Friday, 17 December 2010

The government isn’t telling us the true cost of nuclear waste disposal

Dr Paul Dorfman
13th December, 2010

UK plans for ten new nuclear power plants will create £80 billion worth of radioactive waste that we still have no secure way of disposing

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and the nuclear industry have a plan for 10 new ‘Generation 3’ reactors, each one containing 2.5 times the radiological inventory of the UK’s biggest AGR reactor at Sizewell B. In a recent Ministerial statement, Chris Huhne, the Secretary of State for DECC made it clear that the Coalition is not ruling out taking on unspecified nuclear ‘financial risks or liabilities’ to make this happen. Given the sheer weight of our current nuclear legacy, its' clear that this will also involve nuclear waste ‘financial risks or liabilities’.

The most recent estimates are that, once ‘packaged’, the UK already has around 1,420 cubic metres of hot high-level radioactive waste, 364,000 cubic metres of long lived intermediate-level radioactive waste, and 3,470,000 cubic metres of toxic low-level radioactive waste. The Government proposes to house the high and intermediate part of this vast inventory in a deep hole five times the size of the Albert Hall over millennia. Government officials estimate that the cost of managing this waste and decommissioning will be around £80 billion and rising – five years ago it was around £50 billion. There are no secure estimates for costing a deep disposal repository.

Waste will be five times more radioactive

And this is just what we have at the moment. Although the nuclear industry estimate that any new build radioactive waste would increase the problem by only 10 per cent in volume - they fail to mention that the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management has worked out that the radioactivity would increase by five times, which means that we would need 15 Albert Halls to house the waste.

Steve Thomas, Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Greenwich Business School, suggests that the liberalisation of the energy market in Europe has pressured the nuclear industry to become more competitive. The industry realised that a decrease in cost could be achieved if the reactor’s power could be increased, and this could happen by using more enriched uranium as reactor fuel. The logic is that this ‘super-charged’ fuel will be left in the reactor for longer in order to provide, as Jeremy Clarkson might say, ‘more power’.

Unfortunately, the Law of Unintended Consequences also means that this ‘high burn-up’ spent fuel is twice as radioactive than conventional spent fuel, and the reactor operations will have a much tighter safety margin. This is because high burn-up fuel is much hotter, much more radioactive, and performs very poorly when subject to ‘abnormal conditions’. John Large, an international consulting nuclear engineer, notes that ‘These risks persist through the nuclear cycle, as high burn-up fuel is liable to release a much higher content of its fission product inventory, known as the ‘immediate release fraction’, than fuel used in current reactors. And the situation isn’t being helped by the nuclear industries heroic safety claims: AREVA EdF’s ‘worst case’ estimate - including terrorist attack – insist that no more than 0.2 per cent of the reactor core content would be released during ‘open containment’ in ‘abnormal conditions’.

But surely things are better elsewhere? Well, not really. Although the deep geological concept is in the very early stage of testing in Finland and Sweden - in the US, Obama has withdrawn funding from the Yucca Mountain geological radioactive waste dump, saying that ‘After spending billions of dollars on the Yucca Mountain Project, there are still significant questions about whether nuclear waste can be safely stored there’. In Japan and Germany, proposals for deep disposal facilities have encountered strong opposition, and in France, 15 years of research on deep underground burial has proved ‘inconclusive’.

Backdoor Subsidies Introduced to prop up Nuclear Power

The coalition government has torn up its “no subsidy for nuclear” commitment with a series of measures aimed at financially supporting the construction of new nuclear power stations.
Today’s announcement by Energy Secretary Chris Huhne on “electricity market reform” includes a range of mechanisms aimed at making low carbon sources of electricity more economic in comparison to polluting fossil fuels like coal and gas. But while generators of carbon-free renewable electricity will no doubt be pleased, the nuclear industry will be celebrating a successful lobbying exercise.

“Private companies like EdF have already said that they can’t build nuclear power stations without additional financial incentives,” said Stop Hinkley spokesman Crispin Aubrey. “These new measures are aimed at helping them make a profit from a technology that carries massive future liabilities, including dealing with dangerous radioactive waste for up to 160 years."
The pro-government Daily Telegraph newspaper describes the measures unequivocally as a subsidy for nuclear. “Years of lobbying by nuclear companies has finally paid off as the Government will today reveal plans to subsidise the price that they are paid for generating electricity”, it concludes .

The fragile economics of nuclear power are already on the line as the first European Pressurised Reactor being built - the type proposed for Hinkley C – has doubled its initial cost estimate to 5.7 billion Euros.

Nuclear power has been covertly subsidised for many years in two obvious ways - through taxpayer support for its decommissioning and waste disposal costs and through the limit set on its liability in the event of a serious accident. These new proposals will increase electricity bills - by as much as £500 a year according to one estimate - in order to help pay for nuclear new build.

The changes to the electricity market proposed today still have to be agreed by parliament and squared with European legislation, so there are opportunities for their bias towards nuclear to be exposed and ruled out of order.

Stop Hinkley will be supporting national action to push nuclear power out of the “clean energy” basket and expose it as a diversion from a genuinely green future involving energy saving and a range of renewable sources.