Fear itself: nuclear energy’s image problem

14 May 2015 (Last Updated July 15th, 2020 22:58)

Despite nuclear energy's potential as a low-carbon replacement for baseload fossil fuel generation, the public remains sceptical. What are the roots of political apathy and public hostility to nuclear power, and could a widespread rejection of atomic energy generation place the world's climate change mitigation efforts at risk?

Fear itself: nuclear energy’s image problem

germany nuclear protest

Nuclear energy has an important role to play in the vital international effort to curb the damaging effects of climate change. That's according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), which places stock in the baseload generation capabilities of nuclear plants as a practical means to reduce global reliance on fossil fuels. In the agency's two-degree scenario (2DS), a potential future energy mix that is likely to limit the average worldwide temperature rise to no more than 2°C, fossil fuel's share of global energy supply will have to be nearly halved to around 40% by 2050.

That scenario leaves nuclear, as a major low-carbon baseload generation method that can complement intermittent renewables, with a large supply vacuum to fill. The IEA's 2014 Energy Technology Perspectives report envisions an expansion of installed nuclear capacity by 22GWe by 2050 to support the 2DS goal.

However, as matters stand, it is looking increasingly uncertain that energy markets, particularly in Europe and the US, will support nuclear energy assuming this more central role. Nuclear energy is in relative decline, with its share of worldwide energy supply dropping from 18% in 1996 to 11% in 2013. And although there are more than 70 nuclear reactors currently under construction around the world, these are offset by the current and upcoming shutdown of dozens of ageing nuclear units throughout the developed world.

In May 2014, the IEA estimated that global installed nuclear capacity is on course to fall short of its target in the 2DS scenario by between 7% and 25% by 2025. So at a time of climate crisis, why is nuclear power, a proven and reliable energy technology that virtually eliminates CO2 emissions when compared to coal and gas-fired power stations, struggling to find its place in a future of reduced fossil fuel dependency?

Problems of perception

Perhaps the main issue for companies looking to build new nuclear reactors is the complex economics involved. The construction of nuclear power plants requires massive upfront investment in both cash and time - according to the Nuclear Energy Agency, a large modern nuclear plant could easily be expected to cost up to $6bn in OECD countries, with typical construction timeframes lasting between five and seven years.

Proposals to standarize safety regulations have been rejected.

Committing to such a gargantuan task necessitates a similarly epic risk management effort, and as a result the majority of new nuclear projects are taking place in regulated energy markets like those of China and the US state of Georgia, where there can be some assurance that the power eventually produced will be priced economically. In the UK, the government has had to provide a price guarantee on future output so the developers of the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant - the country's only new nuclear project - can unlock adequate debt finance to fund the undertaking.

The need for supportive policies to help nuclear grow in a competitive energy market reiterates the importance of political and public support for the technology in general. But this is an area where the nuclear sector has struggled, especially in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear incident in 2011. A poll undertaken by research agency GlobeScan for the BBC in November 2011 showed a noticeable spike in global opposition to civil nuclear compared to poll results taken in 2005.

A mere 22% of the more than 23,000 people polled in 23 countries thought nuclear was safe and important enough to support the construction of new plants, with 39% supporting the continued use of existing reactors without building new ones, and a whopping 30% in favour of a wholesale shutdown of nuclear plants - perhaps unaware that renewables currently have no hope of replacing them and that more coal and gas would be the default alternative.

With the broader public perception of nuclear veering between apathy and outright hostility, it comes as little surprise that governments have been loath to throw any significant weight behind new nuclear, especially when it comes to the modern Generation III and III+ reactors that incorporate the passive safety systems to actually address many of the public's concerns.

Nuclear stagnates in the West

In Europe and the US, anti-nuclear attitudes seem to be hardening and even stalwart users are wobbling. The UK has made its assurances to get the Hinkley Point project off the ground, but now faces the threat of a lawsuit in the European Court of Justice from staunchly anti-nuclear Austria over the legality of the state subsidy, which, if followed through, could reportedly set back the project's final investment decision by up to two years.

In the US, the national nuclear fleet dropped to below 100 reactors for the first time in decades after the shuttering of the 40-year-old Vermont Yankee plant in December 2014, and the four new reactors under construction at the moment seem unlikely to fill the gap left by a fading generation of elderly nuclear plants. Nuclear technology is caught in an awkward middle ground between President Obama, who is accommodating to nuclear but more emphatic about renewables, and the ascendant Republican Party's full-throated support for fossil fuels and deregulated energy markets.

"The nuclear-related death toll from the Fukushima meltdown remains at zero, according to UN inspectors."

Even France, a country that relies on nuclear power for three quarters of its electricity supply, is backing away slowly. Limiting nuclear in the energy mix was a key pledge of President Francois Hollande in the 2012 presidential elections, and in summer 2014, energy minister Ségolène Royal announced that the government planned to reduce the country's reliance on nuclear to 50% of power output by 2025, leading to immediate speculation over which plants would face the axe in the coming years.

Other shifts away from nuclear appear to be much more closely connected to the public backlash after the Fukushima meltdown. In Italy in summer 2011, just months after the Japanese tsunami, then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's plans to restart a dormant civil nuclear programme to reduce reliance on Russian gas imports were scuppered when a staggering 94% of voters opposed nuclear development in a referendum.

Germany's 'energiewende': doing coal a favour?

Public opinion in Germany, meanwhile, has been overwhelmingly opposed to nuclear power for many years, and the German government's 'Energiewende' (energy transition), which will see the country abandon nuclear energy entirely, was actually outlined six months before Fukushima, although legislative support for the policy was secured afterwards.

The energiewende, which has already claimed the scalps of eight nuclear plants and will see the phase-out of all remaining reactors by 2022, is an interesting case study on nuclear's image problem because the decision appears to have been at least partly driven by ideology.

Germany's strong stance on nuclear, driven by public opinion and pressure from the vehemently anti-nuclear German Greens, who have spent many years in coalition with Angela Merkel's SDP, could actually be pushing up the country's climate-changing emissions. As a spokeswoman for German energy minister Sigmar Gabriel acknowledged in October 2014: "For a country like Germany with a strong industrial base, exiting nuclear and coal-fired power generation at the same time would not be possible."

In the short term, then, for an advanced economy like Germany, a shift away from nuclear really represents a tacit acceptance that coal-fired generation will rise. Gabriel himself acknowledged this in a leaked letter to Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, dated October 2014, in which Gabriel urged Löfven not to withdraw its investment in two open-cast coal mines operated by Swedish energy company Vattenfall. "Germany will indeed phase out fossil power generation as well - but at a gentler speed that can somehow be managed in terms of its consequences," Gabriel wrote.

The US nuclear industry is struggling to survive in tough US electricity markets.

"Faced with a choice, so-called 'green' Germany appears to be prepared to sacrifice its climate targets on the altar of its anti-nuclear ideology," wrote author and pro-nuclear campaigner Mark Lynas late last year.

It's difficult to blame a democratic government for bringing its energy policy in line with the overwhelming sentiment of its people, but using baseload coal plants instead of nuclear reactors to bridge the gap between renewable production and national energy demand seems to run counter to the world's prime environmental directive - to cut the emissions that are causing climate change. Indeed, Germany's total emissions rose in 2012 and 2013, and newspaper Der Spiegel has reported that the government now plans to withdraw from its 2020 target to cut CO2 emissions by 40% compared to 1990 levels.

Given that the nuclear-related death toll from the Fukushima triple meltdown, the worst nuclear accident in a generation, remains at zero according to UN inspectors, while air pollution from Europe's coal-fired power plants causes more than 22,000 premature deaths a year, as estimated in a 2013 Stuttgart University report commissioned by Greenpeace, one has to wonder about the true cost - to both the world's climate and human health - of following an energy policy driven more by fear than facts.

Fear over facts?

Stagnation in the West is shifting the nuclear nexus eastwards; China in particular (where, it must be said, the government's authoritarian stance makes public opinion a lesser concern) is driving growth in nuclear development. The country aims to triple its own nuclear capacity to 58GWe by 2020, with another 30GWe planned to be under construction by that time, all of which will be modern Generation III designs.

Pakistan and India are among the other Asian nations pursuing nuclear power, with the former receiving a $6.5bn loan from China to build its largest nuclear project to date, and the latter negotiating with the US and Russia for the transfer of civil nuclear technology, and Australia for the supply of uranium. The Japanese Government is cautiously working to restart some of its nuclear reactors amid stiff public opposition, but it appears that other Asian nations are stepping forward to take its place as Asia's nuclear leader.

Nevertheless, growth in Asia and other areas will be offset by the approximately 200 reactors that are due to come offline, predominantly in Europe, the US and Russia, by 2040. So public opinion in those regions will be vital to drive the development and deployment of next-generation reactor designs to meet the nuclear requirement set down under the IEA's 2DS plan.

In the UN's final April 2014 report on the effects of Fukushima, the investigators noted that while radiation itself was unlikely to cause any discernible increase in health effects, the most serious consequence is likely to be psychological. "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," the report concluded.

There are clearly genuine nuclear energy issues - safety standards, waste disposal and non-proliferation concerns, to name just three - that need to be rationally debated by societies to ensure the best outcome. But with the fate of climate change mitigation efforts on the line and a low-carbon replacement for coal and gas desperately needed, the source of nuclear power's image problem is a sort of mass dread of an atomic doomsday that defies scientific reality. To appropriate a famous quote from US President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1933 inaugural address: "The only thing we have to fear is...fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

Energy link