The way of life that we in Britain tend to take for granted depends essentially on plentiful energy at an affordable price. With the government’s realising the dangers in relying for much of our supply on the favour of potentially unfriendly powers, together with pressure to reduce atmospheric emissions of carbon dioxide, there has come a new recognition of merits in generating base-load electricity by nuclear means. This has understandably alarmed those who object to it, and we may expect a vigorous campaign against any new construction.
There seems to be a common supposition that church members would be as a matter of course in the anti-nuclear camp, or at least ought to be. We however believe that although nuclear energy must certainly be managed with immense care, the alternatives are inadequate, while the various objections have been sufficiently well met, were never valid in the first place, or depend upon a reconstruction of society that is unlikely to be practicable. For reasons given below, we maintain that it is not only compatible with Christian principles, but demanded by concern for the poor and for the environment. We are anxious to discuss it with anyone prepared to engage in honest and sober debate.
The Sellafield Churches’ Forum is an interdenominational group of active Christians in Cumbria, living more or less close to Sellafield, and although not necessarily associated with it broadly favouring the site’s productive role in civil nuclear technology. In this they recognise a sharp difference from many other Christians whose views they genuinely respect. Nevertheless, while acknowledging substantial grounds for concern about nuclear energy, they are convinced on ethical, intellectual and pragmatic grounds that the arguments in its favour are stronger and more soundly based. Indeed, they believe that without it, meeting God-given responsibilities towards local, national and international communities or the Earth in general would be difficult or impossible.
In particular the Forum repudiates the idea that nuclear technology bears an inherent moral taint from its origins in war. The rights and wrongs of nuclear weapons are not at issue here. While the primarily military purpose of Britain’s first nuclear power stations is undisputed, that connection ceased long ago and never involved the newer installations. Scientific discoveries are in themselves ethically neutral, and moral judgements apply only to their use; when a need appears pressing, refusing to take advantage of available means might suggest ingratitude to God whose ordering of the universe has provided them.
There are, of course, those who maintain that the alleged need for nuclear energy does not really exist, or so far as it does could be met by means carrying less serious disadvantages. Up to a point this view commands sympathy; western society is undoubtedly wasteful of energy as well as of much else; its avid pursuit of the material gratification that demands it is profoundly reprehensible, indeed ultimately destructive of real happiness. Christians, even if not themselves corrupted, may well have failed to put these arguments as vigorously as they should. Nevertheless the idea of an idyllic pre-industrial society is largely fantasy except as it was for the relatively wealthy. Few of us would willingly return to the inconveniences that even they had to endure, supposing a return to be possible at present levels of population. Imposing such a form of economy is thus politically inconceivable under any form of democratic government. The best we can realistically hope under foreseeable conditions is to restrain the demand and supply it with as little harm as possible to the world or its people.
As a nation we are doing nothing of the sort. Granted that some doubt remains about global warming as a result of carbon dioxide emissions, it is likely enough and the threatened consequences severe enough to warrant vigorous precautionary measures. Instead, for all the talk of cutting emissions, they are actually rising. Although electricity generation is by no means the sole source, it is a major contributor and will remain so as long as it depends substantially on even the cleanest kinds of hydrocarbon fuel without capture and sequestration, which has yet to be proved industrially practicable.
Moreover, these fuels mostly belong to other peoples and we have no right to assume that they will always be willing to sell, to the ultimate detriment of their own heirs. In any case, there are other customers who might be preferred, and still more now starved of energy who could reasonably demand a share in dwindling resources. Gas supply has already been used as a means of political coercion, and the long pipelines or sea routes are obvious targets for disruption. We depend crucially on stable energy supplies, and the government review of 2003, proposing that eventually four-fifths of them should come from so vulnerable a source, appears to be the height of folly especially when the remaining fifth is unreliable.
Since that review, policy has been reconsidered, but with evident fear of the opposition to be expected from anti-nuclear activists. It is worth considering the rational basis of that opposition.
Concerns are expressed about both the reactors themselves, usually with reference to Chernobyl, and their waste products. The steam explosion and subsequent fire at Chernobyl, dispersing much of the core to the environment, was the predictable result of breaching a whole sequence of operating rules in a bungled experiment on a peculiarly unstable type of reactor, never likely to be built again. The consequent known deaths were about as many as occurred annually with little comment through accidents in the British coal-mining industry alone. Apart from treatable cancers that could probably have been avoided but for an attempted cover-up, other figures are speculative and based on highly unreliable assumptions, while remaining problems are chiefly psychological. Wild life is now flourishing in the area.
That was about the worst accident imaginable in the civil nuclear industry. The partial melt-down at Three Mile Island in 1979 had no known casualties, and in all probability the same would apply to any future accident; the risk appears to be at a level that in other contexts would be dismissed as negligible - and life is inseparable from some measure of risk.
Issues here are of quantity, radioactivity and disposal. The amounts are trivial compared with coal ash from a similar generated output, and most of existing untreated wastes - certainly the more intractable - are a legacy of past military projects. Despite all that is said to the contrary, means of safe disposal have been known for decades. Because of multiple containment, they should not even call for particularly demanding geological conditions to prevent dangerous seepage. The great bugbear, at least in the popular view, is radioactivity.
About this several things need to be emphasised:-
Unlike coal-, oil- or gas-fired stations, where most of the expense goes on fuel, a nuclear generator requires two-thirds of its investment before any energy is sold. Consequently delays in approval or problems in construction, vagaries in regulation or premature closure have a disproportionate effect. Historic costs in Britain are thus unrepresentative. Those for decommissioning early facilities are especially so since in the first instance construction was for military purposes with little thought for anything but the immediate urgency.
Overall estimates, based on modern approved designs of reactor and a full working lifetime, are among the lowest for all sources even allowing for eventual decommissioning (included in the design principles) and waste management. Given a requirement to separate and store carbon dioxide generated by hydrocarbon fuels, or plausible penalties for emissions, the relative position becomes even better. However, the lead times for financial return are long, requiring a stable market, and the caution of private industry is entirely understandable given the vagaries of government thinking and the history of political interference here and abroad.
Financial cost is of course not the only consideration; impact on the environment is more important. That is most evident in mining for uranium, and implies that once obtained it should be put to the most effective use. Current reactors in once-through mode realise only a hundredth of the energy theoretically realisable; recovering and recycling uranium and plutonium from used fuel improve this significantly, but the real gain, by a factor of about sixty, would come from using these and the enormous stocks of uranium tails from the enrichment process in fast reactors.
Although operational emissions of carbon dioxide are low and due mainly to ancillary activities, construction and uranium mining do add to them. An assessment by the DTI estimated the total to be about the same as for wind or slightly better.
Uranium-fuelled reactors inevitably produce plutonium, which incidentally provides up to almost a third of the total energy output through its own fission. As first formed it is an effective nuclear explosive, but on remaining in the reactor is degraded to a point where it is very doubtful that it could be more than a contaminant in a "dirty bomb"; claims that current civil plutonium could serve as an explosive seem to have disregarded some crucial practical factors.
A contamination weapon would admittedly cause severe local problems, though probably more through fear than actual danger. Descriptions of plutonium as the most toxic substance on earth were apparently based on absurdly equating a legally permissible intake with a lethal dose; direct evidence of actual toxicity seems non-existent, and more genuinely deadly materials are readily available.
In fact the issue is scarcely relevant to the present argument. Any state really determined to acquire nuclear weapons can do so unless prevented by force. It might use civil technology as a front, but denying ourselves the use of it would make little if any difference.
A successful attack on a nuclear installation would raise enormous public concern. It would undoubtedly be troublesome, although the actual risk to the public would probably be slight. In any case, terrorists tend to favour soft targets, and those with substantial concentrations of radioactive material are about the hardest in existence. Such material might be obtained elsewhere, but that, although a matter for concern, is not our responsibility.
Nuclear reactors are necessarily large units, and for economic reasons tending to get larger. They are, therefore, disfavoured by "small is beautiful" enthusiasts who, with some cause, distrust the power of large organisations. Local micro-generation has its attractions and may provide a useful input to the national energy mix. It has yet to be determined whether practical considerations will really permit widespread independence from the grid; industry and probably most private consumers will almost certainly still need distribution from large central generators. Transmission losses are slight, and inflated figures occasionally quoted apparently stem from a complete misunderstanding.
There is an argument that the current organisation of industrial society is dehumanising, and that in helping to support it nuclear energy is therefore doing a disservice. The sentiment is respectable but seems impracticably utopian, and the nuclear question is only incidental to it.
Great emphasis is now rightly placed on renewable energy sources, although their present contribution is small and growing less rapidly than might be wished. Moreover, however much may be spent on research, there is no escaping the fundamental fact that while renewable energy is desirable, the sources especially in the British climate are diffuse and would need very large areas of collector to meet even a substantially reduced demand. Wind is currently the most practicable for expansion, but harnessed only within a certain range of strength; claims for the output of a particular installation apparently refer to rated capacity, seldom mentioning that it is in effect delivered for only a quarter of the time, and an unpredictable quarter at that. The value of its contribution is thus seriously compromised by the need for fossil-fuelled reserves to cover its deficiencies at short notice, and the instability it could create in the distribution system. Other sources may be better in this respect, but have their own drawbacks.
Much has been made of hydrogen as an ultra-clean fuel, and if the obstacles can be overcome it does offer a credible prospect of substantially reducing harmful emissions from transport. However, it is a secondary fuel - there are no hydrogen deposits in this part of the solar system - and the unavoidable inefficiency of conversion means using more of the primary source than if it were applied directly. However, it may constitute a means to overcome the intermittent nature of some renewable energy sources, by in effect storing their output in bulk.
Nuclear fusion has long been seen as the great hope for relatively clean energy, and if harnessed could indeed transform the situation. Unfortunately, on current approaches the technical success that for half a century has always seemed a few decades away would still meet enormous practical obstacles to industrial application, and it may never happen.
Members of the Sellafield Churches Forum believe that the world needs a variety of energy sources. We maintain that the objections to nuclear energy are unconvincing and that on the contrary, it is one of the most benign available sources of reliable power. There are also other considerations: major nuclear establishments, Sellafield in particular, are crucial to their local economy; nuclear generation, for which fuel can easily be stockpiled for many years’ operation, is one of the most secure contributors to national energy supplies; and even in those areas such as rural Africa where its large scale is not appropriate, it has an indirect benefit in reducing competition for hydrocarbon fuels. Thus it benefits the region, the nation and the world.
It is true that most of us at present have a material interest in the debate, and in several instances a past or continuing involvement in the industry. However, this does not blind either our moral sense or our reason, and at least we can claim a closer than average familiarity with the facts. We therefore urge other Christians, even if not convinced immediately by the arguments, to consider them carefully and not assume automatically that religious commitment demands opposition to nuclear power.
Peter D. Wilson
5 September 2008.