One of the biggest energy challenges of our time is how to produce more energy in a way that’s considered cleaner for the environment. In his book: A Bright Future, Swedish nuclear engineer Stefan Qvist — writes that some countries have solved climate change and the rest can follow, if they just embrace what he says is a misunderstood platform: nuclear power. We recently caught up with him in London.
Stefan Qvist: What we're trying to explain in the book is basically there are a few countries in the world that have clean electricity 24 hours per day, year round. And those are Sweden, France and Ontario. And all three places did it by a combination of renewable energy and nuclear power.
Sharyl: You have a phd as a nuclear engineer. What are a couple of misconceptions you think people have about nuclear power?
Stefan Qvist: One is the volume and how dangerous nuclear waste is. And another one is the safety record of nuclear power. Both of them have been quite thoroughly misunderstood and we tried to go through that in the book quite comprehensively.
Sharyl: Do you find a lot of people don't know that nuclear power is green energy?
Stefan Qvist: Yes. Less and less. Fortunately, if you asked me five years ago, most people probably wouldn't know that nuclear energy is low carbon and doesn't emit greenhouse gasses. Today that's starting to become public knowledge, which is very good.
Sharyl: It's often said that when nuclear goes wrong, it's catastrophic. How do you get people comfortable with that calculation?
Stefan Qvist: In terms of of people dying from a disaster, energy related disaster, one the worst one we've seen in world history by far is the hydroelectric dam bursting in China in the 1970s, killed over, well in some estimates over 200,000 people. Nothing is completely safe. Nothing is completely clean, but we have to choose the best out of poor options almost everywhere in society and economy.
Sharyl: So what are a couple of comments you have on Fukushima, which is a recent disaster that people know about and hear a lot about?
Stefan Qvist: Yeah. So Japan was struck by an epic natural disaster that killed 16,000 people. Certainly compared to other energy accidents that we've seen with the oil platforms exploding or hydroelectric power, dams failing or gas pipelines exploding, Fukushima, in terms of relative effects to human life, is quite benign compared to those, but obviously a very serious and horrible accident anyway.
Sharyl: A comment on the Chernobyl disaster?
Stefan Qvist: It was actually constructed and redesigned the Soviet engineers. This is technology that will never be built in the West that will never be allowed to be operated in that way in the west.
Sharyl: What are the lessons learned from Three Mile Island in the United States?
Stefan Qvist: So it was really kind of a proof of concept of the safety built into Western type of nuclear power reactors. You have a a really severe event, you have core melt and no one got hurt. So I, that's the, the main lesson I guess.
Sharyl: Why can nuclear solve a problem do you think, an energy problem that wind and solar alone cannot?
Stefan Qvist: Well, the main reason is that wind and solar obviously rely on the wind and the sun being available. So it's much more effective, much more cost effective, and it's proven to work much better if you have something in the system that doesn't rely on the weather cooperating with you as well. We all share the same atmosphere and the same globe, but some countries have found a way to at least produce electricity cleanly, 24 hours per day around the year. And that's something that other countries can be inspired by because we have an existing solution to that. And that's basically what we mean when we say how some have solved climate change.
Germany is planning to close all of its nuclear power plants by 2020 in response to the Japan nuclear disaster. Nuclear power supporters say that will mean back to relying on more energy from coal.