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Going nuclear

Atkins | 10 Dec 2007 | Comments

Nuclear power’s public image has seen wild swings since its birth 50 years ago. Once hailed as the solution to the world’s power problems, it then became the scapegoat for industrialisation’s faults. Today, it is viewed as both a beacon for sustainable energy and a top terrorist target. Where does the line fall between reason and hyperbole?

In March 1979, Unit Two of the nuclear power plant on the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania suffered a partial core meltdown. While subsequent reports suggested exposure to radiation equivalent to the average X-ray, the accident effectively killed the nuclear industry in the US. After Three Mile Island, the number of reactors under construction declined every year from 1980 to 1998.

In April 1986, reactor number four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded. A 30km exclusion zone – known as the Alienation Zone – was established and remains in place today. According to a report by Tim Radford in The Guardian in 1993, “Radioactive iodine (which gets into the thyroid gland) cerium, caesium, zirconium, niobium and ruthenium, along with americium, strontium 90 (which gets into the bones) and plutonium (which gets into the lungs) showered over a huge area of the Ukraine, Belarus and the Bryansk region of Russia.” Predictably, the industry fell into even greater decline, and European production slowed to a crawl.

More than anything else, these two accidents confirmed – in the public mind at least – that nuclear power generation was a dangerous thing. But is it necessarily true?

Though the battle for the public’s heart and mind is far from over, there are encouraging signs that the nuclear industry’s place in the panoply of energy options is growing.

Currently, some 430 nuclear power plants in 30 countries produce 16 per cent of the world’s electricity – in OECD countries alone, they produce one-quarter of the power. New plants are planned or in construction in 15 countries, representing over half of the world’s population.

More pointedly, the latest report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that a huge increase in nuclear power will be required worldwide by 2030 in order to meet rapidly-expanding electricity demand without exacerbating global warming.

As for its public image, local citizens’ groups are more involved in nuclear planning discussions with public officials and industry than ever before, while governments now universally recognise that plant design based on autonomous safety is the only acceptable norm.

Also encouraging for the industry is a resurgence of professional interest in nuclear engineering after a long slump, although there is still a way to go to fill the sector’s skills shortage, according to experts: “The skills shortage in our sector has been a problem for a while, in the UK at least,” says Chris Ball, head of nuclear at Atkins. “Nuclear has been viewed as a dying industry since the mid-nineties, so people weren’t attracted to it.”

With a degree in nuclear engineering, Ball worked on power stations for many years before joining Atkins in 2000, where he oversees the organisation’s activities in the civil nuclear sector. Atkins has some 600 people working across the civil and defence nuclear sectors.

“You could now say the industry is ramping up, although it still has a major skills shortage,” he observes. As for Atkins itself, Ball says, “there’s a pretty diverse mixture of people working across Atkins, from specialist environmental and contaminated land consultants through to mechanical, civil and structural engineers.”

Public concern: the paradox

Expertise counts for little, however, unless the industry can rally the public to its side. This is an unusual challenge in that public attitudes about nuclear energy continue to be mixed, as revealed by the survey of European public opinion by Eurobarometer, the EU’s statistics agency.

Its February 2007 poll showed that, on balance, EU citizens recognise nuclear’s positive contribution to energy independence, stable energy prices and global warming. A slight majority also acknowledges that it would not be easy to replace nuclear energy. But when the subject turns to perceived risk, public opinion can quickly turn against the industry, even though there is no historical or factual basis for such concern.

For example, 53 per cent of those polled by Eurobarometer think nuclear power’s risks outweigh its advantages.

Aside from traditional worries about safety, such fears “appear to be connected primarily with the threat of terrorism, the possible misuse of radioactive materials and the unresolved question of radioactive waste,” observes Eurobarometer.

Given that nuclear energy has historically been perceived in some quarters as risky, the industry has been forced to defend the negatives rather than accentuate the positives. Yet Ball and other industry officials say public perception is changing for the better because the public is more willing to listen to industry’s position.

“We’re seeing a shift in attitude,” says Ball. “In the UK, you have had local liaison committees at nuclear sites for some time, where the local population is often largely pro-nuclear, as a result of extensive stakeholder engagement. This approach needs to be taken to the national level, and we’re starting to see this in the UK’s energy review.”

He points to recent consultations for the energy review as indicative of the change: “The general public was heavily present at the consultations I attended in late summer and there were some very robust debates,” says Ball.

“Having listened to the arguments, however, even the sceptics were more open – even supportive – of nuclear energy. This is a big swing from several years ago, when there was categorical opposition to the sector.”

John Ritch, director-general of the UK-based World Nuclear Association (WNA), puts it more directly: “Nuclear power today is a mature technology that draws on 50 years – and over 12,000 reactor-years – of civil operational experience. There’s never been major public harm from any Western-type power reactor.

“The 1986 Chernobyl accident, while tragic, is essentially irrelevant to future nuclear power generation, as no such design could be licensed anywhere today. The incident underlined lessons that were already being assimilated into nuclear operations in most of the world well before then. These lessons are now taught, and accepted, universally.”

As for the risk of terrorism, Ritch adds, “Nuclear power reactors are, by their nature, robust steel and concrete structures that are highly resistant to acts of terrorism.”

Waste… but not always “want not”

Aside from safety, however, the main driving factor for nuclear plants of the future will be cost and fuel efficiency, since reactors are inherently expensive to build and the waste they produce causes political challenges for its disposal and waste.

“Uranium, the fuel for nuclear power, is abundant, and with a well-known technological step can be used about 50 times more efficiently than today. Thus, nuclear power is sustainable on the ‘front end’ and its wastes – unlike those of fossil fuel – are fully contained and managed. Moreover, waste disposal is built into the price of nuclear electricity,” says Ritch.

Deciding where to store nuclear waste – medium-level and especially long-life, high-level waste – remains a political challenge for many countries, though not all, argues Ritch.

“Even though there is a scientific consensus that nuclear waste can be safely stored and disposed of, NIMBYism [Not in My Back Yard] remains a common tendency. But this can be overcome by public education,” he says. “In Sweden, well-informed communities are competing to host waste storage because they know the technology is safe.”

While, as Ball observes, no current disposal route exists for medium and high-level waste in the UK, progress is under way: “The government is looking at long-term disposal options, such as deep level repositories,” he says. “We see that as a very interesting prospect, which will draw upon our extensive tunnelling and nuclear engineering skills.”

Perception about the safety of nuclear power and its potential importance in the global future energy mix is certainly shifting, albeit slowly. And work within the industry is ongoing to address the remaining sticking points.

“Ultimately, this is all part of the larger debate about the future of our energy supply and our impact on this planet,” agrees Ivor Catto, group managing director of Design and Engineering Solutions for Atkins. “Following construction, a nuclear power plant is a significant base load generator of electricity with zero carbon emissions. It is therefore a vital part of the energy mix needed to tackle climate change. Renewable energy should be incentivised, but the concern is that renewable sources will not be able to supply more than 20 per cent, given the limitations and instability of supply.

“Governments and the energy sector are both beginning to recognise that climate change is one of the most significant challenges facing all of us and that energy suppliers have a significant role to play in this area. We need to bear this in mind in all of these debates.”

Will the public ever get over the ghosts of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl? Only time will tell.

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