You’re a dedicated environmentalist who initially opposed nuclear energy. What changed your mind?
I received a copy of Prof. Sir David MacKay’s Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air (2008) as a gift. This brilliant book, which addresses how Britain can meet its 2050 carbon-reduction targets using existing technology, taught me two things. First, renewables alone almost certainly won’t get us all the way to zero. That many wind and solar farms would take up more land than would be politically unacceptable. Second, the book’s fact-based approach showed that I was badly misinformed about nuclear energy and that all the usual concerns – waste, proliferation, safety, cost – were exaggerated. Also, the WHO and UN reports on Chernobyl made me realize that this accident’s biggest public health impact wasn’t radiation, but fear of radiation.
What can nuclear do that renewables can’t?
First, flexible advanced reactors provide clean, dispatchable power. This will become increasingly essential for maintaining a reliable power supply as the amount of intermittent renewables on the grid continues to rise. Moreover, our recent study has shown that advanced nuclear technology – when coupled with renewables and thermal energy storage – would lower overall system costs, reduce emissions, and improve grid performance in all of the markets we modeled. Second, renewables growth may be reaching the saturation point in some areas, particularly those that already have lots of renewables. The issuance of licenses to build new wind farms in Germany, for example, has fallen by 70 percent in the past year, in part due to lawsuits filed by local citizens groups and environmental activists. We need to diversify the pathways to carbon neutrality. Advanced nuclear reactors – which produce clean power but require far less land per megawatt-hour of output than renewables – provide one such pathway.
But are people who don’t want to live next to a big wind farm likely to want a nuclear power plant down the road? How can perceptions about nuclear safety be changed?
Scientists and engineers are very rigorous in their work but often much less rigorous in communicating it well. Climate change poses existential risks, and people worldwide need access to energy for their health, productivity, and quality of life. So it’s vital that communications about nuclear energy are just as rigorously scientific as the underlying engineering, math, and physics.
One safety issue is waste disposal. What will ensure that storage sites will continue to be maintained and kept secure thousands of years into the future?
Deep geological disposal of final waste is extremely safe and secure. For example, in 2015 Finnish nuclear operator Posiva received regulatory approval to build a passively safe final waste repository on Olkiluoto island in western Finland. As part of the approvals process, Posiva assessed the public health impact of the repository failing spectacularly 10,000 years in the future. They assumed a true worst-case scenario, everything from the copper canisters corroding in 1,000 years rather than 100,000 years and the groundwater table moving upward to a person living her whole life on the most contaminated land and drinking only the most contaminated water. Despite the unlikeliness of this scenario, that person’s annual radiation dose would only be 0.00013 millisieverts, which is roughly equivalent to eating a few bananas or spending a few minutes flying in plane.
Europe’s electricity system can probably eventually be decarbonized. But what about hard-to-decarbonize sectors like aviation, shipping, and industry?
Green hydrogen will play a vital role. And nuclear power plants can help. They have a tiny environmental and climate footprint, generate cheap electricity at high capacity factors, and also produce high-temperature steam. They’re therefore ideally suited to producing green hydrogen and synthetic fuels on an industrial scale. And once the fuel-transport infrastructure is in place, they could do this at a cost that could be competitive with fossil fuels today.
You envision a low-carbon world powered by renewables and nuclear. But not all countries can be relied on to operate nuclear power plants safely and not to weaponize nuclear fuel. How would you propose minimizing these risks?
Advanced reactors will be passively safe, won’t require emergency planning zones, and will be much more proliferation-resistant. Besides, nuclear’s future role will, as I just said, be much broader than power generation and will encompass the production of clean hydrogen and synthetic fuels which can be stored and transported. This means many countries could potentially benefit from nuclear technology without necessarily having their own plants.
What have you read recently that’s particularly insightful about the future of energy?
I highly recommend Mark Lynas’s latest book, Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency (2020). It compellingly portrays the magnitude of the challenge we face in tackling climate change. But it also ends on a hopeful note that I find it very motivating.
Kirsty Gogan, MSc., is managing director of LucidCatalyst and cofounder and executive director of Energy for Humanity (EFH), an NGO focused on large-scale deep decarbonization and energy access. EFH led a delegation of renowned climate scientists to Paris COP21 to make the case for nuclear to be recognized as a vital part of the clean energy mix. EFH was subsequently shortlisted for the Business Green Leaders “Green NGO of the Year” award in 2016. Kirsty has more than 15 years’ experience as a senior advisor to industry, nonprofits, and governments.