Nuclear energy continues to be a contentious option in the shift away from fossil fuels. Some argue that it provides a secure, safe, longstanding electricity supply while others say that the cost of building and maintaining new plants and issues around waste disposal outweigh the benefits. The UK government has ramped up its investment, with more than £2bn going towards reactors and aims for a quarter of the UK’s electricity generation to come from nuclear by 2050. We asked two academics from opposite sides of the debate to share their views. Read the other side of the argument here.
Finding sufficient energy is essential to all life. Humans have excelled at this, notably when they studied and overcame their innate fear of fire some 600,000 years ago. Until the Industrial Revolution they made do with energy derived from the daily sunshine that powers water currents, the wind and other manifestations, including the production of food and vegetation. But human life was short and miserable for the population at large. The causes were the anaemic strength of the sun’s rays, averaging 340 watts per square metre, and its random interruption by unpredictable weather.
With fossil fuels, energy increased, and was available anywhere at any time. Life expectancy doubled and the world population quadrupled. For 200 years, whoever had access to fossil fuels had world power. However, at the 2015 Paris Conference, nations agreed that the emission of carbon posed an existential threat and that, sooner rather than later, this should cease.
Technology may be challenging and exciting, but it cannot deliver energy where none exists, today as in pre-industrial times. Writing in 1867, Karl Marx dismissed wind power as “too inconstant and uncontrollable”. He saw water power as better, but still “beset with difficulties”. Today, the vast size of hydro, wind and solar plants comparative to their power reflects their weakness and destructive impact on flora and fauna – a point often curiously ignored by environmentalists.
If renewables are simply inadequate and fossil fuel emissions only accelerate climate change, what abundant primary energy source might permit political and economic stability for the next 200 years? Natural science can say, without doubt, the only answer is nuclear.
In 1931, Winston Churchill wrote: “The coal a man can get in a day can easily do 500 times as much work as the man himself. Nuclear energy is at least one million times more powerful still… There is no question among scientists that this gigantic source of energy exists. What is lacking is the match to set the bonfire alight… The discovery and control of such sources of power would cause changes in human affairs incomparably greater than those produced by the steam engine four generations ago.”
He was right, but this transition requires adequate public education. In recovering from the Second World War, the world lost confidence and demonised nuclear energy. This denial of an exceptional benefit to society has persisted for 70 years, supported by bogus scientific claims around radiation and oil interests. But, aside from the blast of a nuclear explosion, nuclear energy and its radiation are safer than the combustion of fossil fuels, as confirmed by evidence from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Chernobyl and Fukushima. Furthermore, nuclear applications in medicine pioneered by Marie Curie (such as the use of radiation to treat cancerous tumours) have been widely appreciated for 120 years.
Regulation around nuclear needs to be commensurate with actual risk, and it should be financed appropriately, with richer nations covering the costs. Fully informed, everybody should welcome the security of small, mass-produced, cheap nuclear energy plants dedicated to serving communities with on-demand electricity, off-peak hydrogen, fertiliser, industrial heat and seasonless farming for decades. The only real challenges are in building the relevant skills, and instilling public confidence.
Wade Allison is author of Radiation and Reason, and Nuclear is for Life.