Analysis & Opinions - Issues in Science and Technology

Reimagining Nuclear Engineering

| May 07, 2021

To heal the divide over nuclear energy, the field needs to move from advocacy to understanding.

Since the first power reactors—Shippingport in the United States, Calder Hall in the United Kingdom, and Obninsk in the Soviet Union—were connected to electricity grids in the 1950s, nuclear energy has, in several countries, become a stable, reliable, low-carbon, baseload or “firm” source of electricity. Nuclear reactors today—for the most part of the light water vintage built in the 1960s and 1970s—supply just over 10% of global electricity consumption, even making up a substantial portion of all electricity generated in some countries, such as France, Belgium, Hungary, South Korea, and Sweden.

Over this same period of scale-up of the nuclear industry, a defining feature of nuclear technology has been the polarizing and enduring controversy surrounding it. In sharp contrast to many early optimistic projections and aspirations, nuclear energy has proven anything but too cheap to meter. With rare exceptions, nuclear plants—especially in the West—are seldom constructed on time and on budget. The rhetoric and logic of nuclear safety expressed in the language of quantitative measures of risk have done little to quell society’s concerns about nuclear energy technologies. Skepticism about nuclear energy as a safe and reliable source of energy experienced a resurgence in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi accident a decade ago, dampening the nuclear renaissance that nuclear engineers had expected at the start of the new millennium.

Nuclear reactors remain a technology whose risks and benefits, potential and real, are inequitably distributed in society, temporally and geographically. The fuel that powers reactors comes from mines that have poisoned Indigenous communities and Global South nations for decades. The connection between a nation’s nuclear energy capability and its possession of nuclear weapons, though once direct and now more attenuated, nevertheless persists. And finally there are the environmental footprints of the nuclear era: its wastes. Though often described by nuclear engineers as a technically solved problem, the disposition of nuclear waste remains unresolved in most countries (Finland and Sweden are exceptions), its fate an ongoing open question, particularly in the United States. However this question may eventually be answered, nuclear waste will perhaps be the most enduring vestige of the Anthropocene.

Within this complex legacy, public trust in nuclear technologies and the institutions that govern them has been a scarce commodity. Independent of the particular shade of one’s politics, the vast majority of us, when engaging with questions surrounding nuclear energy, label ourselves and others as either “pro-nuclear” or “anti-nuclear.” The values that lie behind different stances on this complex technology—however nuanced—too often remain unexamined and are instead characterized as crude binaries. This for-or-against dichotomy has served to engender mistrust, deepen fears, pit different environmentalist agendas against each other, and contribute to unproductive conversations about how, whether, and what to do with nuclear energy. Tropes past and present on both sides have contributed to the entrenchment of this polarization. From catastrophizing the effects of radiation with cartoons of three-eyed fish, to casual dismissal of the severity of the six nuclear reactor meltdowns humankind has witnessed so far, anti- and pro-nuclear narratives are relentlessly mobilized by those on one side of the divide to demonize those on the other.

Against the backdrop of a nascent but rapidly developing industrial sector and an intensely and increasingly polarized discourse, the discipline of nuclear engineering emerged and grew—at first in the government laboratories of a small number of nuclear nations, and then as offshoots of various university engineering departments—as a distinct field of research and practice.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Verma, Aditi and Denia Djokić.“Reimagining Nuclear Engineering.” Issues in Science and Technology, May 7, 2021.

The Authors