Opinion and Editorial

There isn’t any sensible alternative to nuclear power

David Dodwell
Filed on August 20, 2010

Ask the average environmentally-concerned person how our power generators will achieve the tough emissions reductions needed to play their part in cutting global warming, and you will probably get a simple, clear answer: wind and solar.

Recent research by the International Energy Agency shows that nearly half of interviewees worldwide think that wind and solar power will be the two main sources of electricity generation by 2040. There is just one problem: that idea is naïve, overoptimistic, and almost certainly mistaken. Quite literally, it is “hot air”.

That is why governments and power companies around the world are bracing themselves for an epic PR battle: How do they persuade consumers that if emission targets are to be met, and global warming brought under some kind of control, then there is only one choice—nuclear power.

It is not nuclear scientists or the International Atomic Energy Authority saying this. Take James Lovelock, one of the world’s most renowned environmentalists: “We are at the point where there is no sensible alternative to nuclear power if we are to sustain civilisation.”

Wind and solar may over time provide solutions for communities in those parts of the world where the suns shines, and the wind blows, reliably for long hours every day throughout the year. Even in these lucky places (and Hong Kong is not one of them) it will take a long time to get the power in place, and the cost of electricity will be high or heavily subsidised. By contrast, nuclear power can be available in large quantities very quickly, and at costs similar to the cost of thermal power.

Our own Hong Kong government got an early taste of public angst on the issue a few weeks ago when an extreme right wing anti-Chinese radio station claimed there had been a nuclear accident at the Daya Bay nuclear-power site, and that locals had been exposed to danger.

The report was false, but that didn’t matter. Within hours, media in Hong Kong and across Asia were pressing panic buttons. White-haired anti-Daya Bay campaigners were rallied from their wheelchairs to be quoted on how Daya Bay should never have been built, and how we live in daily mortal danger 50 kilometres downwind from the plant. It took days to calm jangled nerves.

Nuclear power does that to people. The incident was an awkward and timely reminder of many people’s still-paranoid aversion to nuclear power. It was also a reminder that in spite of 16 years of untroubled operation at Daya Bay, many in Hong Kong still harbour distrust of China’s capacity to handle complex nuclear technologies safely.

Perhaps most troubling of all, it demonstrated how impregnable the paranoia is to experts’ efforts to explain the science, and to show the measures they take to ensure safe operation.

Once upon a time, a politically innocent generation ago, members of the voting public tended to put their trust in Governments and technical experts. If these experts said something was safe, then we could all sleep easy at night. Long before BP brought the issue into sharp focus in the Gulf of Mexico, members of the public had lost that trust. That decline in official credibility couldn’t have come at a worst time.

For an increasing number of governments are discovering the simple reality that nuclear power needs to be embraced, and quickly. While at present, the US leads the world with just over 100 nuclear reactors in operation, with France and Japan operating just over 50 plants, this balance is about to be turned on its head. China—which at present gets less than 2 per cent of its electricity from nuclear plants—plans to build over 180 in the coming decade. India and Russia plan to build 80. Even South Africa plans to build 25 reactors.

Combine construction plans on such a scale with current public paranoia about nuclear power, and the potential for serious political controversy is clear. Governments and power companies need to brace themselves to educate, educate, and educate some more if they are to manage the challenge of ensuring the non-technical public, technical journalists and legislators can understand and have confidence in the operation and oversight of highly complex technologies. We need to feel comfortable that nuclear power is now safe, clean and as economical as fossil fuel-fired electricity generation.

For our own government, this means it can no longer sit timidly on the fence. It must do two things that over the past decade it has done very badly: it must define and articulate its long-term vision; and it must communicate with passion and sophistication. Only if this happens will we be able to reduce radically our reliance on fossil fuels.

David Dodwell is Chief Executive of Strategic Access Limited, Hong Kong

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