Nuclear Power

from David Fleming's Lean Guide to Nuclear Energy - in brief

If nuclear power can be a major source of energy which does not contribute to climate change or any other apocalyptic scenario, it is worth putting up with some pollution, waste and risk. In this brief, careful and very readable analysis, David Fleming questions the current belief that it can even deliver economically, or with acceptable climate effects.

Options including FBR, thorium, phosphate and seawater extraction, are explored. Waste storage may already present an economic time-bomb, and this should be investigated - fast.


The strategic matters discussed in chapter 5 are important, but it is the waste problem which is decisive. There is a turning-point when the nuclear industry will become energy-bankrupt, if it has not already done so. After that, it will never be able to generate the energy needed for permanent disposal of its backlog of waste, even if it diverts its whole energy output into the task.

This prospect needs to be researched urgently and by more than one research centre with the authority to get at the facts, but otherwise working independently of industry or government interests. Research should also, with all speed, get evidence about the global warming and ozone impacts of uranium hexafluoride and other solvents, both in use and as leaking waste. And here is a hypothesis to which we need an answer at some speed: if the worldwide backlog of nuclear wastes were simply left to leak, catch fire and spread into the environment, the resulting levels of radiation and toxicity would in principle require the evacuation of the planet. True, or not?

Waste and depletion are two aspects of the same problem. For the timing of depletion, we will consider four estimates, starting with one which suggests that the industry will not recover from the 2011-2020 outages, giving an estimate of 10 years before the industry ceases to be a significant producer of electrical power owing to depletion of uranium giving a positive practical return on energy invested (PREI). The second estimate suggests that the industry does recover from the coming outages and continues as an energy producer at roughly current rates for 30 years. Thirdly, we take the estimate discussed in chapter 3, which has a time-horizon of 60 years. Fourthly, let us suppose that this present analysis is completely misguided, and that the industry will continue on its present scale for another 200 years.

These estimates are now brought together with the estimates of the net energy yielded by the nuclear industry, after the costs of the front-end processes (procuring the fuel and producing energy from it) and back-end processes (dismantling reactors and dealing with wastes) are taken into account. They are summarised in the Energy Balance Sheet.


at current rates of extraction. Assumed start-date for industry 1950. Assumed present 2010.
Numbers in years. PREI=Practical Return on Energy Invested

1. Estimate: years of positive PREI ore remaining
2. Front-end process energy (25% of remaining years)
3. Energy to clear new waste (25% of remaining years)
4. Energy to clear old waste (25% of past 60 years)
5. Total needed for front end plus back end (2+3+4)
6. Years remaining (1-5)
7. Year of energy-bankruptcy: all energy produced is needed to dispose of new and old waste (6+2010)

Suppose the industry, starting with no waste, has 200 years before its usable ore runs out. During that time, it generates a gross amount of energy which it feeds into the grid, but at the same time it must (a) provide the energy needed for its own front-end operation, (b) pay back the energy it used to mine its ore, build its reactors, etc., and (c) clear up its own wastes. As explained in chapter 3, pp 17-18, each of these amount to about 25 percent of its gross energy output. Therefore that amount - 75 percent of its gross output, must be subtracted to find the number of years for which the industry can continue before using the whole of its output to pay back its energy debt and clear up its wastes.

There are other ways in which this could be calculated - for instance, using net output (gross output less the front-end energy cost factored in over time); or the back-end work could start sooner. These would tell slightly different stories, but they would be equally valid. The method shown in the table is a reminder that the industry actually supplies less energy (net) than the gross energy that it puts into the grid. At a time of energy scarcity, this is a key consideration. And it tells us how long the industry has left before waste-disposal becomes the reason for its existence.

We have, then, four dates for the turning-point at which the industry will never be able to supply the energy needed to get rid of its own wastes: that is, energy-bankruptcy: 2000, 2010, 2025 and 2095.

  • If it is 2000, the industry is already deep into its energy-bankruptcy. It will never be able to get rid of its own waste from its own resources. There is the prospect of having to call on the supplies of fossil fuel energy, at a time of deepening scarcity, to deal with the nuclear waste which the waning nuclear industry cannot clear up.
  • If it is 2010, the whole of the energy produced by the industry over its remaining life of 30 years must be directed into clearing up its own wastes, starting now.
  • If it is 2025, the industry has some fifteen years before the onset of energy bankruptcy.
  • If it is 2095, we are looking at an industry facing, in 85 years time, an inheritance of waste whose treatment will demand a flow of energy equal to some 115 years of electricity output - and with no electricity left over to sell.
In other words, the greater the estimate of remaining reserves, the longer the period of energy debt. In the event of the recklessly optimistic estimate of there being 200 years uranium remaining with a positive PREI, the last 115 years of the nuclear industry's operation would be committed to paying back its energy debt, dealing with the backlog of wastes, and with the large accumulation of its new wastes accrued during the final 200 years of its life. An energy debt on this scale is scarcely good news. Nor is the financial debt that would go with it.

With some justice, the nuclear industry could point out that the task of dealing with its wastes has already started, and that high-level waste has to be allowed to cool off. An experimental deep repository for high-level waste has been excavated in Sweden; Finland has started on a real one at Olkiluoto; plans to build one in Nevada are being debated; and research is being done into ways of dealing with uranium hexafluoride. And yet, the questions of where exactly it will go, who will take responsibility for the waste held in deteriorating stockpiles in unstable regions, how to pay for it and, above all, where the energy will come from, remain unanswered. Meanwhile, the industry continues to add to the problem. And suitable sites - stable, preferably dry, and enjoying the support of the local population - are rare; the vast size of a permanent repository, the technical difficulty, the energy needed and the cost all bring this massive task of long-term disposal to the edge of what is possible. It may in fact never be possible to find a permanent resting-place for all, or even for a decent proportion, of the waste that has already been produced.

The nuclear industry should therefore focus on finding solutions to the whole of its waste problem before it becomes too late to do so. And hold it right there, because this is perhaps the moment to think about what "too late" might mean. Notwithstanding the emphasis placed on depletion in this booklet, it is climate change that may well set the final date for completion of the massive and non-negotiable task of dealing with nuclear waste. Many reactors are in low-lying areas in the path of rising seas; and many of the storage ponds, crowded with high-level waste, are close by. Estimated dates for steep rises in sea levels are constantly being brought forward. With an angry climate, and whole populations on the move, it will be hard to find the energy, the funds, the skills and the orderly planning needed for a massive programme of waste disposal - or even moving waste out of the way of rising tides. When outages in gas supplies lead to break down in electricity supplies, the electrical-powered cooling systems that stop high-level waste from catching fire will stop working. It will also be hard to stop ragged armies, scrambling for somewhere to live, looting spent fuel rods from unguarded dumps, attaching them to conventional explosives, and being prepared to use them.

All this will have to be dealt-with, and at speed. There may be no time to wait for reactor cores and high-level wastes to cool down. But, then, it may be a frank impossibility to bury them until they have cooled down...
In any event, the task of making those wastes safe should be an unconditional priority, equal to that of confronting climate change itself. The default-strategy of seeding the world with radioactive time-bombs which will pollute the oceans and detonate at random intervals for thousands of years into the future, whether there are any human beings around to care about it or not, should be recognised as off any scale calibrated in terms other than dementia.

Nuclear power is the energy source that claims a significance and causes trouble far beyond the scale of the energy it produces. It is a distraction from the need to face up to the coming energy gap, to inform the public and to call on the wit and energy which is available to develop a programme of Lean Energy. Of the many shortcomings in the response to energy-matters, a central one has been the failure to involve the public in doing what it could, given a chance, be good at - inventing solutions and making them happen in realistic local detail. Determined attempts are being made to rectify this (the U.K. Government's Climate Change Communication Initiative is an example) but the construction of nuclear reactors, presented as almost carbon-free fixes for the energy problem, is not a good way of involving the public. It is only when we are free of such narcotic fallacies that there will be a commitment to the one option for which there is a prospect of success: tapping the energy of the people.

We have to integrate energy, economics and society, and to enable them to develop in a way which copes with the reality of the energy gap that is now almost upon us. That calls for an effective framework which makes it clear to all of us - citizens, firms, the government, everyone - what the energy limits are now, and achieves an orderly descent to the low limits that will apply in the future. It is then up to us to bring all the skill, ingenuity and judgment we can to negotiating our way down the energy descent. We need to discover a common purpose. All this is possible if there is an appropriate framework for it, a system in which individual motivations are aligned with the collective need. There are various names for it. One of them is Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs).

We need to enable small-scale actions to build up onto a scale that gets results; we need a robust, simple, system for recruiting ingenuity and intelligence, and the common purpose to make it happen now. Such a design exists. There is a non-nuclear life-cycle ready and waiting.



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