I have a confession to make; Once upon a time, I used to think that Nuclear Power was the solution to all the worlds energy problems. However, as I learnt more and more about the industry I became increasingly sceptical about its claims. Indeed I would now argue that many of its more ludicrous claims (trying to get say anymore than 15% of the worlds energy from Nuclear power
.it currently supplies between 2.4% and 4.9% depending on how you do youre sums, yes really, look it up!) are totally divorced from reality. I have therefore come to consider nuclear power as essentially more trouble that its worth.
The crux of my criticism of the nuclear industry boils down to four major issues, strangely enough, safety does is not one of those, or at least it wasnt until Saturday morning!
– Long term disposal of nuclear waste. Weve various theories and plans but have yet to implement a system to dispose of this waste (i.e dig a really big deep hole in the ground and convince the people who will live on top of said hole that everything will be okay for all eternity!). Nor are we entirely sure what the long term costs of such a project are likely to be. Then theres the (not-so) small matter of decommissioning nuclear power stations. The estimated cost for decommissioning the UKs existing fleet of reactors is hovering around £73 Billion and growing and that doesnt factor in the long term waste disposal and storage costs.
– The high cost of building nuclear reactors. The nuclear industry will often quote figures comparable to natural gas powered stations , however the critics of nuclear energy say that its true costs (i.e. today nevermind the future) will be much higher, as much as 3 times higher according to the NEF, making a nuclear renaissance unlikely.
And the current omens suggest the NEF report above (2003 era, dated) actually underestimated the costs of new nuclear reactor construction. The first of the new EPRs in Finland is years behind schedule and considerably over budget. Its likely final cost will come in at 6.4 Billion (up from an initial bid cost of 2.5 Billion), or about £3,250 per installed kW, vs the BWEA estimates for wind of around £1,300-1,600 per kW or about £1900-2200 with intermittency backup.
Overall, it seems likely the installation (nevermind decommissioning costs) of new Nuclear reactors will likely prove to be much higher than alternatives energy sources.
– Theres the slow rate at which nuclear reactors get built. Currently new reactor construction globally is outpaced by the rate at which old reactors are turned off (the average age of the worlds nuclear reactor fleet is 24 years). The complex nature of new reactor designs, while it does improve safety, does come at the expense of a slower building rate and (as noted earlier) much higher installation costs. We simply cant build the damn things quickly enough (or cheaply enough) for them to make any difference in the grand scheme of things. By contrast in 2008 some 80 GW of new renewable energy capacity and 9 billion litres of new biofuels production capacity were added to the global energy grid. This works out at roughly 420 Billion kWh/yr of new energy production (this figure accounts of the intermittency prevalent in certain renewable systems), a little less than double the maximum ever global build rate of nuclear reactors (30 GWs or roughly 230 Billion kWh/yr new generating capacity) achieved in the 1970s, and its doubtful given the complexity of modern reactors that we could ever match this 1970s built rate again (my estimate, at a push we could up things to maybe ½ or a 1/3 this level).
– Finally theres nuclear powers dirty little secret. The world has relatively limited stockpiles of Uranium ore. Figures from the WNA (World Nuclear Agency) suggest 80 years of reserves (5.4 Mt) with current consumption rates (68,000 Tons/yr) and extraction techniques if a cost of $80-130kg is tolerated.
Obviously by trying to double the production rate of nuclear energy (i.e raise output to 5-10% of global energy consumption assuming we could figure out how to build those reactors faster!) well run down this supply in half the time. Trying to completely replace all fossil fuel resources, assuming no overall increase in energy demand, would involve exhausting our reserves in around 2.8 years!
Nuclear advocates like to mention the option of Thorium, forgetting to mention it has no naturally occurring fissile isotopes, i.e we can only rely on Thorium so long as we have supplies of U-235 available or we tinker around with various fast reactor systems (failed white elephant projects that never really worked). Other ridiculous suggestions such as MOX or the plutonium economy are a waste of time, as far as anyone who is even vaguely familiar with the concept of economics would know. Similarly the idea that we could extract Uranium from sea water is something only someone unfamiliar with the concept of EROEI could come up with (Energy invested vs energy returned, if you use more energy filtering billions of tons of sea water to harvest a few grams of Uranium, than the energy you usefully get back from it as fuel – youre reactor becomes an net energy sink rather than a source).