The following article is from our February 2008 issue.

'We are Betting on The Wrong Horse' Two opponents of nuclear power speak out - By Lutz Mez and Mycle Schneider

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced the construction of new nuclear power plants in the UK. France's President Sarkozy is selling nuclear technology around the world. In his last State of the Union address, George W. Bush called for an increase of emissions-free nuclear power. China and India build new atomic power stations. Are they all betting on the wrong horse? Two opponents of nuclear power open an Atlantic Times debate.

The international nuclear power lobby has been trying to talk up a renaissance in nuclear power for many years. The facts speak a completely different language. According to the 2007 World Nuclear Industry Status Report, the number of reactors world-wide rose from 423 to 439 in the period from 1989 until 2007, an increase of less than one reactor a year. Moreover, by the end of 2007, there were five fewer reactors in operation compared to five years ago, when the total reached a historic high of 444 units.

Modern nuclear plants have an overall power output of just under 372,000 megawatts and an average operational life of 23 years. The rise in installed capacity is mainly due to an increase in output from existing plants achieved through technical improvements such as the installation of new steam generators.

Nuclear reactors are to be found in 31 countries but around three quarters of global electricity output from nuclear power is generated in only six countries - the three nuclear power states: the U.S., France and Russia as well as Japan, Germany and South Korea. Thirty-four reactor blocks are officially under construction and a further five have been shut down indefinitely.

Closer examination of the building projects reveals that 12 reactors have been listed in the statistics as "under construction" for more than 20 years. Work on the Khmelnitski 3 and 4 reactor blocks in the Ukraine began in 1986-87 and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates they will go on line in 2015-16. Four of Russia's seven nuclear power plant construction projects were started between 1983 and 1987 and have not yet been completed.

The previous record holder for the longest construction time, the Bushehr plant in Iran, for which the first foundations were poured on May 1, 1975, has just been overtaken by the American Watts Bar Unit 2 reactor.

Originally, started more than 35 years ago on Jan. 12, 1972, construction was halted on the project in 1985 and abandoned completely in December 1994. Last year, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) announced plans to complete the reactor by 2012 at an estimated cost of ?1.7 billion ($2.5 billion). Only the building projects in India, China, Pakistan, Taiwan and Japan are more recent undertakings.

Such long construction times cause enormous costs, which few banks anywhere in the world are prepared to finance unless the risk is underwritten by the state. The decommissioning of 119 reactors with an average operating life of 22 years also militates against the renaissance theory. In 2006 alone, eight reactors were shut down, all of them in Europe, while only two were brought online, and construction began on six more. Assuming an operational life of 40 years, a total of 90 reactors will be taken offline by the year 2015, and a further 192 by 2025.

Even if all 34 reactors currently under construction eventually go into operation, an additional 250 reactor blocks with an overall capacity of more than 200,000 megawatts would have to be planned, built and brought online by 2025, to maintain the current level of electricity production from nuclear power plants.

The IAEA lists only two reactor blocks currently under construction in Western Europe, one in Finland and, since December 2007, one in France. The Finnish Olkiluoto-3 reactor is the pilot power plant of the European Pressurised Reactor project. Construction on the 1,600 megawatt reactor began on Aug. 12, 2005. It was sold in 2003 to a consortium under the leadership of Finnish operator TVO for a fixed price of ?3 billion, and is scheduled to begin commercial operation in 2009.

However the supplier AREVA NP - jointly owned by France's AREVA (66 percent), and German conglomerate Siemens (34 percent) - has announced delays on seven different occasions since August 2005, and at the earliest operations can now begin is 2012. With AREVA's majority owned by the French state, and European competition rules a factor, it will be interesting to see who assumes the extra costs of at least ?1.5 billion that have already accumulated.

ElectricitÚ de France decided in October 2004 to build an Evolutionary Power Reactor (EPR) at the Flamanville nuclear plant in Normandy. The official construction start was Dec. 3, 2007. This reactor is scheduled for completion in 54 months, but according to an inspection report by the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) oversight authority issued last December, the first problems have already materialised.

The three major emerging nations, India, China and Brazil launched nuclear programs decades ago, but have only partially implemented them. Their nuclear power output as a percentage of overall electricity and energy production is minimal so far.

This situation is unlikely to change much. A global building boom in new nuclear power stations can be ruled out in the short to medium term due to a lack of production capacity and the dwindling supply of skilled personnel.

Only one company in the world - Japan Steel Works - can manufacture major components for reactor pressure vessels on the scale needed by the EPR. Both the pressure vessel and the steam generators for the new Finnish reactor come from Japan. In the U.S., there are no longer any plants producing major components and the only production facility in Europe, the AREVA works in the French town of Creusot, has limited production capacity.

In addition, new production facilities and power plants need new staff to run them, but the nuclear production industry and power plant operators are already struggling to fill jobs vacated by retiring older workers. A whole generation of engineers, atomic physicists, and radiation protection experts is missing. At the same time, decommissioned plants have to be torn down and solutions finally found for nuclear waste.

Lothar Hahn, head of the German reactor safety agency, the GRS, says: "Initial studies show that deficiencies in retaining knowledge at a state-of-the-art level and the resulting deterioration in education and training of operational staff can endanger the secure operation of nuclear plants."

The claim that nuclear power plants do not emit greenhouse gases is only half true. Any systemic analysis reveals that they are far from being carbon dioxide-free production facilities. The Darmstadt-based Íko- Institut, a think tank, has calculated that a typical nuclear plant in Germany, with enriched uranium from a mix of supplier countries, emits 32 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour - including emissions caused during construction of the plant. Multiply that by the overall electricity output of Germany's nuclear industry, and you arrive at a figure of 5.8 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2006.

In the coming decades, indirect emissions will probably rise starkly, as ever more fossil fuel energy is required to mine the uranium. At that point, nuclear power plants cease to have the edge over modern gas power plants in carbon dioxide emissions - especially if the latter are combined heat and power generating plants. Apart from the numerous obvious advantages, such as smaller units, shorter lead times, less capital intensive and lower risk, cogenerating biomass energy plants are much more environmentally friendly than nuclear plants.

Emissions of other greenhouse gases from nuclear power plants also contribute to climate change. The radioactive gas Krypton 85, a by-product of nuclear fission, ionizes air more than any other radioactive material. Krypton 85 is produced in nuclear power plants and huge amounts are released during the fuel recycling process. The concentration of Krypton 85 in the earth's atmosphere has increased significantly in recent years as a result of nuclear fission and is currently at an all time high. Although Krypton 85 is not climate neutral, these emissions have so far played no role in international climate protection talks.

It can be argued that swiftly shutting down nuclear power plants is necessary to put more pressure on operators and the nuclear power industry to innovate, to develop sustainable and more socially acceptable energy technologies - and above all to deploy them.

- Lutz Mez is director of the Research Centre for Environmental Politics at the Free University Berlin. Mycle Schneider, an energy consultant, won the Alternative Nobel Prize in 1997.