Nuclear: energy sufficient for modern life in the era of climate change
Wade Allison, Emeritus Professor of Physics, Keble College, Oxford
Climate change threatens the foundations of the Industrial Revolution and so the basis of
modern life. Established science points to nuclear energy as the only effective natural
replacement for fossil fuels. However the maintenance of social stability during such a
radical switch requires that a majority in society appreciates what has to be done, in
particular that youth is engaged through a new broader enlightened education.
The Industrial Revolution was built on the ready availability of energy from fossil fuels, anywhere
and anytime. Although it is not clear just how much the environment will change in the years and
centuries ahead, the pattern of life appears to be at significant risk. A heavily populated and
developed world needs sufficient energy while minimising its impact on the environment.
The laws of science tell us that energy is conserved, but that it is only really useful when
concentrated. The task is to find what makes these concentrations we usually call “fuel”. Physical
processes only run “downhill”, that is in the direction of dissipating concentrations of energy. They
can go “uphill”, increasing the concentration, if pushed by some superior force. (There is nothing
complicated or controversial about this science, even if it is not familiar to everybody.) There are
three sources of fuel created by superior natural forces, each with a distinct concentration, era and
duration of creation.
Before the industrial revolution mankind used sporadic energy from wood, wind and water power
with a typical energy density of 0.0003 kWh per kilogram. This enabled him to build great cities,
sail round the world, refine metals and establish supremacy over other creatures. Nevertheless the
population was small and the standard of living miserable. The Sun provided the superior force
needed but there was little intrinsic storage: The seasons and vagaries of wind and weather meant
that these supplies failed altogether, frequently and unpredictably, as they still do. Every visible or
macroscopic form of energy has a similarly low density. Better fuels with higher energy densities
are only to be found at the microscopic level.
Over long geological periods the energy of the Sun accumulated deposits of carbon by
photosynthesis, converting atmospheric and oceanic carbon dioxide into its constituent atoms. This
“charging up” of buried carbon took many millions of years. The discovery of this instantly
available fuel with its density of 7 kWh per kilogramme was transformative for those people with
access to it. Ever since the start of the 19th Century, world politics has revolved around control of
these fossil fuels. But in the 21st Century the game has finally changed. We should not revert to the
weak and unreliable sources that failed in the past, in spite of the fact that many people are doing
so.1 Rather we should see what else there is in the scientific toolbox.
Chemical energy, including lasers, batteries and electronics, is based on the behaviour of electrons
in atoms. All such energy concentrations fall in a similar range, but only fossil fuels occur in nature,
pre-charged and on a large scale. The remaining source of microscopic energy is nuclear. Is there a
superior force in nature that has pre-charged it to make a fuel as powerful or better than chemical?
The Universe is 13.8 billion years old, and in the period before the Earth was formed 4.5 billion
years ago there was much violent nuclear change. Indeed the elements around us today were formed
at that time.2 Similar instances of such exceptional activity have been seen recently in which a
neutron star and black hole merged driven by extreme gravitational forces. In such explosions
unstable nuclei are formed in profusion although the vast majority decay quickly. There are just four
unstable varieties that survive to be found on Earth today, thanks to their exceptionally slow decay
rate: potassium-40, uranium-238, uranium-235 and thorium-232. Potassium-40 cannot be used
effectively, but the others can produce enormous energy, a million times more than carbon. With a
density of 20 million kWh per kilogramme, just one kilogramme could provide enough energy for
one person for life! And there is sufficient of these fuels available on Earth to last for centuries.
A nuclear power station can have a small footprint with a negligible impact on the environment. It
needs little fuel and produces even less waste (and that can be buried safely). A skilled experienced
work force is needed to build a station, but once built it can run for 60 to 80 years with only brief
annual servicing. And with modern modular construction methods build times can be reduced to
match realistic funding profiles.
There is only one problem: the population at large, and the authorities too, are frightened by
anything “nuclear”.3,4 Fear of a nuclear holocaust was a psychological weapon used during the cold
war. Radiation safety regulations, wildly more cautious than justifiable by scientific evidence, were
enacted to appease this fear. Still in force today they could be safely relaxed by a factor near a
thousand, as confirmed by what happened at Chernobyl and Fukushima. The casualty figures there
(43 and zero) were dwarfed by the social and environmental damage inflicted by ignorance, the
inept safety reaction and an absence of relevant education or planning.
Because early life on Earth had to survive radiation levels higher than today, it evolved an
exceptional degree of natural protection. Recent work in biology has confirmed how overlapping
layers of protection work effectively. Further reassurance comes from 120 years of medical
experience in which quite high doses of nuclear radiation are used to diagnose and cure cancer.
Many people are living witnesses to the health benefits of nuclear radiation.
The current cost of nuclear originates from fear, ignorance and a philosophy of precaution –
protracted planning, over-design, unproductive working practices and an obsession with safety.
Without these, nuclear power would be safe, cheap, acceptable and relatively fast to deploy.
To mitigate climate change, in addition to saving energy and reconsidering our diet and agriculture,
we should convert to nuclear as our main source of energy. Local power stations sited near centres
of population would then provide electricity, heat and hydrogen for homes, transport and industry.
New safety regulations should be based on science, and children should learn the benefits of nuclear
science and visit their local plant. The acceptability of these changes in a free society requires
intense investment in public education in natural science. The alternatives are a slow response to
climate change or a loss of popular support and stability.