For most end users, electricity is fundamental to their lives: it powers our homes, it helps hospitals stay open, and it cools food for it to be consumable. In summary, it has become a fundamental service of modern society.
Yet, not many people think too much about how this electricity was made: we just consume it and ask for more. In a way, electricity is the world’s “fast food” service, but the reality is that electricity production needs to be carefully planned, it involves a lot of brain power to make, and needs to be running 24/7 to power modern society.
There are some stark and undisputed facts driving the energy transition. While the amount of final energy – total energy consumption by end users – is expected to decline throughout the world (and has begun to decline in key markets such as the European Union), electricity consumption is projected to rise between 32% and 52% by 2050 thanks to the unstoppable growth of electrification.
This means we need more power plants. However, we also need to think about what type of power plants we want to install, because according to the IEA, the electricity and heat generation industries are already responsible for 42% of the global total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Therefore, we would ideally need energy plants that emit the lowest amount possible of greenhouse gas emissions, to meet the world’s effort to decarbonise the electricity sector. Also, ideally, we need to make these power plants as energy dense as possible, to conserve valuable land and limited resources.
The technologies that can meet these criteria would be hydropower and nuclear energy. Hydropower is a safe, renewable, and reliable source of electricity but requires access to a precious, and rapidly more limited resource: water.
So, on paper, nuclear energy would be an adequate manner to power a nation. Yet, when it comes to nuclear energy, everyone has an opinion, and they tend to be polar.
On the face of it, nuclear energy provides a lot of answers to navigate this difficult juggling act. It is clean, safe, low-carbon (even renewable-ish), plentiful and reliable.
And yet there is a clear dichotomy in nuclear adoption, with countries such as Germany dialing back their nuclear programmes, at the same time as China, India are commissioning them by the dozens, and the UAE prepares to cut the tape on the Barakah plant and Saudi Arabia pushes ahead with the planning and international support required to construct more nuclear energy plants.
Not to oversimplify, but the issues with nuclear implementation can be summarized as capital financing, shortermism and fear. The first two of these areas are linked, and it is clear that the construction timescale and concerns over the investment required over the long run it takes to make profits out of nuclear, require the long-term commitment and backup of government.
This requirement is a strategic hurdle too far for nations with political, energy and economic alligators closer to the canoe. It is no surprise that the new nuclear adopters are energy secure, wealthy, hydrocarbon-rich economies who have openly broadcasted long-term energy strategies involving a nuclear role.
Fear is more subtle but very polemic, and makes the debate for nuclear polarized. On a blind test, as if in the 1980s ads cola drinks we grew up to, where we get the taste but don’t see the brand, few people could argue with nuclear energy: its levelized costs, which makes on the long run competitive to renewables or natural gas, its production performance (many reactors operate at +90% capacity), and its bottom line low-carbon emissions (better ranking than solar), makes it an interesting technology.
However, take the blinds off, and many people that tasted the great taste of nuclear will immediately panic upon the sight of a radioactive logo…
The metrics of rational risk management are probability and impact; but in the rather more irrational world of perception and decision making the indices of fear are control and comprehension. This is why people fear flying despite the chances of dying on your drive to the airport being a thousand-fold more likely. Ironically, few people know that flying an airplane at cruiser altitudes gets them more radioactive dose than X-rays, PET scans and even working in a Generation 3 nuclear plant for an entire year. Yet, they prefer to focus on the inflight entertainment, while being completely unaware of their exposure to cosmic radiation.
Statistics bear out nuclear as a safe technology, irrational thought making pervades.
My suspicion is that someone in the branding department messed up when naming the technology, a sentiment echoed by Ella Minty, Co-chair CIPR Energy Leadership Platform who says “For those familiar with the energy industry, it is undoubtedly clear that the nuclear energy is the most sustainable and long lasting source of “clean energy”. However, Hollywood and North Korea, Fukushima disaster and the catastrophic losses of life during WWII Hiroshima and Nagasaki, corroborated with the various Russian revenge killings using a variety of plutonium and uranium derivatives, did the nuclear industry worldwide no favour whatsoever.
The public perception and social approval of “nuclear” is very low - if a survey or ad hoc series of interviews were to be carried out where people would be asked to tell what is the first thing that came to their mind when the word “nuclear” was pronounced, that would be “bomb”, “danger” or “explosion”. It wouldn’t be “clean”, “sustainability” or “energy security”.
There has been no concerted mass communication effort to engage the public in a conversation, let alone acceptance, of “nuclear energy”.
A new wave of mature policy making showing real results, innovations and emerging technologies coming on board that deliver cost effectiveness and stability, standardisation in construction and process, and demonstrable improvement in incident reduction both at safety system level and offsite consequence mitigation are sweeping through the industry. The outlook is positive.
Nuclear is increasing an option of choice for mature strategists willing to take advantage of sophisticated funding mechanisms and technological advances. It requires long term thinking, and a selfless desire to ensure future generations don’t need to worry about how their sausages get cooked.
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