Common Myths of the Nuclear Industry

Friends of the EarthMyth: the new generation of nuclear reactors are designed to recycle nuclear waste

BUST: These reactors don’t exist

These reactors often spoken of by advocates of nuclear energy are hypothetical. There are none of these “Generation IV” reactors commercially operating anywhere in the world:

  • Even the demonstration plants are still decades away
    • Various designs are still under investigation on paper and have been for many years.
    • The first demonstration plants are projected to be in operation by 2030-2040, so they are yet to be tested and still many years away.
  • Problems with earlier models
    • The specific type of Generation IV reactor that would recycle waste – the Integral Fast Reactor – only exists on paper, but earlier models of fast reactors have been expensive, underperforming, and have had a history of fires and other accidents, with many countries abandoning the technology.
  • These reactors would still produce some waste
    • The Integral Fast Reactor is called “integral” because it would process used reactor fuel on-site, separating plutonium (a weapons explosive) and other long-lived radioactive isotopes from the used fuel, to be fed back into the reactor. It essentially converts long-lived waste into shorter lived waste. This waste would still remain dangerous for a minimum of 200 years (provided it is not contaminated with high level waste products), so we are still left with a waste problem that spans generations.
  • The theory is that these reactors would eat through global stockpiles of plutonium
    • When thinking about recycling waste it’s important not to confuse recycling existing stockpiles of waste with these reactors perpetually running off of their own waste, which they could also be operated to do. If they ran off their own waste, they would not consume existing waste beyond the initial fuel load.

Myth: nuclear is the only alternative to coal for baseload power

BUST: We don’t need baseload

Baseload describes the minimum amount of electricity required by society at a steady rate. It is argued that renewables cannot provide this constant minimum energy because they are unreliable or variable, because the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, so we need nuclear energy to replace our coal-fired baseload stations. We don’t need baseload because:

  • Geographic dispersion of renewable energy stations, storage of renewable energy, and demand management can address fluctuations in energy availability from renewable sources
    • Geographic dispersion of renewable energy power stations would address variability. Although one windmill is variable, a system of windfarms in various locations is much less so.
    • Energy storage can also address variability. Solar thermal energy storage is commercially available, not hypothetical, allowing for the dispatch of energy at peak periods or when the sun isn’t shining.
    • A transparent “smart” electricity grid could inform consumers of dips in energy availability and facilitate energy use that takes availability into account.
  • Nuclear power stations are too inflexible to operate alongside a renewable energy mix
    • Baseload stations are designed to operate continuously and cannot be ramped up or down quickly. To accommodate fluctuations in wind and sun, renewables require “back-up” from power stations that can provide energy flexibly, not constantly as traditional baseload does.
    • South Australia is already operating on nearly 40% renewable energy. Nuclear energy is a poor partner for such a high penetration of renewables.

Myth: the nuclear renaissance

BUST: The nuclear industry is in decline

Whilst the Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle is assessing the feasibility of expanding the nuclear industry in SA, the global nuclear industry is stagnating. Rather than a “nuclear renaissance,” there are:

  • Fewer reactors
    • The commonly cited number of reactors currently operating in the world is 437. This includes reactors that have not been operational for over a year. As of October 2015 there are actually 392 operational reactors.
    • These 392 reactors are 46 fewer than the 438 operating in 2002.
    • Further reductions are expected as a significant proportion of the world’s nuclear reactors are ageing – closure of almost half the world’s total is expected by 2040.
  • Fewer reactors being constructed
    • Nuclear plant construction starts have fallen from fifteen in 2010 to three in 2014.
  • No growth in nuclear share of global power generation
    • The nuclear share of global power generation has stagnated over the last three years at 10.8%, after a steady decline from its peak of 17.6% in 1996.
  • Overall decline in global nuclear energy generation
    • Annual global nuclear electricity generation peaked in 2006 at 2660 TWh. In 2014 it was 9.4% lower than 2006 levels.
  • Slow growth compared with renewables
    • Compared with 1997, in 2014, an additional 185 TWh of electricity was produced from solar, 694 TWh from wind, and just 147 TWh from nuclear.
    • Between 2013 and 2014, electricity generation from solar increased by over 38%, for wind power over 10%, and for nuclear power 2.2%

Myth: expansion of the nuclear industry would be good for the economy

BUST: Expansion of any sector would be good for the economy. Why choose a sector which:

  • Has little potential for growth
    • The nuclear renaissance is a myth.
    • Uranium prices remain below the average cost of production and supply continues to exceed demand. In 2012 BHP Billiton shelved its plan to expand the Olympic Dam mine and has since sacked hundreds of workers. In October 2015 the Wiluna uranium mine in Western Australia was put on hold due to the ongoing downturn in demand and prices.
    • The global market in uranium conversion, enrichment & fuel fabrication is already oversupplied.
  • Is likely to increase electricity costs
    • Nuclear energy has very high capital costs and is expensive and heavily subsidised to offset these costs.
    • The UK government has guaranteed the French company EDF AU$173.30 per megawatt-hour generated by the planned Hinckley Point reactors in Somerset, England, for 35 years. This is 2.5 times higher than wholesale electricity prices in Australia.
  • Has serious environmental, health and weapons proliferation risks – comparable employment can be generated in renewable projects, without the associated risks
    • On return from an overseas visit, Royal Commissioner Kevin Scarce announced at a press conference on 24th July 2015 that the Canadian nuclear industry accounts for 60, 000 jobs – had he gone to Germany to explore alternatives he would have learnt that the renewables industry there has created nearly 400,000 jobs.

Myth: nuclear energy is zero carbon so we need it to mitigate climate change

BUST: Nuclear energy is not zero carbon

  • This ignores life-cycle CO2 emissions
    • These include emissions from the other stages of nuclear power generation, such as uranium mining, milling, enrichment, transport, reactor construction and decommissioning, and mine site rehabilitation.
    • On average, life cycle emissions from wind and solar thermal are found to be much lower than emissions from nuclear energy, and solar PV comparable or lower (depending on the materials used to make the solar cells).
    • Estimates of the life cycle emissions of nuclear energy vary depending on assumptions made. Assuming no attempt should be made to rehabilitate sites, or that radioactive mine waste will be left above ground rather than buried, pushes emissions estimates for nuclear energy down.
  • Emissions from nuclear energy are set to rise
    • Emissions from nuclear will increase significantly over the next few decades as high grade ore is depleted, and increasing amounts of fossil fuels are required to access, mine and mill low-grade ore.
    • To stay below the 2 degrees of global warming that climate scientists widely agree is necessary to avert catastrophic consequences for humans and physical systems, we need to significantly reduce our emissions by 2050, and to do this we need to start this decade. Nuclear is a slow technology:
    • The “Generation IV” demonstration plants projected for 2030-2040 will be too late, and there is no guarantee the pilots will be successful.
    • Nuclear reactors have long lead up times. The global average construction time for existing technology is 9.4 years, with a wide range from 4 to 36 years.
    • Long delays are common – at least three quarters of all reactors currently under construction are delayed. The Flamanville reactor in France began construction in 2007, with commercial operation projected for 2012 – this timeframe has now been pushed back to the fourth quarter of 2018.
    • It has been estimated that it would take 10 to 15 years to build one nuclear power station in Australia. Once accounting for “paying back” the energy from fossil fuels used to construct it – it would take 15 to 20 years for this station to make a contribution to cutting emissions.
    • Renewables are much faster to roll out. The industry standard for wind is 1 year. The first US large scale solar thermal plant with storage, Solanis, took 3 years to build.

Myth: we can isolate high level radioactive waste from the environment for 200,000 years

BUST: There is no operating dump for high level waste anywhere in the world

The Royal Commission is considering the feasibility of establishing a high level nuclear waste dump in South Australia to store other countries nuclear waste.

  • Even countries that actually have stockpiles of high level waste have not been able to solve this problem
    • There is one deep underground repository for long-lived intermediate level waste in New Mexico – the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Before it opened it was predicted that it may have one radiation release in 200,0000 years. In February 2014, after 15 years in operation, a waste barrel exploded leading to an aboveground release of airborne radiation. Twenty-two workers tested positive to low-level radiation exposure.
  • Australia can’t even manage the waste it has
    • In the late 1990’s the Australian government “cleaned up” the Maralinga nuclear test site, leaving tonnes of plutonium-contaminated debris buried in shallow, unlined pits. In 2011, 19 of the 85 pits containing contaminated debris were found to be subject to erosion or subsidence, including the main Taranaki trench where the radioactive debris from the weapons trials was buried.

Myth: of an empty interior

BUST: The desert isn’t empty

  • Historically the nuclear industry in Australia has disproportionately impacted Aboriginal communities
    • The uranium mining industry in has a track record of stripping Aboriginal communities of their land rights and heritage protections. For example, the Olympic Dam mine is exempt from the Aboriginal Heritage Act that applies elsewhere in the state.
  • Previous attempts to impose nuclear waste dumps on Aboriginal communities in SA and the NT have faced fierce opposition from traditional owners.

Myth: we can import high level waste at a massive profit and turn it into free electricity

BUST: If nuclear waste was such an asset why would other countries pay us to take it?

The idea that nuclear energy can result in free electricity is not a new one. In the 1950’s it was claimed that atomic energy would make electricity “too cheap to meter.” It hasn’t.

  • On what basis have the calculations been made that building the first repository for high level waste in the world and the first Generation IV reactor in the world could be paid for by the money generated from importing nuclear waste?
    • No repository for high level waste has been built anywhere in the world so we don’t know how much this would cost.
    • No Generation IV reactor has been built anywhere in the world so we don’t know how much this would cost.
    • There is no existing market for high level nuclear waste so we don’t know how much this would make.
  • Pursuing a plan to import high level waste for use in a reactor before such a reactor is built is likely to lead to South Australia being left with stockpiles of waste as these reactors are hypothetical at this stage
  • If this hypothetical reactor ran off its own waste, then:
    • It would only alleviate fuel costs not capital costs which would take years to pay off.
    • Very little waste would actually be required as it would not require waste beyond the initial load, potentially leaving SA with stockpiles of high level waste.
  • If this reactor required an ongoing input of waste, then:
    • This waste would become an asset and countries would stop paying SA to take it, again leaving SA with a high level waste problem, or (if indeed SA managed to do what no other country has) a deep geological repository that cost billions to build with no waste to put in it.
    • Another likely scenario is that instead of the waste being treated as an asset, “recycling” it would be treated as a service, with the operator of the reactor charging a fee to dispose of the nuclear waste. The SA government would then be importing waste from overseas only to pay for its disposal. This “service-model” has been proposed by GE Hitachi for its PRISM fast reactor model for the disposal of stockpiles of plutonium in the UK.

Further information: Friends of the Earth Adelaide

3 Responses to Common Myths of the Nuclear Industry

  1. Michael Stein 7 May 2016 at 6:38 pm #

    We seem to be missing the rather large elephant in the room. I worked in the industry. The most terrifying thing I discovered. There is NO backup plan for unmanned reactors anywhere in the world. All backup plans globally assume the reactors will be manned and within a few hours of running on emergency backup generators things can be brought under control. So if any catastrophic event struck the globe or even say the US or China or France or Russia it is essentially game over as one would assume most are now unmanned (and you don’t need that many). Even if they are manned where is the continuous supply of diesel coming from to run generators non stop for at least 3 years. An extinction level event would have commenced. Reactors automatically scram if any temperature or pressure fluctuation is detected. This would happen first. The insertion of control rods stops the reaction, but reactors take years to cool down (the part they don’t tell you). So backup cooling systems kick in (the ECCS). After the back up diesel runs out for the generators (24hrs to 3 days) the core becomes exposed and meltdown commences. Breach of containment follows and a massive release of radiation. That’s the good news. HLW cooling pools (proposed for Adelaide) contain spent fuel rods. They are in cooling pools because they are still very hot undergoing what’s called decay heat. They are also extremely radioactive. There is 225,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel currently in cooling pools. At least half of that amount is in cooling pools right next to the reactors. They have no containment facilities and when the backup cooling systems fail, meltdown or fire. HLW waste facilities are only safer in the sense that you are not managing a reactor. In every other sense they are far more dangerous. In effect we are extinct already. Just waiting for some catastrophe to strike. EMP, pandemic, Super volcano, economic collapse. It will happen but unlike like before nuclear, there will be no one to write about it afterwards. There are 99 reactors in the US. 58 in France. 451 in total. That excludes the cooling pools which contain exponentially more radioactive spent fuel. The entire future of mankind hinges on an assumption, that nothing will go wrong. History has shown on countless occasions that this assumption is not only wrong it’s sheer lunacy.

  2. André Balsa 1 January 2016 at 2:28 am #

    @Eclipse. You seem to be confusing breeder reactors with reactors that can use reprocessed spent nuclear fuel (which you call “waste eating”). This is a confusion often made by uneducated people who have very little understanding of the nuclear industry and nuclear technology.
    Breeder reactors are any reactors that can “breed” (hence the name) different elements and their isotopes from other elements and isotopes in a “blanket” around the core. The blanket materials absorb neutrons and other particles emitted by the fission reactions in the core and the various elements in the blanket transmutate.
    Breeder reactors have existed for decades. For example, you can refer to this visit by then president Jimmy Carter to the Shippingport light water breeder reactor in 1977 (apparently president Jimmy Carter was not impressed; at the end of the 5 year long U-233 breeding experiment, the reactor was definitely shutdown, and it was decommissioned 7 years later).
    As Dr. Caldicott correctly stated, a “waste eating” reactor design is a special kind of fast breeder reactor design that would in theory produce less radioactive waste than it would consume. There are no commercial reactors in operation today that have been proved to be capable of doing that.
    The latest fast breeder reactor to enter operation on December 10 2015, the russian BN-800 which you mentioned, will be burning a mixture of uranium and weapons-grade plutonium from decommissioned warheads (and not plutonium from its own reprocessing of spent fuel). Based on the operating experience with the BN-800, we are still at least 15~20 years from a hypothetical closed uranium-plutonium fuel cycle nuclear reactor.
    Construction of the BN-1200 which you also mention has been postponed indefinitely.
    You also mention thorium molten salt reactors in a quite enthusiastic way, which is a clear indication that the only thing you know about them is pseudo-information you have gleaned on the internet, much if not most of it originating from thorium promoter Kirk Sorensen. However, what Kirk Sorensen does not tell you is that hard facts show that thorium is not a viable solution for the nuclear industry. And this has been known for decades (see Shippingport experiment above).
    Even assuming a thorium molten salt reactor (TMSR) could be built that is perfectly safe (an assumption that can clearly be disputed), hard math and facts show that a thorium reactor fleet with any significant capacity would take centuries to be deployed. The reason for this can be summarized in two words: doubling time (or Td). This is the time it would take for a TMSR to breed enough U-233 to fuel another identical TMSR. And the answer is, in the best of cases, 52 years (in the worst case, > 200 years). Remember, first, that U-233 does not exist in nature, it must be created in a breeder reactor in the first place, by breeding thorium, then processing the spent thorium to separate and remove the U-233. Second, because thorium is not fissile although it is fertile, a TMSR requires a certain quantity of U-233 to get a critical reaction started. Check here for the math: (that’s from CERN so I assume these guys know what they are talking about).
    Conveniently the guys from the thorium crowd always forget to mention the issue of doubling time in ALL their interviews, presentations and videos…
    The US is the only country in the world that has any significant reserves of U-233 (the result of breeding thorium in traditional uranium-cycle reactors during the Cold War) and even so, these reserves would only be enough to get at most a couple of medium-sized (<500MW) reactors started in the first place. Clearly not a solution for the energy/global warming crisis and the simple reason why no country in the world has ever undertaken further work on thorium reactors in the last 50 years (beyond small-scale experimental work).
    Indeed the DOE has a small amount of U-233 (around 2,000kg) that was bred in various military and civilian uranium-cycle nuclear reactors from thorium. The spent thorium was then removed from these reactors and the U-233 was separated (an extremely expensive, laborious and dangerous process). Any company wanting to develop a thorium-cycle reactor (that as I explained above, requires an initial load of fissile U-233) would have to apply to the DOE to have access to this U-233 stash. But then that's it. There is not enough U-233 in the US to launch a nationwide deployment of thorium-based reactors and the doubling time is too long to make such a deployment likely.
    Now, the LFTR crowd has a ready made answer when one suggests that the scarcity of U-233 is a major impediment to the large-scale deployment of thorium-cycle reactors: they'll explain in a casual way that they can just as well use plutonium (Pu) instead of U-233, and the DOE has plenty of weapons-grade Pu in storage from the decommissioning of nuclear warheads.
    Now, imagine the situation where Kirk Sorensen goes to the DOE and asks for access to their plutonium stash.
    DOE – "OK, how much plutonium do you need? 50 grams enough?"
    KS – "No, actually I need around 100kg for a start, to see if we can make our reactor work, and many tons later if all goes well."
    DOE – "…when pigs fly and hell freezes over, son…"
    Just as a reminder, 50 grams of plutonium is enough to wipe out the population of a mid-size town if weaponized, and 100kg is enough to build at least half a dozen atomic bombs – and not the smallest ones at that. So the LFTR crowd is never going to get their hands on enough plutonium to even build and test their first prototype of a mixed thorium-plutonium cycle reactor which they don't even know if it could work at all. Exactly the same scenario applies to U-235, btw.
    Again, these are facts that any investor doing his homework will have researched when considering investing hundreds of millions of dollars to build an initial LFTR prototype.
    The reason these basic facts are never mentioned in a single video from the thorium crowd is rather obvious: hard facts and a quick reality check vastly undermine their credibility.
    It does not really matter if you understand and/or accept these technical matters. The final straw that broke the back of the nuclear industry camel and by association, leaves any expectations of the thorium crowd in the dust, is that hydro, wind and solar plus storage are all just cheaper than nuclear. That's all investors need to know to decide whether they'll finance a $200 million solar or wind farm that will start to produce electricity and bring in money the following year, or whether they'll plunk a billion dollars or more to build a prototype Gen IV nuclear power plant, that will start operating commercially a dozen years later, with any luck. With energy from nuclear at approx. USD 8 cents per kWh (on a rising trend) and energy from wind or solar with storage at somewhere between 6.5 and 8 cents per kWh (on a falling trend), which way do you think utilities or governments are going? Also what about the massive upfront capital investment required for the construction of a nuclear power plant, the guarantees for the loans that this implies, the extraordinary costs of decommissioning of nuclear reactors, the risks of nuclear accidents which are reflected in insurance rates, the problems with nuclear waste management and disposal, the long lead times for approving and building new nuclear power plants, the rising costs of nuclear plant maintenance and nuclear fuel supplies, etc? Utilities go for the much safer and shorter term return on investment of wind and solar. What has killed the nuclear industry is not that it does not work or can't be made to work or that it's not safe (all things we could go on arguing about forever), it's the bottom line.
    And anyone who thinks hydro, wind and solar (and other renewables in some countries) cannot provide 100% of our electricity needs and more, is not up to date with the latest technologies. More information here:

  3. Eclipse 18 December 2015 at 10:59 pm #

    There might not be any specifically GenIV waste-eating reactors, but implying there are NO waste-eating reactors is a semantic game. GenIV reactors are a super-advanced version of the general category of waste-eating reactors called BREEDER reactors. And plenty of them exist! Indeed, we have over 400 reactor-years (reactors multiplied by years of operation) of BREEDER reactors. Russia has a huge industrial strength 800MW reactor called the BN-800 in operation right now, and is building another BN-1200 soon.

    A/ The American EBR2, an Integral Fast Reactor prototype
    //Costing more than US$32 million, it achieved first criticality in 1965 and ran for 30 years. It was designed to produce about 62.5 megawatts of heat and 20 megawatts of electricity, which was achieved in September 1969 and continued for most of its lifetime. Over its lifetime it has generated over two billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, providing a majority of the electricity and also heat to the facilities of the Argonne National Laboratory-West.//

    B/ The old Soviet BN-350 is another Fast-Breeder
    //The BN-350 was a sodium-cooled fast reactor located at Aktau Nuclear Power Plant. The power plant was located in Aktau (formerly known as Shevchenko in 1964–1992), Kazakhstan, on the shore of the Caspian Sea. Construction of the BN-350 fast breeder reactorbegan in 1964, and the plant first produced electricity in 1973. In addition to providing power for the city (150 MWe), BN-350 was also used for producing plutonium and for desalination to supply fresh water (120,000 m³ fresh water/day) to the city.//

    C/ The Soviet BN-600 still works and Japan paid a billion for technical specs, and “The operation of the reactor is an international study in progress; Russia, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom currently participate.”

    “Designed to generate electrical power of 880 MW in total, the plant is the final step to the commercial plutonium cycle breeder. It is planned to start producing electricity in October, 2014. By now (2014 July) the reactor is started at minimal controlled power to run diagnostics.[1]”
    Or, as Next Big Future put it, “The 789 MWe BN-800 Beloyarsk 4 is fuelled by a mix of uranium and plutonium oxides arranged to produce new fuel material as it burns. Its capacity exceeds that of the world’s second most powerful fast reactor – the 560 MWe BN-600 Beloyarsk 3.”

    INDIA have a program that’s admittedly had all sorts of delays, but should be opening soon. Give them a break — they haven’t had a prototype like the American EBR2, and are jumping straight in the deep end with a full scaled 500MW reactor. As the wiki says: “The surplus plutonium (or uranium-233 for thorium reactors) from each fast reactor can be used to set up more such reactors and grow the nuclear capacity in tune with India’s needs for power.”

    The French had the massive 1200MW Superphenix until ignorant activists shot RPG’s onto the site and Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt closed it down again. What a waste! The French could be breeding up all their own nuclear ‘waste’ into fuel again.

    China will mass produce nukes cheaper than coal in just 8 years!

    But China also have an enormous LFTR project. These reactors CANNOT ‘melt down’, as they are already a liquid!
    Thorium is currently a massive and expensive waste problem from mining all those rare earths that wind and solar rely on. But if we can burn it, wind and solar and nuclear can all be friends. We can have the best of both worlds.

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