Making sense of nuclear - what's changed in the debate?

28 Jun 2017
There is now tension in the environmental movement about whether nuclear power should in fact be part of a low-carbon energy future.



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Some hostile organisations have softened their attitudes and most are debating the evidence on this question. There is now tension in the environmental movement about whether nuclear power should in fact be part of a low-carbon energy future.

A lot of the debate about nuclear power is economic: about whether subsidies for this part of the energy sector would come at the expense of others, whether energy infrastructure should be subsidised at all and whether specific proposals for new nuclear plants make sense. Some people are no doubt concerned by this alone. But nuclear power has a legacy of suspicion attached to it, which in the past gave rise to some claims about safety that have turned out not to be true, but which continue to influence discussions about the options, economic or otherwise. The industry and governments haven’t typically in the past been very open on the detail of nuclear installations. That is why we got together with a group of scientific organisations to produce this guide and try to bring discussions up to date.

Some of the people who have revised their opinions about nuclear energy have cited the speed at which climate change is occurring. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also creating affordable energy for the world, people are having to reconsider the trade-offs between different methods of energy production — particularly whether no nuclear means more fossil fuels.

There appear to be other reasons too; the world now has better data on the long-term health effects of exposure to radiation, more experience of managing nuclear power, and improved and new technologies to increase safety and efficiency and reduce waste.

Perhaps because of these, the wider debate is shifting. In the UK, public support for nuclear power increased a little, from 26% in 2005 to 32% in 2013, and whereas in earlier decades politicians debated it as a problem, recent debates have focused on it as part of a solution.

This guide is not about promoting nuclear as the route to a low-carbon energy system. It isn’t the broad look at energy generation that would help you decide if nuclear power is suitable in any given situation. But none of us wants to make decisions based on outdated information. So it is an exploration of what seems to have changed and to have changed minds.




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