Whenever I talk to chemical engineers, whether members of IChemE or otherwise, within the nuclear industry, there can be no doubt that one of the main issues affecting their work is public perception and understanding.
People do tend to recoil when something is described as radioactive or nuclear, and in part, this is due to images from World War II, and subsequent portrayal in the media.
Using Fukushima as a more recent example, there were no apparent fatalities caused by the nuclear disaster and in terms of the most severe injuries directly related, the worst was beta burns received in the basement of the power plant.
That there were no apparent fatalities caused by short-term nuclear radiation was not a message strongly relayed around the world in the media.
Instead, the public were presented with images of workers in hazmat suits in the disaster area. Distraught people unable to return to their homes made the headlines worldwide.
So it’s quite understandable that the public’s fear factor of nuclear continues to be high.
This public fear is echoed by some governments, although one would expect them to look at all the facts when making a decision on long-term energy policy.
However, since Fukushima, Japan’s Government has waivered on its commitment to nuclear energy, and there is still a risk that they will exit from nuclear energy altogether.
Indeed, Germany has done this with all 17 of their nuclear reactors either shut-down already or earmarked for closure as a response to the Fukushima incident.
So let’s look at the facts. There are currently over 430 nuclear power reactors worldwide.
But how many accidents and incidents have there been? Since 1952, there have been around 35 major accidents. The known number of direct fatalities is 68.
By way of contrast the UK construction industry reported 39 deaths in a single year (2013). None of these deaths is acceptable, but it is helpful keep a factual perspective.
What the public need to know more about is how safe the nuclear industry is and that chemical engineers are doing great work to help ‘keep the lights on’.
Within industry, nuclear waste that needs to be dealt with is usually solid and in relatively small amounts meaning that this process is highly controlled and incredibly safe.
And in terms of ‘keeping the lights on’, earlier in the year, the UK government set out plans for 16 GWe of new nuclear build by 2030. And the announcement made earlier this week on the European Union approval of the new £24.5 billion nuclear power station at Hinkley Point, Somerset – which IChemE welcomes – just goes to show that the UK government recognises nuclear as a major contributor to a low carbon generation economy.
This is great news for the UK economy as this new power station will be able to supply approximately seven per cent of the UK’s electricity needs for decades.
So, even though my expertise lies within fossil fuels and carbon capture and storage, I know that nuclear energy is vital if we are to meet the ever increasing global energy demands – and help mitigate climate change.
Public perception needs to change for the better and chemical engineers can help paint a more balanced picture of nuclear power and safety.