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Limited public understanding could ‘jeopardise’ nuclear contribution to low-carbon future

Joseph Flaig

Sizewell B nuclear power station in Suffolk (Credit: Shutterstock)
Sizewell B nuclear power station in Suffolk (Credit: Shutterstock)

A limited public understanding of nuclear power’s low-carbon credentials could prevent the energy source from making a vital contribution to the UK’s ‘net zero’ efforts, an IMechE expert has said.

Only 26% of people aged 18-24 understand nuclear power is a low-carbon source of electricity – compared to 76% for renewables such as wind and solar – according to a new institution report published today (5 March). Public Perceptions: Nuclear Power reveals that understanding increases amongst older people, reaching more than 60%, but is still “well below” levels seen for renewables.

The findings, from a survey of 2,011 people in December last year, are a potential cause for concern as the UK attempts to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Nuclear could be an essential part of the future energy mix, working alongside renewables to prevent continuing reliance on fossil fuels.

“Not having a full understanding can jeopardise nuclear power’s support for our low-carbon future,” said Dr Jenifer Baxter, the institution’s head of engineering, to Professional Engineering.

While the prime minister has called for a “nuclear renaissance”, Dr Baxter said the public will play a key part in ongoing political momentum. “The government stays in power if it does things the public agrees with. So what is really important, I feel, is that we ensure that as things develop and change and we innovate in engineering… nuclear is well understood by everyone.”

The government is funding eight ‘vendors’ of small modular reactors (SMRs) to conduct feasibility studies of their designs, through the Advanced Modular Reactor programme. A consortium of companies led by Rolls-Royce also received £18m for the development of its SMR design.

Widescale roll-out of SMRs would mean many more power plants around the country, yet the new report found 41% of people would oppose construction of nuclear power stations in their local area. Twenty-seven per cent would support them.

The overall level of support for nuclear power was 42%, compared to 84% for renewables. Low support could relate to safety and contamination issues with older nuclear power stations, such as Sellafield and Dounreay. According to the report, the most common concerns about nuclear power were nuclear waste and its disposal (58%), safety concerns including accidents (44%) and radiation (35%).

“I think people conflate previous projects with new projects,” said Dr Baxter. “We have reduced the amount of fuel we need, the amount of waste produced and it is safer – in fact it is the safest form of power generation.”

Understanding has to improve, not just for members of the public but for planners and potential industry workers as well, said Dr Baxter. “We have to make sure that we support not just ourselves today, but future generations to live the lives they want to, and nuclear power needs to be part of that.”

The report recommends:

  • “There is a low level of awareness among young people that nuclear power is a low-carbon source of energy. The government needs to ensure that nuclear is included in all its communications about low-carbon power and energy sources.
  • “The nuclear industry should create stronger messaging about the potential possibilities for nuclear that can create a low-carbon, prosperous future for the UK. This will open up greater possibilities for solutions from low-carbon fuel production to increased electrification and ensure the UK can meet its net-zero vision.
  • “In order for greater public acceptance of new nuclear power stations, it is important for the government and industry to communicate a credible plan for waste disposal, for example either a geological disposal facility or recycling of spent radioactive material.”

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. 

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