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Australia's nuclear fantasies: the technological creationism of nuclear power

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Dr. Darrin Durant ‒ Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Melbourne

It is just a little past Nuclear Groundhog Day in Australia. A 2019 parliamentary inquiry1 into the conditions under which future Governments might consider nuclear power in Australia recently concluded that emerging nuclear technologies were a clean energy pathway for Australia.2

This recommendation was immediately opposed by Labor and the Greens, and even opened up divisions within the Coalition, while also failing to resolve how partially lifting Australia's nuclear ban (for one type of nuclear generating technology) could practically work.

Much ink and even more pixels have been and will continue to be splayed everywhere on this polarized issue, but the untold story of the nuclear option is that it is in fact a technological form of Creationism. Let me explain.

Nuclear power is like a wild goose chase where the goose is a zombie that cannot be killed. The nuclear option in Australia has been buried at least three times previously, only to be brought back from the dead.

Nuclear power was originally prohibited by legislation. Section 10 of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 prohibits fuel fabrication, enrichment or processing, and nuclear reactors.3 Section 140A of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 prohibits the federal Minister from approving an action leading to such installations.4

Yet a federal Government review of 2006 (the Switkowski Report) considered the potential to establish such installations, although it concluded nuclear power in Australia was uneconomic.5

A 2016 South Australian royal commission to investigate the potential for SA to participate in the nuclear fuel cycle similarly concluded nuclear power in Australia was not commercially viable.6

Nuclear power does not affect its own resurrection by virtue of its own divine power. Instead, like Lazarus was said to have been resurrected by Jesus four days after retirement, nuclear power has divine ideologues on its side. Obviously not the Labor Party, which thinks resurrecting the nuclear option signals the indulging of political fantasies7, nor the Greens, who think resurrecting the nuclear option is the stuff of crackpot lunatic cowboys.8

Instead, as Friends of the Earth wrote, it is right-wing ideologues who continually resurrect nuclear power, in a culture war trying to wedge the political Left.9 Or as the economist John Quiggin wrote, support for nuclear power is de facto support for coal.10

Given the decades of lead time required for nuclear power to feed into the electricity grid and, assuming publics and politicians swallow the argument that renewables cannot satisfy base-load power requirements, coal is advertised as the only viable option until nuclear comes online.

The technological creationism of nuclear power

But the nuclear option has more than the business-as-usual commitments of right-wing ideologues on its side. The nuclear option has inherited an argumentative strategy from American Creationists, which the evolutionary biologist Eugenie Carol Scott coined the Gish Gallop.11

Named after the Creationist Duane Gish12, Scott wrote that the strategy involves making "a simple declarative sentence, and you have to deal with not an easily-grasped factual error, but a logical error and a methodological error, which will take you far longer to explain… [Creationists present] half-truth non-sequiturs that the audience misunderstands as relevant points. These can be very difficult to counter in a debate situation, unless you have a lot of time. And you never have enough time to deal with even a fraction of the half-truths or plain erroneous statements".13

We can miss the Gish Gallop at the heart of pro-nuclear advocacy if we chase the controversy. We know nuclear power is politically polarizing and it is easy to report on clashing protagonists making seemingly alternate-reality claims.

Thus the Australia Institute's submission to the parliamentary inquiry dismissed nuclear power as uneconomic, climate unfriendly because of high water use in an already drought-prone Australia, and as lacking a social license.14 In black mirror fashion, the Minerals Council of Australia strongly supported nuclear power as affordable, climate friendly because of zero-emissions, and as enjoying rising public support.15

Like chasing Creationists down the rabbit holes of their homespun Gish Gallops, opponents of nuclear power can spend a fruitless amount of intellectual and emotional energy rebutting half-truths and methodological sleights of hand. The fruitlessness stems from earnestly interpreting the opponents' claims 'straight' and tackling them head on.

The Minerals Council of Australia

For instance, the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) argues that nuclear power is affordable and that Small Modular Reactors (SMR) represent a cheap and feasible option for Australia.15 By contrast, the (independent) World Nuclear Industry Status Report found that nuclear power costs 5-10 times more per kWh than renewables, and that there is no sign of a technological or commercial breakthrough that would render SMRs viable.16

Similarly, the MCA argues that climate change is real, and that nuclear power is the only way Australia can meet our Paris Agreement goals without sacrificing jobs and prosperity. But are the MCA really climate defenders?

The thinktank InfluenceMap – which tracks climate policy opponents – ranks the MCA -59 (or 8th worst Trade Group) in its carbon policy footprint scores (-100 is highly and negatively influencing climate policy; +100 highly and positively influencing climate policy).17

Unfortunately, straight rebuttals matter little to technological creationists. Anything can be cheap, depending upon how you trim the costs. Everything can be feasible, depending upon your tolerance for fantasy. Anyone can be green, depending upon your degree of gullibility.

Gish Gallop

The difficulty presented by the Gish Gallop argumentative strategy is that only on the surface is the critic confronted by factual claims open to empirical challenge. Deeper down, we have pregnant misdirection, diversionary reframing, and strategic incompleteness. The strategy does not even have to be deliberate gaslighting18, where the aim is to disorient and destabilize the audience in a quest to leave the speaker the beneficiary of the disenchantment of truth.

Instead, the Gish Gallop simply entices the audience to run off in multiple directions at once, earnestly looking for the grounding of a claim that is in fact a groundless fog.

For instance, are nuclear reactors zero emissions, as the MCA claims? There is a grain of truth there, if the nuclear life cycle is restricted to reactor operation. But as the energy analyst and environmentalist Mark Diesendorf has shown, to calculate the emissions from nuclear power one must account for fossil fuel use in every other aspect of the nuclear life cycle (mining, milling, fuel fabrication, enrichment, reactor construction, decommissioning and waste management). Moreover, the lower the grade of uranium ore, the higher the resulting emissions, so that nuclear power will emit more CO2 over time as higher-grade ores are used up.19

Some analysts try to be fair, concluding that emissions from nuclear power are neither zero nor high and made complex by multiple uncertainties20, or that unstated assumptions about the carbon footprints of energy supplied in the non-operational phases of the nuclear fuel cycle strongly determine the ultimate carbon footprint.21

But notice how it is the audience that must supply the context for assessing pro-nuclear technological creationist claims? The necessary context for assessing claims – zero emissions, etc. – is willfully deleted from the message itself.


Similarly, the MCA writes that SMRs 'are simply an evolution of a proven mature technology'.15 Specific claims about an unproven technology (SMR) are then treated as general warrants for a technology which possesses an actual track record (where the track record is not supplied).

Again, straight responses are possible. The anti-nuclear activist Noel Wauchope lists seven reasons why SMRs are unwise22, and Quiggin questions whether the plant that is supposedly going to manufacture the technology even exists.23

But it is the context deleted by the MCA that is of most relevance, so we must ask about the track record of this 'mature' technology and whether SMRs are just an unproblematic next step. The maturity claim typically means nuclear technology has benefited from economies of scale and social learning, so that construction times and costs would go down over time.

But as the World Nuclear Industry Status Report (and previous versions) shows, nuclear power lacks an upward learning curve.16 Reactor cost blowouts in time and money have been the norm since the technology's inception. SMRs have inherited that legacy, with a survey of eight countries showing SMRs are even less economically competitive than large nuclear plants.

The Gish Gallop strategy here is simply to delete history from the evaluative criterion. But historically-informed judgments matter, as energy policy specialists like Benjamin Sovacool realize, writing that SMRs are almost entirely rhetorical fantasies built upon utopian expectations.24

Indeed, the broader case for nuclear power in Australia is similarly built upon a Gish Gallop strategy of strategic deletion perversely coupled with proliferating half-truths.

For instance, the MCA claims that surveys indicate increasing public support for nuclear power. But closer analysis shows that support varies if nuclear power is framed as a solution to climate change, indicating the support may reflect desired action on climate change itself.25 Moreover, most have no desire to live near a reactor.26

Climate wedges

But this entire argument about a technology-neutral approach being premised on the need to pursue all elements in an energy portfolio at once rests on willfully deleting the context for assessing energy choices. The climate wedge idea derives from a 2004 paper by Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow.27 A wedge represents an activity that reduces emissions to the atmosphere starting at zero today and increases linearly until it accounts for one billion metric tonnes of reduced carbon emissions in 50 years.

But as Pacala and Socolow noted, "although no element is a credible candidate for doing the entire job (or even half the job) by itself, the portfolio as a whole is large enough that not every element has to be used".27

Not every element! The technology-neutral, all-of-the-above approach is both bad energy economics and deceptive politics, because passive and complacent business-as-usual masquerades as active and concerned political choice.

Was democratic debate really meant to be this way?

When we say democratic debate is about letting each side have its say, is the kind of argumentative sleight of hand practiced by pro-nuclear technological creationists really what we were imagining?

To anticipate a reply that might be offered as complementary but is a mistake: no, truth is not the answer. Truth can be despotic, as the political philosopher Hannah Arendt argued in 1967, peremptorily demanding to be recognized and precluding debate by relying on the coercive force of self-evidence.28 Or put differently, truth is great when you have it on your side, until everyone claims it is on their side, and politics reduces to who coerces last.

But nor is the abandonment of truth to opinion the answer either. In the phrase of another political philosopher, Nadia Urbinati, to be unpolitical is to remove an issue in need of deciding from the open arena of competing political visions, political groups, and partisan views.29 Urbinati advises we defend the merits of political deliberation, because it allows for contestation and revision, and be wary of forensic decisions by experts.

But is a little more of the unpolitical – a little less political deliberation – sometimes a wise move? Do you ever get the feeling that the continual resuscitation of the nuclear power option is just one more continual delay in meaningful reform of our energy portfolio? One more continual delay in meaningful reduction of CO2 emissions and the shifting of the electricity grid toward significant incorporation of renewables?

The nuclear power option has had its day but lives to tell another day because we tell ourselves that debating all the options is always good, even if we should really be saying some option needs to be retired.

The context at work making this continual resuscitation possible is not just the persistence of business-as-usual elites, but the political ecology in which those elites reside. Political populism radically polarizes public forums and delegitimates the independent advice-giving institutions of democracy. Media and cultural partisans have turned political deliberation into a spectator sport. The business-as-usual ethos exploits that weakened ground of consensus-formation to suggest old options are better than new options.

A crisis of truth, authority and legitimacy

As the historian of science Steven Shapin has suggested, we are facing a crisis of truth not because facts are being routinely contested or even because facts are being routinely made up, but because our institutions are suffering a crisis of authority and legitimacy.30 We have lost track of who knows and does not know, which is a dearth of social knowledge about reputation and integrity.

Keeping the spectre of nuclear power at bay will require rethinking our institutions and how they can assist in making the objects of our political deliberation worthy objects. We can neither give up on experts nor citizens, but we do need to revisit how we think about each.

As myself and some fellow sociologists of science have argued, experts at the service of business-as-usual will never escape institutional delegitimisation effects, so we must look to expertise playing the role of a check and balance within our pluralist democracies.31 Similarly, citizens do need to engage with public claims to test their contextual merits and coherency.

But as analysts of public participation like Matthew Kearnes and Jason Chilvers have warned, until organizations and institutions are more transparent and candid about their assumptions, values and interests, the burden of proof will fall unevenly on the less powerful.32

In each case, experts and citizens, what we need from them is interrogation of context. Not simply can they be our fact checkers, but can they be our redeemers of context, our arbiters of whether half-truths are masquerading as full claims, and our unmaskers of the pretenders at coherence?

Dr. Darrin Durant's research focuses on how experts and citizens interact in democratic debate, especially in debates about energy politics. Recent books include Experts and the Will of the People (2019) and previous work on the nuclear fuel cycle including Nuclear Waste Management in Canada (2009).

Reprinted from New Matilda, 17 Dec 2019, 'Nuclear fantasies down under: the political and economic problems with old money power',


































South Australia's Flinders Ranges no longer targeted for nuclear waste dumping

Great news! The Australian government has ruled out dumping radioactive waste in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges. The decision was announced the day after the result of a ballot of Flinders residents which found majority opposition.

In addition, Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners were overwhelmingly opposed. The day before the announcement, Vince Coulthard, Adnyamathanha Traditional Land Association (ATLA) chairperson, said: "The Adnyamathanha people have stood strongly opposed to the waste dump on our land from the start. In November this year at our AGM we again voted overwhelmingly to continue our opposition to this toxic dump on our land. The whole process has been flawed from the start. There was no proper process, no proper discussions and the views of the Traditional Owners were not given proper consideration. This flawed process has caused significant damage to our land and our community."

For many locals, this is the best Christmas present – one of Australia’s most spectacular regions no longer faces the threat of radioactive rubbish and risk! Nation-wide efforts helped bolster local voices like ATLA and the Flinders Local Action Group who have been on the ground, campaigning to protect their homes from radioactive contamination for over four years.

Speaking on behalf of the Annggumathanha Camp Law Mob, Adnyamathanha Elder Enice Marsh expressed relief the process was finally over. "We are very relieved of course, after all of the torture and torment over the past four years and that's what it really was; torture and torment by government and industry," she said. "I'm glad it's over for this stage and I hope it's over permanently."

Flinders Local Action Group spokesperson Greg Bannon said major concerns had included a lack of detail on factors including where waste would be stored long-term, and how long it would stay in the Flinders, which was flagged as a permanent disposal site for low-level waste and a temporary storage site for dangerous long-lived intermediate-level waste. “It’s in a flood plain with seismic activity and the Adnyamathanha people have strongly said they don’t want that waste on their traditional lands,” Mr Bannon said.

But the federal government is still targeting South Australia ‒ two sites on farming land near Kimba on the Eyre Peninsula are still in the firing line for a national nuclear waste dump. Locals are divided ‒ some have been won over by implausible claims about job creation. The estimated job count has magically jumped from zero to 45 for no reason other than a political imperative to overstate benefits and downplay risks. Barngarla Traditional Owners recently held a ballot and 100% of respondents voted against the planned nuclear waste dump in Kimba.

The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2018

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

The 2018 edition of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report has just been released. Here are the 'key insights' from the report:

China Still Dominates Developments

  • Nuclear power generation in the world increased by 1% in 2017 due to an 18% increase in China.
  • Global nuclear power generation excluding China declined for the third year in a row.
  • Four reactors started up in 2017 of which three were in China and one in Pakistan (built by a Chinese company).
  • Five units started up in the first half of 2018, of which three were in China ‒ including the world's first EPR and AP1000 ‒ and two in Russia.
  • Five construction starts in the world in 2017.
  • No start of construction of any commercial reactors in China since December 2016.
  • The number of units under construction globally declined for the fifth year in a row, from 68 reactors at the end of 2013 to 50 by mid-2018, of which 16 are in China.

Operational Status and Construction Delays

  • The nuclear share of global electricity generation remained roughly stable over the past five years with a long-term declining trend, from 17.5% in 1996 to 10.3% in 2017.
  • Seven years after the Fukushima events, Japan had restarted five units by the end of 2017 ‒ generating still only 3.6% of the power in the country in 2017 ‒ and nine by mid-2018.
  • As of mid-2018, 32 reactors ‒ including 26 in Japan ‒ are in Long-Term Outage (LTO).
  • At least 33 of the 50 units under construction are behind schedule, mostly by several years. China is no exception, at least half of 16 units under construction are delayed.
    Of the 33 delayed construction projects, 15 have reported increased delays over the past year.
  • Only a quarter of the 16 units scheduled for startup in 2017 were actually connected to the grid.
  • New-build plans have been cancelled including in Jordan, Malaysia and the U.S. or postponed such as in Argentina, Indonesia, Kazakhstan.

Decommissioning Status Report

  • As of mid-2018, 115 units are undergoing decommissioning ‒ 70% of the 173 permanently shut-down reactors in the world.
  • Only 19 units have been fully decommissioned: 13 in the U.S., five in Germany, and one in Japan. Of these, only 10 have been returned to greenfield sites.

Interdependencies Between Civil and Military Infrastructures

  • Nuclear weapon states remain the main proponents of nuclear power programs. A first look into the question whether military interests serve as one of the drivers for plant-life extension and new-build.

Renewables Accelerate Take-Over

  • Globally, wind power output grew by 17% in 2017, solar by 35%, nuclear by 1%. Non-hydro renewables generate over 3,000 TWh more power than a decade ago, while nuclear produces less.
  • Auctions resulted in record low prices for onshore wind (<US$20/MWh) offshore wind (<US$45/MWh) and solar (<US$25/MWh). This compares with the "strike price" for the Hinkley Point C Project in the U.K. (US$120/MWh).
  • Nine of the 31 nuclear countries ‒ Brazil, China, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Spain and United Kingdom (U.K.) ‒ generated more electricity in 2017 from non-hydro renewables than from nuclear power.

Mycle Schneider, Antony Froggatt et al., Sept 2018, 'The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2018',

2011: 13 reactors closed; 6 connected to the grid

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
WISE Amsterdam

It's rather obvious 2011 was not a good year for nuclear power. The number of operating reactors fell from 441 at the beginning of 2011 to 435 in early 2012 (with a total net installed capacity of 368.249 GW), representing a decrease in installed nuclear capacity of around 10 GW or 3%. Construction starts fell from 15 in 2010 to just two in 2011.

If it isn't a good year for nuclear power it isn't a good year for the nuclear industry either. For example, as published in the last 2011 issue, French nuclear giant Areva is in big financial trouble and in September Siemens decided to quit the nuclear business. The number of companies pulling out continues to grow. U.S.-based engineering firm The Shaw Group announced it would sell its 20% stake in the nuclear company Westinghouse back to partner Toshiba, and in late September, UK company Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) also said it will pull out of a joint venture with France’s GDF Suez and Spain’s Iberdrola to build a new nuclear power plant in northwest England.

The uranium mining industry has a tough time too; uranium prices were already sreadily sliding down before Fukushima. In 2011, uranium prices continued to plummet, with no rise in sight for the coming year. Uranium companies’ share prices plummeted over the year: Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) shares fell by 82.1%, Cameco by 50%, Uranium One by 45%, Paladin 70%.

In 2011, six new reactors (3977 MW) were connected to the grid, but over double that were closed (13, with a total capacity of 11,358 MW), most as a direct response to the Fukushima accident in March. Construction started on just two new reactors in 2011.

As in the past few years, the new reactors coming online were primarily in Asia: Kaiga 4 (India) Chasnupp 2 (Pakistan), Ling Ao 4 and Qinshan 2-4 (China), Kalinin 4 (Russia) and Bushehr 1 (Iran).

In the summer of 2011, Chasnupp 3, a 315 MW pressurized water reactor in Pakistan and Rajasthan 7 in a 630 MW heavy water reactor in India both started construction. The fall from construction starts in double figures over the last three years is largely a result of Fukushima. (Ten, 11 and 15 reactors began construction in 2008, 2009 and 2010, respectively, compared with just two in 2011.

The UK magnox reactor Oldbury A2 was permanently shut down on 30 June, after over four decades of operation. Oldbury 1 remains in operation but is now scheduled for closure in February 2012, 45 years after its first criticality.

Eight reactors were shuttered in Germany as a result of the political fallout from Fukushima: Biblis A&B, Neckar 1, Brunsbuettel 1, Isar 1, Kruemmel, Phillipsburg 1 and Unterweser. Units 1-4 at Fukushima were also officially closed on May 20, 2011.

Despite the decrease in new construction and the thirteen reactors closed in 2011 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) predicts the number of operating reactors to increase by 90 (low case) and 350 (high case) by 2030. According to the IAEA most of this growth is expected to occur in countries that already have operating nuclear power plants, especially in India and China.
Nuclear power provided about 13.5 percent of world electricity in 2009. According to the IAEA, electricity demand is increasing twice as quickly as energy use and is likely to rise 76 percent by 2030.

In marked contrast to 2009-2010 with 18 reactors starting construction, no new nuclear construction began in China in 2011. Construction had been scheduled to begin on at least three new Chinese units during the year but the government suspended approvals for new nuclear projects in the wake of Fukushima and this remains the case, however construction continues on over 20 reactors including Westinghouse AP1000 and Areva EPR designs. Countries including Poland, Belarus and Saudi Arabia are gearing up for nuclear new built and work progresses in the UAE where the first APR1400 is due to start construction later this year.


Sources: Power, 1 November 2011 /  Nuclear Engineering International, 3 January 2012 / IAEA PRIS website, January 2012 / World Nuclear News, 3 January 2012 /, 3 January 2012
Contact: WISE Amsterdam


Angela's nights with the nuclear industry

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Bernd Frieboese

When the Christian Democrat party (Christlich Demokratische Union, CDU) and the Liberals (Freie Demokratische Partei, FDP) formed their coalition Government under Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) in September 2009, one of the projects they put into their coalition contract was the extension of the operation licenses of Germany's nuclear power plants.

Now almost a year has passed and the four big nuclear electricity corporations were getting nervous. The electricity production contingents according to the phase-out plan fixed in the 2002 nuclear energy law are running short for at least three of Germany's 17 reactors, and the operators are probably losing lots of money stretching their contingents by running reactors at minimum power or keeping them offline for extensive revisions and repairs. And of course, the minister of finances insisted on the introduction of the planned nuclear fuel tax!

So the government, under pressure to come forward with a plan, decided to hide behind science and commissioned a number of scenario studies from a group of research institutes. The scenarios included the development of the country's electricity supply in case of nuclear license extensions by between 4 and 28 years. Opposition parties and NGOs were astonished that there was no “business-as-usual” scenario with no license extensions, and outraged when they found out that one of the research institutes is partially financed by RWE, one of the four nuclear utilities.

The studies were delivered to the government on Friday, August 27, and the ministries claimed the right to read them before publishing them. Finally, in the first week of September, it turned out that even though the study scenarios were deliberately biased in favor of nuclear energy, for example by assuming very low future investments into nuclear safety and unrealistically low growth rates for renewable electricity, and by ignoring non-financial aspects of radioactivity, the results gave no good reason for license extensions.

Around this time, the federal ministry for environment, nature protection and reactor safety (Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und Reaktorsicherheit, BMU), which is officially in charge of all issues around nuclear energy, played a relatively modest tune. Minister Dr. Norbert Roettgen (CDU) criticized the scenarios and demanded substantial safety upgrades as a condition for possible license extensions. According to him, a combined investment of EUR 6.2 billion was necessary to run each of the 17 reactors for 4 extra years, EUR 20.3 billion for 12 years, 36.2 billion for 20 years and 49.8 billion for 28 years.

And he kept reminding us and the other members of the government of a legal problem that any attempt to extend operation licenses will have to face: An amendment of the Nuclear Energy Law will have to be passed by both the Bundestag (the lower house of the German parliamentary system, representing the citizens of the Federation) and the Bundesrat (the upper house, representing the federal states). No problem in the Bundestag, as the two parties of the coalition hold a secure majority there. The Bundesrat, however, is dominated by anti-nuclear states governed by coalitions involving either the Social Democrats (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD) or the ecologist Green party (Buendnis90/Die Gruenen).

So Merkel's government declared that their amendment would be written very cleverly, denying the Bundesrat's participation in the process. The noisy arguments among legal experts are continuing, and any attempt by the coalition to bypass the Bundesrat will be challenged at the Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) by the non-nuclear states.

The next legal challenge for any license extension plan will be put to either German or European courts by the smaller and nuclear-free utilities, who will claim that any extension gives the four big nuclear corporations an unfair advantage in the electricity market. Now as Merkel was back from the summer break and being criticized because most of the big plans of her coalition so far had failed, she decided to speed up this nuclear plan and invite some ministers and the four nuclear utility managers to a meeting in the chancellor's office at noon on Sunday, September 5. The public was not invited and refrained to a demonstration with a large Merkel puppet and a lot of balloons outside the gate – and of course, we were told to be patient and wait for the results of the meeting to be revealed at a press conference on Monday morning.

The 40-page document “Energiekonzept” released on Monday, September 6 contains lots of friendly and unfriendly words about the future of the energy supply and climate politics until 2050. Like the need to reduce heat loss by improving thermal insulation of Germany's houses (the government has just reduced the subsidy program to almost nothing) and the importance of developing renewable sources of electricity (the government has just passed an amendment that will reduce the feed-in tariffs for new PV arrays to nothing within a few years) with an extremely unambitious timetable.

In the short nuclear chapter of the Energiekonzept we learn that the government wants to extend the operation licenses by 8 years for the 7 oldest reactors and by 14 years for the 10 newer ones. Of course, these years would once again be converted into electricity production contingents, which would be transferable from older to newer reactors. And if the share of renewable electricity in the German grid keeps growing, resulting in a shrinking demand for nuclear electricity, these production contingents might be stretched well into the 2040es. And the nuclear operators would be forced to pay at least 50 percent of their additional income to the new nuclear fuel tax and a new fund for the development of renewable energies.

And that was only the official part of what we learned on Monday, September 6. Later that day, in another press conference, a Greenpeace spokesman asked whether we could be sure that the nuclear corporations would indeed pay their contributions to the fuel tax and the renewables fund? The surprising answer from one of the nuclear managers was that they had signed an agreement with the government. It turned out that around midnight on Sunday, when the meeting in the chancellor's office was closed, not everybody had gone home. The four nuclear managers had proceeded to the ministry of finances, where they sat down to write what they called a “Termsheet” which was countersigned by a secretary of the ministry of finances around 4:30 Monday morning.

After a lot of public uproar, the government published the contents of this 10-page agreement, denying that they had ever intended to keep it secret. It contains a few interesting clauses, like a 500 million Euro cap on safety investments for each reactor and a kind of money-back guarantee to the corporations in case a future government would try to withdraw some of the new privileges.

In any case, if everything develops according to Merkel's plan and these agreements are turned into an amendment that can somehow be maneuvered past the Bundesrat and all the legal challenges it faces, the nuclear corporations have made quite a good deal. The Oeko-Institut estimates that their additional income, before taxes, may amount to EUR 150 billion, in a scenario expecting a moderate rise of electricity consumer prices over the next decades.

Through the years 2011 to 2016 they will pay a nuclear fuel tax: EUR 145 per gram of fuel, not EUR 220 per gram as had been suggested earlier this year. And from 2017 onwards, they will contribute to the “voluntary” renewable energy fund. Both the fuel tax and the fund will be tax-deductible, meaning that these payments will reduce the annual tax payments to states and counties. In total, Oeko-Institut estimates that a mere 37% of the additional cash flow to the corporations will be diverted to taxes or the new fund.

But then, Merkel's plan to turn these ideas into an amendment that can become law by the start of next year looks quite ambitious. The number of parties she will have to deal with keeps growing, with unlikely opponents like the pro-nuclear states – governed by her own party – demanding a share of the fuel tax and the government of neighboring Austria complaining about the increasing risk of nuclear accidents.

By the way, latest statistics from 'Arbeitsgemeinschaft Energiebilanzen' found that in the first 6 months of 2010, 23% of Germany's electricity came from nuclear power plants, and 19% came from renewable sources.

Many thousands participate in anti nuclear actions. On Saturday 18 September, some 100,000 people marched through the streets of Berlin to protest against nuclear power and to voice their anger over the government's decision to keep nuclear reactors in use beyond a deadline set by the previous government. The demonstration was organized by various environmental and anti-nuclear groups, with high-ranking politicians from opposition parties also taking part.

Now the preparations for actions against the Castor waste transport early November from La Hague in France to the interim storage facility in Gorleben really started. Several concepts are being put forward by activists: a big large blockade of the storage facility and a call to get onto the train tracks on the day the train is supposed to run there and to make the tracks unusable, to en masse remove the stones from under the tracks, i.e. to undermine them and to make them impassable in creative ways.

On November 6, a demonstration will be held, which is expected to be larger than ever before in the decade long history of the Gorleben fight.

Source and contact: Bernd Frieboese


Haunted by history: nuclear new build in Britain

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
East Midlands Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

Part 2 The Force of ‘Legacy’.

In January 2008, Gordon Brown’s cabinet formally decided to permit private businesses to build new nuclear power stations in England and Wales. Politically, there was nothing surprising about the news. Key decisions had been made well before 2008. Tony Blair, as Prime Minster, had declared for new nuclear as early as July 2004.

(This is the second and last part on the history of new build in Britain. Part 1 was printed in Nuclear Monitor 714, 20 August 2010).

New Nuclear and Coalition
The May 2010 election in Britain changed the prospects of building new nuclear power stations significantly. Labour under Blair and Brown favored new nuclear from around 2004-5. This was not shared by the parties that came to form the coalition. The Conservatives changed to conditional support for nuclear only in December 2007. The Liberal Democrats opposed both the replacement of the Trident nuclear weapon system and nuclear new build and went to the electorate on this basis:

‘More nuclear power will soak up subsidy, centralize energy production and hinder development of Britain’s vast renewable resources. Nuclear has a dirty legacy and increases global security risks. We oppose construction of further nuclear power stations’.

As a result the coalition’s statement on nuclear power seems ambiguous  – in a country where coalitions are unfamiliar. The parties’ positions are recapitulated, the Conservative position being described as ‘allowing the replacement of existing power stations provided they are subject to the normal planning process for major projects … and also provided they receive no public subsidy’. Liberal Democrats agree to allow the government to put a new ‘National Planning Statement’ to Parliament, where one Liberal Democrat MP may speak against, but the rest must abstain from voting. The issue is not ‘a matter of confidence’ that can threaten the coalition and its government.

Liberal Democratic opposition is absorbed in a solution similar to Labour’s. The joint program insists on ‘no public subsidy’ without defining what a subsidy is. It promises to modify Labour’s changes in the planning process, increasing ministerial powers, abolishing Labour’s new quango - the Infrastructure Planning Commission  - and strengthening Parliamentary oversight. It implies only the ‘replacement’ of existing power stations, a retreat from Labour’s embrace of whatever ‘the market’ allows.

The Minister with the new powers is the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, a post now held by Christopher Huhne, a Liberal-Democrat, who was previously an opponent of nuclear power. In the latest Commons debate he reaffirmed coalition policy, insisting that

as an economist, I am skeptical about the economics of nuclear power, but I recognize that it is entirely up to investors to make that decision. If there is no public subsidy and if investors think that it is worth taking the risk, as they increasingly do, looking forward to rising oil and gas prices and a rising carbon price, then they will take those decisions.

Asked to explain why Labour’s loan to the Sheffield Forgemasters (to produce large metal vessels for reactors) had been cancelled, he replied that this was a subsidy. Subsidy, he declared, is now impossible for, to quote the Chancellor of the Exchequer, ‘there is no money left’. Generally, the Coalition adopts an anti-Keynesian approach to the crisis in state finance caused by rescuing the banking system. It blames Labour for the deficit and is cutting and privatizing public services. It hopes that the private and the voluntary sectors will fill the gaps in employment and in vital social functions (Cameron’s ‘Big Society’). This has implications too for financing nuclear revival. The coalition’s neoliberal consensus bars open subsidies, it seems, but the underlying instability of the financial system remains and the banks are reluctant to lend.

The companies, however, have been reassured that the government welcomes nuclear power in its energy strategy, although they must submit definite financial and technical programs for the subsequent decommissioning. A new Nuclear National Plan will be submitted ‘in the autumn’, followed by more ‘consultation’, and a proposal to Parliament in Spring 2011. It is to be expected that the industry is already lobbying hard, without enjoying perhaps Labour’s preferential access. According the KPMG, one of the Big Four auditors, all that is currently on offer is to fix the carbon floor price and this is insufficient security for investors. RWE, hoping to build in Britain, argues that nuclear should get the same level of public subsidy as renewables, a position also pushed by the CBI, the national employers’ organization. This demand comes on top of more hidden subsidies that include fixing the carbon price, indemnity for accident and government finance for legacies of waste and decommissioning. Government is therefore faced with dilemmas. Can it depend on a renewables sector, grossly under-supported in the past and lagging by European standards? Can it make an explicit break from ‘no subsidy’? Will nuclear split the coalition? Can government make a secret deal with the industry or can subsidies be further fudged? Will the public stand a hike in energy prices to accommodate nuclear?

The government’s difficulties are increased by the revival of anti-nuclear campaigning after a period of relative quiet, broken mainly by Greenpeace and the Shut Down Sizewell campaign in Suffolk. The need for carbon reduction, and the (usually exaggerated) claims for nuclear on this score, complicated issues for some green activists, while anti-nuclear movements, especially the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) has focused on weapons.  Latterly, however, issues have been clarified and new local movements have sprung up. These are centred on nuclear waste dumping (e.g. Kings Cliffe Waste Watchers - Northants; Radioactive Landfill No Thanks! - Keekle Head, Cumbria) and new power station sites (e.g. Stop Hinkley; Shut Down Sizewell; BANNG – Bradwell, Essex; Heysham Anti-Nuclear Alliance; Stop Wylfa – Anglesey and a number of movements in Cumbria (Cumbrians Opposed to A Radioactive Environment, Radiation Free Lakeland, Save Kirksanton, Toxic Coast). CND, locally and nationally, increasingly stresses the overlaps between the global proliferation of uranium and plutonium weapons and the civil nuclear cycle and has joined other NGOs in an umbrella group opposing nuclear power. The local movements are also networking through meetings and campaigning and educational websites (e.g. No New Nukes; Energy Fair; Stop Nuclear Power; NuclearSpin). A substantial body of independent expert opinion opposes nuclear new build for health and economic reasons. There are plausible projections of how to meet (reduced) energy needs without nuclear power and convincing arguments for the superior employment impacts of green investment compared with the nuclear industries and the arms trade. 

If the new waste dumps and power stations are finally approved they will face non-violent direct action as well as the citizen strategies already being used. Because opportunities for intervening in formal planning processes have been reduced, local non-violent direct action may grow.

Legacy Lesson I: Subsidy
As we have seen, pro-nuclear governments and industry seek to split the awkward past of civil nuclear power off from its future promise and prospects, repeating an older story about the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ atom. The new stations, it is said, will produce less waste and be safer. This splitting of old from new is discursive, with the ‘Nuclear Renaissance’ presumably contrasting with the Nuclear Dark Ages, but it is also institutional and a matter of balance sheets. The creation of a new public body, the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency (NDA) in April 2005, was a crucial institutional move because it allocated ‘legacy waste’ and decommissioning to a public balance sheet. Moreover the NDA wields a complicated system of sponsorship, ‘parent bodies’ and subcontracting that will obscure further subsidies.

Actually the past history of civil nuclear power has effects in the present both as lessons from the past and as material legacies or burdens – as very material ghosts in fact.

The major lesson from the past is that nuclear electricity generation means public subsidy. This arises from the high capital costs of construction and the uncertainty that investors can recoup large loans. The object lesson in the British case was the near insolvency of the monopolistic nuclear energy company British Energy in 2002. This required a major government bail out and led to the creation of the NDA, siphoning off some industry obligations.

The high capital costs arise in large part from the dangers to life on earth from ionizing radiation. Epidemiological research shows that these dangers arise not only from accidents, which can be catastrophic, but also from the routine operation of nuclear installations. For example, the repeated finding of higher rates of childhood leukemia near nuclear installations has been confirmed by the important German KIKK study, large-scale ‘hard science’ in terms of the discipline. (see Nuclear Monitor 703, 29 January 2010). Regulatory agencies argue that radiation from emissions is ‘too low’ to affect health, but developments in cellular biology and genetics show that risk levels need to be revised. The science is complex and contested and needs fuller treatment, but, in sum, policy needs to take due account of the effects of ‘internal emitters’– particles of  radionuclides found inside the body, spread to the environment from nuclear installations or contained in waste. Omnibus categories like ‘low level radiation’ or ‘low level waste’ are unsafe. The way is now open for more adequate explanations of childhood leukemia and other contested findings.

In economic terms, the intense radioactivity of reactor cores demands fortress-like containment and shielding, complex accident prevention measures, close monitoring and protection of workers, rigorous management, well-trained staff and tight regulative surveillance and policing. It is arguable that there should be regular epidemiological checks on surrounding populations. Should accidents or attacks with evil intent occur, damage could be massive, costly, and in many ways irreparable. All this adds to economic risk and pressure on costs. Moreover, especially with privatization, the narrow margin of profitability sets up a dangerous dynamic, a balancing of safety with profit, with companies under pressure to cut costs by reducing safeguards and to campaign for looser safety codes and inspection. Lower tenders may be accepted from less competent subcontractors, with a lowering of knowledge and skill at a time of skill shortages. There is already evidence, in the case of low-level waste, that companies will try to dump on the cheap without adequate engineering. If the new power stations really are safer, they are likely to cost more.

In building power stations, delays, rising costs and reduced ambitions have been commonplace. In the UK this has meant eleven Magnox stations instead of twenty, reduced and slow building of the AGR fleet, one PWR reactor instead of four, one failed fast-breeder reactor only. The last power station built in Britain was the one and only PWR Sizewell B. Costs rose from a budget of £1.69 billion to the eventual cost of £2.5 billion (US$3.8 bn or 3 bn euro); the design was approved in 1987, generation started in 1995. Areva and Siemens’ EPR power station at Olkiluoto, Finland was already more than three years over schedule and 55% over budget in August 2009. In May 2009 the Finnish government’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority threatened to halt construction, because of faulty safety systems, lack of expertise in design and construction and ‘evident errors’ in building. Costs are high or unpredictable where designs are new or when a design approved in one country encounters a new regulatory regime. Public opposition may also cause delays as at Sizewell. Construction in England and Wales of the AP1000 and the EPR risks these delays and neither design has yet been passed by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. 

Critics of nuclear power have listed the many forms of indirect subsidy. In Britain, subsidy has also been direct, most clearly since the industry was privatised. From 1990, for example, a nuclear levy was introduced to cover the difference between nuclear and coal-fired generation adding 11% to electricity bills. Intended for a decommissioning fund, the levy was diverted to pay for Sizewell B.

More Ghosts in the Material World: Legacy Waste and Decommissioning
Similar problems arise in waste storage, reprocessing and decommissioning. Since 2005, one public institution, the NDA has inherited these problems. They are also concentrated spatially in a nuclear House of Horrors, the Sellafield site on the Cumbrian coast, home to many ghosts that haunt the nuclear industry today. These include Calder Hall, the first power station built primarily to provide fissile material for nuclear weapons; a plutonium pile at ‘Windscale’ which caused the most serious nuclear accident in Britain in October 1957; the Magnox plant built to reprocess spent fuel for first generation reactors; the Thorp Reprocessing plant closed because of serious incidents for much of its history; the troubled vitrification plants which prepare high-level waste for long-term storage; the Actinide Removal Plant, source of the radioactive pollution of the Irish Sea; the MOX plant which was supposed to use excess plutonium and natural uranium to create reactor fuel; and a large number of radioactive waste stores. The Drigg low-level waste depository is 6km away.

Sellafield’s and the NDA’s problems figure in concerned official reports from 1992 to late 2008. The NDA was in a state of administrative disarray by 2008, the critical year for accepting consortia bids for decommissioning and waste management. By July 2008 42% of budget of the department responsible (then called Business, Environment and Regulative Reform) was going to the NDA, £15 million (US$23 million or 18.1 million euro) of it switched from funding for renewables and some even from the wartime military budget. Sub-contracting companies like AMEC complained of ‘turbulence’, with key NDA executives leaving and staff sent for retraining. Decommissioning started then stopped on key projects, including removing old reactors from sites where new are planned. Several waste projects were also curtailed. Overall, the cost of decommissioning the 19 nuclear plants within NDA’s remit has risen steadily from £61 billion to £73bn (January 2008) to £83bn (July 2008) (US$127.3 bn or 100.4 bn euro), far outstripping any possible earnings.

Apart from military applications, the hope of making money from waste from civil nuclear activity has been disappointed. Vitrification, long-term storage and Thorp’s reprocessing have been dogged by breakdowns, broken contracts and financial losses. There is a long history of expert anxiety about safety at Sellafield, about Magnox ‘swarf’ (which contains plutonium), the 23 separate intermediate-level waste streams, and about contaminated buildings. The storage of large amounts of very radioactive material in liquid form is vulnerable to leakage, earthquakes and sabotage. Clean-up costs at Sellafield are estimated at just over £45.5bn  (US$70 bn or 55 bn euro). The new private managing consortium will surely be back with urgent safety-backed requests for additional public funds.

Meanwhile long-term waste storage is in crisis. Material from decommissioning generations of old plant must go somewhere. For low-level waste, with Drigg almost full, waste disposal companies are looking to ‘go nuclear’ and use their ordinary hazardous waste landfills. Apart from offers from Cumbria County Council to host waste storage at the cost of £75 million (US$ 115m or 90.7m euro) compensation from public funds, little progress is being made with vitrification and the building of deep level storage. Generally public opposition to the dumping of waste is growing.

Pro-nuclear advocates argue that the threat of climate chaos and increases of oil and gas price favour nuclear as part of ‘the energy mix’. An economic nationalist case for ‘energy security’ is also argued, yet, in UK today, nuclear means dependence on French, German, American and Spanish companies who can take capital and skills elsewhere. New nuclear will add further accumulations of radioactive plant and waste. Given the geological time-spans involved, nuclear ‘clean up’ and waste storage maybe problems beyond human capacity to solve. Certainly the technical knowledges, institutional frameworks and longer-term political wisdom do not yet exist. Neoliberal doctrine disallows firm correctives to the short-term competitive interest that rules under capitalist conditions. If new nuclear goes forward, it will add weighty burdens to over-stressed world, while safer green alternatives will be stifled, as nuclear enterprise gobbles up public resources. In the end, the best approach to nuclear electricity generators (or nuclear weapons of course) is simply not to have them.

Sources (in addition to those cited in Part 1 in NM 714): Health and Safety Commission, Advisory Committee on the Safety of Nuclear Installations (HMSO 1992); National Audit Office Press Release 30th Jan 2008 (on Decommissioning  and the NDA)  Internal BERR audit of NDA reported Guardian 24 July 2008; Liberal Democrat Policy Briefing  - Climate Change and Energy, May 2010; The Coalition: Our Programme for Government, May 2010;  Sunday Telegraph 17 July 2010, reported in NM 714.
Contact: Richard Johnson, Chair East Midlandss Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. 3, Westhill Road,  Leicester, LE3 6GB, UK.