It is argued that subsidies for nuclear power are justified because it is a "low carbon" source of electricity, because it provides security in energy supplies, and because it helps to keep down costs. The first of these justifications is highly misleading and the other two are wrong:
- The nuclear cycle emits between 9 and 25 times as much CO2 as wind power. Nuclear power is much less of a “low-carbon” source of electricity than, for example, wind power. Peer-reviewed research shows that the nuclear cycle emits between 9 and 25 times as much CO2 as wind power (Jacobson, M. Z. and Delucchi, M. A., "Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power", Energy Policy, 39(3),1154–1169, 2011, Part I, doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2010.11.040, bit.ly/mPTv74; and Jacobson, M. Z., "Review of solutions to global warming, air pollution, and energy security", Energy and Environmental Science, 2, 148-173, 2009, rsc.li/RTF3mw.). Most renewables provide a much more effective means of cutting emissions and (see below) there are more than enough to meet our needs now and for the foreseeable future.
- Security of energy supplies:
- Greater security of supply can be provided with renewables:
- Like all kinds of equipment, nuclear power stations can and do fail. Far from providing security of energy supplies, failure of a nuclear power station can be very disruptive on the grid because, normally, a largish chunk of power is lost without much warning. By contrast, the gradual and predictable variations in the output of renewables are much easier to manage.
- There is a range of techniques which can ensure reliable, robust and responsive supplies of electricity from entirely renewable sources of power (see bit.ly/I4E5vr).
- The disruptive effect when a nuclear power station fails is described in Exclusive: Will wind farms pick up the tab for new nuclear? (Business Green, 2010-08-24). The expected increase in the number of nuclear power stations in the UK will mean that the annual cost of providing so-called "Large Loss Response" will rise from £160m a year to £319m. But the costs will be shared equally across all electricity providers. Naturally, the renewable generators are not pleased about this.
- Imports of uranium. Contrary to what has sometimes been suggested, nuclear power is not a "home grown" source of power in the UK. All supplies of uranium are imported.
Plutonium? It has been suggested that the UK should use its stock pile of plutonium as a source of nuclear fuel. That idea has not been approved and, even if it was, it would take a long time to develop.
- Diversity of supply. In themselves, renewables can provide a much greater diversity of power sources than we have relied on throughout the 20th century.
- Costs. Contrary to the often-repeated claim that nuclear power is cheap, it is one of the most expensive ways of generating electricity. Jeff Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric—one of the world’s largest suppliers of atomic equipment—has said (in July 2012) that nuclear power is so expensive compared with other forms of energy that it has become “really hard” to justify. And the cost of nuclear power has been rising for many years, while the cost of renewables is falling (see Section 4 in The financial risks of investing in new nuclear power plants (PDF)).
There are several other reasons why nuclear power should not receive new subsidies (and why existing subsidies should be withdrawn):
Nuclear power is already heavily subsidised:
Nuclear power plants in the UK benefit from seven main types of subsidy and several of them are large (see Nuclear Subsidies, PDF).
The Economist has written that "More than half of the subsidies (in real terms) ever lavished on energy by OECD governments have gone to the nuclear industry." (From "Nuclear power out of Chernobyl's shadow", The Economist, print edition, May 6th 2004.)
The Union of Concerned Scientists has written that “Government subsidies to the nuclear power industry over the past fifty years have been so large in proportion to the value of the energy produced that in some cases it would have cost taxpayers less to simply buy kilowatts on the open market and give them away.”.
Speed of construction. In general, renewables can be built very much faster than nuclear power stations. For example, in 2010, Germany installed 8.8 GW of photovoltaic solar panels, producing, overall, about the same amount of electricity each year as a 1 GW nuclear power station but up to 8.8 times the peak output of a nuclear power station — because PV generates during the daylight hours when demand is high. By contrast, the average time from start of construction to full grid connectivity for Areva’s last four nuclear reactors was 17.5 years. If we are worried about this or that energy gap, then renewables are the way to go.
There are more than enough renewables to meet our needs. There is good evidence from reputable sources that there are more than enough renewable sources of power to meet all our needs for energy (not just electricity) now and for the foreseeable future (bit.ly/9MKP5i). There are now many reports showing how to decarbonise the world’s economies without nuclear power (bit.ly/wRQ8ro). As mentioned above, there is a range of techniques which can ensure reliable, robust and responsive supplies of electricity from entirely renewable sources of power (see bit.ly/I4E5vr). Several countries are now aiming to decarbonise their economies without nuclear power.
The inflexibility of nuclear power is an embarrassment on the grid. It cannot easily be switched on and off and its output cannot easily be varied. Much more useful are technologies that can provide power on demand: hydropower, enhanced geothermal systems (EGS), concentrating solar power with heat storage, thermal generators fired by biofuels, and tidal lagoons managed as pumped storage devices.
- By the time any new nuclear power plant may be built in the UK (2020 or later), much of the market for its electricity will be disappearing. The tumbling cost of photovoltaics and the falling cost of other renewables, the likely completion of of the European internal market for electricity and the strengthening of the European transmission grid, mean that, by the time any new nuclear power station could be built in the UK (2020 or later), large and small consumers will be empowered to generate much of their own electricity or to buy it from anywhere in Europe. In short, much of the market for nuclear electricity in the UK will be disappearing (see “Market Risk” in “The financial risks of investing in new nuclear power plants” (bit.ly/JhdNtL)). This could lead to a situation where poorer people are forced to pay for nuclear white elephants (see “A subsidy for nuclear power and its unintended consequences” (bit.ly/OhrPfO)).
Nuclear power is a long-established industry that should be commercially-viable without support. Subsidies should be reserved for renewable technologies that are relatively new and have not yet reached the bottom of their cost-reduction curves.
It is likely that subsidies for nuclear power are unlawful under EU competition laws, see Legal bid to halt nuclear construction and news reports by the BBC and the Guardian.
- Nuclear power has many problems (bit.ly/IyslTI) including the risk of disasters like those at Chernobyl and Fukushima, the still-unsolved problem of what to do with waste that will remain dangerous for thousands of years, and facilitating the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
In terms of the fight against climate change, security of energy supplies, and other considerations, nuclear power diverts attention, effort, and large amounts of money away from better and cheaper solutions, where those resources would be more effectively spent.