The nuclear industry needs to stop selling us fear and start selling us salvation

9 March 2021

Rauli Partanen

Chief Executive Officer

Think Atom

During the last couple years, the debate on nuclear has shifted significantly. Accustomed to a defensive position and concentrating on survival for decades, the nuclear industry is now facing new kinds of demands.

A growing number of climate hawks, environmental activists and energy analysts are calling for more and better nuclear, to help us stop climate change in time. But the nuclear industry – and here I include utilities, technology developers, regulators, and academia – seems hesitant, uncomfortable even. Instead of embracing the prospect of growth and a big role in saving human civilization from a worsening climate catastrophe, many are doubling down on what they do best. Indeed, pretty much the only thing they have done in the last several decades: The selling of fear in order to sell evermore safety.

There are so many highly paid professionals in the nuclear industry who get their salary from the perpetuation of fear of nuclear and radiation that the industry seems to be unable to talk about anything else. I mean, what would be the purpose of all those experts, papers, expanding regulation and millions spent on yet another research program on safety, waste and decommissioning, if people would suddenly realise that nuclear is already by far our safest energy source? Or that storing the waste products is really not an issue if we compare it to pretty much any other large-scale human activity?

And it is one thing to take away a person’s salary. It is yet another to take away a person’s purpose. Just like many anti-nuclear activists have built their personal and social life around opposing nuclear, many of the nuclear safety experts have built theirs on the assumption that nuclear is dangerous and they alone can keep us safe.

The problem is, they are not keeping us safe. They are keeping us from being safe. A non-expanding nuclear sector is one of the biggest risks for us when it comes to the need to decarbonize and stop climate change. Any nuclear power plant left unbuilt or shut down will be replaced by something much more harmful. If every new proposition of an advanced reactor, a new use-case for nuclear to decarbonize an industrial process, or a suggestion to make clean, low-cost hydrogen with nuclear, is met – within the industry itself – with a smorgasbord of potential problems, issues and reasons why it should perhaps not be even tried, we will never get anywhere.

Look at the wind and solar industry. In reality, these technologies have much bigger handicaps and problems than nuclear: they are inherently unreliable, they require much more land and materials, they require more rare minerals, extensive storage systems and ever-expanding power grids, natural gas backup, auxiliary services and even then, often fail us when we would need them the most. Yet everyone loves them, and they are selling like hotcakes. As they should. As nuclear should.

So the question is, will the nuclear industry be the last one to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into our climate fight? Do we need a new nuclear industry (and how on earth can we bring that into being if we do)? Or can the existing industry find a new internal focus on growth, expansion, and human salvation instead of fear and mere survival?