Giant scale is weak spot of nuclear power

The giant time and investment scales involved in nuclear power put it at an economic disadvantage in relation to renewables, a veteran Government advisor has said.

While solar or wind technologies are applied to a diverse range of mostly small-scale projects, nuclear requires large investments and long-term commitments. Such commitments “cannot be undone,” raising the risk for investors, said Walt Patterson, a leading nuclear expert and former special government advisor.

Speaking at London’s Chatham House, he said: “A nuclear power programme entails an array of industrial activities on a vast scale and over a timescale of many decades, interlinked and interdependent, with no applications outside the nuclear regime, civil and military.”

Walt Patterson, who is a nuclear physicist by training, said that Britain “seems to have forgotten” the lessons learnt since the onset of nuclear power.

“The UK, for example, has never built a nuclear power station on time, or within budget, or that worked according to its original specifications – not once.”

Politicians and commentators have forgotten “the staggering sums of taxpayers’ money poured into the nuclear black hole, in the UK as elsewhere, the arrogant incompetence of those spending it, the endless failures and futility,” he said.

The scales of nuclear projects also mean that generic problems in power stations can be perpetuated, as happened twice in 75%-nuclear-powered France, where reactors are commissioned in batches.

Another “missed lesson” is America’s “loopy” plan of re-processing plutonium on a global scale, an unpopular idea abandoned in the 1970s – and one that the Bush administration now wants to resuscitate.

The risks are not likely to subside as technology develops, as increased complexity and the addition of “safety systems on top of safety systems” can actually add to risk, with the security systems themselves causing accidents, Walt Patterson said.

So why the continuing interest in a nuclear renaissance from governments the world over? That too may be a question of scale:

“It is much easier to take one big macho decision for the next 10 years than lots of small, diverse projects,” he said.

Goska Romanowicz

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie