NUCLEAR EXPANSION IS A PIPE DREAM, SAYS REPORT
Hope for new era of cheap, clean power is a 'myth'
Building more stations would increase terror risk
John Vidal, environment editor: Wednesday July 4, 2007
The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/
A worldwide expansion of nuclear power has little chance of significantly reducing carbon emissions but will add dangerously to the proliferation of nuclear weapons-grade materials and the potential for nuclear terrorism, says a leading research group that has analyzed the possible uptake of civil atomic power over the next 65 years.
The Oxford Research Group paper, funded by the Joseph Rowntree charitable trust, says that the worldwide nuclear "renaissance" planned by the industry to provide cheap, clean power is a myth. Although global electricity demand is expected to rise by 50% in the next 25 years, only 25 new nuclear reactors are currently being built, with 76 more planned and a further 162 proposed, many of which are unlikely to be built. This compares with 429 reactors in operation today, many of which are already near the end of their useful lives and need replacing soon.
For nuclear power to make any significant contribution to a reduction in global carbon emissions in the next two generations, the paper says, the industry would have to construct nearly 3,000 new reactors - or about one a week for 60 years.
"A civil nuclear construction and supply programme on this scale is a pipe dream, and completely unfeasible. The highest historic rate [of build] is 3.4 new reactors a year," says the report.
The paper - Too Hot to Handle? The Future of Civil Nuclear Power - comes as the UK government consults on a new generation of nuclear power stations and at a time of increased terrorist activity. It argues that worldwide stocks of high-grade uranium are expected to have run dangerously low within 25 years and that a significant increase in nuclear power beyond then will require a new generation of "breeder" reactor.
Though this will reduce the need for high-grade uranium, it says, it will also add immensely to the amount of weapons-grade plutonium being produced. "Even a small expansion in the use of nuclear power for electricity generation would have serious consequences for the spread of nuclear weapons to countries that do not now have them and for nuclear terrorism," it says.
The researchers say that nuclear proliferation is inevitable in the next decade. If all the reactors planned today are built, a further seven countries will have nuclear power. Nine more potentially volatile Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia and Syria, have expressed interest in civil nuclear power, says the paper.
In addition, future demand for electricity will come from the world's poorest countries, which are expected to add nearly 3.5 billion to their populations in the next 60 years. "If nuclear power is to play more than a marginal role in combating global warming, then nuclear power will have to be operated in countries like Bangladesh, Congo, Indonesia, Nigeria and Pakistan, which at present have no nuclear reactors", it says.
"According to the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, within 30-40 years at least 30 countries are likely to have access to fissile materials from their civil nuclear power programmes that can be used for nuclear weapons and competent nuclear physicists and engineers who could design and fabricate them.
"Future breeder reactors will be fuelled with plutonium and only a small input of uranium. The plutonium will be of a type suitable for use in the most efficient nuclear weapons. The normal operation of these reactors will, as a matter of course, multiply the amount of weapons-usable plutonium available across the world.
"If the decision to go with nuclear power is taken, then the UK will implement a flawed and dangerously counter-productive energy policy.
"The question is whether in the 21st century the security risks associated with civil nuclear power can be managed, or not? Society has to decide whether or not the risks of proliferation and nuclear terrorism in a world with many nuclear power reactors are acceptable."
A scramble for uranium to feed the new generation of nuclear plants in China and Russia has led to a huge price increase: the commodity shot up 45% to $138 a pound in the past three months alone - as compared with $10.75 in early 2003, when atomic power was out of favour and nobody wanted to construct facilities. Nuclear is now seen as one way of meeting soaring energy demand while keeping greenhouse gas emissions low.