Nuclear future: a case for engagement

News editor

I’m sure there are a few of you out there who forgo returning home straight after work, preferring instead to head straight to a welcoming pub.

I put myself in this category at least twice a week and every now and again I’ll seek opinions from my acquaintances on issues of national importance that you – engineers – are expected to deliver.

A recent topic of debate revolved around the UK’s energy mix, a discussion that my drinking buddies might as well have entitled: why Britain should eschew nuclear.

All degree-educated and in their thirties, they are firmly of the opinion that nuclear is not a risk worth taking because potentially catastrophic accidents could leave an indelible mark on the world.

Maybe they have a point? After all, Ukraine still lives with the legacy of the Chernobyl accident of 1986 (its confinement is still being built at a cost of £600m and is due for completion in 2016) and the events at Fukushima in March 2011 saw Germany turn its back on nuclear entirely.

It would appear that my acquaintances are not alone.

Three months after the Fukushima incident Ipsos Mori published details of global research that found 62 per cent of those polled opposed the use of nuclear power and that 26 per cent of them had been influenced by events in Japan.

However, back in January 2012 the mood in the UK appeared to have improved in favour of nuclear with the same research company finding 50 per cent of those surveyed saying they supported new nuclear plants replacing those scheduled to be shut down. Similarly, overall favourability towards the nuclear energy industry stood at 40 per cent and unfavourable opinion stood at 19 per cent.

In isolation Fukushima – plus Chernobyl, the partial melt-down at Three Mile Island in 1979 and the Windscale fire in 1957 – are enough to turn most rational people anti-nuclear.

However, the world hasn’t stopped storing oil because of Buncefield and people still travel by air and drive cars despite the risk of accidents.

Its also worth noting that Europe, post-Chernobyl, is a different place entirely with engineers from western and eastern Europe plants engaged in reciprocal exchanges.

The World Nuclear Association notes that since 1989 over 50 twinning arrangements between plants in the East and West have been put in place and many other international programmes were initiated. Furthermore, Western aid totalling almost $1bn has been made available for over 700 safety-related projects in former Eastern Bloc countries.

I wouldn’t describe as an evangelist for nuclear but I found myself sticking up for the industry simply because I worked at a nuclear power station in the 1990s.

Entering my time there with the same fears as the dipso dandies of my acquaintance, I soon realised that the chances of ‘potentially catastrophic accidents’ were pretty slim, thanks almost entirely to the dedication of engineers, technicians and clerical staff who worked there.

My barroom buddies were interested to hear that the safety culture was – and likely still is – all pervasive and transparent, with event reporting encouraged and a dedicated office policing modifications being two of many measures taken to ensure safety at all times.

There’ve been occasions when The Engineer has criticised the nuclear industry for failing to engage with the public but it seems like the shoe is now on the other foot with EDF launching a national initiative to improve public accessibility at all eight of its nuclear power stations in the UK.

This might be of interest to one of my ale loving friends who regularly takes his family to Suffolk, home of Sizewell B and proposed C station.

EDF is constructing a temporary visitors centre there with plans to expand it if Sizewell C goes ahead.

For the first time in many years, visitors will be able to pre-book tours of the site, something my nuclear averse friend might like to get involved with. Between 7,500 and 10,000 visitors are expected each year so he might like to join the queue soon.

Similarly, formal public consultation of EDF’s application for Hinkley Point C in Somerset concluded last week and the same process is now in place for Sizewell C.

Planning laws have changed and nuclear new build won’t be held up by public inquiry, but that does not mean that concerns from the public will go unheard.

EDF say that during their formal consultation stages, they ‘directly engaged with around 6,500 consultees, held 34 exhibitions, attended dozens of meetings with local authorities and other groups, and attracted 109,000 unique visitors to its project website.’

As well as local engagement the company is listening to concerns from the wider public and this morning an EDF spokesman told me that a dedicated website has been set up for this very purpose.

This is excellent news. After all, I’m sure EDF and suchlike are in a much better position to engage with the public than a former contract worker who likes the odd bevy after work. As for my acquaintances, it gives them a chance to stop talking as if the world were flat and actually get out there to see what’s happening.