Nuclear is the Only Answer to Our Energy Transition

By Wade Allison, professor of physics at Oxford University.

This was first published in the New Statesman special supplement on Energy and Climate Change on 27 May 2022. Reproduced with permission from the author.

Wade Allison
Wade Allison is emeritus professor of physics at Oxford University and author of Radiation and Reason, and Nuclear is for Life.

Finding sufficient energy is essential to all life. Humans have excelled at this, notably when they studied and overcame their innate fear of fire some 600,000 years ago. Until the Industrial Revolution they made do with energy derived, directly or indirectly, from the daily sunshine that drives waterpower, the wind and other manifestations including the production of vegetation and food. But, although better than for other creatures, human life was short and miserable for the population at large. The causes were the anemic strength of the Sun’s rays, averaging 340 watts per square meter, and its random interruption by unpredicted weather.

With fossil fuels, available energy increased, anywhere at any time. Life expectancy doubled and the world population quadrupled. For 200 years whoever had access to fossil fuels had world power. However, at the 2015 Paris Conference nations agreed that the emission of carbon posed an existential threat and that, sooner rather than later, this should cease.

“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…”

Sir Winston Churchill, 1931

Technology may be challenging and exciting, but it cannot deliver energy where none exists, today as in pre-industrial times. Writing in 1867, Karl Marx dismissed wind power as “too inconstant and uncontrollable”. He saw waterpower as better, but “as the predominant power [it] was beset with difficulties”. Today, the vast size of hydro, wind and solar plants comparative to their power reflects their weakness and destructive impact on flora and fauna – a point often curiously ignored by environmentalists.

If renewables are simply inadequate and fossil fuel emissions only accelerate climate change further, what abundant primary energy source might permit political and economic stability for the next 200 years? Natural science can say without doubt, the only answer is nuclear.

In 1931, Winston Churchill wrote: “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… There is no question among scientists that this gigantic source of energy exists. What is lacking is the match to set the bonfire alight… The discovery and control of such sources of power would cause changes in human affairs incomparably greater than those produced by the steam-engine four generations ago.”

The History of the Linear No-Threshold Model

He was right, but this transition requires adequate public education. In recovering from World War Two and its aftermath, the world lost confidence and demonised nuclear energy. This denial of an exceptional benefit to society has persisted for 70 years supported by bogus scientific claims around radiation and oil interests. But, aside from the blast of a nuclear explosion, nuclear energy and its radiation are safer than the combustion of fossil fuels, as confirmed by evidence from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Furthermore, nuclear applications in medicine pioneered by Marie Curie (such as the use of radiation to treat cancerous tumours) have been widely appreciated for 120 years.

Among those who have made important discoveries in the field of radioactivity and thus helped in the development of nuclear medicine as an identical entity are: Heinrich Hertz who in 1886 demonstrated the existence of radiowaves. In 1895 Wilhelm Röntgen discovered the X-rays. In 1896 H. Becquerel described the phenomenon of radioactivity. He showed that a radioactive uranium salt was emitting radioactivity which passing through a metal foil darkened a photographic plate. An analogous experiment performed by S.Thomson in London was announced to the president of the Royal Society of London before the time H.Becquerel announced his discovery but Thomson never claimed priority for his discovery. Muarie Sklodowska Curie (1867-1934) was undoubtedly the most important person to attribute to the discovery of radioactivity. In 1898 she discovered radium as a natural radioactive element. This is how she describes the hard time she had, working with her husband Pierre Curie (1859-1906) for the discovery of radium and polonium: “During the first year we did not go to the theater or to a concert or visited friends. I miss my relatives, my father and my daughter that I see every morning and only for a little while. But I do not complain…”. In presenting her discovery of radium, Madame Curie said: ” …in the hands of a criminal, radium is very dangerous. So we must often ask ourselves: will humanity earn or lose from this discovery? I, myself belong to those who believe the former…”. The notebooks that Madame Curie had when she was working with radium and other radioactive elements like polonium, thorium and uranium are now kept in Paris. They are contaminated with radioactive materials having very long half-lives and for this reason anyone who wishes to have access to these notes should sign that he takes full responsibility. There are some more interesting points in Madame Curie’s life which may not be widely known like: Although her full name is Maria Sklodowska-Curie, she is not known neither by that full name nor as Maria Sklodowska but as Marie Curie. Madame Curie was the second of five children. At the age of 24 she went to Sorbonne-Paris after being invited by her sister Bronja to study for about 2-3 years; instead she stayed in Paris for her whole life. Her doctorate was on the subject: “Research on radioactive substances” which she completed in six years under the supervision of H. Becquerel. Pierre Curie was Director of the Physics Laboratory of the Ecole Municipale of Physics and Industrial Chemistry when he married M. Curie in 1895. Pierre Curie left his other research projects and worked full time with his wife. In this laboratory M. Curie and her husband Pierre discovered radium and polonium. In 1901 Pierre Curie induced a radiation burn on his forearm by applying on his skin radiferous barium chloride for 10 hours. During World War I, M.Curie organized for the Red Cross a fleet of radiological ambulances each with X-ray apparates which were called “Little Curies”. The X-ray tubes of these apparates were unshielded and so M.Curie was exposed to high doses of radiation. Once an ambulance fell into a ditch and M.Curie who was inside the ambulance was badly bruised and stayed at home for 3 days. M. Curie with her daughters, Irene and Eve, was invited and visited America in 1921. She led a successful campaign to collect radium for her experiments. Before leaving America, President Harding donated through her to the Radium Institute of Paris 1 g of radium for research purposes. At that time the process to obtain 0.5 g of pure radium bromide required 1 ton of ore and 5 tons of chemicals. No measures of radiation protection were taken back then. In 1929 Madame Curie visited the United States for a second time. She met with President Hoover and with the help of the Polish women’s association in America collected funds for another gram of radium. Madame Curie died of leukemia on July 4, 1934. Sixty years after her death her remnants were laid to rest under the dome of the Pantheon. Thus she became the first woman under her own merit, to rest in the Pantheon. In 1934 at the Institute of Radiology in Paris, Frederique Joliot and Irene Curie-Joliot discovered artificial radiation. They studied alpha particles and beta;-radiation.

Pioneers of nuclear medicine, Madame Curie, Hell J Nuclear Medicine, 2004 Jan-Apr; 7(1):30-1

Regulation around nuclear needs to be commensurate with actual risk, and it should be financed appropriately, with richer nations covering the costs for developing countries.

Fully informed, everybody should welcome the security of small, mass-produced, cheap, local nuclear energy plants dedicated to serving modest-sized communities for 80 years with on-demand electricity, off-peak hydrogen, fertiliser, industrial heat, and seasonless farming.

The only real challenges are in building a new generation with the relevant scientific knowledge and skills, and instilling public confidence.

Professor Wade Allison, Oxford, United Kingdom.

Professor Wade Allison is author of Radiation and Reason, and Nuclear is for Life.

Links and References


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