Last night, the last RBMK nuclear reactor in the EU was shut down. RBMK was a Soviet-era design, dating to the 1950s, and infamous as the type which exploded at Cherobyl in 1986. A condition of Lithuania’s accession to the EU was that they close down their two very large RBMK plants by 2010, and in spite of much controversy about losing a substantial proportion of the country’s power generation, the final one was shut off on schedule. There are still about a dozen working RBMKs in Russia (one of which had a serious accident in 1975) and there doesn’t seem to be a plan to close them.
There are two serious safety problems with the RBMK design. First, and very simply, they don’t have a secure containment vessel to hold in any catastrophic release of radioactive materials. Secondly, the actual energy generation process has an inherent instability and can “run away” if the control systems fail. That’s what happened at Chernobyl. (Plus, the operators were conducting a poorly-planned shutdown experiment.)
Of course, modern reactor designs are supposed to be safer. Nuclear power may also generate less greenhouse gasses than fossil fuel generators. (MAY. You need to look at the whole lifecycle, from construction to decomissioning, and it’s really hard to get reliable figures.) But anyway, the current British government has made investment in nuclear power part of its programme for keeping our lights on while helping to stabilise the climate. The plan is to licence commercial operators to build and run nuclear power plants without government subsidy, although that’s something that has never happened yet in the history of nuclear power anywhere in the world.
When I was a young, fresh-faced Physics student, I was moderately in favour of nuclear power. I felt that the risks of the process were well-understood and quite manageable, and that issues of long-term disposal of waste would be solved (they still haven’t). Then, for his final year project, one of my housemates decided to take nuclear power as his subject. (I chose detection of extra-solar planets. Much more relevant to everyday life.) He requested a file from the United States which had been released under a Freedom of Information request. It detailed all incidents in the nuclear industry which had been reported to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
And as I read that fille, I slowly came to realise that power plants are actually run by Homer Simpson. You can design all the safety features you can imagine, but you can never totally overcome normal human stupidity. I became a nuclear sceptic, and remain that way to this day. I’m not a hysterical anti-nuclear nut, but I just think that we should think very, very carefully before committing to any increase in nuclear power, and anyway, everything the nuclear industry says should be taken with a pinch of salt. They’ve become too used to having somebody else clean up after them, and they’re only after some easy money.
Today, I’ve been playing with a little calculator from the BBC [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/uk/06/electricity_calc/html/1.stm] that works out the implications of choices for power generation. According to that, with modest reductions in demand, combined with substantial investment in renewable energy, reduction of fossil-fuel generation, and no nuclear power, Britain could meet its power needs and carbon emission targets, while keeping our bills exactly the same.
(Put the sliders to 160, 0, 200, 0 and -40.)