In 1989 at the age of twelve I remember seeing horrific images on TV of seabirds covered in oil following the tragic Exxon Valdez oil spill. Between that and famines going on in Africa, I was pretty distressed, and had similar thoughts to Ms Thunberg on climate change and other problems of burning fossil fuels and deforestation, namely 'Why is no-one doing anything about this?!'
However, I didn’t discuss my concerns with family, and we continued to drive about and life continued on as normal. Maybe I only hoped that our wealthy nations would have run out of oil by now so that we'd naturally reduce our dependency.
It was also when I was around 9 years old that the Chernobyl accident gained significant media attention, and I was very nervous about it from the TV furore, but also curious as to whether the scientists would be able to gather enough data to shine some light on the long term radiation effects. The evidence now shows that the radiological effects are not as feared. More devastating really, is that political decisions to make decommissioning of nuclear power stations a priority have resulted in more gas, coal and biomass plants. Another effect has been non-scientific thinking around clean energy options.
Although I work elsewhere now, I had some direct experience of the nuclear industry as a newly qualified graduate to a ‘risk management’ company in Abingdon, who took on contract-based safety case work for the nuclear industry.
I believed I was joining a necessary cause to keep the public safe from radiation releases. However, my enthusiasm for the job was met by weary resignation from those employees – who understood that the stringent radiological protection standards, ‘ALARA’ (As Low As Reasonably Achievable) which they were advising about were overly cautious.
The bigger picture shows that since the 1950s, tightening of radiation regulations to which nuclear licensed sites are subject, typically enforced without proper scientific justification, have had unwanted effects. Cow-towing to public pressure groups have fed the mass cognitive bias and further reduced the public’s trust in the industry. For example the rules are so strict now that I have heard of coal-dust setting off the radiation alarms at a nuclear-licensed site. This makes people more nervous, not reassured.
I learned the positives of nuclear energy when, on maternity leave, a friend put me in touch with a Miss Joan Pye, who had worked as Personal Assistant to Sir John Cockcroft who headed the Atomic Energy Research Establishment in the 1950s. Joan, from what I gather, had worked a bit like a human switchboard, deflecting the visitors who wished to see him to the relevant personnel. I met her through a colleague when she was in the process of setting up a nuclear advocacy group.
Joan was in her eighties by then, hard of sight and hearing, and she asked me to help with her admin duties while my children spent time with their grandparents. This worked out really well, and although Joan didn't have children of her own, she enjoyed meeting mine.
She wanted to educate widely on the theme of nuclear “energy for the next generation”. She bought a computer, set up her list of contacts, mainly retired scientists and engineers she had met at Harwell, paid someone to help set up a website, ‘The Joan Pye Project’, and enjoyed networking and information-sharing up to the age of 102.
She explained that people have entangled (to some degree understandably) the idea of nuclear power with the fear of nuclear war. The effect of this is that mis-understandings, disinformation, media bias and poor risk analysis all stand in the way of the most sensible clean energy option we have.
It is frustrating to see the media and the public continue to doubt and undermine the credibility of the nuclear industry; people who effectively want to shut out our best bet for reducing fossil fuel consumption.
My children are fed up of hearing me go on about it by now, but I would encourage more mums to look towards the option of harnessing power of nuclear fission wisely. The climate has already warmed by 1 degree Celsius, with significant effect since the 1980s, and as it continues to heat, our children need an unbiased message including hope and faith not just that of fear.