Net-zero world must conquer its irrational fear of nuclear power. Geraldine Thomas, a professor at Imperial College who has extensively studied the impact of nuclear accidents, argues that part of the problem is “our excessive fear of one risk: radiation”. It stems from the conflation of civil atomic power with nuclear bombs. Yet this is entirely erroneous. Power plants do not blow up like atomic bombs. (The explosions at Chernobyl and Fukushima were steam explosions caused by overheating). Nor do they emit anywhere near the same levels of radiation on the occasions when they do fail. An inhabitant of Pripyat, the now-abandoned city next to Chernobyl, might have absorbed 30 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation prior to evacuation. To put that in context, its equivalent to six years living in Chicago (where background radiation is about 6 mSv), or roughly three CT scans. All of this matters because of the need to decarbonise the world’s energy production. In this massive task we have relatively few proven technologies aside from nuclear to draw on. Renewables produce no carbon, but have other drawbacks such as intermittency. Carbon capture and storage remains unproven at scale and costly. Of course, nuclear is not without its drawbacks too. Reactors can be very expensive, and also slow to build. Just look at Britain’s £20bn-plus Hinkley Point scheme, already drifting over time and with its costs steadily rising. If nuclear power is to play a major role in decarbonisation, plants will have to come in faster and at lower cost. But what we should not do though is reject nuclear power out of irrational fears about its riskiness. That would be to repeat on a grander scale the mistakes made after Fukushima. Decarbonisation will be hard enough without zapping our one concentrated and reliable zero-carbon source.
FT 3rd Nov 2019 read more »