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Ecologist: Taking The Wind Out Of Nuclear Power

FROM PACIFIC ECOLOGIST, issue 11 - pp 51 - 57.

Taking The Wind Out Of Nuclear Power

learning from the U.K. experience - (Part one)

Pacific Ecologist issue 11 summer 2005/2006
Click For Full Contents & Editorial

PETER BUNYARD exposes the dangerous and uneconomic reality behind the myths of nuclear energy’s cheapness, safety and low greenhouse gas emissions.

What can the nuclear industry do for us?

Advocates have long seen nuclear power as the saviour of industrial society, delivering unlimited energy, cheaply and safely. It’s now being promoted as the answer to the growing global energy crisis, apparently providing an attractive alternative to fossil fuels, while also reducing their damaging influence on global climate.[1] For example, the World Energy Council recently said: “Nuclear power is of fundamental importance for most WEC members because it is the only energy supply which already has a very large and well diversified resource (and potentially unlimited resource if breeders are used), is quasi-indigenous, does not emit greenhouse gases, and has either favourable or at most slightly unfavourable economics. In fact should the climate change threat become a reality, nuclear is the only existing power technology which could replace coal in base load.[2]

But before we become dependent on nuclear power to solve our ever-increasing need for energy, we should check the basic facts and make the relevant comparisons.

Conservation, greenhouse gas and nuclear plants

Firstly, let’s consider the benign potential of energy conservation. Amory Lovins, William Keepin and Gregory Kats (Energy Policy, December 1988) of the Rocky Mountain Institute have shown energy conservation strategies are far more effective in reducing carbon dioxide emissions than constructing power stations of whatever type. Nuclear power only produces electricity and can only possibly displace electricity plants, not the bulk of CO2 emissions which come from cars, trucks, factory smokestacks and home furnaces.

They also looked at the costs of nuclear versus improved energy efficiency and found every dollar invested in energy efficiency displaces 6.8 times more carbon than the same investment in nuclear power. “To the extent investments in nuclear power divert funds away from efficiency,” the study concludes, “the pursuit of a nuclear response to greenhouse warming would effectively exacerbate the problem.” Obviously it would be much better to replace investment in nuclear power with investment in energy efficiency, for example insulating drafty buildings or installing energy-efficient light bulbs.

Is nuclear power a realistic option?

Today, 440 nuclear reactors, with a capacity totalling 363 gigawatts (109 watts), provide 16 percent of electricity used worldwide,[3] and 6 percent of total energy worldwide. The reactors need about 67,000 tonnes of natural uranium annually. Uranium, like petroleum is a finite resource. Once the high-grade uranium ores are exhausted, the energy required to extract and process the more common but much poorer grade ores for continuing use in nuclear reactors will result in the production of more CO2 than if fossil fuels were burned directly. Hence, a massive worldwide nuclear programme will add cumulatively to energy demands, rather than solve them.[4]

  • Current uranium reserves, according to 2003 data from the World Nuclear Association, are about 3.5 million tonnes, enough to last 50 years but only at present consumption rates. If large numbers of nuclear reactors were to be built to satisfy our ever-increasing demand for electricity, reserves of high-grade ore would be rapidly exhausted, leaving huge quantities of low-grade ores most of which would cost more energy to utilise than it would deliver in electricity. Even if useful uranium resources were found to be much larger than now estimated, it would only satisfy global demand for several decades and then the world would be left with huge quantities of radioactive waste with no source of energy to sequester it safely. [4]
  • According to detailed research published this year (2005), if all the world’s electricity, currently 55 exajoules (1018 joules) or 15,000 terawatt(1012 watts)-hours, could be generated by nuclear reactors, the world’s known uranium reserves would last only 3.5 years, if full dismantling costs of nuclear plants are included. [4]
  • As 2003 data from the World Nuclear Association shows, there is not even enough uranium left to provide the world’s current annual total electrical production of 55 EJ for a decade, even if the large amount of energy needed to properly dismantle the reactor is also used, thus leaving the dangers of radioactive waste pollution of the environment for future generations to bear. [4]
  • A disturbing feature of the cost of nuclear power is many of the costs will have to be paid by unborn generations, who will not have benefitted from the nuclear-produced energy - see section below, Is nuclear power safe? A great deal of fossil fuel is needed after a nuclear power plant has stopped producing energy. To date none of these huge debts incurred by existing nuclear power plants have been paid. [4]
  • Nuclear power actually requires large amounts of fossil fuel, carbon dioxide-producing energy, used in the mining of uranium, its milling and enrichment; in the building of nuclear plants and reactors, the transport and storage of large quantities of highly dangerous radioactive waste for millennia; and in the decommissioning and final dismantling of nuclear plants. An analysis shown in the study Nuclear Power, The Energy Balance of the complete lifecycle of nuclear power, shows generating electricity from nuclear power emits 20-40% of the carbon dioxide per kiloWatt hour of a gas-fired system. [4]But this is a temporary situation, true only as long as rich, high-grade uranium ores are available. Once high-grade ores are exhausted, and lower grades used, the carbon dioxide emissions from nuclear power will increase until more energy is used than produced.
  • Nuclear power also emits other greenhouse gases besides carbon dioxide with far stronger global warming consequences, such as CFCs. - see article, Nuclear power creates potent climate warming gas by Dr Caldicott.
  • Seawater contains 3.3 milligram of uranium per cubic metre of seawater and has been considered a possible future source for energy use. Total seawater volume is estimated at 1.37 billion cubic kilometres, with the oceans containing around 4.5 billion tonnes of uranium. It’s technically possible to extract uranium from seawater but enormous, prohibitive energy and chemical inputs would be necessary as the uranium is in such dilute quantities in the vast oceans. [4] Existing research shows uranium from seawater can’t be considered a practicable option for the global energy supply. Energy consumption of the extraction processes would equal the energy content of the uranium.

Aside from the scarcity of high-grade nuclear ore, if the world were to embark on the construction of nuclear plants to replace all coal-fired power plants, it would require one gigawatt-sized nuclear reactor to be built every two and a half days for 38 years. According to William Keepin, [5],[6] in his 1990 report for Greenpeace, 5,000 nuclear plants would be needed to displace the estimated 9.4 terawatts of coal required for electricity generation in the world by 2025. With highly optimistic assumptions about capital costs and plant reliability, total electricity generation costs (1990 US dollars) would average $525 billion per year.

Lengthy construction time

Nuclear power has a record of long construction times, measured in decades. The last reactor to come on-line in the United States took 23 years to complete. Fifteen years has been the average time taken in many Eastern European countries using USSR technology. In France, the average time taken from construction to operation is 8 years.

In the 1970s, nuclear physicist Alvin Weinberg, then director of the U.S. government’s Oak Ridge Nuclear Laboratories in Tennessee, called his vision of a future fuelled by nuclear energy a Faustian Bargain. He envisaged a future time when fossil fuels would be in short supply and too expensive to fuel a consumer society. On the basis of the 1970s average U.S. standard of living becoming the standard for all inhabitants of the world, and taking into account, a population expanded to 8 billion by 2025, he reckoned we would need tens of thousands of large fast reactors worldwide, operating simultaneously, as cheaper sources of uranium would by then have long since vanished. A way to deal with the problem, he thought would be to bombard the commonest uranium isotope (uranium-238) with neutrons, so converting the uranium into plutonium. Fast reactors are so-called because they operate with neutrons that have not been reduced in speed by a moderator (material in the reactor core). [7]

“Colossal” threat of fast breeders

In 1995, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published a report which considered several options to mitigate climate change, including global expansion of nuclear power. [8] (The IPCC consists of several hundred scientists and contributors, recognised internationally as experts in their field, and was convened by the U.N. and World Meteorological Society to assess climate change.)

The IPCC report assumed installed nuclear capacity would grow from 1995’s 330 GW capacity to about 3,300 GW in 2100, with a tenfold increase in nuclear reactors over this century. But they found there would also be a huge increase in spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste generated. The IPCC calculated if this plan was followed, it would lead to 6.3 million tons of accumulated spent fuel by 2100. They also analysed the possibility of reprocessing, separating plutonium from the spent nuclear fuel, for use in Fast Breeder Reactors, burning plutonium instead of uranium as fuel. Accumulated volumes of high-level nuclear waste for disposal would be around 200,000 m3 by 2100. Between 0.1 - 3 million kg/year of plutonium would be generated, depending on the mix of technologies used, resulting in a plutonium inventory of between 50-100 million kg. They concluded the security threat created by such massive amounts of plutonium were colossal. A nuclear bomb powerful enough to destroy a city requires only 10 kg of plutonium.

Credible claims fast breeders would provide energy essentially forever are no longer heard, as Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith say. [9] Programmes to develop fast-neutron breeders demand huge investment, not only of money, but of fossil fuels. While it would be unwise to claim breeders can never be a viable energy source, after half a century of failed attempts in the U.S. the U.K. France and Germany, the dreams appear to be pipe dreams. Nuclear fusion is another pipe dream. Even optimists don’t expect the enormous technical problems to be conquered in an acceptable timeframe.

Is nuclear power safe?

  • Reprocessing spent fuel over the past 40 years, at Sellafield in Cumbria and similar plants at Cap de la Hague over the Channel in Normandy, has led to the spread of radioactive material, such as tritium and carbon-14 into the Irish Sea and in waters around the Channel Islands. Many, including the Irish government, believe significant increases in childhood cancers around Sellafield and Down’s syndrome in Ireland, have resulted from radioactive contamination. [10 a-e] Imagine the long-term consequences of a world deriving its energy primarily from plutonium.
  • Currently, in Western Europe, with numerous nuclear power plants, rivers are used for disposing of the cooling water from the reactors of nuclear power plants, as well as being used for drinking water. The cooling water becomes highly-tritium radioactive. The long-term effects and biochemical reactions of tritium and carbon-14 in living organisms are not understood. A sustainable energy system would require all tritium be sequestered from the biosphere. But this has not been done because of the huge costs of trying to safely keep very large numbers of containers with tritiated waste, which would also require a similar immense use of energy. [4] /li>

  • A leaked document from the UK Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology reported by New Scientist magazine on 26/5/04, said a terror attack such as a large plane crashing into a reactor could release as much radioactivity as the Chernobyl accident in 1986, while a crash into waste tanks at Sellafield in Cumbria could cause at worst, “several million fatalities. According to a 16/5/05 BBC report there are 10,000 tonnes of high and intermediate level radioactive waste in the U.K., 90% of which is stored at Cumbria's Sellafield nuclear plant, until another solution can be found. This is set to grow to half a million tonnes of nuclear waste by the end of this century even without any new plants being built. “Do we really want to generate more nuclear reactors producing even more waste when we don't know what to do with all the waste that is building up?” asked M.P. Mr Michael Meacher.
  • Other reports reveal although no-fly zones around nuclear sites in the U.K. have been doubled since the Sept 11 attack in the US., there have been many breeches by both military and civilian aircraft straying into the no-fly zones. An accident could also claim millions of lives. The 2004 leaked report acknowledges the risks are difficult to assess because so much information - including operators' estimates of the health impacts of radiation releases - is kept secret. But it concludes it would be possible for terrorists to cause a radioactive release - and that the UK's current emergency arrangements may not be sufficient to cope. “It is totally unacceptable that the information we need to judge the risks is kept confidential, and that we have to take so much on trust,” says Llew Smith, a Welsh MP investigating the risks of nuclear attacks by terrorists.
  • Uranium-238, the most prevalent isotope in uranium ore, has a half life of about 4.5 billion years. Its associated decay products, thorium-230 and radium -226 will remain hazardous for thousands of years. Current U.S. regulations only cover a period of just 1000 years for mill tailings, although the half lives of the principal radioactive components of mill tailings, thorium-230 and radium -226 are about 75,000 years and 1,600 years respectively. This means future generations, far beyond the promised protection limits of these regulations will face significant risks from our uranium mining, milling and processing activities. [11a]
  • Continuing to store depleted uranium hexafluoride, DUF6, the by-product of uranium enrichment, in cylinders requires constant maintenance and monitoring because the estimated lifetime of the cylinders is measured in decades, whereas the half-life of the main constituent of DU, uranium-238 is about 4.5 billion years. Storage cylinders must be regularly inspected for evidence of corrosion and leakage. Long-term storage presents environmental, health and safety hazards, due to the instability of UF6. When exposed to moist air, it reacts with water in the air to produce uranyl fluoride and hydrogen fluoride, both of which are toxic. [11b]
  • Sloppy maintenance in the nuclear industry raises serious concerns. Radioactive material leaked unnoticed for eight months from a fractured pipe from a fractured pipe for eight months from August 2004 until April 2005, at the British Nuclear Fuels thermal oxide reprocessing plant at Sellafield. [12] No one noticed concentrated nitric acid, containing 20 tonnes of uranium and 160 kilograms of plutonium spewing onto the concrete floor. No alarm bells rang. Spillage of highly radioactive nuclear waste containing enough fissile material for several nuclear weapons does not inspire confidence.
  • The recent sacking of international radiation expert, Keith Baverstock, from the UK government's Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, highlights continuing problems in disposing dangerous radioactive nuclear waste. Baverstock and another committee member, David Ball, told the responsible minister, the Committee was: “deciding the fate of hazardous material, thought by some to be the most dangerous in the world, in the way one might decide on the location of next year's village fete.” [13] (Observer, 24 April, 2005).
  • Huge costs of shoring up the nuclear plants when equipment fails are another concern. On 26/3/05, Rob Edwards, in New Scientist, reported British Energy unexpectedly discovered cracks in the graphite cores of its Advanced Gas Reactor (AGR). The blocks have the double function of moderating the nuclear fission process and providing structural channels for nuclear fuel and control rods. Potential failure of the graphite compromises safety, so it’s highly likely the UK’s 14 AGRs, currently supplying nearly one-fifth of the U.K.’s electricity, will be shut down prematurely, instead of lasting to 2020 or beyond. Use of fossil fuel reserve capacity to replace the damaged AGRs will inevitably lead to a surge in greenhouse gas emissions.

Nuclear industry subsidies & deceptions

More recently, on 18/7/05, The Guardian reported the government paid a subsidy of £184m, for “spent fuel liabilities,” in March to help prop-up British Energy, (already bailed out of bankruptcy in 2003). The liabilities result from long-standing reprocessing contracts with state-owned British Nuclear Fuels, at Sellafield in Cumbria. BNFL is paid to take away used fuel and dissolve it in acid to recover the plutonium and uranium. For the privatised British Energy this is an expensive, unnecessary process as it has no use for the plutonium and uranium. BNFL is therefore paid to store it. As the reprocessing contracts would damage the viability of British Energy, the government has agreed to pick up the bill for this work and the storing of the waste until the contracts expire in 2086. The subsidy means most of the costs of dealing with the highly radioactive and dangerous spent fuel taken out of British Energy's advanced gas-cooled reactors will fall on the taxpayer.

The £184m payment, or similar amounts, will be repeated every year to pay the costs of British Energy's contracts with BNFL. In effect, the company's shareholders will be able to get profits from the generation of electricity without having to pay the cost of disposing of the fuel afterwards. The payment will appear as operating income from customers in BNFL's accounts, whereas, although not revealed in BNFL's annual accounts published in June, it is in effect a direct payment from the taxpayer via British Energy. The government's use of taxpayer's money to prop up both British Energy and BNFL may prove more embarrassing. The money goes directly to subsidising the reprocessing plant at Sellafield, shut down in April because of a leak. So it is being paid for a suspended service which may never be able to be provided.

In the past and before privatisation of the electricity supply industry, the U.K.s state-owned Electricity Generating Boards sought to maintain the fiction of nuclear power’s cheapness. They managed to convince successive governments, but not the Committee for the Study of the Economics of Nuclear Electricity (CSENE) who unravelled the distortions and assumptions used. In its 1981 report the committee lambasted the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) for using discredited accounting methods to promote nuclear power over other systems, such as holding to historic costs rather than inflation-adjusted ones. Since all U.K. nuclear power stations had experienced massive cost overruns, historic accounting minimised generating costs and prejudiced results favourably against other forms of electricity generation.

Year after year, in its annual reports, the CEGB declared nuclear power gave the cheapest electricity. In fact, the reverse was true as the industry was being hugely subsidised by coal-fired generation.

As the CSENE report stated:

“The Generating costs of nuclear power stations in the UK, based on conventional criteria are, and have always been, greater than those of contemporary coal-fired plant. Add to those costs of nuclear power, the costs of ensuring obsolete plants are properly dismantled; that environmental contamination with the radioactive wastes is kept to a minimum; that adequate steps are taken to ensure that accidents involving major releases of radioactivity are avoided; that full insurance costs are taken into account, then clearly nuclear power becomes wholly uneconomic.”

Meanwhile, in speculating about future generating costs from a new nuclear power station, such as proposed for Sizewell, the Electricity Board devised all manner of accounting sleights of hand to prove the country would save money by bringing them “on stream” well ahead of any shortfall in generating capacity.

Huge costs make nuclear industry unprofitable

The CSENE report showed, in sharp contradiction to the Board’s analysis, that a station such as Sizewell B would cost £2 billion more (1980's money) over its lifetime than a comparable-sized conventional thermal power station such as Drax B in Yorkshire. Include inflation and cheaper electricity generation from natural gas, from imported coal, or even better from “combined cycle plants” which convert fossil fuel heat into electricity more than twice as efficiently — and comparative lifetime losses from operating one new nuclear plant could top £5 billion. Costs of pursuing the nuclear option are simply enormous.

Twenty years on, the current financial crisis facing the nuclear industry, despite having its capital costs largely written off, is proof of CSENE’s original analysis.

Just how unprofitable the industry is, became embarrassingly clear after the government sold its nuclear assets. In 1996, for £1.5 billion, newly created British Energy acquired seven Advanced Gas Reactor (AGR) stations and the country’s only commercial Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR). Actual construction costs amounted to more than £50 billion, with more than £3 billion recently spent on the newly commissioned Sizewell PWR.

The government sell-off of what was to become the U.K.’s largest electricity producer might have seemed a give-away at the time, but, in 2002, having to compete for electricity sales against non-nuclear energy generators, British Energy found its losses piling up. [14] In less than a year, in the biggest write-off of capital in the UK, the company’s market value plummeted to little more than £100 million. Basically British Energy could not go on trading and had to call on government to salvage it. If British Energy had been generating electricity from any other source, coal for instance, or even wind-power, the government would have let it go to the wall, but despite complaints of favouritism from non-nuclear companies, in 2002 the government agreed to loan £410 million to British Energy, shortly after raising it to £650 million. (Additionally, Energy Minister Brian Wilson had told Parliament on 27/1/02 that government would provide the £200 million for the decommissioning fund.)

Such support for the nuclear industry was economic nonsense to Dale Vince, managing director of Ecotricity. In an interview with Terry Macalistair of The Guardian (19/9/02), he said: “If we were given £410 million instead of British Energy, we could have built enough onshore wind energy to power 10 percent of the country’s electricity needs.”



Thorium, a naturally occurring radioactive metal, as well as uranium, can be used as fuel in a nuclear reactor. Given a start with some other fissile material (U-235 or Pu-239), a breeding cycle similar to but more efficient than that with U-238 and plutonium (in slow-neutron reactors) can be set up. The Th-232 absorbs a neutron to become Th-233 which normally decays to protactinium-233 and then U-233. The irradiated fuel can then be unloaded from the reactor, the U-233 separated from the thorium, and fed back into another reactor as part of a closed fuel cycle.

Problems include the high cost of fuel fabrication due partly to the high radioactivity of U-233 which is always contaminated with traces of U-232; the similar problems in recycling thorium due to highly radioactive Th-228; some weapons proliferation risk of U-233; and the technical problems (not yet satisfactorily solved) in reprocessing. Much development work is still required before the thorium fuel cycle can be commercialised, and the effort required seems unlikely while (or where) abundant uranium is available.

Thorium, abundantly found in Australia and India is about 3 times more abundant than uranium. The hitch with using thorium as a fuel is that breeding must occur before any power can be extracted from it, and that requires neutrons. Some engineers have proposed using particle accelerators to generate the needed neutrons, but this process is hugely costly, and the only practical scheme at the moment is to combine the thorium with conventional nuclear fuels (made up of either plutonium or enriched uranium or both), the fissioning of which provides the neutrons to start things off.

Previous work on thorium elsewhere in the world did not lead to its adoption, largely because its performance in water reactors, such as the first core at the Indian Point power station, did not live up to expectations. Given this history, it may come as a surprise that thorium-based nuclear fuels are once again being considered, this time as the means to stem the potential proliferation of nuclear weapons. Using thorium to prevent plutonium buildup, requires the fuel to be configured differently than in most past experiments. Those trials incorporated highly enriched uranium (now discouraged because of proliferation worries) and presupposed the spent fuel would be reprocessed to extract its fissile contents. Neither practice is now envisaged. The thorium-based fuel assemblies currently being designed are different from past examples in other ways too. For example, they can withstand greater exposure to the heat and radiation inside the core of a reactor, without exploding, which allows more of the fertile thorium-232 to be converted into fissile uranium-233. But whether enough energy to generate neutrons can be supplied by a particle accelerator on the scale required is an unanswered question, as is whether any government is willing to take on the risks involved in financing such a gigantic project.

DANGERS - Powdered thorium metal is often pyrophoric and should be handled carefully. Thorium disintegrates with the eventual production of “thoron,” an isotope of radon (220-Rn). Radon gas is a radiation hazard. Good ventilation of areas where thorium is stored or handled is therefore essential. Exposure to thorium in the air can lead to increased risk of cancers of the lung, pancreas and blood. Exposure to thorium internally leads to increased risk of liver diseases. Thorium-232 decays very slowly (its half-life is about three times the age of the earth) but other thorium isotopes occur in the thorium and uranium decay chains. Most of these are short-lived but much more radioactive than Th-232.

Sources: Wikipedia Commons; The Uranium Information Centre; American Scientist Sept/Oct 2003; Storm van Leeuwen, J.W. and Smith, P., August 2005. Nuclear Power: the Energy Balance, Chapter 3.


Decommissioning costs skyrocket

An update on huge nuclear plant decommissioning costs was reported in The Guardian Weekly, 12/8/05, with Paul Brown, writing that costs of cleaning up more than 50 years of Britain’s nuclear waste had risen by £8bn to £56bn and will rise further. Sir Anthony Cleaver, chairman of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, said on 11/8, if another 100 tonnes of plutonium plus thousands of tonnes of uranium stored at Sellafield, are also classified as waste, the bill will rise by a further £10bn. The stored materials are currently guarded by armed men day and night because of the terrorist threat.

You can’t just shut down nuclear stations and walk away. Safety systems, including core-cooling, must be kept running as long as fuel is in the core. Then, when the spent fuel is extracted, you have to make multi-billion dollar decisions about what to do with it. Do you send it to loss-making British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) for reprocessing, with all that entails like discharges of radioactive waste into the Irish Sea and the atmosphere? Do you continue sanctioning production of Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX), a decision that makes economic nonsense, is a dubious at best saving on uranium, and is a security nightmare? Or do you reduce costs by storing the spent fuel intact, in the expectation BNFL demands compensation for broken contracts? Whatever they decide, government will be forced to make nuclear power a special case, an exception to rules laid down for the rest of the electricity supply industry.

Other costs and security/terrorism risks

Many critics have repeatedly said the gains of using MOX are far outweighed by economic and environmental problems. Using France as an example, reprocessing spent fuel to extract plutonium for MOX fuel manufacture will contribute only 5 to 8 percent of the fresh uranium needed. But, as experience in France and Britain has shown, reprocessing spent reactor fuel leads to well over a hundred-fold increase in volume of radioactive wastes. [15] Finally, all materials used, including tools, equipment and even buildings become radioactive and must be treated as a radioactive hazard.

It’s also highly questionable that MOX fuel use will reduce the amount of plutonium generated from half a century of operating reactors, both military and civil. Worldwide, more than 1500 tonnes of plutonium has been generated, from which 250 tonnes have been extracted for bomb-making and another 250 tonnes extracted as a result of reprocessing spent fuel from “civilian” reactors. Apart from its military-grade plutonium, which is relatively pure in the 239 isotope(239Pu), Britain now has 50 tonnes of lower quality reactor-grade plutonium contaminated with other, less readily-fissionable isotopes such as 241Pu.

All plutonium, whether weapons or reactor-grade, can be used to make a nuclear bomb. As Frank Barnaby pointed out in the CornerHouse Briefing, [16] the world’s nuclear powers (the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China) have accumulated more than enough weapons-grade plutonium for bomb manufacture. Yet, because of continued reprocessing of spent reactor fuel in commercial reprocessing plants in Britain, France, Russia and Japan, the world will have around 550 tonnes of separated civil plutonium by the year 2010, enough, says Barnaby, to produce 110,000 nuclear weapons. [17]

A few kilograms only is required for a nuclear bomb, hence concerns terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda will one day, if not already, acquire sufficient material to make an effective bomb. Mixed oxide fuel, containing up to 5 percent plutonium, is ideal for terrorists, being no more than mildly radioactive compared with spent reactor fuel, and in a form from which plutonium can be easily extracted. Just one MOX fuel assembly contains 25 kilograms of plutonium, enough for two weapons. A reactor, modified to take 30 percent of the plutonium-enriched fuel in the reactor core, has 48 MOX fuel assemblies.

Currently 23 light water reactors - 5 in Germany, 3 in Switzerland, 13 in France and 2 in Belgium - have been converted to use MOX fuel. Five countries, Britain, Belgium, France, Japan and Russia, are manufacturing the fuel. With BNFL’s new MOX plant up and running, supply will exceed demand by a factor of two, at least until 2015. The excess will force prices down below costs, hence the scam of the UK government taking over the plants’ capital costs, so turning a loss-making venture into one that might appear profitable.

BNFL claims use of MOX fuel will help burn up stocks of plutonium, including those from dismantled weapons. But the very operation of civilian reactors, with their load of the plutonium-generating uranium isotope, the 238 isotope (238U), makes it inevitable more plutonium is generated than consumed. According to Barnaby’s calculations, a 900 megawatt pressurized water reactor, modified to take MOX fuel will burn a little less than one tonne of plutonium every ten years, whereas plutonium production will be about 1.17 tonnes, i.e. about 120 kilograms more.

BNFL has been operating its MOX Demonstration Facility since 1993. For safety, the plutonium must be uniformly well-mixed with the uranium in each of the pellets contained in a fuel rod. 289 rods make one fuel assembly. If the plutonium is not well mixed, parts of the rod could overheat, damaging the cladding. Aside from problems in controlling a reactor core running unevenly, fission products will escape from damaged cladding, adding to radioactive discharges from the reactor into the immediate environment.

Testing for fuel discrepancies is expensive and time-consuming. BNFL routinely inspects about one pellet in every 40,000, and a high 20 percent are found to be of inferior grade. Quality control of MOX fuel became a major issue in 1999 when Japanese customers discovered BNFL falsified inspection data and was forced in 2002 at great cost to return the fuel to the U.K. A chorus of dismay greeted the nuclear convoy from countries around the world close to the ships’ passage. An accident (not to mention deliberate attack), causing release of even a fraction of the plutonium contained in such shipments would have a devastating impact on the environment and public health. Plutonium is highly radiotoxic with a half life of 24,000 years. Accidents happen. According to worldwide statistics, the average fire on ships burns for 23 hours at high temperatures. Tests on plutonium MOX material has shown it will start to break down within 15 minutes in temperatures of only 430 degrees centigrade.

Disasters like those at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have aroused public concern about the consequences of nuclear accidents. But it’s the highly uneconomic costs of nuclear power, which has caused its failure to make its mark as a major energy source in the world. In the U.S. where nuclear technology originated, all civilian reactors were ordered between 1963 and 1973, with huge subsidies from government. No new ones have been ordered since 1973, six years before the accident at Three Mile Island.

A sustainable energy system would not bring about irreversible effects in the environment. Why waste diminishing fossil fuel resources, and huge sums of money, on more nuclear plants, using diminishing uranium resources which can provide only temporarily a fraction of our energy needs AND leave massive amounts of long-lasting toxic waste for future generations to deal with which cannot be successfully sequestered for eons from the environment?

It’s time to give up the dangerous, costly pursuit of nuclear energy. Renewable energy - wind-power, tidal and wave power, solar heating and photovoltaics are the truly promising options for a viable, safe, sustainable future. (See Part 2, next article in this issue.)


Peter Bunyard, science editor of The Ecologist, U.K. This article has been compiled from a larger article by Peter and updated for Pacific Ecologist by its editor.


1. NEA (2002) Nuclear Energy and the Kyoto Protocol. Paris: OECD.

2. See for example website of World Nuclear Energy Association -

3. World Nuclear Association, 2005. Nuclear Power in the world today. Information and issue brief, January 2005.
3. see Storm van Leeuwen, J.W. and Smith,P, August 2005, Nuclear Power: the Energy Balance, Chapter 2; based on 2003 data from the World Nuclear Association

4. Storm van Leeuwen, J.W. and Smith, P., August 2005. Nuclear Power: the Energy Balance. Chapter3.

5. William Keepin. On costs and limitations of a large-scale nuclear power programme. Greenpeace, OUP 1990.

6. William Keepin and Gregory Kats. On greenhouse gas emissions from the use of nuclear power in the USA. Energy Policy December 1988.

7. Fast reactors are so-called because they operate with neutrons that have not been reduced in speed by a moderator. ‘Fast’ neutrons, surplus to maintaining the power of the reactor are allowed to interact with a ‘sleeve’ of depleted uranium, hence uranium rich in uranium-238, placed around the core of a fast reactor. By picking up a neutron and emitting beta radiation (a supercharged electron) the uranium gains a proton so turning it into plutonium-239. Plutonium production means reprocessing spent radioactive fuel to extract fissile material.

8. IPCC working group II (1995) Impacts, Adaptations and Mitigation of Climate Change : Scientific-Technical Analyses. Climate Change 1995 IPCC working group II.

9. Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith., Chapter 3, August 2005. Nuclear Power: the Energy Balance. .

10a. “Plutonium from Sellafield in all children's teeth - Government admits plant is the source of contamination but says risk is 'minute'.’ The Observer, Antony Barnett, public affairs editor 30/11/2003.

10b. "Childhood Cancer and Nuclear installations."Edited by V. Beral and E. Roman, Imperial Cancer Research Fund, Cancer 9. Epidemiology Unit, Oxford University, and M Bobrow, Division of Medical Molecular Genetics St Thomas Hospitals London, 1993, summary.

10.c. The Ecologist Vol. 16, No. 4/5 1986, "The Sellafield Discharges" Marine Pollution

10.d. . "Additional Evidence of Failure to Reduce and Eliminate Marine Pollution from Nuclear Reprocessing Discharges since 1992", OSPAR Ministeral Meeting,. Submitted to Ministeral Meeting of the OSPAR Commission 1998, by Greenpeace International.

10e. The Independent, August 1, 2001.

11a. pgs 33 in Appendix 1: in Uranium: its uses & Hazards in Uranium Enrichment, Just plain Facts October 2004 by Arjun Makhijani, Lois Chalmers, Brice Smith. Prepared by Institute for Environmental Research for the Nuclear Policy Research Institute.

11b. pg 38 in Appendix 3: Depleted Uranium in the United States in Uranium: its uses & Hazards in Uranium Enrichment, Just plain Facts October 2004 by Arjun Makhijani, Lois Chalmers, Brice Smith. Prepared by Institute for Environmental Research for the Nuclear Policy Research Institute.

12. Nuclear Engineering International 2005 New plant culture 27 July 2005 ; BBC NEWS 12/6/05 Legal threat over Sellafield leak.

13. The Observer, 24 April, 2005.

14. . see Guardian Special Report: The Nuclear Industry,2759,181325,00.html

15.. Sellafield working paper 5:2001 - The volume of radioactive waste is 189 times greater when reprocessed at THORP than it would be if the spent fuel is stored as waste on shore. -

16.Frank Barnaby. CornerHouse Briefing (No. 17, December 1999).

17. See also Nuclear Control Institute - The Plutonium Threat.


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