The decline and possible rise of nuclear energy

This essay exposes a few misconceptions and speculates that 50 years of living with nuclear power may be producing a greater respect for it, and less awe.

Chernobyl did not spell the end of nuclear power. Rather, it seemed to mark the low point in a long decline of optimism about the technology, at least in the West. In fact the technology continued to contribute mightily to electricity production, even in countries where it seemed unpopular. It may be that the last 20 years – relatively incident-free – have undone the damage. Worldwide, anyway, there have been many new builds, including in Scandinavia – always a watchword for respectability and environmental concern.

I explore three major points:

  1. Nuclear power was unfashionable long before Chernobyl blew its lid off. The fate of the nuclear industry was sealed in the 1970s. It was wider trends outside of the industry’s control, rather than any major industry blunder, that has restricted its growth.
  2. Since the 1970s, the nuclear industry has formed the bedrock of Western electricity generation, along with fossil-fuel plant, much of it also ageing. Meanwhile, many governments announced their commitment to abolishing nuclear power, or building no new reactors, assured that existing supplies of electricity – including nuclear – were secure for a long time.
  3. Young people now do not think as their parents and grand parents thought. Their geo-political world is quite different, too. Even their environmental concerns are dissimilar. Governments face some tough choices. In short, the revival of the nuclear industry is now possible, arguably desirable, but it is not a foregone conclusion.

What Chernobyl meant…
There was nothing exceptional about our response to the events of April 26 1986, when Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 exploded. It was perhaps the world’s worst single industrial accident. But it had long been foretold and it played into a horror story which had often been imagined. It also played into a long-standing anxiety about radiation.

The great significance of Chernobyl was that it appeared to prove that the doom-mongers were right. In essence, if the accidents at Windscale, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl did not initiate the industry’s difficulties, the first two created the impression that it was fallible and the third was taken to show that its failures could literally be disastrous. Even now, there is ample evidence that there is no untruth or nonsense about radiation that is not readily promulgated by the media and believed by the public (elsewhere I analyse the mostly awful media coverage of the 20th anniversary of the accident.)

Chernobyl seems to continue to play the role it has had for 20 years: the embodiment of a fear.

There is no escaping that Chernobyl was a uniquely bad nuclear accident in that it released much more radiation than any other. In that sense, the risks it seemed to pose – the risks it could be made to seem to pose – were uniquely large. However, 20th anniversary may prove to be the last major outing of these distortions and exaggerations.

No risk before nuclear had seriously deterred people from progress, and from progressing in the very technologies which had proven fallible. After the Titanic sunk in 1912 the world continued to build bigger and better ocean liners. It is hard to argue that Chernobyl led to many improvements in nuclear technology in the West; it did, however, help destroy the decrepit Soviet Union.

Nor does scale of risk necessarily deter: the threat of global warming has damaged the fossil fuel industry, certainly, but it still thrives, perhaps because we are keen on – perhaps even addicted to – the benefits such as cars, airplanes, industrial machines and plastic.

While the fossil-fuel industry is regarded as an inevitability, downsides and all, the nuclear industry has been sidelined.

In reality, the industry’s fate as a marginalised utility was clear almost ten years before Chernobyl, when in 1977 US President Jimmy Carter said that nuclear power was the “choice of last resort”.

The story of the 1950s and on…
Nuclear power industry began with great expectations. It seemed to promise a limitless supply of cheap energy. In the 1950s and 1960s it had the goodwill of the media and public opinion, yet it appeared to become unpopular in the 1970s. Some people have argued that it was damaged by the arrogance of scientists. Others that the industry’s PR machine failed to get people to understand the risks involved, or communicate properly its break with the military.

The industry certainly mismanaged its communications. But the failing was paradoxical. When I worked in the nuclear industry (1991 to 1998), I thought it an error that we routinely apologised for our past “mistakes” in a vain attempt to win favour in the present. What’s more, transparency, which was rightly embraced, became the new opaque. It offered no magic solution because the same knowledge produces very different perceptions in different people.

Probably, the industry ought to have said from the very beginning that it was fallible. The public should have been told that while a major accident was unlikely, if it happened it would be both terrible and eminently survivable. Denial of risk in the early days made it difficult for the industry to toughen up the public’s perception of the industry’s actual riskiness later. Nevertheless, even had the industry been more sensitive, it might not have altered the outcome to a large degree because very powerful countervailing social forces were at work that PR was not capable of controlling.

The industry grew up in the womb of the atomic weapons programme during World War II.  When the fighting ended, the Cold War and the post-war boom began. The three overriding issues of that time were the threat of nuclear war, anti-communism and post-war reconstruction. In the 1950s and 60s, there was widespread support for anti-communism. These were also boom years. They were years in which many war-time technologies transformed modern expectations, not least jet engines, space rockets and nuclear power.

Unfortunately, the civil nuclear industry was positioned as the apex of post-war hopes, along with the space race. This made nuclear power inseparable in the eyes of many from US President’s Dwight D Eisenhower’s “military-industrial” complex of white-coated experts who were in bed with the state and powerful companies. It was beyond anybody’s ability to predict how nuclear energy would be shifted from modernist hero to Strangelove’s plaything.

The 1960s ended with the moon landing and the election of Richard Nixon in the US. And in 1969, the opening of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) marked the beginning of a new era. Progress, however, promptly got bogged down in a long-running squabble about terms of reference.

The 1970s was a period shaped by the effects of a startling economic slowdown, which hit early in the decade, the first in twenty-five years; and a thawing of Cold War premises. As Cold War assumptions were undermined, there was a cultural shift. The major issues dominating the world changed somewhat to cover environmental degradation; the Vietnam War; nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.

In response to growing environmental concerns Nixon founded the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The UN responded by holding its first conference on Human Environment in 1972 in Stockholm, Sweden. Nixon bravely, though perhaps prematurely, attempted to defuse the Cold War by promoting détente with China and Russia. His administration also tried and failed to end the Vietnam War; though they withdrew American troops in 1973, Saigon finally fell to the Viet Cong in 1975.

While Nixon focused on reducing the number of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, campaigners attempted to roll back their countries’ civil atomic programmes. This battle was to become an obsession for 1970s radicals as they struggled to dismantle the military-industrial complex at home. In the US they transformed public inquiries into virtual war zones in which the reputation of the nuclear industry was savaged, mostly on the back of scare-mongering over the safety case for new reactors and waste disposal.

Moreover, the Watergate scandal, which resulted in Nixon’s fall in 1974, contributed to a climate of opinion that has since shown less trust and less deference towards political leaders.

From the 1970s on, there was a notable loss of confidence in progress and science, as apocalyptic visions seized the public imagination. This pessimistic, risk-adverse, mood has bedevilled many other industries ever since. Even NASA went into long-term decline, from which it may only now be recovering as it plans to send men back to the moon and on to Mars.

In the 1980s, The Clash expressed the sentiment of the times well, and, yes, I’m a fan: “The ice age is coming the sun is zooming in, engines stop running and the wheat is growing thin, a nuclear error…”. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) said it another way, mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people in the 1980s under the banner “no nukes”.

The two forms of nuclear power, military and civil, were treated as inseparable icons, inseparable bringers of doom, in the campaigners’ eyes.

Also in the 1980s, Thatcher and Reagan fought back. They certainly lacked the insecurities of Nixon and his successors, Ford and Carter, not to mention Wilson and Callaghan. The new leaders vowed to reinvigorate their economies, while restoring pride in their countries and governments. They went back on the offensive against communism; renaming the Soviet Union “the evil empire’. Reagan launched Star Wars and deployed more nuclear weapons abroad. Both acknowledged that they had a war to win on the home front too.

Margaret Thatcher even drew up plans for expanding nuclear power on a massive scale in the UK. She was working with Lord Marshall, then head of the Central Electricity Generating Board.  Her plans went up in flames with Chernobyl in 1986. Marshall, one of the founders of the UK’s nuclear industry, once told me how Mrs Thatcher phoned him after the Chernobyl accident to say, “I thought you said this could never happen”? She drew no distinction – as the public drew no distinction – between the nuclear industry in West or East. Anyway, Thatcher’s pro-nuclear policy was ideologically driven, so it was easily dispensable.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 anti-capitalism sentiment took on a different dimension. Communism, socialism and the peace movement rapidly lost credibility. New forces emerged, consisting of politicised greens and the growing anti-globalisation lobby. And the nuclear industry was an already weakened target around which they mobilised their support. It seemingly had few friends. But appearances were deceptive.

Staying alive and some more…
Nuclear power has been a success, and part of a generally successful (if rigged) energy market. The United States is a good example. By the mid-1970s there was an over-capacity of electricity generating plant, including a significant number of nuclear reactors, in the US sufficient to ensure electricity supplies for the next twenty-five to thirty years.

The UK was in a similar position. So much so that today, more than 50 per cent of Britain’s non-nuclear capacity is over 30 years old. In fact, close to 55% of the country’s electricity is generated by coal and by mostly ageing nuclear reactors.

France was a different sort of success story. In 1973, after an international oil crisis, the French recognised that their lack of raw material resources left them dependent on imported fuel. In response they committed to building more nuclear power stations in a very short period of time. Theirs was a display of panache in defence of their national interest.  Other countries, such as Japan, Korea, China and the Soviet Union also continued to develop civil nuclear programmes, free of Anglo-Saxon angst.

In Germany, the Social Democratic Green alliance committed to abandoning nuclear energy but was pragmatic enough to let the decision slide over decades. Now Germany’s new Christian Democratic Chancellor Angela Merkel has until the end of 2007 to formulate a national energy policy. She must, according to the policy, abolish nuclear power while ensuring the country’s energy supplies are secure beyond 2020.

Notwithstanding its problems, the industry has been almost completely reorganised over the past 30 years – by privatisation, better-managed state companies and an overhauled regulatory framework. For instance, existing reactors have become better performers so that their combined output is now equivalent to the construction of 30 additional reactors. That represents a massive increase in productivity, which has helped plug gaps in the world’s energy supply.

It seems, though, that the framework of policy-making introduced 30 years ago has itself aged, and needs replacing thoughtfully.

The case for nuclear power today
In many ways, the case for nuclear is the same as it has always been. A small amount of uranium can produce a large amount of power in a safe and environmentally friendly manner.  While the cost of building nuclear reactors is high, the costs of fuelling and running them are predictable and very low. In addition, nuclear power is ideal for base load power, as it is constantly available on demand.

And demand for electrical power grows as the world’s population grows, or economies develop. This law of development applies to some extent even in the First World and it seems particular biting in the Third World. In other words, electricity is the preferred energy form that powers our Internet and factories, and lights our homes and streets.

There are several wild cards in the modern energy policy pack. As nations seek energy security, they have to assess a geo-political scene in which uncertainties seem both large and numerous. There is sharply growing demand for the most convenient fuels – oil and gas – and they are mostly located in volatile countries.

In the absence of a coherent policy, Europe’s governments have become reliant on imported gas as a stopgap measure to meet shortfalls caused by decommissioned coal and nuclear plant. This policy made sense in the 1990s when gas supplies were plentiful, secure and cheap.  Moreover, gas-fuelled power plants required short construction times, and were relatively inexpensive to build and operate. Recent events, however, illustrate all too clearly the need for a longer-term approach.

This year’s Ukraine gas crisis shook the energy markets. It exposed how Russia is again flexing its muscles. There is even the hint of a new Cold War.  This time, gas and oil will be its weapons of choice.

So there are some difficult choices to make. What expense and risk are justified in “guaranteeing” access to these fuels? What expense and risk are justified in becoming independent of them?

There is further pressure to deal with the spectre of Global Warming. But so far, we have little evidence that voters are keen to incur expense or inconvenience to do so. If the threat of climate change is taken seriously, there will be a further rush to gas and even to oil so as to avoid the use of coal. But we have no idea the degree to which “carbon capture” may develop and reduce the pressure to find alternatives to even the “dirtiest” fossil fuels.

Likewise, we have no idea how powerfully various nations will introduce taxes or other penalties on either carbon emissions or fossil fuel use, and so we remain deeply uncertain as to the economics of non-fossil energy sources.

What we can be sure of, however, is that nuclear power stands ready to provide some sort of alternative to fossil fuel, and to other renewable energy sources.

Beyond discussion of the proliferation of radioactive material, and of the knowledge required to render civil nuclear power militarily useful, the abiding issue is the cost of nuclear power, which is in large measure political. The waste and decommissioning regimes for this industry are uniquely a matter of political rather than technological argument.

The cultural enemies of nuclear power
It will be fascinating to see how voters react to these dilemmas. The nuclear industry is, naturally, trying to wrest control of its technology from the green movement.

One does not have to be pro-nuclear to be glad that it is doing so. Whatever nuclear power’s merits or demerits, the green movement has added little which is useful to proper discussion of the technology. The Greens have used misinformation and fear-mongering as their main weapons.

But the nuclear industry itself may have been rather crude in its recent attempts to counter green propaganda. As a victim of scares, it ought to be wary of assuming that the current climate change alarmism is a good basis for future policy. The irrational, myth-ridden scare-mongering which lies behind a good deal of climate alarmism is the close cousin of the thinking which scuppered the nuclear industry.

Mind the gap
But it is surely fair to say that the world faces an “energy gap”. That is: there is an enormous difference between the likely demand and the safe, secure supplies of energy. It is very likely that public opinion will be more favourable to nuclear energy as awareness of that gap emerges.

It seems that perceptions are already changing. Today, 71% of Swiss people support the operation of existing reactors.  Approaching 50% want to replace them with new ones when required (source: NZZ am Sonntag, 30 April, 2006). Moreover, the Swiss opposition to nuclear energy has lost a series of national votes, including one in 2003 when a two thirds majority opposed having “Electricity without Nuclear” written into the constitution.

A recent government report predicted Switzerland will [most likely] rely on imported electricity by 2020 if current nuclear plant is not replace
d. The report also predicted that demand will increase until 2035; meaning even more new plant is required to replace old ones. Decisions are needed over the next five years to avoid the gap.

In the UK, by 2023, if nothing changes, the quantity of electricity from the nuclear sector will fall from just over 20% to around 3%, with only one reactor still operational. The country has three major options for the future: building new nuclear power stations; relying on imported gas and coal; or switching to renewable energy sources, mostly in the form of wind, tide or biomass.  (We shall discuss renewable energy and energy efficiency in another article.)

It makes sense at least to take all available options seriously. Doing so might spread risk and help ensure competition.

We certainly seem to be leaving behind any dreams of a nuclear-free world. With little domestic controversy, India and China are committed to powering their fast-growing economies by using more nuclear energy. The US has once again put nuclear energy back on its domestic and on its foreign policy agenda. Moreover, Russia, Ukraine and Finland have ambitious new build plans designed to ensure they can supply electricity from domestic sources.

Concluding remarks
After the Chernobyl accident 20 years ago the nuclear industry was perhaps right to become modest in its self-promotion. Even now, it would be unwise to promote itself as fabulously cheap or risk-free. Rather, it can point to a fifty-year record – even including Chernobyl and Three Mile Island – which is reassuring. It can point to improvements in its technology. It can fairly point to the risks and inconvenience attending other sources of power.

Above all, the modern nuclear industry can reasonably and forcefully present itself as a technology which has been bloodied by tough experiences, traduced by its opposition, and very responsible in its behaviour. It has earned the right to be seriously considered.

Political Electricity: What future for nuclear power? By Terrence Price, Oxford (University Press, 1990: ISBN 0-19-217780-X.
How Safe is Nuclear Energy? By Alan Cottrell, Heinemann Educational Books,1981: ISBN 0 435 54175 7.

Written 2006

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