Archive for the ‘Safety’ Category

Switzerland reject rapid nuclear phase out

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on November 29th, 2016

On Sunday the people of Switzerland were offered a choice in a referendum as to whether to accelerate the shut-down of their nuclear power stations. With a result of 55% to 45%, the public showed a clear support for maintaining their nuclear fleet.

Following the Fukushima incident, the Swiss government committed to a nuclear phase out leading to a 100% renewable economy, but the timescales were vague. The proposal to accelerate nuclear closures, put forward by the Green Party, would have resulted in three of their five plants being shut next year, the fourth in 2024 and the last in 2029. However with nuclear providing almost 40% of Switzerland’s power, the risks of compromised energy security, consequential pressures to bills and the economy, and the potential increasing reliance on fossil fuels to meet shortages were more important to voters than the Green’s concerns over ageing plants.  

The results of the referendum mean the current Swiss nuclear plants should continue to operate for approximately 60 years, with the first plant closing as previously planned during the 2030s. Other country’s reactions to Fukushima have been more extreme, with Germany closing all reactors and pushing their energiewende program. Although this has increased renewables, it has also increased coal and thus compromised Germany’s decarbonisation leadership. 

Switzerland also gets a large proportion of its power from renewables with approximately 60% coming from hydroelectric power. Combined with low-carbon nuclear power this means it has a very clean power sector. Swiss nuclear is not just used for power, but also for heat, an example that other reactors should follow. The BBC reported that, “Environmentalists have said no nuclear reactors should be allowed to operate for longer than 45 years”. However it is incorrect to argue all environmentalists, in Switzerland or elsewhere, are anti nuclear power. Hydropower has some severe consequences to biodiversity and also can have significant methane emissions and other renewables also have their impacts. Nuclear may not be renewable but pragmatic environmentalists would argue it is low-carbon, reliable power with no impact on air quality and little impact on biodiversity. Keeping existing plants is a good first step for nuclear and it is encouraging to see that in some areas the technology has public support. But a continued commitment to phase out nuclear could risk the environmental and economic benefits that nuclear provides Switzerland. Reuters have reported that the entire phase out plan is now being questioned, with the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the largest in parliament, aiming to challenge it with a separate referendum on the grounds it is too expensive. Hopefully this referendum could represent a turning point for nuclear power in Switzerland and around the world, a very timely one considering the accelerating imperative of decarbonisation. 

Nuclear fear and the recent Japanese Earthquake

Posted by John Lindberg on November 25th, 2016

The last few weeks have been marked by earthquakes, especially if you live around the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’. New Zealand and Japan, both countries well accustomed to these violent forces, have been hit by magnitude 7.8 and 7.4 shocks respectively. Whilst the media drew our attention to a couple of cows being stranded in New Zealand, the reaction in the Japanese case was markedly different. If one followed the live broadcasts, or tapped into social media, the spectre of nuclear catastrophe was making an appearance again.

Before the Fukushima accident in 2011, very few would ever take notice of the countless earthquakes that shake Japan, at least from a nuclear perspective. Yes, some would always argue that placing nuclear power plants in one of the world’s most earthquake-prone regions might not be such a good idea. However, in terms of engineering the Japanese nuclear power stations are shining examples of how to overcome obstacles. The 2011 Tohoku earthquake was the most powerful earthquake to have struck Japan, but thanks to the engineering of the nuclear power stations, not a single one was damaged by the earthquake itself, and they were all shut down in a safe manner. Placing emergency cooling systems in basements – as was the case at Fukushima – was not a very good idea. It was this oversight in regards to a secondary system that made the Fukushima nuclear power plant vulnerable to tsunamis, and problems like this should no longer occur with stricter regulation.

The earthquake earlier this week only reaffirmed the strength of Japanese engineering, with no reports of damage at any of the nuclear power plants. The reactions, and direct attempts of trying to revitalise the memories of Fukushima, are, however, symptomatic of a wider fear of nuclear. It seems the very coupling of earthquake and Japan reawakens the imagery of Fukushima. Recycling images from the 2011 accident, especially the hydrogen explosions, was common.

The Japanese overreaction after Fukushima has seen the country’s greenhouse gas emissions increase extensively as it shut down all its nuclear power stations and replaced it with coal and gas. A few nuclear power stations has started to come back online, but the costs – both to the environment and in financial terms – has been considerable. At Weinberg Next Nuclear, we hope to see more of the Japanese nuclear power stations to come back online during 2017

However, the global fallout from this has been significant. Germany decided to shut down its nuclear power stations out of fear that similar accidents could happen in there. The replacement was not just the renewables that propelled Germany into international fame and awe, but also lignite, the most polluting of coals. Germany is not alone in this anti-nuclear trend. In 2012 a replacement nuclear power plant in Lithuania was rejected in a referendum, and this weekend the Swiss people will decide the future of nuclear in Switzerland in a referendum. The fear of nuclear severely undermines efforts on decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, improving air quality and reducing the detrimental impacts of coal (waste etc). The fear of nuclear and radiation are issues of very high importance, and necessitate changes in how nuclear power is being marketed. This is one of the key challenges moving forward for proponents of nuclear.

Weinberg Next Nuclear are delighted to share this submission from May 2016 by Professor Wade Allison to the Science and Technology Committee of the UK Commons. Wade Allison is Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford where he researched and taught for 40 years as a Fellow of Keble College. He has studied the risks involved in radiological and nuclear accidents as seen from medical, scientific and popular perspectives. He has published two excellent books, in 2009 Radiation and Reason: The Impact of Science on a Culture of Fearand in 2015 Nuclear is for Life: A Cultural Revolution, which Weinberg Next Nuclear highly recommend.


1. Summary

Life is naturally well protected against all but the very highest radiation exposures and evolutionary biology has ensured this so that life may survive. The low casualty record in all radiological and nuclear accidents confirms the effectiveness of this protection, as do laboratory experiments and the benefits of radiation as used in clinical medicine for over a century.

The commonly held view that radiation is exceptionally dangerous has been sustained by: a) residual memory of Cold War threats; b) unfamiliarity with the broad role of biology; c) a taste for the more exciting stories of accidents offered by the media; d) the guidance offered by a network of international safety committees that prefers caution to scientific evidence. This guidance has resulted in national regulations that specify that any exposure to radiation should be kept As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA), for no scientific reason.

While the radiation released in a radiological or nuclear accident has a small health effect, if any, the emergency procedures taken with international guidance themselves cause suffering, loss of life and severe socio-economic damage, sometimes on a global scale. Current policy that aims to appease public concern rather than educate people about radiation has caused plans for new nuclear plants to be strangled by unjustifiable regulatory hurdles and escalating costs, resulting in uncompetitive energy prices and increased carbon emissions.

Two conclusions:

•          Bottom up, on radiation and  nuclear energy we need a fresh programme of science-wide public education in schools and in the community as a whole via the media, omitting the ghoulish images used in the past. Local UK-based initiatives should contribute to worldwide re-education, for example through the BBC.

•          Top down, on radiation safety we need a complete change in international guidance. This should be based on scientific understanding and evidence, not the unjustified precaution inherent in the ALARA/LNT philosophy.[3]Initiatives for such a change should be pursued and supported by the UK more formally.[4]

2. Scientific background

Because radiation has always been part of the natural environment, life has evolved protection against attack by it. Biological experiments and a century of clinical experience with life-saving radiotherapy have confirmed the efficacy of this protection, even for quite high doses. As for accidents, only in a handful of instances have radiation dose rates been high enough for this natural protection to fail causing loss of life; the largest being 4 deaths at the radiological accident at Goiania (1987) and 43 deaths at the nuclear accident at Chernobyl (1986). Further, because radioactivity (and the radiation it emits) do not catch and spread in the way that fire and infectious diseases do, nuclear and radiological accidents have a rather low direct impact on life, in strong contrast to what is generally supposed.

3. The accident at Fukushima Daiichi

Two weeks after the accident[5] I published an article on the BBC World Service,[6] We should stop running away from radiation. It discussed why the response to the accident was scientifically and sociologically inappropriate. In December 2011 I made a written submission to the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee on the subject.[7] Since the accident I have visited Japan four times, given public lectures there and discussed with doctors, social workers, community leaders, evacuees, school teachers and others involved on the ground.

4. The public view

The real impact of such accidents is transmitted through public opinion and the media. The damage to health is essentially social and mental – it manifests itself as public panic and a loss of confidence in science and society. At Chernobyl and also at Fukushima those who were exposed to radiation felt themselves condemned as if by a curse, resulting in alcoholism, family breakup and attitudes of hopelessness.[8] Few knew anything about radiation except for the historical link in the public consciousness between radiation and nuclear weapons including testing. During the period of the Cold War and Nuclear Arms Race fear of radiation was heightened for political and strategic reasons. However most people are surprised to learn that 99% of those killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki died from the blast and fire and that only 1% died of cancer from the radiation explosion. Furthermore the medical records of the survivors families now available after fifty years confirm that there has been no detectable inherited effect from the radiation. The same is true for data from accidents and laboratory studies.

5. The view of the authorities

In their situation for the past 70 years national and international public authorities have been anxious to appease public concern about any radiological accident, and they have adopted an exceptional precautionary safety policy. By legalising radiation exposures only at a very low level it was believed that the public that they would come to no harm. Such a cautious approach may be appropriate for a technology before it is fully understood or when practical experience of it is limited, but for radiation high levels have been in regular clinical use worldwide for over a century so that this policy is restrictive. Nevertheless regulations in all nations do treat radiation as if it were an extraordinary hazard and safe limits are set As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA) – in practice this means a small addition to the radiation that would be received anyway from natural processes. Thanks to the protection provided by nature this guidance is overly conservative by a factor in the region of a thousand.

6. When “the impossible” occurs

Under this draconian safety regime it is supposed that accidents should not happen, although this does not  reassure the public about nuclear safety, nor should it. There is no design of nuclear reactor that cannot be overwhelmed by nature and the public should be prepared for this unlikely event. Otherwise, when they see “the impossible” happening, they panic and loose all confidence in the authorities and in the ability of science to protect them – that is a fair description of the disaster that occurred at Fukushima in 2011. Recovery from such a loss of confidence is difficult. Unfortunately the nuclear authorities worldwide see their task in terms of engineering and management only, not radiobiology, teaching and psychology. Their natural reaction has therefore been to improve the physical safety of reactors even further. Unfortunately trying too hard to apply the wrong solution drives up costs without reason. This is the story of Hinkley C, perhaps, designed to be safe beyond the bounds of what is buildable, economic and necessary.

7. Education for confidence and safety

To be effective safety policy should concentrate on education to explain and make dangers more familiar. For example, fire drills are held regularly in institutions to train everybody so that they know what to do in the event of a fire. In addition from an early age every child is taught the danger of fire and how it can easily spread. Although nuclear radiation is far safer than fire people still need to become familiar with it, to know how it is detected with a simple alarm[9] and how to minimise personal exposure to it. Issuing instructions after an accident has occurred and the population is in a state of shock is too late. The public needs to understand beforehand so that individuals can take rapid and decisive action. This provides confidence at all times and informed response to an accident. What happened in March 2011 in Japan in response to the tsunami provides an example. The Japanese are taught about earthquakes and tsunamis at school and in public education. As a result they are prepared, and in the event 96% of those in the inundated region reached safety with only 30 minutes warning after the earthquake. The loss of 18,800 lives was seemingly understood and accepted, but the release of radioactivity from the damaged reactors at Fukushima Daiichi was not, even five years later. For this radiation there had been no public education and no proper plan. The result was widespread public shock even though there was no hospital admission due to the radiation itself – and the scientific evidence shows there will be no loss of life in the next fifty years. However the immediate loss of life caused by the inept and unnecessary evacuation has been put at 1600; wider social effects, from alcoholism to power shortages and increased reliance on carbon fuels, occurred as a result of the mutual loss of trust between the public and the authorities. None of this would have happened if there had been honest explanatory education about radiation, what it does to life (and what it does not), and discussion and familiarity with practice, as for earthquakes or fire.

8.  ALARA and the LNT Model

The authorities with responsibility for radiological accidents and radiation safety have pursued a policy based on ALARA dating back to the 1950s. Its rationale is a hypothesis called Linear No-Threshold (LNT) which basically says that any radiation exposure however slight is harmful. But this is not based on evidence. It is a pseudo-science like alchemy in earlier times. In that case the human emotion of avarice overrode the evidence encouraging the hope that base metals might be turned into gold. Here it is the human emotion of fear that makes the simplistic LNT attractive in spite of the contrary evidence. LNT contradicts the known principles of evolutionary biology and was discredited at length in a unanimous Joint Report published in 2005 by the Académie des Sciences and the Académie Nationale de Médecine, in Paris.[10] The evidence in this report has been denied by the international safety committees who also have not faced up to the cost and suffering for which their guidance based on ALARA/LNT is responsible. There is widespread concern amongst those who understand at this departure from science-based knowledge. In the past couple of years an international ad hocgroup of about 100 professional engineers, doctors, oncologists, biologists, physical scientists and others has joined forces to pursue this injustice in academic journals, internet media, professional societies, lectures, personal and political contacts in countries around the world. Of course it is very hard for any long-standing officially constituted international committee to execute a U-turn, but that is what is required and the policy of the UK should be to press for that.[11]Nations that first wholeheartedly embrace this new perspective of the human relationship with radiation should enjoy an important competitive advantage in the years ahead through cheaper energy, cultural leadership and a cleaner and safer environment.[12] The UK should be one of those nations.


Professor Wade Allison can be contacted for questions via this address:


[1]ISBN 978-0-956275615 in paperback and Kindle editions

[2]ISBN 978-0-956275646  in paperback and online editions.

[3]Acronyms for As Low As Reasonably Achievable and Linear No-Threshold hypothesis, see later

[4]A report quoting an example of such initiatives

[5]In this brief submission I use this accident as an example. The Goiania, Chernobyl and other accidents are covered elsewhere..




[9]The technology of a domestic smoke alarm could provide a cheap solution if built into a mobile phone.


[11]There is a superfluity of  such bodies UNSCEAR, ICRP, NEA, IAEA, WHO, etc. and many national ones too (in US: NAS, NRC, NCRP, EPA with more in UK and Japan).


Report Launch: Next Steps for Nuclear in the UK

Posted by Stephen Tindale on April 27th, 2016

Next Steps for Nuclear in the UK

A new report from pro-nuclear think tank Weinberg Next Nuclear, outlines what the Government should do to make the UK a world leader in advanced nuclear technology. The report argues that the British government should support small nuclear reactors as well as large new reactors, and that by the early 2020s at least three advanced reactor designs should have been assessed by the regulator.

Existing civil nuclear reactor designs provide large amounts of clean, low carbon energy, so improving energy security and air quality and mitigating climate change. But they have high upfront capital costs, and are not sufficiently flexible to back up wind and solar power. Advanced nuclear designs could address these drawbacks.

In November 2015 Weinberg Next Nuclear published a report on ‘The Need for Nuclear Innovation’. Chancellor George Osborne subsequently promised, in his 2015 Autumn Statement, £250 million over five years for nuclear R&D. In the March 2016 Budget, he announced a £30 million competition for advanced manufacturing in nuclear, and a competition to support innovation in Small Modular Reactors (SMRs).

This report:

– outlines criteria which government should use in selecting reactor designs to support (but does not say which designs should be chosen);

– recommends that at least one of the reactors supported should be a Generation IV design, because this could re-use spent nuclear fuel, and also use plutonium as fuel. The UK has the largest plutonium stockpile in the world;

– suggests that SMRs and micro-reactors (less than 20 megawatts) will be cheaper to construct than large reactors because they can be made on production lines then transported to site. Generation IV reactors may also be considerably cheaper than existing nuclear designs due to less complex designs – though this will not be known until one has been constructed;

– supports the Office for Nuclear Regulation’s proposal to increase its capacity by expanding staff numbers. Lack of regulatory capacity is currently the major barrier to nuclear innovation in the UK;

– proposes that UK nuclear regulators should work closely with their Canadian and US counterparts, with the aim of developing a regulatory approval mechanism that would cover all three countries.


Download the report.

Stephen Tindale, director of Weinberg Next Nuclear, said:

“The UK’s energy mix must be based on diversity. So the policy argument should not be whether to support solar, wind, CCS or nuclear. ‘All of the above’ will be needed.

Existing nuclear technology is very good, but future nuclear technology can be even better. If the £250 million is sensibly spent, it could contribute to the UK becoming a world leader in both small and Generation IV reactors.”



07941 433780


Notes for editors

1) Weinberg Next Nuclear is part of the Alvin Weinberg Foundation charity. The Foundation plans to continue work on advanced nuclear energy, and to expand its work into other clean energy sources – wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, CCS.

2) Three companies contributed sponsorship support to the workstream behind this report: Terrestrial Energy, URENCO and Moltex Energy. Editorial control remained with Weinberg Next Nuclear alone.


2017 in China set to be the year of advanced nuclear

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on February 16th, 2016

The Chinese have long responded to rapidly growing demand in energy by pursuing progress in all technologies. Now, they seem to be about to have a breakthrough with nuclear power, announcing that they plan to have an advanced reactor online by the end of next year.

The hopeful design is a high-temperature, gas cooled, pebble-bed reactor. The key advantage is its passive safety – it is unable to melt down. This is due to the fact the uranium fuel is encased in pebble sized balls, preventing the fuel from breaking down, and also because the reactor is meant to operate at high temperatures, so does not need constant cooling systems which can fail. The pebbles also lessen waste problems by making the uranium easier to dispose of. Eventually China aims to recycle all of its nuclear waste products as part of a sustainable nuclear programme.

The technology itself is not new. It was developed in Germany decades ago, but has never been built on a commercial scale. The construction is underway in the Shandong province south of Beijing and is nearing completion. A series of tests will be conducted this year before energy production can start in 2017.

Successful demonstration of this advanced reactor will be a significant step for nuclear progress not only in China but also in the rest of the world. And the Chinese are determined to take this significant step. As Charles Forsberg, executive director of the MIT Nuclear Fuel Cycle Project, said, “What you are seeing is serious intent.” If this serious intent is translated into reality, it could have global impacts on making energy more sustainable, and the climate more secure.


Hitachi-GE’s improvement on the Boiling Water Reactor has progressed to the final stage of the UKs regulatory process. The office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR) announced the completion of Step 3 of the Generic Design Assessment on 30 October, with the whole assessment scheduled to finish in 2017.

Step three focuses on the safety and security of the ABWR and requires Hitachi GE to present arguments and evidence to support their safety and security claims. The assessment is designed to be extremely rigorous and continues to assess the safety of every aspect of the design throughout its process.

The fourth and final phase of the process includes a detailed assessment of the design as well is further scrutiny of the safety and security. The environmental impact of the reactor will also be assessed, with a consultation with the Environment Agency (EA) and National Resources Wales (NRW).

A completed Generic Design Assessment must be coupled with a nuclear site license and regulatory approval for the construction of the reactor before a new nuclear power station can be built. Horizon Nuclear Power, a subsidiary of Hitachi Ltd, plans to build two ABWR is in the UK; in Wylfa Newydd on the Isle of Anglesey and Oldbury-on-Severn in South Gloucestershire.

This milestone in the regulatory process for an updated reactor design is a step in the right direction for building new and improved nuclear power reactors in the UK, and possibly paves the way for the next generation of advanced reactors to follow in the ABWR’s footsteps.

Exploring space by exploiting nuclear

Posted by Stephen Tindale on June 16th, 2015

The Philae lander has woken up. When Philae landed on the comet, it was on its side in a valley, so its solar panels could not generate enough electricity to keep the lander’s technology operating once the batteries ran out. As a result, Philae did excellent scientific research for 60 hours, then ‘went to sleep’. Seven months later, the comet is closer to the sun so the solar panels are generating enough power to resume research. This is excellent news. But seven months of research have been lost unnecessarily. Philae should have carried a nuclear power source, as NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover did. Stephan Ulamec, Philae lander manager, was asked last November why Philae didn’t have one. He replied that ‘launching nuclear power sources carries safety and political implications and, in any case, Europe does not have that technology’. (

The safety issue is – as so often with nuclear power – overstated. Mars Curiosity was powered by a small, solid amount of Plutonium-238, completely insoluble in water. Physics professor Ethan Siegel writes that: “This means that even if there’s a disaster on launch, the radioactive material won’t go anywhere, and can not only be retrieved, but reused in future missions.” ( )

Would Europe have been able to obtain the necessary nuclear equipment from NASA? Surely the answer is yes. The space race is over. The Soviet Union put the first person in space; the USA put the first person on the moon. The European Space Agency, Philae’s owner, has been working with NASA on the International Space Station since 1998.

So it was down to politics. Theological opposition to all things nuclear, led by Germany (as most things in Europe are at present), meant that Philae was sent to land on a comet with only intermittent solar photovoltaics to replenish its power supply. Angela Merkel, who has a PhD in quantum chemistry, allowed her politics to obscure her scientific desire for knowledge.

Why I have joined the Alvin Weinberg Foundation

Posted by Stephen Tindale on June 4th, 2015

“I cannot really complain too much about solar utopians: their dreams are noble and ought to be encouraged. On the other hand, when these dreams of solar utopia are used as political instruments to eliminate the nuclear option, I believe it is most important to object.”

Alvin Weinberg, ‘Toward an acceptable nuclear future’, 1977.

I am a former renewable energy utopian – though, since I live in the UK, I am more excited about wind power than I am about solar. I spent 20 years campaigning against nuclear, the last 5 of them as head of Greenpeace UK. I protested outside nuclear power stations. Then I realised that I had been wrong; that renewable energy cannot expand quickly enough to phase out fossil fuels and protect the climate. I concluded that opposition to nuclear power is not compatible with any attempt to control climate change. And, because many of my former colleagues in green groups were continuing with anti-nuclear campaigns, I too felt that it was important to object. So for the last 6 years I have been speaking out in favour of nuclear power, and was delighted last month to start working for the Alvin Weinberg Foundation.

Alvin Weinberg was not only a world-renowned nuclear scientist, but also one of the world’s first climate campaigners. He warned of the dangers of increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the 1970s; over a decade before James Hansen’s historic Congressional evidence in 1988. (That is not in any way intended to downplay Hansen’s immense contribution to climate science or, indeed, to campaigning.) Weinberg also spoke out against the dangers of technology tribalism. We need to use every tool to mitigate the climate and energy crises. We do not need nuclear or renewables; we need nuclear and renewables. That is even more strongly the case today in 2015 than it was in the 1970s.

In the 1977 paper quoted above, Weinberg speaks of the need “to set the nuclear ship back on course”. Thirty -eight years later, it definitely needs to be set back on course again, particularly in Europe. The European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) that is supposed to be constructed in the UK may well get abandoned; EDF have not yet taken a final investment decision, and the EPRs being built in France and Finland are well over time and over budget. The latest in a long line of problems is that Areva have used the wrong type of steel at the EPR site in France, and the steel is already encased in concrete.

The EPR is a very complex design. Other existing nuclear reactor designs (so-called generation 3 or 3+) are less complex and need to be built, because they are proven, demonstrated and ready to go. However, more advanced designs must also be researched, developed and demonstrated. This should include both Integral Fast Reactors and Molten Salt Reactors (MSRs), the technology which Weinberg himself pioneered at Oak Ridge in the 1960s. MSRs have many potential benefits over current nuclear reactors:

* The plant can operate at near atmospheric pressure. The fuel salt used in MSRs has no chemical reactivity with air or water. So MSRs cannot explode.

* The liquid salt returns to a solid form at ambient temperatures. This, combined with installed passive safety systems, would automatically shut down advanced reactors avoiding future situations like  Fukushima and Chernobyl.

* Some advanced reactors could be fuelled by existing nuclear waste from conventional nuclear reactors. This ‘waste’ still contains over 90% of the energy that was in the uranium, so can be used many times as fuel. At the end of the process these advanced reactors would still produce some waste, but much less by volume than the waste produced by a conventional nuclear plant.

* Certain next-generation reactors can use plutonium as fuel. The UK has the world’s largest stockpile of plutonium, a result of two decades of reprocessing and failure to use mixed-oxide (Mox) fuel.

* Advanced reactors could be very fuel efficient – up to 75 times more electricity per ton of fuel than an out-dated conventional light-water reactor.

*Next generation reactors could be designed to be small and modular (producing up to 300 megawatts) which would suit power needs in remote locations. Compact versions of MSRs could be built in a central factory and assembled on site. This would reduce costs.

* Modular reactors could be constructed adjacent to industrial sites so that waste heat from the reactor could be used for heat-intensive processes such as desalination or the production of aluminium, cement, ammonia and synthesised fuels.

* Some advanced reactors are ideally suited to the sustainable production of medical isotopes, used for scans and to treat cancer. These isotopes are currently in short supply.

* Most next generation reactors would use approximately 97% less water than conventional nuclear reactors.

The Alvin Weinberg Foundation is committed to highlighting these benefits, to politicians and the public, and seeing the potential of advanced nuclear power realised. There are companies seeking to build prototype MSRs in the UK. If the EPR is abandoned, a sensible reaction by the new British government would be to support an advanced nuclear technology demonstration project in the UK.

Nuclear risk and regulation – time for a rethink?

Posted by Laurence Watson on February 6th, 2015

Nuclear fear – by Me2 on Flickr

Is nuclear over-regulated due to public fear and misconceptions of risks?

“Nuclear power seems to be being singled out for treatment that is not necessarily commensurate with the scale of risk. I say that because, in aggregate, as US climate scientist James Hansen often points out that nuclear has a massively beneficial impact on health in terms of lives saved from avoiding air pollution… There is a need for a public discourse about our perception of risk.”

– Baroness Worthington

Our patron, Baroness Worthington, recently brought up an important point in a debate in the House of Lords about  the formal regulatory process justifying consideration of the Advanced Boiling Water Reactor for deployment in the UK, which Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy Ltd and Horizon Nuclear Power have proposed to construct at Wylfa and Oldbury. The regulatory justification is just part of the broad legal basis that needs to be covered when planning a new nuclear reactor.

Baroness Verma, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change noted in reply that “the sector by its very nature is heavily regulated, and rightly so in order to build confidence”. But why does ionizing radiation receive such special treatment when it comes to assessing risk and if excessive regulation to build public confidence is slowing the development of nuclear power should we look at it again, especially in the context of the growing threats of climate change and air pollution?

Understanding relative doses

The EPR regulatory justification document (2010) describes some of the issues and factors at work when it comes to regulation around ionising radiation.

“The overall average annual dose to a member of the public from all sources of radioactivity is 2.7 millisieverts (a measure of dose and abbreviated as mSv) per year. Of this, about 84% is from natural sources, about 15% from medical procedures and about 1% from all other sources, including existing nuclear power stations….[exposure to radiation from these other sources] is limited to 1 mSv per year.”

“But the regulatory regime goes further than the legal 1 mSv limit. It requires operators to use BAT (Best Available Techniques) and ensure that the resulting exposures are below the statutory limits and as low as reasonably achievable (ALARA) [emphasis ours].

However, while the Health Protection Agency describes the increased risk of cancers from 1mSv as undetectable from background levels, the document goes on to say:

“The maximum occupational dose limit which applies to people at work is 20 mSv per year.”

So, while nuclear plants contribute a very small fraction of radiation exposure and are required to minimise this amount as far as is ‘reasonably’ possible, workers can be exposed to more than twenty times this amount. A chest CT scan will give you 6.6mSv. This great video on the most radioactive places around the world covers the workers and places most highly exposed – the very worst place might surprise you.

Wade Allison, Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford writes in his book ‘Radiation and Reason’ that health risks from ionising radiation have been overestimated, and that the body does not have a linear response to ionising radiation.

The Linear No-Threshold (LNT) assessment of dosage to risk declares that as a certain dose of ionising radiation results in an increased chance cancer in a proportion of a population, this proportion will stay constant even if the dose becomes very small. If LNT is not correct for ionising radiation, then proceeding on the basis of ALARA (as low as reasonably achievable) is not an appropriate practice for regulation.

As Baroness Worthington pointed out, James Hansen among others has estimated the benefits of nuclear power from decreased air pollution, as well as avoided carbon emissions. Climate scientists have written en masse to call for more nuclear power. It is clear that in their minds the relatively small risks associated with nuclear power are vastly outweighed by the risks associated with continued dependence on unabated fossil fuels for our energy. It is therefore high time we had an informed public debate about these relative risks and looked again at the nuclear regulatory regime in light of our most recent understandings of risk.    

Fortunately Baroness Verma the Government’s Energy Minister in the Lords appears to agree with us as she ended the debate saying:

“I also agree that the discussions need to be much fuller and more informed, and of course I hope that we will take the opportunity to open that debate going forward…

I accept that what we do not want to do is single out a sector which is helping us to meet our carbon targets. We should not overly prescribe for one sector against others.”

So it appears that whichever party wins in the UK elections in May of this year it might herald the start of a debate about nuclear power, risk and regulation that is long overdue. We will be working hard to make sure that happens.

The recent film Pandora’s Promise does an excellent job of covering nuclear fear-mongering (if you haven’t seen it, it’s available on itunes and soon to be on Netflix). Many myths and scares have muddied the debate about realistic safety concerns.

Nuclear new build and the challenges of climate change

Posted by Laurence Watson on September 26th, 2014

The carbon budget, visualised - by Carbon Visuals from Flickr

The global carbon budget, visualised next to existing fossil fuel reserves- by Carbon Visuals from Flickr

This year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued their 5th assessment of the science of climate change. The message was stark – there is near complete certainty in the scientific community that we are contributing to elevated levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and that those higher concentrations are going to lead to higher global average temperatures threatening the stability of our climate.

Already we have witnessed an average increase of almost 1 degree, unevenly spread across the globe. For the first time this year, in attempting to explain the problem, the IPCC set out what it considers to be the limit for how much we can emit before we lose the chance of limiting average temperature increases to less than 2 degrees forever.

The IPCC expressed this limit as a total global carbon budget of 1 trillion tonnes of carbon. Since the industrial revolution we have used up around half of this budget, and at current global emissions rates we will use up the remainder before 2040. Reader, hopefully that is within your lifetime, but it is certainly well within the expected life time of our children. This means that within the next 25 years or so if we are to stay within these limits – and these only give a 50/50 chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees – we will have to have completely decarbonised our global energy system. 

This is a significant challenge, and one that requires us to urgently deploy substantial volumes of all known low carbon energy technologies and to rapidly develop the new ones that we know engineers can bring to market with sufficient incentives and support from policy makers.

Nuclear new build undoubtedly has an important role to play. However,  it is scarcely formally mentioned currently in climate discussions at an EU level and in the UN. Energy Ministers within many countries including the UK, China, and India agree that nuclear is needed going forward, but there is still a nervousness when it comes to international climate negotiations about expressly stating this.

The EU

In the EU, we know that this is partly the result of public opposition – especially in Germany and Austria where there are powerful anti nuclear lobbies. But encouragingly recently a group of 10 EU member states led by the Czech Republic wrote to the outgoing European Energy Commissioner to call for nuclear to be treated on a level playing with other low carbon technologies. A new Commission is in the process of being established and with Poland’s Prime Minister assuming the role of President of the European Council and a new Spanish Energy and Climate Commissioner we might see some changes. Certainly Poland was a signatory to the letter but sadly Spain was not.

The reason why we should look again at nuclear are clear. The EU’s electricity comes in at around 300g/kwh thanks to around 30% of its demand being met by nuclear and the two countries in the EU who have most rapidly decarbonised their economy are France and Sweden, both using substantial amounts of nuclear. Denmark and Germany on the other hand have so far had a more limited impact with their recent investment in renewables.

The UK with its ‘all of the above’ energy policy is looking to join France in reaching a carbon intensity of between 50-100g  CO2/kWh by 2030 but it will need to hold on to and expand its current nuclear capacity to do so.

The UK

The proposed reactor at Hinkley Point C is a vast project with a budget to match. 3.2 GW of clean power is almost certainly worth the wait – to match its output with wind would require, depending on assumptions around 3-6000 turbines – or expressed another way increasing by 75% the proposed 10GW target for offshore wind by 2020.

Depending on the outcome of this 3 way negotiation between EDF, the UK government and the European Commission, at least two other large scale projects are waiting in the wings with their proposals. If all go ahead as planned then we can expect to maintain our existing nuclear capacity.

But can we expand nuclear’s role? Can we use nuclear to help fully decarbonise electricity and then start to make in-roads in to emissions from transport and heat?

This is a key question – a lot depends on whether any progress can be made on reducing the costs of nuclear power – wind and solar may not be despatchable when we want them, but they have shown impressive abilities to reduce costs with deployment. There has been no such breakthrough in nuclear where, if anything, costs seem to rise inexorably over the years.

A new way

I remain convinced that were we to start with a blank sheet of paper to design the optimal civilian energy reactor we would be deploying very different reactors to those that we have come to equate with nuclear power today.

By focusing on maximising passive safety, eliminating risk of explosion through loss of coolant accidents and reducing the waste management problem, I am convinced we could arrive at a reactor that has a very different cost profile – and potentially also a much wider application: high temperature reactors for industrial applications may well prove to be a new and important market as the world seeks to fully decarbonise the economy.

Sadly over the last few decades R&D in nuclear fission has fallen away to almost nothing in the UK. Thanks to a House of Lords report which decried this situation in no uncertain terms, there has been something of a reversal of fortune but the sums involved are still so small as to be almost insignificant and there are lots of different views on how best to spend what little R&D money is being made available.

This situation saddens me and as a policy maker I believe we need to think again about how we can direct more money into nuclear fission R&D so that we can design nuclear reactors up to the challenges of the 21st century.  Perhaps then nuclear power can begin to take its rightful place in climate negotiations as a solution for rapidly decarbonising and providing access to clean energy for all.

– Baroness Bryony Worthington

Adapted from a speech given by Baroness Worthington to the UK Nuclear New Build Congress in September, 2014

© The Alvin Weinberg Foundation 2014
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