The Case for the Cultural Rehabilitation of Nuclear Energy

Posted by Wade Allison on 4 March 2022 in Articles

Tagged with: Hiroshima, Industrial Revolution, Karl Marx, Lise Meitner, Nagasaki.

An exploration of the possible replacements for fossil fuels, their science and history. Evidently only nuclear energy can provide the energy required. Despite its exceptional safety this still carries a legacy of historical misunderstandings. These can be overcome through general re-education for the sake of future generations.1

Adequate sources of primary energy are needed, both for direct use and to supply secondary sources such as hydrogen and batteries. There are few candidate sources, and each has at least one major fault, but only in the case of nuclear energy is this surmountable. The reputation of nuclear fission was spoilt by a historical coincidence unrelated to its effectiveness as an energy supply. Its academic discovery came at an unfortunate time, in an unfortunate place, to a brilliant but unfortunate scientist. The date was December 1938; the place was Berlin; the scientist was Lise Meitner, an Austrian scientist of Jewish extraction2. For many the story of its development is told solely in the context of the Second World War and the arms race that followed. Consequently, society sees nuclear energy as tainted by fear of war and an imagined holocaust3.

Today nothing is hidden or secret about nuclear energy or its effect on life. Like other features of the natural world, it is neutral, and its consequences may be good or bad. Following the work of Marie Curie over a century ago nuclear technology enables the diagnosis and therapy of cancers, saving many lives. Its impact at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the opposite, as was the impact of high explosive in the destruction of Berlin, Hamburg, Tokyo, Dresden and, more recently, Syria. Evil is in the hostility between nations, not in high explosive or nuclear fission. Nevertheless, a simplistic view that nuclear technology is somehow diabolical has contributed to an ongoing culture of resistance to it as a source of power generation for society at large.

Energy and common sense

We need a broad and open discussion: what is energy and what are the options for its supply? Many ideas are shaped by vested interests or ideological belief. More disinterested answers come from physical science..

The physical laws of energy are familiar to common sense, even without mathematics. It is conserved. That means that any extra energy must come from somewhere, and any decrease must go somewhere else. Secondly, if left to itself, energy spreads out and dissipates. So, boulders may roll downhill, but never uphill unless pushed. Similarly, a cup of hot coffee will slowly go cold, and its heat, once it has spread out, will not return to the coffee by itself. The upshot is that most imaginable sources of energy have already dissipated, and that procuring energy is difficult.

To be useful, fuel needs to be concentrated, widely available, and controllable – that is safe. Though all life needs energy, humans have taken the lead over other animals. Their use of new sources of energy have come in three stages, each vastly more powerful and controllable than the last.

In the first stage, through speech and writing early humans learnt to organise sources of energy that they could see and sense – teams of horses, oxen and slaves, the power of wind and water, the heat of wood fires. Directly or indirectly, the energy for all these comes from the Sun. Using their intelligence humans developed tools and technology to exploit these. Unfortunately, thanks to the notorious variability of the weather, seasons and climate, these so-called renewables often failed, not for inferior technology to harvest them, but for the extended periods when no energy was forthcoming. Writing in 1867 Karl Marx dismissed wind power as “too inconstant and uncontrollable”. He saw water power as better, but “as the predominant source of power [it] was beset with difficulties. It could not be increased at will, it failed at certain seasons of the year, and above all it was essentially local.”4

The Industrial Revolution

Marx was impressed by the control and flexible siting of Watt’s steam engine. It provided the liberation of a universal source of power. Thus was the second stage, the Industrial Revolution, 250 years ago. Access to controllable fossil-fuel-powered machinery has become the essential driver of political and economic developments ever since. Human life expectancy doubled, and the population rose by a factor of four. Those who believed solely in renewables were swept away by the Industrial Revolution – a notable “mass extinction”.

But now in the 21st Century the combustion of fossil fuels is seen as unsustainable. Where should the world turn for guidance? What understanding does natural science offer?

Fossil fuels differ from most renewables in two peculiar ways. Whereas the “clockwork” of most renewable energy can be seen or felt, the energy of fossil fuels is hidden. Furthermore, this energy is 1000 to 10,000 times greater per kilogramme than flowing water or wind.1 The name is chemistry, but how is its energy hidden?

Many chemicals have a similar energy density – and batteries likewise, as shown by Michael Faraday. However, it was not until the 1920s that the mechanism was revealed as the kinetic energy of electrons held inside atoms and molecules, as described by Quantum Mechanics, the universal description of all matter.

Nuclear energy

The same description when applied to the protons and neutrons inside atomic nuclei, 100,000 times smaller than the atoms themselves, gives an energy a million times greater. As Winston Churchill wrote in the Strand Magazine in 1931:

Nuclear energy is incomparably greater than the molecular energy which we use to-day. The coal a man can get in a day can easily do 500 times as much work as the man himself. Nuclear energy is at least one million times more powerful still. If the hydrogen atoms in a pound of water could be prevailed upon to combine together and form helium, they would suffice to drive a 1,000 horse-power engine for a whole year.

Churchill was well informed, but at that time nobody knew how to control, or even activate, this huge source of energy.

Lise Meitner lecturing at Catholic University, Washington, D.C., 1946
Lise Meitner lecturing at Catholic University, Washington, DC, 1946

Then, just seven years later came the discovery by Lise Meitner, giving human access to this vast energy. But delivery of this gift was adulterated by the era of war and distrust. In military or political affairs, a factor two or three in resources can be the difference between victory and defeat. Yet nuclear energy offered a factor of a million, an excess sufficient to disable sound political judgement. For decades after World War II neither the scientists nor the public trusted the authorities to treat such power responsibly. In every country around the world during the Cold War domestic law and order was challenged by popular anti-nuclear demonstrations driven by genuine fear. Political authorities, themselves simply uninformed, sought refuge in international standards that they could hide behind. These specified strict safety regulations set to precautionary levels, a thousand times lower than justifiable on medical evidence. At least these absolved authorities from responsibilities they did not understand. Overseen by an international web of experts under the aegis of the United Nations, these were also meant to give public reassurance, although in that they failed.35

Demonstrated safety

How safe is nuclear energy? It has been used to power nautical submarines since 1954 without a radiation accident. There has never been a loss of life from radiation at a nuclear power station except at Chernobyl in 1986. There 28 lost their lives and there may have been 15 deaths from thyroid cancer, though even that is contested. As with medical trials, the most convincing evidence comes from those who are unaware of the trial. People who live in regions with high natural radioactivity, laboratory experiments with isolated cells, controlled studies of mice and dogs – all these confirm that life is resilient to low and moderate doses.6 Videos of the wildlife in the radioactive exclusion zone at Chernobyl show that it is flourishing, freed from the human interference that it suffered before the accident.7 There were no radiation casualties at the so-called nuclear “disaster” at Fukushima in 2011, although the psychological, social and environmental damage caused by the inept regulations and official panic was severe.

Nuclear is surprisingly safe for two reasons. Firstly, nuclei can never react with one another, except at the centre of the Sun and through the intermediate neutrons inside a working reactor. That is why nuclear energy could not be tapped even in principle until 1938. Secondly, living cells have experienced radiation, the secondary effect of nuclear activity, ever since life began on Earth and have evolved multiple layers of protection. So, radiation is not contagious like disease or fire. Despite the high mortality from blast and fire at Hiroshima and Nagasaki the radiation caused no inheritable mutations and relatively few cancers. The fears of the anti-nuclear protestors of the 20th Century were not justified.35

With fossil fuels seen as unacceptable and knowing only what the media report about nuclear, democratic opinion favours turning back to renewables! Their “farms” and reservoirs, enlarged to compensate for weakness, monopolise huge stretches of nature in whose name they are mis-labelled “green”. Yet their intermittency is the same as before the Industrial Revolution. Batteries intended to bridge the long breaks in supply are still 100 times too small and come with their own viability and safety problems.8 Evidently, any energy supply, heavily dependent on renewables, is unsustainable and damaging to the environment. The current rush to make investments declared as ESG and the volatility of energy prices show that the stable energy regime promised by politicians is unlikely to be delivered.9

Energy for future generations

Might a quite new source of energy available worldwide yet be found? In the past 200 years mankind has become used to technical solutions appearing, but we should not expect that here since energy is well understood today – apart from those two cosmic ghosts, Dark Energy and Dark Matter. No doubt nuclear fusion will be included among options for nuclear technology in the future, but it is not yet clear how its advantages will work in practice. The only other significant source of energy is gravitational collapse. That is what primed the fission energy of uranium and thorium in the era before the Solar System was formed. Although such activity is observed elsewhere in the Universe today, we should not wish it here today. We would not survive.

But a stable future can be built on the nuclear technology that we have now and the many Small Modular Reactors in an advanced stage of development. A greater spirit of trust in natural science by the public at large is needed, and that can come with hands-on experience and familiarity in schools. The negative connotation of the words nuclear and radiation established in the past eighty years will take time to turn positive. Regulatory authorities should reinvent themselves as educators, instead of enforcers. They should stop hiding behind bogus science and realise that real safety is based on knowledge and practice. Further basic research is not the problem, just open discussion and local site visits to spread knowledge and trust among children as well as adults. Lifting the bad atmosphere will take some decades but it should bring plentiful energy for our grandchildren and their descendants.

Notes and references