Will Surprising UN Findings Reignite Optimism For Nuclear Power?

UN report challenges public perceptions of nuclear energy — and may change how we think about energy forever.

David de Caires Watson
Nov 23 · 6 min read
Humankind unlocking the atomic genie in Walt Disney’s 1950s book, ‘Our Friend the Atom’.

“I give you the magic fire of the atom…an almost endless source of heat…Here we are, burning up our coal and oil only to produce power. But now we have a new source of power: clean, silent, plentiful.”

— Walt Disney’s ‘Our Friend the Atom’, 1957.

Last week the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) released a “lifecycle analysis” of different electricity generation sources, including coal, gas, hydro, solar, wind and nuclear. This looked at the sustainability of each source measured by lifetime carbon emissions, human toxicity, water use and other metrics.

One of the report’s findings likely came as a shock to many old-school environmentalists: nuclear power produces less CO2, uses less land and consumes less mined metals than other clean energy sources like wind and solar.

What about radiation from nuclear power? While there are very small doses to nuclear plant operators (much less than airline pilots, who receive the highest dose of any US radiation worker), the UN found that coal and geothermal power cause more of a radiation dose to the public than does nuclear (yes, really).

No better demonstration of energy density than this replica uranium pellet I picked up at COP26.

To nuclear nerds, this comes as no shock. The incredible energy density of uranium means the eight UK nuclear plants power 12 million homes from less than 1 square mile of land. With that kind of power density, it makes sense that human health and environmental impacts are small — it’s very easy to safely contain the tiny amounts of waste, instead of it going up a chimney like with fossil fuels!

This latest UN report is yet more evidence that serious scientific and international organisations see nuclear power as green and sustainable. Major economies such as the UK, France, China, US, Russia and India are placing nuclear power at the centre of their decarbonisation plans.

A return to optimism for nuclear?

All this positivity hints that we may be rediscovering the awe and hope we felt in the early days of nuclear power, symbolised by Eisenhower’s ‘Atoms For Peace’ speech.

‘Atoms For Peace’ led to the founding of the International Atomic Energy Agency, a UN-affiliated agency that spreads the peaceful uses of nuclear technology to developing countries (I think of them as the mythical Prometheus bringing fire to man). Founded in the late ’50s, the IAEA embodies the idea that nuclear energy can be safely harnessed for the good of all.

Jean Delville’s depiction of Prometheus bringing fire — symbolising all knowledge — to humankind.

Amazingly, Walt Disney put together an educational movie and accompanying book, both called ‘Our Friend the Atom’, around the time of Eisenhower’s speech. It explained in accessible language how nuclear technology would help humankind.

The movie and book are introduced by Walt Disney himself (who was so pro-nuclear he wanted to power Disney World with a reactor!) and both are gorgeously illustrated. I wrote about Disney’s nuclear story a couple of years ago.

Walt Disney used the story of the Fisherman and the Genie to explain nuclear technology. Humans were granted three wishes by the atomic genie.

This was a time when the environmental movement, including Sierra Club in the US, was supportive of nuclear power as a way to get off coal and prevent the damming of rivers for hydro. That line of thinking lost out to anti-nuclearism and wider anti-capitalism philosophy (nuclear seemed to allow for limitless growth, something which terrified the Malthusian counter-culture movement).

But at the time, it seemed obvious to most scientists that we’d rely on nuclear to meet our growing energy needs. For example, the book ‘The Next Hundred Years’, written by academics from Stanford University in the 1950s, makes projections about the technological and social progress we might make over 100 years.

Focussing on the US, it predicted that nuclear power would grow exponentially. This was wrong on two counts: first, because nuclear power production plateaued in that country after the 1990s, and second, because energy consumption in general has not grown at all since the 1970s (in the US — it has grown massively elsewhere, e.g. China).

Degrowth — as anti-capitalism is now called — is once again on the lips of environmentalists, but there is a rising movement that defends growth and innovation as the raw ingredients for human flourishing. It is spear-headed by public figures like Bill Gates and Steven Pinker, by the progress studies movement, believers of the value of innovation (Don Watkins), the ecomodernists (Third Way) and the tech world (Jack Dorsey, Ev Williams), including cryptocurrency advocates (Meltem Demirors). Greater energy consumption underpins almost everything these people stand for.

Jason Crawford and J. Storrs Hall argue that our failure to grow energy use exponentially (“falling off the Henry Adams curve”[1], as they put it) is at the root of a broader technological stagnation. By making energy scarce and expensive (as well as dirty), we preclude the possibility of sci-fi tech like flying cars, nanotech and space travel, but also humanistic technologies like desalination, clean synthetic fuels and advanced medical diagnostics and treatments. Both Crawford and Hall see nuclear power as the technology to get us back onto the Henry Adams curve.

US energy consumption, ‘The Next Hundred Years’, by Brown, Bonner and Weir. What happened to exponential nuclear?
J. Storrs Hall, Where is My Flying Car?

This all suggests we have a moral responsibility to grow energy production, especially in the developing world where access brings education, health and a more fulfilling life. It is why the re-evaluation of nuclear power is so important — we have at our fingertips a “clean, silent, plentiful” source of power (as the narrator in Disney’s ‘Our Friend the Atom’ puts it) that can meet our ever-growing energy needs. And this is a good thing.

As Robert Bryce puts it in ‘Juice’, a documentary about energy access:

“Darkness kills human potential. Electricity nourishes it.”

This kind of pro-science, utopian imagery is seeping back into the mainstream — it’s about time (Image: Gal Barkan).

Visions for the future

This feels like the start of a new pro-science, pro-human phase in our history. For too long, visions of abundance have been dismissed as nothing but utopian dreams. Popular culture feeds us a diet of post-apocalyptic, climate crisis, zombie dystopias that fill us with fear, fatalism and a sense of hopelessness and discourage us from working on real solutions.

To put it simply, it’s too much ‘Mad Max’ and not enough ‘Star Trek’. Understanding the amazing potential of nuclear energy changes everything, and makes visions of abundance feel grounded in reality.

On nuclear, I’ve written here and here about the importance of imagining the possible, of moving the Overton window. Without this kind of thinking, it’s easy to get distracted by the challenging — but fundamentally surmountable — issues of the day (like the long-term storage of nuclear waste).

After all, to build it, first we have to dream it.

Image from ‘Our Friend the Atom’ highlighting the seemingly limitless energy inside the radium nucleus.

[1] Because the growth in this metric was mentioned in the autobiography of Henry Adams (grandson of John Quincy Adams), Hall calls the long-term trend of about 7% annual growth in total energy usage the “Henry Adams Curve”.

A place for debate about nuclear power.