Bjelkeman's travel notes

Travels with the cloud in my pocket.

Why more nuclear power does not make any sense

Nuclear power plant Mochovce

Picture by Michal Brcak.

I write this without holding any illusions that anyone will actually read this, nor do I expect to convert anyone. I just need to get it out of my system. So there you have it.

Safety of operating plants

According to Guardian Data there are 442 operating nuclear power plants in the world. On average they have been in operation for 26 years. [1] There are also some 66 reactors which have been shut down, or decommissioned for some reason. In total these plants have operated a little over 13,000 years together. [2]
The International Atomic Energy Authority, ranks nuclear accidents, on a scaled called INES, from 1-7 (anomaly to major accident) and rank 4-7 are classified as accidents. Again, according to Guardian Data, the accidents with wider consequences (5-7) have been six.

1952, Chalk River, Canada, INES 5
1957, Windscale Pile, UK, INES 5
1957, Kyshtym, Russia, INES 6
1979, Three Mile Island, 1979, INES 5
1986, Chernobyl, INES 7
2011, Fukashima, INES 5

In total (according to the Guardian) there have been 33 recorded serious incidents and accidents involving nuclear power. So with 13,300 operating years, we have had one serious accident or incident per 405 operating year, and a level 5-7 accident (like the ongoing Japanese accident) every 2230 operating year.

With 442 plants in operation, if we follow the same accident frequency, we will have serious incident or accident every year. We will also have an accident of the level of Fukashima every five years.

It could be argued that things are getting safer, as we have only had three big accidents since 1957. But half of the incidents recorded by Guardian Data have happened since Chernobyl.

According to World Nuclear Association (WNA) there are 62 nuclear power plants under construction, 158 on order or being planned and a further 324 plants are proposed. The WNA also suggests that at least 60 plants of the current operating, will shut down by 2030. Which would leave us with 926 nuclear power plants operating.

If the failure rate stays the same we would have a nuclear power plant incident every five months and a INES 5-7 incident every two and a half years.

Why would the failure rate stay the same?

There is a clear track record of safety failure in the nuclear industry in several countries. Here are a couple of examples:

“The unfolding disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant follows decades of falsified safety reports, fatal accidents and underestimated earthquake risk in Japan’s atomic power industry.” Bloomberg, 18 March 2011.

“State-owned Swedish energy concern Vattenfall has admitted serious security deficiencies at its controversial Forsmark nuclear power plant.” Power-Gen Worldwide, 12 February 2007

“Between 1950 and 2000 there have been 21 serious incidents or accidents involving some off-site radiological releases that merited a rating on the International Nuclear Event Scale, one at level 5, five at level 4 and fifteen at level 3.” Sellafield article, Wikipedia.

If countries like Japan, Sweden and the UK can not make its nuclear power operators follow safety protocols, where do you expect it to work better?

But there are other reason why we should question nuclear power.

Safety of storage

As a trained geologist I actually think spent nuclear fuel storage can be solved reasonably well. However, essentially nobody wants it in their backyard and nobody has actually started storing spent fuel yet.

“Finland plans to have a long-term waste repository operational in 2020, Sweden in 2023 and France in 2025.”

In Scandinavia we have relatively good and stable granite bedrock to store spent fuel in, but where is the rest of the waste going to go from 440-900 nuclear power stations? Maybe some poor country with good bedrock will become the the nuclear waste dump of the world. Sounds great.

“A draft EU directive presented on Wednesday calls for national plans to be drawn up in the next few years, as the EU still has no final storage sites for nuclear waste.” BBC News, 3 November 2010.

All the spent nuclear fuel waste in the world is currently in short term storage. Like the storage which may be causing trouble in Japan at the moment.

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimates that many of the nuclear power plants in the United States will be out of room in their spent fuel pools by 2015, most likely requiring the use of temporary storage of some kind.” US Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Great idea.

Nuclear proliferation

More nuclear power plants mean more nuclear weapons. The ongoing debacle with Iran and a state barely in control of itself, Pakistan, and one on the brink of collapse, North Korea, with nuclear weapons, I believe, is just the beginning of nuclear proliferation, if we keep depending on nuclear power for our energy needs.

At some point nuclear weapons will be used. If the attackers of 9/11 had had access to a nuclear weapon, do you think they would have refrained from using it?

Complexity of nuclear power

If you invest a lot of money in more nuclear power plants, you can’t take any of that and give to a family in a failed state, like Somalia, to help fix there power shortages. But if you rather invest it in cheap solar power, like Nanosolar or First Solar, you can even sell a Somalian a power plant, at the family level, without a major risk to them, their surrounding or the environment, and it is simple enough for even my old grand mother to operate.

The majority of the increased power need in the world is in the countries which are not well developed and it would be foolish to believe that we could help them by building and operating a nuclear power plant. In fact you can’t run an operate a nuclear power plant unless you have sophisticated infrastructure, in the shape of a functional government, national administration, education and technology, so it is no real help for the developing world.

That Pakistan and North Korea has nuclear power is irrelevant in this context, as they only have it to produce weapons grade plutonium. The importance of nuclear energy for them is less than secondary.

Uranium mining

Uranium mining is one of the nastiest businesses in the whole mining industry. The environmental impact is big. We used to mine uranium in Sweden, but this was discontinued, we now like the rest of Europe, buy our uranium from other countries, such as Australia, where the mines are in the outback, out of sight, out of mind.

Nuclear is CO2 free

Whilst it is true that an operating nuclear power plant doesn’t emit much CO2, it does when you take the whole lifecycle into account: mining uranium, building and decommissioning the plant.

“However, nuclear emits twice as much carbon as solar photovoltaic, at 32 gCO2e/kWh, and six times as much as onshore wind farms, at 10 gCO2e/kWh. “A number in the 60s puts it well below natural gas, oil, coal and even clean-coal technologies. On the other hand, things like energy efficiency, and some of the cheaper renewables are a factor of six better. So for every dollar you spend on nuclear, you could have saved five or six times as much carbon with efficiency, or wind farms,” Nuclear energy, assessing the emissions, Nature, 24 September 2008.


You will sometimes hear the term baseload and also hear that nuclear power plants are needed to provide baseload power. Baseload is what people call the power we need “regardless of whether the sun shines or the wind blows”.

An overview of why this is wrong can be read at Do we need nuclear and coal plants for baseload power? by David Roberts and a more detailed description of why, you can be read Amory Lovins, Four Nuclear Myths, Rocky Mountain Institute, 13 October 2009.

Peak uranium

Something often overlooked is that there may not be as much uranium around at the required price, as the nuclear industry would like. My take is that there is probably enough fuel for the 900 plants, which the maximum expected by the nuclear industry over the next 30 years, specifically as the fuel isn’t a significant cost of the building of a plant, i.e. a nuclear power plant is relatively price insensitive to higher nuclear fuel prices. More at Uranium Depletion and Nuclear Power: Are We at Peak Uranium?”, The Oil Drum, 21 March 2007.

Cost of nuclear power

“The Union of Concerned Scientists recently reported that nuclear subsidies total nearly 7 cents per kWh, twice what a typical wind power plant receives and similar to the federal incentives offered for solar power.” Nuclear Power, Still not viable without subsidies, Union of Concerned Scientists, February 2011 [PDF file]

This article at The Grist, is a good overview: Cost, not Japan crisis, should scrub nuclear power. Specifically you should note the following quote:

“In the time it would take to build a nuclear plant (6-8 years, optimistically), every commercial energy technology could produce electricity for less.”

In other words, the cost of building energy systems on wind power, solar, biofuel, small scale hydro and other renewable energy systems will most likely have caught up with nuclear before you can complete a new nuclear power plant.

In the UK the nuclear fuel industry refuses to build any new plants without huge government loan guarantees.

Fourth generation nuclear power plants

Another argument which often comes up, is that the next generation of nuclear power plants will “improve nuclear safety, improve proliferation resistance, minimize waste and natural resource utilization, and to decrease the cost to build and run such plants.”

But these supposedly improved nuclear power plant designs are paper tigers.

Other than one design, which could theoretically be available in the first implementation during the mid-2020s, are just research projects today and could earliest enter production during the 2030s. And if you have studied any climate science at all, you know that pouring billions into uncertain, centralized, expensive, nuclear power station projects, is not what we need right now. Essentially no new nuclear power plant is ever delivered on budget. These new research projects are bound to cost a lot more than what is presented right now. (If you can find any estimates at all. I didn’t.)

The severe difficulties of Finland’s Olkiluoto nuclear reactor being built by Areva SA, the French state-owned nuclear construction firm, provide a reminder of how these problems unfold. Touted as the turnkey project to replace the aging cohort of nuclear reactors, the project has fallen three years behind schedule and more than 50% over budget. The delay has caused the sponsors of the project to face the problem of purchasing expensive replacement power; the costs of which they are trying to recover from the reactor builder. The cost overruns and the cost of replacement power could more than double the cost of the reactor.” The economics of nuclear reactors: Renaissance or relapse?, Mark Cooper, Senior fellow for Economic analysis, Institute for energy and the environment, Vermont law school, June 2009

And that is not even a fourth generation design.

Another example of this type of argument was sent to me yesterday: “On energy and the end of civilization“, Warren D. Smith, 2001. Where the author lays out an argument for showing us that fossil fuels will be too expensive to use in the next 30-70 years, including uranium, excluding coal. (Note that this was written before the understanding of peak fossil fuel was as it is today, where we actually have hit peak oil, but that is a different blog post, one day.) Then he argues that solar wont work, as it is too hard, and the solution is … breeder reactors.

These nuclear reactors enable the use of U-238 (converted by neutron irradiation into fissile Pu-239) and Th-232 (converted to fissile U-233) as fuel, not just the (far rarer) U-235. This will enable energy production at current rates for 1000s of years using only known reserves of Thorium and Uranium.
Breeder reactors work. One was in large scale commercial use in France… only problem is: “in June 1997 France said it would scrap their highly controversial $4.7B Superphenix nuclear fast-breeder, saying it was too costly and of doubtful value.” A French govt report in 1996 concluded it had cost the state $12B. The planned shutdown in 2005 will cost $20B more. This was the world’s largest fast-breeder but it had managed to operate for only 6 months through 1997 since it began generating power in 1985. Oops. France’s electricity is 80% nuclear due to French leadership thinking it had no other choice.
There had been a major sodium leak at Superphenix in 1987 but it had re-begun operating in 1994 after a 4-year layoff. Britain simiarly had closed its Dounreay fast-breeder in 1995. The US operated an experimental fast breeder at Shippingport Atomic Power Station in the 1970s and early 1980s. The reactor had a core that was designed to produce Uranium-233 from Thorium-232. Although it showed no signs of ending its useful life, the experiment was ended due to budgetary concerns and interest in analyzing the core to see if breeding had occurred. When analyzed, the core indeed contained 1.3% more fuel than it had originally contained.
Japan in Dec 1995 shut down their Monju fast breeder, which took 12 years and $4.91 billion to build, after a massive coolant sodium (very flammable!) leak. There was a furor over cover-ups of the incident with doctored videos and incomplete reports.

Breeder reactors are also interesting as it is supposedly easier to produce weapons grade plutonium in them. The person who sent this to me says this is our last hope.

Sounds great doesn’t it?


The nuclear lobby thinks we need to overlook the faults of nuclear power. They want us to accept regular catastrophic failure, nuclear weapons proliferation, the unsolved problem of final spent fuel storage, the fact that investing in nuclear power doesn’t help the worlds 2 billion poor, despite that it emits more CO2 than renewables and it really messes up the environment when you mine uranium.

They want us to invest in nuclear power because “There Is No Alternative” and they argue that nuclear power is a cost effective solution. But it isn’t.

So what is left of the argument? Nothing.


[1] There were three plants which didn’t have a start date for the operations, so I gave them the average operating lifetime. I calculated the start time by deducting the start year from todays year, i.e. 2011-Start year=Years in operation. Median for the number of years in operation is also 26.

[2] I assume the decommissioned plants had operated for 26 years, as I have no data for their operations. I have also ignored the time when the plants are down for maintenance.

Edit: Changed the title to “Why more nuclear power doesn’t make any sense” from “Why nuclear power doesn’t make any sense” as this was more in line with my intent of the article. I am not of the opinion that we should decommission nuclear power plants before their end-of-life, to replace them with fossil fuel power plants.

Edit 2: Added the section on fourth generation nuclear power plants.


Filed under: Climate Change, Facts, Social and economic policy

Some facts missing in Wired article on waste in publishing business

Wired UK has an interesting piece about the waste in the publishing business, The article makes some general statements about carbon emissions at the beginning of the article, and then goes into that actual meat of the article. The bit I have a problem with is:

Paper mills in Scandinavia and elsewhere may account for the vast majority of the carbon footprint generated by print media.

The paper mills in Scandinavia are primarily located in Sweden and Finland. They are using two major sources of energy to run their operations, electricity, which comes from the local power production and non-electric energy, like heat, which is primarily from biofuel, such as off-cuts, branches and bark from the trees use to make paper pulp.

The above sentence from the author of the article essentially reads like he didn’t have time to do the research behind that statement. So I thought I should help him with doing some of it for him.

Finland’s electricity supply was 57% renewables and 34% in 2004 (1), and Sweden’s electricity supply was 41% renewables and 58% nuclear in 2004 (2). In 2007 the Swedish renewable part of electricity production was closer to 44% and the fuel use for electricity production in Sweden is about 4% fossil fuels (3).

So essentially the paper mills in Sweden do not generate that many climate changing emissions, as they run on renewables and nuclear. How it is in other European countries where paper is produced at large scale I don’t know, but the Scandinavian part is probably not the main culprit in CO2 emissions. Not that we wouldn’t maybe be better off to skip paper publishing and distribution and use that wood made into paper as biofuel instead…

(1) Finland – Energy Mix Fact Sheet, European Commission (PDF)
(2) Sweden – Energy Mix Fact Sheet, European Commission (PDF)
(3) Energy in Sweden 2008 – Overhead pictures, Department of Energy, Sweden (PDF)

Filed under: Climate Change, Facts

About Bjelkeman

Co-founder/director: Akvo Foundation

+46-8-626 7609

More about Thomas Bjelkeman-Pettersson

@bjelkeman on Twitter

Flickr Photos