Before I began my journey into the weird and wonderous world of the atom, I harboured aspirations to enter the equally weird, and equally wonderous, world of politics. I was fortunate to receive my political “schooling” as political adviser to Sir Jamie McGrigor, who was a Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Highlands and Islands. Jamie taught me a great number of things about the art of politics, but one lesson especially stuck with me – when in politics, it is our duty to serve all, both our friends as well as our critics. So, I hear you ask, how on Earth does this relate to nuclear power or climate change?

In many ways, nuclear energy is the bullied kid in the schoolyard of today’s electricity system. When nuclear energy as a power source was born in the 1950s, it found itself in a loving and supportive home - heralded as the stalwart for a brighter tomorrow, enabling anything from flying cars, the eradication of starvation and the colonisation of space. However, during its teenage years of the 1970s and 1980s, it became increasingly clear that public faith in that brighter tomorrow that nuclear energy promised started to fade, as our overall faith in science seemed to ebb away.

Nuclear energy, proud of the fact it will be able to better the lives of all, found itself increasingly cornered. Accusations were increasingly being flung at nuclear – be it that reactors were “baby-killers”, “atom bombs waiting to go off”, “mass murders”, and many more of such baseless accusations. Nevertheless, the public became swayed by these arguments. The courts of public opinion in many cases sentences nuclear energy to serve an ever-diminishing role, banished to the fringes of the world of energy – where it might be providing an essential service, but told to quiet down and await its inevitable demise.

But, despite all these years of bullying, underneath the surface, you will still find this quiet pride, based on the knowledge that each reactor’s servitude benefits humans, animals and the planet alike. This is where the connection between my political schooling and nuclear power emerges – nuclear reactors serves the whole community – both its supporters and critics - day in and day out, regardless of the whims of the weather, out of sight and silently providing them with clean and affordable electricity.

Few would dispute that climate change is one of the most crucial issues that humanity faces. In the climate change debate, nuclear energy should, if we follow the cold, hard facts be at the very heart of the debate. When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change compiled the best available evidence on the climatic footprint of every major electricity generator throughout its whole lifecycle, one thing became very evident – nuclear power has the lowest carbon dioxide footprint, alongside with wind power. However, the sad state of affairs is this: nuclear reactors are being closed around the world prematurely, and are in the majority of cases replaced by fossil energy.

There is another very clear piece of evidence about the importance of nuclear for the decarbonisation. On this map of Europe – a snapshot taken on the morning of 3rd June 2020 – one can easily tell that most countries are quite dirty. The greener the country, the lower the carbon footprint.

Some countries, like Norway, are simply lucky, endowed by Mother Nature with rivers suitable for hydroelectric power. Others, like France and Sweden, chose to pursue the path of the atom, with nuclear providing 75% of all electricity in France and about 45% in Sweden. These countries have essentially already met emissions reductions required to ensure climate change stays at safe levels. Countries like Germany, hailed as the wunderkind of the climate change movement, consistently produce electricity 6 times dirtier than its western or northern neighbour. In Germany, nuclear reactors have even been replaced by lignite, despite it being amongst the most polluting electricity sources known to humanity.

Whilst ensuring that we combat climate change in an effective way, it is crucial that we do so in a way which not only benefits those who already enjoy a high standard of living. Our track record of delivering sustainable solutions to unsustainable practises is not great. We often find that by solving one problem, we create multiple elsewhere, and round we go in a rather tragic hamster wheel.

But, to paraphrase Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones, nuclear energy holds the potential not only to stop the wheel, but to break it. By utilising the astounding energy of the atom, we can once and for all build a more equitable, a fairer and a cleaner tomorrow, without having to sacrifice our fragile planet, our health, or any other living creature that we share our world with. By choosing nuclear, we don’t have to sacrifice our standards of living, but even more importantly, it enables us to help those who still live with little or no access to electricity, people who literally live in the dark. Whilst the wealthiest parts of the world can spend billions on power sources which only work certain times, many parts of the world do not have that luxury – they will need to find solutions which provide value for money which, many times means coal. However, nuclear provides a sustainable option, and giving into prejudices and fears around nuclear deprives people the right that is access to electricity.

Nuclear reactors are truly silent giants of many electricity systems, quietly work in the background, night and day, often out of sight and mind, regardless of weather or reason. However, they are also the unsung climate heroes, which are all too often being taken for granted. Fear has been allowed to poison our relationship with nuclear energy, and per extension robbing all of us the chance for a better tomorrow. In my next piece, we shall explore this fear, and why radiophobia is, perhaps, public enemy number 1.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and may not reflect on any of those institutions which the author is associated with.

It is perhaps cliché, but my climate journey began in 2004 when Roland Emmerich’s climate disaster film The Day After Tomorrow was released. I was merely 11 at the time, and like many, my

immediate response to the film’s apocalyptic scenes of collapsing ice sheets, monster waves and the arrival of a new ice age was that of sheer panic and despair.

The initial fear was, however, quickly replaced with a kind of apathy which most of us have felt at some point towards climate change. It just became too big, too frightening and too disembodied. I guess it was my brain’s way to try and protect me – a perfectly natural response which is so commonly seen in any climate change debate that is around us.

Over the next five years, climate change was firmly put at the back of my mind, and my journey towards being atomic proponent has not been a story of an over-night conversion, but rather one of a continuous search for one’s purpose.

I have always been driven by a passion to make a positive and real impact on the people and the world around me. I initially had my eyes set on becoming a paediatric oncologist, but having almost fainted taking my own blood for a school experiment, I realised that I might not be cut from the right cloth. A period of inevitable soul searching ensued, I ended up doing a proper volte face for someone taking specialising in science and mathematics at school – I decided to turn to the world of policy and politics as my way of making a difference.

As I rediscovered my love for nature – especially hiking in the wilderness of Scotland or my native Sweden – my passion for fighting climate change reignited. Nature’s raw beauty must be protected and preserved for future generations of all living being, a duty I believe all of us have. After all, we owe everything to nature – if we live in a way that irreversibly destroys our planet, we will never be able to unlock human potential. Having spent countless hours facing roaring winds on highland moors or climbing mountains in the rain, I gained a deeper appreciation for just how important energy is to everything we do. For many hundreds of years, we slowly started to harness the energy sources nature provided us with – be it the wind, the water, the oil, or the atom.

But in harnessing the tools nature provided us with, we somehow lost sight of where we come from, and who is providing us with the tools upon which modernity has been built. This is where my love for protecting nature, fighting climate change and finding an energy future which benefits human, animal and planet alike comes together. Unlocking a sustainable energy solution can not only combat climate change, but also fight poverty, unlock human potential and preserve our blue marble of a planet for future generations.

Finding myself as a political adviser in the Scottish Parliament during my university years, a significant part of what I did was to think about energy and the environment. Despite its many impressive features and benefits, nuclear energy struck me as being politically impossible to achieve. Nevertheless, my curiosity got the better of me and I started to dig into the world of the atom, despite (or maybe, thanks to?) the fact that few things in our world has as poor a reputation as nuclear energy.

I went into nuclear with assumptions shared by most people - that its use is nothing short of a Faustian bargain with the devil, where we get immense amounts of electricity, but at the cost of the risk of unimaginable death and destruction if something goes wrong, and by leaving waste which is believed to be lethal for eons. However, I spent years researching all aspects of nuclear power – be it accidents, the waste or the effects of radiation on human health – and slowly, but steadily, one thing became very clear. The image of nuclear power as the ultimate evil did not add up with reality.

Not only had nuclear energy been given a way worse reputation that it had deserved, but that without it we would have no real chance at both fighting poverty and climate change. It became painfully clear that the image of fear which had been built around nuclear energy robbed people of a different future – a future where it shouldn’t really matter in which country you are born, where we once and for all banished starvation and poverty. Denying people the benefits of the atom therefore becomes an act of cruelty, whereby we deny future generations the opportunity to fully realise their own ambitions and dreams.

For me, there was only really one thing that made sense for me in terms of my own future: to dedicate my life to the restoration of the atom’s public image and with it, public opinion. How do we turn something so important, yet so unloved, so fear, and so misunderstood, into the shining swan it has the potential to be?

So, for the last couple of years, I have come to regard my own battle for nuclear power, and the battle for the atom in our common future as the battle between David and Goliath. It is perhaps paradoxical, knowing that nuclear power plants are essentially but big machines of steel and concrete. Yet the atom is so small, and it is truly David, trying to take on the ultimate Goliath(s) of our time – be it fossil fuels, or perhaps fear itself?

In a series of articles, I will be exploring how my desire to solve one of the greatest challenges of our time - climate change - led to me devoting my life to the very smallest of things - the atom. In this series, I will discuss the importance of the power of the atom in combatting climate change.

The second half of the series will be a deep-dive into our nightmarish view of atomic energy, to look at why almost everything we believe about radiation is wrong, how we ended up here - and perhaps most importantly, the concept and consequences of “radiophobia”, which tragically enough is a potent reminder of how sometimes the sheer idea of something can be more lethal than the real deal.

Nevertheless, by the end I will show how, by conquering fear and an unashamedly optimistic view of the future, we can with the atom’s awesome power build a stronger, a more just and a truly sustainable global society.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and may not reflect on any of those institutions which the author is associated with.

Photographs by John Lindberg

John is our third opinion piece author with his series "Nuclear energy - unsung and feared climate hero?", where he explores the role nuclear energy can play in the climate emergency.

John divides his time between doing his PhD on radiophobia jointly at King’s College London

and Imperial College and doing communications and policy at the World Nuclear

Association, whilst also trying to complete his MMedSci in health physics at the Sahlgrenska

Hospital in his native Sweden.

Having interned in Brussels, worked as a political adviser in the Scottish Parliament,

conducting cutting-edge nuclear research at leading environmental think tanks in London

and Berkeley, negotiated on nuclear power projects in northern Wales and represented both

the UK and the nuclear industry at the UN, John brings unique perspectives on nuclear

policy and politics, fuelled by a passion to build a stronger, fairer and cleaner tomorrow - for

all. His ambition is to make the debate around nuclear energy more accessible and open up

the conversation with people who usually wouldn’t even think about the power of the atom.

He gave a TEDx talk – “The Power to Change the World” – in 2017.

When not despairing over the effects of radiophobia or rambling on about nuclear energy to

any unsuspecting victim, John can often be found climbing mountains in Scotland, planning

trips to Nepal, watch cute dog videos dreaming of the day when he can adopt his own, or

drooling over the latest bit of hiking kit he’s got his eyes set on.

You can find John on LinkedIn, or on Twitter.