This House would go nuclear

Nuclear power is any nuclear technology designed to extract usable energy from atomic nuclei via controlled nuclear reactions[1]. The most common method is through nuclear fission, though other methods include nuclear fusion and radioactive decay. Nuclear fission is the splitting of large atoms into smaller atoms with the release of energy stored in the original nucleus. It produces no greenhouse gases or other such pollutants but does produce radioactive waste that must be stored safely for thousands of years. There is also the risk of a nuclear explosion (due to meltdown) if the reaction gets out of control. This is different from nuclear fusion, a process by which small atoms are joined to create larger atoms, releasing energy in the process. This technology is currently some years away from being widespread.

The debate surrounding the use of nuclear power is hugely contentious. There is much public fear about nuclear energy, fuelled by incidents such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and, most recently, Fukushima in Japan. It is, however, an issue which is becoming more important as we approach a time when fossil fuel resources may run out, making it necessary to find other power sources. Germany has fuelled the debate by announcing a complete abandonment of its nuclear power programme by 2022, a U-turn on its previous decision to extend the life of its oldest plants by around 12 years[2]. In 2007, nuclear power produced 28% of the EU's commercial electricity, down from 32% in 2002[3]. The US had 103 reactors providing 19% of the country's electricity[4].

The main question is whether nuclear energy should constitute a major component of the 21st century mixed economy of energy plans to combat global warming and to help us meet the growing energy demand?

 

Title 
Alternative renewables are inefficient for the cost
Point 

Nuclear power is the most practical renewable energy source as all the others face major difficulties either in scaling up to provide enough to be a major component of nations energy mix, don't provide energy all the time, the 'base load', or cause other environmental problems. Nuclear is a proven technology with large firms that can build large amounts of nuclear energy generation capacity.

The most efficient source of renewable energy has been hydroelectric power, however, this usually creates more problems than it solves. Building a large dam necessarily floods an enormous region behind the dam which in turn can displace thousands of people. There are also enormous ecological costs to dam building. A classical example is the Aswan dam in Egypt along the Nile. Not only did many thousands lose their homes but the yearly inundation of the Nile, which fertilised the surrounding land for thousands of year, was also stopped; the subsequent silting up of the river destroyed much wildlife1. A similar story of ecological destruction and human homelessness surrounded the more recent Three Gorges dam project in China2.

Wind, tidal, and solar power are all affected by issues of reliability. The tendency of wind power, in particular, to be a volatile source of energy, means that other power sources such as fossil fuel power stations have to make up the shortfall when wind levels drop. Tidal power technology is still in at an early stage and may take years to become profitable. It also has the potential to cause environmental problems in the marine environment. For a large area of the European Union, there is not the potential to exploit solar power as there are not enough hours of sunlight.

"Wind and solar power have their place, but because they are intermittent and unpredictable they simply can't replace big baseload plants such as coal, nuclear and hydroelectric. Natural gas, a fossil fuel, is too expensive already, and its price is too volatile to risk building big baseload plants. Given that hydroelectric resources are built pretty much to capacity, nuclear is, by elimination, the only viable substitute for coal. It's that simple."3

1'Environmental Impact of the Aswan High Dam', 
'Three Gorges Dam is a disaster in the making, China admits' by Jane Macartney, Times Online 27th September 2007, 
3"Going Nuclear A Green Makes the Case", by Patrick Moore, Washington Post. April 16th, 2006:

Counterpoint 

Nuclear power is itself inefficient: For every three units of energy produced by the reactor core of a U.S. nuclear power plants, two units are discharged to the environment as waste heat. Nuclear plants are built on the shores of lakes, rivers, and oceans because these bodies provide the large quantities of cooling water needed to handle the waste heat discharge1.

It is perfectly true that alternative energy is not efficient enough to serve the energy needs of the world's population today. However, with investment all these methods could be made efficient enough. Not enough has been done to make use of all the natural energy sources that do not create the kind of damage nuclear power generation causes. We need to develop more efficient ways to capture wind, water and solar power, to explore other options and to reduce the level of power required. This is not an argument for nuclear power but one for greater resources to be put to develop natural energy sources and help protect the planet for future generations.

1Got Water? Nuclear Power Plant Cooling Water Needs." Union of Concerned Scientists

Title 
Energy demands are increasing exponentially and nuclear power is the only renewable source capable of matching it
Point 

Although EU countries are using energy more efficiently, demand for energy continues to rise, especially in the new eastern European member states. The demand for electricity is expected to rise by 8-9% by 2020 meaning a much more urgent need for generating capacity[1]. At the same time world energy consumption is projected to expand by 50% from 2005 to 2030 leading to high oil and gas prices[2]. The production of renewable energy is not growing at a fast enough pace to replace fossil fuels; wind, wave and solar simply cannot provide the quantities of energy required. It is possible – indeed, desirable - to combine nuclear power with other renewables, but nuclear energy is a crucial part of that mix as the only option capable of producing the quantity of energy required. Nuclear power is actually more efficient than any other power source: a gram of uranium 235 contains as much energy as four tons of coal[3].

[1] Update of the nuclear illustrative programme in the context of the second strategic energy review, 13th November 2008, Brussels.

[2] International Energy Outlook 2008, Energy Information Administration, June 2008, Chapter 1. 

[3] Max Schulz. "Nuclear Power Is the Future". Wilson Quarterly. Fall, 2006

Counterpoint 

Nuclear power is no better placed to deliver the amount of energy required. There is an unrealistic focus on nuclear power as a magical solution to climate change. Despite increasing demand the amount of electricity being generated by nuclear is projected to fall not rise. The share of nuclear energy will decrease from 30% to 25% in electricity generation by 2020. According to current projections, the nuclear generation capacity in the EU would fall by as much as 33 GWe by 2020; this fall would mostly have to be met by dirty power plants using gas, or particularly coal [1].

The focus on nuclear power diverts attention from other renewables. In reality going nuclear would squeeze out renewables. Indeed, the former Secretary of State for Business Patricia Hewitt said in a Commons debate on a 2003 Energy White Paper: 'It would have been foolish to announce …. that we would embark 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'[2].

[1] Update of the nuclear illustrative programme in the context of the second strategic energy review, 13th November 2008, Brussels.

[2] The case against nuclear power". Greenpeace. January 8, 2008

Title 
Nuclear power is clean and emits significantly less CO2 than other renewable energy sources
Point 

In many senses nuclear energy is the cleanest of renewables. It does not produce emissions such as CO2 and greenhouse gases, which are harmful to the population and the environment. Roughly 700 million metric tons of CO2 emissions are avoided each year in the United States by generating electricity from nuclear power rather than some other source; according to the U.S. Department of Energy, that is nearly equivalent to the CO2 released from all U.S. passenger cars[1].

It is true that it does produce radioactive waste but since this is in solid form it can be dealt with relatively easily and stored away from centres of population. Furthermore, as new technology becomes available to allow the more efficient use of nuclear fuel, less nuclear waste will be produced. (A recent example is the development of the fast breeder reactor, which uses fuel much more efficiently[2])

[1] Max Schulz. "Nuclear Power Is the Future". Wilson Quarterly. September, 2006

[2] ‘Breeder reactor’, Wikipedia.

Counterpoint 

Nuclear power plants are not much of an improvement over conventional coal-burning power plants despite claims that nuclear is the 'clean air energy.' Uranium mining, milling, leeching, plant construction and decommissioning all produce substantial amounts of greenhouse gases. Taking into account the carbon-equivalent emissions associated with the entire nuclear life cycle, not just the nuclear fission itself, nuclear plants contribute significantly to climate change and will contribute even more as stockpiles of high grade uranium are depleted1.

Nuclear waste can remain radioactive for thousands of years. It must be stored for all this time away from water into which it can dissolve and far from any tectonic activity. This is virtually impossible and there are serious concerns over the state of waste discarded even a few decades ago. A report by the Environment Agency attacked Britain's disposal system as many containers used to store the waste are made of second-rate materials, are handled carelessly, and are liable to corrode; computer models suggest up to 40% of them could be at risk of being compromised within as little as 200 years2. Tens of thousands of containers of this waste, bound in concrete, are simply being stored above ground, mainly at Sellafield, while the Government and the nuclear industry decide what to do with them. On present plans it is assumed they will remain there for up to another 150 years before being placed in a repository underground, and then another 50 years before it is sealed3. This problem would only be added to if more nuclear power stations were built.

1The case against nuclear power". Greenpeace. January 8, 2008
Geoffrey Lean, 'Nuclear waste containers likely to fail, warns "devastating" report', The Independent, 24th Aug., 2008, 
Geoffrey Lean, 'Nuclear waste containers likely to fail, warns "devastating" report', The Independent, 24th Aug., 2008,

Title 
Nuclear power gives countries energy security and self-sufficiency
Point 

In addition, the use of nuclear power reduces our foreign energy dependency. The European Union is a net importer for energy, and as such is reliant on Russia and Norway, predominantly, for oil and gas supplies. Events such as the dispute between Russia and the Ukraine over gas supplies demonstrated that the EU's energy can easily be disrupted by political situations outside its control1. It also means that the EU could be drawn into disputes between Russia and neighbouring countries because it has a vested interest in the region. This could set a dangerous precedent, where the EU could be intimidated by Russia, because the EU relies so heavily on Russian gas. Building more nuclear power stations would ensure a more secure supply of energy, thereby avoiding the potential for energy supply to become a politically charged issue on an international scale.

'Russia-Ukraine gas dispute', Wikipedia

Counterpoint 

There is almost always one renewable resource that a given country can exploit with sufficient investment; tides for islands, the sun for equatorial countries, hot rocks for volcanic regions. Any given country can in principle become self-sufficient in terms of renewable energy. The global distribution of uranium is hugely uneven (much more so than fossil fuels) and the use of nuclear power therefore gives countries with uranium deposits disproportionate economic power. Kazakhstan became the world's number one supplier of uranium in 2009, and other major producers such as Russia, Namibia, Niger and Uzbekistan may not be reliable1. It is far from inconceivable that uranium could be subject to the same kind of monopoly that the OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) places on oil.

1'Kazakhstan plans to become global leader in uranium production by 2009', Silk Road Intelligencer, 23rd July 2008,

Title 
Nuclear power is very expensive
Point 

For nuclear power plants any cost figures normally include spent fuel management, plant decommissioning and final waste disposal. These costs, while usually external for other technologies, are internal for nuclear power. Costs are high compared to coal fired generation precisely because the externalities associated with high carbon outputs are not taken into account, whereas similar externalities relating to nuclear generation are. If costs are calculated equivalently to coal power stations then nuclear power is competitive.

Also the cost of construction and decommissioning of nuclear power plants is often overestimated; the French and Swedish nuclear industries estimate decommissioning costs to be just 10 -15 % of the construction costs and budget this into the price charged for electricity1. Nuclear is actually increasing its competitiveness as gas and oil prices rise, new technology makes nuclear power more efficient and construction and decommissioning costs less. An OECD study in 2005 showed nuclear overnight construction costs ranged from US$ 1000/kW in Czech Republic to $2500/kW in Japan, and averaged $1500/kW. Coal plants were costed at $1000-1500/kW, gas plants $500-1000/kW and wind capacity $1000-1500/kW2. The difference, when weighed against nuclear power's other advantages, is thus not that great.

'Cost of nuclear power', 
'The Economics of Nuclear Power', World Nuclear Association, January 2009,

Counterpoint 

For nuclear power plants any cost figures normally include spent fuel management, plant decommissioning and final waste disposal. These costs, while usually external for other technologies, are internal for nuclear power. Costs are high compared to coal fired generation precisely because the externalities associated with high carbon outputs are not taken into account, whereas similar externalities relating to nuclear generation are. If costs are calculated equivalently to coal power stations then nuclear power is competitive.

Also the cost of construction and decommissioning of nuclear power plants is often overestimated; the French and Swedish nuclear industries estimate decommissioning costs to be just 10 -15 % of the construction costs and budget this into the price charged for electricity1. Nuclear is actually increasing its competitiveness as gas and oil prices rise, new technology makes nuclear power more efficient and construction and decommissioning costs less. An OECD study in 2005 showed nuclear overnight construction costs ranged from US$ 1000/kW in Czech Republic to $2500/kW in Japan, and averaged $1500/kW. Coal plants were costed at $1000-1500/kW, gas plants $500-1000/kW and wind capacity $1000-1500/kW2. The difference, when weighed against nuclear power's other advantages, is thus not that great.

'Cost of nuclear power', 
'The Economics of Nuclear Power', World Nuclear Association, January 2009,

Title 
Promoting continued nuclear research is against our security interests
Point 

Spreading the peaceful use of nuclear power brings important security benefits. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, whose signatories include every state in the world apart from India, Pakistan and Israel (plus North Korea and Iran whose membership fluctuates), is largely a provision for the sharing of nuclear power technology, which it promises to share among members who do not produce nuclear weapons (or, in the case of the 5 nuclear states, who commit to a gradual and continual reduction in weapons stockpiles). This has seen states including Brazil and Argentina abandon their nuclear weapons programmes, in order to gain access to nuclear power technology1. It is in our interest to promote peaceful use of nuclear technologies, encouraging scientists to find employment in an industry which is both peaceful and useful rather than selling their skills to the highest rogue bidder. The treaty also establishes and sets the remit of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which all members are bound to grant unlimited access to in order to facilitate inspection of nuclear facilities. This ensures that facilities cannot surreptitiously be used to facilitate the creation of nuclear weapons.

1'Nuclear weapons not appealing to all countries' by Renee Montagne, npr, 17th April 2006,

Counterpoint 

Encouraging the further adoption of nuclear power is against our security interests. The scientific understanding and technology needed to generate nuclear power is the same as that needed to create nuclear weapons, and it is all too easy for rogue states to pretend they are only interested in peaceful uses while secretly pursuing military applications. This is the route India and Israel have followed, and that Iran may well be following at present. The process of enriching uranium to make it into fuel for nuclear power stations can be a step towards further enriching it to make nuclear weapons. Used fuel from nuclear power stations can be separated out to recover any usable elements such as uranium and plutonium through a method called reprocessing. Plutonium is a by-product of the nuclear fuel cycle and can also be used to make nuclear weapons1.

Even if the intentions of foreign governments are good, widespread nuclear power plants are at risk of terrorism, in both the developed and developing world. If a 9/11-style bomb was flown into a nuclear power plant, the potential disaster would be catastrophic. And the more nuclear material is transported around the world, the easier it will be for terrorists to get hold of some in order to make their own nuclear weapons. An atomic bomb might one day be within the reach of some international terrorist groups, but even today a simple "dirty bomb" (in which highly-radioactive materials is blasted over an urban area using conventional explosives) could be deadly to many thousands of people. Encouraging the spread of nuclear technology enables the spread of nuclear weapons.

'Reactor-grade and Weapons-grade plutonium in nuclear explosives', US Department of Energy Publication, January 1997,

Title 
The supply of uranium needed for nuclear power is not actually unlimited, renewable or sustainable
Point 

The projected lifespan of uranium must be compared to that of oil, gas and coal which are irrefutably running out. Uranium supply is expected to last for over 200 years, which could be extended to 30,000 with modern technologies. There has not been sufficient research undertaken to explore new potential sites, new forms or ways of prolonging the life of that which we already have access to. For example, it has been claimed recently that there are potential alternatives to uranium which could be used in the nuclear process: "There is also almost always thorium, a lightly radioactive metal, in the same ores, and it has to be disposed of." This disposal would create the same amount of energy as nuclear fission. The USA and Australia have potentially very big mines for rare earths and they are going to be producing Thorium as a waste product anyway, what better way to dispose of it than by creating energy?1

1Tim Worstall, You Don't Bring a Praseodymium Knife to a Gunfight, Foreign Policy, 29/9/10, See also: http://www.economist.com/node/15865280?story_id=15865280

Counterpoint 

We hear a lot about the depletion of supplies of fossil fuels, however it is not mentioned that there is also a potential problem with the supply of uranium: "There is currently a gap in the amount of uranium being mined and the amount of uranium being consumed," states Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa) CEO Rob Adam1.

This would potentially be ok if it did not look like we are approaching a uranium peak. The peak in supplies of uranium seems likely to arrive sometime between 2030 and 2040 with uranium being almost totally gone by 2070 or 2120 at the latest. It is the peak that matters, as after this point supply will not be able to keep up with demand. If you take into account that nuclear energy produces 16% of world electricity, and less than 5% primary energy supply, it seems impossible to me for nuclear energy with current technology to ever satisfy a big part of the world's energy demand2. It means that nuclear power is not a sustainable base which we should be looking to be dependent on.

Matthew Hill, 'Global uranium production will need to double by 2015 to catch up with demand', Mining Weekly, 25th June 2007, 
Uranium resources and nuclear energy, Energy watch group, December 2006, p.5.,

Title 
Nuclear power is potentially extremely unsafe
Point 

It is unfortunately the case that the nuclear industry has a bad reputation for safety. This is undeserved. The overwhelming majority of nuclear reactors have functioned safely and effectively for their entire lifetimes. The four historic nuclear disasters (1957 Windscale Fire, 1979 Three Mile Island and 1986 Chernobyl, 2011 Fukushima, Japan) killed fewer people than the oil and coal industries have1. "The multi-agency U.N. Chernobyl Forum reported last year that 56 deaths could be directly attributed to the accident, most of those from radiation or burns suffered while fighting the fire. Tragic as those deaths were, they pale in comparison to the more than 5,000 coal-mining deaths that occur worldwide every year"2.

Further, the two major nuclear accidents, at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, were both in old style reactors, made worse in the latter case by poor Soviet safety standards. The Chernobyl disaster took place at a time when our understanding of nuclear issues was much lesser than it is now, and was the result of poorly trained staff in the plant's control room. Power stations today are better staffed, better maintained and better understood, and because the effects of an attack upon them are acknowledged, they are better defended and monitored by the armed services. No system can be 100% safe, but solid design principles can minimize risk.

Perhaps the best guarantee of safety standards in the nuclear industry is the increasing transparency with which the industry is presenting itself. Many of the problems in its early days were caused by excessive control due to the origin of nuclear energy from military applications. As the gap between the two separates so the nuclear industry becomes more accountable. The question is, is the slight risk of a nuclear accident a worse danger than the inevitable climate catastrophe that awaits us?

'Risks of Nuclear Power' by Bernard Cohen, University of Pittsburgh,
2Patrick Moore, a prominent environmentalist and founding member of Greenpeace, "Going Nuclear A Green Makes the Case", Washington Post, 4/16/06"

Counterpoint 

The nuclear industry has a shameful safety record and it is haunted by the constant risk of meltdown or explosion. "No reactor in the world is inherently safe. All operational reactors have inherent safety flaws, which cannot be eliminated by safety upgrading. Highly radioactive spent fuel requires constant cooling. If this fails, it could lead to a catastrophic release of radioactivity. They are also highly vulnerable to deliberate acts of sabotage, including terrorist attack"1. Chernobyl and Japan's Fukushima plant has shown the world what happens when cooling systems fail.

The effects on the local people and the environment are devastating. It cannot be a coincidence that the rate of occurrence of certain types of cancer, such as leukaemia, is much higher in the population around nuclear plants. It is perfectly true that modern nuclear reactors are safer but they are not completely safe. It is not worth the risk.

The dumping of nuclear waste also presents a host of problems. The Nuclear Inspectorate in the UK has been very critical of safety standards within the industry; it is too dominated by the profit motive to really care about safety and too shrouded in secrecy to be accountable. According to Agenda 2000: "The problem of nuclear safety in some candidate countries causes serious concerns to the EU... and should be urgently and effectively addressed. It is imperative that solutions, including closure where required, be found to these issues in accordance with the Community nuclear acquis and a "nuclear safety culture" as established in the western world as soon as possible"2.

1"End the nuclear age." Greenpeace. October 2008
European Nuclear Threats Old and New, Nuclear Monitor, November 2003, pp.3-5,

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'Breeder reactor', Wikipedia,

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Got Water? Nuclear Power Plant Cooling Water Needs." Union of Concerned Scientists,

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International Energy Outlook 2008, Energy Information Administration, June 2008, Chapter 1,

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'Kazakhstan plans to become global leader in uranium production by 2009', Silk Road Intelligencer, 23rd July 2008,

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‘Reactor-grade and Weapons-grade plutonium in nuclear explosives’, US Department of Energy Publication, January 1997.

‘Risks of Nuclear Power’ by Bernard Cohen, University of Pittsburgh.

‘Russia-Ukraine gas dispute’, Wikipedia. 

‘Start I’, Wikipedia. 

The case against nuclear power". Greenpeace. January 8, 2008.

‘The Economics of Nuclear Power’, World Nuclear Association, January 2009. 

Tim Worstall, You Don't Bring a Praseodymium Knife to a Gunfight, Foreign Policy, 29/9/10.

Novel Sources of Uranium: Rising from the Ashes. Economist.  10/04/10

‘Three Gorges Dam is a disaster in the making, China admits’ by Jane Macartney, Times Online 27th September 2007.

‘US, Russia agree to pursue nuclear reduction’, npr, 6th July 2009.

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