Nuclear power debate

Nuclear power debate
Three of the reactors at Fukushima I overheated, causing meltdowns that eventually led to hydrogen explosions, which released large amounts of radioactive gases into the air.[1]

The nuclear power debate is about the controversy[2][3][4][5] which has surrounded the deployment and use of nuclear fission reactors to generate electricity from nuclear fuel for civilian purposes. The debate about nuclear power peaked during the 1970s and 1980s, when it "reached an intensity unprecedented in the history of technology controversies", in some countries.[6][7]

Proponents of nuclear energy argue that nuclear power is a sustainable energy source which reduces carbon emissions and can increase energy security if its use supplants a dependence on imported fuels.[8] Proponents advance the notion that nuclear power produces virtually no air pollution, in contrast to the chief viable alternative of fossil fuel. Proponents also believe that nuclear power is the only viable course to achieve energy independence for most Western countries. They emphasize that the risks of storing waste are small and can be further reduced by using the latest technology in newer reactors, and the operational safety record in the Western world is excellent when compared to the other major kinds of power plants.[9]

Opponents say that nuclear power poses many threats to people and the environment. These threats include health risks and environmental damage from uranium mining, processing and transport, the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation or sabotage, and the unsolved problem of radioactive nuclear waste.[10][11][12] They also contend that reactors themselves are enormously complex machines where many things can and do go wrong, and there have been many serious nuclear accidents.[13][14] Critics do not believe that these risks can be reduced through new technology.[15] They argue that when all the energy-intensive stages of the nuclear fuel chain are considered, from uranium mining to nuclear decommissioning, nuclear power is not a low-carbon electricity source.[16][17][18]



In the 2010 book Why vs. Why: Nuclear Power[19] Barry Brook and Ian Lowe discuss and articulate the debate about nuclear power. Brook argues that there are seven reasons why people should say "yes" to nuclear power:[19]

  • Because renewable energy and energy efficiency won’t solve the energy and climate crises
  • Because nuclear fuel is virtually unlimited and packs a huge energy punch
  • Because new technology solves the "nuclear waste" problem
  • Because nuclear power is the safest energy option
  • Because advanced nuclear power will strengthen global security
  • Because nuclear power's true costs are lower than either fossil fuels or renewables
  • Because nuclear power can lead the "clean energy" revolution

Lowe argues that there are seven reasons why people should say "no" to nuclear power:[19]

  • Because it is not a fast enough response to climate change
  • Because it is too expensive
  • Because the need for baseload electricity is exaggerated
  • Because the problem of waste remains unresolved
  • Because it will increase the risk of nuclear war
  • Because there are safety concerns
  • Because there are better alternatives

Energy supplied

Many studies have documented how nuclear power plants generate 16% of global electricity, but provide only 6.3% of energy production and 2.6% of final energy consumption. This mismatch stems mainly from the poor consumption efficiency of electricity compared to other energy carriers, and the transmission losses associated with nuclear plants which are usually situated far away from sources of demand.[20]

Energy security

For some countries, nuclear power affords energy independence. Nuclear power has been relatively unaffected by embargoes, and uranium is mined in countries willing to export, including Australia and Canada.[21][22] However, countries now responsible for more than 30% of the world’s uranium production: Kazakhstan, Namibia, Niger, and Uzbekistan, are politically unstable.[23]

Reserves from existing uranium mines are being rapidly depleted, and one assessment from the IAEA showed that enough high-grade ore exists to supply the needs of the current reactor fleet for only 40-50 years.[24] Expected shortfalls in available fuel threaten future plants and contribute to volatility of uranium prices at existing plants. Uranium fuel costs have escalated in recent years, which negatively impacts on the viability of nuclear projects.[24]

According to a Stanford study, fast breeder reactors have the potential to provide power for humans on earth for billions of years, making this source sustainable.[25] But "because of the link between plutonium and nuclear weapons, the potential application of fast breeders has led to concerns that nuclear power expansion would bring in an era of uncontrolled weapons proliferation".[26] Thorium-fuelled thermal breeder reactors such as LFTR also have the potential to satisfy the global energy needs for hundreds of thousands of years, while offering high proliferation resistance compared to uranium-fuelled breeders.[27]


In 2005, out of all nuclear power plants in the world, the average capacity factor was 86.8%, the number of SCRAMs per 7,000 hours critical was 0.6, and the unplanned capacity loss factor was 1.6%.[28] Capacity factor is the net power produced divided by the maximum amount possible running at 100% all the time, thus this includes all scheduled maintenance/refueling outages as well as unplanned losses. The 7,000 hours is roughly representative of how long any given reactor will remain critical in a year, meaning that the scram rates translates into a sudden and unplanned shutdown about 0.6 times per year for any given reactor in the world. The unplanned capacity loss factor represents amount of power not produced due to unplanned scrams and postponed restarts.

The World Nuclear Association argues that: "Obviously sun, wind, tides and waves cannot be controlled to provide directly either continuous base-load power, or peak-load power when it is needed,..." "In practical terms non-hydro renewables are therefore able to supply up to some 15–20% of the capacity of an electricity grid, though they cannot directly be applied as economic substitutes for most coal or nuclear power, however significant they become in particular areas with favourable conditions." "If the fundamental opportunity of these renewables is their abundance and relatively widespread occurrence, the fundamental challenge, especially for electricity supply, is applying them to meet demand given their variable and diffuse nature. This means either that there must be reliable duplicate sources of electricity beyond the normal system reserve, or some means of electricity storage." "Relatively few places have scope for pumped storage dams close to where the power is needed, and overall efficiency is less than 80%. Means of storing large amounts of electricity as such in giant batteries or by other means have not been developed."[29]

According to Benjamin K. Sovacool, most studies critiquing solar and wind energy look only at individual generators and not at the system wide effects of solar and wind farms. Correlations between power swings drop substantially as more solar and wind farms are integrated (a process known as geographical smoothing) and a wider geographic area also enables a larger pool of energy efficiency efforts to abate intermittency.[30]

Sovacool says that previously intermittent sources such as wind and solar can displace nuclear resources.[30] "Nine recent studies have concluded that the variability and intermittency of wind and solar resources becomes easier to manage the more they are deployed and interconnected, not the other way around, as some utilities suggest. This is because wind and solar plants help grid operators handle major outages and contingencies elsewhere in the system, since they generate power in smaller increments that are less damaging than unexpected outages from large plants".[30]

According to a 2011 projection by the International Energy Agency, solar power generators may produce most of the world’s electricity within 50 years, with wind power, hydroelectricity and biomass plants supplying much of the remaining generation. "Photovoltaic and concentrated solar power together can become the major source of electricity".[31] Renewable technologies can enhance energy security in electricity generation, heat supply, and transportation.[32]

Amory Lovins explains that even large nuclear plants cannot supply continuous baseload electricity:

"All sources of electricity sometimes fail, differing only in how predictably, how often, how much, for how long, and why. Even the most reliable giant power plants are intermittent: "they fail unexpectedly in billion-watt chunks, often for long periods. In the United States, 132 nuclear plants were built, and 21% were permanently and prematurely closed due to reliability or cost problems, while another 27% have at least once completely failed for a year or more. The remaining U.S. nuclear plants produce approximately 90% of their full-time full-load potential, but even they are not fully dependable. Reliably operating nuclear plants must shut down, on average, for 39 days every 17 months for refueling and maintenance.
"To cope with such intermittence by both nuclear and centralized fossil-fuelled power plants, utilities must install a "reserve margin" of roughly 15% extra capacity, some of which must be continuously fuelled, spinning ready for instant use. Regions which depend heavily on nuclear power "are particularly at risk because drought, a serious safety problem, or a terrorist incident could close many plants simultaneously".[33]

Lovins says that nuclear plants have an additional disadvantage: for safety, they must instantly shut down in a power failure, but for nuclear-physics reasons, they can’t be quickly restarted. For example, during the Northeast Blackout of 2003, nine perfectly operating U.S. nuclear units had to shut down. For the first three days after restart, when they were most needed, their output was below 3% of normal.[33]

Since nuclear power plants are fundamentally heat engines, waste heat disposal becomes an issue at high ambient temperature. Droughts and extended periods of high temperature can “cripple nuclear power generation, and it is often during these times when electricity demand is highest because of air-conditioning and refrigeration loads and diminished hydroelectric capacity”.[34] In such very hot weather a power reactor may have to operate at a reduced power level or even shut down.[35] In the 2006 European heat wave, a number of nuclear plants had to secure exemptions from regulations in order to discharge overheated water into the environment; several European nations were forced to reduce operations at some plants and take others offline and France, normally an electricity exporter, had to buy electricity on European spot market to meet demand.[36] In 2009 in Germany, eight nuclear reactors had to be shut down simultaneously on hot summer days for reasons relating to the overheating of equipment or of rivers.[34] Overheated discharge water has resulted in significant fish kills in the past, impacting livelihood and raising public concern.


New nuclear plants

The economics of new nuclear power plants is a controversial subject, since there are diverging views on this topic, and multi-billion dollar investments ride on the choice of an energy source. Nuclear power plants typically have high capital costs for building the plant, but low direct fuel costs (with much of the costs of fuel extraction, processing, use and long term storage externalized). Therefore, comparison with other power generation methods is strongly dependent on assumptions about construction timescales and capital financing for nuclear plants. Cost estimates also need to take into account plant decommissioning and nuclear waste storage costs. On the other hand measures to mitigate global warming, such as a carbon tax or carbon emissions trading, may favor the economics of nuclear power.

In recent years there has been a slowdown of electricity demand growth and financing has become more difficult, which has an impact on large projects such as nuclear reactors, with very large upfront costs and long project cycles which carry a large variety of risks.[37] In Eastern Europe, a number of long-established projects are struggling to find finance, notably Belene in Bulgaria and the additional reactors at Cernavoda in Romania, and some potential backers have pulled out.[37] Where cheap gas is available and its future supply relatively secure, this also poses a major problem for nuclear projects.[37]

Analysis of the economics of nuclear power must take into account who bears the risks of future uncertainties. To date all operating nuclear power plants were developed by state-owned or regulated utility monopolies[38] where many of the risks associated with construction costs, operating performance, fuel price, and other factors were borne by consumers rather than suppliers. Many countries have now liberalized the electricity market where these risks, and the risk of cheaper competitors emerging before capital costs are recovered, are borne by plant suppliers and operators rather than consumers, which leads to a significantly different evaluation of the economics of new nuclear power plants.[39]

Following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, costs are likely to go up for currently operating and new nuclear power plants, due to increased requirements for on-site spent fuel management and elevated design basis threats.[40]

Cost of decommissioning nuclear plants

Shutting down a nuclear plant is cited as an extremely expensive process by nuclear power critics, although the costs are usually covered by a component of price charged for electricity during operation. In the UK the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has increased the overall cost for decommissioning nuclear plants from £57 billion in 2005 to £73 billion in 2008, according to the BBC, although this is heavily influenced by cleaning up the weapons development at Sellafield. However, the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee was told in July 2008 that this cost could rise further and that it is almost impossible to come up with an accurate figure. Stabilising a plant and ensuring that it is safe is cited as an unknown cost by critics, claiming that decommissioning costs can massively increase the overall cost of nuclear energy.


Critics of nuclear power claim that it is the beneficiary of inappropriately large economic subsidies — mainly taking the forms of research and development, and financing support for new build — and that these subsidies are often overlooked when comparing the economics of nuclear against other forms of power generation.

Nuclear industry proponents argue that competing energy sources also receive subsidies. Fossil fuels receive large direct and indirect subsidies, such as tax benefits and not having to pay for the greenhouse gases they emit. Renewables receive proportionately large direct production subsidies and tax breaks in many nations, although in absolute terms they are often less than subsidies received by other sources.[41]

Energy research and development (R&D) for nuclear power continues to receive large state subsidies. In the United States, nuclear receives more Federal R&D support than the renewables industry[citation needed], however the impact of favorable tax incentives drives the total Federal support of the renewables industry to a level almost four times as high as that of the nuclear industry, despite all renewables (excluding hydroelectric, which receives no R&D funding) producing only 1/8 as much power as nuclear.[42] In Europe, the FP7 research program has more subsidies for nuclear than for renewable and energy efficiency together, although over 70% of this is directed at the ITER fusion project.[43][44] In the US, public research money for nuclear fission declined from 2,179 to 35 million dollars between 1980 and 2000.[41]

A May 12, 2008 editorial in the Wall St. Journal stated, "For electricity generation, the EIA concludes that solar energy is subsidized to the tune of $24.34 per megawatt hour, wind $23.37 and 'clean coal' $29.81. By contrast, normal coal receives 44 cents, natural gas a mere quarter, hydroelectric about 67 cents and nuclear power $1.59."[45] The impacts of prior subsidies, some of which may no longer be in effect, are not measured in the previous analysis. However, the Renewable Energy Policy Project[46] stated that from 1947 to 1999, nuclear power was subsidized $145.4 billion, wind power $1.2 billion and solar $4.4 billion.[47] From a megawatt hour basis, this translates into $12.45 per MWh produced for nuclear power, $36.47 for wind power and $511.63 for solar (1999 dollars).[47]

Indirect nuclear insurance subsidy

The potential costs resulting from a nuclear accident (including one caused by a terrorist attack or a natural disaster) are so great that no nuclear power plant would be built if the owner had to pay for liability insurance that fully covered these costs. The liability of owners of nuclear power plants in the U.S. is currently limited under the Price-Anderson Act (PAA). The Price-Anderson Act, introduced in 1957, was "an implicit admission that nuclear power provided risks that producers were unwilling to assume without federal backing".[48] The Price-Anderson Act "shields nuclear utilities, vendors and suppliers against liability claims in the event of a catastrophic accident by imposing an upper limit on private sector liability". Without such protection, private companies were unwilling to be involved. No other technology in the history of American industry has enjoyed such continuing blanket protection.[49]

The PAA was due to expire in 2002, and the former U.S. vice-president Dick Cheney said in 2001 that “nobody's going to invest in nuclear power plants” if the PAA is not renewed.[50] The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC) concluded that the liability limits placed on nuclear insurance were significant enough to constitute a subsidy, but a quantification of the amount was not attempted at that time.[51] Shortly after this in 1990, Dubin and Rothwell were the first to estimate the value to the U.S. nuclear industry of the limitation on liability for nuclear power plants under the Price Anderson Act. Their underlying method was to extrapolate the premiums operators currently pay versus the full liability they would have to pay for full insurance in the absence of the PAA limits. The size of the estimated subsidy per reactor per year was $60 million prior to the 1982 amendments, and up to $22 million following the 1988 amendments.[52] In a separate article in 2003, Anthony Heyes updates the 1988 estimate of $22 million per year to $33 million (2001 dollars).[53]

In case of a nuclear accident, should claims exceed this primary liability, the PAA requires all licensees to additionally provide a maximum of $95.8 million into the accident pool - totaling roughly $10 billion if all reactors were required to pay the maximum. This is still not sufficient in the case of a serious accident, as the cost of damages could exceed $10 billion.[54][55][56] According to the PAA, should the costs of accident damages exceed the $10 billion pool, the remainder of the costs would be fully covered by the U.S. Government. In 1982, a Sandia National Laboratories study concluded that depending on the reactor size and 'unfavorable conditions' a serious nuclear accident could lead to property damages as high as $314 billion while fatalities could reach 50,000.[57] A recent study found that if only this one relatively ignored indirect subsidy for nuclear power was converted to a direct subsidy and diverted to photovoltaic manufacturing, it would result in more installed power and more energy produced by mid-century compared to the nuclear case.[58]

Environmental effects

The primary environmental impacts of nuclear power come from uranium mining, radioactive effluent emissions, and waste heat, as under normal generating conditions nuclear power does not produce greenhouse gas emissions [CO2, NO2] directly (although the nuclear fuel cycle produces them indirectly, though at much smaller rates than fossil fuels).[59] Nuclear generation does not directly produce sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury or other pollutants associated with the combustion of fossil fuels. In 2008, The Economist stated that "nuclear reactors are the one proven way to make carbon-dioxide-free electricity in large and reliable quantities that does not depend (as hydroelectric and geothermal energy do) on the luck of the geographical draw."[60] Many experts, some of whom consider themselves environmentalists, now believe that expanded nuclear generation is the only way to reduce green house gas emissions while providing for current and future electricity needs.[citation needed] However, this is disputed in the literature because of the basic thermodynamic limits to nuclear energy deployment.[61]

While nuclear power does not directly emit greenhouse gasses, over a facility's life cycle, emissions occur through plant construction, operation, uranium mining and milling, and plant decommissioning. A meta analysis of 103 life cycle studies by Benjamin K. Sovacool, found that nuclear power plants produce electricity with about 66 g equivalent lifecycle carbon dioxide emissions per kWh, while renewable power generators produce electricity with only 9.5-38 g carbon dioxide per kWh.[62] This work on carbon emissions from nuclear power stations has been reviewed in Nature.[63] A study done at the University of Wisconsin showed all non-fossil sources are roughly equal in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.[64]

Nuclear plants require more, but not significantly more, cooling water than fossil-fuel power plants due to their slightly lower generation efficiencies. Uranium mining can use large amounts of water — for example, the Roxby Downs mine in South Australia uses 35 million litres of water each day and plans to increase this to 150 million litres per day.[65]

High-level radioactive waste

Spent nuclear fuel stored underwater and uncapped at the Hanford site in Washington, USA.

The world's nuclear fleet creates about 10,000 metric tons of high-level spent nuclear fuel each year.[66] High-level radioactive waste management concerns management and disposal of highly radioactive materials created during production of nuclear power. The technical issues in accomplishing this are daunting, due to the extremely long periods radioactive wastes remain deadly to living organisms. Of particular concern are two long-lived fission products, Technetium-99 (half-life 220,000 years) and Iodine-129 (half-life 15.7 million years),[67] which dominate spent nuclear fuel radioactivity after a few thousand years. The most troublesome transuranic elements in spent fuel are Neptunium-237 (half-life two million years) and Plutonium-239 (half-life 24,000 years).[68] Consequently, high-level radioactive waste requires sophisticated treatment and management to successfully isolate it from the biosphere. This usually necessitates treatment, followed by a long-term management strategy involving permanent storage, disposal or transformation of the waste into a non-toxic form.[69]

Governments around the world are considering a range of waste management and disposal options, usually involving deep-geologic placement, although there has been limited progress toward implementing long-term waste management solutions.[70] This is partly because the timeframes in question when dealing with radioactive waste range from 10,000 to millions of years,[71][72] according to studies based on the effect of estimated radiation doses.[73]

Disposal of nuclear waste is often said to be the Achilles' heel of the nuclear industry.[74] Presently, waste is mainly stored at individual reactor sites and there are over 430 locations around the world where radioactive material continues to accumulate. Experts agree that centralized underground repositories which are well-managed, guarded, and monitored, would be a vast improvement.[74] There is an international consensus on the advisability of storing nuclear waste in deep underground repositories,[75] but no country in the world has yet opened such a site.[75][76][77][78]

Safety and accidents

The abandoned city of Prypiat, Ukraine, following the Chernobyl disaster. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant is in the background.

Nuclear power plants are a complex energy system[79][80] and opponents of nuclear power have criticized the sophistication and complexity of the technology. Helen Caldicott has said: "... in essence, a nuclear reactor is just a very sophisticated and dangerous way to boil water -- analogous to cutting a pound of butter with a chain saw."[81] Much complexity is due to redundancy of systems and the defense in depth strategy of the designs. New reactors, though, will incorporate passive safety features to reduce the need for redundancy.[82]

The nuclear power industry has improved the safety and performance of reactors, and has proposed new safer (but generally untested) reactor designs but there is no guarantee that the reactors will be designed, built and operated correctly.[83] Mistakes do occur and the designers of reactors at Fukushima in Japan did not anticipate that a tsunami generated by an earthquake would disable the backup systems that were supposed to stabilize the reactor after the earthquake.[84] According to UBS AG, the Fukushima I nuclear accidents have cast doubt on whether even an advanced economy like Japan can master nuclear safety.[85] Catastrophic scenarios involving terrorist attacks are also conceivable.[83] An interdisciplinary team from MIT have estimated that given a three-fold increase in nuclear power from 2005 to 2055, and an unchanged accident frequency, four core damage accidents would be expected in that period [86]

The impact of nuclear accidents has been a topic of debate practically since the first nuclear reactors were constructed. It has also been a key factor in public concern about nuclear facilities.[87] Some technical measures to reduce the risk of accidents or to minimize the amount of radioactivity released to the environment have been adopted. Despite the use of such measures, "there have been many accidents with varying impacts as well near misses and incidents".[87]

Benjamin K. Sovacool has reported that worldwide there have been 99 accidents at nuclear power plants.[88] Fifty-seven accidents have occurred since the Chernobyl disaster, and 57% (56 out of 99) of all nuclear-related accidents have occurred in the USA.[88] Serious nuclear power plant accidents include the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (2011), Chernobyl disaster (1986), Three Mile Island accident (1979), and the SL-1 accident (1961).[89] Nuclear-powered submarine mishaps include the K-19 reactor accident (1961),[90] the K-27 reactor accident (1968),[91] and the K-431 reactor accident (1985).[89]

The World Nuclear Association provides a comparison of deaths from accidents in course of different forms of energy production. In their comparison, deaths per TW-yr of electricity produced from 1970 to 1992 are quoted as 885 for hydropower, 342 for coal, 85 for natural gas, and 8 for nuclear.[92]

Health effects on population near nuclear power plants and workers

Fishermen near the now-dismantled Trojan Nuclear Power Plant in Oregon. The reactor dome is visible on the left, and the cooling tower on the right.

A major concern in the nuclear debate is what the long-term effects of living near or working in a nuclear power station are. These concerns typically center around the potential for increased risks of cancer. However, studies conducted by non-profit, neutral agencies have found no compelling evidence of correlation between nuclear power and risk of cancer.[93]

There has been considerable research done on the effect of low-level radiation on humans. Debate on the applicability of Linear no-threshold model versus Radiation hormesis and other competing models continues, however, the predicted low rate of cancer with low dose means that large sample sizes are required in order to make meaningful conclusions. A study conducted by the National Academy of Science found that carcinogenic effects of radiation does increase with dose.[94] The largest study on nuclear industry workers in history involved nearly a half-million individuals and concluded that a 1–2% of cancer deaths were likely due to occupational dose. This was on the high range of what theory predicted by LNT, but was "statistically compatible".[95]

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has a factsheet that outlines 6 different studies. In 1990 the United States Congress requested the National Cancer Institute to conduct a study of cancer mortality rates around nuclear plants and other facilities covering 1950 to 1984 focusing on the change after operation started of the respective facilities. They concluded in no link. In 2000 the University of Pittsburgh found no link to heightened cancer deaths in people living within 5 miles of plant at the time of the Three Mile Island accident. The same year, the Illinois Public Health Department found no statistical abnormality of childhood cancers in counties with nuclear plants. In 2001 the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering confirmed that radiation emissions were negligibly low at the Connecticut Yankee Nuclear Power Plant. Also that year, the American Cancer Society investigated cancer clusters around nuclear plants and concluded no link to radiation noting that cancer clusters occur regularly due to unrelated reasons. Again in 2001, the Florida Bureau of Environmental Epidemiology reviewed claims of increased cancer rates in counties with nuclear plants, however, using the same data as the claimants, they observed no abnormalities.[96]

Scientists learned about exposure to high level radiation from studies of the effects of bombing populations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, it is difficult to trace the relationship of low level radiation exposure to resulting cancers and mutations. This is because the latency period between exposure and effect can be 25 years or more for cancer and a generation or more for genetic damage. Since nuclear generating plants have a brief history, it is early to judge the effects. [97]

Most human exposure to radiation comes from natural background radiation. Natural sources of radiation amount to an average annual radiation dose of 295 mrem. The average person receives about 53 mrem from medical procedures and 10 mrem from consumer products.[98] According to the National Safety Council, people living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant receive an additional 0.01 mrem per year. Living within 50 miles of a coal plant adds 0.03 mrem per year.[99]

Current guidelines established by the NRC, require extensive emergency planning, between nuclear power plants, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the local governments. Plans call for different zones, defined by distance from the plant and prevailing weather conditions and protective actions. In the reference cited, the plans detail different categories of emergencies and the protective actions including possible evacuation.[100]

A German study on childhood cancer in the vicinity of nuclear power plants, the KiKK study[101] was published in December 2007. According to Ian Fairlie, it "resulted in a public outcry and media debate in Germany which has received little attention elsewhere". It has been established "partly as a result of an earlier study by Körblein and Hoffmann[102] which had found statistically significant increases in solid cancers (54%), and in leukemia (76%) in children aged less than 5 within 5 km of 15 German nuclear power plant sites. It reported a 2.2-fold increase in leukemias and a 1.6-fold increase in solid (mainly embryonal) cancers among children living within 5 km of all German nuclear power stations."[103] In 2011 a new study of the KiKK data was incorporated into an assessment by the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) of the incidence of childhood leukemia around British nuclear power plants. It found that the control sample of population used for comparison in the German study may have been incorrectly selected and other possible contributory factors, such as socio-economic ranking, were not taken into consideration. The committee concluded that there is no significant evidence of an association between risk of childhood leukemia (in under 5 year olds) and living in proximity to a nuclear power plant.[104]

Safety culture in host nations

Some developing countries which plan to go nuclear have very poor industrial safety records and problems with political corruption.[105] Inside China, and outside the country, the speed of the nuclear construction program has raised safety concerns. Prof He Zuoxiu, who was involved with China's atomic bomb program, has said that plans to expand production of nuclear energy twentyfold by 2030 could be disastrous, as China was seriously underprepared on the safety front. China's fast-expanding nuclear sector is opting for cheap technology that “will be 100 years old by the time dozens of its reactors reach the end of their lifespans”, according to diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Beijing.[106] The rush to build new nuclear power plants may “create problems for effective management, operation and regulatory oversight” with the biggest potential bottleneck being human resources – “coming up with enough trained personnel to build and operate all of these new plants, as well as regulate the industry”.[106] The challenge for the government and nuclear companies is to "keep an eye on a growing army of contractors and subcontractors who may be tempted to cut corners".[107] China is advised to maintain nuclear safeguards in a business culture where quality and safety are sometimes sacrificed in favor of cost-cutting, profits, and corruption. China has asked for international assistance in training more nuclear power plant inspectors.[107]

Nuclear proliferation and terrorism concerns

According to Mark Z. Jacobson, the growth of nuclear power has "historically increased the ability of nations to obtain or enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, and a large-scale worldwide increase in nuclear energy facilities would exacerbate this problem, putting the world at greater risk of a nuclear war or terrorism catastrophe".[108] The historic link between energy facilities and weapons is evidenced by the secret development or attempted development of weapons capabilities in nuclear power facilities in Pakistan, India, Iraq (prior to 1981), Iran, and to some extent in North Korea.[108]

Four AP1000 reactors, which were designed by the American Westinghouse Electric Company are currently, as of 2011, being built in China[109] and a further two AP1000 reactors are to be built in the USA[110]. Hyperion Power Generation, which is designing modular reactor assemblies that are proliferation resistant, is a privately owned US corporation, as is Terrapower which has the financial backing of Bill Gates[111].

Vulnerability of plants to attack

According to a 2004 report by the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, "The human, environmental, and economic costs from a successful attack on a nuclear power plant that results in the release of substantial quantities of radioactive material to the environment could be great."[112] Such an attack would, however, be difficult to mount. U.S. reactors are surrounded by a double row of electronically monitored tall fences, and patrolled by a sizable force of armed guards. Modern nuclear reactor containment buildings are designed to be impervious to a September 11-style attack.[113][114] If terrorists were able to gain access to a nuclear reactor, they could do little more than vandalize the equipment. The National Reconnaissance Office's "Design Basis Threat" criteria for nuclear plant security is classified; what size attacking force the plants are able to protect against is unclear. Scramming a plant takes less than 5 seconds, while unimpeded restart takes several hours, severely hampering any efforts to release radioactivity into the atmosphere. Attacks on chemical industry or petroleum industry plants, which are much more vulnerable to terrorism, would result in similarly dangerous outcomes, sometimes more lethal than an attack on the nuclear power industry.[115]

Use of waste byproduct as a weapon

An additional concern with nuclear power plants is that if the by-products of nuclear fission (the nuclear waste generated by the plant) were to be left unprotected it could be stolen and used as a radiological weapon, colloquially known as a "dirty bomb". There were incidents in post-Soviet Russia of nuclear plant workers attempting to sell nuclear materials for this purpose (for example, there was such an incident in Russia in 1999 where plant workers attempted to sell 5 grams of radioactive material on the open market,[116] and an incident in 1993 where Russian workers were caught attempting to sell 4.5 kilograms of enriched uranium.[117][118][119]), and there are additional concerns that the transportation of nuclear waste along roadways or railways opens it up for potential theft. The United Nations has since called upon world leaders to improve security in order to prevent radioactive material falling into the hands of terrorists,[120] and such fears have been used as justifications for centralized, permanent, and secure waste repositories and increased security along transportation routes.[121]

However, scientists agree that the spent fissile fuel is not radioactive enough to create any sort of effective nuclear weapon, in a traditional sense where the radioactive material is the means of explosion.

Public opinion

A poll in the European Union for Feb-Mar 2005 showed 37% in favour of nuclear energy and 55% opposed, leaving 8% undecided.[122] The same agency ran another poll in Oct-Nov 2006 that showed 14% favoured building new nuclear plants, 34% favoured maintaining the same number, and 39% favoured reducing the number of operating plants, leaving 13% undecided. This poll showed that the approval of nuclear power rose with the education level of respondents.[123]

The two fuel sources that attracted the highest levels of support in the 2007 MIT Energy Survey are solar power and wind power. Outright majorities would choose to “increase a lot” use of these two fuels, and better than three out of four Americans would like to increase these fuels in the U. S. energy portfolio. Fourteen per cent of respondents would like to see nuclear power "increase a lot".[124]

What had been growing acceptance of nuclear power in the United States was eroded sharply following the 2011 Japanese nuclear accidents, with support for building nuclear power plants in the U.S. dropping slightly lower than it was immediately after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, according to a CBS News poll. Only 43 percent of those polled after the Fukushima nuclear emergency said they would approve building new power plants in the United States.[125]

A 2011 poll suggests that skepticism over nuclear power is growing in Sweden following Japan's nuclear crisis. 36 percent of respondents want to phase-out nuclear power, up from 15 percent in a similar survey two years ago.[126]

In 2011, London-based bank HSBC said: "With Three Mile Island and Fukushima as a backdrop, the US public may find it difficult to support major nuclear new build and we expect that no new plant extensions will be granted either. Thus we expect the clean energy standard under discussion in US legislative chambers will see a far greater emphasis on gas and renewables plus efficiency".[127]

In 2011, Deutsche Bank analysts concluded that "the global impact of the Fukushima accident is a fundamental shift in public perception with regard to how a nation prioritizes and values its populations health, safety, security, and natural environment when determining its current and future energy pathways". As a consequence, "renewable energy will be a clear long-term winner in most energy systems, a conclusion supported by many voter surveys conducted over the past few weeks. At the same time, we consider natural gas to be, at the very least, an important transition fuel, especially in those regions where it is considered secure".[128]

Future of the nuclear industry

As of May 15, 2011, a total of 438 nuclear reactors were operating in 30 countries, six fewer than the historical maximum of 444 in 2002. Since 2002, utilities have started up 26 units and disconnected 32 including six units at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. The current world reactor fleet has a total nominal capacity of about 372 gigawatts (or thousand megawatts). Despite six fewer units operating in 2011 than in 2002, the capacity is still about 9 gigawatts higher.[129] The numbers of new operative reactors, final shutdowns and new initiated constructions according to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in recent years are as follows: [130]

Year New connections Shutdowns Net change   Construction initiation
# of reactors GW # of reactors GW # of reactors GW # of reactors GW
2004 5 4.8 5 1.4 0 +3.4   2   1.3
2005 4 3.8 2 0.9 +2 +2.9   3   2.9
2006 2 1.5 8 2.2 −6 −0.7   4   3.3
2007 3 1.9 0 –– +3 +1.9   8   6.5
2008 0 –– 1 0.4 −1 −0.4 10 10.5
2009 2 1.0 3 2.5 −1 −1.4 12 13.1
2010 5 3.8 1 0.1 +4 +3.6 16 15.8
2011 (as of June) 3 1.5 4 2.7 −1 −1.2   1   0.3

Stephanie Cooke has argued that the cost of building new reactors is extremely high, as are the risks involved. Most utilities have said that they won't build new plants without government loan guarantees. There are also bottlenecks at factories that produce reactor pressure vessels and other equipment, and there is a shortage of qualified personnel to build and operate the reactors,[131] although the recent acceleration in nuclear power plant construction is drawing a substantial expansion of the heavy engineering capability.[132]

Following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the International Energy Agency halved its estimate of additional nuclear generating capacity to be built by 2035.[133] Platts has reported that "the crisis at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plants has prompted leading energy-consuming countries to review the safety of their existing reactors and cast doubt on the speed and scale of planned expansions around the world".[134] In 2011, The Economist reported that nuclear power "looks dangerous, unpopular, expensive and risky", and that "it is replaceable with relative ease and could be forgone with no huge structural shifts in the way the world works".[135]

In September 2011, German engineering giant Siemens announced it will withdraw entirely from the nuclear industry, as a response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. [136] The company is to boost its work in the renewable energy sector.[137]

In 2011, Mycle Schneider spoke of a global downward trend in the nuclear power industry:

The international nuclear lobby has pursued a 10-year-long, massive propaganda strategy aimed at convincing decision-makers that atomic technology has a bright future as a low-carbon energy option... however, most of the high-flying nuclear plans never materialized. The historic maximum of reactors operating worldwide was achieved in 2002 with 444 units. In the European Union the historic peak was reached as early as 1988 with 177 reactors, of which only 134 are left. The only new projects underway in Europe are heavily over budget and much delayed.

As Time magazine rightly stated in March, "Nuclear power is expanding only in places where taxpayers and ratepayers can be compelled to foot the bill." China is building 27 -- or more than 40 percent -- of the 65 units officially under construction around the world. Even there, though, nuclear is fading as an energy option. While China has invested the equivalent of about $10 billion per year into nuclear power in recent years, in 2010 it spent twice as much on wind energy alone and some $54.5 billion on all renewables combined.[138]

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