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.
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.
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.
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.
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