Oct 9, 2019

Ep 203: Wade Allison - Emeritus Professor, Physics, Oxford University

Emeritus Professor, Physics
Oxford University
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Show notes

Inspired by the Atoms for Peace exhibition (11:23)
11:23-15:46 (Wade explains what sparked his interest in science and his views on the nuclear industry today.)

Q. Where did you grow up and how did you get into the nuclear space to begin with?
(7:32 Part 1) A. At 13, Wade Allison and his family went on holiday to Geneva and saw the Atoms for Peace exhibition. The exhibition, brought about by Eisenhower and other leaders at the time, aimed to promote the peaceful use of nuclear power after WWII. This first sparked Wade’s interest in science. Wade studied science at Cambridge University and then went on to pursue a Doctorate degree at the University of Oxford. He then moved to Geneva to teach at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, where he spent time understanding how the universe works. He is now an Emeritus Professor of Physics at Oxford University.

Wade was born before the first nuclear reactor was built and has seen the industry evolve. He believes in the importance of nuclear energy, but sees the industry as a current mess that must be fixed.

Solving nuclear problems through education (15:47)
15:47-23:37 (Wade explains that a lack of education and an undue focus on safety are the reasons behind the problems the nuclear industry faces today.)

Q. Where do you think we went wrong and how do you think we can change it?
(12:00 Part 1) A. Wade does not believe the problem in the nuclear industry is technical, but rather a lack of understanding by the public and the media. For instance, people were taught about the safety of bringing fire into the home, but this has yet to happen for nuclear power. The industry is focused on building reactors rather than teaching children about the industry. The media has not helped, as it focuses on chasing exciting stories that bring about a fear of nuclear energy. Wade points out that nobody has been killed during a nuclear accident other than Chernobyl, nor within the civil nuclear industry since it began. Hydroelectric dam accidents, on the other hand, have caused the loss of life for hundreds of thousands of people.

Wade agrees with others that the nuclear industry should focus less on speaking about safety. Wade notes that Malcolm Grimston, a UK nuclear power advocate, says that a restaurant does not celebrate being rat-free for 18 months as this does not make the public more likely to support the restaurant. Wade is also concerned that there is an entire industry dedicated to nuclear safety. Those with jobs focusing on radiation safety will not agree to lowering radiation safety requirements because their livelihoods depend on the existence of a radiation problem. Additionally, Wade sees fault in the United Nations speaking on the topic of nuclear radiation while ignoring ultraviolet radiation, which poses a much greater risk to the public. Wade believes a change to the social side of nuclear power is needed, and it begins with educating the younger generation.

Changing minds with Why Theater (23:38)
23:38-27:06 (Wade notes one promising new program that he believes will bring nuclear education to a wider audience.)

Q. How do we educate the younger generation?
(20:05 Part 1) A. Wade says he keeps his ears and eyes open for promising educational strategies. Six months ago, Wade received an email from two people who had read his book, Radiation and Reason. They explained to Wade that they wanted to include the discussion on nuclear radiation in their new theater program, Why Theater. The goal is to influence a change of mind by asking questions in a theater context.

Wade has high hopes for these types of projects. Wade notes that the people already living in communities powered by nuclear energy are not afraid of radiation. It is, however, the people living outside of these communities who are fearful and raise objections to nuclear power. Wade believes educating those currently separated from nuclear power is important to reaching wider nuclear acceptance.

Education as a means to nuclear success (27:07)
27:07-33:51 (Wade explains how building more nuclear facilities increases nuclear acceptance in communities. He also discusses the importance of building both small and large reactors and for newcomer countries to begin their nuclear education programs as soon as possible.)

Q. How do we get nuclear in more communities and have it be more accepted?
(23:15 Part 1) A. Wade’s personal view is that small nuclear reactors should be built in cities with populations of about 50,000 to 100,000 people. He states the main reason for this is so local children can tour the facility. This would enable children to understand where their own electricity comes from, creating an identity for the city inclusive of nuclear energy. This would also eliminate the need to import electricity from other countries, and therefore decrease the potential for international turmoil. Nuclear power also removes any problems associated with renewable energy, such as intermittency issues.

The UK is currently building a large reactor and Wade hopes to see more old designs built with time. He also believes in the need for building both small and large reactors simultaneously to ensure the future of nuclear power. Small reactors enable mass production because building modular reactors in factories does not require a work force to be moved to a new location.

Wade also notes that reactors must be built for the rest of the world, not just for the UK and the US. To do this, newcomer countries must prepare themselves by learning how to build, operate and maintain reactors prior to taking on a project. This viewpoint stems from the problems Wade saw when Korea built reactors in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). He believes the problems stemmed from not spending enough time educating the local people on how to run a facility on their own. Wade recommends countries that foresee adopting a nuclear program within the next 5 years begin working now with suppliers to educate themselves, as is currently happening between Indonesia and ThorCon, a US nuclear engineering company.

Nuclear power and climate change (33:52)
33:52-40:57 (Wade explains the need for nuclear power to provide such things as clean drinking water and low impact food production in the wake of climate change in the coming century.)

Q. How have you seen the different generations and the different people in the nuclear industry respond to climate change?
(30:59 Part 1) A. Until 20 years ago, Wade did not see the ties between the nuclear industry and climate change. Because scientists do not know the full extent of climate change impacts today, Wade believes we must build both large and small nuclear reactors. This is because nuclear power will be needed as the effects of climate change become more dire. For instance, Chennai, India has run out of clean drinking water. Wade predicts one of the primary uses for nuclear energy in the next century will be desalinating water to provide clean drinking water to various parts of the world. Additionally, nuclear power will enable the future of agriculture, where food is grown under lights in buildings. This will allow the rewilding of nature by enabling food to be grown anywhere at anytime of the year with a low environmental impact.

Inspiring the next generation (40:58)
40:58-46:13 (Wade discusses the next steps needed to inspire the next generation of nuclear energy leaders.)

Q. Where did your specific interest in nuclear start and what is your game plan for inspiring the next generation of leaders in the nuclear energy space?
(4:02 Part 2) A. Wade has never worked in the nuclear industry but has always been interested in physics and understanding how the world works. Wade says that inspiring young people through education is more effective than simply showing them what is useful when it comes to recruiting the next generation of nuclear energy leaders.

Moving forwards, Wade would like to persuade the medical industry to let go of their concern about litigation and the regulations of nuclear radiation. He believes, however, that speaking to children is more effective because they do not hold any preconceived notions. The question is therefore: How can we present nuclear stories to young people without including scientific and legal details? Wade believes the new attitude towards climate action present in the younger generation is a good sign. Currently, many young people see renewables as the only alternative to fossil fuels, so the nuclear industry must educate this generation about the benefits of nuclear energy. Wade also notes that the media approach must change. He believes getting information out there is a good first start.

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