The documentary film Pandora's Promise provided a platform for nuclear advocates to speak up for nuclear power as a green technology, prompting discussion and raising awareness of nuclear energy. A new organisation hopes to continue the momentum, explains Kirsty Gogan.
Twenty-five years after the world was first alerted to the need to dramatically reduce CO2 emissions or irreversibly alter the Earth's climate system, coal remains not only the world's number one source of electrical energy, it remains the fastest growing.
Currently, 80% of the world's renewable energy comes from hydroelectric power and there are few rivers left to dam. Wind and solar energy, the favoured energy technologies of environmental activists, have boomed in recent years. But their growth is a fraction of the growth of fossil fuels, rising to meet increasing global energy demand.
Crunching the numbers, the need for nuclear energy is clear. The world's leading experts, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Energy Agency and the UN, have argued for a doubling or tripling of nuclear energy - requiring as many as 1000 new reactors - to stabilise carbon emissions. Moreover, there is a growing consensus among climate scientists that due to the impact of cumulative CO2 emissions, even an 80% reduction in fossil fuel use by 2050 will not be enough.
The question of safety
So, why is it that most people think the safest form of electricity generation is the most dangerous? (In fact, nuclear is the safest form of electricity, against a metric of deaths per TWh. Dr James Hansen and Dr Kharecha have provided evidence that nuclear energy has so far saved 1.8million lives by replacing coal and gas plants that would otherwise have been built resulting in deaths from particulate air pollution.)
In most countries with nuclear power, the maximum allowable dose limit for the public is 1mSv. Yet natural background radiation in the UK varies from 2mSv to 7mSv. However, there is no dose limit for coal fired power stations, which do emit radioactive emissions, as well as mercury, lead, and benzene.
People are afraid of nuclear partly due to an historical lack of trust. But it is also because the industry has spent years persuading everyone that nuclear is uniquely dangerous.
To be clear, I do not mean the actual safety performance or its importance. I'm talking about the messages being sent and the culture that has developed. The industry has failed to appreciate that by being so intent on telling everyone how seriously they take safety, their reassurances often have the opposite effect and leave everyone convinced what they are doing is incredibly dangerous.
Working to a quarter of the legal limit on dose has quite the opposite effect on public confidence as what is intended. Not only that, but it has forced the regulator to continuously demand higher standards, at a higher cost, to satisfy the perception of infinite danger, with negligible, or even negative benefits since it makes nuclear more difficult to build and fossil fuels more attractive.
Nuclear could learn from other industries. The glamour of the jet set era may be well and truly over, but airlines market themselves on their service, not on their safety record. Obviously we want to be confident that the airline is properly regulated, and that staff are professional and highly trained, but this should be an internal best practice, not an external marketing campaign. There's a difference.
We need innovation not only in technology: we need social innovation too.
Pandora's promise and a sea-change in sentiment
“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?"
John Maynard Keynes
Robert Stone's documentary film Pandora's Promise shattered the long-standing taboo against discussing nuclear energy as an environmental positive. It relates the story of how life-long environmentalists became staunch pro-nuclear advocates. In the course of explaining that journey, the film makes the case that nuclear is not only safer than most people fear, but essential to addressing the threat some fear most: climate change.
Since its release in June 2013, the film not only sparked a public debate, it created a safe space for nuclear supporters to speak out, shifting the discourse on nuclear energy. A series of public endorsements for nuclear followed Pandora's Promise, including leading climate scientists and the New York Times editorial board. High-profile endorsements of nuclear energy continue to emerge, especially from figures respected in the environmental community, including Bill Gates, Richard Branson and US EPA administrators, along with a growing number of environmentalists, climate scientists, and policy makers. In January, sixty-six of the world's leading conservation biologists signed an open letter to support nuclear expansion on environmental grounds. It is a powerful statement for the conservation community to speak up for nuclear as a green technology.
The success of Pandora's Promise illustrates a tremendous gap in the nuclear education and advocacy space. The overwhelming response - from mainstream greens, journalists, government officials, and academics - was that Pandora's Promise filled a much-needed role of being a strong, independent voice articulating the need for nuclear. Until now, existing messaging has largely come from governments and industry, leaving the field open for anti-nuclear groups. With enthusiasm from Pandora's Promise still high, but the film's campaign coming to a close, Robert Stone, Daniel Aegerter and I cofounded a new NGO, Energy for Humanity, to fill that gap.
No CO2, no problem?
Some may argue that CO2 emissions do not play a role in warming temperatures and that the nuclear industry should therefore not attempt to find common cause with those who support nuclear as a non-CO2 emitting power source.
But if we take such climate deniers at their word, why shouldn't the world simply turn to much cheaper and readily available natural gas? It is increasingly plentiful and it doesn't pollute. In fact, that is precisely what is happening; the US is currently shutting down perfectly good reactors in favour of cheaper, easy to build, natural gas turbines.
There are currently two core arguments in favour of nuclear technology:
1) We need to stop burning all forms of fossil fuels within the next few decades and nuclear energy is the only viable way of doing that; and
2) The developing world is rightly demanding more and more energy. The only way to completely meet that growing demand without burning more fossil fuels is with nuclear energy.
Every credible scientific or policy-making body concludes that a massive expansion of nuclear energy is critical if we are serious about transitioning from fossil fuels, not only for electricity generation, but also for industrial heat, desalination and transport.
However, we know that real issues around safety, waste, proliferation and cost prevent conventional nuclear energy from being scaled up globally to the extent necessary. This is especially the case in countries that do not have the required skills and infrastructure to build, maintain and operate conventional nuclear power plants, but which will account for the lion's share of growth in energy demand. In addition, these huge plants require such large up-front capital investment that they are almost impossible to finance in the private sector.
This is why we must look to advanced reactors that are inherently safer, eliminate waste and are easier to build and operate. It may take ten years for these designs to prove their potential but this does not stop the USA, Russia, China, India, Canada, UK and many other countries, along with major investors, taking nuclear innovation very seriously.
About the author
Kirsty Gogan is an established expert in climate and energy communications with experience as a senior advisor to UK Government, industry, academic networks and non-profit organisations. She is cofounder CEO of Energy for Humanity, a new NGO working to meet the goal of universal access to clean and cheap energy.