The role of the nuclear industry in these times is largely unknown among the public, and it’s here that the industry has the greatest chance to increase general acceptance.
Covid-19 has changed the world as we know it, but the pandemic has also created opportunities for societies to reevaluate their priorities and embrace more sustainable ways of living and generating energy.
As it turns out, policymakers could draw some important lessons from the way populations have responded to the coronavirus, lessons that could also be used in the fight against climate change. As the world went on lockdown to curb the spread of the disease, many accepted the hardship that came with it, realizing that the gravity of the threat facing humanity demanded sacrifices to individual freedoms.
While this has been a fairly straightforward exercise in relation to Covid-19, it has proven more challenging to induce a similar sense of urgency at societal level over the incremental changes brought about by climate change. And yet, the climate emergency is arguably a much graver problem: while life could largely return to normal once a reliable Covid vaccine becomes available, the adverse effects of climate change will only accrue and accelerate.
In this context, nuclear energy has an important role to play for achieving both sustainable energy production and low-carbon economies. During the height of the global lockdown, nuclear power’s competitiveness and resilience led to an increase in its market share, rising by nine percent in South Korea and being instrumental in nearly eliminating coal from Britain’s energy mix for two months.
However, other than ensuring availability and flexibility of electricity supply, another vital function of the nuclear industry has come to the foreground during the pandemic—namely its medical applications, including for detecting the virus and sterilizing equipment.
“The nuclear and radiological industry offers unique and successful methods for treating and diagnosing Covid-19,” says James Conca, a scientist who specializes in radiobiology and earth sciences. “One of the most common uses of radiation is for sterilization of medical equipment and food. The radioactive material comes from both spent nuclear fuel, mainly Cs-137 and from irradiation of Co-59 to make Co-60. Other uses include radioactive tracers and cancer treatments using the same materials as well as Tc-99 and other isotopes produced in reactors and linear accelerators,” Conca told Sustainability Times.
Indeed, major manufacturers of nuclear reactors have mobilized their resources to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Russia’s state-owned Rosatom, for example, has stepped up its radio-sterilization capacities, including for the sterilization of more than 31 million medical masks and 645,500 portable Covid-19 test kits. The company has reoriented itself to producing more materials required by doctors in tackling the crisis.
Further West, Canada’s Bruce Power, using its CANDU reactors, is producing isotopes for medical use, including Cobalt-60, a synthetic radioactive isotope produced artificially inside nuclear reactors which is primarily used for radiation therapy.
Medical professionals are already experimenting with various ways of harnessing nuclear technology for treatments of ailments brought on by the coronavirus. “Several hospitals are conducting human trials to treat COVID-19 using low levels of radiation, about 100 times less than the levels used to treat cancer,” Conca explained to Sustainability Times. In the United States, patients were administered a single low dose of radiation to both infected lungs via a front and back beam configuration. As a result, nine patients’ oxygenation levels and mental status increased within 24 hours and were fit enough to be discharged only two weeks later.
The role of the nuclear industry in these times, as well as in the sterilization and conservation of daily food products, is largely unknown among the public – and it’s here that the industry has the greatest chance to raise awareness and, most importantly, increase general acceptance. “If radiation treatment for Covid-19 becomes common, as it should, it would likely change the negative views on both radiation and nuclear power to be more positive,” Conca stresses.
But if this transformation is to be achieved, the messaging has to change in order to emphasize the “benevolence” of nuclear in making the world’s economies less carbon intensive – and has to go even beyond energy production. That means that the narrative needs to switch from too narrow a focus on technology and an obsession with expounding safety to one designed to build trust and display competence.
Shunning jargon and focusing on the industry’s concrete purpose, rather than elaborating high-flying and esoteric visions for it, is arguably a more effective approach to instill the public with an understanding, respect and a sense of wonder about the science involved. Along with increasing awareness that there’s no “return to normal” with climate change, this can create a powerful impetus to accept the advantages of nuclear power just as the negative impacts of global warming are becoming slowly more apparent.
On the other hand, the dual-use nature of nuclear technologies, particularly in respect to saving lives, has never explicitly been made in a way that refocuses perception. If that cognitive gap is to be closed, understanding needs to be based on the fact that “there isn’t a different nuclear science at work in a reactor or a submarine than there is in a hospital. It is just another application of the basic science of the atom.”