Nuclear power is regarded as an inexpensive solution to providing base level electricity supply. The claim that a small number of large modern nuclear power stations would be CO2 free and provide huge amounts of energy at a reasonable price is broadly true.
However, are the full decommissioning costs factored into the ‘reasonable price’? The nuclear industry plays down these costs. An OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) study in 2016 quoted actual decommissioning costs from a quarter of a billion dollars to over one billion. Added to that is the risk of the energy company going bust and the decommissioning costs having to be picked up by the government over the next 40-60 years.
Because of the very long time-scales involved in building and running a nuclear power station, governments can hide later costs from the public because they are so far into the future. Also any delays will cloud the picture.
Wherever you build a nuclear plant, it’s in your back yard
However, the cost of nuclear power is not the reason for this article; it is the threat to our national security. By 2021 there were some 441 nuclear plants in operation around the world. Since 1952 there have been 27 notable civilian nuclear incidents, six of which have been after 2000.
In general nuclear power stations are reliable; the science and engineering of nuclear reactor operation is well known and well tried. Yet we still have the unexpected incidents that can have national and global impacts which last for decades or even centuries. And although they get safer all the time, they are still susceptible to sabotage or direct attack. You would only have to damage one British nuclear reactor to create widespread contamination of the UK and neighbouring countries.
The threat of attack is now as much from rogue states wanting to ‘make a point’, as it is from terrorist organisations. A recent chilling example is that Russian shelling of the Zaporizhzhia plant in Ukraine caused fires to break out.
I would argue that this danger means that UK should stop nuclear power plant development and fully decommission any plants we have.
True renewable energy gives us national security
Although the nuclear industry likes to class nuclear power as renewable it is in a very different class to the true renewables of solar, wind and hydro. Many communities are asking for a power supply which is ‘Renewable, Distributed, Diverse and Local’ (RDDL) which is protected from external supply interruptions and is robust under any threat, cyber or otherwise.
These truly renewable sources are proving to be commercially competitive, particularly wind and hydro power. With the price of oil and gas skyrocketing, a energy policy based on the RDDL concept becomes even more attractive.
Implementing an RDDL based policy does not involve decades of planning and construction. Solar installations take just months to put in place and wind farms not that much longer. We are in a climate crisis, energy prices are rocketing and many people in UK are suffering. So why are still complaining about the look of a wind turbine?
There are other advantages. Yet you can not only grow crops under wind turbines, but they actually grow better since low amounts of CO2 are released that help the plants grow and reduce fertilizer needs.
One criticism of renewables is that storage is needed, usually by mechanical battery. However it would not be unreasonable to have traditional gas plants as backup for the short periods, be that from hydrogen, anaerobic digested methane or other currently available technologies.
Nuclear power is far from a secure solution. It puts millions of people in danger, by providing an adversary with the perfect target for a military or terrorist attack.