Nuclear Power is a low-emission clean energy source. It is a vital part of our future energy mix and without it current climate targets will not be achieved. Nuclear power not only provides the opportunity to replace current fossil fuel plants but also a deeper decarbonisation of a future economy through production of process heat and hydrogen. Nuclear power provides large amounts of reliable electricity, providing electrical grid stability, and large numbers of local well paid jobs at an affordable price. The use of nuclear power will guarantee our electricity supply over a period of 60-80yrs, providing time for other emerging technologies to mature and become commercially viable.
Nuclear power is an economic source of electricity generation, combining the advantages of security, reliability and very low greenhouse gas emissions. Existing plants function well with a high degree of predictability. The operating cost of these plants is lower or comparable to all fossil fuel competitors, with a very low risk of operating cost inflation.
Is Nuclear Power Safe?
Not only can Nuclear power eliminate the harmful carbon emissions from coal and other fossil fuels sources of electricity production, it is also safer.
Accidents occasionally occur in all forms of electricity production. The nuclear industry’s exceptional safety culture means that such accidents are extremely rare and immediate fatalities are very low. The probability of a nuclear accident that would result in 100 latent deaths is 10 times lower than such an accident for coal, oil or natural gas.
In the 50 year history of civil nuclear power generation and over 17,000 cumulative reactor-years of commercial operation in 33 countries, there have been only three major accidents to nuclear power plants – Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.
The Chernobyl accident was the result of a flawed reactor design that would not be permitted in Ireland and was operated with inadequately trained personnel.
The accident resulted in 31 deaths and approximately 6500 cases of thyroid cancers, which resulted in 15 fatalities, and most of these cases could have been avoided if the authorities had taken suitable measures in the aftermath to prevent people from consuming contaminated foodstuffs.
Chernobyl is the only nuclear accident that has ever led to measurable health effects, and it is important that the lessons have been learned. It has little relevance to reactor designs being built today.
Three Mile Island and Fukushima caused no environmental or health impact.
How do you deal with Nuclear Waste?
All forms of electricity generation produce some form of waste. Nuclear power is the only energy-producing industry that takes full responsibility for managing all its waste (and pays for all costs associated with it). Civil nuclear waste has been managed without a significant environmental release for six decades.
Advanced reprocessing techniques allow for the reprocessing and re-use of nuclear fuel, limiting the volume of waste to be disposed of. Advanced reactor designs provide options for using current spent nuclear fuel and reducing the waste volumes further. Final disposal options are well understood with the first repository is expected to open in Finland in the mid 2020’s.
Doesn’t Nuclear radiation cause cancer?
"Man-made" radiation is fundamentally no different from natural radiation in its effects on people. Radiation is found everywhere – it comes from outer space, the air we breathe, and the earth we tread. It’s even in our bodies; naturally occurring radioactive elements in our bones irradiate us on average 5000 times per second. Sleeping next to someone gives us a much higher radiation dose than living close to a nuclear power station – both of which are harmless.
Building materials can also emit radiation. Many buildings made out of granite are radioactive, due to the fact that granite contains uranium. The radiation levels in the Capitol building in Washington D.C. are 55 times higher than the permissible levels of radiation exposure allowed by the US Environmental Protection Agency at the outer-most perimeters of nuclear power plants. If the Capitol building was a nuclear facility, it would fail a safety examination. However this higher level of radiation is still at levels that are safe for human exposure.
Nuclear power plants release extremely small levels of radiation. The nuclear industry is responsible for less than 0.1% of the radiation that most people are exposed to in their daily lives.
How do you stop Nuclear power being used to create nuclear weapons?
The nuclear power industry does not increase the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. Ireland proposed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in the 1960’s and were its first co-signatories, along with Finland.
Over 30 countries have power reactors but only nine are known to have nuclear weapons, of which 7 have nuclear power reactors. For example, North Korea has nuclear weapons but does not have nuclear energy, whereas South Korea has nuclear energy but does not have nuclear weapons.
While there are overlaps in knowledge and technology between Nuclear power and Nuclear weapon development, the types of reactor and the ways in which they need to operate in order to produce the correct fissile material to make nuclear weapons is incompatible with the way in which commercial nuclear power reactors operate in order to be most efficient - this incompatibility of operating regimes is why all countries that developed both civilian nuclear power and nuclear weapons separated the programmes at a very early stage. While additional complex facilities (enrichment and reprocessing) can be used in the production of weapons, the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards are effective at policing these, and all nuclear power reactors are designed with international safeguards in place.
Nuclear power plants can help in eliminating nuclear weapons. Under the now-completed 'Megatons to Megawatts' program that ran from 1999 to 2013, material from Russian and US stockpiles equivalent to 20,000 nuclear weapons was converted to nuclear fuel amounting to 13-19% of global uranium requirements.
What about the risk of terrorism?
Nuclear power plants, which are subject to both national and international regulation, are designed to withstand extreme events, and are among the most impenetrable and secure structures on the planet. Any attempt to melt down the core would activate multiple safeguards, including alternate means of providing coolant as well as withdrawal of the fuel rods from the chain reaction process.
There are far easier targets than nuclear power stations, which is why there has never been a serious attempt at terrorism at a nuclear power plant. What would a terrorist do anyway? A nuclear power plant is not a nuclear bomb waiting to ‘go off’! - The laws of physics preclude nuclear power reactors being turned into nuclear bombs - there is insufficient density and heat in order to create a nuclear explosion.
Doesn’t nuclear just replace one finite resource with another?
Something does not come from nothing. That is as true for hydro, wind or solar as it is for nuclear power. All forms of energy production require the mining, extraction and processing of finite resources.
All energy production activities require the mining and processing of some finite resource. Nuclear power requires uranium, wind turbines require neodymium, solar panels require silicon, batteries require lithium and cobalt, and any electrical producing technology will require copper.
Uranium is a relatively abundant resource. Current estimates put the current known supply at circa 200 years, although current exploration activities are limited due to the relatively low price of uranium.
Reprocessing and reuse of spent fuel in advanced reactor designs could extend this lifetime further. In addition, means of extracting uranium from phosphate are well developed and methods of extracting it from sea water and uraniferous coal ash are under development.
Isn’t Nuclear Power really expensive?
Most nuclear power plants being built in the world today are built on time and to budget. Recently some first of a kind (FOAK) projects, particularly in western countries, have suffered delays and cost overruns. These are not caused by an inherent problem with nuclear power but are a result of the complexity of financing large infrastructure projects and due to declining capability within these countries where nuclear plants have not been built for up to 20 years.
Nuclear power plants are expensive to build but relatively cheap to run. The basic metric for any generating plant is the levelised cost of electricity (LCOE). It is the total cost to build and operate a power plant over its lifetime divided by the total electricity output dispatched from the plant over that period, hence typically cost per megawatt hour. It takes into account the financing costs of the capital component (not just the 'overnight' cost).
Directly comparing the stated LCOE of different technologies is complex and does not always provide the complete picture as not all technologies include the same factors within their operating costs. For example nuclear power is the only electricity producing technology that incorporates waste disposal and decommissioning costs into its operating costs. If the social, health and environmental costs of all technologies are also taken into account, the competitiveness of nuclear power would become even more evident.
A further aspect that LCOE does not account for is the system cost of making the supply from any source meet actual demand from the grid. The system cost is minimal with dispatchable sources such as nuclear, but becomes a significant factor for intermittent sources, such as wind and solar, whose output depends on occasional inputs. If the energy production share of such intermittent sources increases above a nominal proportion of the total, then system costs escalate significantly and readily exceed the actual generation cost from those sources.
On a levelised (i.e. lifetime) basis, nuclear power is an economic source of electricity generation, and recent successes such as the completion of the Barakah nuclear power plant in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) demonstrates that with the correct framework in place the recent financial problems faced by FOAK projects in western countries can be overcome.