I’m going to take a few liberties with a presentation I had the privilege to hear in Warsaw last month, and tell you how the presenter, a public relations expert, made a fine argument, if perhaps subliminal, for alternative nuclear power.
Speaking at the World Nuclear Power Briefing Europe 20102 conference, Roger Hayes, a senior counsellor with Washington, D.C.-public affairs specialist APCO Worldwide, made a convincing case for the nuclear industry to collaborate globally in order to offset the public perception that nuclear is unsafe and untrustworthy.
“Nuclear remains quite introverted and largely nationalistic,” Hayes told a high level audience of nuclear executives and experts, advising the industry to break those habits if it is to overcome a widely held international view that nuclear power is dangerous.
In an APCO survey of a broad range of nuclear impressions, world opinion leaders rank nuclear next to last in safety behind all forms of energy other than shale oil, which nuclear barely beat.
“Safety as we all know is a clear issue for the industry,” Hayes said. “Perceptions on the safety of nuclear are polarized.”
Public opposition to nuclear tends to overlook that its safety record is far superior to oil, gas and coal. To help reverse that oversight, “What we need is a new, more holistic narrative about the nuclear industry,” Hayes said.
He’s right, and that’s where I’ll expand with some of my own interpretations, which echo my recent thoughts on the World Nuclear Association’s rebranding efforts.
Hayes did not mention “alternative nuclear” by name.
But to take a whole view, if you will, of “holistic,” the new narrative should include the alternative technologies that would directly address public fears – two of the biggest of which center around possible meltdowns and hazardous nuclear waste.
Conventional uranium fueled, water cooled reactors do run the risk of meltdown, although they almost never, ever get to that stage. The meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant that followed Japan’s tragic 2011 earthquake and tsunami have unfortunately reawakened the specter of such threats.
THERE ARE ALTERNATIVES
Alternative technologies – a liquid thorium molten salt reactor (MSR) or a pebble bed reactor, for just two examples – would be virtually meltdown proof, as nuclear fission would cease in the event of an accident. In the case of the MSR, fuel would also drain harmlessly into a tank.
Alternative technologies like the MSR and fast reactors would also minimize waste and in some cases would actually turn waste into fuel, thus usefully eliminating the worrisome challenge of where to store it.
Hayes’ notion of a collaborative, holistic approach to safety also includes, in his words, “a broader view in terms of scientific transfer outside of the industry, and supporting nuclear physics spinoffs and so on.” And he advises involving other industries.
On these counts, I would add that the status quo nuclear powers like Westinghouse, Areva, GEH and their utility customers, could divert resources into research and entrepreneurial projects to develop alternative designs for reactors and for safer, more efficient fuels like thorium. And they could partner with industrial users who might want to deploy novel designs for novel purposes – say, a small thorium fueled liquid molten salt reactor as a source of process heat.
Hayes also advocated greater “transparency.” You know what I’m going to say next, so I’ll keep it short, lest my own narrative stretch beyond the reasonable length limit of a regular blog posting:
The nuclear powers that be are making admirable safety advances within their own conventional constructs. But if they really want to impress the public with the “even safer” possibilities, they have to start talking more openly about alternative technologies, rather than fear the disruption that those technologies might cause to their own business.
Images: Photo of Roger Hayes by Mark Halper. Safety chart from Roger Hayes’ presentation in Warsaw.