Goodbye for now

This post marks the end of this series on my blog. I hope you have enjoyed reading my analysis of the nuclear debate, and hopefully learned something you didn’t already know.

From what I have read and seen this semester, the nuclear debate is alive and well, even after 70-odd years. What seems to be happening is a move away from a logical debate, and a move towards a debate that is based purely on ideology and emotional arguments.

All is not lost however, there has been a shift in the last decade or so, that seems to be getting stronger, to re-frame the nuclear debate in terms of climate change. Instead of now just being a debate over whether we should use nuclear technology, it is now a debate over what is the better solution to the issue of fossil fuels, renewables or nuclear (or both?).

Hopefully in the future, some form of compromise can be reached, or at least maybe the debate will start to again have a more logical tone, with facts rational points becoming more common (and not doubt making the debate more productive).

Unfortunately, from what I have seen, while you have corporations like Greenpeace dominating the conversation we are not going to see any movement. Greenpeace takes a firm stand, and is not willing to compromise, as such, there is not going to be any valuable discussion, while one of the sides sticks its fingers in its ears.

So, this is where I leave the conversation. It’s not over forever, I will definitely be picking this blog up in the future once this semester’s work has been done. I think it will cover broader, more diverse topics, generally related to science or science communication. Hopefully it will continue to interest some people.

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Change in the air for Australia?

So yesterday I stumbled on this article from the SMH, which is talking about Australia’s new Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel. Recently annoucned, Dr. Finkel will be moving into the position in 2016. The main point of this article is a couple of statements made by Dr. Finkel regarding Australia’s use of coal, and the need to move towards a carbon-free energy system.

His position seems to be that that we should transition to entirely renewable energy, but that nuclear should ‘absolutely be considered’. Both parts of these comments are very good to hear, not only is there now a voice that will push seriously for renewable energy, it is also a pragmatic voice that is OK with using nuclear power as an interim, low-carbon, constant supply energy source.

At this point it is really quite shocking that Australia hasn’t moved towards using nuclear energy. Of all the countries in the world, we are perhaps one of the best suited for nuclear energy: we have an incredible amount of empty land, that is currently going unused, far away from any people and any risk of accidental health effects (which is also a good place to store any waste); we are right in the middle of a tectonic plate and as such do not suffer from frequent earthquakes that can damage nuclear reactors (I’m looking at you Japan); and we have 31% of the world’s uranium, an incredibly valuable resource that we currently make no use of.

It is becoming a little frustrating to live in Australia at the moment, around the world we see huge developments and steps forward towards combating climate change, from China’s push to build nuclear reactors, to the recent announcement of the world’s largest solar array being built in Morocco. Something has got to give soon, but we are already too late.

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The cost of nuclear power

So far in this blog, I have talked about a lot of the points that both sides use to ‘defeat’ those they campaign against. One point that I haven’t really touched on yet is point that comes up in a most, if not all, debates about the efficacy of nuclear power and that is the issue of cost. I want to preface this blog post by saying that I am really not a financial expert, and I am only drawing my opinion from what I have read, but I’m going to do my best to summarise the different points. Both sides claim to better understand the cost of nuclear power better than their opponents, and there is definitely a lot of hearsay involved.

On one side, you have the anti-nuclear movement, who all claim that the cost of building and running a safe nuclear power plant, as well as the associated waste management costs (there are many examples, here’s one) are far to high to justify the potential risks and are more unsustainable than getting the same energy from renewables.

On the other side, you have the pro-nuclear movement. This side is a bit harder to tease apart because, aside from the voices of a few loud eco-modernists, the majority of those who campaign for nuclear power have some form of vested interest (while this is true with the anti’s with renewables, it is less direct). But the substantive force of this side’s argument is that nuclear is more expensive than coal, but is competitive with renewables and able to perform at a high capacity in a shorter amount of time than other non-fossil fuels. However a fair point should be made that, unlike the anti’s, the pro’s acknowledge the difficulties of their technologies (most renewables-only campaigners seem to gloss over the shortcomings of current technologies)

As it says in this great article from The Conversation:

What is the economic cost of nuclear power? That turns out to be a very difficult question to answer.

The main problem seems to be that there is no good models on which to base an estimation of cost. The vast majority of in-service nuclear reactors at the moment were built in the heyday of nuclear power back around the 1960s. Add to that increasing delays for safety certification, as well as new projects with unexpected delays, like the (much safer) EPR design being built in Finland that is five years overdue, and you get investors with not much faith in projected ROIs and a general lack of faith in the affordability of nuclear power in general.

A point none of this addresses is the fact that we are going to have to make economic sacrifices in the long term (and probably in the short term as well) if we are going to have any hope of combating climate change. Can nuclear be part of the solution? Hopefully, one day we’ll figure it out.

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Fusion power: will it be tainted by the history of nuclear fission?

One thing that I wanted to talk about before this is all over is fusion power. Fusion reactions definitely fall under the umbrella of ‘nuclear’, and I think the example of fusion is a good way of looking at the whole nuclear debate from a different angle. (there will be a bit of science in this post)

Fundamentally, nuclear fusion is the opposite reaction to what you are doing during nuclear fission. Fission, as I explained in this post, involves splitting apart one very heavy atom, and releasing energy. Fusion, as the name implies, does the opposite. In most fusion reactions, you take two hydrogen atoms and force them together under extremely high pressure and temperatures. Under this pressure, they come together, and form one single helium atom. The thing is, one helium atom weighs less than two hydrogen atoms. This difference in weight is converted directly into energy, that can be channeled in the form of heat to produce electricity.

The differences between fusion and fission, is that fusion is much harder to do, but it is also safer and produces far more energy, with no radioactive waste.

So far, the technology required to make fusion commercially viable has not come about, although there are some promising developments coming along at the moment. If it were to be made viable, it would potentially be able to provide as much energy as we need, with a fraction of the wast, and no radioactive issues to deal with. But I wonder whether there will be issues with fusion that stem from the current opinions around fission.

It is still hard to communicate the science of nuclear power, and this technology has been in the public eye for 70 odd years. It seems like there could be potential for the same sort of negative feeling of fission nuclear power being applied to fusion, which would hinder its (already very slow) development further.

Unfortunately, we haven’t crossed that bridge yet, but it will be interesting to see whether it is more acceptable in the public eye.

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Is the nuclear debate a moot point?

The point of this blog is/was to study the debate about nuclear power. I want to understand what both sides want, what their motivations are and how they interact. One thing that I recently realised I haven’t covered however, is what can possibly be achieved by this debate.

This thought occurred to me while reading this article. Called ‘China eyes 110 nuke plants by 2030′, this article describes the plan of the Chinese government to vastly increase its nuclear power grid, which currently only supplies 2% of China’s total power needs. 

Countires like the USA, Russia and India already have nuclear power, and there are a lot of countries considering taking it up (most of which don’t have strong environmental concerns).

The people who campaign against nuclear power definitely occupy a lower position of power, compared to those who would invest in nuclear energy. And it seems to me that the likelihood of the anti-nuclear movement ever being able to stop nuclear power altogether is remote. So what can they hope to achieve?

All that seems possible is more regulation. This was talked about in the Slovic paper I discussed in the last couple of posts. As the unknown and dread rating of a technology goes up, so does the demand for regulation. But as it stands in countries like the USA and Russia, where nuclear power has been around for a long time, there are extremely high levels of regulation on all facets of the nuclear power process: plant design, building processes and building materials, built-in redundant safety protocols, fuel storage and handling, spent fuel storage and handling. What more can be done that is achievable?

Does the nuclear debate in developed nations actually serve a purpose anymore? There are now governmental bodies that are responsible for ensuring the safety of populations under threat of nuclear technology, so does us arguing about it really matter?

Matters might be a little different in developing nations like India and China, and in the many countries where there are plans for developing nuclear power, but it still seems like there is little that can be done to stop the world investing in this technology. And, as members of the “first world” do we have any right to? Do organisations like Greenpeace have any right to? We can encourage them to be safe, and help them learn from our mistakes, but ultimately it’s up to them.

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‘Perception of risk’ by Paul Slovic, Part 3: So how do we communicate risk then?

The last part in my discussion of ‘Perception of Risk’, by Paul Slovic

At the core of why people don’t agree on risk is the difference between how the experts and the lay public understand risk. To the experts, risk is most often boiled down (too far) to metrics like ‘expected annual mortality’, which are figures that allow easy comparison, and seem (to the well-informed experts) to be able to perfectly communicate how risky an activity is. The is in direct contrast with the way the lay public understands and come to understand risk. To try and communicate risk based solely on facts ignores the context in which a lay person will be receiving those facts, the inputs and preconceived ideas that that person has already dealt with, and the emotional understanding already in place.

At the end of the paper, Slovic attempts to address the looming question that hangs over the whole paper, after taking all this information on board, is it actually possible to communicate risk effectively? One methods that is put forward (based on the transmission, lecture style of science communication) is to put the risk level in a way that the lay public can understand.

One really good example of this type of communication comes from Dr. Derek Muller on the Veritasium channel on YouTube:

This is a really digestible example of the use of qualitative risk to demonstrate the relative danger. But Slovic says that this is not enough, (agreeing with the current trend of science communication) what needs to be done is to have ‘two-way’ communication, instead of one-way. As enjoyable as the video is, it highlights how the theme that runs through most of the videos on Veritasium can be applied to other topics. In Veritasium, Dr. Muller attempts to break down peoples preconceived ideas about how physics works, and to help people understand that using human intuition to understand complex topics is often not enough, because they don’t operate in a way our relatively simply brain can understand. I think this thought can be applied to communication as well, human society has grown to the point where our ancestral ability to socialise and gossip doesn’t cut it when it comes to understanding how large groups of people will react to and understand certain information.

To really get the message of risk communication across, a two-way dialogue needs to be started. A dialogue that takes into account the facts, but also the the lived experience of the lay public. Interestingly, at the end of the paper Slovic makes the statement that the lay public is actually better than the experts at understanding the broader consequences of these sort of events, and as such, it seems to me that the onus is on the experts to defend themselves to the public, rather than hand down wisdom from above.

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‘Perception of risk’ by Paul Slovic, Part 2: What factors influence risk perception?

Back to Slovic

There are several factors that have been identified as having the biggest impacts on the perception of risk: control, familiarity, catastrophic potential, and level of knowledge available to non-experts. Nuclear power, unfortunately, ticks most of these boxes for a majority of the lay public, and this makes it extremely difficult to communicate the actual risks.

It seems to me that these influencing factors can also work in the other direction. Take ‘familiarity’ for example. When the atomic age was first under way, there was probably a reasonable good ‘popular science’ understanding of the way that nuclear power worked, and this familiarity probably helped encourage the growth of the nuclear industry — with support rallied by events like the ‘Atoms for Peace’ speech — and acceptance in the wider public sphere (aside from a vocal minority). But this familiarity has come back in another form, familiarity with the disaster narrative. When people think of nuclear power now, the unerringly refer to events like Chernobyl, the disaster has become the familiar, which in turn seems to push the perception of the risk of nuclear events higher and higher.

Another factor that comes into perception of risk, is what Slovic calls the ‘signal potential’ of an incident. This refers to the capability of a single incident of imply further and more far-reaching impacts of the accident. The example he used was that of the difference of a trainwreck and a nuclear disaster like what happened at Three Mile Island. Hundreds of people may be killed in the trainwreck but, because it is a supposedly ‘closed’ event, there will be little alarm in the wider public. Compare this however, with Three Mile Island. No one was killed as a result of that accident, and the wider consequences were relatively minor, from a human health standpoint (not to belittle the suffering of those that were affected). And yet, the public reaction to the event was wildly over the top, and from here came the majority of the costs of Three Mile Island, the huge public backlash caused massive increases in regulations and the requirements for building nuclear reactors (which massively increases costs, and makes nuclear less competitive), but also in the massive financial and social losses sf the companies involved, but also the communities around Three Mile Island, which suffered under the weight of the negative image of the area.

So is it actually possible to communicate risk effectively? I’ll talk about that in the next post…

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