Exploring our energy future: is it time to go nuclear?

Nuclear power plant in France
...people fear what they don’t understand. If you were to ask 100 people on the street: ‘What is radioactivity?’ most of your respondents probably wouldn’t know how to answer. They would probably be astonished if you were to tell them that a banana or a human body is naturally radioactive.
Dr Giorgio Locatelli
A new study has revealed that in the absence of suitable locations for hydroelectric plants, nuclear power could be the best option in terms of base-load generation. Researchers at the University of Lincoln and Milan Polytechnic have conducted an extensive evaluation of sustainability factors in the power plant industry. The scientists have found that whilst hydroelectric power represents the most promising resource overall, a dearth of suitable installation sites for large plants means that in relation to the base-load market, nuclear power is the most attractive alternative for the future.

The researchers point out that it is no longer plausible for policymakers to focus solely on economic factors when selecting sectors for investment: environmental and social considerations have moved up the agenda. During the course of their study, the academics, whose results have been published in the International Journal of Business Innovation and Research, explored factors such as the risk of severe accidents, security of fuel supply, volatility of fuel price, environmental impacts and public acceptance. They discovered that whilst nuclear power has a low environmental impact and an impressive safety record, it suffers from poor levels of public acceptance.

The scientists contend that in order to successfully cater for an increasing global energy demand, policymakers and industry members must work hard to improve public confidence in nuclear power. To learn more about how we can achieve future fuel security, I spoke to one of the study’s co-authors Dr Giorgio Locatelli, Lecturer at the University of Lincoln’s School of Engineering…

Are we building a sufficient number of new power plants to cope with the growing demand for energy?
In Western Europe, coping with an increasing demand for energy does not pose a problem in the short term. However, at present, base-load electricity generation relies heavily on older coal and nuclear power plants – especially in Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Eventually, these power plants will need to be replaced. This is also happening with combined cycle power plants that use natural gas. The growing number of wind farms that are being installed across Europe, and particularly in the UK, could increase our dependence on gas, which will be used to compensate for the imbalance created by wind-based power generation. Essentially, natural gas is going to be used for base load, peak load and balancing. Having such a heavy dependence on a single source, that for many countries has to be imported, could jeopardise the future of electricity generation. For this reason, it would be wise to diversify base-load production by building new nuclear power plants.

Your evaluation revealed hydroelectric energy to be the most attractive option from the portfolio of resources that you investigated. Is Western Europe running close to capacity in terms of hydroelectric power generation, or are there other suitable locations with the potential to be exploited?
Our research shows that the hydroelectric plant is usually the best choice. This technology produces a negligible amount of pollution, it is not affected by fuel-cost concerns, and it is typically well accepted. However, there is a shortage of new locations suitable for the construction of large hydroelectric plants – at least in Europe. Other types of plant, therefore, will be necessary. We could employ ‘micro-hydro power’: small hydroelectric plants that can be accommodated by rivers and other places without huge amounts of potential energy. It is possible to manufacture these turbines in factories, they are very easy to install and they are simple to run. However, they cannot provide the huge economies of scale offered by large hydroelectric installations, and the international agencies forecast a small contribution to the overall generation from this particular resource.

So what advantages does nuclear power have over its counterparts?
Nuclear power is a very reliable source of energy with an incredibly good track record in Europe. It is one of the most effective methods of producing base-load electricity: the production cost is very stable and no CO2 is emitted. The amount of waste that a nuclear power plant produces in relation to the electricity that it generates is negligible when compared with other types of power plant. In fact, if the electricity needed during the life of one person were to be produced with nuclear substances, the resultant high-level waste would only occupy the volume of a coca-cola can – a mass of around two pounds. Moreover, there are several options available for dealing with this waste such as reprocessing or final storage – practices common in Finland and Sweden. Nuclear power is not so good at coping with peak electricity demand, but other resources could be used to account for this shortfall.

One of the other problems identified within your evaluation is a widespread lack of public acceptance concerning nuclear power. Do you think that society tends to overestimate the risks associated with atomic energy generation?
Yes, I do – at least in Western Europe and the United States where nuclear safety authorities take their duties very seriously and do a remarkably good job. This is a very well-known aspect of nuclear power. Firstly, people fear what they don’t understand. If you were to ask 100 people on the street: ‘What is radioactivity?’ most of your respondents probably wouldn’t know how to answer. They would be astonished if you were to tell them that a banana or a human body is naturally radioactive. Radioactivity is simply a property of a material, similar to temperature or weight. You wouldn’t get the same reaction if you were to ask about hydroelectricity, on the other hand, because people are familiar with water.

Secondly, communication from the nuclear power industry has been extremely poor in the past. If a sector continuously stresses that their products are safe, what are you likely to think? You might start to suspect that something is amiss. Do companies from the airline industry constantly tell their customers that their aeroplanes are safe? No, they don’t. Of course, this does not mean that safety is of any less importance to the airline industry than it is to the nuclear energy sector. Nevertheless, flight-related accidents occur every year and people still fly. Indeed, flying is actually much safer than driving or riding a bike.

How might policymakers and those working within the nuclear power sector improve public acceptance of this energy resource?
That is a good question. There are already examples of best practice when it comes to public engagement. In Switzerland, for example, information about nuclear power is made easily accessible to the public. The Swiss nuclear power sector places a high level of importance on providing unbiased information to citizens, starting from the age of elementary school pupils. The same can be said of France, where schoolchildren go on trips to learn how to work in nuclear power plants. In Finland and Sweden, transparency and unbiased information in relation to nuclear power are also musts. Consequently, nuclear power isn’t perceived as some monster that kills people; it is seen as a way of producing electricity. Not only does this approach increase public knowledge concerning nuclear power, but it also helps to improve scientific literacy in general.

It is important for those working within the sector to be honest with people. When there are accidents, explain what has happened fully and clearly. All power plants have accidents – nuclear plants included – and there is no point trying to trick people into believing otherwise. In the long term, the public will discover that they have not been told the whole story. When this happens, people feel cheated and they begin to lose confidence in the technology.

So better education and greater transparency will be necessary in order to pave the way for fuel security?



One takes us for stupid nubes with this article...
Nuclear that's not a marketing product, nuclear industry means tons of dangerous waste, permanent danger for the environment and centuries of ruined regions in case of accident.

I don't like Nuclear because I don't like DEATH. This sounds simpler than your insane arguments.

Commented Vallee on
How I learned to stop worrying and love nuclear power

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