News Analysis: Exploring Viewpoints on the Future of Nuclear

On September 2, the BBC World Service Inquiry programme published transcripts of four expert’s viewpoints on the future of nuclear energy technology. In this week’s News in Depth, I will discuss this article and take a critical look at the perspectives shared by the interviewees.

Four Viewpoints, One Theme

First, we hear from Tatsujiro Suzuki – Director of Research Centre for nuclear weapons abolition at Nagasaki University and former Vice-Chairman of Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission. Mr. Suzuki was Chair of the Commission at the time of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and subsequent Fukushima disaster. His recent career change – from nuclear regulatory official to nuclear critic – reflects the difficult journey Japan has faced in the last four years.

I personally felt very responsible for the event and I felt very sorry for the Fukushima people… This kind of accident has a serious social, ethical, political impact on their lives.

He is pessimistic that the people of Japan will be able to support any serious return to nuclear energy, saying that

In the public mind there was no clear connection between the peaceful use of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons… [Fukushima] is a huge, huge loss of public trust.

Next, Miranda Shreuers – a research director at the Free University in Berlin and a member of the commission to determine Germany’s nuclear policy – unequivocally states that she doesn’t believe Germany “could every again live with nuclear power.”

Gabrielle Hecht – a Professor of History at the University of Michigan – then speaks to the growth of nuclear energy in developing nations across Africa and argues that’s the path of those countries is similar to western nations in the 1950s,

The prospect of having abundant electricity in place where there are very often electricity brownouts and blackouts, and where large parts of the country are not electrified, is huge.

However, Hecht believes that new nuclear plants should not be built and that these countries should look for other solutions.

Finally, the BBC spoke with Steve Kidd – a nuclear energy consultant with East Cliff Consulting in the UK who has over over 18 years experience working for the The World Nuclear Association (WNA). While a proponent of nuclear, Mr. Kidd is pessimistic that nuclear energy can “take on that role that’s been left open for it.” His belief is that the industry’s core issue is that it has failed to communicate effectively,

The industry has tried to counter [public fear] with a factional approach, almost saying to the public, ‘you’re stupid, you’re irrational’, but in fact the development of their beliefs has been wholly rational, based on what they’ve seen and heard over the years, and something like the Fukushima accident obviously gives credence to such fears.

In summary, these four experts share a common idea: that nuclear energy as we know it faces a difficult future. For everyone but Mr. Kidd, it seems that that future is one of full decommissioning – a future in which nuclear is part of medicine and scientific study but not energy production. However, is this narrative of decline and the supremacy of fear over fact unchangeable? What, if anything can be done?

A Living Narrative

It turns out that Mr. Suzuki, quoted earlier from the BBC transcript, provides us with a useful starting point for thinking about the power of narrative and the ways in which we talk about nuclear. In March, he penned a lead essay for the East Asia Forum, in which he made the argument that the best strategy for Japan’s nuclear energy regulator and industry to regain trust is a simple one, honesty.

Transparency in policymaking is essential. The public needs to be involved in decision making… The current Japanese policy debate is completely polarized between advocates for and opponents against nuclear energy. An independent organization is required to help adjudicate between the two sides, and it needs to be one that the public can trust.

In other words, what is needed to overcome the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that surrounds nuclear energy in Japan – and arguably elsewhere – is intense, unwavering honesty and dialogue.

This leads me to forward a thesis – the nuclear energy story, or narrative, as we know it is in crisis, and the only way forward is for proponents and opponents to work together in good faith. What does this mean? It means that the narrative is not something that simply is but rather something we do. We, as individuals and as groups, shape and reshape the story of nuclear. For some, they believe that it is a story that should end. For others, myself and many of our readers included, we believe that the story is simply evolving. For some places, maybe nuclear is not the best solution. But for others, the technology may unlock vast amounts of human potential.

We must work together to find out what the story may bring next. The BBC piece that started this discussion is part of that, but of course it is but one small part of the story. The people quoted here have a viewpoint, and we can take it and build upon, but we can’t stop there. Many people, and many voices have to be involved in this messy process, but we will can continue to write this story together, one line at a time.

 

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