Myth Busting

1. What do scientists say about nuclear power in relation to other energy sources?

In January 2019, the Climate Council, comprising Australia’s leading climate scientists and other policy experts, issued a policy statement concluding that nuclear power plants “are not appropriate for Australia – and probably never will be”. The Climate Council statement continued: “Nuclear power stations are highly controversial, can’t be built under existing law in any Australian state or territory, are a more expensive source of power than renewable energy, and present significant challenges in terms of the storage and transport of nuclear waste, and use of water”.

2. Isn’t nuclear power better than coal in the short term because of immediate danger of fuelling climate change?
  • Nuclear power and fossil fuels aren’t the only choices. Renewable power has doubled over the past decade and now accounts for 27% of global electricity generation while nuclear’s contribution is 10% and continues to fall.
  • Taking into account planning and approvals, construction, and the energy payback time, it would be a quarter of a century or more before nuclear power could even begin to reduce greenhouse emissions in Australia … and then only assuming that nuclear power replaced fossil fuels.
  • The 2019 edition of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report states: “Nuclear new-build costs have been on the rise for many years. Just in the past five years, U.S. solar and wind prices fell by two-thirds, putting new nuclear power out of the money by about 5–10-fold. Nuclear new-build costs many times more per kilowatt-hour, so it buys many times less climate solution per dollar than major low-carbon competitors ‒ efficiency, wind and solar. … The business case for modern renewables is so convincing to investors that the latest official U.S. forecast foresees 45 gigawatts (GW) of renewable additions from mid-2019 to mid-2022, vs. net retirements of 7 GW for nuclear and 17 GW for coal.”
  • Nuclear power plants are vulnerable to threats which are being exacerbated by climate change. These include dwindling and warming water sources, sea-level rise, storm damage, drought, and jelly-fish swarms. Retired nuclear engineer David Lochbaum states: “You need to solve global warming for nuclear plants to survive.”
  • Nuclear power programs have provided cover for numerous covert weapons programs and an expansion of nuclear power would exacerbate the problems. Australian academic Dr. Mark Diesendorf states: “On top of the perennial challenges of global poverty and injustice, the two biggest threats facing human civilisation in the 21st century are climate change and nuclear war. It would be absurd to respond to one by increasing the risks of the other. Yet that is what nuclear power does.”
3. How does nuclear power stack up against other energy sources by cost of production?
  • Nuclear power is far more expensive than other energy sources. Lazard investment firm provided the following figures in its November 2018 report on ‘levelised costs of electricity’:
    • Nuclear: A$166‒280 per megawatt-hour (MWh) (US$112‒189)
    • Wind: A$43‒83/MWh (US$29‒56)
    • Utility-scale solar: A$55‒68/MWh (US$36‒46)
    • Natural-gas combined-cycle: A$61‒110/MWh (US$41‒74)
  • The latest estimates for all reactors under construction in western Europe and the U.S. range from A$17.8 billion to A$24 billion per reactor and have been subject to spectacular cost overruns and delays amounting to A$10 billion or more. A twin-reactor project in South Carolina was abandoned after the expenditure of at least A$13 billion (US$9 billion).
  • Peter Farley, a fellow of the Australian Institution of Engineers, provided this comparison in January 2019: “As for nuclear the 2,200 MW Plant Vogtle is costing US$25 billion plus financing costs, insurance and long term waste storage. … For the full cost of US$30 billion, we could build 7,000 MW of wind, 7,000 MW of tracking solar, 10,000 MW of rooftop solar, 5,000MW of pumped hydro and 5,000 MW of batteries. … That is why nuclear is irrelevant in Australia. It has nothing to do with greenies, it’s just about cost and reliability.”
4. Thorium reactors … aren’t they a good option?
  • There are no fundamental differences between thorium and uranium: thorium reactors produce nuclear waste, and they are vulnerable to catastrophic accidents, and they can be (and have been) used to produce explosive material for nuclear weapons.
  • Thorium reactor technology is not commercially available or viable. Dr Peter Karamaskos states: Without exception, [thorium reactors] have never been commercially viable, nor do any of the intended new designs even remotely seem to be viable. Like all nuclear power production they rely on extensive taxpayer subsidies; the only difference is that with thorium and other breeder reactors these are of an order of magnitude greater, which is why no government has ever continued their funding.”
5. Isn’t nuclear fusion power just around the corner?

At best, fusion is decades away and most likely it will forever remain decades away. Two articles in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists by Dr. Daniel Jassby ‒ a fusion scientist ‒ comprehensively debunk all of the false claims made by fusion enthusiasts.

6. Aren’t there new reactors that are fuelled by nuclear waste ‒ wouldn’t this solve the problem of radioactive waste?
  • Theoretically, these reactors would reduce nuclear waste streams but in practice, fancy concepts such as molten salt reactors and sodium-cooled fast reactors “will actually exacerbate spent fuel storage and disposal issues” according to Dr. Allison Macfarlane, a former chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
  • Likewise, ‘integral fast reactors’ coupled with ‘pyroprocessing’ could reduce waste streams in theory … but in practice the opposite has occurred. Commenting on a R&D program in the U.S., Dr. Edwin Lyman notes that “Pyroprocessing has taken one potentially difficult form of nuclear waste and converted it into multiple challenging forms of nuclear waste. DOE [Department of Energy] has spent hundreds of millions of dollars only to magnify, rather than simplify, the waste problem.”
7. Isn’t it true that Finland and Sweden are about to start operating high-level nuclear waste dumps?
  • Finland is working on a repository for high-level nuclear waste ‒ it is very small and years behind schedule.
  • The planned high-level nuclear waste repository in Sweden has hit a snag with the Swedish Land and Environmental Court ruling that the proponent’s (SKB’s) application can only be approved if “SKB can provide documentation that shows the final storage facility complies in the long-term with requirements of the Environmental Code despite the uncertainties remaining on how the canisters protective capability is effected by a) corrosion due to reaction in oxygen-free water” and four other issues regarding copper corrosion, including the influence of radiation on three additional variables. Amongst other things, SKB has not carried out corrosion tests with a canister containing spent fuel.
  • Other countries operating nuclear power plants ‒ including the US, the UK, Japan, South Korea, Germany, etc. ‒ have not even established a site for a high-level nuclear waste repository, let alone commenced construction or operation. To give one example of a protracted, expensive and failed attempt to establish a high-level nuclear waste repository, plans for a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada were abandoned in 2009. Over 20 years of work was put into the repository plan and well over A$10 billion wasted on the failed project.
  • A January 2019 report details the difficulties with high-level nuclear waste management in seven countries (Belgium, France, Japan, Sweden, Finland, the UK and the US) and serves as a useful overview of the serious problems that Australia has avoided.
  • No operating deep underground repository for high-level nuclear waste exists, but there is one deep underground repository for long lived intermediate-level nuclear waste − the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in the US state of New Mexico. In 2014, a chemical explosion ruptured one of the barrels stored underground at WIPP. This was followed by a failure of the filtration system meant to ensure that radiation did not reach the outside environment. Twenty-two workers were exposed to low-level radiation. WIPP was closed for three years. A deeply troubling aspect of the WIPP problems is that complacency and cost-cutting set in within the first decade of operation of the repository.
8. Won’t Small Modular Reactors be safer and cheaper?
  • Small modular reactors (SMRs), if they existed, would be just as accident-prone as large reactors. Proposals to situate SMRs underground pose unique safety threats from flooding and accessibility. They would still produce long-lived radioactive waste and be useful for weapons production. Electricity from SMRs is expected to be more expensive than that from large, conventional nuclear reactors. There is no current market for SMRs and companies are refusing to make the huge investments required because of the high risks.
  • Most of the handful of SMRs under construction are over-budget and behind schedule; there are disturbing connections between SMRs, weapons proliferation and militarism more generally; and about half of the SMRs under construction are intended to be used to facilitate the exploitation of fossil fuel reserves (in the Arctic, the South China Sea and elsewhere).
9. Doesn’t nuclear power have zero emissions?
  • A 2009 paper prepared for the Australian Uranium Association estimated that the nuclear power life cycle generates between 10‒103 grams of CO2 equivalent per kWh, which is far lower than fossil fuels ‒ but as uranium ore grades decline emissions would increase to as much as 248 gCO2e/kWh.
  • As well as emissions from mining and milling uranium ore there are emissions associated with the transport and processing of fuel.
10. Nuclear accidents are rare, aren’t they?
  • There have been over 200 nuclear power accidents.
  • Nuclear theft and smuggling are serious, unresolved problems. As of 31 December 2018, an International Atomic Energy Agency database contained a total of 3,497 confirmed incidents reported by participating States since 1993, of which 285 incidents involved a confirmed or likely act of trafficking or malicious use, and for an additional 965 incidents there was insufficient information to determine if it was related to trafficking or malicious use.
  • There have been an alarming number of deliberate attacks on nuclear plants. Examples include Israel’s destruction of a research reactor in Iraq in 1981; the United States’ destruction of two smaller research reactors in Iraq in 1991; attempted military strikes by Iraq and Iran on each other’s nuclear facilities during the 1980‒88 war; Iraq’s attempted missile strikes on Israel’s nuclear facilities in 1991; and Israel’s bombing of a suspected nuclear plant in Syria in 2007.
11. Isn’t it true that Chernobyl only killed 31 people and Fukushima hasn’t killed anyone?
  • United Nations’ reports in 2005/06 estimated around 9,000 deaths among those people most heavily exposed to radioactive fallout from Chernobyl and populations exposed to lower doses in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. The estimated death toll rises further when populations beyond those three countries are included. For example, a study by Cardis et al. published in the International Journal of Cancer estimated 16,000 deaths across Europe. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that the will be 27,000‒108,000 excess cancers and 12,000‒57,000 excess cancer deaths due to exposure of radiation from Chernobyl.
  • In a study of the health impacts of the March 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan (multiple nuclear reactor meltdowns, fires and explosions), the World Health Organisation stated that for people in the most contaminated areas in Fukushima Prefecture, the estimated increased risk for all solid cancers will be around 4% in females exposed as infants; a 6% increased risk of breast cancer for females exposed as infants; a 7% increased risk of leukaemia for males exposed as infants; and for thyroid cancer among females exposed as infants, an increased risk of up to 70% (from a 0.75% lifetime risk up to 1.25%).
  • Radiation biologist Dr. Ian Fairlie estimates around 5,000 fatal cancer deaths resulting from exposure to radioactive Fukushima fallout.
12. How much water does a nuclear power plant consume?
  • Nuclear requires water in the mining and production of uranium fuel, generation of electricity and cooling at nuclear reactors, and for the management of wastes.
  • Reactors are generally situated near lakes, rivers or the ocean to meet cooling water requirements. There are two types of cooling systems used for nuclear power ‒ either ‘once-through’ or recirculating. With once-through systems, warmer water is discharged back into the environment, often having a significant impact on the local ecology.
  • A single nuclear power reactor operating for a single day typically consumes 36‒65 million litres of water. A 2006 paper by the Commonwealth Department of Parliamentary Services states: “Per megawatt existing nuclear power stations use and consume more water than power stations using other fuel sources. Depending on the cooling technology utilised, the water requirements for a nuclear power station can vary between 20 to 83 per cent more than for other power stations.”
  • By contrast, the REN21 ‘Renewables 2015: Global Status Report’ states: “Although renewable energy systems are also vulnerable to climate change, they have unique qualities that make them suitable both for reinforcing the resilience of the wider energy infrastructure and for ensuring the provision of energy services under changing climatic conditions. System modularity, distributed deployment, and local availability and diversity of fuel sources − central components of energy system resilience − are key characteristics of most renewable energy systems.”
13. Are there vested interests in the current resurgence of arguments for nuclear power?
  • Yes, corporations with vested interests in nuclear power and uranium routinely promote dishonest arguments in support of nuclear power (for example, the Minerals Council of Australia promotes ‘clean nuclear’ and ‘clean coal’).
  • In addition, right-wing ideologues promote nuclear power as part of the ‘culture wars’ and they hope that nuclear promotion will divide the Labor Party and the environment movement. Those efforts have been unsuccessful and self-defeating ‒ the only split that has emerged recently is within the Coalition parties, with the Queensland branch of the Liberal-National Party opposing nuclear power and calling for more support for the expansion of renewable energy sources.

Resources

A report by the Climate council

Nuclear power plants are not appropriate for Australia

Environment NGO submission

A detailed Submission to Parliamentary Inquiry into Nuclear energy

Nuclear Weapons and our Climate

International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons – Report

Nuclear Power No Solution to Climate Change

A report by Friends of the Earth

Let the Facts Speak

A report by Scott Ludlum, documenting nuclear accidents from 1991-2012