There are a lot of myths out there about nuclear power – some of them innocent enough, and some of them introduced deliberately to confuse people. We’re here to help you separate truth from fiction.

  1. What do scientists say about nuclear power?
  2. Isn’t nuclear power better than coal in the short term because of immediate danger of climate change?
  3. How does nuclear power stack up against other energy sources by cost of production?
  4. Thorium reactors – aren’t they a good option?
  5. Isn’t nuclear fusion power just around the corner?
  6. Aren’t there new reactors that are fuelled by nuclear waste ‒ wouldn’t this solve the waste problem?
  7. Isn’t it true that nuclear waste dumps are about to start operating in Europe?
  8. Won’t Small Modular Reactors be safer and cheaper?
  9. Doesn’t nuclear power have zero emissions?
  10. Accidents are rare, aren’t they?
  11. Isn’t it true that Chernobyl only killed 31 people and Fukushima hasn’t killed anyone?
  12. How much water does a nuclear power plant consume?
  13. Are there vested interests in the current resurgence of arguments for nuclear power?

1. What do scientists say about nuclear power?

Scientists oppose proposals to introduce nuclear power to Australia:

* Australia’s Chief Scientist Cathy Foley backs a renewables-led path to net zero emissions over nuclear power, stating that nuclear power is “expensive” and “it would take some time to build up the capability” to introduce nuclear power.

* Former Australian Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, previously a proponent of nuclear power, now says that nuclear power is “too slow and too expensive” for Australia and he says that “any call to go directly from coal to nuclear is effectively a call to delay decarbonisation of our electricity system by 20 years.”

* Another former Australian Chief Scientist, Robin Batterham, says that: “To reduce renewable targets in the belief that nuclear will be deployed later at scale would create a material risk of not achieving net zero, or doing so at an excessive cost.”

* NSW Chief Scientist Hugh Durrant-Whyte says that it would be “naive” to think a nuclear power plant could be built in Australia in less than two decades.

* Australia’s leading scientific organisation CSIRO says that nuclear power “does not provide an economically competitive solution in Australia” and could not be deployed “within the timeframe required.”

* Physicist Dr Ziggy Switkowski ‒ who led the Australian government’s review of nuclear power in 2006 ‒ now says that “the window for gigawatt-scale nuclear has closed” and he says that nuclear power is no longer cheaper than renewables and the levelised cost of electricity is rapidly diverging in favour of renewables.

* The Climate Council ‒ including many of Australia’s leading climate scientists ‒ states that nuclear power plants “are not appropriate for Australia ‒ and never will be”, that nuclear power is “expensive, illegal, dangerous and decades away”, and that “we do not need distractions like nuclear to derail our progress” towards a renewable-powered future.

2. Isn’t nuclear power better than coal in the short term because of immediate danger of climate change?

Nuclear power and fossil fuels aren’t the only choices. Nuclear power accounts for a declining share of global electricity generation (currently 9.2%, barely half of its historic peak of 17.5%) whereas renewables have grown to 30.2%. The International Energy Agency expects renewables to reach 42% by 2028.

In Australia, renewables currently account for nearly 40% of supply to the National Electricity Market and the federal government aims to reach 82% by 2030. In South Australia, renewables provide of electricity and the state government aims to reach 100 percent net renewables as soon as 2027.

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. So nuclear power clearly isn’t a short-term option or a ‘bridging’ technology to ease the shift from fossil fuels to renewables.

In fact, nuclear power would slow the shift away from fossil fuels, which is why fossil-fuel funded political parties and politicians support nuclear power (e.g. the Liberal / Nationals Coalition) and why organisations such as the Minerals Council of Australia support nuclear power. As Australian economist Prof. John Quiggin notes, support for nuclear power in Australia is, in practice, support for coal.

Even among current and former Coalition MPs, there is deep cynicism about the Dutton Coalition’s nuclear power promotion:

Those comments by current and former Coalition MPs reflect concerns about the Dutton Coalition’s opposition to the federal government’s target of 82% renewables by 2030, its opposition to the government’s target to cut emissions by 43% by 2030, and the Coalition’s plans to expand gas and prolong the use of coal. There are concerns that a Coalition government would rip up contracts signed by the Commonwealth in its Capacity Investment Scheme. There are also concerns that a Coalition government would abandon Australia’s legally binding 2030 target under the Paris Agreement, adopted by 196 countries at the UN Climate Change Conference in 2015. The Nationals are calling for a moratorium on the rollout of large-scale renewables. At the December 2023 COP28 UN climate conference, the Labor government joined 120 countries in backing a pledge to triple renewable energy and double the rate of energy efficiency by 2030 — a pledge opposed by the Coalition. A Coalition government would however sign Australia on to a pledge supported by just 22 countries to triple nuclear power generation by 2050.

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. Since 2010, the cost of wind and solar PV has decreased by 70‒90% while nuclear costs have increased 33%.

The latest estimates for all reactors under construction in western Europe and the U.S. range from A$25.7 billion to A$43.5 billion per reactor and all projects have been subject to spectacular cost overruns. A twin-reactor project in South Carolina was abandoned after the expenditure of A$13 billion.

Lazard investment firm’s 2023 report demonstrates that construction costs and levelised costs for nuclear power are far more expensive than costs for wind and solar, even when energy storage costs are included. (Levelised costs include the costs of both building and operating a plant per unit of electricity generated over the assumed lifetime of the plant. Levelised costs are typically measured in cents per kilowatt-hour or dollars per megawatt-hour.)

These are the construction cost figures from the Lazard 2023 report:

Construction CostsUS$ / kW (A$ / kW)
Utility scale solar PV700‒1400 (1060‒2110)
Utility scale solar PV plus storage1075‒1600 (1620‒2420)
Wind (onshore)1025‒1700 (1550‒2570)
Wind (onshore) plus storage1375‒2250 (2080‒3400)
Wind (offshore)3000‒5000 (4530‒7550)
Nuclear8475‒13,925 (12,800‒21,000)

As noted above, the latest estimate for the Vogtle project is US$15.5 billion / GW or US$15,500 (A$23,400) / kW — about 10% higher than the upper end of the range in the Lazard report.

These are the levelised cost figures from the Lazard 2023 report:

Levelised CostsUS$ / MWh (A$ / MWh)
Utility scale solar PV24‒96 (36‒145)
Utility scale solar PV plus storage46‒102 (69‒154)
Wind (onshore)24‒75 (36‒113)
Wind (onshore) plus storage42‒114 (63‒172)
Wind (offshore)72‒140 (109‒211)
Nuclear141‒221 (213‒334)

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. 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 waste problem?

“Advanced” reactors are not advanced: they are not safer and in many cases are more dangerous and with even greater weapons potential.

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.” See also Dr. Lyman’s important 2021 report, ‘Advanced” Isn’t Always Better: Assessing the Safety, Security, and Environmental Impacts of Non-Light-Water Nuclear Reactors’.

7. Isn’t it true that nuclear waste dumps are about to start operating in Europe?

Finland and Sweden have been working on repositories for high-level nuclear waste for decades ‒ their plans are many years behind schedule and operation has yet to begin. They haven’t demonstrated safe disposal of high-level nuclear waste for a year let alone the 300,000 years that it takes for high-level nuclear waste to decay to the level of radioactivity of the original uranium ore.

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 the US state of Nevada were abandoned in 2009. Over 20 years of work was put into the repository plan and A$12 billion was 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.

The project that’s furthest ahead is the Onkalo spent nuclear fuel repository in Finland. Slated to open in the mid-2020s, it is now 40 years since site selection processes began. It stands as one of the only examples of community engagement process that didn’t involve coercion, and may end up providing an example for other states to follow. It will, however, be many decades before predictions about the behaviour of nuclear waste in long-term underground storage can be validated.

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.

Dr. Edwin Lyman, Director of Nuclear Power Safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, writes:

“Because of their size, you might think that small nuclear reactors pose lower risks to public health and the environment than large reactors. After all, the amount of radioactive material in the core and available to be released in an accident is smaller. And smaller reactors produce heat at lower rates than large reactors, which could make them easier to cool during an accident, perhaps even by passive means—that is, without the need for electrically powered coolant pumps or operator actions.

“However, the so-called passive safety features that SMR proponents like to cite may not always work, especially during extreme events such as large earthquakes, major flooding, or wildfires that can degrade the environmental conditions under which they are designed to operate. And in some cases, passive features can actually make accidents worse: for example, the NRC’s review of the NuScale design revealed that that passive emergency systems could deplete cooling water of boron, which is needed to keep the reactor safely shut down after an accident.

“In any event, regulators are loosening safety and security requirements for SMRs in ways which could cancel out any safety benefits from passive features. … SMRs could be as or even more dangerous than large reactors.”

DR EDWIN LYMAN

Only two SMRs are said to exist ‒ one in Russia and one in China ‒ but neither meets the ‘modular’ part of the definition: serial factor production of reactor components (or ‘modules’). They could not even be called prototype SMRs since there are no plans to mass produce more of them.

Electricity from SMRs would be more expensive than that from large, conventional nuclear reactors because of diseconomies of scale. There is no current market for SMRs and companies are refusing to make the huge investments required because of the high risks.

CSIRO’s GenCost 2023‒24 report provides the following levelised cost estimates:

20232030
Nuclear SMRA$382‒636 / MWhA$212‒353 / MWh
90% wind and solar supply to the National Electricity Market with integration costs included (energy storage and transmission)A$91‒130 / MWhA$69‒101 / MWh

Just a few so-called SMRs are under construction around the world and they exhibit familiar patterns of mass cost blowouts and multi-year delays. 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).

More information on SMRs:

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 and long-term waste management.

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.

Nuclear power programs are also a military security threat as we continue to see at the Zaporizhzhia reactors in Ukraine which have been under occupation from the Russian military since the early days of the war. In that time many security issues, attacks, power cut-offs have emerged alongside the intense pressure on reactor workers.

The ongoing conflict in Ukraine reminds us of the security issues that Australians would need to consider if nuclear power were to be introduced here. The Russian military’s seizure of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant — at a time when some of the plant’s six reactors were operating — was the most dangerous incident so far. Off-site power to the Zaporizhzhia plant has been cut eight times since Russia seized control of the plant in 2022, increasing the risk of a major accident. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi warned in April 2024 that attacks on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant raised “the very real threat of a serious nuclear accident, which could have significant health and environmental consequences and benefit absolutely no one”. No other energy system is as easily weaponised as nuclear power and reactors have been described as pre-deployed terrorist targets.

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 published in the International Journal of Cancer estimated 16,000 deaths across Europe. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that there 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. In addition, there is no dispute that at least 2,000 people died due to the botched evacuation of Fukushima and the mistreatment of evacuees over the following years.

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 splits that have emerged in recent years are within the Coalition parties.

Lastly, beware of pro-nuclear ‘greenwashing’ ‒ corporate-funded fake environmentalism. An Australian example was the ‘Bright New World’ group led by Ben Heard, which accepted secret corporate donations. Another example is the fake ‘Australian Greens for Nuclear Energy’ group whose members are now involved in a fossil-fuel funded scam called WePlanet.