Many years ago, a young idealistic Physics graduate set out to make the world a better place. He perceived that one of the greatest technological challenges facing his generation was the need to replace fossil fuels with a clean energy source, to avoid the impending disaster of global warming. He saw the obvious solution to that problem – nuclear power – and decided to dedicate his working life to making nuclear power cheap, safe and abundant.
That young man was, of course, me. On leaving university, I joined the UK Atomic Energy Authority and spent 10 years studying the environmental impact of nuclear power. During that time, my idealism slowly faded, and I eventually realised that I had been wrong about nuclear power.
Nuclear power wasn’t going to provide cheap, abundant and clean energy in the future. Instead a terrifying alternative was emerging.
In place of a narrative in which technology was regarded as the solution to the world’s problems, it was being portrayed increasingly as part of the problem. More worryingly, the underlying cause of everything that was wrong with the world was supposed to be us, humans.
As the 21st century approached, the “environmental” movement was winning the propaganda war. Hollywood movies like The China Syndrome didn’t help. After all, who would you trust – an earnest Jane Fonda, or a bunch of guys wearing spectacles and lab coats?
By the time I quit my job, the UK government, while continuing to advocate nuclear power in principle, was quietly and timidly scrapping all its nuclear projects. Italy had held a referendum in 1987, voting to end the country’s nuclear power programme with immediate effect. In 2000, the Green alliance government in Germany announced the end of Germany’s nuclear programme. In 2011, Switzerland decided on a slow phase-out of the technology. In the United States, plentiful shale gas is leading to the cancellation of most proposed nuclear builds.
Now, in 2015, the world has largely turned its back on nuclear power. Instead, we are struggling to harness wind, hydroelectric and solar power, using technology that is only just beginning to deliver, has its own environmental problems, and is going to be very expensive.
70 years after its invention, nuclear power accounts for just 13% of global electricity production. Around two thirds of electricity is still produced by burning fossil fuels. Worse, no one expects fossil fuels to be phased out for decades.
Tragically, fossil fuels could have been retired half a century ago, if the environmental movement hadn’t opposed nuclear power.
Nuclear power still thrives in a few countries – France, South Korea, and China, for example. In fact, France generates around 80% of its electricity from nuclear power, and fossil fuels account for less than 10%, making France probably the cleanest country in the world when it comes to its energy sector.
France is also the world’s largest exporter of electricity, selling clean, safe, nuclear-generated electricity to Britain.
Contrast that with dirty old Italy, which, having closed all its nuclear plants back in 1987, now generates 80% of its electricity by burning fossil fuels, imports more energy than any other European country, and has one of the highest electricity prices in Europe.
So the alternative to nuclear power wasn’t renewables, it was burning fossil fuels. That’s what support for the “environmental” movement led to – CO2 and global warming.
But wait. Isn’t nuclear power dangerous?
The nuclear industry has made mistakes. There have been a number of accidents, most notably at Windscale in the UK, Three Mile Island in the United States, the Russian Chernobyl accident, and also the more recent Fukushima disaster in Japan.
Disasters certainly. But how many people died as a result?
No one was killed as a result of the Fukushima, Three Mile Island or Windscale events, despite hysterical claims that you may see on social media. Chernobyl resulted in the direct deaths of 31 people. In addition, the World Health Organization estimates that ultimately the total number of deaths may rise to 4,000 due to long-term effects of radiation (Greenpeace claims that more than 200,000 people will die.)
These 4,000 deaths are tragic and regrettable, but let’s put them into context.
An OECD report states that deaths from air particulate pollution due to burning fossil fuels kills as many as 300,000 people per year globally.
A recent study by NASA indicated that nuclear power prevented an average of over 1.8 million deaths worldwide between 1971-2009.
So why do people fixate on nuclear power? James Hammitt of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis in Boston writes, “From coal we have a steady progression of deaths year after year that are invisible to us, things like heart attacks, whereas a large-scale nuclear release is a catastrophic event that we are rightly scared about.”
What about renewables? They surely don’t kill anyone? Wrong. When, in 1975, about 30 hydroelectric dams in central China failed due to severe flooding, an estimated 230,000 people died.
I’m no longer angry or bitter that the world turned its back on nuclear power. That battle was lost a long time ago. But I do regret the fact that 25 years after I began my journey, thousands of coal-fired power stations are still in use around the world (China is building new coal-fired stations at the rate of one a week.)
I still sometimes dream of a world in which climate change was a theoretical possibility studied by climate scientists, instead of a stark reality. I dream of a world in which millions were lifted out of poverty by plentiful and safe electricity, and the world was safer as a result of nuclear power, not more dangerous.
And I dream of a world in which I was right about nuclear power, and the “environmental” campaigners and the millions of people they persuaded of their cause, were wrong.