Nuclear energy and why it’s not fit for purpose – Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

“If we judge nuclear power by the criteria of timeliness, low construction costs, affordable electricity prices, safety, vulnerability to attack, health concerns, fuel poverty, conservation, poor climate response & unsustainability, we can readily discern that nuclear is a very poor option.”

By Dr Ian Fairlie, Vice President, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

Boris Johnson’s recent pronouncements about the need to make “big bets on nuclear power”, including large and so-called Small Modular Reactors, has received an initial welcome from the Labour Party. Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves has called for ministers to “get on with the investment in new nuclear”. While this might appear superficially to be a sensible response to the threat to the UK’s fossil fuel supplies from Russia and also as a possible way to tackle climate change, if we dig a little deeper it soon becomes clear that nothing could be further from the truth.

For a start, any new nuclear plants would take about 12 to 15 years to plan, develop, obtain the necessary permits and to be commissioned. But we need to address the situation in 2022 not the one in 2034! Nuclear would simply take far too long. People are being forced to decide between heating or eating today, and older people likely to suffer from hyperthermia next winter need solutions with immediate impact, such as a massive home retrofit scheme which many in the Labour Movement have been calling for. From a climate point of view we also need fast and cheap ways to cut carbon emissions: nuclear power provides neither.

The Government has limited funds so money spent needs to maximise carbon savings per pound spent. The cost of building nuclear plants is eye-wateringly high, which is why the industry is demanding financial help from taxpayers. For example, Hinkley Point C construction costs now exceed £27 billion, with more increases expected. And the future price of nuclear electricity from Hinkley C is now over £110 per MWh – over three times more than wind/solar prices. How is this going to help people in fuel poverty?

And what about the dangers of nuclear accidents like Windscale in 1957, Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and Fukushima in 2011? And the clear epidemiological evidence of raised child leukemias near nuclear plants? And we still have no clear plans for dealing with the UK’s nuclear wastes 70 years after the start of the UK’s first reactors.

CND is strongly opposed to nuclear energy for yet another reason – its umbilical links to nuclear weapons. For example, few are aware that the fissile material for nuclear bombs and missiles comes from civil nuclear facilities. And increasingly nowadays it is becoming clear that the push for civil nuclear plants emanates from the demands by UK military chiefs for nuclear expertise and knowledge.

Recently many Labour members will have observed the frightening scenes of nuclear plants in Ukraine being attacked by Russian forces. Is it really wise to build more of them here? The events in Ukraine are teaching us that we need energy sources that are not subject to the whims of overseas governments.

But if we look at the UK scene we see the opposite. All UK nuclear reactors are owned and run by the UK subsidiary of EDF – the French Government’s nuclear utility. Most nuclear plans are dominated by EDF and the Chinese Government’s nationally owned generator CGT (eg Hinkley C) or by EDF alone (eg Sizewell C). Future mooted SMR plants would be financed by EDF, a Qatari sovereign fund and a French family. In addition, an unknown percentage (perhaps 10-20%) of the UK’s uranium supplies originate from Russia and its controlled territories, including Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

This is unsatisfactory and unnecessary. What we need of course is more investment in energy from the sun, wind, rainwater and tides which cannot be curtailed or controlled by foreign investment or policies. The contribution made by renewables to UK power generation has more than doubled since 2014. Renewables (mainly wind, solar, biomass, hydro) accounted for 43% of the UK’s 312 TWh of domestic power generation in 2020, and almost 46% last year. Scotland already gets about 90% of its electricity from the renewables. Many studies show that it would be perfectly feasible to use renewable energy for all our electricity, contrary to the naysayers in the nuclear industry.

Finally, we need to address climate change. Does nuclear provide lowered carbon emissions? Not really because of the nuclear fuel chain’s relatively high carbon intensity. Whether we look at uranium mining, milling, refining, U-235 enrichment, reactor construction, or nuclear waste management – they all have large carbon footprints.

Therefore if we judge nuclear power by the criteria of timeliness, low construction costs, affordable electricity prices, safety, vulnerability to attack, health concerns, fuel poverty, conservation, poor climate response and unsustainability, we can readily discern that  nuclear is a very poor option.

In fact it’s arguably the worst possible energy option and is unfit for Labour policy purposes.

  • Dr Ian Fairlie is the Vice President of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).
  • You can follow the the CND on Facebook and twitter.
Featured image: Towers of Thorpe Marsh energy plant. Photo credit: TJ Blackwell, 2010, Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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