Nuclear power phase-out

Nuclear power phase-out
A nuclear power plant at Grafenrheinfeld, Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition announced on May 30, 2011, that Germany’s 17 nuclear power stations will be shut down by 2022, in a policy reversal following Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.[1]

A nuclear power phase-out is the discontinuation of usage of nuclear power for energy production. Often initiated because of concerns about nuclear power, phase-outs usually include shutting down nuclear power plants and looking towards renewable energy and other fuels.

Austria was the first country to begin a phase-out (in 1978) and has been followed by Sweden (1980), Italy (1987), Belgium (1999), and Germany (2000). Austria, and Spain have gone as far as to enact laws not to build new nuclear power stations. Several other European countries have debated phase-outs.

As of June 2011, Germany and Switzerland are phasing-out nuclear power.[2][3] As of June 2011, countries such as Australia, Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Israel, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Norway remain opposed to nuclear power.[2][4]



120,000 people attended an anti-nuclear protest in Bonn, Germany, on October 14, 1979, following the Three Mile Island accident.[5]

A popular movement against nuclear power has gained strength in the Western world, based on concerns about more nuclear accidents and concerns about nuclear waste. Anti-nuclear critics see nuclear power as a dangerous, expensive way to boil water to generate electricity.[6] The 1979 Three Mile Island accident and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster played a key role in stopping new plant construction in many countries. Major anti-nuclear power groups include Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, and Sortir du nucléaire (France).

Several countries, especially European countries, have abandoned the use of nuclear energy since 1987.[7] Austria (1978), Sweden (1980) and Italy (1987) voted in referendums to oppose or phase out nuclear power, while opposition in Ireland prevented a nuclear program there. Countries that have no nuclear plants and have restricted new plant constructions comprise Australia, Austria, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Ireland and Norway.[8][9] Poland stopped the construction of a plant.[8][10] Belgium, Germany, Spain, and Sweden decided not to build new plants or intend to phase out nuclear power, although still mostly relying on nuclear energy.[8][11]

The parliamentary decision in 2002 in Finland to grant a licence for the construction of a fifth nuclear power station was seen as very significant in that it was the first such decision to build a new nuclear power plant in Western Europe for more than a decade.[12]

If countries shut down nuclear power plants they have to find alternatives for energy generation if they don't want to become dependent on imports. Therefore, the discussion of a future for nuclear energy is intertwined with a discussion of renewable energy commercialization. Alternatives to nuclear power include hydroelectricity, wind power, solar energy, biomass and other renewable energy sources.

Countries that have decided a phase out

(See also Nuclear energy policy)


A nuclear power station was built during the 1970s at Zwentendorf, Austria, but its start-up was prevented by a popular vote in 1978.

On July 9, 1997, the Austrian Parliament voted unanimously to maintain the country's anti-nuclear policy.[13]


Belgium's nuclear phase-out legislation was agreed in July 1999 by the Liberals (VLD and MR), the Socialists (SP.A and PS) and the Greens party (Groen! and Ecolo). The phase-out law calls for each of Belgium's seven reactors to close after 40 years of operation with no new reactors built subsequently. When the law was being passed, it was speculated it would be overturned again as soon as an administration without the Greens was in power.[14]

In 2003, a new government was elected without the Greens. In September 2005, the government decided to partially overturn the previous decision, extending the phase-out period for another 20 years, with possible further extensions. It remains unknown if additional nuclear plants will be built.

In July 2005, the Federal Planning Bureau published a new report, which states that oil and other fossil fuels generate 90% of Belgian energy use, while nuclear power accounts for 9% and renewable energy for 1%. Electricity only amounts to 16% of total energy use, and while nuclear-powered electricity amounts to 9% of use in Belgium, in many parts of Belgium, especially in Flanders, it makes up more than 50% of the electricity provided to households and businesses.[15] This was one of the major reasons to revert the earlier phase-out, since it was impossible to provide more than 50% of the electricity by 'alternative' energy-production, and a revert to the classical coal-driven electricity would mean inability to adhere to the Kyoto Protocol.

It is projected that within 25 years renewable energy will increase to at most 5% of the energy use, because of high costs. The current plan of the Government is for all nuclear power stations to shut down by 2025. The report raises concerns about greenhouse gases and sustainability.[16]

In August 2005, French SUEZ offered to buy the Belgian Electrabel, which runs nuclear power stations.[17] End of 2005, Suez had some 98.5% of all Electrabel shares. Beginning 2006, Suez and Gaz de France announced a merger.

In the 2010–2011 Belgian government formation negotiations, the phase-out was emphasized again, with concrete plans to shut of three of the country's seven reactors by 2015.[18]


In 2000, the German government, consisting of the SPD and Alliance '90/The Greens officially announced its intention to phase out the use of nuclear energy. Jürgen Trittin (from the German Greens) as the Minister of Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, reached an agreement with energy companies on the gradual shut down of the country's nineteen nuclear power plants and a cessation of power-generation (non-research) use of nuclear power by 2020. This was enacted as the Nuclear Exit Law. Based on the calculation of 32 years as the usual time of operation for a nuclear power plant, the agreement precisely tells how much energy a power plant is allowed to produce before being closed down.

The power plants in Stade and Obrigheim were turned off on November 14, 2003, and May 11, 2005, respectively. The plants' dismantling is scheduled to begin in 2007.[19][dated info]

Anti-nuclear activists criticized the agreement: they[who?] saw it more as a guarantee of years of continued operation rather than a gradual nuclear power phase-out. They argued that the grace period for the phase-out was too long and were unhappy that the ban on building new commercially used nuclear power plants did not also apply to scientifically used plants. New research plants have been put into operation since the enactment of the Nuclear Exit Law (e.g. München II). Activists were also dissatisfied that uranium enrichment plants were not covered by the ban, and indeed the enrichment station in Gronau has since received permission to extend operations. Further, nuclear fuel reprocessing was not immediately forbidden, but allowed to continue until the middle of 2005.

Although the reactors in Obrigheim had been shut down, the dismantling of the plant was only to begin in 2007.[dated info] Activists thus were concerned that the subsequently elected Christian Democratic Union-headed government would execute a political U-turn and restart the reactors.

A Renewable Energy Sources Act provided for a tax in support of renewable energy. The German government, declaring climate protection as a key policy issue, announced a carbon dioxide reduction target by the year 2005 compared to 1990 by 25%.[20] In 1998, the use of renewables in Germany reached 284 PJ of primary energy demand, which corresponds to 5% of the total electricity demand. By 2010 the German Government wants to reach 10%.[14]

Anti-nuclear activists have argued the German government had been supportive of nuclear power by providing financial guarantees for energy providers. Also it has been pointed out, there were, as yet, no plans for the final storage of nuclear waste. By tightening safety regulations and increasing taxation, a faster end to nuclear power could have been forced. A gradual closing down of nuclear power plants had come along with concessions in questions of safety for the population with transport of nuclear waste throughout Germany.[21] This latter point has been disagreed with by the Minister of Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety.[22]

Critics of a phase-out in Germany argue that the power output from the nuclear power stations will not be adequately compensated and predict an energy crisis. They also argue that only coal-powered plants could compensate for nuclear power and CO2 emissions will increase tremendously (with the use of oil and fossils). Energy may have to be imported from France's nuclear power facilities, no small irony, Russian natural gas, despite the fact that Russia is still not perceived as a safe partner in much of Western Europe.[23]

Because of increasing prices for fossil fuels, arguments for a "phase-out of the phase-out" were again being discussed. In the federal election in 2002 the candidate for chancellor of the CDU/CSU, Edmund Stoiber, promised, in the event he wins, to cancel the phase-out.[24] His successor and current German chancellor Angela Merkel has announced plans to negotiate with energy companies the time limit for a shut down of nuclear power stations.[25] The battle over nuclear energy, that was set to be a key issue in coalition talks between CDU and SPD, was settled in favor of a phase-out.[26][27]


Nuclear power phase-out commenced in Italy in 1987, one year after the Chernobyl accident. Following a referendum in that year, Italy's four nuclear power plants were closed down, the last in 1990. A moratorium on the construction of new plants, originally in effect from 1987 until 1993, has since been extended indefinitely.[28]

As of 2006, Italy was an importer of nuclear-generated electricity, and its largest electricity utility Enel SPA was investing both in reactors in France and Slovakia to provide this electricity in the future, and also in the development of the EPR technology.

The phase-out remains a live issue in Italian politics. In October 2005 Italian Environment Minister Altero Matteoli announced interest in switching to nuclear power as the main source of energy within 10–15 years.[citation needed]


In the Philippines, in 2004, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo outlined her energy policy. She wants to increase indigenous oil and gas reserves through exploration, develop alternative energy resources, enforce the development of natural gas as a fuel and coco diesel as alternative fuel, and build partnerships with Saudi Arabia, Asian countries, China and Russia. She also made public plans to convert the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant into a gas powered facility.[29]


After Three Mile Island accident (United States) in 1979, there was a referendum in Sweden about the future of nuclear power there. As a result of this, the Swedish parliament decided in 1980 that no further nuclear power plants should be built, and that a nuclear power phase-out should be completed by 2010. Some observers have condemned the referendum as flawed because people could only vote "NO to nuclear", although three options were basically a harder or a softer "NO".

After the 1986 Chernobyl accident in Ukraine, the question of security of nuclear energy was again raised. In 1997 the Riksdag, the Swedish parliament, decided to shut down one of the reactors at Barsebäck by July 1, 1998 and the second before July 1, 2001, although under the condition that their energy production would be compensated. The next conservative government tried to cancel the phase-out, but, after protests, did not cancel it but instead decided to extend the time limit to 2010. At Barsebäck, block 1 was shut down on November 30, 1999 and block 2 on June 1, 2005.

The nuclear energy phase-out is controversial in Sweden. It is feared that Sweden will lose its international competititiveness. The energy production of the remaining nuclear power plants has been considerably increased in recent years to compensate for the turn off of Barsebäck. In 1998, the government decided to build no further hydropower plants in order to protect national water resources. In spite of extensive efforts to create alternatives to nuclear power, such as fossil fuels, it is not likely that Sweden can complete the nuclear power phase-out by 2010. It has been estimated that nuclear power plants in operation will stay in operation until 2050.

In March 2005, an opinion poll of 1027 people showed 83% support for maintaining or increasing nuclear power.[30] Another poll in May, of residents that lived around Barsebäck, found that 94% wanted it to stay. In June, 2005, radioactive water was detected leaking from the nuclear waste store in Forsmark, Sweden. The content of radioactive caesium in the water sampled was ten times the normal value. wikinews:Radioactive leakage at Swedish nuclear waste store. This has, however, not led to a major change in public opinion. In 2006 the Centre Party of Sweden, an opposition party that supported the phase-out, announced that it is dropping its opposition to nuclear power, at least for now, claiming that it is unrealistic to expect the phase-out in the short term. It said it will now support the opposition, which is considerably more pro-nuclear than the government.[31][32]

In August 2006 three of Sweden's ten nuclear reactors were shut down due to safety concerns following an incident at Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant, in which two out of four emergency power generators failed causing power shortage. . Cooling systems however worked and shutdown was successful without incident.[33] Another reactor in Forsmark and a fifth at Ringhals nuclear power plant have been offline due to planned maintenance work. With five of its ten reactors down, Sweden's power generation capacity is down by almost a fifth. wikinews:Swedish nuclear reactors shut down over safety concerns

Sweden's largest powerplant with 4 reactors, Ringhals, located about 60 km south of Gothenburg, delivers approximately 24 TWh a year, the equivalent of 21% of Swedish electricity consumption.[34]

In 2010 Parliament halted the phase-out policy, allowing for new reactors to replace existing ones.[35]


In Switzerland there have been many referenda on the topic of nuclear energy, beginning in 1979 with a citizens' initiative for nuclear safety, which was rejected. In 1984, there was a vote on an initiative "for a future without further nuclear power stations" with the result being a 55 to 45% vote against. On September 23, 1990 Switzerland had two more referenda about nuclear power. The initiative "stop the construction of nuclear power stations," which proposed a ten-year moratorium on the construction of new nuclear power plants, was passed with 54.5% to 45.5%. The initiative for a phase-out was rejected with by 53% to 47.1%. In 2000 there was a vote on a Green Tax for support of solar energy. It was rejected by 67–31%. On May 18, 2003, there were two referenda: "Electricity without Nuclear," asking for a decision on a nuclear power phase-out, and "Moratorium Plus," for an extension of the earlier decided moratorium on the construction of new nuclear power plants. Both were turned down. The results were: Moratorium Plus: 41.6% Yes, 58.4% No; Electricity without Nuclear: 33.7% Yes, 66.3% No.[36]

The program of the "Electricity without Nuclear" petition was to shut down all nuclear power stations until 2033, starting with Unit 1 and 2 of Beznau nuclear power stations, Mühleberg in 2005, Gösgen in 2009, and Leibstadt in 2014. "Moratorium Plus" was for an extension of the moratorium for another 10 years, and additionally a condition to stop the present reactors after 40 years of operation. In order to extend the 40 years by 10 more years another referendum would have to be held (at high administrative costs). The rejection of the Moratorium Plus had come to surprise to many, as opinion polls before the referendum have showed acceptance. Reasons for the rejections in both cases were seen in the worsened economic situation.[37]

As of 2005, Switzerland has five nuclear reactors at Beznau (Beznau 1 and 2), Gösgen, Leibstadt, and Mühleberg, and around 40% of its electricity is generated by nuclear power. Another 60% comes from hydroelectricity.[14]

On 25 May 2011, the Federal Council decided a slow phase-out by not extending running times or building new power plants.[38] The first power plant will stop running in 2019, the last in 2034.[39]

Other significant places


In Spain a moratorium was enacted by the socialist government in 1983[40][41] and plans for a phase-out are being discussed anew.[42]

In Ireland, a nuclear power plant was first proposed in 1968. It was to be built during the 1970s at Carnsore Point in County Wexford. The plan called for first one, then ultimately four plants to be built at the site, but it was dropped after strong opposition from environmental groups, and Ireland has remained without nuclear power since. Despite opposing nuclear power (and nuclear fuel reprocessing at Sellafield), Ireland is to open an interconnector to the mainland UK to buy electricity, which is, in some part, the product of nuclear power.

Slovenian nuclear plant in Krško (co-owned with Croatia) is scheduled to be closed by 2023, and there are no plans to build further nuclear plants. The debate on whether and when to close the Krško plant was somewhat intensified after the 2005/06 winter energy crisis. In May 2006 the Ljubljana-based daily Dnevnik claimed Slovenian government officials internally proposed adding a new 1000MW block into Krško after the year 2020.

Greece operates only a single small nuclear reactor in the Greek National Physics Research Laboratory in Demokritus Laboratories for research purposes.

The future of nuclear power in the United Kingdom is currently under review. The country has a number of reactors which are currently reaching the end of their working life, and it is currently undecided how they will be replaced. The UK is also currently failing to reach its targets for reduction on CO2 emissions, which situation may be made worse if new nuclear power stations are not built. The UK also uses a large proportion of gas fired power stations, which produce relatively low CO2 emissions, but there have been recent difficulties in obtaining adequate gas supplies. The UK government has just appointed a new pro-nuclear energy minister.

The Board of Electricité de France (EDF) has approved construction of a 1630 MWe EPR at Flamanville, Normandy. Construction is expected to begin in late 2007, with completion in 2012.[43]

The Netherlands

In the Netherlands, in 1994, the Dutch parliament voted to phase out after a discussion of nuclear waste management. The power station at Dodewaard was shut down in 1997. In 1997 the government decided to end Borssele's operating license, at the end of 2003. In 2003 the shut-down was postponed by the government to 2013.[44][45] In 2005 the decision was reversed and research in expanding nuclear power has been initiated. Reversal was preceded by the publication of the Christian Democratic Appeal's report on sustainable energy.[46] Other coalition parties then conceded. In 2006 the government decided that Borssele will remain open until 2033, if it can comply with the highest safety standards. The owners, Essent and Delta will invest 500 million euro in sustainable energy, together with the government, money which the government claims otherwise should have been paid to the plants owners as compensation.


New Zealand enacted the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act of 1987 which prohibits the stationing of nuclear weapons on the territory of New Zealand and the entry into New Zealand waters of nuclear armed or propelled ships. This Act of Parliament, however, does not prevent the construction of nuclear power plants.

In Australia there are no nuclear power plants. Australia has very extensive, low-cost coal reserves and substantial natural gas and majority political opinion is still opposed to domestic nuclear power on both environmental and economic grounds. However, a number of prominent politicians have begun to advocate nuclear power as a means to affordably reduce greenhouse emissions and perhaps allow for large-scale de-salination plants.[47]


Renewable energy, mainly hydropower, is gaining share.[48][49]

For North Korea, two PWRs at Kumho were under construction until that was suspended in November, 2003. On September 19, 2005 North Korea pledged to stop building nuclear weapons and agreed to international inspections in return for energy aid, which may include one or more light water reactors – the agreement said "The other parties expressed their respect and agreed to discuss at an appropriate time the subject of the provision of light-water reactor" [sic].[50]

In July 2000, the Turkish government decided not to build the controversial nuclear plant in Akkuyu, but later changed its mind.

Japan has 55 reactors operating and 3 reactors under construction.[51]

China has 10 reactors operating, 5 reactors under construction,[51] and is planning or proposing an additional 25.[52]

India has 16 reactors operating, 8 reactors under construction, and is planning an additional 24.[52]

United States

No new plants are under construction but 39 reactors have had their licences renewed, three Early Site Permits have been applied for, and three consortiums have applied for Combined Construction-Operating Licences under the Nuclear Power 2010 Program. In addition, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 contains incentives to further expand nuclear power.[53]

South America

In Brazil, nuclear energy, produced by two reactors at Angra, accounts for about 4% of the country's electricity – about 13 TWh per year.[54] Brazil plans to build seven more reactors by 2025.[55]

In Argentina, about 6% of the electricity comes from 2 operational reactors: The Embalse Río Tercero plant, a CANDU6 reactor, and the Atucha 1 plant, a PHWR German design. In 2001, the plant was modified to burn Slightly Enriched Uranium, making it the first PHWR reactor to burn that fuel worldwide. Atucha originally was planned to be a complex with various reactors. Atucha 2 (similar to Aucha 1 but more powerful) is actually more than half-built, however it never entered into operation. Argentina also has some other research reactors, and exports nuclear technology.


South Africa is the only country in Africa with nuclear power plants. It has one station at Koeberg.[56] as well as an enrichment facility at Pelindaba. There is currently an expansion policy based upon the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) with plans to export to China, as well as opposition from groups such as Earthlife Africa and Koeberg Alert.

Pros and cons of the phase-out

Arguments for the phase-out


Anti-nuclear politicians state environmental concerns with nuclear power as arguments for a phase-out. A main concern against the use of nuclear power for energy production is safety of the environment and people. Nuclear accidents in the past, including some at civilian power plants, have released radioactive contamination. The biggest, at Chernobyl, caused 43 deaths(including latent cancer deaths), hurt many people and rendered large amounts of land unusable for the next few centuries. IAEA report estimated that up to 4000 could die as a result of the accident. Some fear that more accidents will happen.[57][58]

Environmental groups criticize the environmental aspects of radiation. They criticize mining, enrichment and long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel and the disposal of nuclear waste. Groups warn of radioactive contamination and demand a strict adherence to the precautionary principle where technologies are rejected unless they can be proven to not cause significant harm to the health of living things or the biosphere.[57]

Plutonium, which is contained in the fuel rods, is extracted in COGEMA La Hague site (France) and Sellafield (Great Britain). In this process, great amounts of radioactive waste have in the past been dumped in the sea. The practice of ocean floor disposal is now banned.[59]


Some scholars have claimed that nuclear energy is economically disadvantageous because of the large capital costs of building a nuclear plant. The large capital costs of nuclear power plants and the associated possibility of construction delays has been a deterrent for investors because of the risk[60] (as it has for other investments with large capital costs, such as coal plants and oil refineries). As an alternative, investors may be more inclined to choose natural gas plants, despite having a higher cost of electricity, because their small capital costs have presented less risk.

However, volatility in the price of natural gas[61] has recently shown a greater risks to investors than it has previously, and has been making nuclear power plants (and coal power plants) more attractive than before. In the United States, this is compounded with the Energy Policy Act of 2005 which provides some insurance against construction delays for building new nuclear power plants.


Nuclear power plants are not insured solely by private insurers. As of 2005, the maximum amount of purchaseable insurance available was believed to be US$ 300 million by the US government. The risks of a severe nuclear accident could be much greater (although Three Mile Island was not). Therefore, some governments provide support for insurance (see for example the US's Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act, discussed below). This practice is similar to that for banks, which are also backed with government guarantees.

The Price-Anderson Act, the world's first comprehensive nuclear liability law, has been central to addressing the question of liability for nuclear accidents since 1957. It is renewed every ten years or so, with strong bipartisan support, and requires individual operators to be responsible for two layers of insurance cover:

  1. The first layer is where each nuclear site is required to purchase US$ 300 million coverage from private insurers.
  2. The second layer, if required, is jointly provided by all US reactor operators: this layer is funded through retrospective payments of up to US$ 96 million per reactor, collected in annual instalments of US$ 15 million and adjusted for inflation.

Combined, the total provision comes to over US$ 10 billion paid for by the utilities (the United States Department of Energy provides US$ 9.5 billion for its own nuclear activities). Beyond this coverage, and irrespective of fault, the United States Congress, as insurer of last resort, must decide how compensation is provided in the event claims exceed the covered US$ 10 billion. In 2005, the Act was renewed again by the US Congress as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

A criticism occasionally made is that over 40 years of research has failed to produce an industry which is safe enough to afford the costs of its own insurance. Supporters of nuclear power claim, however, that inherently-safe designs such as the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor should address this.


Nuclear power plants have also frequently been speculated to be possible targets for terrorist attacks (e.g. in Germany.[62])

Waste management

The long-term radioactive waste storage problems of nuclear power have not been fully solved. Several countries have considered using underground repositories. Nuclear waste, in countries with nuclear reactors, is a small percentage of all industrial waste that remains toxic indefinitely.[63] Spent fuel rods are now stored in concrete casks close to the nuclear reactors.[64] The amounts of waste can be reduced in several ways. Both nuclear reprocessing and fast breeder reactors can reduce the amounts of waste. Subcritical reactors or fusion reactors could greatly reduce the time the waste has to be stored.[65] Subcritical reactors and Fast Breeder Reactors may also be able to do the same to already-existing waste.

It has also not been decided in some countries who should pay for the supervision of areas where nuclear waste is stored. At the moment it seems likely, at least in Germany, that the state will pay for the costs caused by direct waste (burned rods), contaminated materials from power plants and from the extraction of plutonium and uranium, as well as other nuclear waste, and costs for storage of contaminated waste, because the industry has insufficient resources.[57] In the US, utility companies pay a fixed fee per kilowatt-hour into a disposal fund administered by the Department of Energy.

In Great Britain, this topic has led in April 2005 to the creation of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

Nuclear proliferation

Another argument against nuclear energy is the potential for close connection of civil and military usage (which in most countries are kept strictly separate). In manufacturing nuclear fuel rods, the fraction of the fissile uranium isotope 235 has to be increased from the natural fraction from 0.7 to 5% in order to be able to create a chain reaction (exceptions include some designs that use heavy water or graphite as the moderator, such as CANDU reactors or Magnoxes). A station for the enrichment of uranium (e.g. the German station at Gronau) could—with extreme difficulty—increase the amount of U-235 to above 80% so it could be used in a weapon. Therefore, some of the techniques of uranium enrichment are kept secret (e.g. gaseous diffusion, gas centrifuge, AVLIS and nuclear reprocessing).

Opponents of nuclear power argue that it is not possible to discriminate between civil and military usage, and therefore that nuclear power contributes to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. While it is possible to operate a nuclear power plant with non-weaponized materials, having a reactor brings with it access to materials and facilities which can be used in special low burn military reactors and reprocessed into Plutonium which is the required ingredient for building a high yield nuclear weapon. Israel, India, North Korea, and South Africa (which later gave up its nuclear weapons) all started "peaceful" nuclear power programs with research reactors that were later used to make weapons-grade plutonium, and there is great concern that Iran's program has a similar goal, to enrich uranium to weapons-grade. Israel, Iran and North Korea[66][67] do not have nuclear power plants at present, while South Africa started up its power plant long after acquiring nuclear weapons.

Design and construction of nuclear explosives based on normal reactor-grade plutonium may be difficult and unreliable, but was already done in 1962.[68]

Much popular concern about possible weapons proliferation arises from considering the fissile materials themselves. For instance, in relation to the plutonium contained in spent fuel discharged each year from the world's commercial nuclear power reactors, it is correctly but misleadingly asserted that "only a few kilograms of plutonium are required to make a bomb". Furthermore, no nation is without enough indigenous uranium to construct a few weapons (however, that uranium would have to be enriched).

Plutonium is a substance of varying properties depending on its source. It consists of several different isotopes, including Pu-238, Pu-239, Pu-240, and Pu-241. All of these are plutonium but not all are fissile – only Pu-239 and Pu-241 can undergo fission in a normal reactor. Plutonium-239 by itself is an excellent nuclear fuel. It has also been used extensively for nuclear weapons because it has a relatively low spontaneous fission rate and a low critical mass. Consequently plutonium-239, with only a few percent of the other isotopes present, is often called "weapons-grade" plutonium. This was used in the Nagasaki bomb in 1945 and in many other nuclear weapons.

On the other hand, "reactor-grade" plutonium as routinely produced in all commercial nuclear power reactors, and which may be separated by reprocessing the spent fuel from them, is not the same thing at all. It contains a large proportion – up to 40% – of the heavier plutonium isotopes, especially Pu-240, due to it having remained in the reactor for a relatively long time. This is not a particular problem for re-use of the plutonium in mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for reactors, but it seriously affects the suitability of the material for nuclear weapons. Due to spontaneous fission of Pu-240, only a very low level of it is tolerable in material for making weapons. Design and construction of nuclear explosives based on normal (i.e. routinely discharged) reactor-grade plutonium would be difficult and unreliable, and has not so far been done. A nuclear device has been made however from low-burned plutonium from a Magnox nuclear reactor. It was tested in 1962. Its composition was never officially released but was evidently around 90% of fissile Pu-239. This method of production was very expensive, unreliable and easily detectable (fuel has to stay in the reactor for relatively short period (few weeks) as opposed to normal use (few years)), and with a relatively small yield. All these factors contributed to the fact that apart from the test device used in 1962 no new ones were created.[69][70]

Arguments against the phase-out

Greenhouse gases and environmental protection

There has recently been a renewed interest in nuclear energy as a solution to dwindling oil reserves and global warming because electricity demand is increasing and nuclear power generates virtually no greenhouse gases, in contrast to common alternatives such as coal. It has been proposed as a solution to the greenhouse effect (e.g. "nukes are green."[71][72][73]) Several environmentalist organizations dispute if nuclear power is a good solution.[74]

Germany has combined the phase-out with an initiative for renewable energy and wants to increase the efficiency of fossil power plants in an effort to reduce the reliance on coal. According to the German Minister Jürgen Trittin, in 2020, this would cut carbon dioxide emissions by 40% compared with 1990 levels. Germany has become one of the leaders in the efforts to fulfil the Kyoto protocol. Critics of the German policy have called it a contradiction to abandon nuclear power and build up renewable energy as both have very low CO2 emissions.[23]

Nuclear reactors do not emit greenhouse gases or ash during normal operation; however the mining and processing of uranium involves emissions. Emissions that arise from the whole life cycle are comparable to wind energy.[75] However, an issue of debate[76] is that greenhouse emissions from mining, milling and enrichment may be substantially greater in the future as the world's reserves of high grade uranium are depleted, and low grade uranium is increasingly used.[77] This view is not supported by the nuclear power industry (see next paragraph).

In a semi-technical paper, Is Nuclear Power Sustainable? and its May 2002 successor, Can Nuclear Power Provide Energy for the Future; would it solve the CO2-emission problem?, Storm van Leeuwen & Smith argued that nuclear power would eventually surpass fossil fuels in greenhouse gas emissions as high grade ore becomes scarce, putting in doubt its sustainability as part of an environmental protection plan. This paper was dismissed as false by the industry, as published results on ore extraction show 99% advantage for nuclear generation over fossil fuels on the basis of CO2 emissions. The authors greatly reduced the claims of their paper and republished it in 2005, omitting most of the numerical values they had used, but the remaining claims are still contradicted by at least some life cycle studies (e.g. Vattenfall). All this heavily disputes an article whose forecasts are alleged wrong because the basis for them is proven wrong by current data, even 3:1 in some cases.[77][78] It should be noted that industry expectations are based on finding more of the high grade ores such as are currently available, whereas the claims by Storm van Leeuwen & Smith are premised on their own projections of the grades of ores available in the future. (A report commissioned by the Australian Government on the viability of nuclear energy [79] presents an excellent review of the literature, both for and against, Storm van Leeuwan & Smith's arguments.)

Both nuclear reactors and those that burn fossil fuels raise the temperature of water used to cool them, which can pose a health hazard for aquatic life in certain eco systems. This can include species of fish already near extinction as a consequence of hydropower and other human activities. Such difficulties can be greatly reduced by using cooling towers, which are deployed in places where excessive warming is deemed unacceptable, or placing power stations near oceans where the heat may be dispersed through a very large volume of water. Combined heat and power plants also have the potential to reduce overall waste heat, increasing the efficiency of all kinds of power station where steam is involved in generation. All other waste products of nuclear plants are contained and stored. This is distinct from other energy sources such as coal or oil where pollution is pumped directly into the surrounding environment. Without nuclear power plants the United States would release nearly 700 million metric tons more carbon dioxide annually. That's approximately the same amount of carbon dioxide now produced annually by automobiles in the United States.[80]

Nuclear waste becomes less radioactive over time. After 50 years, 99.1% of radiation will be gone.[81] This is in sharp contrast with arsenic and other chemicals that are stable and will exist forever and are released burning coal. Despite being most controversial, proponents of nuclear energy contend that the underground solution for permanent disposal of waste is well tested and proven. They point out the natural example of Oklo, nature’s own nuclear waste repository, where waste has been stored for approximately 2 billion years with minimal contamination of the surrounding ecosystem.[82] Nuclear waste is also small in volume and accounts for less than 1% (by volume) of heavily toxic waste in industrial countries.[63] 96% of high nuclear waste could be recycled and reused, were the additional risks of proliferation deemed acceptable.[83]

According to antinuclear activists, leakages of radioactive contamination put the safety of NPPs in general into question. It is feared that radiation release is a health hazard. To counter these concerns all nuclear operators are obliged to measure radiation on and around their sites as well as reporting all particles and radiation they emit. This has to be attested by an independent audit office. This practice is more or less the same in all countries that are members of IAEA. In a case where there is a significant release, i.e. above prescribed limits defined by NCRP and obligatory for all IAEA members, this has to be reported to IAEA and be given INES mark 5 or higher, which is very rare.[84] INES events in last 6 months can be reviewed here.[85] All equipment is regularly checked. In addition all operators are obliged to release full lists of measurements into the public domain.[86] An individual living near a nuclear plant will on average get from it around 1% of the natural radiation levels.[75][87] That is well within safety limits. In Great Britain, detailed studies carried out by the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) in 2003 found no evidence of raised childhood cancer around nuclear power plants. They did find an excess of leukaemia and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL) near other nuclear installations including AWE Burghfield, UKAEA Dounreay and BNFL's Sellafield plant although COMARE said that a link with nuclear material is unlikely. COMARE's opinion is that "the excesses around Sellafield and Dounreay are unlikely to be due to chance, although there is not at present a convincing explanation for them".[88][89]

Energy independence

In some nations there may be no viable alternatives. In the words of the French, "We have no coal, we have no oil, we have no gas, we have no choice." France has no Uranium either though, and thus has to import it from Canada and Niger which has amongst the lowest HdI in the world. Critics of a phase-out everywhere argue that nuclear power stations could not be compensated for and predict an energy crisis or argue that only coal could possibly compensate for nuclear power and CO2 emissions will increase tremendously or an increase in energy imports either of nuclear power or of natural oil. Nuclear power has been relatively unaffected by embargoes, as uranium is mined in reliable countries such as Australia and Canada unlike, for example, some large natural gas suppliers, which include states of the former Soviet Union.[90][91]

Also, nuclear power has a high energy return on energy investment (EROEI). Using life cycle analysis, it takes 4 to 5 months of energy production from the nuclear plant to fully pay back the initial energy investment.[78] Advocates also claim that it is possible to relatively rapidly increase the number of plants. Typical new reactor designs have a construction time of three to four years.[92]

Oil producing countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, have pursued Nuclear Power as a cost effective way of maximizing limited sell-able natural resources over time.[93][94]


An argument for proponents of nuclear power is energy economics. They state that nuclear energy is the only power source which explicitly factors the estimated costs for waste containment and plant decommissioning into its overall cost, and that the quoted cost of fossil fuel plants is deceptively low for this reason. Advocates of nuclear power argue that nuclear power is a cost-competitive and environmentally friendly way to produce energy versus fossil fuels when taking into account indirect costs associated with both forms of energy production.[95]

In some places, especially where the coal mines are far away from the plants, nuclear is cheaper, and in others it is roughly the same price or more expensive. The same comparisons can be made with gas and oil. The Kyoto protocol requires all polluters to pay for the pollution they produce and including this would make nuclear more competitive. Also nuclear power has one of the lowest external costs, i.e. cost to the environment and people.[96] These are not factored into price but are paid by society and will only partly be included by the Kyoto protocol. In the UK for example nuclear external costs are 0.25 euro cents per kWh. That is a bit more than for wind which is rated at 0.15 euro cents per kWh, but considerably less than for coal which is at 4 to 7 euro cents per kWh, oil which is 3 to 5 euro cents per kWh, gas which is 1 to 2 euro cents per kWh and biomass which is at 1 euro cents per kWh. In other European countries it is more or less the same.[97]

The quoted cost of many renewable generation sources would be increased if it included provision of necessary back-up power sources to cover periods when wind, sun, waves, etc. are weak and not producing power. It has been calculated that wind power, one of the major hopes for proponents of the phase-out, costs three times as much as average electricity in Germany.[23]

While in many countries nuclear power is unpopular, in times of rising prices for fossil fuels, arguments for nuclear power come up again (compare [98]).

Safety standards

Proponents of nuclear energy state nuclear plants are safe and protected against attacks. Containment buildings are strongly reinforced and highly guarded.[99][100] George W. Bush, the President of the USA, called nuclear power one of America's safest energy sources in his speech about energy policy.[80]

Proponents of nuclear power also believe that the Chernobyl accident was unique and occurred only because of poor design—especially the lack of full containment buildings—combined with unauthorized tests. They point out that no such accidents have occurred in Western reactors, which are now by far the most common design. A commonly cited example is the Three Mile Island accident, which did not release significant amounts of radioactive particles despite a nuclear meltdown comparable in magnitude to Chernobyl; this is attributed to better design and containment at Three Mile Island. These were the only major accidents in civilian nuclear power plants prior to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.[84]

Proponents of nuclear energy also point out the high safety level for workers in the industry. From 1970 to 1992, nuclear power resulted in 8 immediate deaths per TW of electricity. That is significantly lower than the 342 deaths per TW resulting from coal power, 85 from natural gas, and 883 from hydroelectricity.[84]

See also


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