A reliable future

6 November 2019

Dr Ben Britton

Research Fellow and Senior Lecturer

Imperial College London

There is only one reason to do the right thing – because it is the right thing to do.

The climate emergency is now. We need bold and brave people to make the right solutions possible. Nuclear projects are substantive, and long term investments, that will support decarbonisation and reduction of the impact of humans for this generation, and many generations to come.

At present, Europe generates 25% of its electricity from nuclear power. Germany still generates around 10%, with the UK producing 20% and France substantively more (~70%). If we explore countries that have managed to decarbonise their electricity supply, then we can notice a trend. The countries with good geography (e.g. Norway, Sweden) and relatively low population densities populations (i.e. high land mass / areas that can be flooded or covered with renewable technologies), and total population (i.e. low total electricity consumption) have managed to use renewables successfully. Otherwise, they have relied on nuclear (e.g. France). The UK teeters in the middle, with a progressive energy policy that is underpinned by an existing (but increasingly old, and thus close to retirement) nuclear fleet.

For us to continue with an energy rich society, which provides equitable solutions for substantive demographics of our population - nuclear power remains a proven and in reach solution for us to collectively step forward with. We can thus ask ourselves, as we reduce our unsustainable exploitation of fossil fuels, what limits us utilising nuclear in this vein?

Nuclear power technologies remain difficult to run economically, in part due to a lack of public trust (including senior politicians and major business leaders). This lack of trust could be due to the industry being too forward in its engineering message – combined with a lack of empathy with what people truly engage with. How often do you hear a major nuclear engineering company harking about it’s safety message or the waste legacy? This does not mean that we should ignore safety, especially as an internal cultural issue, but when people have a truly emotive reaction to nuclear technologies, these messages provide easy methods of those who oppose nuclear power to erode trust.

For instance, the UN’s reporting on prior major accidents demonstrably prove that nuclear power is safe enough - 93% of residents (both evacuees and still resident) in Fukushima had estimated does less than 2 mSv in the first six months post-accident. From our substantive understanding of radiation exposure, we expect this to result in no discernible health effects expected from this level of radiation. In fact, just living the UK this ‘extra’ exposure would be equivalent to your annual dose from background radiation.

In spite of this evidence, and talented scientists like my colleague Prof Geraldine Thomas talking to the highest level of government and the general public, we still hear takes of the “nuclear accident” at Fukushima placed out of context. Journalists and activists often forget that the annual ‘deathprint’ (i.e. deaths per trillion kWh) of global nuclear power is half of that of wind, one fifth of solar, and one 40th of gas.

The example I highlight here is a fraction of the story, I can share similar about the misrepresentation of the nuclear waste challenge. Both of these ideas however drive energy arguments away from nuclear power, despite our evident existential crisis about the future of planet earth as we know it. I note that nuclear power is not the only solution in this space, but it is one of our most important.

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