Last updated: 7 March 2006
The nuclear reactor is undoubtedly the most dangerous piece of technology ever invented. Since Enrico Fermi's first reactor buzzed into life at the University of Chicago in December 1942, humankind has lived under the dark shadow of nuclear energy.
The case against nuclear power remains as strong and persuasive as ever. Here are some bite-sized facts and quotes:
Nuclear power is relatively expensive
Photo credit: Money by Ian Britton from FreeFoto.com.
- A single nuclear power station costs around £2 billion to build. This is about three times as much as a gas-fueled power station of the same capacity. [Source: BBC News.]
- But a nuclear power station site also costs on average £4.8 billion to clean-up at the end of its life. (UKAEA) [Source: UK Atomic Energy Authority.]
- Nuclear power stations take at least 10 years to build. The last British nuclear station, Sizewell B, took 15 years from planning to completion (though only 7 years to construct).
- Taxpayers are already committed to a bill of around £56 billion for cleaning up existing nuclear sites. [Source: UK Atomic Energy Authority.]
- A 2002 report from the Cabinet Office revealed that nuclear power would cost significantly more per unit of electricity generated than either on-shore or off-shore wind electricity. [Source: p101 and p103 of "The Energy Review" by Cabinet Office.]
Nuclear is no solution to global warming and climate change
Photo credit: picture of electricity pylons by Ian Britton from FreeFoto.com.
- Nuclear power supplies 24% of UK electricity, but only 3.6% of the whole energy we consume in the UK. [Source: Friends of the Earth.]
- It undermines cleaner, safer, cheaper, and more popular renewable energy. Former evironment minister Alan Whitehead believes it "would effectively crowd out renewables". [Source: Green Alliance.]
- According to Friends of the Earth, doubling nuclear power generation in the UK would cut our greenhouse gas emissions by no more than eight per cent. [Source: Friends of the Earth.]
- According to a classic American study, every pound invested in energy efficiency removes seven times more CO2 from the atmosphere than a pound invested in nuclear power. [Source: Friends of the Earth Australia and Green Party UK]
- Power stations produce less than 30% of UK greenhouse emissions. Emissions from industry and business, transport, and domestic heating produce most of the rest. Emissions from electricity generation fell by around 12% between 1990 and 2003 (though they have risen again since 1999); emissions from transport and communications almost doubled in the same period. In other words, emissions from electricity generation are just a small part of the problem. [Source: National Statistics.]
- According to the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), if we wanted nuclear power to make 70% of worldwide electricity, we would need to build 115 new reactors each year (another 10,000 by the year 2100). Even that would reduce greenhouse emissions by just 16%. [Source: Friends of the Earth Australia]
Nuclear is not a renewable technology
Photo credit: mining picture by Ian Britton from FreeFoto.com.
- While operating nuclear power plants produces fewer greenhouse emissions, constructing nuclear plants and mining uranium to power them produces significant emissions. According to Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation: "Nuclear also has a dirty little secret: startlingly there's only a few decades left of the proven high-grade uranium ore it needs for fuel. It's also far less climate-friendly than claimed. Once low-grade ore is used, costs go up and all the energy used from mining to decommissioning means it can lead to more carbon emissions than fossil fuel-powered gas generators." [Source: BBC News.]
- With current nuclear dwindling output, high-grade uranium ores (raw material for nuclear power stations) could last 50 years with all grades of uranium lasting 200 years. But with a three-fold expansion, high-grade uranium would last only 15-20 years. With a ten-fold expansion, high-grade uranium would be gone within 5 years and the entire world stock of uranium would last only 20 years. [Source: Friends of the Earth Australia]
Nuclear is dirty
Photo credit: picture of water pollution by Ian Britton from FreeFoto.com.
- The two major nuclear reprocessing plants, Sellafield in Britain and Cap La Hague in France, are the biggest sources of radioactive pollution in Europe. [Source: Friends of the Earth Australia]
- Ireland, Norway, and other countries have repeatedly called for Sellafield to be closed down because of the toxic pollution it pours into the sea. [Source: BBC News.]
- If the UK's reactors operate to their current shutdown dates and no more are built, there will be an estimated 36,590 cubic metres of intermediate and high level waste in the UK, enough to fill 14 Olympic-sized swimming pools. [Source: BBC News.]
- There is still no publicly acceptable way to dispose of high-level radioactive waste. High-level waste represents less than 0.3% of the total volume of waste but accounts for about half the total radioactivity. [Source: BBC News.]
Nuclear is dangerous
Photo credit: TIME magazine, May 12, 1986.
- There have been more than a dozen serious accidents at nuclear power plants since 1952. There have been at least eight accidents involving damage to or malfunction of a reactor core. There have been many other serious accidents elsewhere in nuclear plants (fires, explosions, and leaks of radioactive material). [Source: Friends of the Earth Australia]
- Friends of the Earth point out: "According to a Soviet estimate half of Chernobyl's fallout fell within 35 km of the reactor. One hundred and thirty five thousand people were evacuated from a 30 km diameter zone centred on the reactor. The other half of the fallout fell on more than twenty countries world wide stretching as far as North America - resulting in limitations on food. The US DOE - a pro nuclear body who would be expected to give estimates at the lower end of the range - calculated that world wide there would be around 40,000 deaths from Chernobyl induced cancers." [Source: Friends of the Earth.]
- Nuclear power plants are a terrorist target. A recent study in the US estimated an attack on a reactor could lead to 44,000 immediate deaths with half a million affected by long-term illnesses such as cancers. [Source: Greenpeace.]
- In a June 2005 survey of 80 experts in nuclear security, 79% said that if a nuclear attack occurs in the next ten years it will be carried out by terrorists. [Source: Senator Richard Lugar.]
- According to the Oxford Research Group: "A smoke plume from an explosion at Sellafield that released either around 17% of the high level waste in tanks or less than 1% of the plutonium stored at Sellafield would be approximately ten times as devastating as Chernobyl and require evacuation of an area which could include Newcastle or Manchester, depending on the wind direction." [Source: Oxford Research Group.]
- Nuclear waste material could be used in "dirty bombs" and terrorist weapons. According to security expert Dr Gordon Thompson: "We must recognize that, to terrorists, nuclear installations are pre-deployed radiological weapons within the countries they would most like to hit." [Source: Nuclear-Free Local Authorities.]
- The most dangerous reactors are the oldest... and the newest.
Nuclear is not the way forward
Photo credit: Genuinely renewable energy: hydroelectric power station in Galloway, Scotland, by Ian Britton from FreeFoto.com.
We believe the way forward for Britain is a combination of renewable energy and energy efficiency. We're not alone.
- Friends of the Earth: "It is possible to achieve 29 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions from the electricity generation sector by 2010 and 45 per cent by 2020 without needing to replace decommissioned nuclear plant." [Source: Friends of the Earth].
- According to Michael Meacher, MP, former environment minister, Tony Blair's claim that more nuclear power is needed to meet CO2 emissions targets is "patently untrue". He added: "I think we need nuclear like a hole in the head" [Source: BBC News].
- Dr Alan Whitehead, MP, former environment minister: "The nuclear option is probably the worst one we might consider even if we analyze it on finance alone". [Source: Green Alliance].
- Former US president Bill Clinton: "The push to bring back nuclear power as an antidote to global warming is a big problem. If you build more nuclear power plants we have toxic waste at least, bomb-making at worse." (Source: Climate Ark].
- Professor Ian Lowe, Brisbane University:: "Nuclear power is expensive, slow and dangerous, and it won't stop climate change. If nuclear power is the answer, it must have been a pretty stupid question." [Source: Friends of the Earth Australia]
For a list of background documents that go into the issues more deeply, please continue to our background information page.