For more than 60 years the UK’s nuclear industry has worked to keep the lights on. Over that time a number of myths and erroneous claims have been made about the safety, security and suitability of nuclear.
Below are just a selection of questions and statements made about the industry which in many cases aren’t true.
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Nuclear power is one of the safest forms of electricity generation. Like all other industries, nuclear plants are designed to minimise the possibility of accidents, and avoid any consequences if they occur. There have been three major accidents – Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. The first was contained without any harm, Chernobyl involved an extreme fire without provision for containment, and Fukushima tested the reactors containment capabilities, leading to the release of some radioactivity. The only accidents in over 16,000 cumulative reactor-years of operations in 33 different countries.
In the UK, there has not been a major incident since 1957, when a fire at Windscale led to the release of some radioactivity but led to no long-term health effects.
The evidence shows nuclear power is safe and the risk of accidents is low and declining due to continuous safety testing and improvements.
Not at all. There are currently over 400 nuclear reactors in operation, producing around 11% of the world’s electricity. More than 60 are under construction and 158 are planned to be built. Countries including China, USA, Russia, France, Canada, Brazil and many more use nuclear power and are either planning to be build or building new reactors.
In the UK, nuclear produces around 20% of our electricity and plans are in place to build up to 18GW of new generating capacity.
This isn’t true. Polling shows more people support (29%) nuclear power than oppose (20%) its use, furthermore 41% of the public support replacement new build compared to just 20% who oppose it. More than 70% of people polled also said that nuclear needs to be part of a low carbon mix of energy sources.
Nuclear energy is also seen as the most secure form or energy to keep the lights on, ranked the highest for job creation and investment and 58% of the public believe it has a part to play in the fight against climate change.
You can see the results from the 2015 YouGov/NIA annual survey online.
The UK has operated nuclear power stations for more than half a century and continued operations are only granted by the independent Office for Nuclear Regulation after thorough inspections. Much like a car has an MOT, nuclear reactors are often closed down for the operator and regulator to assess the stations and carry out work on anything which is discovered.
The operating lives of many of the UK’s current nuclear fleet have been extended but only after the operator, EDF Energy, carried out multi-million pound refurbishments at each of its stations. Like Wylfa 1 at the end of 2015, when a reactor reaches the end of its life, it will close down and decommissioning will begin.
New nuclear power is cost-competitive with all other forms of low carbon energy generation. The strike price secured for Hinkley Point C is similar to those granted for onshore wind projects and much cheaper than offshore wind schemes such as Hornsea Project One which has a guaranteed price for electricity of £140/MWh.
Any direct radiation from a nuclear power plant will be blocked by the stations purpose built steel and concrete structures. These safety barriers mean people living near a nuclear power station will not receive a higher does than any other community.
In fact some areas in the country, such as Cornwall, residents will receive a background dose of 7.8 mSv, compared to the national average of 1.3 mSv. This is because of the high levels of indigenous granite, which contains elements of uranium.
Studies have shown that living near a nuclear power station does not increase a person risk of developing cancer. The average annual dose of radiation for those that live near a power station is 0.01mSv. To put that into context, on a return journey from the UK to Spain each passenger will receive, on average, a dose of 0.08mSv and the average annual dose for a UK citizen is 2.6mSv.
However the industry recognises and welcomes 24/7 monitoring and inspection to ensure no harmful radiation is emitted to employees or the public.
Nuclear power is a low carbon form of electricity generation, which does not emit CO2 when operating. The waste produced not only by nuclear power stations, but the medical sector and various other industries has been managed for decades and the Government has a long term plan in place to deal with all radioactive waste. Hinkley Point C will generate 3.2GW of electricity and will require 430 acres to power six million homes, to generate the same capacity you would need a solar farm of 130,000 acres or an onshore wind farm covering 250,000 acres.
Nuclear power is a low carbon source of electricity generation. It is essentially carbon free and no carbon dioxide is produced during its operation. Nuclear power in the UK avoids the emissions of 49 million tonnes of CO2 every year, the equivalent to taking 78% of Britain’s cars off the road.
The UK has dealt with nuclear waste above ground for more than 60 years, and the interim storage facilities in place can house waste for up to 100 years. The Government is currently looking at plans to develop a geological disposal facility (GDF) which would provide a permanent solution for higher activity waste. A GDF is an underground structure which combines engineered barriers and a stable geological setting to ensure no harmful quantities of radioactivity every reach the surface.
For over 50 years, the UK’s nationalised fleet of Magnox reactors kept the lights on. Once fundamental to our economic wellbeing, the Magnox fleet, now all retired, are in the process of being decommissioned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). Working in tandem with the private sector, the NDA, a non-departmental body, is maximising income and reducing the cost to the taxpayer.
All future nuclear power station operators, as part of their contract for difference, are legally obliged to pay for decommissioning and waste management through the Funded Decommissioning Programme.
Almost since its inception, the industry has been aware of the threat of terrorism. All nuclear sites in the UK are guarded by the Civil Nuclear Constabulary and all workers and visitors are thoroughly vetted before entering any site.
The design criteria for nuclear plants mitigate any terrorism thereat and the structure of stations are not only built to contain any threat but also stop any outside threat. Tests have been carried out to understand the resilience of nuclear reactors against the threat of munitions, large commercial aircraft and a number of other threats.
At present, it is impossible for a cyber attack to defeat any reactor protection system in the UK because they are not digital and have no embedded software. In any case, nuclear reactors will always shut down in a safe state when faced with a control problem, whatever the source.
All the control and safety systems are assessed and categorised by the independent regulator, and all new nuclear power stations will only be allowed to operate under the nuclear safety and security regulator. Furthermore, EDF Energy has already made clear the new nuclear business operates on a separate computer network to the one used for its existing fleet of stations.
Every radioactive material naturally decays over time and has a finite radiotoxic lifetime. More importantly less than 3% of the total waste produced by the civil nuclear industry is highly radioactive and requires isolation for thousands of years. In the main, nuclear waste remains radioactive for tens of years and can be safely disposed of in near-surface facilities. Nuclear waste has been managed for decades, and international conventions are in place to ensure it poses no risk to human health or the environment.
Under international treaties operators of nuclear power stations are liable for any damage caused by them regardless of fault. Under UK law they are obliged to take out insurance to cover this liability.
Nuclear technology has evolved over the years to improve efficiency and limit the amount of waste produced. For instance, the UK’s first reactors, relied on carbon dioxide as a coolant, whereas now most new reactors use water.
Moreover the UK’s first nuclear reactors were designed to produce plutonium for a nuclear deterrent and electricity was a useful by-product. Nuclear power stations are now all built now to generate as much electricity as possible with as little waste as possible. Calder Hall, the UK’s first power station which opened in 1956, generated 40MW of electricity, whereas Hinkley Point C will generate 3,400MW of electricity, enough for six million homes.
Looking beyond current nuclear stations, small modular reactors are in development as are reactors which will run using a waste, plutonium, as a fuel and work continues to find the right system for nuclear fusion.