Mixed messages hinder growth in nuclear energy

10 September 2015

Future electricity systems cannot be based entirely on renewable energy sources, delegates at the World Nuclear Association's annual Symposium in London heard today. However, they were told a new energy narrative is needed to overcome the mixed messages from the nuclear industry that has stymied public support.

Ben Heard, director of ThinkClimate Consulting, told the conference there are anti-nuclear statements saying, "We don't need nuclear, we must not use it" and a number of studies have been published on electricity systems based entirely on renewable energy sources. However, an analysis of 20 of these studies shows that none of these systems is feasible. He noted, "The challenge is to supply electricity reliably ... It is not the quantity of power supplied, but the quality of the supply."

In order to be feasible, the proposed renewable-based electricity systems must meet the following criteria, he said. They must firstly be able to meet demand scenarios from mainstream forecasts. They must also be capable of constantly meeting demand, even during extreme events. They should also take into account transmission requirements and confirm that "ancillary services are provided".

No constraints had been applied to the cost, speed of roll-out, materials requirements, support or planning concerns for each system, he said. None of the proposed systems was found to be feasible, with some demand forecasts used describing "a world that doesn't exist and probably won't".

He concluded that the literature affirms a large dispatchable supply of electricity is indispensable and that the exclusion of nuclear - a "major, proven, scalable energy source" - is high risk. He gave Sweden, Ontario and France as examples of places that have demonstrated the high energy security and low emission benefits of nuclear energy.

However, Imperial College honorary senior research fellow Malcolm Grimston said that mixed messages about nuclear energy coming from the industry itself have not helped it to gain support.

He said that the public can be left "deeply suspicious" when, on the one hand, the industry says how safe nuclear power is, yet on the other appears over-cautious when dealing with radiation protection. He added, "Although big accidents occur, nuclear power has proved to be one of the safest, if not the safest, large-scale ways of generating electricity".

Grimston said the industry needs to "normalize" nuclear in its messaging. He said the industry should "speak to people not at them, and abandon the model that there is something wrong with the public which has to be put right". He also suggested the industry "never ever treat radiation as more dangerous that it is in comparison to other environmental 'insults': the belief that this will 'put people's minds at rest' is truly irrational."

The nuclear industry "may be starting realize that by setting itself apart through language like, 'We must make sure this doesn't happen again' after each accident it is scaring people and destroying trust," Grimston said. He suggested the industry "be more honest about how dangerous things are and how safe". It should put its activities into context and "be less certain, more willing to debate". Grimston said the industry should refrain from putting people's minds at rest "as it almost always has the opposite effect".

He said that "logic and politics don't necessarily go hand in hand" and that science should be pulled back into the debate. Governments should "restore the outcome of properly referred science to its proper place in decision-making", while society should have a sensible debate about how to manage scientific uncertainty, Grimston said. Society should also challenge "comfortable myths" about renewables and energy efficiency, he added.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News