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The Real Cost of the Nuclear Industry Part II

Brian Guerin

Uranium is the primary source fuel for nuclear reprocessing. 400,000 tons of rock need to be mined to obtain 33 tons of uranium, the amount needed to run one reactor for a year. The rock material is abandoned, but the residue of the uranium processing itself is not; instead it is poured into basins. In the enrichment process itself residue is left over, in the fuel fabrication process, residue is left over… and so the process continues. [1] In the reactor itself the 33 tons of uranium ore are turned into the same amount of uranium, plus 300 kilograms of plutonium, plus other byproducts of fission; and here the real pollution difficulty lies, as highly radioactive waste is produced, along with all kinds of low-level waste, discharged liquids, discharged gases, etc. In the so-called reprocessing cycle, this used fuel and the unused uranium are separated from the newly produced plutonium and the fission products which can no longer be used.

The next step is the uranium milling in which the yellow cake is extracted from the uranium ore. The greatest portion of the activity – the uranium decay products, thorium, radium, lead., etc. – are left over in the form of these tailings in the tailing basins which then ‘enhance’ the landscape. [2]

After this comes conversion: a uranium gas is made from the yellow cake which is a solid substance. The gas is needed for the enrichment process. Here again there is a large amount of waste, and in the end, after many steps, 5% of the original material taken from the ground actually goes into the reactor and 95% remains in the landscape. The fuel now inside the reactor is now highly radioactive. The uranium mining process alone is responsible for the greatest proportion of health-related damages. In comparison, the running of the reactor, final storage, etc., is relatively harmless when compared to the level of environmental damage from uranium mining. [3]
In the operation of one single 1-gigawatt nuclear power plant, one large plant results in an average of 76 fatalities in one year, due solely to the radon coming from the tailings. This is not during the year that the energy is produced, rather, its sustained for all eternity; radon will be released for milennia, this is from one year of energy production.         

Radium which trickles into the ground water from these underground tailing pools causes an average of 20 further fatalities, which amounts to about 100 fatalities for one plant for a year. As there are around 400 nuclear plants in the world, in one year of operation of the current atomic industry results in 40,000 deaths per year resulting from uranium mining alone. [4]
In economic terms, when the infrastructure costs, fuel cycle costs alone amount to 4.5 to 17 dollars per megawatt of energy. But the great costs involved are related not merely to the fuel cycle, but also the costs of investment that a nuclear plant requires.
With fossil fuel, there are relatively lower plant investment costs, but the fuel costs are much higher. This is because coal is comparatively more expensive than uranium. The relevant consideration is where the plant is located. If a hydro-powered plant is located by a river, it has an energy source at hand; if due to poor maintenance, factored in, coal costs as much as nuclear power. [5]

The cheapest form of energy is energy that is saved. This is not simply a matter of switching off lights at night but the more efficient application of  the technical means at hand. To give one example, that of Austria, the energy savings potential for this advanced industrialised country, the energy savings potential with currently available technology is in the order of 50%. This means that 50% of power could be saved without any loss in living standards. The reason this is not happening is due to an energy policy which focuses on the development of new sources of power rather than the more efficient use of existing power. [6]

 To give another example, that of the former Soviet Union, with its extensive network of
natural gas pipelines, a major source of supply is Western Europe. It was discovered that due to poor maintenance, faulty workmanship, etc., 40 Billion cubic metres of natural gas is lost through leakage. This is equivalent to 90% of the atomic capacity of the former Soviet Union. Using existing technology, 90% of nuclear power in the former Soviet Union could be saved by sealing the leaks. If the natural gas were put to efficient use, more than 100% of the current atomic power share could be covered. [7]
In terms of the costs of a nuclear accident, if an accident on the scale of Chernobyl, or greater, were to take place, it is generally accepted that the damage would be so great that it would be far beyond the capacity of the world’s insurance industry to cover. It has therefore been agreed that governments should step in and meet the costs of a nuclear accident once the damage goes beyond a certain limit. [8]
In Britain, the Nuclear Installations Act of 1965 requires a plant’s operator to pay a maximum of £150 million in the ten years after the incident. The government covers any excess and pays for any damage that might arise between 10 and 30 years afterwards. Under international conventions, the government also covers any cross-border liabilities up to a maximum of about £300 million. These figures are an obvious gross understatement of the problem. If Bradwell power station in Essex blew up and there was an east wind, London and perhaps the whole of Southern England would have to be evacuated. The potential costs of a nuclear accident could be closer to £300 trillion rather than £300 million, an increase of six orders of magnitude. [9]

In terms of the alleged benefits to the environment from nuclear’s supposedly lower carbon emissions, the emissions themselves are understated, as they fail to take into account the releases of other greenhouse gases used in the fuel cycle. The stage in the cycle in which other greenhouse gases are particularly implicated is enrichment. Enrichment depends on the production of uranium hexafluoride, which requires fluorine, plus its halogenated compounds, not all of which can be prevented from escaping into the atmosphere. The conversion of one tonne of uranium into an enriched form requires the use of about half a tonne of fluorine; at the end of the process, only the enriched fraction of uranium is used in the reactor, as explained above: the remainder, containing the vast majority of the fluorine used in the process, is waste, mainly in the form of depleted uranium, now of course being used as a weapon of war in its own right. It is important to emphasize:
1. that to supply enough enriched fuel for a standard 1GW reactor for one full-power year, about 160 tonnes of natural uranium has to be processed;
2. The global warming potential of halogenated compounds is many times that of carbon dioxide: that of Freon 11, for example, is nearly 10,000 times greater than that of the same mass of carbon dioxide. Moreover, other halogens, such as chlorine, whose compounds are potent greenhouse gases, along with a range of solvents, are extensively used at various other stages in the nuclear cycle, notably in the reprocessing process. There is no readily available data on the quantity of these “hyperpotent” greenhouse gases released on a regular basis into the atmosphere by the nuclear power industry. Nor is any data available on the actual, presumably variable, standards of management of halogen compounds among the various nuclear power industries across the world. There is a well-founded suspicion that this crucial source of climate-changing gases substantially reduces any advantage that the nuclear power industry has at present in their highly propangandized production of carbon dioxide, but no well-founded claim can be made in favour og this. It is vital that reliable research be carried out into the quantity of freon and other greenhouse gases released from the nuclear fuel cycle as soon as possible. [10]

The advantage of nuclear power in producing lower carbon emissions holds true only as long as supplies of rich uranium last. When leaner ore is used, ore consisting of less than 0.01% (soft rocks), and 0.02% (hard rocks), so much energy is required by the milling process that the total quantity of fossil fuels needed for nuclear fission is greater than would be needed if these fuels were used directly to generate electricity. In other words, when forced to use ore of poorer quality, nuclear power begins to slip into a so-called negative energy balance: more energy goes in than comes out, and more carbon dioxide is produced by nuclear power than by the fossil-fuel alternatives. [11]

The world’s annual production of uranium oxide has been lagging behind its use in nuclear reactors for the past 20 years. The shortfall has been made up from military stockpiles, so taxpayers’ money continues to subsidize the military industry.
[12] The rise in the price of uranium oxide (so-called “yellowcake”) has soared recently. One cause of this is the higher cost of the fossil energy needed to mine and extract uranium. [13]

As to reserves of uranium ore, there is enough usable uranium ore in the ground to sustain the present trivial rate of consumption – a mere 2 ½ % of all the world’s final energy demand – and to fulfill its waste-management obligations, for around 45 years.
In terms of nuclear power actually supplying the energy for the world’s electricity supply, the best estimate (supposing that the all the needed power stations were constructed simultaneously and without delay), is that the global demand for electricity could be supplied from nuclear power for about 6 years, with margins for error of roughly 2 years either way. Perhaps we could be more ambitious than that: it could supply all the energy needed for an entire (hydrogen-fueled) transport system. It could sustain this for 3 years (with the same margin of error) before it ran out of rich ore and the energy balance turned negative. [14]

If, as an economy measure, all the energy-consuming waste-management and clean-up practices were to be put one hold while stocks of rich ore lasted, then the energy needed by nuclear energy might be roughly halved, so that global electricity could be supplied for a decade or so. At the end of that period, there would be giant stocks of untreated, uncontained waste, but there would be no further prospect of available energy to deal with it. At the extreme, there might not be the energy to cool the storage ponds needed to prevent the waste from being released from its temporary containers.
However, the situation is far worse. There is already a backlog of high-level waste, accumulated over the last 60 years, and now distributed around the world in cooling ponds, in deteriorating containers, in decommissioned reactors and heaps of radioactive mill-tailings. Some ¼ million tonnes of spent fuel is already being stored in ponds, where the temporary canisters are so densely packed that they have to be separated by boron panels to prevent chain reactions.
The task of clearing up this deadly rubbish will require a large amount of energy. How much energy? This is unknown, but a rough estimate has been made: energy equivalent to about 1/3 of the total quantity of nuclear power produced – in the past and future – will be required to clean up past and future wastes. The whole of this requirement will have to come from the remaining usable uranium ore, which is not much more than half the entire original endowment of usable ore. [15]

The result is that, if the nuclear industry were to clean up its wastes, only about 1/3 of the present stock of uranium would be left over as a source of electricity for distribution in the various national grids. In other words, the electricity that the industry would have available for sale in the second half of its life – if it were simultaneously to meet its obligation to clean up the whole of its past and present wastes – would be approximately 70% less than it had available for sale in the first half of its life. On this calculation, the estimates given above for the contribution that nuclear power could hypothetically make in the future will have to be revised: Nuclear energy, if it cleared up all its wastes, could supply enough power to provide the world with all its electricity for some 3 years. This is not speculation: these wastes will have to be cleared up; the energy required for this process will reduce the contribution that can be expected from the trivial to the virtually nonexistent. [16]
The financial costs of this must constantly be borne in mind. If the nuclear industry in the 2nd part of its life were to commit itself to clearing up its current and future wastes, the cost would make the electricity produced virtually unsaleable. Bankruptcy would inevitably follow, but the waste would remain.
Governments would have to keep the cleanup programme going, whatever the cost. They would also have to keep training programmes going in a e.g., college of nuclear waste disposal, ensuring that, a century after the nuclear industry expires, the skills they would require for waste disposal still existed. However, the Government, in an energy-strapped society, would lack the funds. The disturbing prospect is now opening up of massive stores of unstable wastes that no one can possibly afford to cope with or clean up. [17]

Let us move away from a hypothetical situation in which nuclear energy would provide all available power, which is not going to happen, and return to the present costs involved in the advance of nuclear power to deal with energy needs. A useful example is Canada, in Ontario Province. In the 1980s, Canada defied the international trend away from nuclear power, by then well under way, and constructed the world’s largest nuclear plant at Darlington. It was specifically exempted from the province’s environmental act. However, when it was finally operational, this plant, budgeted at $3.4 billion, had cost nearly $15 billion. [18]
The company involved, Ontario Hydro, now has debts amounting to almost $40 billion, resulting from its investment in nuclear power stations since the 1970s. [19]

Since its beginning, nuclear power has cost the United States over $492,000,000,000 – nearly twice the cost of the Vietnam War and the Apollo moon Missions combined. In return for this investment, an energy source exists that, until the mid-1980’s, resulted in less energy than the burning of firewood, 20-22% of electricity, and 8-10% of total energy consumption in the US. [20]
Since 1950, nuclear power has received over $97,000,000,000 in direct and indirect subsidies from the federal government, such as deferred taxes, artificially low limits on liability in case of nuclear accident, and fuel fabrication write-offs. Many costs for nuclear power have been deliberately underestimated by the government and industry, such as the costs for permanent disposal of nuclear wastes, the “decommissioning” (shutting-down and cleaning-up) of retired nuclear plants, and nuclear accident cleanup.

US nuclear power contributes only 20-22% of electricity; but research makes clear that 25-44% of all energy generated is wasted or inefficiently used. 3 separate studies carried out by government and private firms since 1982 revealed that the US has the potential to conserve the electrical equivalent of between 145 to 210 power plants. A 1990 study by the Electric Power research Institute (EPRI) indicated that, “Use of energy-saving technologies would result in a saving [by the year 2000]… of 24-44% of energy consumption.” Japan, Germany and Sweden use 40% to 60% less energy. Nor will increased use of nuclear power decrease dependency upon oil. What will achieve this is improving the fleet mileage of US cars from 26 miles per gallon, which will greatly decrease oil imports, as only 8% of electricity comes from oil, domestic and foreign. Of this, half is used in “peak-load” (quick start-up) oil fired plants used on the hottest days of the year and in emergencies. Nuclear plants take too long to start up, and therefore cannot be used as “peak-load” plants. [21]

 Nuclear power is not a serious option for the US in the face of global warming, for the following reasons:                                 
1. The Prohibitive Cost: Each plant costs between $3 and 5 billion to construct. The US would need over 400 additional reactors (on top of its present 108) to replace its coal plants. The construction costs alone would amount to roughly $1.2-2 trillion. On a worldwide, basis, 8,000 nuclear plants would be needed to replace coal plants, to meet projected energy needs for the next 30 years (there are only 430+ plants in operation at present). These plants would cost the world approximately $24 trillion just to construct. However, additional costs would have to be added to these calculations: the increased costs for nuclear waste disposal and plant decommissioning; increased costs for scarcer nuclear fuels such as uranium; increased costs to safeguard nuclear facilities and materials from sabotage or terrorism, and the increased risk of major, multi-billion dollar accidents and their consequent disruptive economic effects.

2. Action on Global Warming is needed at once, and not at some unspecified time in the future. The nuclear option is in fact a clever device to long-finger the issue: most experts agree that major action must take place in the next 5-10 years in order to lessen the predicted global warming effects. However, to construct enough nuclear plants, even if the resources could be found, would take decades. Calculations reveal that even if the 8,000 plants mentioned above were completed, world CO2 levels would still increase 65% over the next 30 years; this is operating on the assumption that the process of mining and processing the uranium does not in itself greatly increase CO2 levels.

3. Coal energy is only one contributor: only 7% of world CO2 comes from US coal, oil and gas energy plants, and worldwide, CO2 represents only one half of the problem. Nuclear power therefore does little to reduce CO2 levels; in fact, as we have seen, it rather does the opposite. It does nothing to reduce the other greenhouse gases such as methane, chlorofluorocarbons, halons, etc. On the contrary, it merely serves to drain needed money and resources away from the solutions needed for the other, non-CO2 half of the problem.

4. Faster Means Do Exist: It has been calculated that, compared to nuclear power, for every dollar spent on conservation and efficiency techniques, 7 times the amount of CO2 is removed from the atmosphere. These measures can be more quickly implemented, and at lower costs. There are other, logical steps that Governments can take which include: constructing more fuel efficient cars; the greater use of public transportation and bicycles; decreased energy consumption; the increased planting of trees (non-GM); halting the catastrophic deforestation of indigenous rainforest across the world and stopping ocean pollution (as both rain forest and ocean help absorb CO2); halting the spread of deserts through land reform and active assistance of indigenous peoples to reclaim their own rightful inheritance (Ibid). Nuclear power is a contrived distraction away from relevant measures to save the environment, which is why it is being promoted by the very people who are engaged in systematically destroying the environment. The primary reason for the advancement of nuclear power is to sustain the nuclear weapons industry, whose effects can be seen in Japan, Iraq, Yugoslavia, and the Ukraine. Preventing the acquisation of yet more terrible weapons should be the concern of every informed citizen.


[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.

 © The Tara Foundation, 2006