Recently, interesting and lively correspondence on the merits and demerits of nuclear power has taken place between Dr Becky Martin, a geneticist formerly at Oxford University and Baroness Worthington, the Labour Party’s energy spokesperson in the House of Lords.
Dr Martin’s initial letter can be found at http://www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/commentators/2790138/dear_bryony_dont_dump_your_nuclear_waste_on_us.html
Bryony Worthington’s response can be found at http://www.theecologist.org/reply/2901897/why_we_really_do_need_nuclear_power.html
Jonathan Porritt is co-founder of Forum for the Future, https://www.forumforthefuture.org/siteusers/jonathon-porritt and of The Prince of Wales’s Business & Sustainability Programme, and was Chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission from 2000 to 2009. He is presently Chancellor of Keele University.
Jonathan and myself were equally exasperated by Baroness Worthington’s reply and with Dr Martin’s permission we sent the following letter to the Baroness.
House of Lords
London SW1 1A 0PW
Cc Dr Becky Martin
June 15, 2015
Dear Baroness Worthington
We were disappointed to read your praise for nuclear power in response to Dr Becky Martin. She will no doubt wish to reply, but we hope you won’t mind us replying as well.
If we understand your letter correctly, you are mainly concerned about the threat of climate change, and believe that nuclear is an important part of the answer. We are also very concerned about climate change, seeing it is the largest challenge facing us all today. But in our view nuclear is at best a distraction, and at worst a hindrance to tackling CO2 emissions. Let us explain why.
In 2005, the former Sustainable Development Commission (of which one of us was Chair) published a report which examined the contribution that a 10 GW new nuclear programme would make to reducing the UK’s CO2emissions. The answer was between 4% and 8%, depending on assumptions. By and large, the same is true world-wide: to make a significant contribution, hundreds of new nuclear power stations would need to be built around the world very quickly. This is simply not going to occur, despite your best wishes.
Regarding Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) for nuclear power, we have tried to make sense of your comments, but they were unclear. Let’s keep it simple and straightforward. From the available LCA evidence, it appears that most renewables come in between 5g and 30g of CO2 per kWh, nuclear at an average of around 70, gas-fired stations at around 400, and coal-fired at around 1,000. Does this argue for more nuclear, or perhaps for more renewables?
At this point, I’m sure you’ll be asking the same question as us: what are the relative costs per g of CO2 saved? There are fewer studies here, but the US Rocky Mountain Institute has published several analyses concluding that efficiency measures are the most cost effective, and nuclear the least cost effective, mainly because of its eye-wateringly high construction costs. As you will be aware, the estimated costs of just one proposed station, Hinkley C, are about £24.5 billion. And nuclear costs continue to rise, whereas the costs of renewables continue to fall, at a gratifyingly rapid pace.
You conclude that we should support nuclear on “moral, ethical, scientific and environmental grounds”. This is stretching the bounds of credibility, as many people object to nuclear on precisely these grounds.
For example, take our really hard-to-handle and extremely radioactive nuclear wastes. Is it either moral or ethical to pass these problems on to our children and grandchildren, as we are now doing? You lay claim to ‘environmental grounds’, but what about the Irish Sea – the most radioactively polluted sea in the world as a consequence of Sellafield’s operations? And what about the dozens of Welsh hill farms still subject to food restriction orders as a result of pollution by the radioactive plumes from Chernobyl in 1986? And what about the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011? You say ‘scientific’, but what about the 40 or so studies world-wide indicating increased child leukemias near nuclear reactors?
In our view, as two individuals involved in these matters for more than 40 years, nuclear is so undemocratic, uneconomic, unsustainable, unhealthy and unsafe that anyone who continues to support today’s increasingly corrupted nuclear dream would appear to have lost at least part of their own moral compass.
Dr Ian Fairlie