What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say the word ‘nuclear’? Probably an image like the one above. Ok. What comes to mind when I say ‘nuclear energy’? Probably still the image above, or perhaps the Chernobyl Disaster. That’s what I think of at least. In fact, I can’t think of a single nuclear power plant that is known for its greatness. This is a real shame because nuclear energy is great and deserves more love. How did nuclear energy get such a bad rap, and can we fix it?
In my uncontroversial opinion, the development of nuclear technology was one of the most important advancements of humanity in the 20th century. They called it the atomic age after all. However, regarding public opinion on the matter, nuclear’s history has been a series of unfortunate events. As thorium advocate Kirk Sorensen said in his TED talk, it is one of history’s greatest tragedies that nuclear technology was discovered in the 1930s, just at the turn of World War II. Nuclear’s greatest minds, including Szilard, Heisenberg, and Oppenheimer, were employed into the American Manhattan Project and the German Uranium Club to develop a nuclear weapon. This steered the research towards uranium and plutonium, and away from the non-fissile thorium. It also resulted in bombs being nuclear technology’s first impression. As they say, you don’t get a second chance at a first impression.
Nuclear power began generating electricity in 1951, and people were quite excited about it. There were dreams of a nuclear-powered future, with nuclear-powered cars, planes and ships suspected to become the norm.
Nuclear power saw a rapid increase in the energy market share through to the mid-80s when things took a turn. Nuclear meltdowns were now imprinted in the public conscience, and the anti-nuclear movement was at its peak. Green parties were born out of the anti-nuclear politics and rallied around emerging solar and wind technologies. Governments around the world cancelled their nuclear plans and nuclear power has been on the decline ever since.
However, 21st century technology has made a lot of headway. Third and fourth generation nuclear power plants feature passive nuclear safety designs, which use fundamental material properties and physical principles to cause the reactor to automatically shutdown in the event of an accident. The waste from some fourth-generation designs can be dangerous for a little as 300 years, and these new plants are also more thermally efficient and have standardised designs to reduce capital costs. In the past, every nuclear reactor was custom designed, like a hydroelectric dam. Now, they are more like wind turbines or solar panels; they are manufactured off-site and sold to buyers for a fixed price.
The public is largely unaware of these developments. In fact, the public appears to be very uninformed on the facts of nuclear power. Surveys show that 60% of Americans believe nuclear power is causing climate change. Another survey showed that Britons who care most about climate change were the least likely to support nuclear power. I think there must be better communication with the public.
Communication design involves formulating short and impactful messages that can be conveyed through photos, audio, and video. The public’s opinion is largely impacted by what they see around them. Regardless of your opinion on electric cars, you must acknowledge Tesla’s ability to leverage marketing and communication design to make electric cars cool. They knew that buyers don’t actually care about battery technology or fuel efficiency, at least not when it costs £70k; people spending £70k want something cool. The same concept applies to nuclear. If you see a nuclear power plant with large concrete towers, that isn’t something you can relate to. If instead you saw a small, stylish nuclear plant that directly benefitted your local community, then you would probably like it a lot more. Creating small and beautiful power plants will become possible with future generation reactors that are much more compact. These buildings will not dominate their surroundings.
These changes are already starting. Companies like X-energy, Transatomic, and Terrapower are leading the way on private, safe, and economical nuclear reactors. These are fourth generation reactors, such as Molten-Salt Reactors and Sodium-cooled Fast Reactors, which are highly compact and fuel-efficient. The latter can run partially on existing nuclear waste and is being developed by Bill Gates’ Terrapower. I noticed all these companies emphasise compact designs, and all their websites have renders of power plants that look much better than what we have currently. They acknowledge the importance of the cool-factor.
As Jessica Lovering from the Breakthrough Institute points out, democratisation of nuclear power could be the way to shift the public opinion:
“It’s not just about coming up with new messaging, new graphics and a new PR campaign, because what you need to do is change the industry and change how the technology is deployed. The question is how can you get nuclear to appeal to egalitarians and communicalists? I think you can, in particular with much smaller nuclear, community owned nuclear, nuclear that doesn’t have to be financed by a state bank or from a foreign corporation with a huge loan, those sorts of things can help move the needle about how people feel about nuclear.
It also means you need to change business models and how to engage with communities, particularly at the very early stage when you’re doing these projects, so that people feel ownership and that they’re not being bulldozed about their energy choices. If we can get that part right, we have a big chance at changing the way people feel about nuclear technology going forward.”Jessica Lovering, Breakthrough Institute