Expert Comment: Nuclear Energy, why we are all invested in its success or failure

The University of Manchester’s Dalton Nuclear Institute is taking a revolutionary new approach to nuclear-related research by encouraging a lasting engagement between ‘traditional’ nuclear sciences and social science researchers.

Here, Professor Richard Taylor explains why this new interdisciplinary approach, in the form of The Beam Network, is long overdue in a sector that has been dominated by rigid regulation and research boundaries.

Nuclear Energy projects are, by their nature, ‘social’ endeavours. Why? Because any industry is a reflection of the society in which it resides.

The extent to which the industry can realise its aims and ambitions is undoubtedly linked to prevalent attitudes and cultures within its workforce or surrounding environment.

For many policymakers and energy experts, nuclear energy represents an environmentally responsible solution to the current energy and climate crisis. Plus, in the UK alone, financial commitments to new build and decommissioning are already forecast to exceed £100 billion with this number increasing all the time.

But, increasingly, fundamental policy decisions cannot be enacted without the support of all stakeholders both within and outside the sector. For example, in the UK, the successful implementation of a new nuclear build, or geological disposal facility (GDF) for nuclear waste, are both dependent on securing and maintaining public trust. This can sometimes be difficult as the general public and other influential stakeholders still have some deep misgivings or general antipathy towards the sector, meaning important debates remain unresolved.

For example, current trends towards the possible future deployment of smaller reactors alongside the relaunched search for a volunteer site for GDFs will inevitably lead to new communities being exposed to the nuclear debate.

Professor Richard Taylor
For many policymakers and energy experts, nuclear energy represents an environmentally responsible solution to the current energy and climate crisis.
Professor Richard Taylor

Similarly, the long term programmes to clean up the UK’s nuclear estate are reliant both on generating the public trust necessary to sanction activities which may increase short term risk for long term gain, and sustaining an organisational culture that supports individuals in making these difficult decisions.

All this means that, as a sector, we must find new ways of opening up and sustaining these conversations. The aim of The Beam Network is to change the quality and depth of public debate on nuclear matters in the UK, moving beyond an entrenched politics of acceptance or rejection.

The Beam has a number of research projects already in progress where contemporary social science thinking is being applied within a nuclear setting. This includes a consideration of alternative approaches to public consultation as well as an assessment of the social barriers and enablers to innovation.

Where possible we look to adopt an ethnographic approach where academics are embedded into nuclear communities, bringing a unique perspective and insight into issues as they emerge and develop.

The University of Manchester’s position among the preeminent institutions leading nuclear research, alongside its breadth of world class capability in social sciences, business, law and humanities make it ideally placed to become a UK focal point for the coordination and dissemination of this research work. Furthermore, the University’s established links into the global industry will help facilitate the translation of theoretical impact into implemented solutions.

Prof Richard Taylor, Dalton Nuclear Institute and School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering, is the BNFL chair in Nuclear Energy Systems at the University, he previously worked for the National Nuclear Laboratory and has 30 years’ experience in the Nuclear Sector.

The University is launching its Beam network in London on 18th July where industry influencers will be invited to contribute their ideas on research priorities. 

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