A brief history of UK nuclear policy – part 2

As with part 1 – yesterday – unless indicated otherwise, reference details are appended at the end (with links wherever possible). From New Millennium to Coalition Government In Small is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher included a chapter entitled, ‘Nuclear Energy – Salvation or Damnation?’. This is the question that the British establishment has wrestled with for much of the last decade. In 2003, although a classic case of non-decision-making, the Department of Trade and Industry did make it clear that they accepted the low-carbon argument for nuclear energy. However, it should be noted here that renewed investment in nuclear power generation was also seen as “an unattractive option” (DTI (2003) para. 1.24). However, within two years, those advising the government appeared to conclude that avoiding climate change was more important than economics (past, present, or future) – see Thomas (2005) p.24. During the final few years of Labour control, major consultation exercises were undertaken regarding both nuclear energy and nuclear waste disposal; and a large volume of reports were published by various arms of government – including the summary of a major cost-benefit analysis. However, although the latter assumed that any new operators will pay towards their own decommissioning and waste management costs (e.g. £636 million and £276 million respectively – to be accrued over 40 years), it was also quite clear that the estimated £25 billion cost of constructing a deep geological repository will have to be funded entirely by taxpayers. (DTI 2007a: 20). In 2007 the DTI justified putting nuclear power “back on the table” on the grounds that significant progress was being made on the legacy of waste, that nuclear power was low-carbon, and that (on the basis that management and decommissioning but not waste disposal would be privately financed) energy companies had expressed a strong interest in investing (DTI 2007b: 8-10). However, the consultation document was published at the same time as another that suggests that the government saw the consultation primarily as a “rubber-stamping” exercise (DTI 2007c: 17). Indeed, within a year, the government had completed this exercise and published its conclusions in the form of another white paper, which stated that, “…excluding nuclear power as an option would make it more challenging and expensive to meet our goal to reduce carbon emissions and could expose the UK to greater security of supply risks because our electricity supplies would be less diverse” (BERR 2008: 156). In July 2010, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) published an Annual Energy Statement in accordance with the terms of the agreement reached by the new Conservative-Liberal Democratic Coalition government and, in the main, this appears to be a re-statement of policy inherited from the previous administration (DECC 2010: 15, 19) Where do we go from here? Over 10 years ago, Wilson made a number of predictions that appear to have been borne out – or at least not invalidated – by subsequent events: “Nuclear power could help the world and in particular the USA to meet the commitments made at Kyoto. Nuclear power would also be a simple way of avoiding the health effects of air pollution. But for neither do we need the breeder reactor… But we may need reprocessing and the breeder reactor […because of…] objections to disposal of high level nuclear waste [which might disappear if its volume and half-life were reduced by transmutation]… For a time horizon greater than 50 to 100 years a breeder reactor is probably essential” (Wilson 1999: 9) Much more recently, the WNA also cited the reduction in the proportion of high level radioactive waste requiring “disposal” as a benefit of FBRs: “They offer the prospect of vastly more efficient use of uranium resources and the ability to burn actinides which are otherwise the long-lived component of high-level nuclear wastes.” However, the WNA still concedes that the technology is not yet commercially viable because we have not run out of easily accessible uranium; and that technological problems remain unresolved because development was cancelled (WNA 2010). The International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM) has been much more unequivocal in its view of FBR technology (if and when it is proposed to be developed): “The [original] rationale for pursuing breeder reactors — sometimes explicit and sometimes implicit — was based on the following key assumptions: (1) Uranium is scarce and high-grade deposits would quickly become depleted if fission power were deployed on a large scale; (2) Breeder reactors would quickly become economically competitive with the light-water reactors that dominate nuclear power today; (3) Breeder reactors could be as safe and reliable as light-water reactors; and (4) The proliferation risks posed by breeders and their ‘closed’ fuel cycle, in which plutonium would be recycled, could be managed. Each of these assumptions has proven to be wrong…” (von Hippel 2010: 5) However… “…The breeder reactor dream is not dead but it has receded far into the future. In the 1970s, breeder advocates were predicting that the world would have thousands of breeder reactors operating by now. Today, they are predicting commercialization by approximately 2050. In the meantime, the world has to deal with the legacy of the dream; approximately 250 tons of separated weapon-usable plutonium and ongoing processing programs in France, India, Japan, Russia and the United Kingdom” (von Hippel 2010: 12). Conclusions This essay has generally not touched on the ethics of using nuclear power, mainly because the technology cannot be “uninvented”. Furthermore, having created a “monster” (i.e. the legacy of waste that we will leave to future generations), we must now ensure that we deal with it as best we can. In so doing, we must also bear in mind that long-lived radioactive waste cannot be treated in order to make it non-radioactive and, arguably, that it is difficult to ever really “dispose” of something that will be dangerous for 100s of thousands of years. However, leaving aside the way in which it would enable us to use all of the Earth’s uranium (not just 1% of it) and to use that in the oceans as well, surely, the greatest advantage of FBR technology would be its ability to re-process these stockpiles of high-level, long-lived, radioactive waste into much smaller volume of lower-level, shorter-lived waste? If so, why are we not doing it? References BERR (2008), Meeting the Energy Challenge: A White Paper on Nuclear Power, London: TSO (Crown Copyright). DECC (2010), Annual Energy Statement, London: TSO (Crown Copyright). DTI (2003), Our Energy Future – Creating a Low Carbon Economy, London: TSO (Crown Copyright). DTI (2007a), Nuclear Power Generation Cost Benefit Analysis, London: Crown Copyright. DTI (2007b), The Future of Nuclear Power, London: TSO (Crown Copyright). DTI (2007c), Meeting the Energy Challenge: A White Paper on Energy, London: TSO (Crown Copyright). Schumacher, E.F. (1974), Small is Beautiful: A study of Economics as if Small People Mattered, London: Abacus. Thomas, S. (2005), The Economics of Nuclear Power: Analysis of Recent Studies. London: PSIRU (University of Greenwich). von Hippel, F. (2010), ‘The rise and fall of plutonium breeder reactors’ in Cochran, T.B. et al, Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status. Princeton NJ: IPFM, pp.1-15. Wilson (1999), ’The Changing Need for a Breeder Reactor’, Proceedings of the Uranium Institute’s 24th Annual Symposium held in London, 8-10 September 1999. WNA (2010), ‘Fast Neutron Reactors’, World Nuclear Association.


About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
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5 Responses to A brief history of UK nuclear policy – part 2

  1. jpgreenword says:

    Thank you for the link to these posts on nuclear power and FBR. I am still on the fence when it comes to nuclear power. I see the advantages (especially if FBR technology can get the breakthrough it needs to become commercially viable). However, I still have concerns regarding uranium mining and refining, storing waste (both of which would be less of a concern with FBR) and also with water use and contamination. I’d be interested to “hear” your opinion on the following post (http://www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/docs-talk/2011/01/a-few-good-reasons-why-we-should-abandon-nuclear-energy-for-good/). Cheers


  2. pendantry says:

    Rick, did your research include a review of the BBC’s Pandora’s Box: A is for atom? If not, I can strongly recommend it. As an aside, on the matter of the availability of fissile material, I very much doubt that the cost of levelling another few hundred mountaintops as we search for the ever-scarcer stuff will factor into anyone’s numbers when considering cost. The current environmental devastation (think: moonscapes of Athabasca, fracking hell!) being caused as a direct result of peak oil should be a cautionary tale for any pro-nuclear advocate, no?


    • Rick Altman says:

      No, I have not seen that BBC programme (and my original 5000-word essay was written in December 2010). As I have said elsewhere, I intend to pick up on the issue of fracking (no pun intended) later this week. I am not really pro-nuclear, I just remain unconvinced that we can do without it in the longer-term (have you tried playing with the DECC’s Pathways 2050 toolkit? See links to it in most recent post). The fact that we are already beyond Peak Oil – and the likelihood that the runaway greenhouse effect is “a dead certainty” (Hansen) unless we choose to leave unconventional fossil fuels in the ground – should be enough to focus the minds of people on ways to get off the grid altogether and/or maximise the use renewable sources of to generate electricity (such as tidal stream, solar, wind) and heat (energy from waste and groundwater heat pumps).


      • jpgreenword says:

        Just as an addition to the conversation, I’ve been reading (and will be posting hopefully soon) about Denmark’s plan to be 100% renewable by 2050. Quite ambitious and without nuclear.


  3. Pingback: Newsflash: Renewables are cheaper « Anthropocene Reality

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