Nuclear is Not the Climate Solution

Merrick, 30th October 2008ce

Britain's nuclear power stations were originally state-owned. In the last stages of the Thatcherite craze for selling off publicly owned industries, it was privatised.

Last month that private company, British Energy, was bought by French state-owned power giant EDF. So Britain's nukes are state-owned again, only now it's the French state that owns them.

Gordon Brown says ‘Nuclear is clean, secure and affordable. Its expansion is crucial for Britain's long-term energy security, as we reduce our oil dependence and move towards a low-carbon future’ (1).

Quite how electricity generation reduces our oil dependence is beyond me.

But then, it’s almost as much nonsense to say that it’s helping us in reducing carbon emissions.


Nuclear isn't a real low-carbon technology. Firstly, nuclear power stations take a long time to design and construct. We need carbon cuts to be as swift as possible. The same amount of emission avoided today is worth more than it being avoided in ten years time. It is a lot quicker - and cheaper - to get renewables on stream.

Last year’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was very clear. To have a decent chance of avoiding a global temperature rise of over two degrees – widely regarded as the ‘tipping point’ at which runaway climate change is triggered and we lose the ability to stop it – emissions need to be declining by 2015 (2). Putting renewables up now can help us achieve that. Keeping fossils burning for another decade or two while we build nuclear power stations cannot.

Even when nukes are up and running, their climate savings aren't dazzling. According to the Sustainable Development Commission, if we replace all the outgoing nuclear power stations we will achieve a 4% carbon cut by 2034. If we have a massive (read: massively expensive) expansion programme that replaces them and then doubles capacity, that still amounts to just an 8% cut by 2034 (3).

So whilst it isn't responsible for anything like the sort of emissions we get from coal, in carbon terms the nuclear option is still far from 'clean'.

Nor is the waste - some of it lethal for 100,000 years - 'clean'. The post-use waste isn't the only issue either.

Uranium mining mills around 1,000 tonnes of rock for every tonne of uranium produced (4). The spoil, itself dangerously radioactive, is usually not treated in any way just gets dumped, irradiating organisms all around it far into the future.


This waste is hazardous to life for huge periods of time. The stronger stuff left after power generation is far more deadly. Nobody has figured out a way to safely dispose of it for the duration of its threat. The more nuclear power we generate, the more waste there is being unsafely disposed of.

Just imagine if we were still having to tend lethal waste left by the Romans, and how much worse we'd feel knowing that they had other choices.

The more nuclear materials are around, the more likely it is that they will get into the wrong hands.

Beyond the terrorist threat is the link between resource value and war. We commonly hear of how oil and gas come from politically unstable parts of the world, as if this were two facts not one. The middle east does not stand on some convergence of conflagration ley-lines. These places become volatile because they contain great wealth and so people fight for their control. A global shift to uranium would bring the spectre of war to countries with seizable reserves like Namibia, Niger and Uzbekistan.

A move to nuclear power does nothing to address energy independence. Not only is there the fact that British Energy is now owned by a foreign company (and it’s not impossible that in a blaze of irony it could be bought again with a heap of Russian gas profits), but Britain contains even less reserves of recoverable uranium than it does of coal and gas.

Moving to a century of nuclear out of fear of reliance on Russian and Caspian gas is a trifle absurd too. By far the largest known recoverable reserves are in Australia, but second is Kazakhstan and Russia comes third.


As Tom Burke from London Sustainable Development Commission says, there are only two honest answers to the question of how much it costs to build a nuclear power station - ‘I don't know’ and ‘I'll tell you when I've built it’. Everything else is a guess (5).

In 1975 the UK Atomic Energy Authority told the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution that by 2000 Britain would have 104 nuclear reactors. Why didn’t we get them? The government wanted it, backed by unions, media and everyone else who mattered. But the enthusiasm was curbed by the simple fact that they were far too expensive.

Once we've given the go-ahead to build these power stations, we will keep them rolling no matter what they cost. The industry knows that. They cannot lose. A new generation of nuclear power stations is a license for the industry to make raids on taxpayers' money for decades to come.

No British nuclear power station has ever been built to budget. The last one, Sizewell B, cost more than twice the estimate. The first of the new generation stations, Olkiluoto in Finland, found itself more than a billion pounds over budget and two years behind schedule at only two and a half years into construction.

Even with the taxpayer coughing up for a load of British Energy's debts, it couldn't stay afloat on its own. In 2002, just six years after privatisation, the government bailed it out with over £5bn of taxpayer's money.

These days, our government assures us that the owners will pay for all the decommissioning. They are lying. In order to get the industry and investors to sign up, the government agrees a set maximum price for waste disposal and decommissioning when it gives approval for the station. Any over-runs in cost (and when has the nuclear industry not delivered those?) will be paid for by the taxpayer.

The industry can only work if it knows the taxpayer is there to catch it when (and it's never if, always when) it falls.

In the event of accident, who will be liable for the clean up and compensation?

Even without any form of mishap, nuclear power is not affordable. When the first stations were built in the 1950s we were promised electricity that would be ‘too cheap to measure’. Those words mockingly echo through Gordon Brown’s hollow assurances of affordability.

Stephen Thomas from Greenwich University points out that if you take EOn's estimate of the cost of a new reactor being £3,000 per kilowatt, then the operating cost of that reactor is likely to be about £80 to generate a kilowatt of electricity for an hour (kWh). The current wholesale electricity price – regarded as high - is about £40 per kWh.

That figure assumes that E.On’s estimates of production are accurate. If they turn out to be less, the cost per kWh is even higher. Bear in mind that no British nuclear power station has ever generated the amount of electricity its builders promised.

Just as the owners of coal-fired power stations have to pay for the proper disposal of all the ash they generate, so too the owners of nuclear power stations should be responsible for the disposal of their waste. This should include proper maintenance and liability for as long as it is hazardous.

That simple and clearly fair factor would be so astronomically expensive that it would remove the nuclear option at a stroke. (It would also put paid to the other technology the government’s so enthusiastic about, coal with carbon capture).


The drawn-out planning and construction process that leaves fossils running until nuclear stations are on-stream doesn't just affect our carbon emissions. It's also a concern for the looming 'energy gap'. Many of our coal and nuclear power stations are being decommissioned over the next ten years. We need a new energy strategy to reduce demand – a solution that’s genuinely quick, cheap and permanently effective - but we also need new sources of power.

This is a superb opportunity to really restructure our power industry. Something massive has to happen - either a huge load of renewables and energy efficiency that would create large numbers of jobs and massive carbon cuts; or a lot of new coal-fired power stations; or a lot of new nuclear power stations.

The urgency of the energy gap is being used by the nuclear industry as a reason to fast-track approval for new nukes.

Yet the government say it would take eight years from approval to starting construction, which would then take a further five years (generously assuming it goes to schedule). A plan taking thirteen years is no help in plugging an energy gap that's eight years away.

The real reason is a desire to exploit the urgency of climate change and the energy gap to get quick approval for new nuclear power stations. Once the ink's on the contract, that's it. We can't pull out with out incurring prohibitive penalties. They will be built, and we will be committed to lining their pockets with our billions when things over-run or go wrong.

It commits us to a heavily militarised state in order to run and protect the installations, it commits us to bottomless bail-outs using public money, it will produce vast amounts of deadly waste around the world, and make only small carbon savings, and even those will only be in the longer term rather than the crucial period of the next two decades.

In the meantime, we are distracted from truly clean, safe and affordable solutions that would deliver carbon cuts a lot sooner.

As a wealthy medium-sized industrial country, Britain is very well placed to lead the way, showing that a swift transition to a low-carbon economy is possible. And, as a country that bears a huge historical responsibility for the emissions that are causing the problem, it is also a matter of justice that we take decisive and bold action.

The science is clear – carbon emissions have to peak in the next decade if we are to have a good chance of avoiding runaway climate change. So we should be prioritising not just what works best, but also taking into account what works quickest.

In the US presidential campaign there’s a lot of talk about whether there should be new offshore drilling for oil. As McCain and Obama’s people trade blows, neither gets the real point, that offshore drilling can be made an irrelevance by simple efficiency measures. A law compelling US drivers to have the correct tyre pressure would save more oil than the offshore drilling will deliver, and start being effective immediately.

By the same token, having 18% of the UK’s electricity coming from nuclear sources is a somewhat diminished issue when you realise we can save double that by efficiency.

Energy efficiency is not just a free lunch, it’s a lunch you get paid to eat. It is very quickly deployed and gives immediate permanent savings without new sources of power being required. As a technology, it is here now and the cheapest, quickest way to have a big impact on our carbon emissions.

Obviously, there are new power sources needed. Wind power is on-stream quickest of all. New fossils take a lot longer, but nuclear takes by far the longest.

Given the imperative for making cuts, going for slowest possible new source of power is grossly irresponsible unless there’s a good reason. When it’s more expensive and less effective as well as slower, there’s no reason at all to favour it.

Renewables aren't the whole solution. They face the problem of intermittency - if the wind's not blowing or it's dark then your windmill or solar panel won't be working. This can be partially solved by having a range of renewables. It's not often that it'll be dark, windless and with no tide turning.

It can be helped further by wide dispersal of wind turbines (the wind's usually blowing somewhere in the UK), and by siting them offshore where the wind is stronger.

But still, there's a need for back-up generation to ensure a constant minimum of supply. Nuclear power is useless for this baseline as, unlike burning fossil fuels or biomass, it cannot be rapidly switched on and off in response to a sudden fall in input from the renewables.

Additionally, the already expensive nuclear power stations are presuming they'll be operating at full capacity. If we were to only use them intermittently their income would plummet and investors would have no chance of ever making their money back. They would never allow that, so once more we see the climate crisis being used deceitfully to commit us to nuclear.


In announcing the results of the government's 2003 Energy Review, the Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt said that it would have been 'foolish' to decide on a new generation of nuclear power stations 'because that would have guaranteed that we would not make the necessary investment and effort in both energy efficiency and in renewables' (6).

The US Rocky Mountain Institute calculates that ‘each dollar invested in electric efficiency displaces nearly seven times as much carbon dioxide as a dollar invested in nuclear power’ (7).

The government backed down in 2006, even though the solutions Hewitt spoke of are as valid as ever. Why would they do that? Follow the money. Who is it that’s set to make a mint from the rejuvenation of the nuclear industry?

The chief executive of British Energy’s new owners EDF, Carlo de Riva, recently confiremd that the nuclear lobby also see investment in renewables is non-investment in nukes - ‘if you provide incentives for renewables… that will displace the incentives built into the carbon market. In effect, carbon gets cheaper. And if carbon gets cheaper, you depress the returns for all other technologies like nuclear power’ (8).

As they themselves are declaring in so many words, it’s renewables versus nuclear. On one side are those who’ll make the money, on the other are those who want the effective option. Once again, our response to climate change comes down to profitability versus responsibility.

Further reading: Corporate Watch’s report ‘Broken Promises: Why the Nuclear Industry Won’t Deliver’.
Download here:
Buy a paper copy here:

Nuclear Reaction, Greenpeace’s blog monitoring the contemporary nuclear industry


  1. EDF Agrees Takeover of British Energy, The Independent, 24 September 2008, [link]

  2. Climate Change 2007: Mitigation of Climate Change, Summary for Policymakers Table SPM.5, page 23. Working Group III, Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC, May 2007 [link]

  3. The Role of Nuclear Power in a Low Carbon Economy, Sustainable Development Commission, page 6, March 2006 [link]

  4. David Fleming, The Lean Guide to Nuclear Energy, The Lean Economy Connection, page 4, November 2007 [link]

  5. Tom Burke, The Future Will Not Be Nuclear, Prospect Magazine, September 2008 [link]

  6. Official Report, Vol. 400, c.32, 4 February 2003. Cited in Parliament by Steve Webb, 22 January 2008, Hansard column 1395 [link]

  7. Nuclear Plants Bloom, The Guardian, August 12 2004 [link]

  8. Decentralisation for a Post-Carbon Society, Professor Jacqueline McGlade, European Environment Agency, 1 April 2008 [link]