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False promise: nuclear power: past, present and (no) future via Ecologist

Nuclear power was originally sold on a lie, writes Dave Elliott. While we were being told it would make electricity ‘too cheap to meter’, insiders knew it cost at least 50% more than conventional generation. Since then nuclear costs have only risen, while renewable energy prices are on a steep decline. And now the nuclear behemoths are crumbling … not a moment too soon.

In a December 1953 speech to the United Nations, President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the ‘Atoms for Peace’ programme, saying:

“The miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death but consecrated to his life.”

He claimed that “peaceful power from atomic energy is not a dream of the future. That capability, already proved, is here – now – today.” And the USA would help to ensure it could be used worldwide.

However, his advisors soon told him that it wasn’t viable. A classified internal State Department Intelligence Report, circulated in January 1954, ‘Economic Implications of Nuclear Power in Foreign Countries‘, warned that the introduction of nuclear power would

” … not usher in a new era of plenty and rapid economic development as is commonly believed. Nuclear power plants may cost twice as much to operate and as much as 50 percent more to build and equip than conventional thermal plants.” [Quoted by Mara Drogan in ‘The Nuclear Imperative: Atoms for Peace and the Development of U.S. Policy on Exporting Nuclear Power, 1953-1955 Diplomatic History 40 Issue 5 948-974.]

Nonetheless, the nuclear juggernaut rolled on, with, US Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss, in a 1954 address to science writers, claiming: “It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter.”

[…]

But for our politicians, the nuclear dream never died

But that didn’t stop Marget Thatcher from pushing ahead with a new nuclear plant (a PWR) at Sizewell, work on it starting in 1987. Or Tony Blair later trying to relaunch a new programme “with a vengence”. That has still yet to happen. But it’s pending, with the £24 billion Hinkley Point C European Pressurised-water Reactor (EPR), if it goes ahead, being the first new UK plant in 30 years.

Fukushima, in 2011, had intervened, slowing the nuclear programme worldwide, and creating liabilities of hundreds of billions of dollars. But the UK has pressed ahead with plans for maybe 18GW of new plant – delivering around 30% of UK electricity in the 2030s.

This expansion is based on so-called ‘Generation III’ reactors, basically upgrades of the Generation II PWRs and similar designs that have been the mainstay of nuclear so far. The new versions are unlikely to be any more competitive against cheap gas and increasingly cheap renewables.

The nuclear industry still has hopes for the French EPR, the Toshiba / Westinghouse AP1000 and the Hitachi ABWR – an upgrade of the Fukushima boiling water reactor design.

But the EPRs being built in France and Finland, Flamanville and Olkiluoto, are both around eight years late and three times over budget. Flamanville’s gigantic stainless steel reactor vessel and dome is also suffering from serious metallurgical flaws which may yet prevent its completion.

The two AP1000s being built in the USA have also been delayed, creating losses of over $10 billion that have pushed Westinghouse into bankruptcy, and its Japanese parent company, Toshiba, into what may prove to be a terminal financial meltdown. The two ABWRs under construction in the US are also seriously behind schedule.

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