UK nuclear industry could be a national treasure – if it tackles these key issues

Wylfa nuclear power station on Anglesey in North Wales. Shutterstock/AndrewAstbury

UK nuclear industry could be a national treasure – if it tackles these key issues

The nuclear industry provides about 15% of the UK’s electricity, makes a vital contribution to the country’s carbon cutting ambitions and is a remarkably safe form of energy with no major accidents since the Windscale Fire in 1957. But despite all this, it still seems to suffer from disinterest and distrust from the public and these factors continue to dominate the nuclear narrative.

The industry is green, safe and has the potential to create many high-tech jobs. Why then is the nuclear industry so often seen as a guilty secret rather than a national treasure, with most of the public opting for ignorance or ambivalence?

Perhaps one reason the public has so far failed to embrace nuclear power is that people feel excluded from the journey it is taking and lack any influence over how new nuclear solutions might emerge. It is high time the industry found a way to make its case and forge its future, hand in hand with the British public. So here are a few thoughts on why this is so important and how, over time, it might be achieved.

Cutting carbon emissions

Nuclear power is making a key contribution towards the government’s Clean Growth Strategy which aims to reduce carbon emissions. Within this strategy, the government has committed to supporting the replacement of existing reactors as they come to the end of their lives. This has resulted in huge multi-billion pound projects at Hinkley Point in Somerset, Wylfa on Anglesey and Moorside in west Cumbria.

But all of these projects (particularly Hinkley Point) continue to attract significant controversy around affordability – a debate which does nothing to promote long-term public confidence.

Risk and control

To guard against nuclear accidents like Fukushima and Chernobyl – and in an attempt to make the public feel safe – the nuclear industry has always looked to shield, protect and distance society from risk. It has sought to offer reassurance through the power of its own expertise and the promise of strict control.

Of course, telling the public they don’t need to worry about something they can’t hope to fully understand – and traditionally associate with cataclysmic destruction – is virtually guaranteed to get their palms sweating. So, for many, nuclear investment has never risen above the status of a reluctant distress purchase, and is often better not contemplated at all

In reality, the UK’s nuclear energy story encompasses all the features necessary to capture the public’s attention and hold onto it. It’s an amazing technical concept and a high stakes journey of risk and reward with the future of the planet as the prize. If the industry wants to truly engage, then surely it needs to find new ways to invite people along for the ride.

‘Hybrid forums’

One new approach to public consultation uses so called “hybrid forums”. These forums bring together scientists and a diverse range of concerned stakeholders (such as local citizens, pressure groups and academic experts). These forums are convened to let problems emerge and to create a vision of the future that is common to everyone.

One example of a hybrid forum took place to address chronic flooding problems in North Yorkshire. The forum enabled everyone who took part to share their knowledge and expertise and alight on the radical alternative solution of gradually arresting the flow of floodwater, rather than providing expensive defences in the area itself.

Today’s nuclear grand challenges – like providing affordable nuclear power stations and disposing of nuclear waste – are “social” problems with resolutions which lie in creating and maintaining public support over many years. This is a common feature which makes them well suited to such a hybrid approach.

Geological Disposal Facilities

The hunt is already on for a volunteer host community for a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) for the underground disposal of radioactive waste. Volunteer communities are compensated for hosting the facility through community investment funding.

With a GDF, radioactive waste would be put hundreds of metres underground. This is internationally recognised as the safest long-term solution to nuclear waste disposal. Having one in the UK will create jobs and guarantee investment for whichever community takes it on.

Small Modular Reactors

There is also growing interest in Small Modular Reactors or SMRs. These are lower cost, factory-built units that provide localised power. Widespread adoption of SMRs as a more affordable alternative to large scale plants would mean many new nuclear sites would need to be established – many in urban areas. This, again, requires long-term public support.

SMRs have generated government and industry interest internationally because designers have suggested they may offer lower investment risk, cost less and offer greater compatibility with the electricity network.

The University of Manchester has set up The Beam Nuclear and Social Research Network to investigate the social challenges bound up in the UK’s nuclear future. We want to tackle all these questions head-on and bring fresh insights. But the ultimate test will be whether these insights can be made to resonate within the industry itself.

The nuclear debate must be expanded and enriched for the benefit of everyone. I hope that our research will help the general public to think more passionately about what the UK’s nuclear future could be like and whether current nuclear policy is taking us there.

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