Message: We must cross the bridges that divide us

27 October 2020

"In many ways, the future of nuclear energy is much brighter than it has been for many years. We are evermore recognised and valued for the unique services that nuclear energy offers humanity, and I am immensely proud to have served and lead our industry through these exciting times," writes Agneta Rising, outgoing director general of World Nuclear Association.

Agneta Rising, the outgoing director general of World Nuclear Association

"As I reflect upon my many years in the world of nuclear, paradoxically I find that many important personal developments have closely followed the changes that have resulted from nuclear accidents. I took over as Director General of the World Nuclear Association in 2013, when the nuclear industry was struggling to regroup following the Fukushima Daiichi accident.

I left university in 1980, merely a year after the Three Mile Island accident, a year when my native Sweden was voting on its own nuclear future. At this point, people had already been fed misconceptions about radiation. Before I went to university, I thought that something must be wrong with nuclear. However, even after spending five years at university, I failed to uncover what was 'wrong' with nuclear, so I continued to dig further and deeper.

The first 10 years of my career were spent working on radiation protection, computer models and examining different designs for radiation safety. However, it was in the aftermath of Chernobyl that my career forever changed.

I was given the opportunity to speak to communities, both in my native Sweden and further afield, about radiation and the environment. As a scientist by background, I had been given no formal training in communication, but had to learn by doing as I went along. I found that few people combine scientific expertise with an ability to communicate science to the public.

After Chernobyl, people obviously got more worried about nuclear, but they were never given a chance to react in any other way than from fear. Not enough effort was made to talk to people outside the realms of sciences, in everyday language, and to put radiation in perspective. With radiation, we should compare radiation from a nuclear power plant with natural radiation, and other risks, to provide proper perspective.

Nevertheless, questions about Chernobyl, radiation and accidents were those most commonly asked for a number of years. People would come to public meetings visibly worried, asking if the berries they had picked, or the meat in their freezers back home, were safe to eat. I would usually tell the audience that if they didn’t want their berries or meat, then I would gladly have them! That definitely made people think!

I believe that I helped make Sweden more pragmatic towards nuclear. I spent much time in the 1980s and 1990s briefing every single Swedish Member of Parliament about the facts of nuclear, and helped to bring science into what was a very political debate.

One recurring topic in the Swedish debate was uranium and the perceived impacts of uranium mining. These were unfounded claims about serious health impacts on local and native populations, which for lay audiences was easy to believe, but difficult to check. These claims clearly had no scientific basis, but as a part of my work at Vattenfall, I inspected uranium mines around the world, and helped develop frameworks for best practice – frameworks which remain in place today. One thing was very clear: uranium mines are extremely well-kept, especially in comparison with mining of other products, and should be a source of pride.

In 1999 I became the first woman elected chairman of the Uranium Institute, which in many ways was a club for uranium miners and buyers with little engagement with the nuclear energy debate. However, I believed there was much potential, and during my chairmanship I set out to convince the members about the importance of the Uranium Institute talking about nuclear energy and the importance of developing nuclear energy worldwide. It required considerable efforts to overcome the inertia that parts of the organisation had, which resisted the changes proposed. Together with the Board, we managed to secure the unanimous support of the members, and I was delighted to preside over the transformation of the Uranium Institute into the World Nuclear Association which we all know today.

A few years earlier, I co-founded Women in Nuclear (WiN) Global. Women generally fear radiation much more, having huge concerns for future generations. We, the nuclear industry, need to be better at listening to people’s concerns – it is crucial that female nuclear professionals speak to women outside the industry about their work. Founding WiN was part of this effort. I chaired the first meeting of Women in Nuclear Energy – the predecessor of WiN - and later served as WiN’s second president. Under my presidency, WiN was transformed from a European to an international organisation and grew its membership fourfold. It gives me great pleasure to see how this organisation has continued to grow and flourish, continuing its important mission across the globe.

My time at university, and my general background in science, helped me realise the advantage of having a deep knowledge in natural science and its applications in every part of life. In presentations to audiences I would usually say that 'you cannot argue with the laws of nature'. This obviously extends to the world of energy as well. It is clear that we will need more electricity in order to power everything that we do, and everything that we want to do. Energy efficiency will play a role, but we need to power so much more, and so many more people will require power for the electric future. We need to keep the bigger picture in our mind, and not focus on the small parts of the puzzle.

Humanity faces many serious problems – people need electricity, people need clean power, and we need to address climate change. Electricity is required every second of every day, regardless of time or weather. We simply cannot be without it. However, we need to find solutions, and technology is central to this – we cannot talk our way out of the problems!

As things are now, nuclear is respected, but not wanted. Nuclear really is an essential part of the climate change solution – but nuclear is still not allowed to be part of the conversation in the EU, even if the IEA, several UN bodies and the OECD are more urgently emphasising its importance. Every policy should be technology-neutral – if it were, then we would be making so much more progress than we are. Germany is a prime example of how huge investments, when misplaced, bring no real decrease in emissions.

However, the picture is changing, thanks in large part to the vision that the Harmony goal provides. People are coming to the nuclear family, wanting nuclear energy to meet their needs and to power their dreams and aspirations. We need to change the image of the industry – both outside and inside the industry itself – and so I am especially proud of the outcome of the Harmony goal, which has been seized upon by the nuclear industry as well as being a reference for policymakers.

If you take a holistic approach to energy, you can see the entirety of society, and why reliable, round-the-clock nuclear electricity is so important. The nuclear industry delivers clean and low-cost power whenever we need it – in many ways, it is the lifeblood of society. As well as being affordable, nuclear has such a small environmental footprint it can be placed just about anywhere people need it.

Over the last few years, there have been more and more discussions around cost, cost and cost, despite the fact that nuclear is the most cost-effective energy source for society. However, we need to ask ourselves – if we build short-term solutions, like solar panels or wind turbines, which are not effective for the societal system, what will happen to the system itself? They are small-scale, and cannot resolve the large-scale problems we face. Solar and wind are by nature very dispersed energy forms, which makes it more costly to harvest the energy from them and it cannot be stored (easily). Hydropower is clearly a much more efficient energy source, as the raindrops are concentrated into streams and rivers by nature.

Being the most concentrated energy form, nuclear is the most intelligent way to generate electricity and other services. We achieve huge output from nuclear, with very little input. Renewable energy is like a bicycle, it can take you places, and can play a role; however, it also has limitations – it is impossible to build an advanced society based on bicycles. For that task, you will need nuclear, or to follow the transport metaphor – railways – where you can transport huge amounts, but for a small effort. This is how we build a stronger tomorrow, by ensuring that we use the most efficient, most intelligent, energy systems that are currently available to us.

It is important that political decisions are made on the basis of what is actually important, and what we should invest in. Post-pandemic, long-term investments into the systems that build society must take place, and nuclear investments are the ultimate ones, lasting for 80-100 years. We need new nuclear power plants to be built, and new countries to join the nuclear family. I am particularly proud of the many Spotlight events we have undertaken around the world, bringing together governments and the nuclear community to share the many benefits that a nuclear power programme brings.

One of the great parts of my time at World Nuclear Association has been the fact I have been able to engage and enthuse people regarding the nuclear cause. Engaging people – especially those outside the nuclear industry – is crucial, as is helping them find the vocabulary to talk to others about nuclear energy and to explain why it matters.

I feel very positive about the future of nuclear, and this makes it so hard to step down from my position as director general of the World Nuclear Association. It has been a fantastic time, and I am grateful for the mandate and all the support I have received from the Association’s the Board, members and Secretariat. I now look forward to being able to spend more time with my beloved family.

Moving forward, the nuclear industry must stop focusing on convincing the public about its safety. The first 20 years of my career were spent on convincing people that nuclear is not a threat to the environment. Now we should focus on why in fact the environment needs nuclear energy, as well as on its societal benefits, its economic strengths, clean air and reliability. It is also important that we give people time to understand and reflect. We must take the time and make the effort to cross the bridges that divide us, bringing the nuclear conversation to people and places where we have never been before - and carry them with us into the nuclear future."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News