The people changing the nuclear narrative
The overwhelmingly negative narrative surrounding nuclear power will change, believes nuclear advocate and our latest podcast guest, Meredith Angwin – and the identity of those behind that shift may surprise you
As if Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February was not awful enough in itself, the news troops had moved quickly to occupy the Chernobyl nuclear power plant added still one further layer of horror. The spectre of nuclear catastrophe provokes a particularly visceral reaction in people that dates back long before the disaster at the Chernobyl plant in 1986 and continues hugely to influence the debate on nuclear as an energy source.
When he appeared as our first guest on The Value Perspective podcast’s spin-off miniseries, which sets out to challenge conventional thinking in ESG, Forbes contributor Erik Kobayashi-Solomon observed: “When you say the word ‘nuclear’, the first thing that jumps to my mind – to everybody’s mind – is a mushroom cloud or the top blowing off the Fukushima reactor back in 2011. It is something quick and devastating.”
And that, in a nutshell, is the instinct our most recent guest on the miniseries finds herself working to challenge every day as a committed advocate of nuclear energy. A chemist by training, Meredith Angwin spent her career working on numerous projects to lower pollution and increase reliability on the electric grid before, more recently, writing one of our new favourite books, Shorting the Grid.
When we mention Russia’s short-lived incursion into the Chernobyl plant, Angwin is quick to highlight the extreme lengths the constructors of such facilities go to in order to make them as secure as possible. “The idea of Russia attacking nuclear plants is very scary but these places are extremely hardened,” she says. “Their containment measures mean you could even hit them with a plane and they would still stay in one piece.
“People sometimes ask, what if the 9/11 terrorists had gone after the Indian Point nuclear plant? Well, they were never going to because, while they could cause a lot of damage by hitting a skyscraper, if they had hit Indian Point, their plane would have fallen apart on the containment dome. That is heavily reinforced and tested against all kinds of attacks and the terrorists wanted a sure win – that is why they didn’t do that.”
Also referenced in the Kobayashi-Solomon podcast was the ironic observation that, if the anti-nuclear protests of the 1970s and 1980s had not been so successful, the world might not now be in such a perilous position from a climate change perspective. How then would Angwin set about introducing some balance to the debate about the desirability or otherwise of nuclear energy?
Changing the narrative
“I think that statement about the 70s and 80s is absolutely true – and it is hard to change the narrative,” she replies. “That said, the people who are changing it are the younger generation – the ones who have their whole future ahead of them. They are the ones who, when someone argues it is not possible to fight climate change with nuclear, will ask – why not?
“Older generations, however, are more inclined to think just ridding the world of anything nuclear has to be a great idea – though I suspect such feelings have more to do with nuclear bombs. Back in the 1960s, my mother was very active in ‘Ban the bomb’ groups – and that was fair enough because countries were doing atmospheric testing all over the world.
“The trouble is, when atmospheric testing stopped, some of those groups just switched their focus to trying to ban nuclear power plants. They just changed targets and did not really spend any time thinking about the fact that nuclear made very clean and available power.” Not that the nuclear industry should avoid their share of the blame for a woeful lack of effort in trying to win over the doubters, Angwin adds.
Fear of the unknown
“Nuclear has to be more open,” she argues. “It has to have tours of the power plants. Say I drive by a federal prison, I might think I know what goes on inside because I have seen movies set in prisons! And if you are not someone like me, who has visited nuclear plants and tested water and soil there and so forth, then you have no idea what is going on inside – you just conclude it all looks pretty scary.
“So we have to do more. It is not a case of educating people so much as helping people to educate themselves – letting them tour nuclear plants; having days when people who work at nuclear plants go to their kids’ schools and talk about their careers; having days when people who are in medicine talk about the importance of nuclear medicine and nuclear imaging and so on.
“I do believe the narrative is going to change and I think younger people will drive that change but it has to happen at the grassroots level. The thing is, there are an awful lot of middle-aged and older people, who are really entrenched in their anti-nuclear stance – I mean, it is part of their vision of themselves – and, really, how are you going to change that?”
Fund Manager, Equity Value
I joined Schroders as a graduate in 2005 and have spent most of my time in the business as part of the UK equities team. Between 2006 and 2010 I was a research analyst responsible for producing investment research on companies in the UK construction, business services and telecoms sectors. In mid 2010, I joined Kevin Murphy and Nick Kirrage on the UK value team and manage the European Value, European Yield and Global Recovery funds.
Juan Torres Rodriguez
Fund Manager, Equity Value
I joined Schroders in January 2017 as a member of the Global Value Investment team and manage Emerging Market Value. Prior to joining Schroders I worked for the Global Emerging Markets value and income funds at Pictet Asset Management with responsibility over different sectors, among those Consumer, Telecoms and Utilities. Before joining Pictet, I was a member of the Customs Solution Group at HOLT Credit Suisse.
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