We all remember the Fukushima Daiichi disaster that took place in Northern Japan on the 11th of March 2011, the aftereffects of which are still being felt as the Japanese government continues to grapple to deal with the tons of radioactive soil, water and waste they need to store or dispose of. The surrounding communities are still suffering from their radiation exposure and displacement as 36,000 people have not returned to their homes (according to Fukushima prefecture) despite government announcements allowing return, and compensation claims are still being processed.
The Fukushima accident was the second worst nuclear accident in the history of nuclear power generation. It was the result of tsunami waves generated by the powerful earthquake that shook Japan on the same day damaging the backup generators of the plant. Japan is an earthquake prone country and tsunami waves of this size have historical precedents in the country. Despite the reactors shutting down, the power loss caused the cooling systems to fail and the reactors’ cores to melt down, release radiation and create holes in their containment vessels exposing the nuclear materials and resulting in explosions in the following days that released further radioactive materials.
At least 600 square km of land was initially evacuated with 47,000 people leaving their homes surrounded by a wider zone where residents were asked to remain indoors. In the following months radiation was found in the local food and drinking water, and ocean water near the plant was discovered to have been contaminated with high levels of iodine-131. An additional corridor of land covering roughly 207 square km was also designated for evacuation in the months following the disaster raising the number of evacuated people to 150,000.
Apart from the contamination of the soil, plants, animals and groundwater in the surrounding areas, the Fukushima disaster is the single largest accidental (in other words excluding bomb testing) release of radioactivity into the ocean the results of which it is too early to tell.
Why are we still talking about nuclear energy?
Nuclear energy, an ominous spectre to those who grew up in the shadow of Chernobyl, is still around. Why? Even worse, several countries are either considering or in the progress of building new nuclear power plants, one of them the UK. Even worse than that, the temptation seems to be strong for liberal environmentalists to be seduced by its lure and start touting it as the solution to climate change. Case in point last year’s defection of the Extinction Rebellion (XR) newspaper “Hour Glass” editor to a pro-nuclear power propagandist lobbying “environmental NGO”.
Trapped in the panicked rhetoric of an “urgent climate emergency”, people and states are grasping for quick fixes. And what is better than promising an easy, painless “techno-fix” in the form of a technology that already exists? That being nuclear energy, in case you were wondering. Nuclear energy looms in the imagination as the perfect solution to our climate change problems. Perfect as in needing no change or sacrifices on our part so we can continue to live our lives of comfort in the Global North, as nuclear energy promises to provide us all with unlimited clean energy. Plus living in the atomic era is sexy, is it not?
Nuclear energy is dirty, dangerous, slow and expensive.
Some quarters have had the gall to promote nuclear energy as zero carbon, when it is not even low carbon! Zero carbon only refers to generator emissions in the operational phase and does not include emissions related to the fuel supply chain (extraction, conversion and transport) or maintenance activities. Nuclear energy is actually the third highest energy production greenhouse gas emitter after coal and gas. The mean value of greenhouse gas emissions over the lifetime of a plant is 66gCO2e/kWh. Compare this to 9gCO2e/kWh for offshore wind and 32gCO2e/kWh for solar PV.
The big elephant in the room that the proponents of nuclear energy are studiously ignoring is the radioactive waste that results from the consumed fuel rods. This has given rise to hundreds of radioactive waste sites in many countries that must be maintained and funded for at least 200,000 years, far beyond the lifetimes of any nuclear power plant. The more nuclear waste accumulates, the greater the risk of radioactive leaks, which can damage water supply, crops, animals, and humans as a safe storage solution has yet to be found.
Another thing to take into account is the huge coolant water usage and warm water discharge of nuclear power stations. In France for example, almost 50% of fresh water consumed goes to cooling nuclear reactors. Upon exit, heat from water discharge threatens both agriculture and ecosystems. Moreover, coastal sites use sea-water which causes problems if still saline – and when discharged hot into the sea, wipes out fish by raising sea temperature (as at Kudankulam, India) and/or dramatically affecting biodiversity with radioactive discharge (like at Sellafield).
Starting from the beginning of nuclear energy’s lifecycle, the mining of the necessary raw materials is already dangerous. Uranium mines contain natural radon gas, which produces carcinogenic decay products, and as a result causes lung cancer in large numbers of miners. A study of 4,000 uranium miners between 1950 and 2000 found that 405 (10 percent) died of lung cancer, a rate six times that expected based on smoking rates alone. 61 others died of mining related lung diseases.
Do we really need to talk about how dangerous, and frequent, nuclear power station accidents are? To date, 1.5% of all nuclear power plants ever built have melted down to some degree. Examples are not only the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan 10 years ago, but also the Forsmark accident in Sweden in the 2000s, the Tokaimura nuclear accident in Japan in the 1990s, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the Three Mile Island accident in the US in the 1970s, the Lucens accident in Switzerland in the 1960s, the Windscale accident in the UK in 1950s, and this isn’t even a complete list of accidents worldwide, just the “highlights”. And to give a picture of the magnitude of the damage that can be caused, the estimates for when the 30km exclusion zone around the Chernobyl power plan would be habitable again range from 320 years (given by the state authorities) to 20,000 years (given by the power plant director and Greenpeace).
Apart from the big accidents that can’t be hidden, nuclear reactors routinely leak radiation and radioactive waste into the surrounding environment. Research has found evidence of leaks in 75% of US nuclear power stations. Many of these leaks never come to light despite the health threat of cancers and other fatal diseases. Sellafield in the UK, for example, is famous for its leaks (and major accident in the 50s) and yet is still in operation. Between 1950 and 2000, there were 21 serious incidents or accidents involving off-site radiological releases that warranted a rating, and lets not forget the 2005 THORP plant leak in Sellafield that remained undetected for nine months.
Because of the need to access large quantities of water for reactor cooling, many nuclear power stations are located on coastal sites, as is the case in the UK. These coastal, low-lying sites are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including sea level rise, flooding, storm surges, and coastal processes, increasing dangerously the possibility of an accident – just look at Fukushima.
And can we really ignore the links between nuclear power and nuclear weapons? Nuclear energy is and always has been closely connected to military use and has always been about enabling continued weapons proliferation. It is all too easy to divert the technology, materials and expertise needed to generate nuclear energy to nuclear weapons programs. Spent nuclear fuel is recyclable into weapons-usable plutonium, and the UK has stockpiled vast quantities of fissile isotopes over the years that can be used not only for bombs, but also for submarines and other new military weapons.
Nuclear power stations take an exceptionally long time to build and put into operation, and are almost always grossly behind schedule and over budget. The planning-to-operation (PTO) times of all nuclear plants ever built have been 10-19 years or more. The Olkiluoto 3 reactor being built in Finland has an estimated PTO time of 20 years. The Vogtle 3 and 4 reactors in being planned in Georgia have estimated PTO times of 15 and 16 years, respectively. The completed Haiyang 1 and 2 reactors in China had PTO times of 13 and 14 years, respectively. And the list goes on.
Here in the UK the New Hinkley Point nuclear plant in the UK was planned to start in 2008 and had an estimated completion year of 2025 to 2027, giving it a PTO time of 17 to 19 years. It is anyone’s guess when it will be finished, as like all construction works of its type, its behind schedule and over budget. Despite planning for Sizewell C in the UK having started years ago, construction is not expected to begin until 2022 and it won’t be online until 2034.
And while we are waiting over a decade for nuclear power plants to be built, what about all the emissions that were not saved during that time? As a measure of comparison, utility-scale wind and solar farms take on average only 2 to 5 years, from the planning phase to operation. And rooftop solar PV projects can be completed in 6 months.
According to Lazard the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for a new nuclear plant in 2018 was $151 (112 to 189) per megawatt hour (MWh). Compare this to Lazards estimates of $43 (29 to 56)/MWh for onshore wind and $41 (36 to 46)/MWh for utility-scale solar PV. And this estimate isn’t even correct as they assume a construction time for nuclear of 5.75 years, which we have just seen is a severe underestimation making the estimated LCOE for nuclear closer to $172 (128 to 215)/MWh. And if we want to talk concrete numbers, Hinkley Point C’s construction costs have reached £23bn and are continuing to rise (from and original cost of £16bn in 2013)
What about the cost of nuclear disasters? For example, the estimated cost to clean up the damage from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor core meltdowns was $460 to $640 billion. And what about the cost of storing nuclear waste for thousands of years? In the U.S. they spend about $500 million a year to safeguard their civilian nuclear waste. And what about the cost of decommissioning nuclear power plants? The UK’s decommissioning costs are currently around £3 billion annually.
And worst of all, what about the cost to the consumer? The UK government has negotiated paying EDF £92.50/MWh for energy from Hinkley Point C for a guaranteed 35 years, with consumers making up the difference if the price of electricity on the market falls below this price. For comparison the cost of Offshore Wind energy is currently at below £40/MWh. However part of the deal is that the Hinkley Point generated energy will take precedence on the National Grid, even if sufficient renewables are being generated!
And as a final insult, as part of the Hinkley CfD, the UK government’s Treasury agreed to guarantee the costs of financing EDF’s credit risk for 30 years. The insurance subsidy provided by the government is because the nuclear industry is only required to pay a fraction of the cost of insuring fully against any claims from a Chernobyl/Fukushima type disaster.
Nuclear energy is statist, colonialist and capitalist.
Nuclear power is a heavily state subsidised energy source. Despite it being launched as cheap energy, it has never fulfilled this promise and has relied on state support to cover its real cost. Even when private companies build and run plants there are usually large open or hidden subsidies. One aspect of this is the various forms of subsidy provided by the state to support capital costs, waste management and plant closure and price support. Another has been the necessity for the state to limit the liability of the industry in order for the private sector to accept the risks.
Nuclear power embodies a centralized and anti-democratic relation to energy usage that prevents energy democracy with real democratic debate on energy production, distribution and consumption.
In India, for example, there has been a decades-long struggle between the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) and the Indian government. The Indian state is determined to increase its reliance on nuclear energy and has put billions of pounds into new nuclear power stations which still only produce about 2% of the country’s total energy consumption. This is a country where almost half the population lacks access to electricity. The response of the Indian state to the anti-nuclear protests has been violent suppression, dispatching thousands of troops to put down protests, cutting off essential supplies from reaching protesting communities and charging tens of thousands of protesters with sedition and “war against the state”.
Instead, we need to progress towards a society founded on the principles of co-operation and social justice and work towards a vision of a society in which decision-making is devolved to community level, where wealth is fairly distributed and finite planetary resources shared equitably in a sustainable way. This could be realised with local community control over energy generation – something just not possible with a large scale, centrally managed national grid dependent, nuclear power model.
The nuclear industry continues a centuries-long tradition of violent colonialism and deepening inequality, both in the Global South and in the Global North. Nuclear colonialism is a system of domination through which governments and corporations disproportionately target and devastate indigenous peoples and their lands to maintain the nuclear production process. It describes the systematic dispossession of indigenous lands, the exploitation of cultural resources, and a history of subjugation and oppression of indigenous peoples by a government to further nuclear production of energy and proliferation of weapons. Nuclear colonialism is closely connected to environmental racism, as it devalues the lives and rights of indigenous people and people of colour and of their communities.
Just looking at the US, you can see that a disproportionately large amount of uranium mining sites violate indigenous land rights, devastating the health and the lives of the indigenous peoples. One clear example was the consequences on the Navajo Nation during the last century. The Indigenous Environmental Network in the US states clearly “The nuclear industry has waged an undeclared war against our Indigenous peoples and Pacific Islanders that has poisoned our communities worldwide.” describing the effects of nuclear programmes (both military and for energy) as genocidal and ethnocidal to their people. Aboriginal peoples in Australia are fighting similar struggles against being victimised by nuclear energy production. And in South Africa the nuclear energy programme is clearly entwined in the legacy of apartheid. And the list goes on.
Indigenous peoples are not the only marginalised groups harmed or targeted by nuclear technologies. A study conducted in the US showed that more African American and minority communities could be found living in a 50 mile radius of Nuclear Power Plants than white communities. And the same goes for low-income communities. Nuclear power serves to increase the divide between marginalised and privileged, not decrease it.
Nuclear power is premised on continued economic growth, which is fundamentally unsustainable. It is supported by governments and states deeply entrenched in the current economic system that places profit and economic growth over the health and wellbeing of both humans and the environment. Entrusting the construction and maintenance of such potentially dangerous plants to actors solely driven by short-term profit essentially ensures that all possible corners will be cut, resulting in little more than ticking time bombs without even an effective disaster preparedness plan as that would cost too much. The Fukushima disaster is in many ways the result of such capitalist cost-cutting exercises.
Taking the nuclear path over renewables will force the poorest in our society to pay the most for their energy. Unless things change, poorer households will continue to be held hostage to ever-rising fuel bills as they remain in colder accommodation without the ability to afford the upfront costs of investing in energy saving measures such as domestic insulation and small-scale renewables like solar panels, ground-source heat pumps, and combined heat and power.
Electricity should be a service that is publicly provided, not a commodity to be bought. Or even better community self-provided. But that cannot happen with nuclear energy were the costs and the time frames are so large they can only be constructed by rich centrally organised states, or private companies. And as long as our energy providers are private companies there will never be any serious incentives to conserve electricity and energy use in general, as private electric utilities make more money the more electricity they sell us. So having consumers use less would be counter-productive and irrational from a corporate perspective. And if they’re regulated and offered incentives to sell us less, they will just charge more for each individual unit and pass the costs on.
Nuclear power distracts from the transformation we want and need, and it hinders the necessary transition to a just and sustainable energy system based on renewables, thus worsening the climate crisis.
European statement against nuclear power and for climate justice
This is why so far 83 groups and counting from climate justice movements in 15 countries have signed the Antinuclear statement. The statement is the first step of the European Climate Justice (CJA) network against nuclear power. As the nuclear lobby is trying to push for a renaissance of nuclear power as a solution for the climate crisis, the climate justice movement needs to confront this attempt with strong united action.
It is important that voices throughout Europe are raised against nuclear power, as 18 out of the 30 countries that have nuclear power plants are in Europe. Furthermore, the EURATOM (European Atomic Energy Community) treaty, established in 1957 and nearly unchanged since then, obliges all EU member states to cooperate and to further develop nuclear power. Meaning that even EU member states that do not have their own nuclear power plants, pay for nuclear power. This treaty is also used as a legal justification to heavily subsidize nuclear power – thus further stalling renewable energies. Even though the UK left Euratom as a result of Brexit, the UK and the Euratom have since signed a Nuclear Cooperation Agreement (NCA).
Nuclear Power Plants in the UK
To the surprise of no-one, the UK is one of the most prolific nuclear countries, having launched a “Nuclear Renaissance” over a decade ago. To clarify the size of the UK’s stake in nuclear energy this is a list of nuclear plants in operation, planned or under construction. (The information below, like a lot of the information in this article is from the “Same Old Not New Not Zero Nuclear” – Requested Briefing Paper for COP26Coalition from RisingTideUK)
Existing legacy plants
- Hinkley Point (North Somerset) B : Currently owned by EDF Energy (85% French state-owned). Opened 1976. Closure 2011 extended recently till no later than July 2022.
- Hunterston (Ayrshire, Scotland) B : Currently owned by EDF. Opened 1976. Closure 2011 extended till 2022. Much beset by problems, including cracking of graphite bricks making up the moderator cores of the reactors, necessitating long periods offline, including 2 years from 2018 to summer 2020, both reactors.
- Heysham (Lancs.) 1 : Currently owned by EDF. Opened 1983/4. Closure 2014 extended till 2024 (from 2014 to 2019 in Dec’10 and from 2019 to 2024 in Feb’16). After a crack found in boiler in reactor 1 both closed down for 6 months till Jan’15 and then operating at only 75-80% of capacity until 2-years of modifications were carried out.
- Heysham 2 : Currently owned by EDF. Opened 1988. Closure 2018 extended till 2030.
- Dungeness (Kent) B : Currently owned by EDF. Opened 1983/5. Closure 2008 extended till 2028.
- Torness (E.Lothian, Scotland): Currently owned by EDF. Opened 1988. Closure 2018 extended till 2030.
- Hartlepool (Cleveland): Currently owned by EDF. Opened 1989. Closure 2009 extended till 2024. Site very vulnerable to flood risk and coastal erosion.
- Sizewell B (Suffolk): Currently operated by EDF. Opened 1995. Lengthy Public Inquiry which probably initiated changes to come in the process included in the Planning Act 2008 and the advent of the Infrastructure Commission. Closure 2035 but planned to extend till 2055.
New planned plants
- Hinkley Point C : Currently 66.5% EDF, 33.55% CGN. Part of the agreement between EDF and CGN including Sizewell C and Bradwell B (see below). Construction has begun and the first reactor base was completed in 2019 and the second in 2020. There have been lots of building problems, a legal action against EDF by the European Commission for breaching state aid rules that failed and strong campaigns opposing its construction.
- Sizewell C : Currently owned by 80% EDF and 20% CGN. In 2017 an opening date 2031 was announced and in June 2020 EDF announced it had applied to the Office for Nuclear Regulation for the licence to build and operate. Public consultations ongoing and construction hasn’t yet started.
- Bradwell (Essex) B : Currently owned by 66.5% EDF and 33.5% CGN. Public consultations ongoing in now hostile Local Authority council territory with an estimated operational date forecast around 2035.
- Heysham 3 : Currently owned by EDF. Plans dropped in 2012 but EDF has not ruled out future development.
- Hartlepool B: Currently owned by EDF. Government gave EDF go-ahead in 2009 but there has been no action.
- Moorside (alongside Sellafield (formerly Windscale), Cumbria): Last site owner was Toshiba in 2017 that wound up the project in 2019.
- Wylfa (Anglesey, Wales) B & Oldbury (Gloucs.) B: Last site owner was Hitachi who is 2020 formally withdrew from the project.Further reading