October 6, 2013, by Paul Brown
Chernobyl now: Reactor no. 4, sarcophagus and memorial
Image: Matti Paavonen via Wikimedia Commons
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE The nuclear industry believes it will help stave off the threat of climate change, but a new book says that is a pipe dream. LONDON, 6 October – A book entitled The Doomsday Machine leaves little room for doubt in readers’ minds about the two authors’ views on nuclear power. But just in case you missed the point Martin Cohen, a social scientist, and Andrew McKillop, an energy economist, add in capital letters on the cover: “The high price of nuclear energy, the world’s most dangerous fuel.” This well-written book is a comprehensive attack on an industry that, despite the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents and an extraordinary history of cost overruns and delays, still has many supporters and continues to plan for worldwide expansion.
The authors set about debunking what they call the eight myths of nuclear power. This is the basis for eight chapters attacking the claims that nuclear power is green, clean and safe, and that radiation is harmless. Perhaps the most telling argument is that nuclear energy is just too expensive to be a rational choice for electricity production. Cohen and McKillop argue that no other industry gets the extraordinary level of subsidy given by governments to atomic power. All governments guarantee free insurance against catastrophic accidents and all provide a taxpayer-funded or heavily subsidised disposal service for nuclear waste – although the authors point out that most countries simply store their most dangerous radioactive garbage, since they have no safe way of disposing of it. The book says new nuclear stations are so costly to construct that they cannot compete with conventional fuels. They cite as examples the current problems of new Finnish and French reactors already years behind schedule and already at double their original costs, without having yet produced any power at all. There are still 400 nuclear reactors in operation worldwide, but few under construction, mainly because of these heavy initial costs. But the industry has been looking for a revival of its fortunes because of the threat of climate change.
Not the answer
The book says the ongoing disaster at Fukushima has temporarily dented those hopes, although the industry has survived such setbacks before. But whatever happens in the future, the authors believe that nuclear power is not the answer to the looming threat of climate change. A curious aspect of the book is that Cohen and McKillop do not like wind or solar power either, claiming that “they are energies that have never and will never play a significant part in the energy mix”. This argument seems a flaw in an otherwise well-argued book. There is no doubt they are right about the great and largely untapped potential for saving energy through cost-effective insulation and other efficiency measures. But to dismiss solar and wind power in a few sentences seems both premature and wrong. In the few short months since the book went to press the cost and efficiency of solar power has improved almost by the day, making it cheaper and more competitive. It is already a less expensive way of producing electricity than new nuclear build, a point that would have strengthened the authors’ case.
“It should be compulsory reading for the many politicians who still seem to be seduced by the nuclear dream…”
Even before the book was published, on-shore wind installed in the right place was already cheaper than almost any other form of generation, again a point that would have reinforced the authors’ argument than nuclear power has had its day. Cohen and McKillop do make the point that while most new technologies, including renewables, get cheaper over time with economies of scale, this has not applied to the nuclear industry. They say that despite 70 years of experience reactors are costing more to build and suffering more construction delays than at any time in their history. Apart from the apparent blind spot over two increasingly important and mainstream renewables, this book is an informative and convincing case against the nuclear industry. It should be compulsory reading for the many politicians who still seem to be seduced by the nuclear dream without apparently ever having given the subject five minutes of proper scrutiny. – Climate News Network The Doomsday Machine, by Martin Cohen and Andrew McKillop, Palgrave Macmillan, $27.00.
Paul Brown, a founding editor of Climate News Network, is a former environment correspondent of The Guardian newspaper, and still writes columns for the paper.