Nuclear power – how to reboot and drain the swamp

8 March 2017

In my articles over the past two months, I have argued that the ‘paradigm of fear’ which dominates the nuclear sector is unlikely to be shifted by what the industry and its supporters (particularly those who were formerly anti-nuclear environmentalists) are currently doing. Despite the infusion of welcome new blood, there is still a mass of ‘establishment’ thinking about nuclear in an industry firmly rooted in its 1950s past. I likened this to Donald Trump’s Washington DC swamp – without, I hope, offending too many people. Draining the nuclear swamp may be even harder than cutting through the lobbyists in the US capital, and may take decades rather than years. But a start must be made. If not, nuclear power will not be a viable technology. 

I was struck with thoughts along these lines while reading the new updated 2017 edition of the World Nuclear Association’s (WNA)’s report “Nuclear power economics and project structuring”. I was actively involved in earlier editions and the latest authors are to be commended in producing a much-improved and excellent digest, covering all the issues surrounding nuclear economics, the recent changes to power markets and the challenges of structuring large industrial projects. Coming from an industry association, there is naturally a degree of spin attached to some of the analysis and conclusions, but the report makes its main case well. Where choices are made by sensible politicians following rational analysis, nuclear power stacks-up very well from the economic standpoint, and it should be possible to carry out many new projects in lots of countries. This rational choice, however, depends on other types of power generators paying for their ‘external costs’ and having inefficient subsidies withdrawn. It also requires power markets to be re-jigged so high capital cost investments are viable.

National nuclear bodies, such as the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) in the USA, are beginning to gain some traction with their efforts to put these arguments across. State-level measures are being put in place to save at some economically-threatened US nuclear stations. Two barriers lie ahead. First, Brexit and Donald Trump have demonstrated that in today’s world, facts and rational analysis count for very little. Future decisions are likely to be made according to powerful images and little more than hearsay. Second, the industry is fighting with its hands tied behind its back because it has failed to confront the fear paradigm and all that goes with it. It is defensive, and unable to argue aggressively against the many absurdities of renewable energies. It therefore has to seek accommodation with them, in fantasy future-energy scenarios.

On the first point, one doesn’t have to go as far as Brexit and Mr Trump. I recommend once again Malcolm Grimston’s new book ‘The paralysis in energy decision making’. This demonstrates convincingly how the world has consistently made sub-optimal energy choices and is almost certain to carry on doing so. The latest political trends make this increasingly likely, but we must secure something for nuclear amongst the carnage. Trying to water down or delay what people have voted for will be counter- productive, as the arguments will only return again in a decade, with the advocates saying ‘I told you so’. I personally voted to stay in the EU and could never vote for Mr Trump, but the new situation does present some opportunities if they can be grabbed. Can a period of rapid political and economic change be harnessed to transform the nuclear sector and aid the shift to a new paradigm?

I have set out the bare bones of this (February 2015, ‘Nuclear power – how can public opinion be won over’) but it seems a long time ago. At that time, I thought that nuclear power simply needed to be rebranded after the Fukushima accident, whereas it clearly needs a complete reboot. My view is that because the structure of the industry, its intra-governmental institutions and many of its people are still stuck in the 1950s it makes the transformation more challenging.

For example, the recent financial problems at Areva and Toshiba- Westinghouse show that reactor vendors need to consolidate, maybe to just two or three, each producing a limited number of designs.

The work of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is essentially based on the fear paradigm, majoring on proliferation, safety and security issues, and it bears heavily on the commercial industry. Staff within many organisations within the nuclear sector work hard and believe in a prosperous nuclear future, but many of their words and actions inadvertently harm it.

Recommendations for a reboot

The basis of what I recommend for the industry reboot remains the same: a three-pronged approach has to tackle radiation issues, realign the arguments for nuclear power and transform the industry’s approach to communications.

I have written extensively over the past few years about how misunderstandings about radiation and their official sanctioning in the international radiological protection (RP) regime lie at the heart of the fear paradigm and must be corrected. At the very least, this is necessary to manage the next severe accident without the chaos that surrounded Fukushima. It is an enormous undertaking but the industry has to take it seriously and seek all possible allies, including the nuclear medicine fraternity. Educating people about radiation will have to be handled with a lot of sensitivity, as it could easily backfire, while it will be hard to overcome the central position of the Linear No Threshold (LNT) theory and its many vested interests. But a start must be made now, with the industry more confident.

Nuclear power’s biggest selling point is that it can produce huge quantities of power very reliably and cheaply. It should avoid getting caught in anything involving more costs, government intervention, taxes and similar, which is where the climate change argument inevitably ends up. The NEI in the USA is sensibly making its case for nuclear on a much more subtle mix of arguments. Climate change is useful when people are not prejudiced by nuclear fear, but clean air (referring to damage done by diesel vehicles and use of fossil fuels) can work well. Urbanisation, particularly in developing countries, makes the case for large-scale centralised generation as a counterpart to advocates of distributed systems.

The industry’s communication approach remains stuck on the premise that “the truth will set you free” and therefore relies on supplying a mass of news and information intended to convince people that nuclear technology is the best option. But we have recent demonstrations that most people operate on a level where factual information holds little sway and belief is all-powerful.

The anti-nuclear camp has been very successful in convincing people that nuclear power is dangerous and evil, stoking fears by appealing to people’s emotions. The nuclear industry has to take a leaf out of this book and work much more with images to influence people’s feelings. Facts have a place, as does much more careful use of language. As Malcolm Grimston says, people seem to have a need for something on which to hang their anxieties, and the nuclear sector has become this by carelessness in language and arguments. 

Is fission power the solution?

One idea is to call the technology ‘fission power’ instead of ‘nuclear power’. If the industry tried this it would encounter a supreme level of cynicism, but it should be strong enough to overcome it. An industry reboot is necessary, so why not try to get away from the obvious association with nuclear weapons, proliferation and nuclear security concerns? The weapons link is tenuous today, even in countries that have the bomb, but remains powerful within the minds of the older generations who remember the negative science fiction images of the 1950s and 1960s. The best marketing gurus need to be consulted on how to change the industry’s key brand name.

Becoming the fission power industry does not need a technology shift. Ecomodernists seem to believe that a shift is necessary to overcome nuclear fear, so it promotes many allegedly novel reactor designs. But there are none that were not investigated to some extent in the 1950s, and still (for better or worse) large light water reactors became the technology of choice. Incremental product improvements have worked in areas like large commercial aircraft and the same should be true of fission reactors. The Koreans and Chinese have shown that they can be built on time and budget. My view remains that the small modular reactors (SMRs) will only be a marginal product unless the fear paradigm can be overcome. Even then, better-established larger scale technology should work fine, technically and economically.

The other big challenge is structural transformation of the industry’s big companies and intra-governmental bodies. A paradigm shift away from nuclear fear, towards fission power accepted as ‘just another industry but with some special characteristics’ should support both.

The concept of globalisation has become unfashionable in some quarters but it is missing in nuclear. This is a source of many of its current weaknesses and contrasts with civil aviation, which would have never got to where it is today without global supply chains and standardisation. Governments must stop supporting reactor vendors for nationalistic reasons and allow them to consolidate. One approach would be for an international programme on the lines of the Generation IV International Forum to come up with three designs that can be standardised internationally (perhaps two PWRs and a BWR). These should be the only designs that national regulators will approve and they can be built in various countries by international consortia, each trying to maximise local content in client countries where it is economically feasible.

The reaction of the UK nuclear industry to the government’s announcement that the UK will pull out of Euratom at the same time as the European Union (EU) demonstrates how far there is to go. Although new arrangements will have to be negotiated, abandoning those which have their roots in the 1950s is surely a good thing. In particular, the UK does not need the Euratom Supply Agency (ESA) to monitor its nuclear fuel arrangements. It can perfectly take care of these itself. The lawyers with their snouts in the trough, writing articles extolling the benefits of delaying withdrawing or trying to remain ‘half in’ are instructive.

Finally, we have to recognise that a paradigm shift will take some time. I have mentioned a possible parallel with the war on drugs (May 2015, ‘Five years post Fukushima – what still needs to be done?’). Narcotics have moved from prohibition backed by severe penalties towards legalisation. Maybe the paradigm of nuclear fear can similarly be moved, but on a long time frame. Radiation cannot hope to be appreciated and enjoyed as many do with marijuana, despite hormesis advocates arguing that small doses can be beneficial. But can it not at least become properly understood and accepted as merely part of living our lives on Planet Earth?. 

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. 

Privacy Policy
We have updated our privacy policy. In the latest update it explains what cookies are and how we use them on our site. To learn more about cookies and their benefits, please view our privacy policy. Please be aware that parts of this site will not function correctly if you disable cookies. By continuing to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy unless you have disabled them.