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YGN Futuresight - Energy

It is the YGN's role, as part of the professional body for the nuclear sector, to look ahead, to envisage a better world and a future in which our members and our industry will flourish.

Times of great societal pressure and motivational shifts such as this create innovation and will inevitably result in a change in behaviours and attitudes towards the vocational aspects of our lives. This is our opportunity to rethink work and the workplace - what does our future workforce value and what skills are required for the future of work?

In previous YGN Futuresight articles we have explored how our current circumstances prompt us to reconsider our Values, how Leadership is required to ensure that our industry and our people thrive beyond the crisis and how this time can be used to reflect on Self. This week, Henry Preston, Scientist at the National Nuclear Laboratory and YGN Nuclear Future Lead, offers his insights into the future of Energy.

One pound of uranium, the size of a fingertip, has the energy equivalency of 5000 barrels of oil. And one person's lifetime nuclear waste would fit in a Coke can.

Energy. It can neither be created nor destroyed, only transferred or changed from one form to another. The first law of thermodynamics - elementary I hear you say - of course you know this, I’m here preaching to the converted. If you’re reading this article, you probably stumbled upon this through the NI or YGN or exist within the energy sector bubble. And that’s part of the problem. Climate science has reached the mainstream, the public gets it, that problem is very well defined, and the experts are in agreement. The solution to that problem is, well, complicated. There isn’t a clear consensus and solutions are muddled by a confliction of interests and ideologies.

This is YGN Futuresight, but let’s take a moment to look back before we look forward. How did we get here?

When man discovered fire, we learned to transform stored chemical energy into heat and light. In more recent history we found coal in abundance, with an energy density greater than wood and coal mines more practical than cutting down entire forests, this facilitated a rollout of deployable ‘always on’ power. This displaced our watermills and windmills and the industrial revolution began. Delivering an uninterrupted supply of energy has brought about the highest most widespread quality of life in human civilisation. Energy use correlates with quality of life, and that is why this machine has kept on roaring despite the damage fossil fuels are causing to our planet. 

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Figure 1: S-curve fits to historical electricity access data by year and average income level in international Geary–Khamis dollars (GK$): International Dollar, a fictional currency with the same PPP (purchasing power parity) of the USD.

Since the end of the cold war, we – us current inhabitants of Earth – have emitted half of all emissions since the dawn of the industrial revolution. Staggering. We have knowingly brought ourselves into the current world and we’re going to have to find a way out. The importance and urgency of all this requires us to leave ideologies at the door and make informed decisions.

The current crisis

Fatih Birol, the director of the International Energy Agency in Paris said,

“The current decline in global emissions is not a development we should be happy about, this is happening because of a major economic meltdown, and not as a result of well-designed energy policies.”

I’m sure the reduction in emissions due to Covid-19 will be touched upon in the “Our Planet” YGN futuresight piece coming soon. But it's clear the Covid-19 lockdown has caused a decline in quality of life that can be seen in our decrease in energy use. Fluctuations in fossil fuel prices illustrate their instability and present a global opportunity to accelerate the shift to clean energy. However the price slump also threaten renewables which have done so well to compete economically with fossil fuels.

Preserving human lives has been at the top of all countries’ political agendas for the last two months. Addressing climate change is equally about preserving human lives, as well as livelihoods and our economy. Collaboration and solidarity have been essential to combatting the Covid-19 crisis, which will stand us in good stead for resolving climate change.

My affinity with Energy

Energy has been on my mind since I first heard about climate change as a child, it is what led me to physics and then the nuclear sector. As a teenager I was in awe of the Tesla roadster, high speed rail and the idea of solar panels and gardens being mandatory for all new roofs – this was the clean energy revolution I dreamt of. I can still picture this, as can many others who imagine clean visions of the future. With age and a greater appreciation of maths and science, I’m able to get my head around the numbers behind the ideal and it’s not so simple. For those outside of the science and engineering fields, the complexity may be harder to grasp, and we need to understand that and communicate accordingly.

For example, in a phone call with my brother, a musician and environmentally conscious vegan, he excitedly told me he had secured a deal with a company that provides 100% renewable electricity, he proclaimed he was now carbon neutral… I however tried to explain how the national grid worked and where his electricity was likely coming from on a windless night. He acknowledged my response was logical, but not too disheartened he then asked what if we had more batteries for storage. Fair question. I then gave a meandering explanation about energy efficiencies, the required resources to back up the grid, the lithium mines in Africa using child labour, batteries short lifespans, and finally the toxic metals that would lay to waste due to incorrect disposals. My matter of fact response had left him rather drained and we soon changed subject. However, that initial spark of excitement for a clean energy revolution is something we need to plug into when communicating around energy.

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Figure 2: Photo I took of Sunrise over Hartlepool AGR Station

The Nuclear Environmentalist

We have to applaud environmentalists for raising awareness and striving to do better. But we also have to help them and advise on energy; Intermittency, efficiency and energy density cannot be ignored! With this in mind, I would like to now draw attention to the elephant in the room, nuclear energy - why is it so often ignored in the mainstream? Why isn’t it central to various proposals of a Green New Deal? The recent Michael Moore documentary was a frank look at the environmental impact of ‘renewables’, to me it seemed a little odd that it was such a revelation that solar panels didn’t grow on trees. But it was clear all forms of energy come at an environmental cost. What the documentary failed to mention though, was nuclear, which left us with a rather apocalyptic world view. 

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When we do get mainstream attention, the focus is often on one thing: Chernobyl. Chernobyl was a horrible tragedy and I’m not going to play that down, but I saw a Green Peace Instagram post (right) on the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster with the hashtag #NoNukes and the comments section was full of fearmongering and anti-nuclear rhetoric (bar a few measured responses backing nuclear). This causes me great despair: an organisation that champions the environment doesn’t recognise us - the largest low carbon energy supplier in the UK - and calls for us to be no more. People have inherent biases, but as I mentioned before the importance and urgency of climate change requires informed decisions. Nuclear doesn’t have a glamorous legacy but we’re accountable for it and work tirelessly to rectify it. We now need to take ownership for all of our positives.

Of young people (18-24) in the UK only 26% understand that nuclear is a low carbon source of energy. This is hugely disappointing considering this is the same pool of people most enthusiastic about thwarting climate change. I guess the majority of the population don’t really know what’s behind the faceless white plastic faceplate charging their smart phone.

We need to communicate and educate, but I think we often fail to capture people’s imagination. We talk in facts and statistics, whereas renewables paint a picture of clean lifestyles: cycling through fields of scattered windmills and cityscapes with shiny roofs collecting rays, all under blue skies. I read a book titled ‘The nuclear environmentalist’ by J. J. Gomez Cadenas, the first page (which you can read on amazon) of this painted a wonderful picture of 2050 if we embrace nuclear. Fusion is seen by many, and rightly so, as the holy grail of energy that will bring about a limitless supply of clean energy. Yet we’re the next best option in terms of energy density, though no one remembers the runners up. Perhaps we need to rebrand as ‘Fission energy’ (check out EDFs fission Impossible). Ask yourself what if nuclear energy was invented today?





Our Future

I would like to point out I am doing a slight disservice to the NIA, who have been sharing the brilliant rediscover nuclear campaign, which is in line with what I say we should be doing.

Nuclear power offers a unique proven way of generating high volumes of always-on, low carbon power, alongside transformational economic benefits in jobs, growth and investment. Through the Covid-19 crisis, jobs in nuclear have behaved like a nuclear power plant, continuing reliably without creating much attention while competently adapting to the needs of the current situation. Add to this the flexibility in power output shown by newer stations such as Sizewell B and the benefits of nuclear are clear. Stability, flexibility and security are all values we look for in in our energy mix (more in this in YGN Futuresight Values)

In the first YGN Futuresight article, Rob noted: UK Energy Policy will support secure, reliable, low carbon nuclear energy as the only commercially deployable technology that can enable rapid decarbonisation of heat, power and transport. What is really important here is the opportunity to decarbonise all energy, not just electricity, either directly via elevated heat output of future Gen IV reactors for industrial heat, or through steady hydrogen production as a clean fuel for transport. I wrote for Nuclear Future last year on redefining nuclear for the energy transition (page 27, May-June 2019 issue) – central to this was the potential to produce hydrogen to power a low carbon economy. The future’s bright if we go after it.

Indeed, many see clean energy and sustainability as the catalyst for an economic recovery post Covid-19; 60 British organisations called on the UK government to invest in sustainable infrastructure, technology and skills, and bring global leaders together to plan for a sustainable economic recovery. This coupled with the government’s commitment to investing in science and its desire to create a hotbed of innovation and development of small and advanced modular reactors, shows there is a real opportunity for the UK to take leadership in nuclear and low carbon energy.

The technology and political will is there, but I want to come back to that vision of the future. Sir Tim Smit (co-founder of the Eden Project) said the key to the Eden Project’s enduring success is that, “people love the combination of the wild and the technological. It’s about understanding that a romantic bower (pleasant shady place under trees) and artificial intelligence are both part of a complete holistic thing.” - I love this, this is what I envisage when I picture that clean energy future. Let’s go out and promote things like; The land and resources saved (due to high energy density) that can give more space to nature and wildlife. The potential to decarbonise all energy, both electricity and heat. The high skilled jobs we provide and create. The stable supply of energy that could be used to desalinate water or produce hydrogen as a clean fuel. And how Advanced Nuclear Technologies can bring energy to the developing world and remote locations. Sure, there’s economics, but the current crisis has shown, and the looming climate crisis will likely show again, that economics bend pretty quick when our livelihood and existence is on the line.

Bursting the Bubble

Dame Sue Ion recently spoke about engaging with people outside of our nuclear 'bubble' and as I mentioned at the start, we need to burst the bubble - we can’t just talk internally and pat each other on the back. So, I implore you to talk. Engage friends and family, share our sectors positives and explain how energy works. We’re often told not to talk about our work outside – so don’t. The specifics of your job aren’t interesting to most, but the energy density of nuclear and solving climate change is. 

That energy density means this: One pound of uranium, the size of a fingertip, has the energy equivalency of 5000 barrels of oil. And one person's lifetime nuclear waste would fit in a Coke can — which is tiny, compared with the many tons of carbon dioxide the average person’s energy use dumps into the atmosphere each and every year.

At the NI and YGN we advocate for nuclear energy, check out the number of energy policy panels the NI are involved in. Also, our Nuclear Future journal aims to give a voice to those in our industry to look at the big picture and we often run YGN Opinion and MythBusters articles under the theme of ‘Nuclear for Net Zero’.

I truly believe nuclear energy has something for everybody and that its energy density holds the key to changing the world. To green tech enthusiasts – nuclear is the pinnacle of energy technology. To the nature conservationists – nuclear is the least land and resource intensive giving more land back to rewilding. To the economists and politicians – nuclear offers stable, high skilled and well payed jobs. If we open our arms and share our story, we can make a difference - after all energy is what makes the world go around.

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