Interview: Discussing Fallacy and Truth of Nuclear Energy

Over the past few months, I have become increasingly interested in how nuclear energy could possibly be used in our fight against climate change.

Inevitably, I began this research with my own pre-determined biases – resulting mostly from unconscious permeations via the media and various green circles I follow. These biases essentially amounted to this – “Nuclear power is cleaner than coal or natural gas, but it’s got a lot of dangerous baggage. And it’s definitely not better than wind and solar.” As I became more and more informed, these presuppositions started to deconstruct themselves and allowed for a nuanced and accurate understanding of what nuclear energy can be – a credible solution.

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Still, there’s plenty more to learn, and I was up for learning it. So I sat down with Sean Wagner from Alberta Nuclear Nucleus (ANN) to discuss the pitfalls, or lack thereof, of nuclear energy. Sean has been conducting his own research for the betterment of 8 or 9 years, and recently created ANN to begin an education campaign on nuclear in Alberta. What follows are some of my favourite snippets from our conversation.  


Colm: Tell me about your education at the University of Alberta and the role, if any, that it had in preparing you for this assessment of nuclear energy and climate change as a whole.

Sean: I graduated with a bachelor’s of Materials Engineering from the University of Alberta, and thereafter a Masters in Nanotechnology. Engineering really allowed me to understand how facts are presented for technical topics. When you hear about nuclear energy, there is a whole bunch of information out there, and some of it is true, some false, and some just absolutely crazy. My education really allowed me to weed out the misinformation, contradictions, and exaggeration from the truth about nuclear energy.

C: Give me a brief overview of Alberta Nuclear Nucleus.

S: What I focus on is not the technical aspects of nuclear but rather the education and advocacy parts of nuclear energy. How nuclear works in society, what happens when nuclear is adopted, why it isn’t being adopted, what are the roadblocks, what the social aspects are, and try to bring people to a fundamental understanding of nuclear. I’m trying to open up people to become informed about nuclear to have productive conversations about nuclear, which I think is the first step towards progress.

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Sean Wagner with Alberta Nuclear Nucleus. (Credit: Edmonton Journal)

C: Why does Nuclear Energy present the best energy source moving forward to tackle climate change?

S: Besides the lack of carbon emissions, nuclear energy is the densest energy source. A gram of uranium fuel produces approximately a million times more energy than that produced from a gram of coal. Therefore, you can do more with nuclear by doing less, and this transfers over to reduced raw material use, the price of electricity, plant lifetime, and even to land use.

C: What are the main disadvantages of renewable energy sources like solar and wind, as compared with nuclear?

S: I would say intensity; nuclear energy can provide continuous outputs of energy at the required demand, while wind and solar are variable depending on something we cannot control – weather. The battery technology currently isn’t developed enough to store wind and solar energy, so the only way they can operate is if they are backed up by gas or pumped hydro storage. And this is something that people really don’t know.

C: There are many misperceptions and fear regarding nuclear power, and you touch upon many of it on your blog. If you had to select one, what is the biggest misperception, and what is the actual reality?

S: That one’s easy – the fact that people think nuclear is dangerous. Everyone’s heard about Fukushima and Chernobyl. While many people were affected in some way by these disasters, very few people have died or had their health severely affected by nuclear energy as compared to other energy production methods. And another thing to consider is how we’ve used these disasters to improve reactor safety. For example, the Russian RBMK reactors, like that seen in Chernobyl, were retrofitted with emergency dump neutron poisons and new control rods to eliminate the possibility of the error seen with Chernobyl happening again.

Inside Hartlepool power station
Technicians working inside Hartlepool nuclear power plant. (Credit: EDF)

C: From your perspective, what’s the current Albertan public perception of nuclear power?

S: Nuclear power really isn’t on Albertan’s radar. They know about the oil sands, maybe coal, and then solar and wind power. And so now, it has become very polarized, where there’s a sense that you must be pro-oil sands or pro-renewable, without realizing that there is potentially another direction to go.

C: In 2007 there were talks about a Nuclear power facility being developed in Alberta near Peace River, representing the closest that the province has come to developing a nuclear reactor. It was subsequently abandoned in 2011. Why did it fail?

S: There was a bunch of pushback from communities in the surrounding area, a “Not in my Backyard” mentality. So there was a lot of stalling regarding the development while they tried to educate the communities about the economic and environmental benefits of the project. And eventually, the Fukushima disaster occurred in 2011, which was really the nail in the coffin.

C: Where do you see Alberta Nuclear Nucleus moving forward in the next couple of years?

S: I’m planning to meet with more professionals who are active in the nuclear/energy industry in Alberta to continue the discussion and raise more awareness. Hopefully, we can develop a community in Alberta for nuclear advocates, from which we can bring our contributions to the discussions on policy, economy, and climate change. I really see ANN as a two-way conversation, so I hope moving forward more people engage in discussion and ask questions, whether it’s with me or other nuclear advocates.


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You can find Sean’s blog here.
Twitter: @AlbertaNuclear
Instagram: @alberta_nuclear



Colm O’Fuarthain
26/03/2019

 

One thought on “Interview: Discussing Fallacy and Truth of Nuclear Energy

  1. “I’m planning to meet with more professionals who are active in the nuclear/energy industry in Alberta to continue the discussion and raise more awareness” Are you familiar with the Alberta Innovates organization? albertainnovates.ca . They helped develop Canada’s SMR roadmap smrroadmap.ca

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