Nuclear industry needs wider acceptance

You’d be forgiven for thinking The Engineer’s online editorial is somewhat geared toward the greener, renewable end of the energy market and to some extent you’d be right.

After all, The Engineer focuses on innovation, and with legislation pushing UK and other EU nations down the route to significant cuts in their overall carbon emissions, this sector is the focus of much of the R&D in the energy industry. This is in turn is generating a significant amount of business and technology news from all engineering sectors.

An event starting this week, however, could soon have our news desk looking more frequently at nuclear new build.

Starting tomorrow at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London is the ‘Nuclear New Build Conference: Nuclear’s New Generation Overview’.

The topics on the agenda for the two-day conference include supply chain issues, the skills gap, regulation, decommissioning and best practice.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is currently overseeing decommissioning activities at 20 sites across Britain, putting the UK at the forefront of innovation in legacy waste. However, Sizewell B, Britain’s newest nuclear power station, gained its rating certificate some 15 years ago, and questions about home-grown skills will, once again be brought to the fore at the conference.

On a broader level, the conference will discuss the thorny issue of ‘hearts and minds’, and sessions will be held on public opinion toward new build. Nuclear issues seem to polarise opinion in much the same way as hunting with hounds, and conference delegates might do well to turn their company’s respective PR budgets to national campaigns in the pursuit of winning public opinion.

How so? Let’s look again at Sizewell B, where construction began in earnest in 1988. For seven years, that normally quiet corner of north-east Suffolk became a thriving, confident community that embraced the opportunities brought to it by the nuclear power plant.

Since gaining its rating certificate, the power station’s owners have been a good and seemingly transparent neighbour to Sizewell and the adjoining small town of Leiston. So winning ‘hearts and minds’ at proposed new-build sites which already have an existing nuclear presence – which many of them do – is maybe not the issue here.

Conference delegates might care to remember that, to the wider public away from the existing nuclear sites, the nuclear industry is shrouded in secrecy; or that nuclear power is not something they can have a say in. Then there are the effects on public opinion of the high-profile accidents; the incident at Three Mile Island or the Chernobyl disaster.

These are clearly exceptions in an industry that has generated safe, clean electricity for years. An industry that offers a diverse range of highly-skilled, well-paid engineering careers that can take people across the globe.

It is up to the nuclear lobby to bridge this knowledge gap and in doing so win the battle for the hearts and minds of the wider public.