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Reviving nuclear power debates is a distraction. We need to use less energy

Sellafield Nuclear Power Plant, U.K.

Sellafield nuclear power plant in West Cumbria. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images


Powered by article titled “Reviving nuclear power debates is a distraction. We need to use less energy” was written by John Quiggin, for on Friday 8th November 2013 01.18 UTC

There’s been a lot of buzz recently about a new film by controversialist documentary-maker, Robert Stone. Pandora’s Promise presents an environmentalist case for nuclear power, argued by a number of recent converts including Mark Lynas and George Monbiot. These converts have reached the conclusion that the dangers of global warming outweigh the health risks of nuclear power which have been exaggerated by opponents (including, in the past, themselves).

The film spends a fair bit of time mocking this view, as represented by Dr Helen Caldicott, who apparently claimed more than a million deaths had resulted from the Chernobyl disaster (more conservatives estimates range from 4,000 to 500,000). It is correctly argued that the health damage associated with coal-fired electricity (disregarding those arising from climate change) far outweighs that of nuclear power, at least during the operational lifetime of power plants.

The only surprising thing about this film is the release date. The makers and participants are apparently unaware that the rest of the world had this debate 10 to 15 years ago, and that, for the most part, the advocates of nuclear power were victorious. Environmentalists largely abandoned anti-nuclear campaigns and focused their energy on attempts to reduce the use of fossil fuels, and promote energy efficiency and renewable energy sources. While most environmentalists remained sceptical of, or opposed to, nuclear power, the end of active opposition paved the way for a range of pro-nuclear policy initiatives.

In the years after the signing of the Kyoto protocol, most major countries, including the US, UK, Japan, China and India adopted or reinforced policies supporting nuclear power. Some European countries, notably including Austria and Germany, went the other way. Even in Europe, however, the long-stalled industry was revived with the start of construction on new plants in France and Finland.

The really big developments were in the US. The Energy Policy Act of 2005, passed with bipartisan support and building on earlier initiatives of the Bush Administration, offered the nuclear power industry a range of incentives and subsidies that the developers of wind and solar power could only dream of. It includes authorising cost-overrun support of up to $2bn total for up to six new nuclear power plants, the extension of the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act through 2025, and huge loan guarantees. The shift in policy attitudes was widely acclaimed as heralding a “nuclear renaissance”, with dozens of new plants being announced in the US and many more worldwide.

So, why, a decade later, must a film like Pandora’s Promise campaign in favour of nuclear power? The answer is that the nuclear “renaissance” turned out to be more like a return to the nuclear dark ages of the 1980s and 1990s.

Most of the new plants announced with such enthusiasm have been cancelled or deferred indefinitely. Those that have commenced construction have run over time and over budget, exactly as happened in the last big nuclear boom of the 1970s. The poster child is the Olkiluoto plant in Finland, originally announced in 2000, with a completion date of 2009 and a cost of 3bn euros. The current estimated completion date is 2015, and the cost has blown out to 8.5bn. A French plant with a similar design is having the same problems .

In the US, only four new plants are being built, all at existing sites, and all behind time and over budget. It seems unlikely that any new projects will be undertaken much before 2020. Innovative ideas like small modular reactors are being explored, but any substantial application is decades away. The situation appears somewhat better in China and India, although past experience with construction projects in these countries has raised safety concerns. And even in these countries, targets for nuclear power expansion are being scaled back while those for renewable energy are being increased.

So, the fact that the world has not turned to nuclear power as a solution to climate change is a matter of economics. In the absence of a substantial carbon price, nuclear energy can’t compete with coal and other fossil fuels. In the presence of a carbon price, it can’t compete with wind and solar photovoltaics. The only real hope is that, if coal-fired generation is reduced drastically enough, always-on nuclear power will be a more attractive alternative than variable sources like solar and wind power. However, much of the current demand for “baseload” power is an artifact of pricing systems designed for coal, and may disappear as prices become more cost-reflective.


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