Nuclear power: the case against

We’ve asked  Ben Ayliffe, Senior Nuclear Campaigner from Greenpeace UK, to tell us why he opposes nuclear power. Ben will be with us in the programme in a couple of hours. We should be getting a pro-nuclear view as well. But first, let’s see what Ben has to say.

Nuclear is big news again. We’ve had a lot of hot air recently about how we need new nuclear to tackle climate change and maintain the UK’s energy security.

This is a very tall tale that serves to expose the lie at the heart of the debate about nuclear. New reactors simply won’t deliver the urgent emissions cuts we need to tackle climate change.

Even the most optimistic estimates suggest that 10 new nuclear power stations will only reduce the UK’s emissions by 4% sometime around 2020 and do so at an eye-watering cost. It’s too little, too late to stop global warming.

Energy security is about oil and gas – as most of the UK’s oil and gas consumption is for purposes other than producing electricity, nuclear power, which can only generate electricity, is almost irrelevant.

New reactors will create huge amounts of the most hazardous radioactive waste, which remains dangerous for up to a million years.

It will establish new targets for terrorists, including nuclear waste trains carrying deadly cargoes along our public rail network for decades to come.

It will keep the threat of a nuclear reactor accident hanging over us and risk the proliferation of weapons-grade plutonium.

And it will render the public liable for the enormous cleaning up costs.

I’ve taken peaceful direct action to stop nuclear power myself – I spent the day sitting on the top of the reactor at Sizewell B – because I believe nuclear is an expensive hindrance to our efforts to tackle climate, and one that will leave us with a deadly legacy of radioactive waste for thousands of years.

There are solutions to the problems the planet faces. Nuclear just isn’t one of them.

So what do you think? Have Ben’s arguments made you change your views on nuclear power? Post your comments here on the blog.

27 Responses to “Nuclear power: the case against”

  1. 1 Brett
    January 11, 2008 at 16:20

    Well said Ben!

    Has Ben’s arguments made me change my mind? Certainly not, Im on his side in this!

    Brett ~ Richmond, Va

  2. January 11, 2008 at 18:04

    Nuclear energy is the future for energy thirsty countries that can’t afford the rising oil bill. Currently nuclear energy doesn’t satisfy the bulk of energy needs even for industrialised countries, with the exception of France whose electricity production is mostly nuclear. There can be factories that can use nuclear energy for its production. But country the greatest pollutants, vehicles and planes are unlikely to be run by nuclear energy as the technology has not evolved in this direction yet.

    It remains to see how oil lobby will react as declining independence on oil will threaten its future and the futures of the hundreds of workers employed in the sector.

    For third world countries, they need political allies in the developed countries to provide them with it. They can buy as much oil as they can without being asked what they can do with it. But acquiring nuclear energy means their being under constant scrutiny for fear of using it for military purposes. Iran is a vivid example, whose nuclear program is at the centre of worries from countries opposed to its regime, mainly the USA.

    While nuclear energy can be a solution. It is still a dream to see it totally replacing the other sources, mainly oil. At least when there is an oil disaster, like explosions, fire or leak in the sea, the damage is limited. When there is a nuclear disaster, the damage can be of greater magnitude transcending borders as it happened with Chernobyl.
    So acquiring nuclear energy remains both a political and a health concern for the time being.

  3. January 11, 2008 at 18:09

    Nuclear is clearly damaging and helpful at the same time. What i don’t understand is why the West want to develop nuclear reactor while opposing other nations from obtaining nuclear power. Can someone explain the rational behind that, please?

  4. January 11, 2008 at 18:13

    The only reason for the push on nuclear is to keep the people attached to the energy umbilical cord so big corporations can continue making money. We need to be responsible for our own individual energy needs; it’s the difference between renting a house and owning one. The future is solar.

  5. 5 Ufuoma Arhagba
    January 11, 2008 at 18:19

    While nuclear energy is a promising alternative, it is important to point out that the long term damage to the environment cause by a single nuclear plant meltdown is more than the effects we’re seeing the greenhouse.

  6. 6 VictorK
    January 11, 2008 at 18:19

    Mr Ayliffe’s statement of his position is just what we’ve come to expect of the environmentalist movement: self-righteous, emotive, scare-mongering, semi-rational, and lacking hard evidence.

    Here is a carbon-free power-source that doesn’t add to global warming and that, insofar as it replaces carbon-emitting energy sources, will in fact reduce carbon emissions. Mr Ayliffe’s argument in response to these facts is to reject the nuclear option because nuclear power alone won’t ‘deliver the urgent emissions cuts we need to tackle climate change’! So, we don’t want nuclear power because it can’t all by itself provide the answer to climate change (though nobody ever claimed it could). This is less reasoned criticism than overbearing prejudice. And I can see why Mr Ayliffe declines to follow the logic of one particular statement he made. If 10 new power stations will ‘only’ reduce the UK’s carbon emission by 4% (and what is Mr Ayliffe’s authority for this statistic – hopefully something better than ‘Greenpeace’s Research Division’), then reason would suggest that we might be better off with perhaps 40 or 50 stations instead of a paltry 10.

    His dismissal of the energy security argument is not convinving. He claims that most of the UK’s oil and gas consumption is for purposes other than producing electricity, and therefore nuclear power is irrelevant in this scenario. Presumably he has a reason for not telling us what percentage of our oil and gas consumption goes to the generation of electricity. But more importantly, the case for energy security is demonstrated by France, where in 2004 nuclear power was the single largest source of total energy consumption (39%), followed by oil (36%) and gas (16% – source: EIA International Energy Audit). France, in other words, has diverse sources of energy; it has complete control over its largest energy source; and its total energy consumption is necessarily less reliant on middle eastern oil supplies and Russian gas than countries that don’t have a comparably large nuclear sector.

    The argument about nuclear waste is slightly more cogent but relies on scaremongering more than fact. It is an argument based on what might happen in the event of failures of management, competence and policy, not what will happen as a matter of course. It is for the British government to have and to apply an effective anti-terrorist policy, to ensure that nuclear waste is securely and safely transported and disposed of, and to ensure that nuclear power stations are regulated and managed in a way that eliminates, or at least minimises, the possibility of any kind of serious accident. What grounds does Mr Ayliffe have for assuming that the fully accountable government of a technically advanced nation is incapable of these things? The safety record of nuclear power stations across the world has, so far, been a good one, and the worst disaster – Chernobyl, which occurred in a closed society under a secretive and unaccountable government – has not led to the kind of sci-fi-esque devastation that environmentalists routinely predict in these situations.

    There may very well be a case against nuclear power: if so, could somebody please make it?

  7. 7 Jeff
    January 11, 2008 at 18:23

    What happens if some terrorist bombs a nuclear power plant?

  8. January 11, 2008 at 18:25

    Nuclear energy can help Ghana, especially when we’re suffering power shortages and hydro dams can’t save us. Tidal is also available to the world among others. Unfortunately, nuclear compromises the security of our planet when it falls in the hands of terrorist organisations.

    January 11, 2008 at 18:27

    I think that nuclear power should be developped in many coutries but in africa not now cause that need a lot of security about population .

  10. 10 jevon
    January 11, 2008 at 18:27

    hey there
    i feel like people on both sides of this issue like to throw emotional talking points at this discussion rather than provide any real information. Where do you get real info on this issue? The greenpeace fellow kept saying nuclear power would only decrease CO2 production by 4% in the UK, how was that calculated? where did that info come from. I feel like anyone who says “Nuclear power is Clean” or “nuclear power is the worst invention of Mankind” is being reactionary and is representing an extreme.


  11. 11 Cameron
    January 11, 2008 at 18:28

    I use to believe that nuclear power was the only viable alternative to carbon-producing coal and oil. However, many huge steps have been made in alternative “green” energy in the last 10 years, so much that it seems to be gaining momentum. Here in Oregon we are working on harnessing the power of waves in the ocean, something that is 100% dependable, and solar power has become a economically competitive choice, when compared to the cost of coal and gas. Since it takes so long to get a nuclear power plant running, not to mention millions of dollars, I now believe it would be better to spend that time and energy furthering other alternative energies that are showing real progress.

  12. 12 Elias Lostrom
    January 11, 2008 at 18:32

    Nuclear waste? No problem.. Shoot it at the sun.

  13. 13 Joe
    January 11, 2008 at 18:34

    Why cant we use geothermal power for our base needs? though expensive it is in many places plentiful and always clean.

  14. 14 Chad Robinson
    January 11, 2008 at 18:38

    In a manner similar to some new hybrid cars, is it possible to network a wind farm to another electricity-producing plant (nuclear, coal) that would allow you to back up it up and go back and forth smoothly? Also, where is solar in this discussion? Although it is similarly unreliable, I would argue it could amply supply us with a great deal more energy if it covered every household.

  15. 15 Gavin
    January 11, 2008 at 18:38

    It is a little disingenuous to focus on base supply as requiring something like nuclear.
    There are energy storage methodologies available that could be used to store off peak supply from solar and wind for steady use. Germany has underground compressed air storage and one is being built in Ohio, USA.
    This wont solve the whole problem but shows that there are other technologies that can be developed to replace current non-renewable sources if we look to develop them.
    We also need to be more efficient in use and sometimes a way of doing that through supply an demand is increase cost perhaps by adding on carbon/environmental impact taxes.

  16. 16 Bob Dyer
    January 11, 2008 at 18:39

    Some people try to say that nuclear power is cheaper, but look at the Total Cost of Ownership. What does it cost to guard the waste maierial for 1000 years? That needs to be considered in the cost!

    Bob in Bend Oregon

  17. 17 John
    January 11, 2008 at 18:43

    Maybe the governments of the world should listen with an open mind, to what Dr. Stephen Greer (director of The Disclosure Project) has to say about global warming and the energy crisis? This man and his organization are taking the US Government to task on what they know about the amazing, but very real energy and propulsion systems being developed from captured alien technology in military and corporate funded black projects. “Zero Point Energy” from the quantum vacuum. Free, clean and non-polluting energy. This is known and available now. There is a solution!

  18. 18 Andreas Luzzi
    January 11, 2008 at 18:52

    Please stop living from hear-say. Do your own research. The world is moving. Facts and figures are changing fastly. The future is much more energy efficient and, at long last, fully renewable again. Just a couple of snippets:
    1) Dispatchable renewable power? Yes, e.g. there is plenty of it thanks to biomass, pumped-hydro and solar thermal power (Andasol-1, the first of many plants in Andalusia is due to come on line in Apr-08, offering 7.5 hours of base-load operation past sunset);
    2) All-renewable power plant? Proven in Germany (“the virtual RE power plant”) since mid last year, combining hydro, biomass, wind and PV;
    3) Nuclear fuel ressources? Oops, the world’s U235 ressources, as given by the very own IAEA, suffices only for another 42 years of operating today’s 439 GW worth of power plants. Costly reprocessing? Costly new plant designs (Gen-4)? Costly alternative fuels (thorium)?
    4) Nuclear’s renaissance? Pitty, the world’s number of operating power plants reduces steadily since 2001. And the void cannot be filled;
    And much more.

  19. 19 Tom
    January 11, 2008 at 19:04

    I am becoming very frustrated with the discussion on the viability of nuclear power. Nuclear power is NOT carbon neutral. Production of fissionable material is energy intensive, and in the decades ahead, may actually surpass coal in carbon production. Waste storage, for hundreds of thousands of years, also takes energy, and is being wholly left out of the equation. Reducing the amount of energy we consume IS a necessary part of the equation, and IS the equivalent of producing energy production plants. Renewable energy CAN supply our energy needs during peak times of need. It is new in terms of actually entering the power grid in any meaningful way, and peak times of use will be dealt with in terms of storing kinetic energy for use during times of low production. We only have a few decades before we run out of fissionable material. In perhaps 50 years we will not have economically viable nuclear as an option, anyway. If nuclear energy were so attractive economically, then why must our governments subsidize it so heavily? This is a mature industry, unlike renewable energy, and should be able to stand on its own by now. Renewable energy and conservation has already become cost effective and is already being embraced economically by the free market regardless of subsidies by government. And the whole argument completely ignores one other part of the equation: Impact = Population(as a function of)Affluence(as a function of) Technology. We are only looking at the technology aspect of the problem.

  20. 20 Mark
    January 11, 2008 at 19:13

    Ben Ayliffe;
    You’ve offered NO viable alternatives. Neither your government nor your EU superstate which has been so vocal in its concern about climate change over the last 15 to 20 years has demanded that its governments expend their scientific resources in pursuit of viable energy alternatives but instead sat passively as they wasted them on useless redundant super jumbo airplanes, a primitive space program, a superconducting supercollider atom smasher, a redundant global positioning satellite system and a host of other unnecessary junk. You failed to criticize the laughable science fair efforts such as wind and solar power to provide alternate energy sources. You have made no efforts to persuade world leaders to institute a program of population reduction. Your efforts at saving the rain forests which convert some CO2 back into oxygen have been pathetic. You have made no progress persuading China and India to institute the same kind of cutbacks you’d impose on the EU and the US. You watched passively as the EU failed almost entirely to meet its modest promises under the Kyoto Protocol targets it signed and now you have the audacity to come before us and tell us that if the US and EU don’t unilaterally make suicidal cuts to their energy consumption the world will end. Have you thought about the consequences if they did? Have you thought about an immediate global economic depression from which the world could never recover? Have you considered that hundreds of millions in the developing world would likely starve to death when the major producers of surplus agricultural products which feed them are forced to cut back drastically to conform to your latest targets? You are too little too late. We should enjoy what time we have left and make plans to adapt to the inevitable changes you failed to make the world sit up and take serious note of because you turned what should have been an international crisis for scientists and economists to solve into a political tirade against the United States of America to destroy its economy you are so jealous of. Learn to live with it, you and your kind have only yourselves to blame for what is now unavoidable.

  21. 21 Captain-In-The-Dock
    January 12, 2008 at 00:44

    Referring to “Mark January 11, 2008 at 7:13 pm”

    The issue is: Nuclear-Is it the future?

    For Mark, every debate on every topic is a rant against everybody else! Core message is that the USA IS the leader in everything and everyone must accept that opinion unquestioningly. He accuses others of ranting but he rants the most. Why does he have to use the word ‘superstate’ for the EU? What has that got to do with the nuclear debate? Jealousy? Fear? Anger? See! All emotional stuff splashed with a little bit of technical words and jargon.

    I’ve often wondered what is the effect on certain humans when they consume:
    -Genetically Modified foods
    -Growth hormones from poultry and other livestock
    -Whatever other junk Americans want to put in food in the pursuit of their god: money.

    Now I know. It modifies their genes causing ranting and raving of this type. Here are a few facts:

    -The leader of the ‘Manhattan Project’ was a European.
    -Einstein was a European
    -Many of the top scientists in the world are European, or Russian, or of European origin. Plus many from Japan, Korea, India, China and….. basically everywhere.

    As for noo-clear the real facts are neither clear nor clean.

    If you oppose this statement (the last one) let us hear arguments not rants. The problem is; (and you don’t realise it) that even if you had a good idea or a suggestion it is lost in all the ranting & emotional gibberish. It is what your Faux News calls ‘patriot’ but actually for others it means ‘pinheaded gibberish’.

  22. 22 Luci Smith
    January 12, 2008 at 02:14

    I think it was Anthony Sampson who said that using nuclear energy to generate power was like using a bazooka to ring a doorbell.

    The future?
    Solar power, wind power and a much better conservation of power. Bicycles, public transportation and inventions that change the way that we use power today so that we do not have to tear the Earth apart to find new sources and pollute it so much that future generations have no clean space left to live in.

    Even George W.Bush seems to have accepted that the way societies in the Western World are living today is not working. So please: change your light bulbs to the energy saving type and turn off all of the things you have on standby. Put on a sweater and turn the heat down a few degrees. Let’s usher in a non-nuclear future. Everybody can start by conserving energy and raising their awareness of energy use/abuse.

  23. 23 George
    January 12, 2008 at 19:54

    The reasons against Nuclear Energy are:

    Daisy Chain racketeering.

    Electricity Slaves.

    Monopoly pricing promoted by least service.

    1. Daisy Chain Racketeering-

    Nuclear Plants a an enormous long term highly financed investment.

    Plant construction is blown out into space once the project starts (eg Texas Nuclear Power Plants).

    The Construction Companies, Banks, and Government-politicians form a daisy chain of racketeering slicing out huge pieces of funds on every trip around the daisy chain, heaped on the ultimate debt to the public and the consumer.

    Once the Nuclear Project is approved and begun the “costs” are multiplied by racketeering and cannot be stopped.

    2. Electricity Slaves-

    Electricity/power companies literally hold entire nations in Latin America hostage forcing third world consumers to pay more than the US and UK, forcing governments to add loans to their national debt and dictating policy and laws by turning off the electricity.

    Power companies, banks, and “lending” nations become electricity slave owners of those nations, their governments, and their people.

    3. Monopoly pricing promoted by least service-

    Cut electricity to a region, state, or nation and you can dictate outrageous prices.

    Review the Enron energy traders testimony of traders mocking the deaths of elderly in California as they manipulated the “shortage” of electricity to drive up prices and rake in huge individual and company profits.

    Go to the Latin American and Caribbean countries where blackouts daily and for days and weeks at a time create profits and riots torturing the general population without end.

    Once you are locked into a long term high, and ever increasing debt burden for the nuclear plants, you place the energy control in the hands of few to the harm of many.


    Allow every consumer of electricity to produce electricity for themselves and to sell to the grid, with solar and wind.

    Allow every business to do the same and to set up all the solar and wind business they wish, with favorable tax and loan structure to promote it.

    Consumer generated and centered electricity is the cheapest and most reliable for the population.

    Declare Electricity too important to the national well being and prosperity to be used as a racket for the profit and power of a few over the rest.

  24. 24 Judy Ashley
    January 12, 2008 at 20:43

    I would like to query whether the nuclear power stations include the cost of the electricity they use to run and decommission the power stations in their balance sheets? When I worked at a power station the electricity needed for heating lighting etc was taken straight from the power lines that carried the elecricity generated on site. The cost was not included when the cost of producing a unit of power from alternative energy and nuclear poweer station were compared.

  25. 25 Michael
    January 13, 2008 at 01:19

    Among the many problems with nuclear energy, two underreported ones are:
    1) Nuclear energy is incompatible with a free, democratic society. It requires a virtual police state to provide an adaquate level of security. Building nuclear plants anywhere near our populations is not much different than providing our enemies (bin Laden et al, and any new ones that might turn up in the next hundreds or thousands of years) with nuclear weapons. A nuclear plant turns an enemy’s conventional weapon (or his airplane?) into a nuclear one.

    2) Without vast government subsidies, it is vastly unecononical. The largest, hidden subsidy in the USA is the government’s accepting liability for the potential mistakes or misdeeds of private companies, The insurance industry (our risk-assessment experts) will have nothing to do with it, for a number of excellent reasons. If the nuclear companies were required to post a bond equal to the maximum damage they could cause, which is the only ethical way to proceed, they would suddenly want nothing to do with it either.

    Thank you,
    Michael, San Francisco USA

  26. 26 Ynda
    January 15, 2008 at 10:29

    All the time we talk nuclear, we are missing opportunities for alternative energy generation. We’ve already had the disasters and the waste management problems, we have to do something else. My favorite is micro-generation… easy, small scale, fast roll out, endless potential and… er… hardly talked about!

  27. 27 okpowe omena
    June 30, 2009 at 13:38

    Despite the fact that there are over 436 functioning nuclear power plants in the world, i have rarely ever heard of disasters from them. America has over a hundred, france over 50, japan and so many other countries and yet they still maintain the highest standard of living in the world. its just like a robot. the way you handle it determines the results you get. Nuclear technology is it and we v got to embrace it but first with the right attitude towards it.

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