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Is the threat of proliferation enough to reject nuclear power?



Following the National Audit Office’s (NAO) November report on Sellafield and its running costs, Joseph Iddison takes a look at the history of nuclear energy and weighs up its advantages against its difficulties, as both an energy source and a human danger.

Nuclear power is arguably the most contentious source of energy there is. Some camps class it as valuable low-carbon power; others see its impact as a threat to humanity. The reality is that it is probably a necessary evil.

A common problem with nuclear energy is its waste, which remains for roughly 100,000 years, while high-level waste from power plants can last even longer. This makes it incredibly difficult to store.

Existing storage sites can be used for 100 years at most, according to the European Commission. As B&GT publisher Simon Leadbetter wrote in this very magazine, “We need to find storage solutions that will last longer than any other man-made structure and that’s an enormous ask.”

On top of its storage problems, nuclear waste is radioactive, meaning it poses serious health concerns were any contamination or mismanagement to occur. The UK now has a stockpile of over a hundred tonnes of deadly plutonium, with few plans over what to do with it. A small volume of escaped plutonium can be fatal.

The EU produces some 7,000 cubic metres (247,203 cubic feet) of high-level radioactive waste annually. There have been major calamites over the years to do with nuclear waste misconduct, with the most recent case occurring last month against Sellafield nuclear plant, which is to be prosecuted over allegations that it sent low-level radioactive waste to a landfill site back in April 2010.

More recently, on December 16 last year, the first of dozens of rail shipments of nuclear waste from Dounreay to Sellafield was made overnight. A total of 44 tonnes of material is being moved, in the hope that the shipments will be turned into plutonium and uranium to create more fuel for nuclear power plants. The environmental group Friends of the Earth has criticised the transportation, saying that it endangers citizens located near the railway line.

In a report published by the NAO, Sellafield was said to have had £1.6 billion spent on its running and clean up during 2011/12. A further £411m was spent on major projects at the site during that period. With such significant cost, as well as regular issues with timescale and budget, is nuclear power a necessary source of energy for the UK?

At present, there are over 430 operating nuclear plants worldwide and they provide over 2% of the world’s total energy output and 15% of its electricity. According to Greenpeace, even if nuclear power plants were built at the most optimistic rate – approximately 10 new reactors by 2024 – our carbon emissions would still only be cut by 4%.

Storage of this waste is problematic due to its contamination risk. One of the EU’s favoured storage methods is vitrification, where the nuclear waste is dissolved in molten glass, poured into steel canisters, which are then buried. The glass later solidifies, trapping the toxic waste. The UK’s preferred method of waste storage is to encapsulate it in specially formulated cement. The waste is mixed with cement and sealed in steel drums, in preparation for disposal deep underground.

However, in August last year, researchers at the University of Sheffield found that a method of storing nuclear waste normally used only for high-level waste could provide a safer, more efficient, and potentially cheaper solution for the storage and ultimate disposal of nuclear waste.

We found that gamma irradiation produced no change in the physical properties of these glasses, and no evidence that the residual radiation caused defects”, said Professor Neil Hyatt at the time.

We think this is due to the presence of iron in the glass, which helps heal any defects so they cannot damage the material.”

However, there is another problem concerning nuclear power: proliferation. There are growing hazards posed by the radioactive materials nuclear power produces – some of which can be used in nuclear weapons and all of which can be used in so-called ‘dirty’ bombs.

Such is the concern of nuclear proliferation, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger discussed its global threat“There has emerged in the region, the current and most urgent issue of nuclear proliferation. For 15 years, the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) have declared that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable, but it has been approaching.

“In a few years, people will have to come to a determination of how to react, or the consequences of non-reaction. I believe this point will be reached in a very foreseeable future.”

The threat of both proliferation and meltdown means nuclear is included in the sextet of sin – the six core untouchables of the ethical investment universe. But whilst this is enough to put many people off the energy source, legally-binding carbon reduction targets will be difficult to meet without it.

Investing in clean, renewable alternatives like wind, solar, hydro and biomass is clearly the long-term solution. But nuclear could be a necessary, low-carbon stopgap in the coming years.

Further reading:

Hollande’s France and its shift from nuclear to renewables

Surviving without nuclear power

On this day in 1996: France suspends nuclear tests

On this Day in 1946: UN addresses the problems raised by atomic energy

Fukushuma: one year on