What it means to be pro-nuclear (part 1)

A stack of six books on climate change

Image by Martin Sharman, Flickr

“So are you really convinced by nuclear now then?”

A schoolfriend asked me this question when I visited my hometown for the weekend recently. It was the very end of our visit, and our conversation had turned to climate change just as she was strapping her children into the car and preparing to leave. I didn’t have time to give her a full answer, to do justice to the complexity of the question, so I’d like to attempt that here.

Honestly, I still struggle to call myself pro-nuclear in public. I often deflect the question of my work at social occasions, knowing full well that to admit it in unsympathetic company means steeling myself to defend and justify the actions around the world of an industry I’ve not been in long and don’t fully understand. ‘Pro-nuclear’, with all its misconceptions and baggage, can be a big label to take on.

There are other labels I am happier with though, labels I am proud of and will admit to in any company and any situation:

I am pro-low carbon sources of energy. I’ve never met anyone in the nuclear industry who isn’t (though I understand they exist in the minority). The energy-climate debate is often framed as evil fossil fuels vs. saintly renewables while nuclear gets left out of the discussion entirely or is included only in opposition to renewables. Since taking this job it has been impressed upon me time and again, most recently during this year’s WNA Symposium, that nuclear professionals see renewable energy as a natural complementary partner.

I am happy for renewable sources to be part of the energy mix of every country in the world. I am far from the only person in the nuclear industry to feel that way. It would be helpful if more supporters of renewable energy felt the same about nuclear, the most productive low-carbon source of energy around.

I am pro-pragmatism. Clunky way to put it, but what I mean is that I want national and international policy makers to focus on what is effective to reach the necessary climate change goals, not on what they think would be nice. As things stand, countries don’t tend to replace nuclear power plants with solar panels and wind farms; they step up their imports of coal and oil. Just look at Germany (17 reactors being phased out, carbon emissions increasing, no chance of meeting previous climate change goals) and Japan (48 reactors offline, around 90% of its energy mix now from combustible fuels, no chance of meeting previous climate change goals). Global energy demand is increasing and energy efficiency is not the answer.

It’s a blog topic in its own right, but by this point I’ve read enough that I simply cannot believe a 100% renewable energy mix to be either an effective or a responsible way to meet the challenges facing us. My understanding is that with nuclear providing the baseload (the minimum level of energy needed at all times under all circumstances) and more intermittent/less productive renewable energy sources picking up the peak load (the variable levels of energy used beyond that minimum) we would have a reliable low-carbon energy production system that could halt global warming and save lives. Nuclear energy is one of the most powerful climate change defences we have, proven to reduce carbon emissions on a large scale. I cannot support abandoning it on the basis of politics or ideology.

I am pro-trusting expertise. These labels just get catchier and catchier, don’t they? What I mean is that if the scientific community reaches a consensus on something, I will believe it. If professional number-crunchers work out how much something costs, provides or offsets and more knowledgeable people agree with the results than disagree, I will trust those numbers. I welcome open debate between comparable experts with differing opinions but do not seek out false “balance”. I accept that science is not democratic and prefer my representatives in government to develop policies and make decisions on the basis of expert recommendation rather than public popularity. Like the many environmentalists who have shifted from anti-nuclear to pro-nuclear positions, I am satisfied with the expert responses to common anti-nuclear arguments.

I am pro-media responsibility. As noted in my introductory post, my first brush with media responsibility relating to nuclear was in the aftermath of Fukushima. For news sources to provide information to their consumers that is out of context or just plain inaccurate is appalling. Japan is a country very close to my heart, and it infuriates me to see certain publications and journalists manipulate people – through carelessness or callousness I’m not sure – into unnecessarily fearing for their health. Reports of worried residents fighting to prevent nuclear reactors from restarting, despite the financial and environmental costs already incurred by their closure, are heartbreaking.

So am I really convinced by nuclear now? Well, I’m convinced by climate change and I’m not sure you can call yourself pragmatic, in favour of low-carbon energy sources and aware of the urgency of climate change without finding the argument for nuclear very convincing too. I would encourage all my friends with climate change concerns to read the links I’ve posted here, ask questions about anything that doesn’t add up to you and to watch Pandora’s Promise for free on YouTube, a documentary from award winning director Robert Stone in which you can see how high profile and previously anti-nuclear environmentalists have changed their minds to become nuclear advocates.

Above all, when I say “I am pro-nuclear” please hear what I really mean: “I care about this planet and our future and you, and I honestly believe nuclear is the best way to protect everything that is precious to both of us.


I wrote this weeks ago and didn’t realise just how relevant it would be to the People’s Climate March I attended in London on Sunday 21st September. I’m working on a follow-up about my experiences there and will update this post once it is ready. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter @millysievert!


9 responses to “What it means to be pro-nuclear (part 1)

    • Thank you! I actually find The Myth of the Myth of Baseload easier to understand and follow as a nuclear layperson so that was the one I had to use in this particular post, but I’m planning to go into the issue of 100% renewables in the future and will no doubt use his analysis then.


  1. Thank you for a thoughtful piece. I pursued a career in nuclear science and technology because I was (and remain) convinced that nuclear power is a reasonable and practical source of energy that has a relatively small environmental footprint (Everything has an impact). No, nuclear doesn’t fit every application, but neither do renewables. It’s not cheap (the nuclear industry never promised “too cheap to meter”, despite the popularity of this meme) but neither is any other source. There are pros and cons to every source of energy, to every human activity. Let’s just get on and reduce our impact!

    I work in nuclear reactor safety research, and am well aware of the history of nuclear accidents and near-misses. Unfortunately the public perception of radiation-related health consequences (to people and the environment) is usually grossly exaggerated. I do not excuse occasional poor safety performance of some nuclear operators, but people need to take a big-picture view. There is a great deal of wasted effort and time spent assessing miniscule environmental hazards (not just in the nuclear field) while the elephants in the room are ignored (e.g., the vast amount of fossil fuel used by the public for transportation and plastics, consumer society/planned obsolescence, piles of electronic garbage produced because software upgrades usually mean bloatware to bog down computers).

    We have only one planet (I like the slogan “There is no planet B”). In words from the Anglican Book of Alternate Services is a favourite prayer of mine:
    At your command all things came to be:
    The vast expanse of interstellar space,
    Galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home;
    By your will they were created and have their being.
    Glory to you forever and ever.


  2. Great site! Down to earth, unpretentious, and devoid of the hostile references directed towards the so called “antis” and renewables. I hope the “personality” of your site can be maintained, and your message remains positive.


  3. I became a strong advocate of Nuclear Power for many reasons, but one of those was when I found out that some types of NPP can load follow. This is true of designs ranging from the Three Mile Island types to the Molten Salt reactors to the CANDU reactors. Some of these can do this immediately in response to the change in power needs on the line. This means that any variable source of electricity can be smoothed out immediately so that the voltage and current stay very very stable. This feature has not been allowed by the NRC because it would mean that a Nuclear reactor would be controlled by some other organization than the on site reactors. This feature means a a single reactor – like a CANDU can be placed in a grid with no other power source and reliably supply power to the whole grid. If Solar or Wind is used, the reactor fuel will last longer since as the reactor slows down the fuel is not used as much. So while Solar and Wind cannot replace fossil fuels they could help extend the life of a fuel core. This would mean that Solar peaking during the day with a NPP smoothing the load could effectively replace all fossil fuel on an electric grid.


  4. Pingback: What it means to be pro-nuclear (part 2) | Nuclear Layperson·

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