Achieving progress in nuclear – throw out the establishment?

29 January 2017

In a year that has seen significant political change, the rise of populism, and the challenging of many what were once accepted “norms”, the future is perhaps more uncertain than ever before. This uncertainty, coupled with a need and thirst for change, looks set to seep into the global nuclear sector, or at least is should says Steve Kidd.  

There is now such extensive coverage of nuclear-related stories in the media that it is inevitable there will be a mixture of positive and negative. A conclusion many people make is that “the industry stands at a crossroads”. It faces some new negative issues, such as the economic threat to today’s operating plants from cheap natural gas and the rising renewables penetration of power markets. Yet there remain some hopes that many countries will eventually introduce new nuclear programmes as an antidote to climate change.

It has been consistently argued in these columns, however, that the industry is failing to address the key negative issue which dominates it, namely the fact that most people are fearful of nuclear technology. Unless the “paradigm of fear” is overcome, the industry essentially has no future, despite the space in the world energy market which is very much open to it, combined with the technical developments underway in the sector today.

The Asia Pacific region is usually used as an example where positive news for nuclear is more prevalent, but three recent news stories – from Taiwan, Vietnam and Australia – yet again demonstrate the extent of the underlying problem.

It now seems almost certain that Taiwan will no longer have any nuclear stations in operation post-2025. This nuclear phase out stands in sharp contrast to the position in mainland China, where reactor construction dominates the world’s new build programme. The public acceptance issues which have bedevilled the Taiwanese industry for years have now come to a head and, to some extent at least, will almost inevitably resonate on the mainland.

The six operating units on Taiwan face specific issues such as shortage of storage for used fuel, but the underlying problem is lack of governmental support for continued operation, rooted in deep public fear. The Fukushima accident occurring in a nearby country with similar climatic and seismic challenges can be seen as the final nail in the coffin for nuclear in Taiwan. The new twin ABWRs at Lungmen, which are almost ready to operate, have been mothballed, joining the list of completed nuclear plants which have never operated, such as Shoreham in the US and Zwentendorf in Austria. That key components from Lungmen could conceivably find their way to the prospective ABWR units at Wylfa in the UK is more of a comment on the true position of the industry than any consolation.

In Vietnam, the Government has suddenly and unexpectedly announced the cancellation of the planned nuclear power programme. In the list of likely new nuclear countries, Vietnam has long been in the top five, so the decision is a bitter blow to the industry, particularly to the Russians and Japanese who were taking the lead with the two reactor sites. The reasons cited include slowing power demand growth and the belief that a combination of fossil fuels and renewables will offer cheaper power generation. The real reason, however, is the continuation of the paradigm of fear and particularly its adverse impact on nuclear economics.

With the way the mass media works today, even a one-party state such as Vietnam cannot be immune to public opinion and (as is now the case in China) opposition voices were getting a hearing. The cost of building reactors today means new build projects are unlikely to go ahead without some guarantees on generous power prices, and this is difficult in developing countries where access to affordable power is crucial.

The prospect of Australia having a deeper involvement in nuclear beyond its strong historic role in uranium mining has often seemed somewhat remote, but to South Australia’s credit, it established a Royal Commission to subject the question to rational analysis. Its report, and particularly the accompanying excellent background papers, certainly fulfilled this mandate and concluded that the best chance was setting up an international used fuel repository in the State. The Commission’s findings were recently put to a citizen’s jury which rejected the idea. This essentially got spiked by the anti-nukes to the extent that months of detailed and rational analysis of the case risks getting thrown out of
the window.

The debate should certainly be continued, particularly in light of recent power outages in South Australia, which suggest that it hasn’t got things quite right in power generation. More public consultation will be very welcome, possibly followed by a referendum, but this episode demonstrates once again the lingering hold of the fear paradigm. A major focus of the attack was on the prospective economics of the repository project, but the antis essentially appeal directly to the many people who are fearful of all things nuclear. This appears strong enough to survive a seemingly strange alliance of the right-of-centre Liberals with the far-left Green Party in South Australia.

What comes out, loud and clear, from these three examples is that the industry’s attempts to rebrand nuclear in over five years since the Fukushima accident have got essentially nowhere. Indeed, one may (politely) accuse it of engaging in a range of displacement activities (definition: an unnecessary activity that you undertake because you are trying to delay doing a more difficult or unpleasant activity).

Continuing to believe the public acceptance problem will be solved by more facts and figures from improved websites and news services is just burying one’s head in the sand. And, as has frequently been pointed out in these columns, relying on the climate change argument to advance nuclear’s prospects will almost certainly get nowhere. Industry bodies such as the World Nuclear Association (WNA) can point out that some of the countries with the best records on carbon emissions use a combination of nuclear and renewables (but mainly hydro, not wind or solar), while claiming that nuclear plants have avoided so many million tons of carbon since commissioning. But this is, at best and in my view, disingenuous. None of the 400 or so nuclear reactors around the world were built to abate carbon. They were built for other reasons, such as energy security and economics. Admittedly, it was believed that their environmental impact would mainly be benign, but investments are essentially made for what a technology does, rather than what it doesn’t.

Overcoming the paradigm of fear is certainly a lot more challenging than the industry’s obvious displacement activities and has a longer time horizon. Nuclear power will be badly needed in the future and it’s essential that the industry is ready. When it’s called upon, it has no chance of success if people are fearful of it, as there are always alternatives in power generation.
A new campaign needs to focus more on images and feelings, rather than facts, and must be particularly addressed at the understanding of the nature of radiation, its sources and proven impacts. At the same time, the international radiological protection (RP) regime must be reformed, as its basis in the Linear No Threshold (LNT) theory effectively gives regulatory backing to public fears and has caused most of the problems stemming from Fukushima. All of this may take 20-30 years, but a proper start needs making today, rather than the continued recourse to easier options.

Another recent news item is, of course, the election of Donald Trump as the next President of the US. On the face of it, this isn’t particularly good news for nuclear as he is on record as being supportive of fossil fuels and sceptical (at best) about actions on climate change and the environment. On the other hand, he is supportive of American industrial prowess and is unlikely therefore to be happy about US nuclear plant closures on his watch. These may rely more on actions at the State level, but the President sets an important tone and may turn out to be good for the industry rather than bad.

A more important reflection on the US elections is that facts (and hard-nosed analysis of these) seemed to count for very little and it was people’s feelings and the way these are coloured by sharp images that held more sway. Rather like the Brexit vote in the UK, it was a vote against the establishment and its panoply of experts, who are alleged to have forgotten the wishes and needs of the ordinary person in the street. President Trump aims to “drain the swamp” in Washington DC and make his country “great again”. But could it be that there is an “establishment” in the nuclear industry which is resistant to deep change and is preventing a renaissance? And because of this, could it be that the industry is just not “fit for purpose” to meet the needs of the modern energy world?

Far be it for me to assert that all my friends in the industry are a swamp that needs draining, there is more than a germ of truth in the above thoughts. In some areas, one can detect a definite nuclear establishment, resistant to change. If one asserts that radiation is not as worrying as everybody seems to think it is, one is essentially saying that all the people working in RP are not so very important and that their past actions have been misguided. Within international bodies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), there is arguably a mass of establishment thinking about nuclear which doesn’t help it at all. People claim to be supportive but come up with ideas like nuclear roadmaps and fantasy energy scenarios which are actually harmful. Within the industry itself, there are too many people who have worked only in nuclear and are seemingly not very upset with the way things are today. They appreciate that things are far from ideal but are not sufficiently motivated to do anything to change this. Or have simply given up, as a shift away from the paradigm of fear appears too challenging.

Rather like the establishment in Washington DC, the nuclear equivalent believes that the future can be measured and controlled, provided that people see sense and do what is right. So we get programmes like the WNA’s Harmony, where nuclear and renewables happily co-exist and bring salvation to the world. In the real business world, however, uncertainty is accepted as a fact of life and change tends to be unpredictable and also disruptive. All that the people in one of today’s industries can do to help its future is to identify one or two key issues and put maximum weight behind getting them right. With nuclear, it’s widely accepted that its biggest problem today is that people are afraid of it, so why not concentrate on addressing this to counter its obvious consequences?

Another recent news item was that UNSCEAR (the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation) came out with the finding that not only are exposures of radiation from coal-fired power generation much higher than from nuclear, but also those from solar power are higher too. This is because solar panels require rare earth metals, where the mining of low-grade ore exposes workers to natural radionuclides during mining. This may appear to be rather favourable news for the nuclear sector, but the opposite is actually the case.

UNSCEAR accepts that the exposure levels of all generation technologies are not harmful to human health, so why are they carrying out this comparative analysis in the first place? Of course, these exposure levels are only of plants in normal operation, and for nuclear there are conceivable accidents where it would multiply many times over. Hence such studies maybe inadvertently bring further adverse attention to what is so special about nuclear, namely the possible consequences of enhanced radiation exposure.

For those interested in a successful nuclear industry, the question has to be: “Is what we’re currently doing going to work?” My conclusion, based on the majority of what we’re seeing in the news today is: “No it won’t.” It is therefore necessary to try much harder, think a little outside the box, then come up with something new that will. 

About the author

Steve Kidd is an independent nuclear consultant and economist with East Cliff Consulting. The first half of his career was spent as an industrial economist within British industry, followed by nearly 18 years in senior positions at the World Nuclear Association and its predecessor organisation, the Uranium Institute.

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