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.