Nuclear power – is it too big and remote to be accepted?

24 August 2010

A few years ago, one of my (then teenage) daughters came home from school and mentioned that they’d been learning about nuclear power in their geography lesson that day. Knowing the teacher concerned from brief acquaintance in the pub on Friday evenings, I immediately guessed that my daughter would have picked up a lot of negative messages, but was pleasantly surprised when she produced her exercise book. She’d made detailed notes from the lesson and the story told therein was somewhat reassuring. The world was short of energy and all possible solutions involved costs and benefits. Important considerations were the environment, economics and security of supply and nuclear had something to offer in each of these areas. In particular, low carbon emissions were a particular asset, combined with the maturity of the technology these days. There was some rather good text, maybe partly dictated by the teacher, covering all of this, but the very worthy account ended somewhat abruptly at the bottom of the first page with the sentence, “But nuclear reactors can blow up”!

So back to square one; we know that reactors cannot explode quite like an atomic bomb, but the public cannot reasonably make this distinction, given the images of Chernobyl which are still present in many peoples’ minds. Once nuclear power was adopted as the label of the commercial nuclear business, rather than atomic power or fission power, the association with nuclear weapons was always going to dog the industry. But there is another aspect which is also a significant problem in gaining public acceptance: the sheer size and remoteness of reactors from easy popular understanding.

If you take a flight from London’s Gatwick Airport towards Belgium and Germany, you are likely to pass over Dungeness Nuclear Power Plant, sitting on a headland on the English Channel coast. Apart from the fact that the AGR reactors there took 20 years to complete, ensuring certain economic failure, the site has a somewhat scary appearance from the air, sitting on its own and so isolated from any significant human habitation. Yet the reactors produce power for up to 1 million people located many miles away and do so silently, without any obvious disturbances such as daily coal trains bringing in the fuel or emissions of water vapour from huge cooling towers. Although reactor operators make great efforts these days to engage with local communities and the wider general public—indeed in some countries such as Finland, hundreds of thousands of people have visited nuclear sites—the nature of the technology, which produces a huge amount of heat from the fission of small quantities of uranium, and also the mental images of the locations, undoubtedly induce a sense of fear.

How could this possibly be averted? One obvious answer would be to have lots of much smaller reactors and to locate them in urbanised areas. People would then surely become familiar with nuclear power stations and not worry too much about them. Singapore, for example, is now considering nuclear power, but has five million people in only 700 square kilometres of territory. A site for a reactor could possibly be found on either reclaimed land or space currently used by the local military, but there are undoubtedly significant issues of safety and security to be considered. In particular, there are difficulties facing emergency evacuation when there are only two road bridges to escape the island state. Consideration is therefore being given to novel smaller reactor designs, maybe located underground or even out at sea, which could address at least some of these issues. Yet Singapore has huge electricity use, with generating capacity (mainly from imported gas) at 14 GWe—so it could certainly make good use of the output of a series of EPRs or AP1000s. Siting a major conventional nuclear facility some distance away from Singapore, over the border in Malaysia or in the nearer parts of Indonesia, is one option, but is unlikely to happen soon owing to political and energy security difficulties.

People undoubtedly fear situations over which they have no control. Large, remote nuclear reactors, devised and operated by the technological elite of society, clearly fall into this category. Somehow people would feel more comfortable and in control of events if there are many reactors located on smaller sites much closer to home. This is perhaps a little like the fear of flying, which seems to be rooted in the powerlessness felt by humans when they hand over control of their safety to a pilot and technicians servicing and guiding a large plane to its destination. Such people may prefer to go places by car on the basis that by sitting in the drivers’ seat or next to it, they have much more direct control over their safety. Even if they recognise that this sense is somewhat illusory as the relative accident rates of air and road travel show, they will continue to run the risk of encountering idiots on the road who may cause a severe accident. Thousands of people are killed each year in car accidents in the UK alone, but somehow this is regarded as an acceptable risk for the mobility and freedom gained. News of major accidents reaches the headlines, but these are soon forgotten as they have become so familiar and effectively accepted as an unfortunate fact of modern life. Indeed, if the private car were to be invented today, it is hard to see how it would gain regulatory approval, given the environmental and safety difficulties.

There are now, however, a number of smaller reactor designs that are being actively pursued. If they can be proven technically and then be widely adopted commercially, they would become a major boon to the nuclear sector. In addition to offering the attractive option of a completely different model of commercial nuclear project, much smaller in terms of capital required and with the ability to satisfy smaller grids, small reactors’ advantages for public perception should not be underestimated. Could a small nuclear reactor located in an urban environment be seen as more attractive than a wind turbine on a hillside? This would surely occur once local populations begin to accept a nuclear plant as just another industrial facility. That acceptance would remove a lot of the emotions that currently surround siting and plant operation. There are, of course, many hurdles which would have to be overcome to reach this point, notably the need for a speedier regulatory passage for such reactors. At present, the regulatory costs of licensing and operating a reactor are largely irrespective of reactor size, so the argument in favour of bigger units has been very strong.

Returning to the earlier aircraft and motoring analogy, there is something further to add, which is no doubt somewhat controversial. This is that it would probably be better for the perception of nuclear power today had there been more accidents. On the face of it, this sounds outrageous. Of course nobody wants accidents and we should do everything we can to prevent them, but great success in the nuclear sector has arguably brought with it a problem as well. If we’d had more accidents with limited loss of life, some of the more fantastic eventualities that have to be covered could now be ruled out. In a way, this is another consequence of the slowdown in the nuclear sector since the late 1980s; although technologically mature, many other features, such as the industrial structure and the international supply chain, also remain undeveloped.

Everyone refers to the two major accidents of the nuclear era, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, but also to the fantastic safety record since then. The World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) has done a great job in establishing a strong global safety culture on the basis that another significant accident would arguably knock the industry stone dead. But is this really the case or should it be allowed to be the case?

Let us suppose that the international aviation business had developed rather more slowly after the first jet planes arrived in the 1950s and that there had since been only five significant accidents with a major loss of life, as opposed to hundreds of incidents in reality. So when an accident occurs and a few hundred people are killed, there would be frenzied mass media coverage, with a major public debate about increasing safety regulations and speculation about how bad a conceivable accident could possibly be in the future. The possibility of two jumbo jets colliding in mid air, killing maybe 800 people, or alternatively a plane crash landing on a full sports stadium, maybe killing several thousand, would undoubtedly get raised. But because we now have the experience of mass air transportation over many decades, with the main accident trends clearly visible, we know that the risks of these eventualities occurring are actually very small. Air traffic control is very good and although planes have collided (and lots of ‘near misses’ have been reported), the chances of it happening are very low. And similarly with the sports stadium. Without the experience of many years of thousands of planes taking off and landing, it would be hard to dismiss the eventuality of such a terrible accident happening. But we now know that it is unusual to have any significant casualties on the ground from civil aviation; those killed in accidents are invariably solely those unfortunately on the planes.

The point is that with such a long track record, the risks become well understood and accepted—as they are with running millions of private cars. Yet one accident with no off-site radiation exposure (Three Mile Island) and another where there was significant exposure but arguably very limited consequences, mainly caused by the foolishness of the authorities (Chernobyl) are still able to cast such a cloud over the nuclear industry. Had there been more incidents of a severity between these two, it is arguable that the risks of nuclear power would now be very much better understood and hopefully accepted as very low. As it is, because of the lack of a long track record, the industry has to make provision for scenarios which are unlikely in the extreme, such as terrorists taking over a plane and flying it into an operating reactor.

Nuclear’s problem is therefore at least in part because people are just not familiar enough with its operations, which seem remote from normal experience. We cannot expect the general public to be fascinated by industrial operations; their main interest is essentially merely cheap and reliable electricity. But had the industry continued growing since the 1980s, it is reasonable to speculate that we would by now have a much larger number of small reactors located either in additional nuclear countries or on sites in the leading nuclear nations operating on a routine basis. Big and isolated reactors are not good for public acceptance, even if the industry can show an excellent safety and operating performance. There is still a great fear of the unknown and the unpredictable that is very hard to dispel. Of course the industry now has much better levels of public support in many countries, but this trust may still be rather volatile and be rooted in a general indifference. This is dangerous, because any bad news could quickly have a very adverse impact. The final solution to this will only come with the safe operation of a large number of new reactors of all sizes.

Author Info:

Steve Kidd is director of strategy and research at the World Nuclear Association, where he has worked since 1995 (when it was the Uranium Institute). Any views expressed are not necessarily those of the World Nuclear Association and/or its members.

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