Let's imagine that Britain decides it is serious about getting off fossil fuels, and creates a lot of new nuclear reactors, even though this may not be "sustainable." If we build enough reactors to make possible a significant decarbonization of transport and heating, can we fit the required nuclear reactors into Britain? The number we need to know is the power per unit area of nuclear power stations, which is about (fig ure 24.10). Let's imagine generating 22kWh per day per person of nuclear power - equivalent to 55 GW (roughly the same as France's nuclear power), which could be delivered by 55 nuclear power stations, each occupying one square kilometre. That's about 0.02% of the area of the country. Wind farms delivering the same average power would require 500 times as much land: 10% of the country. If the nuclear power stations were placed in pairs around the coast (length about 3000 km, at 5 km resolution), then there'd be two every 100 km. Thus while the area required is modest, the fraction of coastline gobbled by these power stations would be about 2% (2 kilometres in every 100).
What's the cost of cleaning up nuclear power sites? The nuclear decommissioning authority has an annual budget of £2 billion for the next 25 years. The nuclear industry sold everyone in the UK 4 kWh/d for about 25 years, so the nuclear decommissioning authority's cost is 2.3p/kWh. That's a hefty subsidy - though not, it must be said, as hefty as the subsidy currently given to offshore wind (7p/kWh).
The safety of nuclear operations in Britain remains a concern. The THORP reprocessing facility at Sellafield, built in 1994 at a cost of £1.8 billion, had a growing leak from a broken pipe from August 2004 to April 2005. Over eight months, the leak let 85000 litres of uranium-rich fluid flow into a sump which was equipped with safety systems that were designed to detect immediately any leak of as little as 15 litres. But the leak went undetected because the operators hadn't completed the checks that ensured the safety systems were working; and the operators were in the habit of ignoring safety alarms anyway.
The safety system came with belt and braces. Independent of the failed safety alarms, routine safety-measurements of fluids in the sump should have detected the abnormal presence of uranium within one month of the start of the leak; but the operators often didn't bother taking these routine measurements, because they felt too busy; and when they did take measurements that detected the abnormal presence of uranium in the sump (on 28 August 2004, 26 November 2004, and 24 February 2005), no action was taken.
By April 2005, 22 tons of uranium had leaked, but still none of the leak-detection systems detected the leak. The leak was finally detected by accountancy, when the bean-counters noticed that they were getting 10% less uranium out than their clients claimed they'd put in! Thank goodness this private company had a profit motive, hey? The criticism from the
Chief Inspector of Nuclear Installations was withering: "The Plant was operated in a culture that seemed to allow instruments to operate in alarm mode rather than questioning the alarm and rectifying the relevant fault."
If we let private companies build new reactors, how can we ensure that higher safety standards are adhered to? I don't know.
At the same time, we must not let ourselves be swept off our feet in horror at the danger of nuclear power. Nuclear power is not infinitely dangerous. It's just dangerous, much as coal mines, petrol repositories, fossil-fuel burning and wind turbines are dangerous. Even if we have no guarantee against nuclear accidents in the future, I think the right way to assess nuclear is to compare it objectively with other sources of power. Coal power stations, for example, expose the public to nuclear radiation, because coal ash typically contains uranium. Indeed, according to a paper published in the journal Science, people in America living near coal-fired power stations are exposed to higher radiation doses than those living near nuclear power plants.
When quantifying the public risks of different power sources, we need a new unit. I'll go with "deaths per GWy (gigawatt-year)." Let me try to convey what it would mean if a power source had a death rate of 1 death per GWy. One gigawatt-year is the energy produced by a 1GW power station, if it operates flat-out for one year. Britain's electricity consumption is roughly 45 GW, or, if you like, 45 gigawatt-years per year. So if we got our electricity from sources with a death rate of 1 death per GWy, that would mean the British electricity supply system was killing 45 people per year. For comparison, 3000 people die per year on Britain's roads. So, if you are not campaigning for the abolition of roads, you may deduce that "1 death per GWy" is a death rate that, while sad, you might be content to live with. Obviously, 0.1 deaths per GWy would be preferable, but it takes only a moment's reflection to realize that, sadly, fossil-fuel energy production must have a cost greater than 0.1 deaths per GWy - just think of disasters on oil rigs; helicopters lost at sea; pipeline fires; refinery explosions; and coal mine accidents: there are tens of fossil-chain fatalities per year in Britain.
So, let's discuss the actual death rates of a range of electricity sources. The death rates vary a lot from country to country. In China, for example, the death rate in coal mines, per ton of coal delivered, is 50 times that of most nations. Figure 24.11 shows numbers from studies by the Paul Scherrer Institute and by a European Union project called ExternE, which made comprehensive estimates of all the impacts of energy production. According to the EU figures, coal, lignite, and oil have the highest death rates, followed by peat and biomass-power, with death rates above 1 per GWy. Nuclear and wind are the best, with death rates below 0.2 per GWy. Hydroelectricity is the best of all according to the EU study, but comes out worst in the Paul Scherrer Institute's study, because the latter surveyed a different set of countries.
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Figure 24.11. Death rates of electricity generation technologies. x: European Union estimates by the ExternE project. O: Paul Scherrer Institute.
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