As 2014 comes to a close, nuclear power is at a crossroads – again!

The world needs nuclear power – so says the latest edition of the World Energy Outlook (WEO) issued in November. “Nuclear power is one of the few options available at scale to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions while providing or displacing other forms of baseload generation. It has avoided the release of an estimated 56 gigatonnes of C02 since 1971, or almost two years of total global emissions at current rates.”

Yet looking back at 2014, the industry has had its ups and downs. There were setbacks as France formalized its intention to reduce its reliance on nuclear going forward, Sweden pulled back after its most recent election, and in Finland the Olkiluoto 3 project was delayed once again. In the US, the most recent plant to be shutdown is the Vermont Yankee plant; shutdown after 42 years of operation as not being economic, yet its shutdown will definitely raise electricity costs for its consumers and impact the local economy as a result of its closure-related job losses.

Yankee Atomic 2014

Vermont Yankee shuts down

There was good news in Japan as the first units were approved for restart since the 2011 Fukushima accident, although the actual restarts are taking longer than expected. The re-election of the Abe government also bodes well for Japan’s nuclear future. In the UK, there was a big win as Europe approved the project at Hinkley Point as not contravening state-aid rules; but once again progress is slower than most would like.

And then there are places where nuclear power is booming. China brought new units into operations and approved numerous new units with a larger-than-life target for its nuclear share in 2020 and beyond. The Chinese also approved its first Hualong One reactor, the evolution and combining of designs from both CGNPC and CNNC, as they plan for future exports. Korea approved new units and its first new site in decades. Russia continues to grow both domestically and continues to be very aggressive in the export market.

Given the importance of nuclear power, it is the first time since 2006 the WEO includes a special chapter on nuclear – in fact this time 3 full chapters performing a detailed in-depth analysis of the nuclear option. It clearly demonstrates the benefits of nuclear power in addition to being one of the only generation options at scale available to reduce carbon emissions; it also plays an important role as a reliable source of baseload electricity that enhances energy security. Clearly the benefits and the need for more nuclear is becoming clearer than ever. So why is there this continuing imbalance as we look around the world at various counties’ policies for nuclear power?

The WEO notes two significant issues holding back a large-scale nuclear renaissance. These are public concern and economics. Both are valid and need to be better addressed by the industry. We have written much over the past year or so on the importance of improving public attitudes and, in fact, in many countries we now see improvement. But we also acknowledge there is a long way to go to reduce public fear about nuclear power. For example, even though the main objective of Germany’s Energiewende is to reduce carbon emissions; their even stronger emotional response against nuclear is causing a short term increase in carbon emissions .i.e. their fear of nuclear is stronger than their desire for a cleaner environment.

On the cost side, concerns about high capital costs and completing projects to cost and schedule are valid. The industry has more work to do on this issue as evidenced by some recent projects. At the same time we see that countries such as Korea and China, who are building series of plants in sequence and are achieving the benefits of replication and standardization resulting in lower costs and improved certainty, are completing projects to cost and schedule. Yes, it can be done. But even these countries are not immune to public concerns.

The real problem is that these concerns tend to overwhelm the discussion even amongst energy professionals. For example the summary in Chapter 12 of the WEO, “The Implications of Nuclear Power”, starts “Provided waste disposal and safety issues can be satisfactorily addressed, nuclear power’s limited exposure to disruptions in international fuel markets and its role as a reliable source of baseload electricity can enhance energy security….. “. Renewables are always addressed with hope and little concern for their very real issues while discussions about nuclear are most often focused on its challenges.

Yet even at Google, engineers have come to a conclusion that the challenges to achieving climate goals with renewables are very large. Two Google engineers assigned by the company to show how renewable energy can tackle climate change each came to a blunt conclusion: It can’t be done. As stated, “Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach.”

The following figure sums it up very clearly. In the case that doom and gloom overwhelms good policy and decision making, we may end up with the Low Nuclear Scenario. But this scenario has real implications – “taken at the global level, a substantial shift away from nuclear power, as depicted in the Low Nuclear Case, has adverse implications for energy security, and economic and climate trends, with more severe consequences for import-dependent countries that had been planning to rely relatively heavily on nuclear power.” Of more importance, at the other end of the spectrum is the 450 Scenario which the IEA believes we need to achieve to truly have an impact on climate change. And in this case, even more nuclear power than the so called “High Nuclear Case” Is needed.

WEOFigure11 12

So there it is, the best way to economically and efficiently address climate change is with a substantial contribution by nuclear power. This year’s WEO lays out the challenge very clearly – once gain nuclear power is at a crossroads. The options range from a slow decline to a more than doubling of nuclear power in the next 25 years. Nuclear power must be an important part of any future low carbon energy system but there are beliefs that are very well entrenched in the minds of both the public and even many global energy professionals that must be addressed once and for all. It is our responsibility to take on these challenges for a brighter future. It’s time to go big and work together to build a strong base of global support for nuclear power. Beliefs are hard to change, but change them we must if we are to have a sustainable, abundant and economic energy future for us all.

And as 2014 comes to a close, I want to thank all of you for continuing to read our blog and contribute to the discussion. Wishing you all a very happy, healthy and prosperous 2015!




If we are serious about carbon free electricity – there must be more nuclear power

Last month, we wrote about the ongoing push by the United Nations to combat climate change and its underwhelming support for nuclear power as an important part of the solution. To no one’s surprise, the final volume of the current IPCC report on climate change issued November 1 is no different. Yet this report is very clear in its conclusion that limiting the impact of climate change may require reducing greenhouse gases emissions to zero this century. So while the world is focused on developing a range of new technologies to meet this challenge, fossil fuel use continues to grow. In reality, the answer is right in front of our eyes. What the world needs is a massive increase in nuclear power.

While many will write about this most recent IPCC report, we want to bring some new perspective and once again discuss the role of nuclear power as an essential tool to reduce carbon emissions. There are a few new studies and announcements this past month that show the paradox of current policies.

First there was a study released in Nature that suggests that even though natural gas emits about half the carbon of coal, abundant natural gas alone will do little to slow climate change. The study’s lead author Haewon McJeon, an economist at the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory said, “Global deployment of advanced natural gas production technology could double or triple the global natural gas production by 2050, but greenhouse gas emissions will continue to grow in the absence of climate policies that promote lower carbon energy sources.” This is in contrast to many who believe that gas is an important part of the solution. We have no issue with gas and believe it can be an important part of a diversified electricity system; but according to this study, it is not a great tool in the fight against climate change.

Of even more relevance to the discussion, a recent report issued by Hatch Ltd. in Canada,”Lifecycle Assessment Literature Review of Nuclear, Wind and Natural Gas Power Generation”, demonstrates the challenges of relying too much on wind to drive down emissions. This report notes that wind as an intermittent resource is usually backed up by gas. So if wind generally operates about 20% of the time, the gas backup would be operating the other 80% continuing to emit carbon. Therefore nuclear emits some 20 times less carbon than a wind/gas combination (see figure below). Most of us in the energy industry know this is why gas producers are often strong supporters of wind and solar. While the public believe wind is good for the environment; it’s even better for the gas industry.

Even the wind industry acknowledges these results. They note this is only one scenario and that there are more plausible scenarios where wind would be supported by demand side management, storage and other means of clean generation. This is indeed a laudable goal for the future, but the reality remains, today most renewables are backed up by gas.

HatchEmissions

All of the above would suggest that there should be more support for nuclear as a very important element for a solution to climate change. It is effective and available today and most of all can provide large amounts of clean reliable electricity.

In fact, the public is quite aware of this. A just released study in the USA is showing eighty-two percent of those surveyed agree with the statement, “We should take advantage of all low-carbon energy sources, including nuclear, hydro and renewable energy, to produce the electricity we need while limiting greenhouse gas emissions.” Further 75 percent of those polled said nuclear energy will be “very important” or “somewhat important” in meeting America’s future electricity needs. Seventy-three percent of those surveyed associate nuclear energy with clean air. Clearly a very important step in securing the support required to increase the use of nuclear energy.

On the other hand, we have also seen more negative political views. In Sweden, after reconfirming the need for more nuclear power in 2009; the outcome of the most recent election had the new government stepping back in order to gain support from the Greens.   Social Democrat leader Stefan Lofven said “Sweden has very good potential to expand renewable energy through our good access to water, wind and forests. In time, Sweden will have an energy system with 100% renewable energy.” Reality clearly has no place in politics.

And of even more concern is the recent vote by the French parliament to reduce the use of nuclear energy from 75% to no more than 50% by 2025. They must remove a plant from service when Flamanville comes into service in the next year or so as the amount of nuclear power cannot increase.  And it looks like the French president himself will take the decision on which plant to shut down. Taking safe clean reliable power out of service prior to its end of life purely as policy seems foolish at best. The Hatch study shows this strategy will most likely lead to increased use of fossil fuels and thus higher carbon emissions at least in the short to medium term. This is exactly what we have seen in Germany. Taking a large amount of nuclear out of service is requiring the construction of new coal generation even though Germany is expanding renewable generation at a very high rate.

So what does this all mean? As we have said many times before, removing and / or reducing nuclear strictly for policy reasons, especially in the case of successfully operating units means only one thing – that there remains an overriding societal belief that nuclear is not safe – and therefore less is always better than more. While some environmentalists now realize this is not the case; this truth has not yet caught up with the public at large and hence is not always supported by their politicians.

The IPCC report is clear that the world must take action to combat climate change. Nuclear power is the only large scale source of clean abundant reliable electricity generation available and that should make it an essential part of the solution. Trying to generate all electricity with zero carbon emissions without making extensive use of nuclear power is simply making what is already very difficult, pretty much impossible.




Changing the discussion – It’s all about people

It’s always amazing when a United Nations report that has global ramifications comes out with little fanfare.”  So starts an article in Forbes talking about the most recent UNSCEAR report on the consequences of the Fukushima accident in Japan.  Three years after the accident, UNSCEAR, the United Nations body mandated to assess and report levels and effects of exposure to ionizing radiation has reported and its result could not be more clear.  “The doses to the general public, both those incurred during the first year and estimated for their lifetimes, are generally low or very low.  No discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected among exposed members of the public or their descendants.”

This result is in stark contrast to a number of more recent accidents in other industries, all with a large number of fatalities.  Whether it is a plane lost in Malaysia, a ferry sinking in Korea, an oil explosion in Quebec; the list goes on.  Unfortunately there is no shortage of examples of terrible accidents resulting in loss of life.  And yet, in comparison to these many tragic events, it continues to be nuclear accidents that many people fear the most.

But the reality is quite different. When it comes to nuclear power, we have now seen that even in the worst of the worst nuclear accidents (Chernobyl and Fukushima), we can protect people and minimize fatalities from radiation.   In other words, the decades old belief that nuclear accidents are very low probability but exceptionally high consequence; effectively resulting in the end of the world as we know it (i.e the doomsday scenario), is just not the case.

For those that have been reading my blog for a while, it was about a year ago that I wrote about the need for a new paradigm to communicating the risks and benefits of nuclear power for the future with an emphasis on refining the message to reflect current reality.  The message on safety should be:

  • The risk of a nuclear accident is very low and is always getting even lower
  • In the event of an accident the risk of releasing radiation to the environment is also very low; and
  • Even in the unlikely event that radiation is released, the public’s health and safety can be protected.

Of course, this does not mean we should become complacent.    Certainly the industry is doing the right things to make sure a similar accident cannot happen again.  Many improvements have been made in plants around the world to both reduce the risk of an accident and in the event of a severe accident, reduce the risk of radioactive releases.

For example, here in Canada, we have broadened our safety objective to “Practically eliminate the potential for societal disruption due to a nuclear incident by maintaining multiple and flexible barriers to severe event progression”.  Setting societal disruption as the measure is definitely something new as move forward post Fukushima.

As an industry, we are excellent at learning from every event and making improvements to reduce the risk of a similar event in the future.  The global nuclear industry should be proud of its unwavering commitment to safety.

But that being said, while making technical improvements and reducing the risk of future accidents is essential; unfortunately this will be unlikely to result in the public feeling safer.  I would argue that in general, the public already believe the risk of an accident is low – the problem is they also believe the consequence of an accident is unacceptably high.  So no matter how low we make the probability, they will remain afraid of the consequences.  In other words, as we continue to talk about improving technology to reduce risk; we need to enhance the discussion to talk about people and how to both keep them safe (the easy part); and of even more importance, feel safe (now here is the challenge).

Therefore an important lesson from Fukishima, is that accidents, however unlikely are indeed possible.  And it is because of the perceived consequence of an accident that the public continues to be afraid.  In fact, fear is an understatement.  We know that nuclear accidents cause not only fear but outright panic.  And this panic is not limited to people in the immediate area of the plant but is experienced by people all over the world.  Not a week goes by when there is not some news item on how radiation from Fukushima is about to land on the North American west coast.  While there is little risk of any radiation issue, to the public, it continues to stoke fear.

So now that we know that there is little to no health impact from radiation after Fukushima, does that mean the discussion is over?  No, the next step is to address the real health consequence of a nuclear accident – mental and social well-being.  Fear of radiation is a complex issue.  While people will happily accept significant doses of medical radiation as they believe (quite rightly so) this will improve their health, they remain terrified of radiation from sources such as nuclear power plants.

In their report UNSCEAR noted, “The most important health effect is on mental and social well-being, related to the enormous impact of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident, and the fear and stigma related to the perceived risk of exposure to ionizing radiation. Effects such as depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms have already been reported. “

They continue, “The evacuations greatly reduced (by up to a factor of 10) the levels of exposure that would otherwise have been received by those living in those areas. However, the evacuations themselves also had repercussions for the people involved, including a number of evacuation-related deaths and the subsequent impact on mental and social well-being (for example, because evacuees were separated from their homes and familiar surroundings, and many lost their livelihoods).“

Whatwillhappen to me

And this is where we need to do more.  Once we accept that even after implementing our best efforts, there may well be another accident someday, there needs to be increased focus on accident management and recovery.  This means clear guidelines on when to evacuate, what is required to remediate a contaminated area and when it is safe to go home again.  A huge source of fear is the unknown and after a nuclear accident, people impacted are very worried about their futures.  They want to know – will I get sick, how about my children and grandchildren – can I go home again – and if so when?  And basically how and when will I be able to resume my normal life?

UNSCEAR noted that “estimation of the occurrence and severity of such health effects are outside the Committee’s remit”.  Given these are important and significant health impacts; it is time for the industry to take action.  As an industry we have long been leaders in industrial safety.  Now we have the opportunity to be leaders in post-accident recovery psychological research.  We need new research to better understand the impact to people in affected areas following nuclear accidents so we can better plan how to reduce their fear and indeed, have a happy and healthy future. This will lead to better decisions following events based on science rather than short term fear issues. It is important to understand that protecting people means much more than emergency planning to get them out of harm’s way when an accident happens.  It also means meeting their needs right up until they can resume their normal lives.

The most important lesson from Fukushima is not technical.  Of course we will learn how to avoid similar accidents in the future and make plants safer.  But if we really want to change the dialogue and increase public support for the industry, we must also recognize the future is all about people – building confidence and reducing fear.




It’s passion that will lead to brighter nuclear future

Last month I talked about innovation in the nuclear industry focusing on the perception that nuclear is not innovative.  Since then I attended the Canadian Nuclear Association annual conference.  Its theme this year was “Developing the next generation” which in this case focused on developing the workforce of the future.

While the discussion at the event was about Canada, the theme can be applied to many countries.  Essentially, it was noted that the industry has numerous opportunities that offer well paid interesting work for the long term.  And, of more importance it was made clear that the industry is only as good as its people; hence the need to attract the best and brightest.

With all the good discussion, what caught my interest was the guest breakfast speaker, Taylor Wilson, known has the boy who played with fusion.  At 19 years old, he gave a great talk (already having given two TED talks) about his passion for all things nuclear.  I am not going to discuss Taylor’s achievements or strong technical skills, both of which are certainly impressive; and he is also extremely articulate proving that scientists can indeed communicate well.  But what really got me excited was his passion for nuclear science.  This passion ignited the audience by reminding us all of our own passion for the industry.

I remember being a young student studying nuclear engineering at RPI in Troy New York during the 1970s.  What drove me to go into nuclear was the mystery and excitement of this still relatively young industry.  I wasn’t looking for a job; I was looking for a future.  The oil shocks had happened and it was clear that the world needed alternate energy.  Being able to provide almost limitless energy to power the world, nuclear power seemed to be the solution and I wanted to be part of it.

I was not unique.  Many of my colleagues; many of whom (older than me) were the pioneers of nuclear energy, were inspirational in their dedication and passion for nuclear power.  I am not talking about the early great scientists who harnessed the atom, but rather the next wave of people, both technical and political who drove the industry forward securing commitments to, and then building the 400 plus Generation II reactors in service today.  This past December was the sixtieth anniversary of President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace speech to the United Nations.  This speech launched a new industry around the world.  I would name some of those who contributed but they are too many and I don’t want to leave anyone out.  Rather, I invite you in your comments to note who inspired you either to enter the industry or along your career to keep on moving forward.  (Some of the pioneers of the Canadian industry are listed here.)

And they succeeded.  They developed one of the most important energy technologies known to man.  In less than fifty years, an idea was turned into a commercially viable energy technology meeting about 12% of global electricity.  And that number, of course, is deceptive since about half of the countries that rely on nuclear energy use it for 20% or more of their electricity supply.

Of course there have also been numerous challenges along the way that saw the industry slowdown in the latter part of the twentieth century.  Recent developments as the world looks for solutions to climate change has re-ignited interest in nuclear power as a part of the solution.  This is also in the context of the 2011 accident in Japan which once again raised fears of the industry and its potential negative impacts.

For most of us who have spent our careers in the nuclear industry, we remain just as passionate today as we were when we were young and our belief in the benefits that nuclear energy bring to society continues to be strong.  There are others who have been worn down by the relentless effort required to sell these benefits and the years of attacks against the industry.  The result is a defensiveness along with a weariness that has reduced efforts to move forward as many in the industry focus on survival.  It is now time for a new generation of passionate young people like Taylor Wilson to take this industry into the future. I know they exist.  There is the nuclear Young Generation Network (YGN) with chapters around the world.  For those of you YGN members who read this, please  give your views.

It is not just about opportunities for employment, but rather about opportunity to make a difference.  The question becomes, not how do we find the nuclear workers of the future – but how do we inspire the passion in a nuclear future that we all had (and continue to have) when we started our careers to attract the best and brightest to our industry going forward?  I would guess that if you went to any university graduating class and asked for the 10 most innovative and exciting industries of the future, we would likely not make the list.

I talk about communications in this blog quite often.  But most of the time I talk about how we can promote the industry and reduce the fear of radiation in the public.  But we must also consider how to communicate to a new generation of potential nuclear industry professionals the excitement, innovation and societal imperative so that they can develop their own passion.

I love working in this industry and I wouldn’t change my experiences for anything.  Now it’s time to help build the industry of the future – and that means inspiring young people to take a leap of faith and jump on board.




Meeting the energy needs of the 21st century – is it time for a real nuclear renaissance?

As I started to read this year’s World Energy Outlook (WEO 2013) from the International Energy Agency (IEA), it was the very first line in the executive summary that caught my interest.  The report starts out with “Many of the longheld tenets of the energy sector are being rewritten.

It then goes on to explain: “Major importers are becoming exporters, while countries long-defined as major energy exporters are also becoming leading centres of global demand growth. The right combination of policies and technologies is proving that the links between economic growth, energy demand and energy-related CO2 emissions can be weakened. The rise of unconventional oil and gas and of renewables is transforming our understanding of the distribution of the world’s energy resources. Awareness of the dynamics underpinning energy markets is essential for decision makers attempting to reconcile economic, energy and environmental objectives. Those that anticipate global energy developments successfully can derive an advantage, while those that fail to do so risk making poor policy and investment decisions.”

What is clear is that energy is important!  Most of all there is change in the air – ignore it at your peril.  And with change comes opportunity.  This is where I want to focus my discussion this month.  But before I go on, I think it is useful to summarize the key points from the report to further clarify the paragraph above. The WEO 2013 is concluding the following:

  • The centre of gravity of energy demand is switching decisively to the emerging economies, particularly China, India and the Middle East, which drive global energy use one-third higher.
  • As the source of two-thirds of global greenhouse-gas emissions, the energy sector will be pivotal in determining whether or not climate change goals are achieved.
  • Large differences in regional energy prices have started a debate about the role of energy in unleashing or frustrating economic growth.
  • Energy price variations are set to affect industrial competitiveness, influencing investment decisions and company strategies.
  • Countries can reduce the impact of high prices by promoting more efficient, competitive and interconnected energy markets.
  • A renewed focus on energy efficiency is taking hold and is set to deliver benefits that extend well beyond improvements in competitiveness.
  • Enhancing energy competitiveness does not mean diminishing efforts to tackle climate change. Renewables account for nearly half of the increase in global power generation to 2035, with variable sources – wind and solar photovoltaics – making up 45% of the expansion in renewables.
  • Coal remains a cheaper option than gas for generating electricity in many regions, but policy interventions to improve efficiency, curtail local air pollution and mitigate climate change will be critical in determining its longer-term prospects.
  • Market conditions vary strikingly in different regions of the world, but the flexibility and environmental benefits of natural gas compared with other fossil fuels put it in a position to prosper over the longer term.

So there you have it.  The fastest growing economies have the fastest growing demand, high energy prices are slowing growth in some markets and giving an economic advantage to others with lower prices; and climate change is having an impact on energy decisions.

The above makes it sound as if the path to a low carbon future is built on more renewables and gas.  But is it really?  Looking at the following chart we can see that in the OECD countries where demand growth is modest and electricity supply is already robust, gas is the go-to fuel both due to cost and as a cleaner alternative to coal; and renewables are the supposed clean generation of the future.  Not surprisingly in the non-OECD countries where demand is growing much more quickly (read mostly China!), they are doing everything they can to develop all kinds of supply – including more coal, more gas, more renewables and yes, more nuclear.

IEAWEONov2013a

So what does this mean for nuclear power? According to the IEA, “Nuclear power generation increases by two-thirds in the New Policies Scenario, reaching 4,300 terawatt-hours (TWh) in 2035. Demand is driven heavily by expansion in just a few countries: China accounts for around half of the global increase; Korea experiences the next largest increase over the projection period (the only OECD country to see appreciable growth), followed by India and Russia. Overall, non-OECD economies see their share of global demand for nuclear power jump from less than 20% to nearly 45% in 2035. While prospects for nuclear power at the global level are now less uncertain than they were two years ago, there are still key issues that remain unclear. These include the possibility of further changes in government policy, implications of the ongoing safety upgrades for plant economics and public confidence, and the impact of increased competition from shale gas.”

It should not be a surprise that those countries with the largest demand growth see a large benefit from increasing the use of nuclear power.  They need clean reliable baseload and nuclear meets this need.  In the more advanced OECD countries, many of these already have significant nuclear fleets (80% of current nuclear capacity is in OECD countries), have lower baseload growth and can (or at least they think they can) look at other alternatives.  Gas is replacing coal as a cleaner fossil option so long as it remains competitive and the challenges of new nuclear coupled with low demand growth put it more on the back burner.

IEAWEONov2013b

But is this the right path?  As I said last year when I reported on the WEO 2012, it is important to remember the WEO is not a forecast per se; rather it is a projection of how existing and potential government policies would look once implemented.  And what we still see one year later is a world investing heavily in fossil fuels to protect the status quo while also investing in renewables as a token path to the future.  Of more importance, the WEO shows a path to meet climate change goals that is based on efficiency to lower demand, movement from coal to gas and CCS technology to clean up some of the coal and then more renewables.

What goes unsaid is how this is fantasy.  Not that the world will continue down the path of burning fossil fuels for our electricity, but rather that we can do so and meet climate goals. The 2013 WEO New Policy scenario “leaves the world on a trajectory consistent with a long term average temperature increase of 3.6C, far above the internationally agreed 2C target”.   In their 450 scenario where the target is 2 degrees, there is more renewables, more conservation, more technology to clean fossil fuels and yes, a little more nuclear.

Given the need to decarbonize the electricity sector and the limits to using wind and solar (about half the renewable additions), it should be obvious that nuclear be a stronger option.  Yes, currently in North America low gas prices are challenging its competitiveness while in Europe, green ideology has a larger impact.  There is a onetime carbon improvement as coal is replaced by gas; but then gas becomes the largest carbon producer on the system – so where do we go from there?  And renewables will remain intermittent and likely costly for some time to come.  Nuclear power is clean, reliable and in most cases, economic; but of most importance – abundant.  Yes, in a resource constrained world, the amount of electricity we can potentially generate with nuclear power is almost limitless.  So why don’t we see more of it in the developed world?

The answer is that we still don’t have the political will.  And that comes from lack of public support.  Just this week the World Bank reiterated its policy that they don’t support nuclear power – even though they support all other forms of electricity generation.  Continued negative press about the status of Fukushima keep the public on edge.  For example this past month TEPCO started to remove the used fuel from the Unit 4 spent fuel bay.  This should have been a good news story yet most stories made it seem like a horrifically dangerous undertaking (and of course it is not).

The WEO makes the case that government support is what drives nuclear.  “The rate of expansion of nuclear power continues to be mainly policy driven. It expands in markets where there is a supportive policy framework, which in some cases actively targets a larger role for nuclear in the mix in order to achieve energy security aims. But policy frameworks can also hinder or eliminate nuclear power, often as a result of public opposition: even where there is no explicit ban, long permitting processes, such as in the United States, can significantly hinder development by increasing uncertainty about project completion and increasing costs.”

I was listening to a radio interview this past week with climate change scientist Richard Peltier.  [Interview starts at about 31:40 in the link].  He makes a strong case for getting the message out about scientific consensus.  While he notes that between 95 and 98% of scientists agree on the science of climate change, the press reports make it seem there is much more disagreement than there really is with the result that the public is confused.  The answer is to get out and speak at the grass roots level. Governments will not strongly support policies that battle climate change until the public believes it is necessary.  The same is true for nuclear power.  Governments will not strongly support increasing its use until the public are in agreement that it is safe and necessary.

We are seeing some progress.  In Pandora’s Promise, five environmentalists are now convinced of the advantages of nuclear power and they are actively advocating its use.  This past month four other environmentalists have released an open letter calling on world leaders to support development of safer nuclear power systems. In their letter they state, “As climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change, we are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems. We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.”

Some governments are also taking on the challenge.  In the UK there is pretty much political unanimity that new nuclear is required to meet their climate goals.  The result is strong political support for nuclear new build.  A recent quote by Hergen Haye, Head of New Nuclear & Strategy, Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), UK government “To replace Hinkley alone, we have to build 6000 wind turbines. Nuclear will help us to cut costs and to face the other environmental challenges. We cannot do without nuclear because renewables will not do things alone without making electricity bills rise.” (21 November 2013 in Brussels).

In France, after pandering to the greens and committing to close Fessenheim, the French government is finally saying that there will not be more closures. We see strong political support where nuclear is needed most in China, Russia and India although Korea is wrestling with their future plan due to recent scandals.

I come back to the first line of the WEO 2013, “Many of the longheld tenets of the energy sector are being rewritten.  This is a time of great opportunity.  So let’s make sure nuclear power is playing its increasingly important role by providing clean reliable generation to support economic growth and a brighter more secure future for us all.




The British are coming – new nuclear committed in the UK

After many years of effort, this month it finally happened. The UK government and EDF Energy, the French-owned UK integrated energy company, agreed to a strike price making the first new nuclear build in the UK in a generation, at Hinkley Point C, a reality.

It was a long hard road.  New nuclear first came up about a decade ago when it became clear that Britain’s nuclear fleet was aging and would soon need to be retired.  At that time British Energy was advocating to replace the existing fleet with a new fleet over the coming two decades.  Unfortunately the timing was not right.  Late in 2002 British Energy got into severe financial trouble requiring a significant restructuring to keep it solvent and early in 2003 the British government declared war in Iraq.  Both of these events made it difficult for the then Labour government to take on the issue of new build nuclear.  So in 2003 the Energy White Paper issued by government focused on reducing carbon emissions primarily with renewables and nuclear was but a footnote as government declared its intention to “keep the nuclear option open”.

What a difference a decade makes.  Over the ensuing years as it became clear that renewables on their own would not be able to carry the load if carbon targets were to be met and concerns about security of supply as the UK became a net importer of energy (primarily Russian gas); once again government turned to nuclear energy.  The history of events over this decade it too long to describe here although I think it would make an excellent business or public policy school case study.

Slowly the issues were tackled one by one through aggressive policies that resulted in among other things:  EDF Energy buying British Energy, the creation of a generic design approval process by the regulator, changes to the electricity market to support non carbon producing projects to be built; and most of all – continuing effort to support positive public opinion even after the Fukushima accident in Japan.

And this is all in the context of the UK slowly and deliberately dismantling its domestic nuclear industry.  The UK was an early leader in the development of nuclear power in the 1950s.  Over the next 40 years it developed a large domestic infrastructure culminating with the transition to PWR technology at Sizewell B to the extent that in the 1990s BNFL actually bought the Westinghouse nuclear business – Britain was back in the nuclear business as a vendor.

Yet over the past decade, Westinghouse was sold to Toshiba, British Energy was sold to EDF and British Nuclear fuels Limited (BNFL) was completely dismantled (all at great profit to government).  The new UK nuclear industry is comprised of a domestic manufacturing and services sector using foreign technology with plants being built by new nuclear operators also owned by foreign companies.

After all the hard work, the agreement reached this week is of tremendous importance to the global nuclear industry for a number of reasons.

The UK is forging ahead with a strong nuclear program while others in Europe are going in the opposite direction. Germany is abandoning its nuclear industry and even France is looking to reduce its reliance on nuclear over time.  The lesson learned here is that need trumps all else.  The UK is strongly committed to reducing carbon emissions; recognize they can’t do it with renewables alone and are not prepared to become overly dependent upon fossil fuel imports.

The project is being built in a liberalized (deregulated) market.  Although there is much discussion about subsidy being provided by government, this project will demonstrate that a new nuclear plant can be built with outside investment in a western open market.  The CFD (contract for difference) model is necessary to provide the stability needed to invest the huge sum of money required (estimated at £14 billion) with a very long payback period.  In Canada this model has been used successfully to refurbish the Bruce Units 1&2 reactors but this will be the first time it is used for a longer duration and higher cost new build project.

While some are critical of the price (€92.50 /MWh) it should be clearly noted that this price is below all other forms of carbon free electricity even if it is higher than imported gas at the moment.  Just imagine trying to set a rate today for a project coming into service in 2023 and then lasting for 35 years.  And most of all, it has been reported that EDF Energy is expecting about a 10% return on its investment – very reasonable given the expected risk profile of a large nuclear project, especially with the experience so far in Finland and in France with new build.

So why can EDF Energy take such a risk?  Primarily because this will be the 5th and 6th EPR built and the third project in Europe after Finland and France.  At this point, the design is well developed, the supply chain is in place and the costs are well understood.  What is new is that it is to be done in the UK and there will be new local suppliers likely taking on a significant scope.

The UK government has accepted a significant Chinese investment in the project.  CGNPC, the Chinese operator of a number of nuclear plants and the constructors of the two EPRs at Taishan and its Chinese partners will bring about 30 to 40% of the money needed for this project.  This is huge!  First of all it is a clear acceptance of the size and strength of the Chinese nuclear program – CGNPC has the most active nuclear construction program anywhere.  And it opens up the potential to ensure the expertise from the Taishan project, arguably the most successful EPR to date, will be available to support Hinkley Point C.

The public is supportive of this projectPublic support for new nuclear in the UK has become somewhat more positive in recent years, with similar proportions of people now supporting (32%) and opposing (29%) the use of nuclear power, compared to 26% (supporting) and 37% (opposing) in 2005.  And of more interest, a similar number of people want to continue nuclear at current levels or with expansion (43% in 2005, 46% in 2010 and 44% in 2013), while fewer people now want to see nuclear power phased out or shut down (50% in 2005, 47% in 2010 and 40% in 2013).  This is a result of a number of factors. First, there is a need for energy and nothing drives support more than worrying if the lights will go out.  Second, the environmental sector is behind nuclear.  The British are very serious about their commitment to reducing carbon emissions.  George Monbiot came out in favour of nuclear energy within a month of the Fukushima accident.  Mark Lynas has become a strong supporter and has been profiled in the recent documentary “Pandora’s Promise”.

So what can we all learn from this process?  First of all developing new nuclear takes time.  With a decade of effort behind this agreement, the time it took to reach agreement is just as long as the anticipated time to build the plant.  A decade to get ready and now a decade to get the project into service (scheduled for 2023). Amazing isn’t it?

So to all of our friends in the UK, you have reached a critical milestone on your journey.  Keep up the good work and we wish you all the best as you move to the next phase of your new build programme.




While the press is reporting doom and gloom in Japan, progress is being made.

Over the summer we talked about Pandora’s Promise, where 5 prominent environmentalists had changed their mind from being against to being supportive of nuclear power.  They visited Chernobyl and Fukushima, explored the realities of the technology, sought the scientific truth and came away supportive.

That being said, looking at the news over the past few weeks, it would appear that the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan is getting worse, not better.  But is this really the case?

In late August, TEPCO reported a contaminated water leak from storage tanks for water used to cool the reactors.  Articles with headlines like “Fukushima operator reveals leak of 300 tonnes of highly contaminated water” start off with “Frantic efforts to contain radioactive leaks at the wrecked Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant have been dealt another blow after its operator said about 300 tonnes of highly contaminated water had seeped out of a storage tank at the site.”  “With regard to TEPCO’s handling of contaminated water, it has been just like whack-a-mole,” said industry minister Toshimitsu Motegi, in reference to the anarchic fairground game in which players bash creatures that pop up from random holes.  And finally Japan raised the severity level of the event from INES 1 to INES 3.  The inference is that the situation at the plant remains grave and that we should continue to be afraid of potential consequences to the environment and most of all to the Japanese people.

Then in mid September we saw headlines such as “Japan to be nuclear free again as last reactor goes offline” reporting that Ohi 3& 4 the only two reactors to be restarted after the Fukushima accident are now down for routine maintenance.  Again, implying that Japan is going down a path to no nuclear for the foreseeable future.

And finally, only a week or so ago, Prime Minister Abe visited the Fukushima site to provide assurance to the world that the situation is under control.  To achieve this objective, he said “I’ve urged Tokyo Electric Power Company to deal with the contaminated water leakage as its priority. I gave them three demands. These demands include earmarking discretionary funds that managers on site can use to implement necessary safety measures.  It also includes a deadline to complete the purification of waste water stored in tanks at the plant and decommissioning the idle No 5 and 6 reactors and concentrate efforts to solve problems”.

Looking at the above press stories, it is hard to see a silver lining in what is going on in Japan.  But progress is being made.

The new regulator, the NRA, is closely monitoring progress at the site.  In a presentation to the IAEA this month, they reported that on August 14, TEPCO’s implementation plan for clean up at Fukushima was approved and that Fukushima Daiichi is now under the systematic regulatory system with NRA oversight going forward.  With respect to the recent water leaks, yes, there have been issues containing the large amount of contaminated water.  As for the 300 tonne leak reported in August, it was stopped and cleaned up.  And there is a plan to reduce the risk of new leaks.  The volume of water to be managed is large and the issues are not trivial.  But while there was a significant reporting of the leak and its apparent radioactivity, there was little reporting that most of all the sampled sea water remains under the detection limits for radiation and where there has been some detection, the levels have not changed following the leak – and that they remain well below allowable limits.

Fukushima is not the only lingering issue following the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.  Remember the tsunami killed more than 19,000 and displaced over 300,000 (about half those displaced were due to Fukushima the rest due to their homes being destroyed by the tsunami).  Recovery from such a natural disaster of this magnitude has been slow and painful.

But while the press continues to feed the fear, in reality, nobody died from radiation from the Fukushima accident and no one is likely to die in the future from radiation.  It is the fear that is most damaging to people and their health and the continuing dramatic reporting of potential danger without context is not helping.  As a result of such reports a South Korean airline cancelled flights to the area, Tepco’s stock price plunged and Tokyo’s bid for the Olympic Games in 2020 was put in jeopardy (although they did succeed but only after Prime Minister Abe gave assurances as to the safety of Fukushima).  Unfortunately it also leads to governments making decisions not based on the scientific realities but to appease the fear – which usually does the opposite as it confirms the need to be afraid.

Unnecessary fear was addressed recently by a number international radiation protection experts who have written messages to the Japanese people to explain the health impacts of the Fukushima accident.  These are posted on the web site of Prime Minister Abe.  Of importance, the United Nations body, UNSCEAR, expects that no resident of Fukushima prefecture would be exposed to more than 10 milliSieverts over their entire lifetime.  This is far below any possible threshold for potential future cancers.  As stated by Gerry Thomas of Imperial College in London, “Worrying about what might happen can have a very bad effect on quality of life, and can lead to stress-related illnesses. All scientific evidence suggests that no-one is likely to suffer damage from the radiation from Fukushima itself, but concern over what it might do could cause significant psychological problems.”

But in spite of the fear, in spite of the ongoing challenges at the site, Japan continues to move forward.  Whereas one year ago, it was reported that the previous Japanese government was looking to eliminate all nuclear power from Japan by 2040, there is now recognition of the importance of nuclear power to Japan and its economy.  Plans are now in place to restart most if not all of the remaining nuclear plants over the next two to three years.  Japan is doing its best to learn from this event and now plans to have the safest nuclear program in the world.  To that end, the new regulator, the NRA, has issued its new safety standards in July of this year.  Already 14 units have applied for restart under these new standards.  This includes two of the most advanced BWR units owned by Tepco.  It will take months to review these applications but we can expect to see restarts as early as later this year and certainly early in the new year.  Back to the gloom and doom news about Ohi 3&4 going down.  It should be understood that when their operation was approved following the accident it was under the old rules.  Now they will have to show compliance with the new rules before they go back up and this will take some time – but they will return to service.

The Japanese people are still suffering after the great earthquake and tsunami of March 2011 and the subsequent effect of the resultant accident at Fukushima.  Most of all the suffering is a result of fear – fear of the unknown – and fear fueled by the fact that people have lost trust in their government.  The Japanese people trusted the authorities to safely manage their nuclear program and now feel this is not the case.  Not knowing who to trust increases the fear – and the psychological impacts that comes along with it.

Our last blog was mostly about Germany.  The contrast with Japan is stark.  The Fukushima accident happened in Japan – not Germany.  The people are suffering in Japan, not Germany.  Prior to the accident both countries had about 30% of their electricity generated by nuclear power.  Japan went to zero as it struggles with the aftermath.  Germany shut down about half its fleet immediately and still has nuclear providing much needed power as they work to transition.  Japan is an island where all other forms of energy have to be imported at high cost to the people and their economy.  Germany is part of the European grid and can easily import power and fossil fuels – and in fact are building new coal stations to cope.

But most of all, the German people have decided they don’t want nuclear in the future believing it is an unsafe technology although they have had no negative experience in Germany with their plants.  Yet, in spite of ongoing issues at Fukushima the Japanese government is pragmatic and supportive of restarting reactors.

It is certainly not easy for Japan or the nuclear industry to recover from the events of March 2011.  A lingering distrust of authorities remains and that is the industry’s biggest problem everywhere. I admire Japan and I hope that they can progress to reduce the public fear while rebuilding their nuclear program to have a strong electricity system for the future on a foundation of safety and transparency.




If we don’t make decisions based on science…….what else is there?

I have written much about the strength of our beliefs and how they influence important decisions.  A case in point is the decision to close nuclear stations early in Germany.  As we in the rest of the western world try and understand the German approach to eliminating nuclear power on the road to their Energiewende (energy transition), we must remember that this plan started in 2010, a year before the Fukushima accident.  This energy transformation is a monumental task and a source of pride to most Germans.  It has a very aggressive target of reducing emissions by 80 per cent and providing for 80 per cent of the country’s electricity consumption from renewable sources by 2050 all while “aiming for a market-oriented energy policy that is free of ideology and open to all technologies, embracing all paths of use for power, heat and transport.

Much has already been said about the challenges along the way.  We now know that raising renewables quickly to as high a level as Germany has done has an impact on the stability of the system; is severely affecting the electricity markets at times when high levels of subsidized wind and solar drive down prices for all other forms of generation risking putting conventional generators out of business; all while increasing fossil generation in the short term at least to make up for lost nuclear with a resultant increase in carbon emissions.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  As stated in the 2010 policy paper, the purpose of the policy is to secure a reliable, economically viable and environmentally sound energy supply for the 21st century.  While targeting renewable energy to account for the biggest share in this future energy mix; in 2010 it was also accepted that nuclear energy would be a bridging technology on this road.  In fact, the plan made maximum use of the existing nuclear fleet during the transition.  Look at the following excerpt of the policy on the continued use of nuclear energy.

A limited extension of the operating lives of existing nuclear power plants makes a key contribution to achieving the three energy policy goals of climate protection, economic efficiency and supply security in Germany within a transitional period. It paves the way for the age of renewable energy, particularly through price-curbing impacts and a reduction in energy related greenhouse gas emissions.

The operating lives of the 17 nuclear power plants in Germany will be extended by an average of 12 years. In the case of nuclear power plants commissioned up to and including 1980 there will be an extension of 8 years. For plants commissioned after 1980 there will be an extension of 14 years.

Additionally, the regulations on safety requirements for German nuclear power plants will be expanded, with requirements remaining at the highest technical level, in the framework of a 12th amendment to the Atomic Energy Act.

The extension of operating lives also creates the opportunity to increase financing in the fields of renewable energies and energy efficiency. To this end – in addition to the tax on nuclear fuel limited to the end of 2016 – a contractual agreement will be concluded with the operators of Germany’s nuclear power plants on absorbing additional profits resulting from the extended operating lives.”

In summary they want to get rid of their nuclear plants while also acknowledging they are currently both very economic and safe. Therefore nuclear plant operating lives would be extended to make more money generating more taxes to pay for the energy transformation to enable nuclear to ultimately be eliminated.

And then it happened, the accident at Fukushima.  The result; this plan was abandoned and 8 nuclear units were shut down immediately while the remaining 9 will no longer get life extensions.  This makes for a much harder transformation with coal use having increased from 2011 to 2012 with most electricity continuing to be generated from fossil fuels followed by nuclear (at about 16% now about half of its pre-Fukushima peak of around 30%).  Acknowledging that Fukushima increased the fear of nuclear, is it rational to accelerate the removal of nuclear from the system when a plan was already in place to eliminate it; to the short term detriment of emissions and costs?  But what is rational?  If it means exhibiting behaviour consistent with your beliefs, then this decision may indeed be rational.  But is it reasonable to not challenge one’s beliefs to determine if they are valid at times like this?

And hence, the film Pandora’s Promise.  I was able to attend a showing where Robert Stone was also there to take questions from the audience.  It made for a lively discussion and an overall fun evening.

First and foremost, I found it absolutely riveting to see the transformation of these five environmentalists as they came to understand the facts about nuclear energy.    They talk about being a member of the environmental movement and how it went without saying that one would also be strongly opposed to nuclear power.  After all, it was an evil technology and radiation kills.  Frankly nuclear power can destroy the planet.

For some reason, these folks took the time to listen and see that much of what they believed in the past about nuclear power was simply wrong.  I am sure that most of you in the nuclear industry have been providing these facts consistently to all that would listen over the last 30 plus years.  So why are they listening now?  Why listen when you haven’t in the past?  The facts are the same.  But in this case the driver is different.  This group is overwhelming alarmed by the threat of climate change.  And as such (and different to many others), they decided to explore ALL the options; even the ones that would have seemed ludicrous to them in the not too distant past.  Or in other words, they chose to challenge their strongly held beliefs.

The film was not so much about advocating nuclear power (although it does) but rather of documenting the journey of these five individuals.  They visit plants. They visit Chernobyl and Fukushima and they explore the realities about the technology.  What I found the most compelling was the hand held dosimeter they carried as they traveled that showed radiation levels no higher at Chernobyl or Fukushima than most of the rest of the world.  This kind of evidence is hard to argue with.

But as interesting as this all is, this post is not about a group of environmentalists who have decided to put their faith in science as search for the truth.  Rather it is about why so many others don’t do the same.  It seems as science is always appreciated when it supports your side of an issue.  i.e. science is proving climate change which is pro-environment so science is right.  Science shows that nuclear power is good but that disagrees with environmental dogma so sweep it aside.  It’s good news when those who use science to make their climate case are realizing they should do the same when they evaluate nuclear power.  We should applaud anyone who takes the time to challenge a long held belief.

So, while Germany is aiming for a market-oriented energy policy that is free of ideology, why are they so dogmatic that nuclear needs to go and the quicker the better?   I recently was provided with a copy of a very interesting presentation made by Dr. Thomas Petersen at the  Jahrestagung Kerntechnik 2013 in Berlin this past spring that explores “Nuclear energy and the perception of risk in Germany”.  While presented at a conference the presentation has not been available on line to date.  I want to thank Dr. Petersen for giving me permission to post it so you can see what I think is a remarkable set of data.

Most of us outside of Germany probably believe that Germany is  a world leading innovator when it comes to technology.  Yet in this presentation it would appear that most Germans do not have faith (or trust) in experts when it comes to science.  They overestimate risk and consequences and are extremely averse to taking any risk they perceive can cause harm.  The slides note that a majority believe life is becoming more dangerous with time; are concerned that technological progress is risky and that research into certain technologies should be stopped; and that in politics, decisions are too often made on the basis of facts rather than how people feel.

When it comes to nuclear power, it is  high on the list of technologies that carry too much risk.  Consider the following slide:

PetersenPresentationSlide

Pulling all of these thoughts together is saying something along the lines of “I believe what I believe – I know that nuclear power is dangerous so please don’t try and deter me with facts or truth”.  The really scary part is that in today’s western democracies this is indeed how we make decisions.  And while we may want to laugh, or cry; it is always important to remember these decisions have very real consequences.  Less nuclear, more carbon.  Fact.  Less nuclear, more fossil fuels. Fact.  Less nuclear, more coal – and more illness and fatalities from pollution. Fact.

So what is happening in Germany?  The great transformation.  Yes, they are doing great things with renewables.  There is no doubt.  But at what cost in the short term?  The subsidies are destroying European energy markets, new coal plants are being built and carbon emissions are going up.  All to replace perfectly safe well run nuclear plants before they reach their end of life.  Nuclear plants have never hurt a single individual in Germany and likely never will.  So what exactly are these people being protected from?

The answer is clear as I close with this final quote from a pro-transition blog that disputes the negative impact on coal use of the policy by arguing it is a short term blip.  When talking about the reduction in nuclear generation over the last two years, the author concludes, “This reduction is a long-hoped for goal and the inspiration for the nation’s energy transition. Germans don’t want nuclear reactors. They haven’t since the 1970’s and they really don’t want them after Fukushima.

We can see that five environmentalists have taken on their beliefs due to a larger concern – climate change.  I wonder what issue it will take, if anything, for Germans to do the same?

Note:

In addition to the film, Pandora’s Promise, Mark Lynas has released a short book called Nuclear 2.0 available on Amazon in electronic format only.  I have read it and frankly it is extremely well done. It meticulously addresses the concerns with nuclear one by one by one with clear and effective information to make the reader see the facts.  I recommend it if you haven’t had a chance to read it.

 




Whatever happened to searching for the truth?

Finally this week, we are feeling the heat of summer.  I am off next week to teach for the WNU in Korea and China.  I always enjoy these summer courses and find the interest of those attending to be inspiring.

That being said I thought I would be a bit more philosophical this month.  For the past two months I have been also posting my blog on www.theenergycollective.com.  Thanks to that site for allowing me to share my thoughts with a broader audience.  My last post seemed to stir up a litany of comments (well over 100) with some very extreme points of view (to be fair both negative and positive).  I was called a “patently gross liar” as well as “not the brightest person to talk to on the subject”.    Nuclear power is a topic that invokes quite a bit of passion.

The nature of the comments supports many of the things I have been talking about for the last year or so; confirmation bias being one of the most critical concepts.  As I see it, in that post I pointed out three relevant studies that were carried out with good scientific rigour, all subject to peer review and authored by three very different groups of experts.

The first was by a Canadian regulator who is responsible for ensuring public safety which is why they did a study to determine if people living near nuclear plants are getting sick.  Their strongly supported conclusion was that this is not the case.  You would think this is would be good news.  Even If I was against nuclear power I would still be pleased to find out that children who live near these plants are not getting sick.

The second was by an American environmentalist who has demonstrated that operating nuclear plants instead of fossil plants over the past 40 years or so has benefited society by reducing real deaths due to pollution.  Again, good news as this study claims about 1.8 million lives saved.

And finally the third a study by a small army of United Nations experts from around the globe who have determined that radiation has not and is not likely to kill anyone as a result of the Fukushima accident in Japan.  Once again, good news that even after a horrible accident, human life has been protected.

So why are these things so hard for so many to accept?  As I have just read in Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” – “when people believe a conclusion is true, they are also very likely to believe arguments that appear to support it, even when these arguments are unsound” – once again confirming what I have said many times before, beliefs come first and anything that disputes our beliefs is immediately suspect.

It is easy to become cynical in a world where there is little desire to believe in science and the search for truth.  It has become a case of my scientists versus your scientists.   Everyone can find someone to support his or her point of view. The press feeds this model as the more alarming side of the story gets the most coverage. They then try to demonstrate fairness by soliciting input from both sides of the issue.  However, when showing both sides of a debate it is often not in the context of where the science is; they just pull out “experts” on the other side giving the illusion of broad based disagreement even though there may be significant scientific consensus.

For example, as was stated by President Obama this week in his speech on climate change; “The overwhelming judgment of science — of chemistry and physics and millions of measurements — has put all that to rest. Ninety-seven percent of scientists, including, by the way, some who originally disputed the data, have now put that to rest. They’ve acknowledged the planet is warming and human activity is contributing to it.” He continues “but I don’t have much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge is real. We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.”   It is nice to see a leader that says we have scientific consensus so we need to act.

Does that mean that the consensus is right?  Of course not.  Science is far from perfect but in a rationale society we must be guided by the science of the day – for that is what science is all about.  It is indeed healthy to continue to question and study and one day we may all be proven wrong.  But until then we should be guided by the consensus of scientifically produced studies and act accordingly.  That is the right thing to do. Instead, in many cases today we have unending debate resulting in the inability to act.  And of course this is the strategy of many who oppose various things.  These anti whatever folks know the process and in essence are the winners because they know how to keep the debate going and ensure inaction.

Here is another negative comment from my last post.  “My jaw drops when I hear some of the comments made by pro-nuclear folks.  I try to stay away from using terms such as idiotic, half-witted, ignorant or that might inflame the discussion.  Sometimes, however, the comments are so asinine, so moronic, it’s hard to resist.”  I am sure this individual is certain he is right and we are wrong and there is no amount of discussion or evidence that will change his mind.

This takes me back to a quote I used in my blog last summer from Dan Gardner’s book “Future Babble” which is actually a quote from Leon Festinger.  “Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart.  Suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong; what will happen?  The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.”

This is what makes the movie Pandora’s Promise so interesting.  It is about recognized environmentalists who have studied the issue and changed their mind.  I still haven’t seen it as it is not yet showing in Canada but the reviews are very interesting.  Everything from well done to one sided propaganda.  Will it change any minds at all?  I do hope so but the evidence is that it is really quite difficult.

So I leave you with one last negative comment from my last blog.

You are a pro-nuclear guy trying to make believe that nuclear is as safe as mother’s milk and that it is the environmentally sensitive way to generate power.  Let’s see, we aren’t even two years this side of the Fukushima disaster that is still ongoing but, hey, I’m on the fool’s side of history.  There is no safe disposal for nuclear waste.  The gazillions of dollars it would take to build your little fantasy of a nuclear power plant on every block are non-existent and no one will invest unless the government is there to protect their underwear from cost overruns, economic collapse, default, and, oh yeah, any kind of nuclear disaster.  The real problem is that pro-nuclear folks are more concerned about their jobs than what is good for humanity.  Keep living in your little bubble world. “

I would argue as to which one of us in is the bubble world, but as an industry our task is definitely a difficult one.  However given the facts we must persevere.




The only thing more powerful than the truth is fear

As I was thinking about what to write this month, I was invited by my dry cleaner to attend a protest in a nearby park against genetically modified food.  This somewhat infuriated me as I know without doubt that GMO has helped millions around the world and had never killed anyone (although denial of these foods has), yet, as with nuclear power, opposition remains strong, especially in Europe.

My dry cleaner argued trying to tell me that 500,000 were killed in India due to GMO and, as you can imagine, there was no winning the argument.  Mark Lynas, who I have quoted in previous posts has recently taken a hard stand against those who oppose GMO. Mark makes his position clear in his talk at Cornell University this past April where he opens with the following: “I think the controversy over GMOs represents one of the greatest science communications failures of the past half-century. Millions, possibly billions, of people have come to believe what is essentially a conspiracy theory, generating fear and misunderstanding about a whole class of technologies on an unprecedentedly global scale.

It is no mistake that environmentalists like Mark have also changed their views on nuclear power and are now vigorously supporting it.  The simple reason is that Mark and others like Stewart Brand and George Monbiot, are taking positions that are founded in science rather than a set of beliefs that may feel right, but cannot be supported by scientific evidence.

Most of the opposition to nuclear power is founded in fear – primarily the fear of radiation.  However, scientific evidence continues to grow demonstrating the benefits of nuclear power while disproving widely held beliefs of many who oppose it.

For example, this past week (on May 23), a new study was reported on by the Canadian regulator (CNSC) looking at cancer rates near Canadian nuclear plants.  Not surprisingly, once again the results were clear.  No indication of any increases in cancer near nuclear stations relative to the rest of the province.  “The most important finding of this study is no evidence of childhood leukemia clusters in the communities within 25 km of the Pickering, Darlington and Bruce NPPs.”

Next I return to the study I wrote about last month published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology by Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University Earth Institute.  They found that nuclear power has saved an estimated 80,000 lives annually – 1.84 million in all – since widely introduced in the 1970s and could save another 5 million if construction continues at a decent pace due to a reduction in air pollution.  Nuclear power has also reduced carbon emissions by 64 Gt over the same period.

And finally UNSCEAR has now released the results of its latest study on the Fukushima accident.  It clearly concluded “Radiation exposure following the nuclear accident at Fukushima-Daiichi did not cause any immediate health effects. It is unlikely to be able to attribute any health effects in the future among the general public and the vast majority of workers“.  But of even more importance this study also concluded that there are health effects from the Fukushima accident stemming from the stresses of evacuation and unwarranted fear of radiation.

So what does all this tell us?  Looking at these three studies we can confirm that

i) operating nuclear power plants do not cause cancer to the residents of nearby communities from normal operations;

ii) over the past 40 years nuclear power has in fact saved almost 2 million lives through a real reduction in pollution by not burning fossil fuels and its resultant health impacts; and finally

iii) that after the biggest nuclear accident in the last 25 years, radiation has not harmed any of the people of Japan and is unlikely to do so in the future.

Considering these kinds of results, why aren’t we seeing this reported in the main stream media?  With this kind of story there should be universal praise of nuclear power and strong support for its expansion.   Frankly, if it were any technology other than nuclear that was reported to have saved millions of lives we likely would have seen it in the headlines at CNN, BBC  and other mainstream media.  So why are we primarily seeing these nuclear studies reported in trade magazines and blogs?  Why is the world not blown away by this fantastic evidence of the benefits to our lives of nuclear power?  As I was pondering these developments I came upon a chapter title in the book I am currently reading by Ben Goldacre called “Bad Science” (Good book by the way).  The chapter title is “Why Clever People Believe Stupid Things”.  The chapter then goes on to discuss many of the things we have discussed in this blog before such as confirmation bias, seeing patterns where there are none and a host of other standard reasons why people tend stick to their beliefs in light of strong evidence that they should consider alternatives.

The reality is that some people will never change their view of nuclear power and will oppose it no matter what evidence is brought before them.  But for those of us who are frustrated, there is hope.  We are starting to see positive change.  We have well known environmentalists seeing the benefits of nuclear power.  This is now captured in the new documentary “Pandora’s Promise” coming in June.  Film maker Robert Stone is quoted as saying “It’s no easy thing for me to have come to the conclusion that the rapid deployment of nuclear power is now the greatest hope we have for saving us from an environmental catastrophe,”   Entertainment Weekly says “the film is built around looking at an issue not with orthodoxy, but with open eyes”.  (I know some of you have already seen it.  I haven’t seen it yet but I am looking forward to it).

Our story is strong.  The message is positive and one of hope for the future.  But overcoming fear is no easy task.  Fear is a powerful emotion.  It will take hard work, commitment – and most of all –  time.  But if we all persevere, the future is bright. The time has come to get the message out and show how much nuclear power contributes to society, and how necessary it is in a high energy and resource intensive world.