In its Powering Ahead economic report in 2016, the TUC stated that: ‘The TUC, like the government, believes the UK’s nuclear industry has a pivotal role to play in a future balanced energy policy.’ Since that report was published, support for nuclear power has been falling away as renewables provide increasingly cheap energy, while cost overruns, radioactive waste problems and faulty construction dog new build. Companies are falling over themselves to offload their interests in nuclear power and the UK government itself has shown signs of backing off. Meanwhile, the Labour Party and TUC are committed to nuclear power, against all the evidence. Both need to review the evidence and reconsider their positions.
Over the last two decades there has been a concerted effort to suggest that nuclear power is a clean and safe form of energy that can contribute to dealing with the problems of climate change. But this myth has now been thoroughly busted and the reality is that the British public massively subsidises an industry that is not carbon neutral, produces enormous amounts of carcinogenic waste for which no safe storage solution exists, and leads to cancer clusters and periodic catastrophic disasters.
Meanwhile major industrial countries like Germany have abandoned nuclear power and are embracing renewable energy sources. The billions used to subsidise nuclear power can be instead invested in developing renewable technologies, leading to secure and clean energy sources and the creation of thousands of new jobs.
New research has found that almost all nuclear power plants built since the nuclear industry’s inception have generated large financial losses.
The report by the German Institute for Economic Research examines 674 nuclear power plants built since 1951. Its authors found that typical nuclear power plants averaged 4.8 billion euros in losses.
The report authors argue that new technology for nuclear plants won’t solve the underlying economic difficulties: “Those in favour of nuclear energy like to point out the ongoing technological developments that could lead to it growing more efficient in the future. They include ‘fourth generation’ nuclear power plants and mini-nuclear power plants (small modular reactors, SMRs). Anything but new, both concepts have their roots in the early phase of nuclear power in the 1950s. Then as now, there was no hope that the technologies would become economical and established.”
The history of nuclear power is seven decades of economic ruin and environmental catastrophe. Toshiba’s decision last year to abandon plans to build a reactor at Moorside in Cumbria and Hitachi’s suspension of work this year on the Wylfa Newydd plant in Anglesey simply reflect the economic reality that the report sets out.
Nuclear power isn’t only expensive, it creates an unsolvable waste problem. There is no safe way to dispose of the enormous amount of highly radioactive and toxic waste that is produced by nuclear power stations. The government wants to construct an underground storage facility for the waste, but it has so far been unable to secure a location as communities in potential locations protest against being the dumping ground. No one is even sure if an underground container would retain its structural integrity over thousands of years, especially when the possibility of future geological events like earthquakes is taken into account.
There is also the danger – as the TV drama Chernobyl so graphically reveals – of nuclear accidents which create human misery and environmental destruction. In 1986 a reactor exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power station and burned for over a week. Radioactive fallout from this accident was detected over large parts of the world and all over western Europe, especially in Cumbria, Wales and Scotland. Hundreds of thousands of deaths and illnesses are likely to have been caused by the radioactive fallout, although the numbers are disputed.
The UK hasn’t been immune either. One of the two reactors at Britain’s first nuclear plant, Windscale in Cumbria, caught fire and burned for two days in 1957, dispersing poisonous radioactive smoke over Britain, Northern Ireland and northern Europe with radioactive fallout identified as far away as Norway, Belgium and Germany.
The most recent disaster took place when an earthquake and tsunami hit Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan in March 2011. The explosions which followed released radioactive materials into the atmosphere. It was classified as a Level 7, the highest possible, on the International Nuclear Event Scale.
These major disasters take place on a regular if infrequent basis, but very large numbers of health and safety breaches take place on a regular basis, putting the workforce and local residents at risk. In truth, nuclear power is too dangerous to use, but thankfully, with renewable energy available, it’s just not needed.
It’s time for the labour and trade union movement to learn these lessons and adopt a fresh approach to energy that centres on clean and economically viable renewable technology.
(This blog was written for the TUC Congress 2019 and first appeared in the Morning Star newspaper)