can we all accept nuclear?

My personal introduction to nuclear engineering is pretty much by chance. Before taking a 4th year undergraduate engineering course in nuclear, I never really thought much about this type of energy. I was also guilty of knowing only very little about the atomic bomb. The course I took was divided into two parts. First on the types of radioactive decay, radiation dose, calculations of energy produced per kg mass of Uranium, etc. The second part was more on neutron transport theory, the multiplication factor and reactivity effects.  And just after one course, I was convinced by the robust understanding of physics and marvelous engineering principles that nuclear power is run on and that it will be able to support humanity’s endeavour to survive, flourish and sustain in the centuries to come. In retrospect, a single university course has made me steer the next three years of my life into the direction of nuclear energy and I do not regret my choice at all.

In the midst of all the debates about whether nuclear energy is really right for mankind, or is a purely evil creation that will leave our planet earth inhabitable for our future generations, I who is studying nuclear energy believe the latter is avoidable and wonder if science and facts can really change ANYone’s opinion about nuclear energy. There is no lack of clear information made available by authoritative sources such as:

Often we’re told to trust the experts and we’re given the facts and explanations. But I suspect, only certain types of people are able to absorb these facts and science, no longer uninformed will accept that nuclear energy is safe and crucial in providing enough energy for our expanding appetite and demand of electricity. The rest of the population, no matter how many accurate facts and cost/benefits analyses are given to them, simply cannot be convinced. As summarized nicely in this blog post on Brave New Climate: http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/04/15/who-has-changed-their-mind/, it is interesting to see who’s been “converted” to pro-nuclear or neutral from anti-nuclear. In theory, all these people could receive the same facts and figures about nuclear and the anti-nuclear group could raise issues that prevent them from accepting nuclear, while the pro-nuclear group could answer those issues that convinced them of a nuclear future. If it was all and only about facts and educating the public,  the pro-nuclear power group would prevail. But this hasn’t been the case.

The answer to “how to increase public acceptance of nuclear power” may not simply lie in providing accurate facts any more. When I ask myself why I am drawn to nuclear power, I attribute my affinity to nuclear to a bit of my personality and life philosophy. I’m practical and I take risks in life. Though I have visions and dreams, I’m realistic and not an idealist. If I apply my approach to life to nuclear power, I think it’s why I can accept that there are risks in running nuclear power plants, but they are acceptable risks. I hope for a future where the last quarter of the world’s population will have electricity, but realistically it will not be generated by solar panels or wind farms which have not consistent outputs and require large amount of lands. As for the nuclear wastes, I think a bit of land reserved for their disposal is insignificant, in comparison to the much greater impact  on geological areas lost due to rising sea level or climate abnormalities. Finally, the threat of an atomic war is present but nuclear power cannot be blamed; forbidding nuclear energy production will not make the threat disappear either. The root causes of many conflicts bury deeply in the lack of resource and energy security, more than religious differences. Why should nuclear be the scapegoat when it can actually provide energy security and independence?

The solution to making nuclear power more acceptable is not to aim for full acceptance. Aim for 50% of the population, in which influential individuals or groups of individuals who think in similar ways as people who already support nuclear.  Give them the facts and they can be “converted” more easily from anti- or neutral to pro-nuclear. Once we have over 50% of the public, the support is enough to keep nuclear going. In case that we cannot find more that 50% of the public, our planet will only have to run on solar panels and wind farms (if not coal, oil and gas). If we could still prevent climate change without nuclear and continue to have technological advances, we could wait for the day that our intergalactic transport vehicles were powered by fusion energy or anti-matter.

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