EDF keeps pushing its pointless nuclear pipe dream
By Pete Wilkinson
EDF CEO Jean-Bernard Lévy makes some schoolboy errors in his misleading defence of nuclear power in his February 25th speech at the International Energy Agency, as reported by World NuclearNews, 20 May 2019. M. Lévy is careful to use the word “direct” when claiming that nuclear power produces electricity without emissions; by this, he presumably means that the only part of the nuclear fuel chain that can even come close to being “low carbon” is that which “burns” uranium in the reactor.
Of course, he knows, as do we all, that across the entire fuel chain, nuclear power requires an acceptance of a carbon footprint from uranium mining, milling, enrichment, fuel production, transport, nuclear plant construction, storage and the still-unknown CO2 burdens created by final spent fuel and waste management conundrums. To claim otherwise is disingenuous, especially from someone in such a position of responsibility.
It is true that the fight against climate change is challenging, but to conclude that nuclear power is essential to winning that fight is wrong and designed to defend a technology which is antiquated, costly, polluting and presents us with a wealth of unresolved health issues related to childhood leukaemia. Sixty studies, including the seminal German government-sponsored KiKK Report indicate elevated rates of leukaemia and other cancers as a result of exposure to ionising radiation.
The Oxford Research Group produced a report in 2007 – Too Hot to Handle? The Future of Civil Nuclear Power – which clearly demonstrated that, given the global nature of the problem of climate change, it would require building between 2,000 and 2,500 nuclear plants to have a noticeable impact on the problem. “Nearly four new reactors would have to begin construction each month from now until 2075,” said the 2007 report. That would have meant one new reactor a week for 68 years, starting 12 years ago. The report called such an aspiration “a pipedream [sic]”.
Impossible, yes, but wholly undesirable as well since the nuclear waste legacy that scale of programme would create is unthinkable: we can’t even deal with the 500,000 cubic metres of legacy waste in the UK after 60 years of merrily creating it without a thought about how to manage it safely.
Even after ten years of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the UK is still no closer to a universally safe and secure means of dealing with the legacy waste, let alone the hotter and more radioactive waste which M. Lévy’s reactors will leave us over the next few decades in return for huge amounts of UK tax payers’ cash should the plant at Hinkley ever be finished and should Sizewell become more than an EDF aspiration.
A further reason why nuclear power cannot hope to have more than a minor role to play in the fight against the climate emergency is the fact that the plants take so long to build.
The “nuclear renaissance” in the UK was mooted on the back of energy security and low carbon. The lights in the UK were, at the time of then prime minister, Tony Blair’s 2005 announcement, predicted to go out in 2017. It is now 2019, the lights didn’t go out and no new nuclear is contributing electricity to the national grid in the UK and is unlikely to be doing so for at least another six or seven years – probably longer, given the historic over-runs of time and budget which accompany nuclear plant construction.
Nuclear can only be considered an option for the future, not an imperative: that much has been shown time and again with analyses from highly reputable and responsible green and academic groups. And it is an option we should refuse. Nuclear just can’t contribute fast enough and, even if and when it does, its contribution will be only marginal at best, negative at worst.
By definition, renewables are potentially endless. They rely on the sun, the wind, the tides and ambient energy. Moreover, the source of the energy arrives free-of-charge. Combined with efficiency measures, decentralised electricity generation, smart grids and conservation measures, which have already seen electricity demand fall in the UK by some 16% in the last decade, we can meet all our climate change, cost and demand targets without nuclear.
We should also remember that the victim communities around the proposed sites for new build are fearful of the wholesale disruption to their lives, the environment, and the tranquility they currently enjoy in these relatively remote and isolated sites. UK reactors are deliberately built in lower population areas because the consequences of a serious accident would put the lives and livelihoods of fewer people at risk than in a densely populated area.
The most obvious place to build a new nuclear plant, should the case for any new nuclear power be satisfactorily demonstrated, is in London: that is where the majority of electricity generated by a notional Sizewell C would be used. But while building it in Suffolk risks fewer people, the East Anglians put at risk should still be seen as potential victims of the government’s obsession with nuclear power. The road infrastructure around Sizewell, for example, is not built for heavy traffic, and would quickly grind to a halt in the event of a major nuclear accident, leaving residents helplessly bottled up in an area they would be desperate to leave.
Quite apart from the fact that EDF’s flagship EPR Flamanville plant is facing a further two-year delay as a result of ASN’s likely demands that reactor core welds are repaired, it is appropriate to remind M. Lévy that EDF is hugely in debt, and that its board of directors is not united in its view of the company’s new build programme.
The storage of electricity is becoming more solvable and commercially viable, electricity demand continues to fall, and the cost of renewables continues to plummet. The lights have gone out – on nuclear power – and EDF should pull the plug now on Hinkley and Sizewell before any more damage is done.
Pete Wilkinson is the chairman of Together Against Sizewell C (TASC).