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The Nuclear Debate

(Updated June 2015)

 Uranium mining and nuclear energy continue to be contentious issues involving both facts and ideology.
 Public ignorance of general industrial standards of performance means that trivial incidents can acquire
high profile in media.
 In particular places, part of the debate is site-specific rather than about uranium and nuclear energy as
such.

As concern about anthropogenic climate change has grown, a number of high-profile environmentalists have decided that
this is a more serious problem than their previous concerns with nuclear power. They have to varying degrees either
changed their public stance, or conceded that since nuclear power is virtually emission-free regarding CO2, it merits at
least grudging support as part of the response to increasing atmospheric CO2 levels and depletion of fossil fuels.
Among such people are:
Dr Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, now co-chair Clean & Safe Energy Coalition, USA
Stephen Tindale, Director of Greenpeace UK to 2005
Stewart Brand, editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, author of Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto,
USA, and co-founder of the Long Now Foundation which aims to foster long-term thinking and responsibility
Christine Todd Whitman, former Administrator, US EPA, now co-chair Clean & Safe Energy Coalition, USA
Steve Cochran, Director of National Climate Campaign, Environmental Defense Fund, USA
Mark Lynas, Environment editor New Statesman and active in Green Party, UK, author of The God Species
George Monbiot, columnist The Guardian, UK
Lord Smith of Finsbury, Chair of UK Environment Agency
Chris Goodall, Green Party activist, UK
Baroness Bryony Worthington, former head of climate campaigns, Friends of the Earth, UK, and former Shadow Energy
and Climate Change Minister for Britain's Labour Party
Gwyneth Cravens, journalist and author, USA
Richard Rhodes, author
Michael Shellenberger, Breakthrough Institute
Ben Heard, climate change activist, Australia
Some of these feature in the 2013 film Pandora’s Promise, produced by Robert Stone, documenting their change of view.
Others are among the 18 authors of An Ecomodernist Manifesto published in April 2015.
“We call ourselves ecopragmatists and ecomodernists," the authors of An Ecomodernist Manifesto state. “As scholars,
scientists, campaigners, and citizens, we write with the conviction that knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom,
might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene [where] humans use their growing social, economic, and
technological powers to make life better for people, stabilize the climate, and protect the natural world.” Greater use of
nuclear power is central to their recommendations. “Transitioning to a world powered by zero-carbon energy sources will
require energy technologies that are power dense and capable of scaling to many tens of terawatts to power a growing
human economy.” Since most forms of renewable energy don’t fill the bill, “nuclear fission today represents the only
present-day zero-carbon technology with the demonstrated ability to meet most, if not all, of the energy demands of a
modern economy.”
The following does not do full justice to either pro or anti positions. In particular, some simple assertions require detailed
rebuttal. However, facts are available which are relevant to the assertions and which are vital for responsible decision-
making.
The underlying question is how electricity is best produced now and in the years to come.

Sources of further
Common anti uranium/nuclear assertions Main points of response
information
Uranium mines today aim for zero WNA info papers:
emission of pollutants. Any water release Environmental
Uranium mines inevitably pollute their
is of surface run-off and is close to Aspects of Uranium
environment, tailings dams cause pollution
drinking standard. Tailings retention Mining;
through leakage.
does not normally cause pollution off Australia's Uranium
site. Major uranium mines in Australia Mines
Sources of further
Common anti uranium/nuclear assertions Main points of response
information
and Canada have ISO14001 certification.

True, but the level of radioactivity is


very low & with normal engineering,
WNA info paper:
Uranium tailings retain almost all their they pose no threat to anyone. All the
Environmental
radioactivity, which continues for hundreds of radioactivity is from the original orebody
Aspects of Uranium
thousands of years. (no more is created). Uranium mine
Mining
rehabilitation ensures that these are safe,
stable and will cause no harm.

Uranium mining is highly regulated in WNA info paper:


Uranium is potentially hazardous to miners'
most countries and standards ensure that Occupational Safety
health.
no adverse health effects are likely. in Uranium Mining

While this is accepted as a conservative


basis for radiation protection, it is not a
WNA info papers:
scientific statement of fact. Low levels of
Radiation and Life;
There is no safe level of radiation exposure. radiation comparable to those received
Nuclear Radiation
naturally in some places are not
& Health Effects
harmful. There is no evidence of any
harm below about 100 mSv/yr.

In all countries using nuclear energy


there are well established procedures for WNA info papers:
storing, managing and transporting such Radioactive Waste
Nuclear wastes (as, or in, spent fuel) are wastes, funded from electricity users. Management;
an unresolved problem. Wastes are contained and managed, not Waste
released. Storage is safe and secure, Management:
plans are well in hand for eventual Overview
disposal.

Nuclear power is the only energy-


The nuclear industry is responsible for horrific
producing industry which takes full
wastes which will endure as a nightmare for As above
responsibility for managing all its
our grandchildren.
wastes, and bears the cost of this.

The nuclear industry has an excellent WNA info papers:


safety record, with some 14,800 reactor Safety of Nuclear
years of operation spanning five decades. Power Reactors;
Even a major accident and meltdown as Advanced Nuclear
at Fukushima in 2011 would not Power Reactors;
Nuclear reactors are unsafe, Chernobyl was
endanger its neighbours. Some Soviet Chernobyl Accident
typical, and resulted in a huge death toll.
designed and built reactors have been a 1986;
safety concern for many years, but are Three Mile Island
much better now than in 1986. The Accident;
Chernobyl disaster was basically Fukushima
irrelevant to any western reactor, or any Accident
Sources of further
Common anti uranium/nuclear assertions Main points of response
information
that might be built today.
According to authoritative UN figures,
the Chernobyl death toll is 56 (31
workers at the time, more since and nine
from thyroid cancer). There were no
deaths or serious radiation doses from
the Fukushima accident.

Any reactor licensable in the West has a


substantial containment structure and
most also have a very robust pressure
Nuclear reactors are vulnerable to terrorist WNA info paper:
vessel and internal structures. Power
attacks like that on the World Trade Centre in Safety of Nuclear
reactors are well equipped to survive an
2001, waste and spent fuel storage is even more Power Reactors –
impact of that kind without any
so. Appendix 3
significant radiological hazard locally.
Civil waste and spent fuel storage is also
robust and often below ground level.

All nuclear reactors, at least in the West,


are insured. Not only so, they are a
sought-after risk because of their high
WNA info paper:
Insurance companies will not insure nuclear engineering and operational standards.
Liability for
reactors so the risk devolves on to government. Beyond the cover for individual plants
Nuclear Damage
there are national and international
pooling arrangements for comprehensive
third-party cover.

Nuclear electricity is mostly competitive


with coal. If external costs are accounted,
nuclear is very competitive. Energy
Nuclear energy is too expensive, energy WNA info paper:
efficiency is vital but cannot displace
efficiency is all that's needed, with more use of The Economics of
most generating capacity. Wind power
renewables. Nuclear Power
typically costs much more than nuclear -
often twice as much per kWh, and cannot
provide power on demand.

Nowhere in the world is nuclear power


subsidised – on the contrary in Sweden
and Germany it has a special tax. In the WNA info paper:
Nuclear power enjoys massive government
USA limited subsidies are offered for Energy Subsidies &
subsidies.
initial third generation plants, the level External Costs
(1.9c/kWh) equivalent to the unlimited
subsidies available for wind generation.

This popular folklore is easily rebutted WNA info paper:


In the whole fuel cycle, nuclear power uses
by published data. In fact, considering all Energy Balances &
nearly as much energy as it produces.
inputs including waste management, less CO2 Implications
Sources of further
Common anti uranium/nuclear assertions Main points of response
information
than 6% of the output is required, usually
only 2-3%.

Decommissioning is usually funded


while the plant is operating. Experience WNA info paper:
Decommissioning nuclear plants will be too
to date gives a good idea of costs and Decommissioning
expensive to undertake
earlier estimates are being revised Nuclear Facilities
downwards.

Renewables may be used as much as


possible, but intrinsic limitations
WNA info papers:
(diffuse, intermittent sources) mean that
Renewable energy sources should be used Sustainable Energy;
wind and sun can never economically
instead. Renewable Energy
replace sources such as coal, gas and
& Electricity
nuclear for large-scale, continuous,
reliable supply.

Any such material is transported in


containers designed to ensure safety in WNA info paper:
Transport of uranium and other radioactive any circumstance. Petrol tankers on a Transport of
material is hazardous. public road are more of a hazard than Radioactive
any radioactive material in transit Materials
anywhere.

The plutonium obtained from


reprocessing is not suitable for bombs WNA info papers:
Reprocessing spent fuel gives rise to plutonium
but is a valuable fuel which can be used Plutonium;
which is likely to be used in bombs.
with depleted uranium as mixed oxide Mixed Oxide Fuel
fuel (MOX).

All traded uranium is sold for electricity


production only, and two layers of WNA info paper:
Mining Australian/Canadian
international safeguards arrangements Safeguards to
uraniumcontributes to nuclear weapons
confirm this. Western suppliers have no Prevent Nuclear
proliferation.
customers failing to conform to stringent Proliferation
accounting and auditing requirements.

Safeguards would detect any diversion.


Today military materials are being
released for dilution and civil use, so
there is not even a reason for diversion in WNA info paper:
We cannot be sure that our uranium does not major customer countries. France no Military Warheads
end up in weapons, eg in France or China. longer has the means to enrich uranium as a Source of
beyond reactor-grade. China has ample Nuclear Fuel
uranium for any military program but is
understood to have ceased putting
uranium into this in the 1990s.
Sources of further
Common anti uranium/nuclear assertions Main points of response
information

He is not correct. Iran has failed to


convince anyone that its formerly
Former US Vice-President Al Gore said
clandestine enrichment program has
(18/9/06): "During my eight years in the White
anything to do with its nuclear power
House, every nuclear weapons proliferation WNA info paper:
reactor under construction (which will be
issue we dealt with was connected to a nuclear Safeguards to
fuelled by Russia), and North Korea has
reactor program. Today, the dangerous Prevent Nuclear
no civil reactor program. In respect to
weapons programs in both Iran and North Proliferation
Pakistan, which he may have had in
Korea are linked to their civilian reactor
mind, there is certainly a link between
programs."
military and civil, but that is part of the
reason it remains outside the NPT.

WNA info papers:


Nuclear Power in
Electricity generation uses 40% of the the World Today;
Nuclear energy makes only a trivial
world's primary energy. Nuclear World Energy
contribution to world energy needs.
provides 14% of world electricity. Needs and Nuclear
Power;
Uranium Markets

Since 1996 the number of operating


reactors has remained steady, but the
output from nuclear has increased
The number of nuclear reactors is steadily significantly. Those being retired are
See above
falling as they drop from favour. mostly small, new ones are mostly large.
Some 60 new power reactors are being
built, 160 more are planned, and many
more are firmly proposed.

Currently nuclear energy saves the


emission of 2.5 billion tonnes of
WNA info papers:
CO2 relative to coal. For every 22 tonnes
Climate Change –
of uranium used, one million tonnes of
The Science;
Nuclear energy makes only a trivial CO2 emissions is averted. Energy inputs
Sustainable Energy;
contribution to reducing carbon dioxide to nuclear fuel cycle produce only a few
Energy Subsidies &
emissions. (eg 1-3) percent of the CO2 emissions
External Costs;
saved. Doubling the world's nuclear
Energy Balances &
output would reduce CO2 emissions
CO2Implications
from power generation by about one-
quarter.

Two 1950s-era plants in USA were


major emitters (360 t/yr), both are now
Uranium enrichment plants are major emitters WNA info paper:
closed. The last to close, in 2013, ran
of chemicals which damage the ozone layer, Uranium
with much reduced emissions, well under
specifically CFC-114 (Freon) used as coolant. Enrichment
1% of total US CFC emissions. Other
uranium enrichment and other plants do
Sources of further
Common anti uranium/nuclear assertions Main points of response
information
not use these chemicals.

Any power plant (gas, coal or nuclear)


using the conventional steam cycle needs
to dump around two-thirds of the heat
used in making electricity, the amount
depending on the size and thermal
efficiency of the plant. There is no
fundamental difference between fossil
WNA info paper:
Nuclear power plants use much more fuel and nuclear in this regard.
Cooling Power
water than alternatives. The heat is dumped either to a large
Plants
volume of water (from the sea or large
river, heating it a few degrees) or to a
relatively smaller volume of water in
cooling towers, using evaporative
cooling (latent heat of vapourisation). In
the latter case some 2 to 2.5 litres/kWh is
evaporated, depending on conditions.

Folklore and fantasies


Some 'green' assertions get quoted frequently, despite having been answered many times and despite the increasing
volume of data which shows them up as nonsense.

1. Nuclear power is far from emission-free on a lifecycle basis, and the energy inputs from fossil fuels negate any
advantage from reduced direct emissions of CO2.
The latter part arises from some ill-defined numbers in papers by Storm Smith & van Leeuwin on an anti-nuclear
website. The figures are not supported by evidence, and a typical energy input for nuclear power amounts to
about 2-3% of output, and even if this were all fossil fuel sourced, the impact is trivial.
See also Energy Analysis of Power Systems information paper.
2. Energy conservation is seven times more cost-effective than nuclear power.
This arises from a paper by Keepin & Kats in the late 1980s, which in a particular defined situation purported to
show this. The logic in making it a generalisation is obviously flawed. Energy conservation is subject to the same
law of diminishing returns as anything comparable.
3. There is not enough uranium to sustain nuclear power beyond a few decades.
This is a re-run of the Limits to Growth fallacy of the 1970s. It results from confusing known economic resource
figures with what is actually in the Earth's crust – which only becomes known following investment in mineral
exploration. Little exploration for uranium was undertaken from the early 1980s to about 2003.
See also Supply of Uranium information paper.

The industry can accept that some people will have different views on the virtues of nuclear power and the uranium which
fuels it, and respects those views. However, when they appear to be based, and are argued, on the basis of falsehood
and misrepresentation, that acceptance and respect becomes tenuous and may be forfeited.