Small Modular Reactors: Perceptions and Misconceptions Threaten a Nuclear Renaissance

 

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Small Modular Reactors: Perceptions and Misconceptions Threaten a Nuclear Renaissance

By Dr. Adrienne Ethier

 

Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) hold the promise of being a 21st-century miracle of electric power production – a source of safe, clean, abundant, economical, reliable and, not least, carbon-neutral electricity. 

But what of the challenges confronting this next-generation nuclear technology? 

In my first SMR blog late last year I highlighted three obstacles, in particular:

  •  Perceptions and misconceptions of nuclear power
  •  Building the business case
  •  Development and deployment

This blog will be the first of a three-part follow-up series on SMRs.  Over the next three months I’ll be delving into the above obstacles in greater depth, beginning this month with perception and misconceptions.

Perception is Everything

Nuclear power has a long history of public relations challenges. Commercial SMRs will be no exception.

For decades, the general public has had grave concerns over the potential for a nuclear accident to poison our air, water and land.  Fears of cancer-causing, DNA-corrupting nuclear radiation spreading through the environment have been fueled by high-profile disasters such as the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in 1979, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986 and the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011.

SMRs face similar challenges in the court of public opinion. Prospective manufacturers and owners / operators of this technology – as promising as it is – will need to do more than furnish good evidence that these units are safe to operate. They will need to work relentlessly to address public safety concerns. 

Public discourse on nuclear power is hardly ruled by reason and rationality. Few people have carefully, thoughtfully and impartially weighed the evidence for and against. Individual perceptions may be based on fragments of evidence – something read or heard on the topic – or on a person’s education or background. Some will associate the word “nuclear” with nuclear weapons, waste and cancer; others with reliable, carbon-neutral electricity; or with the life-saving medical isotopes used in nuclear medicine to cure cancer. 

Perceptions aside, the safety requirements for the nuclear industry are, in point of fact, much, much more stringent than most people realize. For non-nuclear industries, the thresholds for acceptable environmental emissions are set at or just below levels at which there is the potential for negative health effects. The acceptable threshold of emissions for nuclear facilities is at least 100 times below the level at which there is the potential to cause negative health effects, even in the immediate vicinity of a nuclear generating station (ICRP, 2007).  

Dispelling the myths 

For SMRs to be successful, popular myths must be dispelled and public understanding improved. That’s exactly what Dr. Doug Chambers and I set out to do in 2018 when we peer-reviewed a paper comparing Fukushima to the Ontario Power Generation Pickering station. This paper included incomplete or incorrect information, with the potential to create and perpetuate false perceptions of the safety of nuclear power in Ontario.

Consider these points about nuclear energy included in our peer review:

  • Contrary to perceptions that radiation at any level is a threat, medical scientists have found an improvement to life expectancy of some patients due to the immune boosting and cancer preventative effects of low-dose radiation. There is also evidence that low-dose radiation may be effective in the control of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s (update in Cuttler, 2018).
  • Nuclear energy production has a very strong safety record. The estimated number of fatalities due to radiation exposure at nuclear power plants since 1969 is in the range of 30 to 45 (i.e., Chernobyl accident), depending on whether potential stochastic effects from thyroid cancer (15 fatalities) are accounted for (The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), 2017). This is at least an order of magnitude (> 35 times) less than any other long-term source of energy production (Hirschberg et al., 1998).  
  • Several studies have shown that ill-informed views or misconceptions of the potential harm caused by nuclear radiation have resulted in more fatalities than those resulting from the radiation itself. Pervasive myths and misperceptions about the threat of radiation, for example, have been linked to heightened anxiety, suicides, paralyzing fatalism, and increased smoking and alcohol dependency. Recent case in point, there is no evidence of fatalities or health effects owing to radiation exposure for the Fukushima accident and yet more than 1,000 people died within two years following the accident owing to various evacuation-related, largely psychosomatic, problems (Socol, 2015).

Summary

Misinformation and paranoia have created a pervasive misunderstanding of the nuclear industry.  Negative and incorrect risk perceptions are gaining more public credibility than sound scientific evidence.  It behooves all of us to commit ourselves to making sure the evidence for clean, safe nuclear power is clearly communicated and understood. SMRs have the potential to serve as an excellent baseload energy source and one direly needed to support CO2 reductions in Canada and globally. In the age of social media particularly, the potential for the continued spread of myths and falsehoods is greater than ever.  It is time for us to use these same social media channels to perpetuate sound science.  

Dr. Adrienne Ethier is a Senior Nuclear Analyst for Calian Group in Ottawa. 

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