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Climate Change Briefing "Nuclear power is no solution to climate change: exposing the myths"


"A clever man solves a problem; a wise man avoids it." Einstein

Nuclear-Nuclear: Exposing the myths

The nuclear industry is hoping that concern over climate change will result in support for nuclear power. However, even solely on the grounds of economic criteria it offers poor value for money in displacing fossil fuel plant. Further, with its high cost, long construction time, high environmental risk and problems resulting from waste management, it is clear that nuclear power does not offer a viable solution to climate change. Rather a mixture of energy efficiency and renewable energy offers a quicker, more realistic and sustainable approach to reducing CO2 emissions.

Exposing the myths 1: Nuclear power is economical and cost effective

The full costs of nuclear power have been seriously underestimated by all countries which have the technology, and it is only recently that the true costs have begun to come to light. The hidden costs of waste disposal, decommissioning and provision for accidents have never been adequately accounted for, resulting in a massive drain upon economies. This drain will continue for many years to come as the expensive and dangerous task of nuclear decommissioning gets underway.

Privatisation and liberalisation of the market in the UK, has led to the true costs of nuclear power being exposed. It has become clear that nuclear power cannot exist in a competitive energy market without significant subsidy from Government. This process is now being followed around the world with investors being unwilling to accept the high cost and risks associated with nuclear power. Moreover, if fully comprehensive insurance was required to cover all of the risks of nuclear accidents, the cost of electricity from nuclear power would increase many times from the present level.

Reactor decommissioning costs also remain a major uncertainty. In the UK, for example, the cost of dealing with the unwanted debris of the nuclear industry is officially estimated at about US$70 billion. Of this, just US$22 billion is covered in secure funding arrangements, with the remaining US$48 billion (almost 70%) likely to be paid for by taxpayers. The nuclear industry's claim that, "In most countries, the full costs of waste management and plant decommissioning will be funded from reserves accumulated from current revenues" [1] is clearly untrue.

Countries, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, are continuing to build new nuclear plants even though it has been shown that investment in energy efficiency measures is the quickest and safest way to tackle their energy crises. For example, the nuclear power plants proposed to replace the remaining reactors at Chernobyl have consistently been shown not to be the least-cost option.

Also, in terms of cost-effectiveness in reducing CO2 emissions, nuclear power fairs very poorly. In 1995, after a year-long, exhaustive review of the case for nuclear power, the UK Government concluded that nuclear power is one of the least cost-effective ways in which to cut CO2 emissions. In the USA improving electricity efficiency is nearly seven times more cost effective than nuclear power for obtaining emissions reductions [2].

Nuclear power one of the least effective and most expensive ways in which to tackle climate change.

Table 1: CO2 abatement options, in order of cost-effectiveness (10% discount rate) [3]

1 Fuel switching 10 Industrial motive power
2 Appliance efficiency improvements 11 Domestic space heating
3 Industrial CHP 12 Country-wide CHP
4 Lighting efficiency improvements 13 Renewables
5 Small-scale CHP 14 Process Heat
6 Cooking efficiency improvements 15 Industrial Space Heating
7 Service sector space heating 16 Nuclear 
8 Advance Gas Turbines 17 Advanced Coal Technology
9 Water heating  

Exposing the myths 2: Nuclear power does not produce CO2

Nuclear power is not greenhouse friendly. While electricity generated from nuclear power entails no direct emissions of CO2, the nuclear fuel cycle does release CO2 during mining, fuel enrichment and plant construction. Uranium mining is one of the most CO2 intensive industrial operations and as demand for uranium grows CO2 emissions are expected to rise as core grades decline.

According to calculations by the Öko-Institute, 34 grams of CO2 are emitted per generated kWh in Germany [4]. The results from other international research studies show much higher figures - up to 60 grams of CO2 per kWh. In total, a nuclear power station of standard size (1,250MW operating at 6,500 hours/annum) indirectly emits between 376,000 million tonnes (Germany) and 1,300,000 million tonnes (other countries) of CO2 per year. In comparison to renewable energy, nuclear power releases 4-5 times more CO2 per unit of energy produced taking account of the whole fuel cycle.

Also, with its long development time a nuclear power programme offers no short-term possibility for reducing CO2 emissions.

Exposing the myths 3: Nuclear power is safe

Problems of security, safety and environmental impact have been perennial issues for the nuclear industry. Many countries have decided against the development of nuclear power on these grounds, but radioactive contamination is no respector of national borders and nuclear power plants threaten the health and well-being of all surrounding nations and environments. There is also the very serious problems of nuclear proliferation and trafficking.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) view is that if nuclear power were to be used extensively to tackle climate change, "The security threat ... would be colossal".

Just one month after The Economist, a British magazine, had declared in its lead article that the technology was "as safe as a chocolate factory" (1986), there followed a catastrophic nuclear accident at Chernobyl. The accident caused an immediate threat to the lives of 130,000 people living within a 30 kilometre radius who had to be evacuated (and who have been permanently relocated) and 300-400 million people in 15 nations were put at risk of radiation exposure. Forecasts of additional cancer deaths attributable to the Chernobyl accident range from 5,000 to 75,000 and beyond. The nuclear industry argues that the problems in the former Soviet Union are different to those in developed countries, but the United States itself had a serious accident at Three Mile Island in 1979. Whilst the new European Pressurised Reactor and the fusion programmes are being promoted as offering safer operation, no form of nuclear power technology is totally without risk of a major accident. With public opinion strongly set against nuclear power, it would be far better to invest in renewable forms of energy which have widespread public support. The development of new nuclear technology would mean spending huge amounts of money going down another nuclear road, with the prospect of finding the same type of problems and public opposition.

Recent in-depth studies in the United States challenge the claim that exposure to low-level doses of radiation is safe. The health and safety of employees, local communities and the contamination of the environment are genuine risks. A recent study (completed August 1997) funded by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, examined the health and mortality of 14,095 workers from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The study found "strong evidence of a positive association between low-level radiation and cancer mortality" [5]. As of 1990, 26.9% of deaths were due to cancer.

The exposure risk to workers in the uranium mining industry is also great.

Exposing the myths 4: Nuclear power is sustainable

Nuclear power plants produce extremely long-lived toxic wastes, for which there is no safe means of disposal. The only independent scrutiny of a Government waste management safety case [NIREX in the UK] led to the cancellation of the proposed test site for nuclear waste disposal. As disposal is not scientifically credible, there is no option other than interim storage of radioactive wastes. This means that the legacy of radioactive wastes will have to be passed on to the next generation. Producing long-lived radioactive wastes, with no solution for their disposal, leaving a deadly legacy for many future generations to come is contrary to the principle of sustainability, as laid out in Agenda 21 at the Earth Summit.

In 1976 the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution warned that it is, "irresponsible and morally wrong to commit future generations to the consequences of fission power on a massive scale unless it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that at least one method exists for the safe isolation of these wastes for the indefinite future"[6]. Over twenty years on, still no such method has been found. Nuclear waste management policies are in disarray and there is growing public opposition to the transport and storage of nuclear waste - as has been demonstrated by the scenes at Gorleben, Germany.

Under no circumstances can nuclear power be considered to be sustainable.

Exposing the myths 5: Nuclear power can provide an endless source of energy

With the virtual demise of the Fast Breeder research programme and no foreseeable commercial development of fusion reactors, the belief that nuclear power can supply an endless source of energy is fast disappearing. The Japanese Monju Fast Breeder reactor has been inactive since a serious accident in December 1995, whilst the French Superphoenix and the breeder reactor programmes in the UK have been permanently closed.

Diminishing uranium supplies and the failure of the breeder reactor programmes mean that nuclear power will not be able to make a long-term contribution to meeting the world’s energy needs.

Exposing the myths 6: Nuclear power makes a vital contribution to energy supply

The assertion by the nuclear industry that, "It is essential that nuclear generating capacity is maintained if emissions from power generation are to be successfully limited over the next 10 to 15 year and beyond" [7] is fundamentally untrue. Emissions can be cut without building more nuclear power plant. In October 1997, the US Department of Energy released a report in which they concluded that the US could cut CO2 emissions to 1990 levels by 2010 with no net cost to the economy. Shell has forecast that renewables could meet up to 50% of the world’s energy demand by 2060 [8]. Nuclear power only supplies 17% of world electricity supply at present.

Nuclear power is seeing its role in the world's energy mix diminish. Since 1986, according to the IAEA, only three nuclear power stations have been ordered annually. In Europe fourteen out of fifteen European nations have no plans to develop nuclear power; the majority of the countries within the European Union have, "little desire to launch, or to re-invigorate, nuclear power programs" [9]; and nearly half of the EU countries are nuclear free and others are planning to decrease or phase out nuclear power completely. It is clear that the vast sums of money being spent on research and development and on subsidising the industry are in total disproportion to the contribution nuclear power is likely to make to Europe’s energy supply in the coming decades.

With a limited amount of funding available for research and development, reallocation of funds from nuclear power and towards renewable energy and energy efficiency would reduce the costs of these technologies, making them even more competitive. However, funds are still being wasted on nuclear power programmes, which are opposed by most people, are more expensive than other alternatives and require a long development time.

It is a myth that "Nuclear power is the only fully developed non-fossil fuel electricity generating option with the potential for large-scale expansion" [7]. Nuclear power plants take 10 years to build. Over the next 12 years the European Union is aiming for 10,000MW of wind power and 10,000MW of biomass to be developed. This is a just part of the solution and is equivalent to about 15 nuclear power plant.

Energy policies post-Kyoto

1. Joint Implementation and the Clean Development Mechanism should not be allowed to be used as a smoke screen for new nuclear power development. Western governments must not be allowed to use nuclear power technology in Eastern Europe and in developing countries to obtain greenhouse credits in return for "reducing" future emissions in those countries. Canada had been proposing a system of credits for low carbon-intensive fuels including uranium and natural gas.

The World Bank has made a decision not to finance new, or the upgrading of old, nuclear power plants based on the following rationale: i) in almost all cases, nuclear is not the least-cost solution to the power supply problem; ii) environmental risks are high and require specialised agencies for their handling. [10]

2. Governments should not be fooled into believing that nuclear power is acceptable IN ANY WAY as a technically viable, economically feasible or publicly acceptable solution to climate change. The nuclear industry in the developed world, particularly Western Europe and the United States is on its last legs due to its consistent technical problems (accidents, construction errors, unreliable operation), economic failures (cost overruns, non-competitive with renewables in an era of increased deregulation, rising waste storage costs) and dramatic public disaffection (communities in the US, Western Europe and now even Japan, are vehemently opposing the siting of a new nuclear reactors).

3. Developed nations' governments should not be encouraged to support nuclear power construction abroad under the mask of a climate solution, in order to support their own failing nuclear industry. There are real fears that Central and Eastern Europe will become an electricity generating centre for the rest of Europe, producing cheap electricity based upon lower environmental and safety standards and lower public opposition to highly polluting and dangerous energy infrastructure.

Further, Western corporations have targeted energy-hungry China, where public awareness of nuclear's environmental, economic and public health disasters is virtually non-existent, as an economic goldmine and saviour of their dying industry. Exploiting public innocence of the Chinese people is cruel and unusual punishment. The health and safety of the Chinese people, as well as the ecosystems and peoples of other nuclear industry targeted countries must not be sacrificed on the altar of a nuclear industry bailout.

Japanese Government delegates to the preliminary conference for COP-3 climate change negotiations in Bonn proposed that expanded use of nuclear energy should be referred to in the draft policy protocol to be signed at COP-3. The proposal had to be withdrawn almost immediately due to opposing voices.

4. Governments need to increase financial investments and incentives in renewables, conservation and energy efficiency. Such measures will create more jobs per unit of energy than traditional fossil fuel and nuclear power industries. For example, while also being cheaper than nuclear power, wind power provides four times as many direct jobs as nuclear power per unit of energy produced.


Under no circumstances can nuclear power be considered to be a solution to climate change:

  • It is one of the most expensive ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
  • The nuclear industry does contribute to carbon dioxide emissions. No proven strategies exist for the permanent safe storage of nuclear waste.
  • Nuclear power poses a very real health risk.
  • Nuclear power is uneconomic, unsustainable and unsafe.

Climate change is a serious problem which needs to be tackled in a way which safeguards the future for generations to come. Tackling climate change through the development of nuclear power is both expensive and just swaps one serious problem for another. Nuclear power cannot be considered to be a "clean source of electricity" [7].

The nuclear industry is hoping to use the Climate Change negotiations to save itself, because the economics of nuclear power has meant a rapid decline in the industry's fortunes. This is a desperate attempt to generate business from the misfortune of the problems we all now face.

[1] Foratom and the Uranium Institute, 'The contribution of nuclear energy to limiting potential global climate change'.
[2] Energy Policy, December 1988.
[3] Jackson, T., 'Efficiency without tears - 'No-regrets' energy policy to combat climate change', Friends of the Earth, London, 1992.
[4] Lim Sui-San, 'Comparison of greenhouse gas emission and abatement cost from nuclear and alternative energy resources from lifecycle perspective', Öko-Institut, Germany, 1997.
[5] Richardson, D. and Wing, S., Department of Epidememiology, The University of North Carolina.
[6] Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, 'Sixth report: Nuclear power and the environment', HMSO, London, 1976, p81.
[7] 'Clearing the air: nuclear power and climate change', Statement by the international nuclear power industry to the Third Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC in Kyoto.
[8] Kassler, P., 'Energy for development', Shell Selected Paper, London, 1994.
[9] Office for Official Publications of the European Commission, 'European Energy to 2020 - a scenario approach', Luxembourg, 1996, p80.
[10] Letter from Achilles Adamantiades, Principle Power Engineer, The World Bank, Washington DC, to Professor Mendelsohn, University of Melbourne, 25th October 1996.

Nuclear power is one of the least effective and most expensive ways in which to tackle climate change.

@ Friends of the Earth Scotland, January 1998
Friends of the Earth Scotland, 72 Newhaven Road, Edinburgh EH6 5QG, Scotland.
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