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Educating the public is key to reclaiming our nuclear heritage

It probably says something about me that I used a day off from my job at The Engineer earlier this week to visit a nuclear power station. But it’s to my shame that this was also the first time I had ever made such a visit.

It was a fascinating trip and one I would urge anyone with an interest in engineering, infrastructure or the environment to take themselves. Seeing first-hand the scale of the reactor, feeling the heat it generates and studying the intricacies of the technology that controls it reminds you what British engineering is capable of. And learning about the safety systems and culture in place and about how much electricity can be produced from so relatively little fuel certainly makes you re-evaluate the role nuclear power has to play in our energy mix.

I made the visit as a member of the public, not as a journalist, so I won’t give too many details about what I saw. In fact, before I began the tour I was made to sign a contract stating I wouldn’t pass on information to third parties without the agreement of EDF Energy, which operates the UK’s nuclear plants. Which seems rather strange given that the point of allowing public tours of the power station is surely to help spread information.

Presumably it’s a hangover from the last decade, when Britain’s remaining nuclear industry effectively closed its doors and reinitiated a culture of secrecy in response to the perceived terrorist threat following 9/11. There is, of course, a vital need to guard the proprietary and potentially catastrophically dangerous technology contained with nuclear power stations. But my visit also made me realise there’s also a very strong case for doing more to educate the public about nuclear power.

Few people really understand what went wrong during the disasters at Chernobyl or Fukushima, or how other power stations have learnt from those events. My tour guide made several references to how visitors typically imagined a nuclear plant as something similar to the one in The Simpsons, but in reality there are no glowing green rods being handled or contaminated water flows into rivers of three-eyed fish. She also told the story of one visitor from Nigeria who was terrified of receiving a dose of radiation until it was explained she was in greater danger from the cosmic rays in the atmosphere she had been exposed to on the flight over.

Unless the public has a sound knowledge of how nuclear energy is produced, how can they be expected to make sensible decisions about its future use in this country? I grew up just 20 miles from a nuclear power station and yet new nothing of how they operated until I started working at The Engineer. If British industry wants a new nuclear future then it needs to do more – in partnership with government – to educate people about its advantages and safeguards.

There’s another reason for doing this besides our need for new low-carbon sources of energy. Like most in the UK, the nuclear plant I visited was in an area with little other industry and where jobs were scarce. And when those power stations were built they not only needed workers to run them but also created demand for the rest of UK industry. But the decision to end nuclear development in favour of North Sea oil and the subsequent decline of British nuclear manufacturing means that most of the components for the next generation of power stations will be built abroad.

Chancellor George Osborne yesterday said nuclear power could help the UK tackle climate change in ‘as cheap a possible way’. I’m not sure how the price of £92.50/MWh agreed for the first new power station (double the expected market rate and greater than that of onshore wind) is cheap. As long as foreign (often state-owned or backed) companies are the ones building and supplying nuclear power, it’s hard to see how the overall costs to Britain can come down substantially.

However, there is hope that the new-build programme could be a springboard to a nuclear manufacturing renaissance. Hitachi is planning to build a module construction facility here to support its involvement in two new power stations. The Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (NAMRC) in Sheffield is helping firms used to working to the precision standards of aerospace transfer their capabilities to the nuclear sector. Sheffield Forgemasters has just been approved to fabricate safety-critical cast components for the nuclear industry. In Rolls-Royce, we even have a major company that builds nuclear reactors (for submarines) already.

With the right aspiration and conditions, these firms could lead the UK back into a high-value manufacturing sector that couldn’t be easily displaced by cheap foreign factories. This should help bring down the costs of an energy source that it’s becoming increasingly clear will be a vital component of our fight against climate change.

But it requires a long-term commitment to nuclear power with full public backing. Nuclear manufacturing is arguably one of the most difficult industries for a country to break into, requiring a deep knowledge and skills base, unique physical capabilities and a strong supply chain. Having squandered our pioneering first foray into this sector, let’s make sure our second attempt isn’t a false start.

Readers' comments (20)

  • What is the plan for energy security between now and when the first new generation nuclear plant is on line?
    Why are there no new coal fired power stations been considered since UK has abundant coal reserves? The technology for clean flue gases is already available and the industry can provide more long term jobs

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  • Three cheers for a sensible article on nuclear power. We need it to keep the lights on, we need it to minimise carbon emissions. We need to educate the public in much greater depth. But we will never stop the tree-huggers from issuing wildly inaccurate scare stories, or the press from splashing these as "facts". Such is life. Keep up the good work meantime, and when the light do go out, which they inevitably will while we have politicians more concerned with image and votes than long term strategy, you can at least have the satisfaction of saying "I told you so".

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  • Not against nuclear energy per se, but do wonder whether its substituting one scarce resource for another and getting a whole lot of long term waste into the margin. Especially true when we have a lot of other really usable and reliable resources that are being blocked by environmentalists and NIMBY's - such as the Severn barrier.

    Fission is really a stop gap until we can harness fusion (in a controlled manner!) maybe better to hold off and concentrate in developing the other mixes of energy and do more research towards a fusion solution.

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  • We're sat on a bed of coal, surrounded by gas and oil, have the 2nd largest tidal drop in the world, some of the strongest and most constant winds and operated the world's first full scale nuclear power station! How come we have an energy crisis?

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  • Uranium is not especially scarce when its energy density & low waste volume is considered & when the fact >95% of the possibly fissionable uranium is left alone after one use we have a lot more options when it comes to HOW we want to burn this particular fuel than with standard combustion.

    Nuclear energy is unique in that it needs to make an effort to engage with & inform the public. Other energy sources are relatable enough that people feel familiar with them even when they have no idea how they actually work. So far nuclear has woefully failed to do such engagement without appearing downright manipulative. It is possible, consider how scientists successfully engaged with public concerns when it came to stem cells & genetics in medicine.

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  • Does it never occur to engineers that people are terrified of radiation because this damaging "thing" it cannot even be detected by without the help of scientists and engineers?

    In other words you are asking the public to go into a one way power relationship with you. The Nuclear Industry hold all the cards, it's an exceptionally unhealthy basis for a relationship, and always will be.

    The idea that you can "Educate" people out of this is ridiculous, for the more they discover about the history of the Industry, the stronger the resistance will be.

    The best PR bet for the Industry is to be honest. "Give us 70 billion to clear up the mess we made or we poison your descendants for the next 1/4 million years". Nuclear will never be liked, but you'd at least get respect.

    At the moment the latest deal has all the hallmarks of corruption, a stitchup.

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  • Trying to convince the public that it is a really good idea to spend 70 BILLION cleaning up the mess at Sellafield, especially as they have no idea what to do with the waste, which has a 1000 year+ half life. Then convince them that it is a good idea to allow the French to build and own UK power stations, then go here
    and realise how little power nuclear actually contributes to the UK grid. Then tell them that this supposedly carbon free power has a massive build stage carbon footprint. Of course it will provide lots of highly paid engineering jobs, for foreign contractors, so hey, let's ignore the facts and go for it!

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  • Tidal barriers and hydro-electric plants have their own problems. I'm not against them- I worked in hydro-electric construction projects in Canada- but they do have potential environmental problems. The Aswan dams on the River Nile prevents much needed silt from the upper Nile from fertilizing the lower Nile. Now commercial fertilizers are needed. I believe that similar problems have occurred in China due to mega-hydro projects. Tidal barrier projects have to be as carefully considered as nuclear projects. How will they affect wildlife? I am in favour of the nuclear option. No CO2. However, we do also have 200 years worth of coal underneath us (some of it under where I am sitting at this moment), so we should find a more efficient way of using this and trapping CO2. In the meantime we have to look at alternative sources and even more efficient use of electricity.

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  • When nuclear power first came on line I can remember saying to colleagues that what worried me most about it was a notable lack of rigor about the plans for waste disposal.

    Half a century later that is still the case.

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  • two hundred years worth of coal...
    But coal requires digging-out and that (until quite recently)meant man with picks and shovels by the half-million! And that was a political hot-potato because these persons amazingly started to recognise the power this gave them. Heavens, via their trades unions they actually wanted a proper salary for working in the dirtiest, most dangerous job going.. and that would never do!

    It has always struck me as odd that one group of workers - with a pivotal role - who engage in trying to get the best deal they can for what they sell (their labour and skills) and to maximize the benefit from their efforts [I do believe its called capitalism] are 'a national disgrace' and attacked for striking...whereas others who have made their 'service' so expensive that only the Government or the mega wealthy can afford it...when they (lawyers) strike are apparently saving the very essence of our society - access to justice. Did I miss something here?
    So, we have hocked ourselves to those unstable parts of the world who can offer alternatives...(gas and oil) having previously lost the incredible gains that a nuclear programme started long before anyone else would have offered. Presumably those who studied Plato and other ancient philosophies are much cleverer than us simple Engineers in making such decisions: or did they just wish to be re-elected?

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