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Abstract

Modern society needs large amounts of energy, available at all times and with least impact on the environment. The established principles of natural science describe just four distinct sources of energy in the Universe. Examples of these, in order of increasing potency, are renewables, fossil fuels, nuclear power, gravitational collapse, although the latter is not accessible in the Solar System today. If burning fossil fuels is not environmentally acceptable, that leaves renewables and nuclear to be used instead. Renewables fail all the acceptance criteria that nuclear passes, except one. While the public at large welcomes renewables, it harbours deep misgivings about nuclear, having long been frightened for historical and political reasons. However, there is no objective basis for such a view and, to establish an energy policy to mitigate climate change, deep cultural shifts are required in education and public attitudes around the world. Such an investment will take a generation, similar to the time required to deploy nuclear reactors, large or small, in every country. As the climate becomes more extreme, the failure of renewables and the benefit of nuclear power are likely to become ever more evident. Current realities Science should reduce the risks of future investment by separating real possibilities from what can be excluded on scientific principles. A clear distinction should be understood between natural science, the established rules of the world as we find it, and technology, the human struggle to master it through inventive creation. Science changes slowly and is trustworthy; technology can be fast, exciting-and risky. Too often the two are elided causing unwise investment and predictable disappointment. Mankind gained confidence and supremacy over other animals when he learnt how to augment his own strength with renewables. The energy of moving and falling objects, and also sunshine, is evident to the senses, and Galileo and Newton showed how to improve their use with mathematics and science. In that way humans built mills and sailed the world. By the heat of wood fires they cooked food and refined metals. Yet in those days lives were short and miserable, and the population small. Leisure and human rights were for the few. Only with the Industrial Revolution did mankind learn how to avoid energy dependent on the capricious behaviour of wind and weather. The 24/7 reliability and concentration of fossil fuel energy enabled a doubling of life expectancy and a quadrupling of population. With it came vacations, sport and an end to pervasive slavery. Yet that energy of fossil fuels was mysterious. The sight of a lump of coal shows no sign of its huge hidden energy. Only in the 1920s was the seat of its inner mechanism revealed. Ever since by understanding this new clockwork, the motion of electrons in the outer parts of atoms, great technical advances have been made in chemistry, batteries, explosives, electronics, biology, even food. Significantly, the energy concentrations of these are all remarkably similar and about a thousand times renewables. However, the only large naturally occurring primary deposits of such energy are the fossil fuels. Pre-charged batteries and hydrogen gas are secondary sources not readily available in the environment. But fossil fuels should be replaced. This change will lead to either a new industrial revolution or collapse, depending on the scientific judgement and social maturity shown by mankind. The science of energy is well understood and offers a choice between reverting to renewables and engaging nuclear. The natural science of nuclear energy has changed little in seventy years. Quantum Mechanics, the same clockwork that describes electronics and chemistry, also sets the scale of the energy inside every
A submission
Why and how nuclear energy is central to reaching net zero
Wade Allison, Emeritus Professor of Physics and Fellow of Keble College, University of Oxford
Summary
Modern society needs large amounts of energy, available at all times and with least impact on the
environment. The established principles of natural science describe just four distinct sources of energy
in the Universe. Examples of these, in order of increasing potency, are renewables, fossil fuels, nuclear
power, gravitational collapse, although the latter is not accessible in the Solar System today. If burning
fossil fuels is not environmentally acceptable, that leaves renewables and nuclear to be used instead.
Renewables fail all the acceptance criteria that nuclear passes, except one. While the public at large
welcomes renewables, it harbours deep misgivings about nuclear, having long been frightened for
historical and political reasons. However, there is no objective basis for such a view and, to establish
an energy policy to mitigate climate change, deep cultural shifts are required in education and public
attitudes around the world. Such an investment will take a generation, similar to the time required to
deploy nuclear reactors, large or small, in every country. As the climate becomes more extreme, the
failure of renewables and the benefit of nuclear power are likely to become ever more evident.
Current realities
Science should reduce the risks of future investment by separating real possibilities from what can be
excluded on scientific principles. A clear distinction should be understood between natural science, the
established rules of the world as we find it, and technology, the human struggle to master it through
inventive creation. Science changes slowly and is trustworthy; technology can be fast, exciting and
risky. Too often the two are elided causing unwise investment and predictable disappointment.
Mankind gained confidence and supremacy over other animals when he learnt how to augment his own
strength with renewables. The energy of moving and falling objects, and also sunshine, is evident to the
senses, and Galileo and Newton showed how to improve their use with mathematics and science. In
that way humans built mills and sailed the world. By the heat of wood fires they cooked food and refined
metals. Yet in those days lives were short and miserable, and the population small. Leisure and human
rights were for the few.
Only with the Industrial Revolution did mankind learn how to avoid energy dependent on the capricious
behaviour of wind and weather. The 24/7 reliability and concentration of fossil fuel energy enabled a
doubling of life expectancy and a quadrupling of population. With it came vacations, sport and an end
to pervasive slavery.
Yet that energy of fossil fuels was mysterious. The sight of a lump of coal shows no sign of its huge
hidden energy. Only in the 1920s was the seat of its inner mechanism revealed. Ever since by
understanding this new clockwork, the motion of electrons in the outer parts of atoms, great technical
advances have been made in chemistry, batteries, explosives, electronics, biology, even food.
Significantly, the energy concentrations of these are all remarkably similar and about a thousand times
renewables. However, the only large naturally occurring primary deposits of such energy are the fossil
fuels. Pre-charged batteries and hydrogen gas are secondary sources not readily available in the
environment.
But fossil fuels should be replaced. This change will lead to either a new industrial revolution or
collapse, depending on the scientific judgement and social maturity shown by mankind. The science
of energy is well understood and offers a choice between reverting to renewables and engaging nuclear.
The natural science of nuclear energy has changed little in seventy years. Quantum Mechanics, the same
clockwork that describes electronics and chemistry, also sets the scale of the energy inside every
nucleus, 100,000 times smaller than its atom. This nuclear energy scale is a million times that of
chemistry, as appreciated in 1931 by Winston Churchill writing of the future in the Strand Magazine.
Era
Pre-Industrial Revolution
Industrial Revolution
21st Century
Fuel
Water, wind, wood
Oil, coal, gas, (food)
Uranium, Thorium
Energy kWh/kg
0.0003
7-10
20 million
Fuel for life
10,000,000 tonnes
1000 tonnes
1 kg = 0.001 tonnes
Advantages
Familiar accepted
Available 24/7
Available 24/7,
harmless, resilient,
secure
Disadvantages
Unreliable, weak,
damaging to nature
Carbon emissions,
poor safety
Popular fear and
ignorance
The pros and cons of renewables, fossil fuels and nuclear as sources of energy are summarised in the
three columns of the Table. The following comments expand on these.
1. The weakness of renewables and the strength of nuclear are illustrated by the energy required by
one person in their lifetime. This might be supplied by 1000 tonnes of coal. Instead, either 1 kg of
pure Uranium fuel or ten million tonnes of water from a 100m high dam, would do the job. [That
much water may be visualised as a square km, 10m deep.]
2. Modern technology compensates for the weakness of renewables by constructing huge plants. For
example, the reservoir of the Three Gorges Dam Project in China is 660 km long and displaced 1.3
million people. The Kamuthi solar farm in India with a capacity of 648 MW covers 10 sq km. The
Hornsea One windfarm in the UK with a capacity of 1200 MW occupies 407 sq km with 174
turbines 190 m tall. These figures are witness to the extreme weakness of these energy sources. The
invasive appropriation of nature by these technologies should be a major environmental concern,
not a matter for “green” acclaim. The footprint of a nuclear plant is many hundred times more
compact the 1020 MW plant at Gosgen, Switzerland, occupies 0.15 sq km.
3. In the Industrial Revolution mankind gave up weather-dependent renewables as quickly as possible.
The reliability factor of wind and solar is about 25-35%. In 2018 the European average for wind
was 24%. Sometimes, as in UK on 17-18 October 2020 (see the Figure below), there is no wind or
sun for days, and power must be provided by gas or nuclear to avoid a blackout. (In fact, a few days
later such a break in supply very nearly occurred.) If gas is to be excluded, full nuclear will be
required but then the unreliable renewable supply is redundant. The reliability of nuclear exceeds
90% and most down-time can be planned. The unreliability of wind is no surprise. When the
windspeed halves, textbook science explains why the available power drops by a factor of eight. So
modest variations in speed cause huge variations in wind power.
4. “If decarbonising a grid with just solar and wind is so easy and cheap, why is it that Germany after
20 years and billions of Euros still needs 18 years before it can turn off its coal plants and decades
longer for its many gas plants?” a question asked on Twitter. German policy is not environmental.
It is destroying mature woodlands, building new coal-fired stations and relying on more Russian
gas.
5. Wind, solar and hydro power are vulnerable to changes of climate, and also to the extremes of
weather that are increasingly common and will become more so. Nuclear plants are compact,
resilient and able to work continuously through meteorological events without interruption.
6. Wind and solar plants have a 20 year lifetime; hydro and nuclear plants last for 60 or more years.
Opportunities and challenges
Crucial to a stable prosperous and healthy society is confidence, both personal and collective. This is
easily inhibited by superior strength and energy a fear that is instilled by natural selection in the animal
kingdom. However, mankind has advanced in ways that other animals have not by overcoming fear
through study and practice. A small child, even if nervous or disabled, can overcome fear of a powerful
horse or pony by learning to ride and control it unaided, Such is the conquest of fear by education and
the human spirit. That was true of the domestication of fire many years ago and can be no less true of
nuclear energy today.
The safety of nuclear power is exceptional. Its real effects of its radiation cannot spread like fire or a
contagious virus although fear of it can. After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII
nuclear fear was hyped up throughout the Cold War as a political weapon. The tales of inherited genetic
effects and widespread plagues of cancer have no scientific or medical basis, as shown repeatedly by
controlled laboratory experiments with animals and confirmed by human evidence from Chernobyl,
Fukushima, Goiania, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Such fear has provided the basis for much gripping
entertainment, but, as for murder mysteries and star wars, excitement does not make them true.
Nuclear physics is a basic part of nature, in everything but unseen, since the beginning of time. Life
evolved in a radiation environment and many basic features of cell biology and the immune system are
designed to provide multi-fold protection against its harmful effects. However, few are taught this in
school, because teachers know little about it themselves. People accept nuclear technology in a medical
clinic where it is crucial in the detection and treatment of cancer. The work of Marie Curie was seminal
in nuclear physics, but popular culture ignores the connection between nuclear energy and her work.
And the experts? Those who studied nuclear physics are wary of biology which they never learnt in
depth and vice versa. The custodians of radiation safety protect their jobs and status. Much of their
work is simply unnecessary, as many admit confidentially.
Since the 1950s political authorities, and even the nuclear industry, have responded to nuclear
apprehension with appeasement. They have set and accepted regulations 700 times “safer” than they
were in 1934 without scientific justification. These then require nuclear plants to be overdesigned and
protected such that they have become overpriced and delayed. To build a nuclear power station requires
education, experience and organisation, like any other project. Extra protection adds to costs, but the
safety record shows that this saves no lives and wastes money and even fails to reassure anybody.
Policy and funding recommendations
1. Reliance on renewables as primary sources of energy will lead to breaks in supply and poor
resilience. Their development should not be encouraged.
2. Secondary sources of energy (eg batteries, hydrogen) are useful for transport and small scale
storage, but are no substitute for a strong primary source.
3. Priority should be given to investment in education. Firstly for young engineers to build nuclear
power plants worldwide. Secondly to provide broad scientific understanding by society as a whole
so that all may gain confidence in what has to be done. This huge world task will take thirty years.
4. Regulations should be rewritten based on science and removed from de facto international
oversight. Responsibility for safety should be devolved locally once the necessary understanding
and discipline is in place like for small children with human waste and potty training, a notably
more significant problem for health than nuclear waste.
5. To achieve the required education and knowhow throughout the world, an open-book bottom-up
international programme is needed, freed from the vested ownership by today’s nuclear nations.
6. A short list of reactor designs should be agreed, some larger, some smaller, some deployable now,
some needing a few years of development, some water moderated, others operating at higher
temperatures. The details of the mix are secondary, given the threat of climate change.
7. To foster confidence and improve security, small nuclear power plants should be sited where people
live and work. Centralisation and mega-projects should be minimised. A local supply of electricity,
hydrogen, ammonia and waste heat should be available to chemical industry, transport,
desalination, steelmaking, homes and agriculture.
8. In the meantime climate change will continue, sea levels will rise and large regions will become
uninhabitable. With nuclear power to provide heat and light by LEDs food can be grown indoors,
independent of weather, season or geography, a development known as vertical farming that is
already under way. With nuclear powered food production, mankind can retreat underground
whenever surface conditions become intolerable. Then human life would be nuclear powered and
sustainable. However, social and economic stability would be challenging. They always are.
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