Sunday, 1 July 2007

Addressing the more serious critics

Steve Kidd

Steve Kidd recently prepared a comment piece for Nuclear Engineering International that acknowledges the long time, emotive opposition to nuclear by the more high profile environmental groups, but then quickly moves on to discuss more serious opposition to nuclear by critics that have - until recently - remained mostly dormant, happy to let the more vocal environmental groups do the job.

But with the resurgence of nuclear power due to the serious environmental challenges associated with fossil fuels as well as energy security issues around the world; these opponents are reemerging. In his piece Steve does well to describe these critics and more importantly the issues at hand. He looks to historical evidence from both the nuclear as well as other industries to demonstrate that the nuclear renaissance is indeed a credible source of reliable energy for the foreseeable future.
Much of the debate about nuclear at this more sophisticated level comes down to values and interpretations rather than facts. Even when it is possible to agree on the facts, different people have alternative perceptions of risk and this lies at the heart of everything to do with nuclear. It is a complex technology and brings forward a wide range of issues which act like a thick fog in people’s minds. Yet the financier of a new plant is in much the same position as someone who lives just down the road from a proposed site for a new reactor or a voter much further away who is presented with nuclear as a serious energy option. The financier has a long list of risks, which must be competently allocated amongst the stakeholders in the plant to give him sufficient comfort to proceed, and without imposing a damaging risk premium on his money. Some are the responsibility of national governments, some will be taken up by the plant vendor and contractors, while others will lodge with the power company itself. The local resident faces different risks, but needs satisfaction on safety, radiation emissions, plant security and eventual decommissioning of the site. The national voter, however, is maybe more concerned by possible proliferation, terrorism and waste management issues. There are clearly different issues for different groups, but each requires a great deal of industry attention to give them comfort. There is little alternative to increasing knowledge and understanding of the complexities of nuclear, in the hope that the essential audiences will be patient listeners and not feel overwhelmed. It is clear from everyday life that attitudes to risk vary considerably, so even the best industry explanations are unlikely to satisfy everyone.
More comments from Steve Kidd

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Kidd's analysis is extensive and accurate, but it does not go far enough. Some, perhaps a major portion, of the motivation for opposition to nuclear power growth comes from the competition.

    When nuclear power plants were being built rapidly in the US, there were projections that coal would be displaced from the electricity market.

    Railroads that make a substantial portion of their profit hauling long coal trains on a daily basis teamed up with coal mining companies, coal unions, and coal state politicians to impose a number of hampering rules on the nuclear business. That coalition was a major factor in the change in the Atomic Energy Commission that removed any real government supported educational programs and set up the NRC as an independent regulator with no responsibility for enabling the growth of the industry. (This is a direct contrast to the FAA model.)

    When a new nuclear plant comes on line, it removes a market for 4 million tons of coal per year. One hundred new nuclear plants could take 30-40% of the US coal market away.

    Our air would be cleaner, but there would be a lot of losers in such a scenario. The workers could be retrained and gainfully employed, but the capital equipment invested in coal would be useless.

    I am familiar enough with Australian politics through reading and discussions with Aussie friends to believe that similar sources of opposition exist in your country. In fact, their relative strength is probably far greater considering the size of the coal industry compared to the size of the general population.