Hollywood has a lot to answer for. One of the most influential forces in people’s understanding of nuclear has been movies: from Godzilla to the China Syndrome.
While nuclear apocalypses do provide gripping drama, the industry could also be accused of irrational optimism. Today, a balance between these two extremes is needed. Nuclear power is dangerous, but the risks need to be put into context.
Perhaps the particular fear around nuclear stems in part from such unprecedented power density: a million times greater than coal. With great power comes great responsibility, as Spiderman would say. Just one reactor produces enough power to run a small city, around the clock, all year long. This brings significant environmental benefits, not least a correspondingly small footprint on the land, no air pollution or emissions, and a tiny volume of waste, which is entirely contained and well managed. Compare this to waste from coal. People worry about radioactive waste, but the small volumes of waste are manageable: the entire 16GW programme of new build nuclear is expected to generate equivalent to around one Albert Hall’s worth of waste from 60 years of carbon free power for many millions of people. This will be much less than from older plants that date back to the Cold War era. The waste will be vitrified, which means the radiation cannot “leak”. The analogy I like is that even if you break a green glass bottle, the green cannot leak out.
The accident at Fukushima Dai-Chi has created a new wave of fears about nuclear accidents, despite the United Nations committee of global scientists concluding that no cancer increase will be detectable as a result of radiation, and (as is also the case from the far worse accident at Chernobyl) certainly no birth defects or abnormalities. In fact, coal kills more people in one day than nuclear has throughout its entire 70 years of operation, including the three major accidents.
The third big concern around nuclear energy is the risk of proliferation. Here’s a remarkable fact: for the past two decades, ten per cent of electricity consumed in the US came from Russian warheads. Surprisingly, the best way to rid the world of nuclear weapons would be to make electricity out of them. As Stewart Brand says: “It’s kind of poetic that the bombs designed to blow up our cities are being used to light up our cities.”
The fourth big concern around nuclear is cost. There’s no doubt that cost reduction is necessary for all low carbon technologies. Nonetheless, cost is not the only driver. Along with urgent carbon reduction, and energy security, there are also major economic benefits in terms on jobs and energy efficiency to building and generating power at home rather than importing fossil fuels. All low carbon technologies have high upfront capital costs, which make them difficult to finance. Nuclear plants also tend to be large and take a long time to build, which means greater risks for investors. But because nuclear plants last a long time, they end up being great value for money.