notably reduction of new waste volumes and using up existing wastes so that repository needs are minimised, but also strengthening proliferation resistance of the fuel cycle, yet the Council on Foreign Relations report and others do not seem to understand this and get hung up on one aspect or another. In particular, the renewed possibility of fuel reprocessing brings out all the old fears about plutonium, yet not all countries are likely to go down this road, notably those like Finland and Sweden, which have progressed much further towards operating repositories.

Much of the debate about nuclear at this more sophisticated level comes down to values and interpretations rather than facts. Even when it is possible to agree on the facts, different people have alternative perceptions of risk and this lies at the heart of everything to do with nuclear. It is a complex technology and brings forward a wide range of issues which act like a thick fog in people’s minds. Yet the financier of a new plant is in much the same position as someone who lives just down the road from a proposed site for a new reactor or a voter much further away who is presented with nuclear as a serious energy option. The financier has a long list of risks, which must be competently allocated amongst the stakeholders in the plant to give him sufficient comfort to proceed, and without imposing a damaging risk premium on his money. Some are the responsibility of national governments, some will be taken up by the plant vendor and contractors, while others will lodge with the power company itself. The local resident faces different risks, but needs satisfaction on safety, radiation emissions, plant security and eventual decommissioning of the site. The national voter, however, is maybe more concerned by possible proliferation, terrorism and waste management issues. There are clearly different issues for different groups, but each requires a great deal of industry attention to give them comfort. There is little alternative to increasing knowledge and understanding of the complexities of nuclear, in the hope that the essential audiences will be patient listeners and not feel overwhelmed. It is clear from everyday life that attitudes to risk vary considerably, so even the best industry explanations are unlikely to satisfy everyone.

Even confronted with strong facts, some people will always reject nuclear on grounds of major accident scenarios, even if it costs them more for their electricity and means society will need to cut carbon emissions by other means. That is their right, but the hope is that their numerical strength will be low, and that most people can begin to see though that dense fog.

It is now usually grudgingly accepted that reactor safety has been excellent since Chernobyl, so the emphasis has moved onto security of plants Quote1 Steve Kidd is head of Strategy & Research at the World Nuclear Association Steve Kidd Author Info:

Steve Kidd is Head of Strategy and Research at the World Nuclear Association, where he has worked since 1995 (when it was the Uranium Institute). Any views expressed are not necessarily those of the World Nuclear Association and/or its members

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