Tom Burke participates on The Economist’s online live debate on Nuclear power

Tom Burke participates on The Economist’s online live debate on Nuclear power

In light of the Fukushima disaster, is it time to finally give up on nuclear power? The Economist is holding a week long online debate on the merits for and against pursuing nuclear as part of our energy mix. Follow the debate “This house believes that the world would be better off without nuclear power”, comment, pass the message on and most importantly, vote.


Avoiding the radiological risks associated with civil nuclear power, whether in normal operation or from a catastrophe, is not the main reason the world would be better off without it. Atoms cannot be made to work for peace without making them available for war.

This is a lesson we have learned the hard way. The original five nuclear weapons states are now nine and will soon be joined by a tenth. All of the newcomers have acquired their weapons under the guise of developing civil nuclear power programmes.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has only slowed, not prevented, the spread of nuclear weapons. The skills and materials used in a nuclear power programme are indistinguishable from those needed to build nuclear weapons. A third of the nations with civil nuclear programmes have attempted to develop nuclear weapons.

There can be no argument that the world would be better off without more nuclear armed nations. This can only be guaranteed by removing the political cover provided by civilian nuclear power programmes. The enormity of the proliferation risk therefore demands that the case for continuing these programmes, thus maintaining this perilous ambiguity, be overwhelming. It is not.

If there is no compelling reason to accept the proliferation risk then the world will be better off in many other ways. Among them will be reduction of the economic risks of nuclear accidents. They are significant. The catastrophe at Fukushima is not yet over but it is already clear that the eventual cost will exceed $100 billion.

Two primary arguments are advanced for accepting the Faustian bargain offered by nuclear power. The first is that nuclear power is essential for energy security. The second is that it is necessary to avoid dangerous climate change. Climate change is without doubt the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. Ensuring energy security is one of the most urgent tasks facing any government.

If there really is no alternative, then the Faustian bargain of nuclear power will have to be managed as well as is possible. But such a force majeure argument must be subject to the most rigorous examination before its dread conclusion is accepted.

Nuclear power currently contributes surprisingly little to energy security – about 13% of the electricity delivered globally in 2009 –perhaps as little as 2% of final energy. This was rather less than the 18% delivered by co-generation and renewables. Furthermore, this share is declining. In recent years more reactors have closed than have opened.

Last year alone, not counting large dams, the renewables added 50 GW of new capacity – equivalent to about 40 nuclear reactors. The International Energy Agency, not known for its nuclear scepticism, projects that the number of new reactors built in coming decades will barely keep pace with the number closing.

Even that will take an heroic effort. Some 260 new reactors would have to come on line by 2025 to stand still. This would be a significant engineering achievement and would stretch the nuclear supply chain tightly, with big implications for costs. But it is hard to see what this does for energy security and clearly does not displace much coal or gas.

The reality is that, even in a more electricity dependent world, the contribution of nuclear power to world energy supplies is so small that it is already being replaced by improved energy efficiency, renewables, and fossil fuels. These options are cheaper, less risky and quicker than nuclear.

But also, at least in the case of the fossil fuels, much more damaging to the climate. Nuclear is clearly a low carbon option. Understanding what is happening in China is central to dealing with this horn of the energy-climate dilemma.

China has the most ambitious nuclear programme anywhere with more than 60GW of new capacity planned by 2030. Should it succeed, this will meet perhaps 4% of Chinese electricity demand. A quarter will come from renewables and the remaining 70% from coal and gas – mainly coal. In carbon reduction terms, even the world’s most aggressive nuclear programme is marginal. Not even the most valiant of nuclear advocates would suggest that a significant proportion of China’s projected coal burn could be displaced by nuclear.

But if this coal burn goes ahead unabated there is no prospect of avoiding dangerous climate change. Of course, this is not just a problem for China – many other countries have large coal programmes – just that the message is at its clearest here.

Nuclear power cannot save the world from the necessity of deploying carbon capture and storage or facing the impossible choice of letting the lights go out or destroying climate stability. It is a high risk distraction from what must become the central focus of the effort to deliver energy and climate security simultaneously.


Mr Hore-Lacy argues that nuclear power is safe and cheap and that it is a pity the accident was caught on television. When we all settle down and look at the reviews now being conducted by governments we will, he believes, discover that there are not many lessons to be learnt. This comes dangerously close to demonstrating exactly the complacency that many people fear most about the nuclear industry.

He does assert that nuclear is ‘greatly needed’ but provides no analysis to support this claim. This is a rather important omission as the question under debate is whether nuclear power is worth the effort and risk it entails.

Nuclear reactors are amongst the most complex and sophisticated examples of human ingenuity. They demonstrate an extraordinary level of engineering brilliance. Running them safely requires a level of management focus that other industries would do well to emulate. In routine operation, the nuclear industry has an excellent track record of meeting the required standard.

When running normally, nuclear reactors do little damage to public health. This contrasts vividly with the direct damage done to public health by burning coal. Furthermore, coal burning does considerable damage to the environment both directly and through its contribution to climate change.

I dealt in my previous contribution with the reasons why nuclear power can play, at best, only a minor role displacing coal use. As it happens, the technologies to make coal climate safe will also greatly reduce the health and other environmental impacts of its use.

But the issue raised by Fukushima is what happens when things go wrong. Here the contrasts are equally vivid. Most members of the public have intimate experience of Murphy’s Law operating in their lives both at home and at work. They are, properly, more interested in the consequences of a catastrophe than its likelihood.

Debate is already raging over effect of the catastrophic releases of radioactivity from Fukushima. Opinions range from the blandly reassuring – ‘trivial’ as Mr Hore-Lacy assures us – to the seriously anxious – the US government warning its citizens not to travel within 80 kilometres of the plant.

We will learn more about the damage from radiation in the months and years ahead. But in the meantime it is already clear that the impact of the accident on human well being is very large.

As many as 200,000 people face the prospect of never being able to return to their homes. TEPCO has lost 83% of its value, destroying the savings of a great many people. Millions more in Japan are understandably anxious about the potential impacts of radiation at any level on their children. Studies after Three Mile Island found that the mental health consequences were much more serious than the physical effects.

As Mr Hore-Lacy correctly points out, there have been very few nuclear catastrophes, though quite why he thinks that the ‘safety of nuclear power …… could hardly be better’ is not immediately obvious.
What happened at Fukushima was a loss of coolant accident. Caused, in this case, by the impact of the earthquake and tsunami which between them destroyed power supplies to the reactor’s cooling system.

This is among the worst things that could happen to a reactor and engineers have studied the likelihood of this happening extensively. These studies suggest such a catastrophic event might occur once in a hundred thousand years of reactor operations. Actual experience has been rather different. There have been three catastrophic loss of coolant events in the 14,500 reactor years to which Mr Hore-Lacy refers.

That is an actual frequency of once in every five thousand years of reactor operation. Put another way, with just over 400 reactors operating around the world, that is about once a decade. Given the cost of such events to taxpayers, it may not be long before even the most nuclear friendly governments begin to wonder if this is worth the risk.

Many government have been seduced by the idea that, whatever the risk, nuclear power is a cheap way to produce electricity. They believe Mr Hore-Lacy’s unsupported assertion that ‘only coal and natural gas can compete on cost’. In this they, like him, are mistaken.

No nuclear reactor anywhere has been built without government subsidy. The fact that private investors have never been willing to take the economic risk of nuclear power is a clear warning to treat all assertions about its costs with some suspicion.

The most extensive study yet done of nuclear subsidies concluded ‘ buying power on the open market and giving it away for free would have been less costly than subsidising the construction and operation of nuclear power plants.’ We have moved from the early claim of nuclear electricity being too cheap to meter, to it now being too costly to afford.


The moderator in his last intervention challenged my view that nuclear power is too costly to afford. He correctly points out that France has afforded a very large nuclear programme, as indeed has Japan. He then suggested that values differ and thus what looks like a waste of money to one nation may look worthwhile to another.

There is some force in this argument. Nations have different endowments of natural resources, including energy resources. Supplies of energy are more vulnerable to interruption for some countries than for others. This will understandably lead to different views on what price it is worth paying for energy security.

It would have been more accurate to have said that nuclear power is too costly to compete. Political judgements of the national interest are rarely uncontested. Entrenched interests and economically powerful lobbies battle for influence and backroom negotiations often determine more policy outcomes than public analysis.

Nuclear electricity is only available when governments stack the deck by transferring large chunks of its costs from customers to taxpayers. In other words, nuclear power does not deliver electricity at a lower cost to consumers and businesses anywhere in the world, including France, than would some combination of the options Mr Lovins sets out in his intervention if the competition were fair. This is a situation that will only get worse for the nuclear industry as its costs continue to rise while those for other options fall sharply.

Three big issues have concerned those who oppose this motion. Some are anxious the events in Fukushima will precipitate an unjustified abandonment of nuclear power. They feel that the alternative ways of maintaining energy security will do more harm to human life. Others fear that the other options are less reliable. For some, the overwhelming urgency of climate change means that we must do anything and everything we can to reduce carbon emissions.

Public anxiety on both sides of the safety debate is understandable: there are real, if poorly understood, dangers to health and the media treatment of these issues sometimes borders on the hysterical.

However, the nuclear debate is about a far more complex set of issues than can be reduced to a simple calculus of casualties.

We do not decide our transport policy by a body count. Were we to, we would drive cars a lot less and take buses more often. Important though the nuclear safety debate is, it is only one of the many factors to consider in weighing up the motion.

There is widespread concern about the intermittency of the renewables. As we move to avoid dangerous climate change our energy use will become ever more dominated by electricity. This makes security of supply an imperative not an option.

It is true that the sun does not always shine or the wind blow. What is less obvious is that nuclear electricity is also intermittent though for different reasons. Sometimes this is planned, over 10% of the time, on other occasions it is not. In both cases it means a lot of power is lost all at once.

Unplanned loss of nuclear capacity can last for months – as in the six months loss of Sizewell last year – and sometimes for years. What is more, a common fault can take down several reactors at once. Even so, to worry about the availability of a particular technology is to misunderstand the nature of modern electricity grids.

It is the robustness of the network that matters most for security of supply. Mr Lovins sets out some of the management techniques that network operators now have at their disposal. These came into good use last month in Germany when the government shutdown seven nuclear power stations at once without the lights going out.

For some, the urgency of climate change is such that, in their eyes, it would be folly, bordering on immorality, to foreclose a low carbon option like nuclear. Even if, as I showed in my proposition, it can only make a marginal contribution we must do everything we possibly can.

This argument is as alluring as it is illusory. If there were no limits to the availability of financial and technical resources I might agree. But there are such limits. The danger in trying to do a little of everything is that you end up not doing enough of anything. This means we must make choices.

The loudly trumpeted, but now somewhat stalled, nuclear renaissance was designed to promote the idea that more nuclear was inevitable. Its intent was to conceal the availability of other choices that would make us better off.

The reality is that we have a very wide range of energy options with which the world would be better off. A climate and energy safe world of greater energy efficiency, smart grids, gas with carbon capture and storage and renewable technologies is available. All we have to do it choose it.

I urge you to support the motion.


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