Following the recent Dalton Nuclear Institute Seminar ‘Small modular nuclear reactors: energy justice for the 21st century?’, Dr Jeremy Rayner, Director at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan, here discusses the social dimensions of energy generation – especially in terms of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) – and highlights the importance of public engagement around energy choices.
- There is a need for more frequent and more wide-ranging public engagement about energy choices, in the past these have often been top-down or project specific
- Decision-makers must listen to the outcome of those kind of public deliberations in the same way they have listened to experts in the energy field
- There are many unanswered questions with SMRs but they also present the opportunity for policymakers to change their approaches to engagement
- Policymakers should always consider all their options – we need every possible option to tackle the problem of climate change
- A multi-disciplinary approach across institutions and faculties is needed to understand people’s views on nuclear – the social dimensions of nuclear technologies are key for the future of nuclear energy
Social considerations of energy
We need to consider the social dimensions of energy; energy in terms of the difference it makes to people’s lives. Often in developed countries we take energy for granted but even in our own society access to energy can often be greatly unequal. It is something we need to take seriously when framing energy debates – fairness in distribution and access to energy, as well as fairness in participation in deciding on the location of new energy projects and what kind of energy projects are going to take place.
One of the most important policy recommendations is the need for more frequent and wide-ranging public engagement about energy choices. In the past these have very much been top-down decisions. Decisions such as the deregulation of energy markets are, in effect, decisions to let markets decide, however, empowering people to take control of their energy futures, which is what we really need if we are to tackle climate change, will help people to understand that there are hard energy choices to be made.
Trade-offs will be necessary in a democracy; the right thing to do is engaging with people and helping them work through the kinds of decisions they’re going to have to make. It is important for decision-makers to listen to the outcome of public deliberations in the same way they have listened to experts in the energy field in the past.
SMRs and their potential
We have to remember that Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) is a technology that doesn’t yet exist in commercial form and in entering the market it will face the same kinds of challenges that any kind of nuclear technology faces.
Fundamentally, the overarching problem is the social acceptability of nuclear – people’s concerns about its safety, but also in terms of its business case. Nuclear energy has often been bedevilled by cost overruns and reliability concerns in the early designs but as with any nuclear technology the jury is going to be out for a while regarding SMRs.
It will be necessary for governments to lead. First, to enable the discussion about social acceptability and, second, to provide the same kind of financial environment for a new, nuclear technology, like they would for any other type of innovation that they consider desirable.
In Canada we are particularly interested in the possibility of deploying SMRs in remote northern locations. However, the work we’ve done so far suggests public opinion is deeply divided. People say they would like to find out more about SMRs but they also have the traditional concerns about nuclear energy that you would expect. We have discovered however, whether it is a rational decision or not, that people seem to have more tolerance for something described as ’small’.
People do want to know more, but right now it’s hard to provide any solid answers when we don’t have anything to show them. However, in contrast, the infancy of SMRs also presents an opportunity. Energy decisions were made in a very top-down way and justified after the fact. In policy we refer to this as ‘decide, announce and defend’ as an approach to explaining to communities what is going to happen to their energy provision. However, with SMRs being at least a decade away and no specific proposals on the table we have the opportunity to do things better this time in terms of social acceptability.
One of the most important reasons to have these sorts of public discussions about energy is to give people an opportunity to take control of their own futures. It is the sense of not having control over your future that causes people to act negatively.
What is the pull?
SMRs are already causing some excitement within the engineering community as they are a new kind of technology. In many places with a mature nuclear industry, such as in Canada, large nuclear reactors are very unlikely to be built in future. Therefore there is going to be some pressure from the engineering community to push this new technology. However instead of solely concentrating on the ‘push’ factor, it is key to think about the ‘pull’ of this technology. In addition to public acceptability it is also essential to think about the context and use of SMRs, that is, where they would be superior to the other alternatives on offer.
Admittedly, there is plenty of uncertainty here. In ten years’ time there may be significant development in storage options that will make intermittent renewables a much more viable way of providing power to small and remote communities than at present. These communities may be much less suitable for SMRs but alternatively, there may be particular uses where SMRs are still superior and we should be thinking very carefully about those uses as we go forward. Above all we should be framing the debate in terms of the problems for which SMRs could be the best solution rather than taking this shiny piece of technology and trying to sell it to people.
Advice for policymakers
Policymakers should always consider all their options, and that’s one of the reasons why I am so interested in SMRs. I’m not interested in promoting them but in making sure they stay in the policy picture because in the future it’s clear that we are going to need every possible option to tackle the problem of climate change.
Equally important, though, is the possibility that they can produce cleaner energy while also tackling the problem of what I call ‘energy justice’, providing equal and fair access to energy for everyone around the globe in the context of a growing population and rising economic expectations. One of the key obstacles to any kind of global agreement on greenhouse gas mitigation has always been the fear on the part of developing countries that mitigation measures will reduce their energy security and their development opportunities. Once again, every option needs to be on the table.
Additionally, it is important to ask, ‘which is the best option for you?’ It may be that SMRs are not suitable for certain situations but if they can live up to their promises they will have some very significant advantages elsewhere. They are scalable and they will have multiple uses, that range from providing heat and power for large urban areas (which is a significant issue), as well to remote communities. We need imagination as much as we need analysis.
Leading the way
The work of The University of Manchester’s Dalton Nuclear Institute is at the leading edge of what we are now seeing around the world, namely, recognition that the social dimensions of nuclear technologies are key for the future of nuclear. Their work asks the questions, why are people generally supportive of nuclear medicine and nuclear imaging but not so supportive of nuclear energy? This isn’t a problem of engineering and science, but a problem social sciences and humanities are well-equipped to research.
I completely agree with the multidisciplinary research agenda that the Dalton Nuclear Institute is developing and it’s something we’re also doing back in Saskatchewan. Understanding the social dimensions, and using that understanding to improve public consultation, has the potential to bring about a shift in the policy environment for nuclear energy. Without such work we are unlikely to make the most of technologies such as SMRs, and reap their benefits in terms of more equitable access to energy and as a part of our toolbox for addressing climate change, in the future.