Turning a blind eye

Some leading environmentalists have recently pointed out that the United Kingdom’s new policy of encouraging new nuclear power stations to replace our “fleet” of ageing ones will effective hand over control of nuclear power in the United Kingdom to France. That may well be what happens, if the present plans proceed, but I can think of worse nations to have control of the UK’s nuclear industry. The issue is not really who controls the nuclear power plants.

Whether we build more nuclear power plants here or whether we import nuclear generated power from France are questions that assume that nuclear power is essential and simply concentrate on the location of the plants. If they are located in the United Kingdom then we will depend of French industry to supply us with spare parts and new turbines French know how to build them and French Companies to operate them, but that, as I see it should not pose any problem.

The real problem is that across the world 80% of the nuclear power plants are more than twenty years old. 5% of them are more than 40 years old and 32% have celebrated their 30th birthdays. Inevitably old plant does not run as well or as efficiently and most of all as safely as new plant. We have close down Oldbury Nuclear Power Plant in South Gloucester this year because it reached the end of its useful life after 45 years. Most nuclear power plants were designed with a 25 year life as the design brief.

Over the next two years some clean up will take place. It will then be left alone (presumably well guarded) for fifteen years, for the structure to cool. In 2027 some structures will be removed to allow further cooling and decontamination to occur naturally. It will be guarded again until 2092 or 2101 (I have not got those dates wrong) when final decontamination will take place. We have not yet decided upon a home for the dangerous radioactive wastes which will need to be safely disposed of in 2101. The cost of making this part of Gloucester safe is estimated to be just under a billion pounds and will be paid by the taxpayer most of whom have not yet been born, rather the power generators that sold the electricity.

In 2025 there are plans to build a replacement plant at Oldbury, a few hundred metres away from the old plant. It looks like any clean up will be organised in conjunction with some dirtying up.

The International Atomic Energy Authority promotes the peaceful use of nuclear power across the world (except in places like Iran and North Korea. It has raised serious concerns about the ability of the ageing nuclear fleet to continue to economically and efficiently support energy requirements. The cost of decommissioning is often never taken into account when deciding to build a nuclear power plant – that simply remains a distant contingent liability that someone will inevitably have to pick up in the future.

In the United States $39 million is coming from the taxpayers to be spent on research and development of better safety measures at nuclear power plants and on better training of workers there.

Recent events in Fukushima are teaching the nuclear industry a great deal about the additional safety measures that it must put in place and the real cost of cleaning up a nuclear plant. If the Fukushima disaster had not happened the world might have continued to turn a blind eye to these issues. It may now turn an eye with sight upon them, but that eye is likely to be half closed.


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