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Should we stop building nuclear power plants?

Nuclear power plant and dark cloud

As the world is bracing itself for a nuclear catastrophe in Japan, should we stop building nuclear power plants in the UK? If so, would you be willing to minimise your electricity consumption to avoid going nuclear?

No one can be left insensitive to the footage of entire villages being swept away by the tsunami after the recent earthquake in Japan.

And, if an earthquake and a tsunami were not enough, Japan now braces itself for a possible nuclear disaster. So while we’re all watching the events unfold, should our government reconsider nuclear power?

Changes have already been made, with an announcement today that there will be a crackdown on safety tests at European nuclear plants. But should we stop investing in nuclear power?

A vicious circle

The more electricity we need, the more electricity we have to produce. Conventional electricity production, based on fossil fuel, creates greenhouse gases which in turn are responsible for climate change.

Climate change means rising temperatures, which lead to more extreme weather conditions and more frequent and violent natural disaster like typhoons, flooding, droughts, etc.

In turn, these extreme events, like last week’s horrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan result in death, displacement, and even a threat from nuclear power plants.

Is this Mother Nature taking her revenge on climate change and rectifying the balance?

More nuclear plants?

While nuclear power is deemed ‘low carbon’ in comparison to more conventional fossil fuel based power generation, the risks attached to nuclear when things go wrong are very high.

At the same time, our governments, in an attempt to reduce carbon emissions and alleviate climate change, are proposing to build more nuclear power plants. With more natural disasters likely to happen all of us could be at a higher risk of nuclear catastrophes.

One rational solution would be to stop building nuclear power stations altogether, but this would in turn require more investment in renewable energy and a reduction in our power consumption. So how far are we actually prepared to go to reduce the electricity we all use?

Do you think we should stop building nuclear power plants in the UK, or should we continue building them as we are, albeit with a greater concentration on safety?

Marilyn Dismore says:
18 March 2011

Of course.
In the time and for the money it would take to build new nuclear, we could do much more with renewables and proper insulation. Nuclear is a 20th century response to a 21st century problem.

Phil says:
18 March 2011

There are plans to build a tidal power farm in Scotland which I see will produce a mere 10MW at a cost of £40 million, the new 1.2GW nuclear powers station will cost £2.8 billion apiece which per unit of output is 40% less.

The argument that nuclear power stations are not really carbon neutral is also true of renewables, the materials for them also have to be mined, processed and brought to site.

I see the balance of pro and anti nuclear has tippd dramatically since I last looked at this thread.

However, despite the large number of “disagrees” on my previous comment, I see that no one has attempted to answer the questions I posed about why governments want us all to have renewables at home if they really are, as lots of people are now posting, inadequate and inefficient; why we are forced to have things like CFL lamps if they are clearly not reducing demand; or the fact that Nuclear is vastly expensive – not, as some posters are still suggesting – cheap.

Anyone got any answers to these points?

Interesting that on “Any Questions?” last night none of the politicians, pro or anti, had answers for them either.

I’ll Try.

CLF bulbs do reduce the demand for electricity – take a couple of examples – A standard 11w CLF saves approx 5 times the electricity in comparison to the 60 watt incandescent lamp it replaced – these are called direct replacement though the light output is lower – but an 18 watt saves around three times the electricity as a 60 watt – and the 18 watt is a direct replacement. CFL are more efficient than .incandescent lamps

Renewals at home – I’ll restrict this to solar panels – every single solar panel will generate electricity for that home for however long the sun is shining strong enough to generate (this can be cloudy days too) This will save the need to generate electricity elsewhere (Note this has nothing to do with the construction cost to the houseowner) A net saving of centrally generated electricity.
Please note the majority of homes (millions of them) could actually have roof solar panels generating electricity for each of their homes – Each KW generated by a house means 1000 houses generate I mega Watt – Taking the numbers of suitable houses is in the millions – the saving in external energy generated is very considerable. Obviously at night no electricity is generated – but with batteries and inverters the surplus power generated during the day could be stored for use at night.
The technology is here but not used mainly because there is no real stimulus from the Electricity Boards who have nothing to gain (in profits) by encouraging home electrical generation. Every kW generated at home is one less kW needed to be generated elsewhere,

The cost per kW produced by Nuclear Stations is cheaper that gas or oil produced kW – BUT this does not take into consideration the costs of storing the radio-active waste for 1000s of years. Sadly the vast numbers of pro Nuclear supporters don’t care about this – or that any accidents – however infrequent can be massively and permanently toxic.

The reason for reluctance about the use of Gas or Oil has nothing to do with the safety of the power stations – but only the fact that the supplies of these fuels are produced by unreliable countries. The technologies for the safe capture of the “toxic” emissions have.been around for years but again expensive to build (not run) – The Power Companies are very reluctant to invest in the technologies. Remember our Power Companies are private and obsessed by profits.

There are several renewals that are not inconsistent in output – Hydro – tidal – and wave – but tidal and wave have never had the investment needed to build them – Hydro is the only one that been used (as it is ‘easy’ to construct) The others just haven’t had the proper investment

I makes me laugh really – the Nuclear Industry took less than 10 years to develop because of the massive investment in WW2 – IF Whittle’s jet engine had a similar investment the Meteor would have flown operationally in 1941 not 1944.

No investment – no progress.

Thanks Richard: I’m really glad that you have posted such a detailed answer, most of which is entirely what I have always believed and said myself when appropriate.

Let’s hope that some of the pro-nuclear lobby stop posting hopeless denials of these facts …. but I don’t hold out much hope.

That’s OK John! 🙂

“Electrical Power Generation” was my major at Uni while reading Physics in the early 50’s – Interestingly the Technologies were all known then – yet only now – 60 years later -are small scale renewables being built – except for the least efficient inconsistent of them Windmills. Even these only because some Americans decided to exploit the wind generation (mainly because wind powered water pumps were considered normal).

Mind you – fairly obviously Germany and China are now re-examining the true viability of Nuclear – I think they were surprised that even in such a high technologically advanced country as Japan would have had such a design flaw in their Nuclear Plant Design. In these days there is a real chance of terrorist attacks on Nuclear Power Plants causing widespread and permanent toxic damage. They should be turned off.

Dave D – see point above about why ‘per household’ energy reduction has little effect on the total energy demand of a nation.

Richard – re, your point about design flaws, see point above about comparing technology from 40 years ago to today. You simply can’t compare.

Also, some sources of renewable energy, such as large dams and barrages, aren’t completely immune from the threat of terrorism. Neither are they completely immune from having an impact on the environment.

I’d like to consider this from a non technical angle as a non engineer-bloke in the street.
Energy rationing would mean (among other things) not being able to put the kettle on when there’s a need for tea, cold houses, restricted use of freezers and food storage in Supermarkets, limited food choices, limited mobility and commuter journeying and a general reduction in the quality of life that we ‘enjoy’ today. It would also seriously compromise the ability of the country to run efficiently. Somehow, I don’t think Jo public will accept deprivation anywhere near this level before they make themselves felt. It is impossible to step back in time. Coal fires are environmentally damaging and ,at present, for the majority of us, there are no other forms of energy, since this all comes from a central universal source via grids and gas lines. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t use our energy as carefully as possible with insulation and conservation as a priority.

So to the alternatives. Every house, or group of houses having its/their own independent energy source via deep earth heat transference, solar/voltaic cells and wind. Leaving the national grid to run the country infrastructure. How many years/ decades would it take to do this, even assuming it became a national priority? Has anyone done a feasibility study on cost and whether this idea is economically sound? Would it make sense in terms of effort and use of energy, or is the central system we already have better at providing power where it’s needed?

Alternative energy seems to be a minor player in this field despite being heralded as a planet saviour. No one has yet tamed the sea, gathered enough cash and good will to build a Severn barrage or built enough Dinorwic power systems to use water power and gravity as an energy source. These, of course, use more energy than they create. Solar power is very thin on the ground in the U.K., though there are more sun farms on the way. We seem to be playing games with this type of power source. How many years/decades would it take to harness nature effectively, even if this was a national priority?

Traditional power stations are said to cause global warming, they use finite sources of energy and some rely on unreliable countries for this input. Carbon capture seems a great, but expensive idea and no one has said that woodchip and other quick grow fuel crops would answer our energy needs either. Not sure why this is, as they would appear to be as carbon neutral as anything else. Perhaps it’s the vast tracts of land needed to make them effective.

Last of all there’s nuclear. Great energy source, good carbon credentials but, like every genie, fatal if let out of the container vessel and, of course the indestructible waste is a moral problem we pass on to successive generations. But, can we do without it?

So far none of the alternatives on their own can supply the power we need and we seem to be at a crossroads of decision making. While we make decisions and implement them we need to sustain reliable power. A present every option plays some part in this. The government is going to have to decide, (and bring the public with them) that they will spend money on the power system of choice. While they, and future governments (who must still agree on the same strategy) do this we actually need nuclear power. Whether this is a few stations with a limited life or a whole block af them as a future, depends on what else is done. We can be horrified at nuclear accidents and, maybe wiped out by one of our own, but there are other mass death scenarios out there that will do the same thing on an equally probable scale. Man is a creative animal. Let’s embrace this creativity and not run away from it. There will always be dangers, what ever we do. This is a nuclear world now, that won’t change any time soon.

phil says:
21 March 2011

I am totally surprised at the Japanese.

They live on a fault line, an earthquake belt if you prefer. They know that from time to time they are subject to Tidal waves. Tsunami is the internationally (english speaking) name for Tidal waves. It is a Japanese word.

Why the **** did they build their nuclear power stations at sea level. Arrogance is a word that comes to mind. Not only do they endanger their own people by doing so but the rest of the world too.

To think I once thought of the Japanese as being smart. Obviously time for a rethink on that.

Yes, because building a nuclear power station half way up a mountain away from a huge source of water for cooling makes so much more sense.

Gordon Thompson says:
24 March 2011

How many people have died or been injured in the production, distribution and use of fossil fuels since, say 1945? My guess is far more than those from nuclear power, including the toll from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is not a plea for “burn as usual”, but more one for a rational and calm assessment of the risk/benefits of the various energy alternatives including nuclear. Electricity cannot presently be stored, so some form of rapid generation to meet sudden demand is always going to be necessary, be it fossil or nuclear. Solar doesn’t work at night, and not very well at our latitudes anyway; wind does not always blow, or blows too hard for wind turbines sometimes, and harvesting and burning renewables is simply impractical due to the distinct shortage of sufficient land area. We MUST be able to generate our own energy within the UK to avoid over reliance on imports, be it oil, gas or solar from Africa etc or from areas with less than salubrious regimes. Or are we to fill up our valleys with pumped storage reservoirs so we can use wind.solar power? What will the nimbys have to say about that, let alone all those nasty wind turbines!
Yes, let’s get really efficient in our use of energy, but don’t rule out nuclear because of ill informed scare stories on t.v. or in what passes for our National Press. After all, France generates 70% of its electricity from nuclear, with one of their largest reactors sets at Gravelines, just a few miles from our coast. But do we lose sleep about it? No.
There has only been one major release of radiation from a nuclear station-Chernobyl, and that has had far lower consequences than feared, although I don’t minimise the damage and disruption both there and across Europe, nor the crass stupidity of the staff operating a poorly designed reactor.
3 Mile Island killed no-one and there was no catastrophic melt down, despite all the hype.
Windscale was serious, but adversely affected few, and was not from a commercial power station but a clandestine Plutonium production plant pushed beyond its limits by a stupid, vainglorious government intent on keeping its place at “the top table”.
Nuclear should be a part of our energy mix and it can be run safely too.

John Fitz-Hugh says:
28 March 2011

I notice that on 18/3/11 “Longley Shopper” commented that I was not completely correct when I stated on 16/3/11 that “carbon capture for fossil fuel is unproven and will be hideously expensive and what are we going to do if the buried CO2 leaks in a few years.”

“Longley Shopper” states that “clean-coal was proven in the 1980’s.

The work on clean-coal in the 1980s was concerned with burning coal in such a way that the efficiency of power production could be increased and that the products of combustion produced by the burning of the impurities (e.g.sulphur) in the coal could be safely recovered and not released as contamination into the atmosphere. It did not address the problem of capturing and storing the CO2 produced. Indeed, in the 1980s it was not appreciated that releasing large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere was such a significant problem.

The phrase “clean-coal” refers to a different process from carbon capture and storage and it is this latter process that remains unproven at present at any commercial scale.

It should also be particularly noted that the use of carbon capture and storage will very significantly reduce the efficiency with which electricity is produced.

I apologise for being pedantic, but these are important points.

One thing not mentioned yet ( I think – there are a lot of comments!), but part of the argument here questioning the likelyhood of electricity usage reduction.
Unless hydrogen cells or some other form of fuel is made safe and cheap, electricity is the future for vehicle power. However much we save in our homes, conversion of most vehicles to electrical power is going to put significant pressure on generation in the future. One possbile future is of < 19th Century-like 'staging posts' where instead of changing horses, we change batteries.

Personally, I used to be very anti-nuclear, like many, conflating the anti-nuclear weapons stance with anti-nuclear everything. Reading (and to some extent finding myself agreeing) with Lovelock has changed my mind on this. Nuclear is very far from perfect. Microgeneration can help a lot. But I can't see any other way to sustain a technologically advanced civilisation.

On a side note, there's some comments in the Solar PV thread asking why microgeneration isn't being promoted and subsidised in a way that benefits the end user as opposed to 'suppliers'.

Interesting – Japan raised their disaster to Level 7 the same as Chernobyl – Yes I know it wasn’t a nuclear explosion but…….Long term contamination is admitted etc……… So much for Eight day contaimination!

What price now for the Japanese??? I wonder if the Japanese will build another n such a place – or if at all? – far better on a stable mountain and with better water supply system. Different technology is required.

To build a nuclear power station in an earthquake region the height of folly – the design was flawed – 40 years ago or not. Why wasn’t it upgraded during it’s lifetime as “design criteria” improved??

There are far more intrinsically safe power supply systems available that do not have the financial support of nuclear and yet far more is needed. The quantity of generation depends on that financial support. Coal Fired Electrical Generation was small to start with.

Rather like flying – ten years before the Wright Bros – it was generally accepted that sustained flying was impossible – 10 years after Trans-Atlantic Crossings were contemplated. .

The Japanese now say it will take NINE MONTHS to “make safe” – while still allowing irradiated water to still contaminate the seas. And posters still say nuclear power is safe?????

What we need is proper concentration on alternative power generation that are renewable and sustainable many of which are known and tested – plus micro generation – Solar energy is sustainable in the UK – yet no decisive action by the Condems.

Interesting – It is now known that defects in the construction of the Japanese power stations were already known and protested about in 1998 – but were rejected by the company – seems a little like the UK doesn’t it?

In addition, the effects of the Tsunami on the construction were known and protested about but were ignored by the Company – even though similar sized earthquakes and Tsunamis had been known for millennia

It was an “accident” waiting to happen.

So much for Nuclear Power construction being safe

Stop building Nuclear Power Stations

Is this the story that said “the [Fukushima] reactor…*may* have been relying on flawed steel…” and the engineer who reported it is quoted as saying “Who knows what would have happened if that reactor had been running?” and “I have no idea *if* it could withstand an earthquake like this”.

So, still pretty inconclusive.

I love newspapers.

I just can’t stand journalists 🙂

Although opinions are split in the comments section here, a recent survey has found that the Fukushima disaster in Japan hasn’t really changed our opinions. Brits still, as a whole, support nuclear power as a way to slow climate change? Do you? Join our new Conversation: https://conversation.which.co.uk/energy-home/japan-nuclear-power-plants-energy-fukushima-uk/

Think you lot who agree with it should live in japan….

give me a solar pannel on my house any day…

Funny how people say polls say the british dont mind nuclear power. ive never been asked an opinion for a poll…. its rubbish…
its from the same place that wants to build the nasty things. whats worng with your brain? been sniffing rods? 🙂

If you’ve never been asked it’s probably because it’s a poll. The clue is in the word ‘poll’.

Mordenman says:
25 October 2011

Having tried to read all the comments thus far, I have a few perhaps unconnected observations.
The French reactors (PWR) are all almost upwind of us and have been operating for years as far as I know without signifcant problems. We import a little of that energy ourselves and so, ironically, will the Germans if they shut down their nuclear plants.
By far the most significant energy consumption domestically is heating, both space and water. The best way to use the fuels presently employed is in the home itself. Not electricity ! Gas used in electricity generation is scandalous when you realise that two thirds of it is thrown away in the process. I know about district heating schemes but have yet to hear of one that is a success, because I guess the companies price it too highly and maybe use it as a way of raising their efficiency figures. Even so, I would be surprised if they ever get much above 40%. A modern domestic boiler is much more efficient
Geothermal energy on the other hand seems the best bet for a CO2 free source of low grade heat siutable for such schemes when the heat itself would be the main commodity and not a by product. Much more investigation into the subject is needed I feel sure. A comment from someone in tthe business would be interesting.
Of course we should concentrate on reducing electricity consumption all the time and efficient lighting is important, but thermal insulation is more so, and on a simpler level, draught proofing is, in an old house like mine, more effective than double glazing.
I guess my comment boils down to this. If we heat our houses from the direct source and reduce our electricity consumption to a lower level, we would need fewer nuclear power plants that people are so nervous about.
The safety issue is a legitimate concern, but they are a different beast these days. I remember when there were crashes involving jet airliners quite regularly, but we are happy enough to use them nowadays. Most if not all of the nuclear plants having errors were built and designed in those days too and yes…..I would be happy to live close to a modern nuclear station, I wouldn’t want to sit and look at it all day, but proximity would not concern me other than the risk of it being run for profit by a private company financed by a bunch of venture capitalists…. but thats another argument.