Select Committee on Environmental Audit Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Medact


  1.  Medact is a UK charity for global health, working on issues related to conflict, poverty and the environment. It is the UK affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW: Nobel Peace Prize 1985). Medact warmly welcomes this opportunity to submit evidence to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee for its enquiry on Nuclear, Renewables, and Climate Change. Medact will restrict its evidence to section D, ie Other Issues, and will address, inter alia, questions 6 and 7 set out below:

    6.  How carbon-free is nuclear energy? What level of carbon emissions would be associated with (a)  construction and (b)  operation of a new nuclear power station? How carbon-intensive is the mining and processing of uranium ore?

    7.  Should nuclear new build be conditional on the development of scientifically and publicly acceptable solutions to the problems of managing nuclear waste, as recommended by the RCEP?

  2.  Before we commence, we register our concern at the Committee's precondition, in its terms of reference, that "nuclear new build" refers only to "a programme of building at least eight AP1000 reactors". Considering only a minimum of eight reactors of only one reactor type is unduly limiting and surprising. For example, Why not "one" reactor or "no" reactors? Why not other reactor types? These questions need to be addressed.

  3.  Building eight AP1000 reactors is what the nuclear industry wants. The Committee should bear in mind that the industry is seeking government subsidies of about £15 to £20 billion to build its chosen programme of reactors. The Committee should therefore critically examine all aspects of the matter and not merely what the industry wants or prefers. In other words, the Committee should follow its own, not the industry's, agenda.

How carbon-free is nuclear energy?

  4.  Concerns about global warming and UK greenhouse gas emissions are widely shared in Britain and rightly so. For this reason, many people have looked for alternative means of supplying our economic needs without producing greenhouse gases. A very common reaction is to suggest nuclear power, as in many people's minds this does not produce CO2. This is a widely held view, even by celebrity environmental leaders who should know better, but unfortunately it is wishful thinking. It is understandable in our concern about global warming, but nevertheless it is wrong. The reality is otherwise for two reasons. First, nuclear, alas, is not carbon-free. Second, nuclear new-build would make only a small contribution, if any, to reducing the UK's greenhouse gas emissions.

  5.  While most nuclear reactors[203] do not emit CO2 gas, reactors are a relatively small part of the nuclear fuel cycle which emits very large amounts of CO2 gas. These arise from the activities of the front end of the fuel cycle (uranium mining, ore milling, UF6 conversion, fuel enrichment and fabrication), and its back end (nuclear waste handling, encapsulation, transportation and disposal in some future waste repository—assuming one is constructed).

  6.  Life cycle analyses (LCAs) of the internal and external costs (including especially energy costs) of industries are often used to analyse the true impacts of ALL their processes. A number of LCA studies have examined CO2 gas emissions [usually expressed as CO2 equivalents per kWh] for different methods of producing electricity. Much depends on the models used and on the assumptions and rate parameters in these models.

  7.  The most comprehensive models in this area have been constructed by the Öko Institut (1998) and by Professors Smith and van Leeuwen at the University of Groningen, see The work of Smith and van Leeuwen has been critically examined and welcomed by Professor Mortimer at Sheffield Polytechnic. See _se74.php

  8.  Both studies conclude that the nuclear fuel cycle can create relatively large amounts of CO2 emissions depending on assumptions used. The most important aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle were the uranium ore grade and the method used for fuel enrichment. (Currently two methods are used for enriching the fissile content of uranium fuel, namely centrifuge separation and gas diffusion.) The lower the uranium concentration in ore, the higher the amounts of CO2 generated. Gas diffusion is much more energy and CO2 intensive as a means of enrichment than centrifuge separation. Using a range of reasonable assumptions, Smith and van Leeuwen determined that nuclear generated about a third as much CO2 per kWh as conventional mid-sized gas-fired electricity generation. Using pessimistic assumptions, nuclear could generate even more CO2 per kWh than a gas-fired system.

  9.  A key point that Smith and van Leeuwen, as well as Mortimer, make is that, because we would increasingly have to rely on poorer quality uranium ores in the future, CO2 emissions from the nuclear cycle would increase.

  10.  The O­ko Institut report made substantially similar conclusions, see table below reproduced from the O­ko report.

  11.  A number of industry studies (WNA, 2004) have countered by alleging that nuclear is no worse than the renewables as regards CO2 production. But this is not the case. The O­ko report examined this allegation and concluded "In comparison with the specific CO2 savings of alternative systems, like electricity savings [ie efficiency], cogeneration and renewable energy systems, nuclear power stations come off badly". The O­ko conclusions are supported by earlier studies by IEA (1998, 2002) and CRIEPI (1995), the research arm of the Japanese nuclear industry, and an older study by Mortimer, see In summary, the O­ko report showed nuclear CO2 emissions up to 4 to 5 times greater than those from the renewables, IEA/CRIEPI up to 2 fold greater, and Mortimer 3 to 4 fold greater. Its overall conclusion was that the nuclear cycle results in "significant" emissions of CO2 compared with other forms of electricity generation. This would apply to any future nuclear fuel cycle as much as it does to the present one as the front and back ends of the present nuclear fuel cycle would remain substantially the same in any new reactor system.

Is nuclear capable of reducing Britain's greenhouse gas emissions?

  13.  There is a widespread view that nuclear power generation will provide a major solution to the nation's greenhouse gas emissions. The Committee will clearly wish to ascertain whether this view is correct and what its real potential would be for UK greenhouse gas reduction. In fact, most of UK annual CO2 production is not from electricity generation but from transportation and energy sources such as oil and coal. Electricity generation is responsible for 25% of UK annual CO2 production. If contributions from aviation were included in UK greenhouse gas statistics (currently they are not), this fraction would be even smaller.

  14.  Because nuclear reactors cannot follow daily fluctuations in electricity demand (for safety reasons, they cannot be switched on/off and cannot be cranked up and down to follow demand), the maximum realistic contribution any new set of reactors could make to Britain's electricity needs would be about what it is today, ie approx. 25%. Also, CO2 represents only 83% of all greenhouse gases. Therefore the theoretical maximum percentage of UK greenhouse gases which could be addressed by nuclear is 25% x 25% x 83% = 5%—a rather small potential. In other words, CO2 savings does not provide a strong reason for deciding to build more nuclear power stations.

Is nuclear a cost-effective way to reduce CO2 emissions?

  15.  Given its poor CO2 savings per kWh, it is instructive to compare the cost effectiveness of other ways of reducing CO2 emissions. The first point is that nuclear is very expensive. In 2003, the US Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of each proposed AP 1000 MW reactor to be £1.4 to £2 billion (at an exchange rate of US $1.5 = £1), assuming that 10 reactors were built, ie a total cost of £14 to £20 billion. Clearly this would mean massive Government subventions and all manner of subsidies. However many studies have shown that, £ per £, nuclear is 5 to 7 times less cost-effective than efficiency/renewables in reducing CO2 emissions. See Keepin and Kats (1990); Lovins (2001).

  16.  Lovins has stated (2001):

    "Each dollar invested in electric efficiency displaces nearly seven times as much carbon dioxide as a dollar invested in nuclear power, without any nasty side effects. If climate change is the problem, nuclear power isn't the solution. It's an expensive, one-size-fits-all technology that diverts money and time from cheaper, safer, more resilient alternatives."

  17.  He has also explained (2004):

    "If we suppose pessimistically that saving a kilowatt hour costs as much as three cents, while generating a new nuclear kilowatt costs optimistically as little as six cents, delivered. . . then each six cents you spent on such a nuclear kilowatt hour could have bought two efficiency kilowatt hours instead. Therefore, by buying the costlier instead of the cheaper option first, you generated an additional kilowatt-hour from, say, coal that would have been avoided if you'd bought the cheapest things first".

  18.  In other words, to tackle greenhouse gas emissions most effectively we must choose the cheapest forms of carbon abatement first. Provided there are still energy efficiency gains to be made, these will provide a more financially effective way of spending public money than subsidising new nuclear power stations.

Should nuclear new build be conditional on the development of scientifically and publicly acceptable solutions to the problems of managing nuclear waste, as recommended by the RCEP?

  19.  In 1976, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution stated "There should be no commitment to a large programme of nuclear fission power until it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that a method exists to ensure the safe containment of long-lived, highly radioactive waste for the indefinite future." (paragraph 533 of the Flowers Report)

  20.  Although this was written almost 30 years ago, a safe method of dealing with nuclear waste STILL does not exist anywhere in the world. Therefore this comment is still as true now as it was then. In moral terms, it is unethical to embark on a second programme of nuclear build without solving the problems of the first. In Medact's view, the nuclear option is not a sustainable development. Indeed, with its major problems of nuclear waste, proliferation dangers, radioactive discharges and uranium depletion, nuclear energy is the epitome of unsustainability. In our view, it is highly unethical to pass these problems to future generations.

REFERENCESCRIEPI (1995) Comparison of CO2 Emission Factors between Process Analysis and I/O Analysis. Working document prepared for IAEA, Tokyo.

IEA (1998) Nuclear Power. Sustainability, Climate Change and Competition. Paris: IEA-OECD.

IEA (2002) World Energy Outlook. Paris: IEA.

Keepin B and Kats G (1988) Greenhouse Warming. A Comparative Analysis of Nuclear and Efficient Abatement Strategies. Energy Policy, December 1988, Vol 15, No 6 pp 538-561.

Lovins (2001) "Why Nuclear Power's Failure in the Marketplace is Irreversible (Fortunately for Nonproliferation and Climate Protection)" by Amory Lovins, Rocky Mountain Institute, Transcription of a presentation to the Nuclear Control Institute's 20th Anniversary Conference, "Nuclear Power and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons: Can We Have One Without the Other?" Washington, DC, April 9, 2001.

Lovins (2004) quoted in Guardian 12 August 2004 "Nuclear Plants Bloom" by John Vidal,,,1280884,00.html

O­ko-Institute (1997) Comparing Greenhouse-Gas Emissions and Abatement Costs of Nuclear and Alternative Energy Options from a Life-Cycle Perspective. Paper presented at the CNIC Conference on Nuclear Energy and Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Tokyo, November 1997. cited 12 October 2004.

WNA (2004) The environment needs nuclear. cited 12 October 2004

20 September 2005

203   Technically speaking, Magnox and AGR nuclear reactors release coolant CO2 gas each time they depressurize or refuel, ie about every 12 to 16 months. Typically, an AGR reactor will discharge about 200 tonnes of CO2 each time it depressurizes. So, current UK nuclear reactors emit about 3,000 tonnes of CO2 each year. This would not occur with LWR or AP type reactors.

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