Who’s Afraid of a Big Bad Reactor?

Thomas Robinson.

In May 2016 for the first time in over a century, the UK was 0% reliant on coal for electricity generation. Whilst only one small step in reducing carbon emissions, it is also an important one which indicates the UK is indeed moving away from dependency on fossil fuels. Fortunately, modern technology has developed many alternatives to coal, oil and gas; and like it or loathe it, nuclear power is one of them. Worldwide opinion of nuclear power is at an all-time low, as demonstrated by a recent survey in Italy which found that 94% of the population were anti-nuclear power. Nuclear power certainly has its drawbacks, putting aside disaster for the moment, industry problems are well documented. Issues manifest both as worldwide problems1e such as waste management, but also at national levels with a notable lack of new workers arriving into the sector. Even the word “Nuclear” stirs unpleasant thoughts involving war and fallout. In fact, any negative headline in the media surrounding the word nuclear is met with severe backlash from the public. However, I believe that we are in dire need of a cultural shift in attitude toward nuclear power if we are to ever truly combat climate change.

Necessarily Cautious

Admittedly, caution around nuclear power is more than reasonable. In March 2011 the most powerful earthquake on record struck japan, killing over 15,000 people and causing billions in damages. Tsunamis, up to 40m high devastated local sea-front infrastructure, including the Fukushima Daiichi Reactor, and provoked the world’s second largest nuclear disaster. Whilst no nuclear material was directly affected, damaged cooling systems led to overheating, three nuclear meltdowns and several small chemical explosions. In response to an estimated 500,000TBq of radioactive material being released, Japanese government officials created a 20Km exclusion zone. Understandably, question marks were raised over the safety of Fukushima, and later studies found that the plant was indeed unsafe and protocols were not adhered to. Following this, the entire industry came under increased scrutiny, and two years later heightened anxiety around nuclear power led to the closure of all reactors in Japan, with all but a few remaining offline to this day. Caution and suspicion around nuclear power from the Japanese people is more than justifiable, and for such a nuclear dependant country (near a third of Japan’s electricity came from nuclear stations pre-earthquake) to take such drastic actions, demonstrates the severity of that caution.

The Japanese public were not the only ones to question the nuclear industry. Concern spread across Europe, where within weeks of the disaster German Chancellor, Angela Merkel closed all eight of the country’s pre-1981 plants. Furthermore, and following a protest of a 250,000 people, Merkel announced plans to close all nuclear plants by 2022. Elsewhere, Spain and Switzerland both banned the construction of new plants; while France, overwhelmingly the most nuclear dependant nation on Earth, also announced they would attempt to scale back nuclear dependence by a third.
It would be idiotic to not be cautious around such a potentially dangerous field as that of nuclear power, however clearly there was more than just caution around nuclear power from European nations. Decisions made by governments go deeper than caution and, I feel, border on reactional fear.

A Different Approach

Negative views of nuclear power seemingly didn’t reach British parliament. Following the Fukushima disaster, the British government stood firm in their stance to increase nuclear power dependence. Instead of closures, a commitment to making nuclear power more safe and sustainable was made. Compare this view to that of the worldwide reaction to Fukushima. In contrast to a solution to the ultimate problem, other European nations made rash decisions, with no apparent foresight into the long term consequences. Rather, the actions taken were more for short term political gain, ignoring environmental effects. Take Germany and Japan, both governing bodies quickly steered energy consumption away from nuclear power in light of Fukushima due to increasing public pressure to do so. Both countries have become reliant on either importing energy, or increasing power output from their own non-nuclear stations. In both cases this energy comes from fossil fuel sources. In Germany increased demand is met by its own, or Polish coal stations, and Japan has now become a world leading importer of gas
For me, regressing to fossil fuels is short sighted and costly for all of humanity, particularly when one considers that only 40 minor injuries, and no fatalities, were attributed to the Fukushima disaster. Managed correctly, hundreds of reactors run safely every day and are even proven to emit three times less radiation than a typical coal power station. Surely a more sustainable solution to a disastrous event is to determine cause, and prevent its recurrence, rather than move away from it due to unease and political pressure.

The Problem with Renewables

In the UK, nuclear power represents approximately 20% of total electricity generation. Since 2008 however, UK government have sought to increase this dependency. The new nuclear era has begun with the site approval of Hinkley Point C (HPC), which is set to become the UK’s largest nuclear power station. With an estimated output of 1600MW from a next generation reactor, HPC doesn’t just represent the future of British nuclear power, it potentially represents the future of UK energy generation. Nuclear power is humanity’s greatest, continuous, non-fossil fuel electricity production method to date.
I believe the large cost of building the plants, compared to other renewable sources, are outweighed by the large, sustained and long term electricity supply they bring, despite the hazards associated with them. Renewable energy methods such as solar panels and large scale windfarms, like the London Array, have been making enormous advances in the last few decades, but nevertheless have their own drawbacks. None greater than the fact that in a country like Britain, they cannot be solely used to provide 100% of the electricity demands. Power stations, regardless of type, are all essentially large boilers which power enormous turbines. British electricity works because all turbines are geared to run at exactly the same frequency, if one turbine slows down, they all do. But supply must always equal demand, and since current technology is incapable of storing large amounts of energy, the only way to account for events like one station coming offline is with the large mass of spinning material, known as the “System Inertia”, that large power stations generate.  Short term discrepancies (< 60 seconds) in electricity supply may be counteracted by sucking energy out of the system inertia until longer term solutions are found. Unfortunately, relevant British renewable sources, such as wind or solar power, provide no system inertia at all. If the entire UK grid ran on just wind and solar power, a drop in wind speeds or rise in electricity demands would cripple the system almost instantly. Britain has some excellent natural resources to tap into, particularly wind, and by no means should we ignore them, in fact they should indeed be used to take most of the energy generation strain. But the fact remains that a large scale energy generator will always be required to provide enough system inertia to cover the gaps. The most environmentally friendly method of doing this to date, is nuclear power.

Regardless of whether nuclear power is genuinely the long term solution for British, and indeed worldwide electricity needs, the underlying fear and paranoia surrounding nuclear power has always annoyed me. Putting aside my own beliefs about the capabilities of nuclear power, if people were to understand the reality of disasters in the context of actual recorded casualties, perhaps people would be less fearful.  Nuclear power certainly has the capability of being devastating, if you doubt that, ask the people of Chernobyl. The fact remains however, that constructed and managed properly, nuclear power can be completely safe, even in its worst hour, the risk to any one individual is exceptionally low. Fearmongering statements like “three nuclear meltdowns” are nothing short of regressive, and it scares me that political figures are swayed by the public outcry which they induce. But what terrifies me far more than HPC potentially going into meltdown, is the way humanity continues to overlook the bigger picture of our changing climate. Nuclear power stations aren’t the real monsters here, rising CO2 levels are.


Who’s Afraid of a Big Bad Reactor?

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