The Death of Nuclear

by Jonathon Porritt

Jonathon Porritt (British, born 1950), is founder-director of Forum for the Future, codirector of the Prince of Wales’s Business and Sustainability Programme, and a former director of Friends of the Earth and chairman of the Green Party in the UK.

In 2052, only two countries, France and China, will be generating any electricity from nuclear energy at all—and both will have decided to get out of nuclear altogether by 2065.

I suspect there are few people who subscribe to such a view today. Despite the Fukushima reactor disaster in spring 2011, the prevailing mood in many countries in autumn 2011 remained broadly supportive of some kind of nuclear renaissance.

However, even before Fukushima, this renaissance was not quite all it was made out to be. As energy expert Amory Lovins points out, “There are now 61 nuclear plants ‘officially’ under construction.

However, of those 61 units, 12 have been ‘under construction’ for over 20 years; 43 have no official start-up date; half are late; 45 are in four centrally planned and untransparent power systems, and not one was a genuinely free-market transaction.”

The fact that such a renaissance has been talked up at many different points since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, without any such renaissance materializing, is neither here nor there. Nuclear hopes never finally fade away, and the fear of accelerating climate change has fanned those hopes into an even brighter incandescence—even among the ranks of some leading environmentalists in the United States and Europe who would once have scorned any idea that a low carbon future would be built on the back of nuclear energy.

Much of this twenty-first-century pro-nuclear advocacy adopts a “necessary evil” tonality; there’s no particular enthusiasm for the technology itself, let alone for the nuclear industry. UK environmentalist George Monbiot sees no contradiction between “falling in love with nuclear” and describing those who work for the nuclear industry as “a bunch of arm-twisting, corner-cutting scumbags.”

In 2006 the Sustainable Development Commission sought to advise the UK government on the pros and cons of nuclear power. The pros are clear and important: very low operating costs; reasonable security of fuel supply; and a low-carbon source of electricity compared to fossil fuels.

For the commission, however, the cons substantially outweighed those pros: massive capital costs; no real solution to the problems of nuclear waste and decommissioning; concerns about proliferation and security; and major ethical issues about intergenerational justice (dumping the problems of nuclear on future generations) and “moral hazard,” with the industry ruthlessly exploiting governments to bail it out when things go wrong. Which they always do.

The advice was disregarded. The power of the industry within nuclear nations is enormous.

Given that, why might anyone be persuaded that the industry will be on its last legs by 2052? There are three main reasons.

The first is financial. However assiduously the industry works to obscure the true cost of nuclear power, investors understand what’s going on. When the UK government pledged not to use any public money to take forward a new generation of nuclear power, investors just laughed. The subsidy-free nuclear reactor simply doesn’t exist— anywhere in the world—and unless the level of government subsidy on offer sufficiently and very substantially “de-risks” their own investments, investors simply won’t touch it.

Post-Fukushima, that de-risking challenge has become all but insurmountable. Uniquely, the nuclear industry is still exempted from covering the true cost of insuring their power stations—for the self-evident reason that no balance sheet in the world could bear that kind of liability.

To be fair, nuclear enthusiasts understandably argue that the Fukushima reactors were very old, and that today’s new reactor designs will perform much more efficiently and much more safely.

And, to be fair, they might. But we won’t know for many years to come, and deep skepticism is the only intellectually robust response to those claims, given how flawed all such predictions have been over the last few decades.

The second reason why I believe the industry will be all but dead in 2052 is that the contribution it can make to the safe, low-carbon world is vanishingly small. Nuclear power now accounts for about 13% of the world’s electricity, and just 5.5% of commercial primary energy. The role of nuclear was already declining before Fukushima, and that decline can only accelerate post-Fukushima. As of March 2011, there were 437 nuclear reactors operating in the world. Since 2008, 9 new reactors came on line, the majority of them in China, and 11 were shut down. The average age of today’s nuclear plant is twenty-six years, and the industry was hoping—before Fukushima—to extend reactor lifetime to forty years or more. Post-Fukushima, that will now become much harder.

Here are the facts: we would need to see 260 new reactors coming on line between now and 2025 just to keep pace with the closure program if old reactors are to come off-line at an acceptable age. You would therefore have to be a near-insane optimist to suppose that nuclear power will be contributing anything more than today’s 5.5% by 2030, at a massive cost to taxpayers the world over. Far greater levels of renewable generating capacity could be installed during the same time.

Prioritizing nuclear puts investment in renewables at risk. Ironically, it will substantially worsen the prospects for a low-carbon future by ensuring that fossil fuels will be used to fill the gap for far longer than needs to be the case. That’s the “nuclear dream” for you in a nutshell: a very small contribution to our low-carbon energy future, at huge cost and great risk, exacerbating rather than diminishing our dependence on fossil fuels.

And there’s one final reason why that nuclear dream will never deliver, and it relates to the vulnerability of nuclear facilities to terrorist attacks. It seems to me to be all but inevitable that there will be some terrorist attack on some nuclear facility somewhere in the world at some time over the next decade. Many security experts are astonished that it hasn’t already happened.

The likelihood of this being a cyber attack of some description has been greatly amplified by the “success” of the Israeli and US governments’ infiltrating their “Stuxnet worm” into the operating code of Iran’s nuclear power system. But just as likely is a physical attack, not necessarily on a reactor itself, but on the “temporary” nuclear-fuel storage facilities sited next to many reactors. The level of protection for these facilities is significantly lower than for the reactors themselves. I can understand why people don’t want to talk about this, as the sheer scale of the ensuing horror is hard to imagine.

But the truth is that the entire industry is vulnerable to these risks. So here’s how I see it: post-Fukushima, the industry will struggle to make its case. Investors are already spooked by Fukushima and by the industry’s continuing and massive cost overruns. When taxpayers realize the combination of threats together with the huge bill they will have to cough up for, the antinuclear movement will gain new momentum. The success of a nonnuclear Germany will persuade many that nuclear isn’t even “the least worst option.” Relatively few reactors will therefore be built over the next ten to fifteen years, and almost all of them will be in centralist regimes, such as China.

On top of that, imagine at some stage a proven terrorist threat to one of America’s or Europe’s older nuclear reactors (it doesn’t need to be an actual attack; clear proof that such an attack is possible will be quite sufficient), inducing panic around the world. The share value of energy companies with nuclear capacity will fall like a stone—even before the investors manage to get out.

Governments will be compelled either to close down existing reactors immediately or to announce nonnegotiable closure programs, with no new builds ever again on the agenda. Even France and China will be obliged to follow suit. By that stage the arguments in favour of the nonnuclear alternative (driven by massive investments in efficiency, renewables, combined heat and power, and carbon capture and storage installed on all gas and biomass plants) will be overwhelming.

End of story. End of nuclear.