Is Nuclear Power the answer to Global Warming?


(Get a short, leaflet-style summary of this argument by clicking here)

The paradox : Gaian system and nuclear process

In May 2004 James Lovelock, originator of the Gaian (earth systems) hypothesis, stirred media interest when he reiterated his support for nuclear power (NP) as part of the solution to the overwhelming threat that humanity (and the planet) is facing from global warming. Since then the nuclear industry has been lobbying hard to restart its failing programme by presenting it as the answer to global warming.

James Lovelock knows better than any of us that the solution to global warming will involve complex changes involving everything from finance to forestry and gigawatts to goat management, interacting together in a huge system change. Above all, it will involve a shift in our perception of the world. Literally hundreds of new technologies will be rolled out, primarily in energy conservation, energy efficiency, and many modes of renewable energy technology.

The key to all this, as James taught us, is that Gaia moves in cycles that interact in mutually complementary ways, sometimes facilitating each other and sometimes inhibiting each other. We must leave behind our old ways of thinking in isolated, linear, cause and effect modules, and learn to think in the way that nature moves, in interrelated web-like systems.

The paradox is that nuclear power is an outstanding example of linear thinking. You dig out your uranium, you burn it, and you bury it (or fire it off into the sun or something, whatever). From a systems point of view, the main thing to bear in mind is that you must try to cause as few cancers as you can reasonably get away with, which means isolating the nuclear cycle as best you can from the rest of nature; (and of course, you have make sure that nobody with brown skin gets hold of nuclear power, because they might develop nuclear weapons from it, and give them to Osama bin Laden.).

When I put this systems argument to James Lovelock, his only response was that nuclear fission reactions have occurred in nature. This is true; but asteroid hits are also a part of nature, but this does not mean that we should contemplating attracting asteroid hits in an effort to extract energy from them. His response is not a valid defence of his position, and the systems argument against nuclear power still stands.

James recognises that nuclear power is a risky business, but says that we must use it, because if we continue to use coal oil and gas, it is certain that global warming will cause immense damage to planet and people.

We must address the question raised by an environmentalist of the stature of James Lovelock. Should we accept nuclear power, despite its dangers and drawbacks, as a necessary instrument in the battle against global warming?

The anti-nuclear case rests on 10 points:

  1. Electricity Produced by NP is not CO2 free
  2. Conventional NP offers an insignificant contribution to world energy needs
  3. Fast Breeder technology means uncontrollable nuclear weapons proliferation
  4. NP possession now implies Nuclear War later
  5. NP is not economic - and is not insured
  6. Routine discharges cause cancer
  7. Nuclear Power Stations are vulnerable to terrorist attack
  8. The waste problem is not solved
  9. Nuclear power stations are vulnerable to flooding as sea levels rise
  10. NP would suck funding away from the real longterm solutions which are energy efficiency and renewable energy.


Electricity Produced by NP is not CO2 free

Contrary to popular belief, electricity produced by NP is not CO2 free. To get a NPS running entails the burning of fossil fuels in mining and refining the ore, creating the concrete and steel containment, of the station itself, and other costs, not least reprocessing and storing waste.

Jan-Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith have a report http://www.oprit.rug.nl/deenen/ (or try http://www.stormsmith.nl/ ) that concludes "The use of nuclear power causes, at the end of the road and under the most favourable conditions, approximately one-third as much CO2-emission as gas-fired electricity production. The rich uranium ores required to achieve this reduction are, however, so limited that if the entire present world electricity demand were to be provided by nuclear power, these ores would be exhausted within five years. Use of the remaining poorer ores in nuclear reactors would produce more CO2 emission than burning fossil fuels directly."


The Limited Contribution of Conventional NP

The current world fleet of 438 nuclear power stations (NPS) produce 16% of the world's electricity, but only about 2.5% of the 2004 world energy budget: a large part of the world's fuel comes from biomass - firewood burned in simple huts where the majority of the world's poorer population lives .

It is clear from this that nuclear power cannot possibly hope to meet 100% of the world's energy needs. For it to meet 100% of the world's electricity needs would require a six fold expansion of current capacity. This however is not possible using the current technologies, since we have uranium reserves sufficient for only 125-150 years at current consumption levels. A fourfold expansion would bring these reserves down to 31- 37 years, which is about the same as the design life of a modern NPS. The projected fourfold expansion of NPS would therefore be the last generation of this design. It would provide the world with low-CO2 electricity at 2000 levels of consumption for approximately 20 years . Other estimates (see above) are that if we used up all the known high grade reserves of uranium, we could satisfy the world's total electricity needs for 3-6 years.

Furthermore the emissions of CO2 caused by the building of the projected 1,200 NPS would have their maximal impact from 2010 to 2030. This is exactly the time when we need to be reducing CO2 output.

The fact that this 20 year window of uranium based technology would leave behind a legacy of nuclear waste that would need to be guarder for thousands of years is simply nor proportionate or acceptable.

Look at it like this: how much CO2 could NP save over the next 100 years?
If it produced all the world's electricity for 5 years - which is the best it can do - and if we generously overlooked the CO2 costs of that production, it would save 16% of world CO2 output in those 5 years (as electricity is 16% of the world's energy supply). Over 100 years that saving is 16/20=0.8% of CO2 emissions. Insignificant.

Over that 100 years, the renewable contribution will be growing at an ever increasing rate.

The only way that NP could contribute on the longer term would be to go down the "breeder" pathway, and further on, by using thorium as a fuel.

Breeder technology means uncontrollable nuclear weapons proliferation

Since conventional nuclear fission can make only a short lived and minor contribution to world energy supply, advocates of nuclear energy look to "breeder" technology as the solution. Here uranium fuel is "burned" in such a way as to produce plutonium which can itself be burned. It is claimed that this could extend the contribution of NP by a factor of 50 (that is, satisfy 70% of 2000 electricity demand at current levels for 1000 -1500 years). In contrast to conventional stations, this sounds as if it could be a significant contribution to global energy needs.

Unfortunately, there is a problem in that plutonium is the material for nuclear weapons. Some of the vast amounts of plutonium which would be created in a breeder programme of the scale contemplated would inevitably leak into the hands of terrorists and politicians who, like our own leaders, would seek an illusory form of security in the possession of nuclear weapons. In a breeder energy economy, the hope of curtailing the proliferation of nuclear weapons would be gone forever.

In the face of this prospect, nuclear apologists can only answer that a bomb made out of reactor grade plutonium would be "inefficient". Nevertheless, they cannot deny that it would be able to convert matter into energy - that is, it would work. Its inefficiency would guarantee that the unburnt plutonium would simply be spread as fallout, making it a dirtier bomb than average - which would be very much to a terrorists' liking.

It is amazing that one year after the disastrous war on Iraq, fought ostensibly because of a perceived threat that Saddam Hussein was trying to obtain nuclear weapons, that people should be seriously contemplating opening up a technology that would put plutonium within the grasp not just of Iran and North Korea, but of any state anywhere who has a perceived need for high-technology electricity. We should stop for a moment and remember the deep (if mistaken) sincerity with which Tony Bliar spoke of his fears that Saddam Hussein would get nuclear weapons and would lend one to Osama Bin Laden. He was misled, or misleading, but the fact remains that this was for him a major threat. A generalised plutonium economy would be even more of a threat.

Faced with this challenge, pro-nuclear apologists can only aver that the plutonium can be kept under surveillance. Unfortunately we have to accept that surveillance even at present relatively low levels of material fall far short of perfection. Leakage of plutonium from a large breeder programme would be inevitable.

A breeder programme would therefore inevitably lead to widespread proliferation of nuclear weapons. We shall return to the consequences of this later.

It should also be noted that the Breeder development programme of the late 20th century ended in catastrophically expensive failure everywhere it was tried.

It should be noted that even without breeder technology, nuclear energy can be used to produce nuclear weapons. In fact, all nuclear weapons states have started with nuclear power programmes.

NP possession now implies nuclear war later

A breeder programme would lead to proliferation of nuclear weapons. Is it possible that this could actually be beneficial? Since it is claimed that nuclear weapons prevented the Cold War breaking out into actual hostilities, could it be that if every country had a nuclear deterrent, the result would be universal world peace?

While it is certain that the holding of nuclear weapons by Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) raises the threshold at which they would go to war, this threshold is relative, not absolute. Take a scenario where there is bitter tension between two NWS. At a time that the war cabinets are meeting on both sides, there is an ambiguity on an early warning screen caused by a computer fault or an unusual electrochemical event affecting an early warning sensor; the appearance is interpreted as an incoming attack - and the president gives the order to respond with his nuclear weapons. |From this point, we have to assume that there would be an escalation into all-out nuclear war.

The consequences of this are well studied. A nuclear winter caused by hemispheric dust clouds would follow for a couple of years - and after the clouds disperse, we would have enhanced global warming through the burned forests and towns.

The argument can be put as a syllogism:

1 If the consequences of the failure of a system are infinite, then it is rational to use that system if and only if the chances of its failure are zero.

2 The consequences of failure of the system of nuclear deterrence for our world civilisation and for Gaia are infinite. Life, including human life, would probably survive, but our civilisation, with its abilities and its values, would not.

3 The chances of failure of nuclear deterrence system are greater than zero.
4 Therefore the nuclear deterrence system must be abandoned.
5 For deterrence to be abandoned, it is necessary that the materials for making nuclear weapons should not be produced.
6 This precludes the use of breeder technology, and indeed, conventional NP.


NP is not economic - and is not insured

In the UK, USA and France, and in many other countries, nuclear power was developed through massive state subsidies as part of the nuclear weapons development programme.These R+D costs are not included in conventional nuclear power costings. In the UK, these expenses were hidden from parliamentary inspection in the post-war public accounts as "Repairs to Public Buildings".

NP was a spin-off of the nuclear weapons effort.

The NP programme died off in the 90s, ironically not so much through the activities of the green lobby as through the policies of Mrs Thatcher, who although a staunch supporter of NP, insisted on privatising it. When the City took a look at the books, they did not like what they saw, and decided not to buy into NP.

This was despite the fact that NP was on a cheap offer without third party insurance. At present the UK industry carries about £140 million liabilities for a Maximum Credible Accident (MCA), and the Government is ready with a similar amount. This is estimated to be less than 1% of the full costs of an MCA. At the very least, any new nuclear programme should be obliged to carry full insurance, including cover for releases due to the known threat of terrorist action.

The astronomical costs of any new nuclear power programme would divert money away from the real, long term solutions to global warming, which are energy efficiency and global warming.


Routine discharges cause cancer

It should be mentioned in passing that the cancer risk from NPS is greatly underestimated. The industry has been able to erect a smokescreen of denial around this issue, by using scholastic rather than scientific methodology. In essence their argument is this: "From our standard reference tables, the amount of cancer produced by our routine discharges would be expected to produce only x amount of cancer. You have found 4x amount of cancer. Therefore the radioactivity is not responsible for the cancer that you have found".

There is a vast literature on this subject, but it is not necessary to develop it here, since it could be argued that a few local cancers are a small price to pay if nuclear power saves us from the catastrophe of global warming, and the relatives of the cancer victims could be compensated. The low level Radiation Campaign is a useful site for this information: http://www.llrc.org/index.html

It should be mentioned that there are some on the pro-nuclear side of the argument who would offset the increased cancer incidence by pointing to evidence that small amounts of radioactivity are in fact beneficial to health. This is called "hormesis" and is generally regarded as a dubious notion.

Here is a list of places where man-made radioactivity is associated with cancers. In every case, the nuclear industry will dispute the connection. Taken together, it is hard to deny that a pattern has emerged.

1. Leiston - 14 leukaemia cases near Sizewell A - workers - 8 times the expected level.
2. Lydney - 6 cases near Oldbury & Berkeley
3. Dorset - cases near Winfrith
4. Southport near Springfields
5. Menai straits
6. Burnham - excess breast cancer cases
7. Hunterston in West Scotland, leukaemia 1975-81 double the expected rate
8. Chapel Cross
9. Chernobyl
10. Sellafield - four times more childhood leukaemias than expected.
11. Dounreay : leukaemia 1979-84 among under-25s within a 7 mile radius of the plant 10 x the national average
12. Aldermaston
13. Winfrith
14. Holy Loch
15. Rocky Flats
16. Nuclear workers prostate cancer BMJ
17. Downwinders : Nevada, Hanford,
18. Marshall Islands - after nuclear bomb tests.
19. Cap La Hague
20. Mainz study - double risk Leukaemia for children 5km from Nuclear Power Stations.

One aspect that comes up time and again is the argument that there is no "scientific proof" that the radiation caused the leukaemia. In fact, "proof" is only possible in mathematics, not science. The best that any scientific hypothesis or theory can attain is "not yet disproven". In the case of Seascale (and again, in another context, in Camelford) the "scientific" evaluators used the scholastic method, not the scientific method, to decide whether the environmental agent had caused the diseases. They argued, "The books say it coul not have happened, therefore it did not happen".



NPS vulnerable to terrorist attack

9/11 demonstrated the acute vulnerability of the structures of western civilisation to attack from terrorists motivated by suicidal religious convictions. We cannot hope that humane and rational considerations would inhibit terrorists from using the same technique on one or more NPS. It would be consistent with the modus operandi of Al-Qaeda to do this kind of high profile action. It is a moot point whether a jumbo jet would breach containment, but it would certainly disrupt the coolant circuits sufficiently to cause releases, and a critical incident (major meltdown) cannot be ruled out.

The Government response to this form of attack is shrouded in secrecy, but the indications are that rather than advising passengers to overpower any would-be hijacker, and ruling that any NPS within striking distance of a hijacked aircraft should be scrammed (i.e. have the control rods inserted so as to minimise the dangers of release of radioactivity), they are adopting the strategy of shooting down the hijacked aircraft, along with all its passengers.

To have thousands of nuclear power stations vulnerable to this kind of attack for 1500 years is simply unconscionable.


The Nuclear waste problem is insoluble

This is so well recognised that it will not be reiterated here.


Nuclear power stations are vulnerable to flooding as sea levels rise

NPS need to be sited near water for cooling. This usually means that they are by the sea. Sea levels are due to rise as a result of global warming. This means that either

a) decomissioning costs will rise hugely as engineers rescue the core contents of spent nuclear power stations and relocate them further inland, or

b) the sea will engulf them, leading to unacceptable radioactive environmental pollution for our grandchildren's generation.


Conclusion: The costs of Nuclear Power outweigh its benefits

The conclusion is that conventional nuclear power can only offer a trivial and short lived contribution to the need for CO2 free energy. The alternative, breeder technology could in theory produce significant amounts of electricity, but at a cost of making a generalised nuclear war at some time in the future almost inevitable - and a nuclear war of that magnitude would produce enhanced global warming - which is what we are trying to avoid.

The Alternative to Nuclear Power

A massive expansion of NP would divert financial and human resources away from far more cost effective CO2 saving measures such as energy efficient lighting and insulation measures (see table 1)

The arguments in favour of renewable energy are set out briefly below.

  1. In using renewables we are living off income, not capital.

  2. Renewables imply diversity and decentralisation of power. Instead of a few huge power stations vulnerable to attack, we have thousands of micro powerstations. Every rooftop can become a power station producing hot water and electricity. This is an inbuilt safety and protection feature, avoiding mass outages.

  3. Detractors emphasise the intermittent nature of wind power: but this is only one modality. When all the different modalities - wind, sun, wave, tide, biomass - are summated, there is a good match between solar energy supply and our diurnal use of energy.

  4. The key point about renewables are that they are ready for deployment now, unlike breeder technology which is still at the R&D stage.

  5. Renewables are a technology ready to go, unlike fission, thorium and fast breeders, which are but a gleam in their designers' eye.

  6. One pound spent on energy conservation saves 7 (seven) times as much CO2 as NP.

  7. One kWh of nuclear electricity produces approximately twice as much CO2 as one kWh of wind turbine electricity.

  8. Renewables have been held back by hostile decision makers

  • For example the Salter Duck wavepower system was scuppered after government assessors falsified the calculations of its costs.
  • The old Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) spent more money advertising nuclear power than developing renewables
  • Micro Combined Heat and power was specifically excluded from UK official calculations despite the DTI's own estimates that it could contribute 45Gw to our electricity generating capacity within 50 years. The economies of scale once achieved by building bigger and bigger power plants are now being eclipsed by other sorts of economies- through reliability and efficiency as well as mass production- offered by micropower. Progress has only come in fits and starts, but the trend is clear: the era of monopolization, centralization, and overregulation has started to give way to market forces in electricity. That, in a nutshell, explains why micropower has once again been given the chance to blossom."


James Lovelock may be an intellectual Samson of our time, but he should be careful not to spend too long in bed with the Delilah of nuclear power.

See also: FoE link

AEA link

Green Party link

(c) Richard Lawson 2004


© 2001 R. LawsonThis page was last updated on 26.11.2005