Thursday, October 7, 2021

Putting Nuclear Power In Perspective: An Interview with David Watson

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash
"Beating climate change is hard enough without taking away one of the best low-carbon tools we have. It’s time to talk about nuclear."
--David Watson

For 25 years I have been involved in the automotive aftermarket with a keen eye on the evolution of diesel engine technology and electric vehicles (EVs). Meeting ever tightening emissions standards and improving fuel economy have been the big drivers of change over the past five decades. 

As we move toward an increasingly energy dependent future and away from carbon-based energy, there seems to be no way that solar, wind and hydro-power will be sufficient to meet demands. That is why I've taken such a keen interest in what is happening with nuclear energy. 

David Watson is editor-in-chief of The Kernel, a Medium publication that self-describes as "The Generation Atomic magazine. Our latest thoughts on the role of nuclear in a clean energy future."

* * * 

EN: What is your background and how long have you been involved in the nuclear movement?

David Watson: I'm what you might call a second generation nuclear engineer in that my father also works in the industry. I don't have one of those "Road to Damascus" conversion stories so common among nuclear advocates; nuclear was always normal to me. One of my fondest childhood memories was visiting the Wylfa A nuclear plant on the isle of Anglesey in Wales. I remember being fascinated by the walk-in radiation detectors. I also remember us driving past a coal plant one day and asking why there was smoke coming out of it. I remember saying something like "if I was Prime Minister I'd replace all the fossil fuels with nuclear." After a Physics degree, I joined the industry as a safety engineer in 2011. As an advocate though, I've only really become active in the last few years. I decided to speak out more when I realized how slowly we were moving as a society on climate change.

EN: Though nuclear energy has been around for more than half a century, it seems to be experiencing a resurgence in recent years. What are some of the triggers for this new interest in nuclear?

DW: In short, because of climate change. Around the year 2000, nuclear was almost written off as a future energy source by many politicians and economists. That would have been a mistake, as even without climate change there are many benefits to using nuclear over other forms of energy. As the world realized the scale of the climate problem, nuclear has come back onto the agenda. It's gone through various phases since 2000, but I think now in 2021 there is a growing realization that we can't just rely on intermittent solar and wind, and that too much gas and imports leaves us vulnerable to price spikes and even blackouts. I know you interviewed Meredith Angwin recently, and she can talk to this topic much better than I.

EN: Three Mile Island and Chernobyl dampened a lot of enthusiasm for nuclear power. Why is it different this time?

DW: Nuclear has always been treated as "different" to other forms of energy. People remember Three Mile Island, but they don't remember that no one died or even got ill from radiation from that accident. Chernobyl was a terrible event, both the accident and the Soviet Union's behavior in the weeks that followed, but only around 50 deaths have been attributed to it. In comparison, there have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of gas explosions and coal mining accidents that have killed more than 50 people. Ironically, this means that most people couldn't name a single fossil fuel accident (maybe Deepwater Horizon?). Similarly, there have been many hydro dam collapses that have killed hundreds, and some even tens of thousands (the Banqiao dam collapse in 1975 may have caused up to a quarter of a million deaths). 

Saying that, the nuclear industry does everything it can to limit the likelihood and consequences of accidents from happening. Safety is the number one priority for anyone operating in the space. A Chernobyl-like accident is physically impossible in any of the reactors proposed or under construction in the world today. Many of the "advanced" (Generation IV) reactors claim improvements in safety over today's reactors.

EN: What is The Kernel and how did you get involved?

DW: The Kernel is Generation Atomic's magazine. Generation Atomic is a global grass-roots nuclear advocacy movement. We try to grow support for nuclear, particularly among the young. I joined Gen A (as well call it) a few years ago with the express idea of relaunching their blog on Medium. We recently re-launched the magazine under the banner of "The Kernel" as we wanted to give the publication its own identity.

EN: Are there any countries that are 100% nuclear powered now? How is that working and why haven’t we heard about it? 

Where is nuclear on the adoption curve? (Click to enlarge)
DW: No country is 100% nuclear, just like no country is 100% coal or wind; there is always an energy mix. There are, however, some countries where a large proportion of electricity comes from nuclear: France at 75% is the leader. Although the US has a larger total number of reactors, the larger size of the US means this equates to 20% of US electricity. Sweden, Finland, South Korea, the UK, Belgium and Japan also have 20-50% of their electricity coming from nuclear. Although some countries in the West (Germany, Belgium) are looking to phase out nuclear, many others (e.g. UK, France, Finland, Czechia, Poland, Estonia, China, Pakistan, India, Egypt, Russia, UAE, Ghana, Nigeria) are building (or planning to build) new reactors.

EN: Thank you for taking some time to increase our understanding of nuclear power. 

Related Links

Grid Fragility and a Book by Meredith Angwin

Five Minutes with Joe Heffernan on Nuclear Energy

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I tell you it's gonna rain it's gonna rain
You better get ready and bear this in mind
God showed Noah the rainbow sign
It won't be water but fire the next time
Noah told the people in plenty of time
But they were to simple and they were to blind
And when it came that awful day
They tried to pray but their prayer was to late
I tell you it's gonna rain
It's gonna rain lord
You better get ready and bear this in mind
God showed Noah the rainbow sign
It won't be water but fire the next time
It won't be water but fire the next time
It won't be water but fire the next time.

Yes! I believe it's true... And I suppose some chosen few will find a refuge on planet Mars etc... etc...and it's a non ending story... Thanks ED

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