Nuclear gets a glowing review

One major reason why UK governments fail to advance the drive towards renewables, with which Britain is uniquely endowed, is the colossal burden of the nuclear legacy. The nuclear clean-up now swallows up about tw0-thirds of the entire DECC budget. Sellafield alone costs £1.7bn a year, almost as much as the nearly £2bn spend supporting renewable energy in 2013. A month ago the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) awarded a £7bn contract to decommission 12 more of Britain’s oldest reactor sites over a 14-year period to a UK-US consortium. During the whole nuclear saga stretching back to Britain’s entry into nuclear bomb-making in the 1940s and into nuclear power in the 1950s, the costs of decommissioning were constantly underestimated. Even as recently as 2009 the costs of decommissioning Sellafield were reckoned to be £47bn, yet the latest estimate is now over £70bn, and rising. The impact on energy policy and government spending is literally draining.

Mismanagement has also played a role in this slow-motion disaster. The performance of Nuclear Management Partners, the private consortium currently contracted to detoxify Sellafield, was roundly condemned by the Commons Public Accounts Committee 3 months ago. They fingered the NDA’s decision last year to award the consortium a second 5-year contract when their first 5-year term was deened so problematic, and they argued that despite the nuclear clean-up being privatised, taxpayers still bore most of the risks. Even if some of the nastiest waste is removed, the reactors themselves will not be dismantled, but will remain standing, and toxic, for the next 70 years.

But even this putting off these colossal bills by postponing final demolition for the best part of a century entails a risk. It increases the likelihood of future leaks and risks dissipating the skills, which are in short supply, needed to dispose safely of such a toxic legacy. It is already being noted by nuclear experts that that each year now the NDA has only enough money to do the minimum needed to keep them out of court. So it would be much better to shave some decades off the decommissioning periods. But that too then highlights another huge, and unsolved, problem: where can a safe repository for the radioactive rubble be found soon? At present there are shallow vaults in newer parts of the sprawling Sellafield complex which store Britain’s most dangerous waste, but that is a temporary as well as an expensive solution. It certainly isn’t a long-term solution for making safe the many thousand tonnes of additional toxic debris that would be produced by demolishing all the country’s old reactors. The most accepted view is to bury it. But even in the area most likely to accept it – Cumbria – the idea was vetoed 4 months ago.

So what price nuclear? One that is far too high, and one that should never again be allowed to crowd out other far less expensive, far less dangerous, far more sustainable long-term options.

  1. Energy was only ever a by-product of nuclear. Its sole and only purpose was the production of weapons grade plutonium. It must be one of the most expensive, environment denuding methods of energy production ever.

  2. Nice theory David, but actually only partially true. For example, it doesn’t explain why the countries who in the recent past have had some of the highest concentrations of nuclear power stations have had no connection with bomb making (Scandinavia, Germany, Japan etc.).

    The issue with nuclear power is the problem of waste, and it is a problem yet to be properly solved. However, nuclear power is far safer overall than just about anything else and it’s very low Co2 means that it is a useful source of green power at a time when wind, solar and tidal have proved rather ineffective (due to the issue/problems of storage of produced power outside of variable production peaks).

    So the problem for me is not actually the technology, but who owns and controls it, and for what purpose. Would a socialist society run and maintain nuclear power stations if there were no other realistic options to provide enough continuous power production? Yes, of course, why ever not?

  3. Often the likes of germany and japan have been subsidised by the US to site unpopular nuclear power plants in their countries so they can buy the plutonium off them.

    waste isn’t the only problem with nuclear. mining uranium is intensive and there isn’t much of it.