The Problems of Nuclear Technology

Peter Lux

As well as the well-known problem of radioactivity there are a number of things that make nuclear power dangerous.

Decay Heat

Nuclear energy comes from the splitting of atoms – nuclear fission. The problem is that the two fragments that are formed are usually radioactive. This radioactivity continues to produce heat even after the nuclear reaction is stopped. Therefore spent fuel or a nuclear reactor which is shut down must be continously cooled or else the fuel rods will melt causing radioactive release or possibly an explosion. This is the current problem at Fukushima.

Dirty and Inefficient

The fission process is very ‘dirty’. Over 700 different isotopes are formed during the fission process. This makes it very difficult to reprocess or convert the spent fuel into a safe form for storage. Current nuclear power plants only use about 4-6% of the energy available from the nuclear fuel. Of this only about 30-40% is converted to electricity – the remainder is waste heat. With gas or other power plants it is possible to use this waste heat to provide hot water and heating for homes with something called ‘combined heat and power (CHP). However, this is not possible with nuclear since the power plants are sited away from population areas.

Nuclear Materials

The effect of the intense radiation on the materials that make up the reactor is not well understood. This results in a ‘try it and see’ approach to long term degradation of the reactor.

A Batch Process

In a conventional gas or coal plant the fuel is added as it is burnt. However, in all current nuclear power stations about 3 years supply of fuel is in the reactor. It is then necessary to have sophisticated control mechanisms to make sure that the fuel is ‘burnt’ slowly.


Nuclear power plants are some of the most complex machines every created.

In the 1980s, Charles Perrow came up with Normal Accident Theory which stated that in such complex systems an accident is caused not by a single component failure but a number of events that lead up to an accident. In such complex systems accidents WILL happen – they are normal. In his book Perrow states that two technologies are so dangerous because of this that they should be abandoned. The two technologies are nuclear power and genetic engineering.

Bespoke Technology

With a lot of technology there is a great deal of crossover from one area to another. For example carbon fibre and composite technologies used to develop better airplanes can also be used in wind turbines. Development in semiconductors used to create electronic components can also help produce better solar panels. With nuclear power there is very little crossover with the exception of nuclear weapons, and therefore little collective experience and know-how builds up outside the nuclear industry.

Negative Learning Curve

Because of the size, complexity and the bespoke nature of the nuclear industry there is a negative learning curve and nuclear power plants are getting more expensive to build.

There has been a positive learning curve with the running and maintenance of nuclear power plants. The capacity factor (i.e. the amount of time the plant is producing electricity) has increased in the United States from 65% in the mid 80s to 75% in the 90s to over 85% currently. It has taken them a very long time to get the existing plants working correctly. For this reason power Companies will continue to use the old Boiling Water 9BWR) and Pressurized Water (PWR) reactors. New reactors such as the Hitachi ABWR have had very poor capacity factors – as low as 42% with some years not producing any electricity at all. This is the reactor design proposed for the new reactor at Wylfa. The companies claim that these new reactors will have a capacity factor of 90%, but this seems unlikely.

History of Nuclear Power

As everybody knows it started with the development of the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project. Only 10% of the enormous cost went on the development of the bomb itself. Most of the cost was for the supporting infrastructure – mining, conversion, enrichment etc. After the war the US had this infrastructure which was to be put to another use. This also happened with the explosives industry – Trinitro Toluene (TNT), Nitocellulose, Nitroglycerene all need nitrate to produce. After the war this large capacity for nitrate production was used to produce fertilizer which is why there was a massive increase in the use of artificial fertilizer after the war.

The UK and other countries needed nuclear reactors to produce plutonium to produce the atomic bomb. North Korea gets its plutonium from a British designed Magnox reactor. It is important to note that most nuclear weapons states (with the exception of Pakistan) at the moment use Plutonium rather than Uranium to make nuclear bombs.

There is an undeniable link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons – making the actual bombs is only a minor part of the process – the building up of skills and infrastructure is much larger.

When Japan toyed with the idea abandoning nuclear power there was lots of opposition from various parts of the Japanese establishment. As Japan’s former Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba said:

”Having nuclear plants shows to other nations that Japan can make nuclear weapons.”

The US thought after the war that it was safe to sell pressurised water and boiling water reactors since they require enriched uranium. If it was found that a country was using its power stations for developing nuclear weapons then they could cut off the supply of enriched uranium.

If anyone is interested in this it is useful to look at Iran’s involvement in the development of enrichment facilities in Europe and how it was denied enriched uranium since the revolution in 1979.

Power To The People

From ‘who owns the mill’ to controlling the oil in the Middle East, controlling energy supply is a source of ‘stupendous wealth and power’. It is time that this power was given to the people and not just the few. As a group says in Sizewell, “Power to the people, not profit for the few”. With recent technological advances in wind, solar and other renewable sources we have the opportunity to democratise power production with energy efficiency, renewable technology and decentralization.

Posts on this blog represent the views of their authors, not of Breaking the Frame, unless otherwise noted.

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