Rebalancing the nuclear debate through education

Better physics teaching with a particular emphasis on radioactivity and radiation science could improve public awareness through education of the environmental benefits and relative safety of nuclear power generation, according to leading Brazilian scientist Heldio Villar. He suggests that it might then be possible to have a less emotional debate about the future of the industry that will ultimately reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

To environmental activists, nuclear power and environmental preservation are two antagonistic concepts. Nevertheless, nuclear power can generate huge amounts of electrical and heat energy with minimal impact on the planet, particularly in terms of much lower carbon emissions and pollution than is seen with power generation based on burning fossil fuels. Because of this cultural clash, activists have prognosticated doom for a world if we pursue the nuclear energy option, leading to public distrust of the nuclear industry and its relatives, nuclear research installations and particle accelerators.

“The introduction of the theoretical bases of radioactivity, radiation physics and nuclear power plants in the environmental education curricula will certainly result in a greater awareness of the public towards the reality surrounding radiation and radioactivity,” says Villar of the University of Pernambuco, who not surprising also works for Brazil’s Nuclear Energy Commission. “This initiative, coupled with a more realistic approach towards nuclear risks on the part of nuclear regulators and licensers, has the potential to make nuclear applications – not only in electric energy production but in other areas – more palatable to a public squeamish of another Three Mile Island or Chernobyl and the specter of nuclear weapons, rendering it more prepared to reap the benefits thereof.”

Ironically, in the 1950s and 1960s, nuclear power was once hailed as the best option for an energy-starved world. Nuclear reactors were seen as modern, reliable and, above all, capable of producing electricity ‘too cheap to meter’. Into the 1970s, the oil crisis sparked the first major interest in going nuclear on a much wider scale. However, even before Three Mile Island, activist groups such as Greenpeace were sounding unwarranted alarm bells and popular movies such as the China Syndrome, which does not have a disastrous ending, were fuelling the anti-nuclear movement.

Villar points out that it is widely accepted that Brazil and several other nations, are entirely capable of launching successful nuclear power programs, given their expertise, the availability of nuclear fuel and the pressures such as a lack of coal and the rising price of oil. “Electrical energy is scarce and obviously expensive,” says Villar, “a situation seen in several other countries.” Supposed “green” solutions, such as hydroelectric power, which has already been fully exploited in Brazil, as well as gas turbines, solar and wind power, tidal power and biomass, do not represent a cheaper alternative to nuclear he asserts.

Villar, H. (2011). The ‘threat’ of radioactivity: how environmental education can help overcome it International Journal of Nuclear Knowledge Management, 5 (3) DOI: 10.1504/IJNKM.2011.042006

Science Spot Physical Science

This is the new home of my physical science news column originally to be found on PSIgate as Spotlight and then as Hot Topics on the Intute site. There’s everything from the 2002-2010 archive providing a snapshot of cutting edge science during that period in Archaeology, Astronomy, Chemistry, Earth Sciences, Environment, Geology, Physics and more.

Although Spotlight and its successor Hot Topics have now been deprecated, this site is not purely an inactive archive, a cobWeb site, but will be updated periodically, especially if readers are keen to see new content.

Please let me know if you’d like to offer a guest blog post or if you spot a missing page or other error.


David Bradley Science Writer

Energy, all at sea

Floating wind turbines could capture the energy of higher wind speeds further out to sea and address some of the noise and unsightliness complained about by those with turbines closer to home.

Wind turbines represent one of the most reliable renewable energy solutions, along with solar power and tidal and hydroelectric power. As wind turbine designs increase their size they also get noisier and become more of an eyesore. The solution is either to site them remotely on dry land or to build them at sea with the tower embedded in the seabed of shallow waters, but this restricts them to near-shore waters with depths no greater than 50 metres, which means they cannot utilise the strong winds further out to sea.

Now, naval architect Dominique Roddier of Berkeley, California-based Marine Innovation & Technology has, together with his team, published a feasibility study of a novel platform design – WindFloat – that, as the name suggests uses floating wind turbines. The study is published in the Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy this month.

Floating wind turbines could use stronger offshore winds
Floating wind turbines could use stronger offshore winds (Credit: Roddier et al/JRSE/American Institute of Physics)

Roddier and colleagues, Christian Cermelli, Alexia Aubault, and Alla Weinstein, have tested a 1:65 scale model in a wave tank, which shows that a three-legged floating platform, based on existing gas and oil offshore platform designs. The team explains the main issue: “A floater supporting a large payload (wind turbine and nacelle) with large aerodynamic loads high above the water surface challenges basic naval architecture principles due to the raised centre of gravity and large overturning moment,” they say. In other words at first glance such a rig would capsize very easily. However, after several years work, their results show that the current design is stable enough to support a 5-megawatt wind turbine, the largest turbine that currently exists. These mammoth turbines are 70 metres tall and have rotors the size of a football field. Just one, Roddier says, produces enough energy “to support a small town.”

The next step is to continue construction of a prototype with electricity operator Energias de Portugal that will help the developers understand the life-cycle cost of such projects and to refine the economic model. The prototype will be tested in open water by the end of summer 2012, Roddier says. “The WindFloat [design] is envisioned to be located 15-20 km offshore so as to minimize risks/nuisance to the general public, and to mitigate the view impact from the coastline,” the team adds.


J Renewable Sustainable Energy, 2010, 2, 3, 033104
Marine Innovation & Technology